THE GOLDEN TROWEL ISSUE NO.6 OCTOBER 2008
WELCOME to the latest issue of the Golden Trowel. It has been a while since our last issue and we have changed our committee and all gone off digging over various parts of the country, which you will more of in this issue.
Lots of changes are taking place in the School as well and we need to be focused so that we are aware of those and have our input and say. We need to welcome our new archaeologists to the School and to the Society, a big warm welcome to you all and best of luck in your first year. It is a steep learning curve but over time you will find some great friends and have some great laughs amongst the toil. Linda Theaker President
Golden or Gilded? As the new academic year draws near, your lecturers are very busy putting the finishing touches on your course packs and bibliographies. Whilst updating this year’s curriculum, I came across an interesting, if irrelevant, archaeological fact. Did you know that the technique of fire gilding (i.e. employing a mercury-gold amalgam) is now attested for the first century AD thanks to Roman counterfeit coins (see Swiss Numismatic Review 79, 2000, 107-11)? What does this discovery tell us about the Romans? I anticipate many hours of stimulating discussion… At any rate, prepare yourself for gold standard teaching from a transformed faculty. Among the most visible signs of change is the appointment of a new Lecturer, Dr. Jen Baird, who will be offering a new group I course on the archaeology of the Roman Empire. I have assumed to role of programme director, taking over from Dr. Caroline Goodson, who will be on research leave. Furthermore, new regulations have been introduced for the BA degree, some of which affect all students, new and returning. They are described in your handbooks, which should be consulted with special care. We look forward to seeing you at Birkbeck, Caspar Meyer
A Day in the Life of a Shovel Monkey…… Now let’s get this straight... Working in archaeology has never been, and will never be ANYTHING like Indiana Jones or indeed Bonekickers. I guess we have all at some time looked at a career in Archaeology through rose-tinted glasses. Well folks, it is time to take those spectacles off and take a hard brutal look at the reality of commercial archaeology. Don't get me wrong, I love it, and feel very lucky to have had the experience, but it is no walk in the park, casually picking up Roman coins or Anglo-Saxon pottery. I work for Pre-Construct Archaeology, one of London’s largest commercial archaeology units. My job involves helping to excavate and record any history revealed when developers rip buildings down in order to build some bigger and better. I am not big or important enough to know the details of how my company bids for jobs, or how the archaeological viability of sites is assessed, but I proudly know how to wield a shovel and mattock, and have worn down my first trowel. You would think, in a big historical town like London, I would have fallen over Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Medieval sites every second day, but I am afraid to say, in almost a year, I have had little or no experience of these high profile favourites. The vast majority of sites on which I have worked (and there have been quite a few) have been Post-Medieval and Industrial at best, evaluation sites where nothing at all was found, at worst. I have just spent two weeks completing the context sheets and plans of a 19th century railway platform and am developing a working knowledge of Willow-ware pottery and clay pipes. Digging can be incredibly hard work, as well as tedious, repetitive and, incredibly, boring at times. Even when the archaeology is exciting, as with the Bronze/Iron Age roundhouses, pottery and skeletons we uncovered on the Stratford Olympics site, conditions can really dampen even the most stubborn of enthusiasms. Wearing contamination suits and gas-masks to ward of site contamination, whilst wading in the bitter winter rain through mud which laps at the rims of your Wellingtons tends to test your dedication! Though the job can be hard, and, like any other job, bordering on robotic, there can be times where the brilliance really shines through. I have dug out a small pit to find many shards of a Bronze Age pot in the base. I have dug out skeletons from a 19th century graveyard. I have discovered that the archaeology doesn't have to be old or of high profile to be interesting, and that ultimately, the reality of the job is better than even Indiana Jones could convince me!
Neralie Johnston is a third year BA History and Archaeology Student
SO WHAT’S SUPERVISING ALL ABOUT THEN?? This summer saw my 8th season of excavations at the site of Barcombe Roman Villa in East Sussex and my 4th year as a ‘volunteer’ site supervisor. Every year, much to the dismay of my work colleagues, I take 2 weeks of my annual leave to work full-time on the excavation. But what does the supervisor actually do? Barcombe runs an excavations training course on week days, so part of my duties are to run the site whilst the Site Directors fulfil their teaching duties – generally overseeing the site and the volunteers. I’m responsible for allocating context numbers and ensuring that details of the site are recorded as it is excavated. I have to make sure that soil samples are taken and recorded from relevant features and the best part of my job is dealing with the finds – particularly when it comes to the special finds! A lot of people ask me ‘don’t you miss digging?’ Well, the truthful answer is no, not really. I’m involved in a number of different projects which allow me to experience the full breadth of archaeology from drawing sections and sorting tiles to surveying and digging holes for weeks on end with a mattock! More information about excavations at Barcombe can be found by visiting: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/cce/documents/revised_barcombe_villa_leaflet.pdf
Suzanne Brown is a 4th Year BA History and Archaeology Student and was President of the Society last year.
GeoFitness week at Syon! I made a discovery on the Geophysics week at Syon – it’s misnamed. It should be geofitness – you walk miles, laying out the survey grid, moving tapes from here to there and walking up and down with a magnetometer, resistance meter or ground penetrating radar array. Joking aside, it was a very good week. It was the first time it had been run as part of the Syon House excavation and was well worth attending. The theory bit was a bit high powered for some of the people on the course but the practical side was excellent. It helped me understand the mechanics of doing a survey and the problems that could arise. We discovered that one of the magnetometers was too sensitive to be used there; it was picking up a wheelbarrow being moved 30 metres away! It turns out to be surprisingly difficult to maintain the steady pace required for the magnetometer survey despite the cues provided by the bleeps the machine produces. Syon is quite flat and I’m sure that on any sort of irregular ground it would be even more difficult. The resistance meter is quite heavy and spiking it into the ground every half metre jars your wrists, that’s even when the ground isn’t too hard. The GPR is the easiest to operate, all you do is drag it and it measures how far it’s travelled automatically but it is a moderately heavy thing to drag around. It was interesting to see the results of the previous day’s survey every morning. The preliminary processing was done off site and we didn’t see it, unfortunately, but we were taught something about interpretation. As a result of what we found I think I know where one of the trenches at Syon will be for next year’s dig. A fun week and highly recommended if it’s repeated next year.
Dave Allan is a 1st year MA student
IT’S BRIGHTENING UP! OR RAIN, ROMANS AND RUMINANTS As you settle down to read this article about Vindolanda, whether it is on the train on the way home or craftily whilst at work (scanning all the while for the current location of your boss; you naughty person!) you probably feel you have worked out the link between the three “R”s in the alternative title for this piece. As this tale is set in one of the premier Roman archaeological sites in the world you would have found it fairly easy, or so you believe, to join the dots. I am afraid to tell you that you are sorely mistaken! The ruminants’ link is very definitely way, way out there. As will be explained later in the piece. The August visit by Linda Theaker, Ken Johnson, Jo Van Der Bank, Lenka Vlckova, Susie Green, Marek Ostrowski and I began in glorious sunshine (a soon to be rarely seen commodity) at King’s Cross in the early morning of the 10th August. The journey up to the Northeast was relatively problem free, apart from one individual (the name will be withheld to avoid embarrassment and potential litigation) who for a variety of excellent reasons managed to miss their connection at Peterborough! It wouldn’t be a Birkbeck Archaeological Society trip if everything went according to plan. The enforced wait at Newcastle Central Station awaiting the arrival of the delayed gave those who had never visited the city to “drink” in the local Geordie culture and to be bored witless by those who knew the city very well. Upon arrival at the campsite, which was to be our home for the next fortnight, we all sorted ourselves out the boys putting their tents up in a strong wind, even consulting the instruction manuals on one occasion, half way up a hillside ominously christened by the owners of the site as Annapurna. The ladies settled into their dry, warm roofed bunk barn and plans were made for that evening’s entertainment. Unsurprisingly the entertainment option settled upon involved the nearest local hostelry and further imbibing of the local produce. I could continue the tale of that Sunday evening, but person or persons who wish to remain nameless have threatened dire retribution if I divulge some of their more drunken antics. All I will say is Tequila, small windswept trees and the always painful guess the woman’s age game. It has been discovered that honesty is most definitely NOT the best policy whilst indulging in that sport whilst under the influence! After a day spent by some recovering from the night before, we all (minus Marek who arrived for the second week) reported at nine o’clock for our first days digging with Justin Blake. Justin is one of the two permanent archaeologists at Vindolanda and has been digging at the site for eighteen years and found one of the world famous tablets. After less than two hours digging the “Parade Ground” near the Vicus the weather intervened, for the first but unfortunately not the last time and we were rained off for the day and sent back to the campsite for the day. The next day was a complete non starter. The morning was spent cleaning the finds, an always useful activity, and the afternoon spent walking the wall from the Roman Army Museum at Walltown Crags to the Milecastle Inn. Considering we had been rained off for the day there was a certain amount of guilt in spending an afternoon walking in glorious sunshine, although this was alleviated by the knowledge that the sun was drying out the site, just in time for the heavens to open again that night and flood the site in time for the morning! We managed another hour’s digging after the mid morning tea break, after Justin had pumped out the water, before the heavens opened and we where rained off again. The late morning and afternoon was spent replenishing essential supplies and purchasing weapons grade waterproofs in Hexham followed by a trip to Chester’s Roman fort to visit the epigraphic museum and a walk around the site, both fascinating. For the next two and final days with Justin we managed to dig without the intervention of the weather and managed to get down to some serious digging. In fairness there was very little serious about it, the camaraderie and humour on display must have caused more than a few tourists to scratch their heads in wonderment as they overheard some of the more wacky conversations emanating from the trenches. Thankfully no one was expected to explain to anyone other than Justin the origins of Lenka’s skull incident and Ken’s fascination for all things late Flavian. Ken has a potential future career as a tour guide at Vindolanda, in light of the number of times he had to field questions from visitors. He always seemed to be excavating nearest to the safety barriers and therefore was the first spotted by the curious, although that might have had something to do with belt malfunctions he always seemed to be suffering from; until, that is, Susie rescued him from his predicament! Those teddy bear boxers are now a permanent fixture in many an international scrapbook! During those two days uninterrupted digging collectively we managed to finally unearth some finds which included a gold painted bead, found by Ken; a sherd of late Roman pottery, found by Ken. A sherd of samian ware, also found by Ken. Are you also detecting a recurring theme here? Ken whilst working with Justin can only be described as the resident finds magnet, nothing Flavian unfortunately. As I was working less than three feet away from him on the final day, I can safely say by the close of play I was positively translucent with envy! As all I had managed to find was assorted, very small, bovine bone fragments. Susie also managed to find a coin, identified by Justin as a dupondius, and therefore stole a little of Ken’s thunder. Although the highlight of the day has to be when, whilst Justin was conducting his daily two o’clock presentation on the site to the visitors; Don Redpath, a retired Northumbrian coal miner and all round entertainer found a sesterius lodged between two flagstones, which he solemnly presented to Justin. No doubt for Justin to show to the crowd. Unfortunately Justin’s response was and I quote (please imagine a Geordie accent here) “Aye that’s grand Don Man. But could you go back and find the rest of it like!” Justin managed to say it loud enough for the rest of us to hear, so Don’s walk back to his location was accompanied to the sound of heavily muffled giggling and snorting by the rest of us. It should be explained that Justin has known Don for many years and they both wind each other up mercilessly! The second five days of the Vindolanda experience was spent under the auspices of Dr Andrew Birley, the other permanent archaeologist, within the confines of the fort itself. As Dr Birley had a larger crew we were spread out across the granaries, barracks and also a house hard by the western wall, believed to date from third century CE which was used to house middle ranking officers. As with the previous two days the weather held off whilst we were digging although for some strange reason the rain always seemed to come down in early afternoon. Either during or just after lunch strangely, we even saw the sun for longer than thirty seconds during those five days. Unless my memory fails me the longest period of sunshine we had was almost two hours, something of a record that August! As always the longer we spent digging, the more finds we managed to accumulate. The list is fairly extensive, but here are a few highlights. Linda found a rather nice pottery sherd and large with it. She also found a knife blade (notation inserted at President’s request). Susie continued with her run of luck. Ken’s appeared to dry up and even I managed to find something other than bits of long deceased cow, although I still hold the record for the most bits of bone to come out of a small area. By my reckoning I found enough for a medium sized herd by the end! My find, well if you insist and I know you do, a Pilum head about six inches long found near the jawbone of, guess what? A cow! I have since developed an aversion for cattle, alive or otherwise! Whilst we were conscientious in our work we did manage to let our hair down on one night, Susie, Jo, Marek, Ken, Emma (about whom more soon) and myself attended the local pub quiz in the Twice Brewed Inn on the Tuesday evening. We came a respectable enough second, which considering the nature of the questions, such as what is the average mole population of the United Kingdom? And how many Americans called Andy Spires hold passports? Was quite an achievement considering, as the second prize was a bottle of wine we were more than happy with our nights work. Finally it is appropriate to mention and publicly thank a few people, Northumbrian or otherwise who made the fortnight in England’s northern marches all the more enjoyable and memorable. In no particular order therefore our thanks and gratitude to Graham, Pat and Barbara at the campsite, for their patience (after the first night they must have wondered what they had let themselves in for) and kindness during our stay and for organising and running a barbecue for us on one of the very few clear nights we had. All three of them were kindness personified and went out of their way on many occasions on our behalf. The landlady of the Milecastle Inn, for running us back from the pub in the pouring rain. The Gents from Sprouls taxis in Haltwhistle who must have thought they were a personal chauffeur service for us by the end of our stay! Not only where they cheap but always seemed available to cater for some of our more strange transportation requests. There is a school of thought they could have rustled up a helicopter and flown us back to London if we had given them about an hours notice! Lastly a massive thank you from all of us to eighteen year old Emma Ferns from Surrey who not only restored our collective faith in teenagers but always seemed happy to undertake resupply missions into Haltwhistle and rain runs during the worst the climate could throw at us. She is a very remarkable young lady and a credit and the gold standard for all of her age group. We all wish her the very best for her archaeology degree at Nottingham University and look forward to seeing her again next year. Oh yes I almost forgot, the random ruminants link I promised to divulge to you. Well here goes, if you ever happen to find yourself in Northumbria around nightfall be sure you have with you garlic prawns, a pink torch and above all never, ever stray off the road after dark. Why you must be asking yourself do I need aromatic prawns, torch and a good map? Well it’s perfectly simple; BEWARE OF VAMPIRE SHEEP, CATTLE, and HORSES (some who still wear their cloaks in daylight, Confident sods!) And last but not definitely not least BEWARE THE HEADLESS RABBIT!!! You have been warned! Further information can be provided for a small liquid fee.
Chris McCormick is a 3rd Year BA History and Archaeology Student.
Can you dig it? I must confess that Syon Park Archaeological Training Excavation was not my first choice as I was hoping to dig somewhere a little more exotic. However, all things ruled in favour of Syon House and I enrolled myself for the second week of the excavation. Training there is fun, and you learn a lot as well, especially if you are a rookie like me. It is easy to get to (if you live in or around London) as most trains and buses can take you there. We were fortunate enough to have sunshine throughout and from day one, after the health and safety induction, we went right at it. Three teams for three sites. I wanted to be in the site with the skeleton but instead got the buttress. The training and instructions were pretty thorough and helpful. If you are lucky enough to get Mick as your supervisor (like I had) you are in for a special treat as he will make sure that you learn - the hard way. And learn I did as we got to fill out a “real” context sheet and found cool stuff like, pottery shards, bricks, and also an animal bone. We also gained mastery over the dumpy level and drawing pretty pictures of the trenches. Tea and lunch breaks allowed time for reflection and mingling. I am still unable to distinguish between yellowish red and greyish brown shades of dirt but stratigraphy has become slightly less perplexing and suddenly Dr Ed Harris is making a lot of sense. The week went by really fast, what we learned in class in the first year became real at the training dig and I think archaeology is now officially my second most favourite thing to do. Got to go on more digs!
Jabbar Madni is a second year BA History and Archaeology student
Birkbeck Archaeology Society is grateful to all contributors to this term’s magazine. If you wish to write an article for The Golden Trowel please email the society.
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