Howdy, I bet you’re here looking for something cool, tales of gold, skeletons and amazing things? Well I’m going to have to disappoint you there. This month has been a paperwork month, yep I’ve been stuck inside doing the write up for a site I finished the fieldwork for a year ago. I did get out on site once, for 3 hours, to train our new supervisor in the art of planning with the GPS. Yes folks, welcome to the glamorous world of what happens after the holes have been dug.
So, with the exception of being out on site during the three hours in which the weather decided to snow (guess who didn’t have their thermal gear on?) what have I been up to? Post-excavation work. In the summer, autumn and start of winter 2017 I was single handedly running a huge open area excavation with archaeological remains dating from the Middle Bronze Age to the early medieval period that’s 1500BC to 1066AD and a lot of archaeology. And I mean a lot, you name it we had it, ring ditches, agricultural ditches, skeletons, horse burials, everything! When you’re on site it all looks really cool, dark marks reveal ring ditches, enclosure ditches, postholes suggest the outlines of buildings. And Romans, well they leave stuff everywhere! I mean everywhere, the Romans are the litter-bugs of the ancient world, you can always tell if they’ve been there because they leave pottery, building material and bits of metal everywhere. By contrast prehistoric people were tidy, all we usually find of them is the holes in the ground, where they left us precisely nothing, or if we’re lucky they left us a badly cremated human or four.
Anyhow, once the site work is finished the archaeology essentially becomes a pile of paperwork. In the case of this site, over 3500 individual numbered contexts, along with roughly 2500 section drawings, nearly 4000 photographs and a digital plan of the whole field with minor corrections required. And then there is the tons of pottery and other datable bits that we brought back to help us untangle the mess of spaghetti that these 3500 numbers now represent. So, what happens with the numbers – we simplify them, grouping some together into features, so that although one ditch may have been excavated in seven slots, it now just gets one number so that we can see what we are doing in terms of features rather than every single deposit. This still leaves us with roughly 2000 numbers which when fed through a computer looks more like a simplified tube map than anything archaeological. (see pic). This is where the fun starts though and I can get the crayons out and, as the pottery is analysed and dated I can colour code the numbers, (or try to, this doesn’t always work as well as we’d like) each colour representing a different phase in the site’s history, (red is always Roman – to be broken up into shades of red, maroon and pink for each century at the next phase of analysis).
Then once all that’s done and I have a colourful tube map, (or a partially coloured one with loads of white ‘undated’ features on it), I can feed to numbers back into the computer and hey-presto several colour coded, actual maps of the site showing me that the ring ditches were Iron Age, the huge Ditches were Roman, and 50% of the features we can’t yet confirm a date for. My task now is to use the new colour coded maps to explain the story of the site, for example, when did people first use this land and what for? Were they living here or simply passing through? When did they decide to stop moving through and settle? What were they farming? And all such other questions that will allow us to tell the history of the site in a coherent manner and unlike Time Team I have two weeks left to figure this out in draft form. Doing this I might be able to add dates to some of those still undated features, if they match up with some of the dated ones in a way that seems related.
But that’s not the end of it.
I then hand it back to the finds specialists again and they use my allocated dates to reassess their initial ideas – meaning if there’s some bits of pot that don’t match the dates, they’ll look a little harder at them and come up with a different “interpretation”. Once they’ve had this second run through I get to finalise the story of the site. It’s a long process – sometimes all this paperwork, especially for sites this size, takes twice as long as digging the holes on the site! But at least whilst the specialists have the data I should be able to escape the office and go play in the dirt on the front line again, looking for gold, skeletons and amazing things!
S. M. Porter
Professional archaeologist and author, S. M. Porter loves history, adventure and digging in the mud. Her career is in ruins - just where she wanted it to be.