End of Season Reflections, Southern area at the Bradford Kaims

 With a hive of activity happening in this area at the conclusion of season 2015, the South trenches looked to hit the ground running again in 2016. Trench 9 was re-opened once again, to finish off the investigations started in 2014, while two new trenches were established with one being for the purpose of resolving the archaeological questions that had risen from two previous trenches in the Southern area, and the other as part of an investigation into the other side of the wetland, on the dry ground. Trench 14, which was opened over Trench 8 (season 2013) and Trench 11 (2015 season) with the hope of establishing the relationship between in the stone mound found in T8 and the large timbers found in T11. The other trench opened in the south area, was Trench 15, which was opened in the second half of the season to establish the limit of archaeology in the southern area. Despite a horribly wet start to the season, we still managed to gather plenty of information about this area of the site from these trenches.

 

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Trench 14 (foreground) and Trench 9 (background) during the 2016 season

 

TRENCH 9

Unfortunately for us, season 2016 was not a nice one for Trench 9. After two years of weird and wonderful features and finds from the trench that lay on the edge of the wetland’s tidal area, this year, the weather won out. Despite getting the trench opened (with some changes in dimensions to accommodate the need to investigate specific features), cleaned and ready to be excavated again in the first week, the rains came and came and came, turning the trench into a pond, a lake and finally a dam. This meant that it was never plausible to excavate in dry conditions until the last fortnight of the season.

 

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Trench 9 after the heavy rains

With the end of the 2015 season providing us with a wealth of things to look at in Trench 9 this year, sadly, many of them could not be investigated. The north-western corner stayed under water the entire time, meaning our brushwood platform and Neolithic post-hole settings could not be looked at further. Instead we targeted central area where we had the sweat lodge, hearth and Neolithic plank, with the latter being the first area of investigation. With the new extension of the trench, 1m further into the wetland, we were hoping to find the plank extending further, with more stake-holes running parallel with it to provide hope on our walk-way theory. Instead, the wood only extended a further 20cm with a multitude of stake-hole present at its extent, but with no real alignment in their arrangement. We only had time to photograph, plan and record these new findings before the season finished, but we no longer believe the plank to be part of a walkway and so further investigation may be undertaken in this area in the future.

Another feature we looked at this season was our prehistoric sweat lodge. Once cleaned and photographed again, a quarter-section of the circular feature was excavated down to natural, with the hope of finding floor deposits and artefactual material associated with the feature on the way down. Sadly, it was to no avail, and so the only dating we can do for this feature is based on its position in the stratigraphy. The Mesolithic hearth, however, yielded some further evidence of its purpose and age, with an additional two pieces of worked chert discovered during an environmental sampling of the feature. The hearth was not found to be very deep, although the weather in the early part of the season had scoured away a significant amount of the original feature, despite our best efforts to minimise the rain’s impact, but measured ~1m in diameter. We still believe that the hearth and the sweat lodge are contemporary with each other as they both sit on the same level in the stratigraphic sequence of the trench, but as for the other areas of interest in Trench 9, we can’t make further comments as we simply didn’t get a chance to investigate them this season due to the weather conditions.

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Excavation of the hearth (foreground) and sweat lodge (background) in Trench 9

 

It is still unclear as to what will happen with Trench 9 in the future at the Kaims. In terms of evaluating what archaeology was present in this area of the wetland margins, we have done so with aplomb. There is still firm belief that the area where Trench 9 lies, may be connected to the area where the new Trench 14 is located, and so it may be opened for one final time to conduct a large evaluation between the two trenches.

TRENCH 14

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Volunteer Tim (foreground) and students Jack (middle) and Carrington (back) digging out the extension.

When we last visited Trench 14, we had a couple of goals in mind. One goal was to expand the quarter section to provide a fresh understanding of the stratigraphic sequence of the stone mound, brushwood platform and peat layer. Our other goal was to expand north, to an area that we expected Trench 11’s paleochannel to continue through. We accomplished both goals, first expanding the quarter section and excavating down to a depth of over one metre below the surface, into the peat layer. We removed the layer of brushwood and we were very excited to discover large timber “planks” lying parallel to each other. This discovery was made the second to last week of the season, so great care was taken to record the planks in detail: photographs, plans and Timber Recording sheets in preparation for next year’s field season. We hope to continue in T14 and to discover if there are more timber planks underneath the stone mound and in the surrounding area.

 

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First timber revealed in the quarter-section.

As our attention turned to expanding into the expected paleochannel area, we were happy to discover that it does indeed continue and the layers of sand in T14 are similar to the layers of sand found in T11 last year. Minimal excavation was carried out on the channel, but hopefully next year more excavations can be conducted. One interesting discovery made during excavation of the quarter section (an area abutting where we expected to find the paleochannel) was a layer of sand different than what was found in the feature last year. This sand had a definitive reddish hue to it, whereas the sand found last year in T11 had a yellowish-brown hue. The reddish sand was recorded thoroughly at the end of this field season and will probably come into play next year as excavations continue in this exciting area of the Bradford Kaims.

 

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Sand variations in the western trench wall of the extension.

TRENCH 15

Situated alongside Winlaw Burn, and to the very west of our area of investigation in Embleton’s Bog, we opened up Trench 15. The purpose of this trench was to establish whether we had any archaeological evidence as far west of our site as this, and to investigate an anomaly on a LIDAR survey of the Kaims area. Being so close to the burn, and with the knowledge that the burn was constantly cleaned out during the Victorian period, we quickly determined that the anomaly was just a large dump of upcast from the this. Some very modern finds were also evidence of this. This still didn’t answer our question of archaeological limit, and so we carried down further, hoping to find the same prehistoric ground surface that has been found across the site in Trenches 7, 9, 42 and 55.

Despite several sterile layers of clay in the 2m x 1m trench, we finally reached what we believed to be our target surface ~1m below the top of the trench. Although no features in this trench, we did manage to find a solitary piece of worked flint at the very bottom of our sequence, indicating that we do indeed have evidence of human occupation as far west as this on our site. We may come back to this area in future seasons to search for further archaeological evidence, but for now we need to keep searching for the western limit of archaeological potential at the Bradford Kaims.

 

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Trench 15 (foreground) in relation to Trench 9 (background)

On behalf of myself, Becky Rutherford (Trench 14 Supervisor), Charlie Kerwin (Assistant Supervisor) and Ian Boyd (Assistant Supervisor) we would like to thank all the staff, students and volunteers that have worked with us in the 2016 season. Without your eagerness to listen and learn about archaeology, and your enthusiasm to help us reach our research goals, we would not have been able to learn as much as we did about this area of the Bradford Kaims this year. Thank you to all, and we hope to see you again next year.

 

Tom Lally (Project Officer)

Looking back at this year’s work in Trench 3

Trench 3 has set us some real puzzles in recent years and made it hard to be certain we were excavating in a single phase. In simple terms this means that we wanted to be confident that the surface of the site we had exposed represented a single period in time. We made excellent progress with this once we had uncovered a 9th century AD metalworking area complete with a smithy and linked it to a contemporary timber building to its immediate north. Last year and this year to we have been excavating down to the surface beneath the two buildings and back in time to the beginning of the 9th century, even into the 8th century.

At the end of last year we uncovered a pebble surface in the central and eastern part of the trench and we continued to reveal this during this year. Finding an intrusive later medieval pit in the process. This summer we removed an enigmatic wall, thought to be some kind of revetting structure, probably associated with the smithy. Stripping this away has really brought home to us just how close we are to reaching the base of Brian Hope-Taylor’s 1970’s excavation north of the old sewer pipe, long since removed, that divided his dig into two halves. We are now only centimetres from being level with him and have high hopes of joining the two digs together next year. It will take a while longer to reach the same levels he reached to the south of the sewer pipe as he dug deeper there reaching the 7th century or earlier.

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Removing the crude stone wall

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The (small) pebble surface fully exposed on the western side of Trench 3

One of the more fascinating investigations this season was the cleaning and straightening of the section that formed the north side of this deeper Hope-Taylor excavation. We did this to better understand the way the layers were behaving. We strongly suspected that they sloped gently down to the south and west – and indeed the section revealed they did. Important for us to know if we were not to get confused as we dig deeper.

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The straightened Hope-Taylor section ready for recording. His deeper excavation on the left side of the photograph still mostly covered in tarps and soil.

The west end of this section revealed stone structures and colourful stratigraphy, almost certainly industrial waste associated with earlier metalworking. This was beneath a stone linear that Hope-Taylor called his lower pavement that extends along the western limit of his excavation. We are unsure what this represents. It may be a foundation for a timber building, if so a large one, or a path inside the western defensive wall line to the ward. Something to investigate next year.

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The ‘lower pavement’ beneath the right end of the ranging rod with the industrial layers beneath.

We decided to dig a narrow sondage (a sounding trench) continuing this section into our excavation area in order to investigate what the next horizon down looks like. This revealed a well constructed surface composed of quite substantial pebbles. It looks like a yard surface or a floor surface within a structure and may be related to the pebble surface to the north, though clearly they are not the same feature as the northern surface is constructed of much smaller pebbles. Whatever it turns out to be we can’t wait to explore it further.

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The trench close to the end of the season. The sondage has been extended to the east section and the (large) pebble surface is visible even from this distance.

 

Looking back at this seasons work in Trench 1

When we set out at the start of the season we were fairly confident that this would be the last year of excavation in Trench 1. There seemed only a limited number of questions left to be answered and since we had exposed boulder clay and bedrock over the full area of the trench at the end of last season, it’s not as if there was much more to dig. Trench 1 always seems to have more secrets to reveal though, so the appearance of more post-holes and small features, due to slow weathering, and the difficulty of answering one of our last research goals, frustrated us in the end. I can’t say I am sad to have a little more to do next year.

We started the year with two outstanding research goals. The first was to complete the investigation of the corn-drying kiln (a kiln or oven used to dry damp cereal for use or storage) in the north-west corner of the trench and the second was to further investigate the timber defensive rampart leading to St Oswald’s gate and also to see if we could also trace evidence of the rampart along the northern limit of the perimeter of the site. It presence here had long been speculated on but never proved.

The kiln has been a fascinating feature, constructed from fired clay set around laths of timber that would have at one point supported a domed top, fragments of which we find broken and forming a substantial part of the fill of the bowl. It also contained a considerable quantity of charred cereal grain that will help us learn a little more about the diet of the inhabitants. The kiln was likely used to dry damp grain on its way into the fortress for long term storage. This would explain its location close to the entrance at St Oswald’s Gate. At the moment we have a series of potential dates for the kiln based on archaeomagnetic samples. The most likely period of its use is the late Anglo-Saxon period, but a radiocarbon date will be needed to confirm this.

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The kiln at the start of the season (left) and following complete excavation (right)

One aspect that has intrigued us about the kiln for a while is that it underlies the earliest phase of high medieval wall, which is probably 12th century in date. The edge of the rock plateau is close by so when the kiln was in use there must either have been a much thinner stone wall or no defensive feature at all, given that a timber rampart would have been at a severe risk of burning down if right next to a kiln. We know that we have at least two phases of timber defence on the west side and that the kiln cuts and post-dates the latest of these. This summer we have further investigated this, excavating more of the later rubble foundation for a timber sill beam to reveal a series of post-holes beneath it. On the same alignment. The post-holes are spaced about 0.5m apart and, like the sill beam, almost certainly represent the inner face of a box rampart.

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The norther part of the stone rubble rampart foundation excavated to reveal two earlier post-holes that formed an earlier phase of the feature

We have long speculated that the rampart likely continued around the fortress perimeter on the north side and have even seen what appeared to be a linear formed from a stony clay extending in the right place and on the right alignment for this. We began the excavation of a slop through the boulder clay across the trench to try and investigate this idea. We assumed that if the spread was to represent the former fill of a timber rampart then we would have re-deposited boulder clay on a boulder clay surface that had not been disturbed. The theory seemed reasonable but proving it has turned out to be much harder than thought. The boulder clay turns out to be more variable and mixed than we thought from its surface and, not at all surprisingly, hard to dig! By the end of the season we had a number of potential post-holes, a series of enigmatic patches of apparently burnt clay and no clear buried surface. Unable to make firm conclusion just what this evidence means, we will be conducting a limited amount of further excavation next year. Hopefully we will be able to get some secure answers, but if not then at least we will have done everything we could to reveal this last secret.

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Trench 1 looking west with our sondage into the boulder clay marked by the ranging rod. Lots of confusion at the north end but no certainlty about just what we are excavating yet!

 

St Aidan’s ossuary in the news again

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St Aidan’s Church, Bamburgh

An event hosted at St Aidan’s, Bamburgh by the Bamburgh Heritage Trust will provide a further chance to view the ossuary and learn more about its creation and the lives of those buried there more than 1200 years ago.

Follow the link to see more details and information on how to book your place.

http://www.northumberlandgazette.co.uk/news/local-news/rare-chance-to-visit-ossuary-at-bamburgh-1-8076237

End of Season Reflections, Trench 6 at the Bradford Kaims

So the season has ended at the Bradford Kaims, and a week of sleeping off the exhaustion has allowed us to reflect on our findings. Trench 6, the largest and longest running area of excavation at the Kaims, really came into its own in the two months we spent plumbing its depth this summer. While it has always been an area that has thrown up fascinating and breathtaking archaeology, such as the wooden platform, its numerous Early Neolithic burnt mounds, and our beautiful troughs, this year it outdid itself.

Our excavations focussed upon the central body of the trench, as opposed to its extensions into the bottleneck of the fenland to the south which were the focus of last year’s work. We had several key interfaces between the dryland burnt mound sites on the higher ground, and the wooden platforms in the fenland, which we knew we had to work out before the excavations could expand. The beginning of the season was centred around the removal of all of the burnt mound deposits within the trench, excluding two large baulks which will remain in place for posterity. The removal of the burnt mounds, while not hugely stimulating work, brought us down fully, and for the first time, onto the preserved prehistoric landsurface beneath. And what a land surface it is! Things are never as expected at the Bradford Kaims, so instead of a blank and featureless colluvial layer beneath the Early Neolithic burnt mound deposition, we have come across two significant post built buildings, a ditch, more wooden platforms and detrital dumps of woodworking material, and hundreds of stakeholes. This adds to our trough sequences, and the hundreds of stakeholes already identified.

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Trench 6 at the beginning of the season

The Buildings

What started as one small rectangular building supported by significantly sized raking posts, and containing a large fire pit with in situ burnt timbers, quickly became two structures, with a reused gable wall joining them. The second building is also post built, using a beam-slot and post construction method, extends into the northern edge of the trench, and will have to be chased next year. However, the primary building, which we believe to be later in the phasing of the site, is of a very rare construction technique for the Early Neolithic. It’s raking posts are large, but the footprint is small, suggesting a low-roofed building, with a deeply sunk (>0.6m) fire pit in the centre. This fire pit is truncated by a massive later pit, in which was found an intact and in situ post tip, as it dropped below the water table. The entire building has been sun into the colluvial clay which forms the fenland bank, with the excavated material being redeposited as a levelling dump for the channel-side of the structure. Not bad for a structure that shouldn’t be there!

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The post-in-trench built gable end of Structure 2, with a reused raking post at the far end for Structure 1

The Wood-Working Detritus

The key interface between wetland and dryland aspects of Trench 6 which we needed to evaluate this year, was how the wooden platforms interfaced with the burnt mound deposits. We had long suspected that the platforms were not quite as they seemed, and excavating their interface with the mounds has proved that the term platform should, perhaps, be applied more carefully to the dense deposits of laid and staked wood which we have known of at the site since 2014. As we excavated a brushwood platform layer above the burnt mounds, we came onto a burnt mound deposit, which was simple enough. Upon going through this, we came onto another wood dominated layer, this one comprised of wood ships, bark, broken wooden artefacts, and larger debarked timbers. Below this, was another layer of burnt mound material which, when removed came onto a layer of light brushwood containing one massive trunk, which had been debarked, debranched, and still boasted its felling cut-marks. We know, through coring, that dense and anthropogenically laid wood exists for a full 3m beneath this level, but without burnt mound material within it. It then poses the question of what is going on in these interfaces.

Our interpretations, based upon the interleaving burnt mound and wood rich deposits, and the wooden offcuts, wood chips, artefacts, and timbers found in the ‘platform’, are that these deposits are a series of detrital dumps of wood-working debris, used as a large stabilising platform stretching out into the fenland bottleneck, and interspersed with burnt mound deposition. While further excavation is needed, the idea of two prehistoric processes, of burnt mound deposition and wood-working, occurring simultaneously at the edge of the fenland, is highly intriguing.

 

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A worked wooden plank tip, complete with sewn holes, from the wood working dump

Another Look at the Troughs

Finally, we achieved another brief look, and a further excavation of, our wonderful wooden trough sequence associated with the burnt mounds in Trench 6. As always, the latest trough in the sequence, constructed from an entire oak trunk, hollowed out vertically and sunk up to 0.6m into the colluvial bank of the fenland, steals the show. This year we fully excavated it, and took a suite of high-resolution photographs for photogrammetry to model it in detail. As it is stratigraphically below a lot of other archaeology which had to be dealt with, exposed in a 20th century field drain cut, the excavation of the rest of the area will have to wait until next year. Regardless, it was wonderful to see it exposed again!

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Our trunk-lines trough fully excavated

Although brief, this should stand as a quick record of our findings in Trench 6 this summer at the Bradford Kaims. Thanks go to the tens of students and volunteers who helped us excavate the site, and also to the dedicated and wonderful staff who trained, organised, and led the excavations! We will be back next year, when we shall hopefully finish the archaeology within Trench 6. Join us then for more!

Tom Gardner, Project Officer

Pottery Making at the Bradford Kaims – Videos

This blog presents the video interviews from our open archaeology day which focused on prehistoric pottery.

The first shows Rachel Brewer, Assistant Supervisor, discussing the process she went through – first to prepare the clay and then to produce fired ceramics. The second presents some thoughts about the day from two of our students, Ewan and Ian.

 

Thank you for watching!

Stay tuned for more of our experimental sessions – coming soon!

History of the Northumbrian Styca

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A Monne styca, struck by the most prolific of the Anglo-Saxon moniers.

 

In the 8th through the later 9th century AD, beginning with King Æthelred I circa 774 and likely ending with King Osberht circa 865, the styca replaced the sceatta as the most common form of currency in Northumbria. While both the styca and the sceatta depict the name of the monarch on the obverse, the sceatta was a base silver currency portraying a quadruped on the reverse whereas the styca was a base copper currency which denoted the name of the moneyer on the reverse. Incidentally, this also meant that the styca was one of the first minted coinage that held a higher face value than its material worth. Much of the information known and presented here is based on the writings of Symeon of Durham, Roger of Wendover, and modern author, Sir Frank Stenton.

 

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A styca from the BRP excavation finds.

 

As the currency was re-struck for each ensuing monarch, there is a noticeable difference in silver content, indicating that each subsequent iteration or design of styca was debased, or melted down in order to remove the precious silver, then replaced with less expensive raw materials, such as tin. This is evident when comparing late 8th Stycas to mid-9th Stycas, the quality of the material is varying centred on the level of corrosion present. There have been several discoveries in recent years of styca hoards containing hundreds, sometimes thousands, of stycas (see: Hexham hoard, Bolton Percy hoard, Bamburgh hoard, etc.).

 

Bolton Percy Hoard

The Bolton Percy Hoard (Image courtesy of York Museums Trust :: http://yorkmuseumstrust.org.uk/ :: CC BY-SA 4.0)

 

At the Bamburgh Research Project, the ability to date these Stycas is tremendously significant as it can tell us the earliest possible date of an archaeological context. Our ability to determine dates based on the artistry alone is also most cost effective when compared to carbon dating and more accurate than dating based on biostratigraphy. Given a proper identification schema, we hope to give more clarity to our sites and greater insight into the lives of those who came before us.

 

Citations

Frank, S. (1970). Preparatory to Anglo-Saxon England Being the Collected Papers of Frank Merry Stenton. Doris Mary Stenton.

Lyon, C. (1957). A reappraisal of the sceatta and styca coinage of Northumbria. BNJ 28, 227-232.

Roger of Wendover. (c. 13th century). Flores Historiarum.

Symeon of Durham. (c. 13th century). Historia Regum.

 

 

 

 

Week 3 in the Post-Excavation Department

 

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The Windmill – home to the Post-excavation Department.

 

Good morning from the Post-excavation Department! We have had a busy few weeks with a steady flow of students coming through eager to learn. Taking into account the better weather and the remarkable finds from the trenches, there is plenty to keep us busy!

 

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Thomas Fox, Environmental Assistant Supervisor, teaching students Katie and Weston.

 

With the amount of new finds, we are able to guide students through the initial processing stages: identifying, recording, and bagging the find. Archaeology at its core is about understanding the past from physical remains, so it is highly important to encourage diligent record keeping.

 

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Students Eden and Steffi finds washing.

 

With the new finds processed, the students are then given the opportunity to move to the next tasks: cleaning, sorting, and illustrating the finds. This allows them the chance to walk through the entire post-excavation process and therefore improve their critical thinking skills and encourage thought on the historic use of the artefact.

 

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Finds Supervisor, Jeff Aldrich, examining some of the finds from the Bradford Kaims.

 

Bradford Kaims has been updating their records to reflect the past several years of work. The finds have all been processed, it’s simply a matter of digitising and correlating the artefacts to their locations in three dimensions. Once the locations are correlated, we can store the finds for future study.

With three weeks down and new students ready to learn about archaeology, we’re getting things moving here at the Project and look forward to the next five weeks!

Trench 6 Update – Bradford Kaims

 

Trench 6 remains our largest and longest running trench to date at the Bradford Kaims. Each new context we uncover adds to the complexity and variety of information about prehistoric human activity in the area. Here, we highlight just two of the exciting features currently under excavation.

 

THE TROUGH

Over the past couple of weeks, we have uncovered our wooden trough in the northwest corner of the trench. After two years of sitting under tarp, the trough has now been fully excavated and cleaned, with its contents removed down to a beautiful clay base. The trough is made of a hollowed out oak tree and fills with crystal clear water, so may have been used as a well; however, within its fill, fire cracked stones have been found which means that this water was probably being heated.

 

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The trough being fully excavated after half-sectioning.

 

BUILDING A

Earlier in the season we uncovered a suspiciously rectangular-shaped dark fill in the northern side of Trench 6. Upon beginning excavation last week we found a series of four large postholes down one side as well as postholes in each corner. We believe that the colossal postholes suggest that this structure was a building. Lying within the structure is an oblong patch of burnt material, which could possibly be a fire pit. From this pit, we have removed a large pointed post, which could have been one of the posts supporting the structure.

Experimental Prehistoric Pottery

This week’s experimental blog is courtesy of Rachel Brewer, Bradford Kaims Assistant Supervisor.

 

Following on the heels of the beer brewing experiment, our Week 5 experimental archaeology project was an effort to make a variety of pottery vessels using only raw clay sourced from our prehistoric site here at the Bradford Kaims. We knew from previous seasons that the trenches and test pits often turn up natural clay deposits of varying colours and quality. We’ve also had a few examples of possible Neolithic and Bronze Age potsherds surface during excavation; so this summer’s experimental archaeology program seemed like a perfect opportunity to test out our prehistoric potting skills! Altogether, processing the clay, forming the pots, and the subsequent firing turned out to be a messy, fun and educational experiment for all involved.

 

Step 1: Gathering the clay

While digging a series of shovel test pits earlier in the season, we hit upon a substantial deposit of clay about 50cm below topsoil. Seeing a source of raw material for our pottery experiment, I dug out a bucket’s worth to begin processing. Though the clay was mostly light orangey-brown, there was a thin layer of grey overlaying that; it also gathered a good amount of silt and peat on its way out of our 20cmX20cm shovel test pit. Through processing, these colours and textures blended together as shown in the later photos.

 

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The raw clay.

 

Step 2: Processing the clay

This was the longest part of the process, due in part to my own inexperience and also to the wet conditions on site. I knew from research that the best way to process raw clay is often to dry it out completely, grind to a powder, sieve, and slowly reintroduce water until the clay reaches a workable consistency. I also knew how unlikely it would be that we could completely dry out that amount of clay in a timely manner, particularly when it was raining almost daily. So I opted instead for wet processing, which involved the help of several pairs of hands pulling all of the clay into small lumps and mixing/mashing it up with added water in a large plastic box. This part worked better than expected, and after a couple of days of minimal stirring, nearly all of the clay was liquefied.

 

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Slaking the clay on site.

 

At this point we poured the slip (liquid clay) through a sieve to remove the largest inclusions, mostly small stones and twigs. We could have used smaller screens and sieved multiple times for greater purity, but I chose not to since examples of prehistoric pottery found at this and other sites indicate that prehistoric people were not processing their clay to a high degree.

 

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Sieving the slip.

 

For about a week I attempted to do a daily pouring-off of the water that would accumulate on the surface, hoping that between evaporation and pouring off that the clay would thicken a bit every day. The couple of days I was able to let the boxes sit out in the sun did help, but it wasn’t working quickly.

 

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The slowly thickening slip.

 

On one sunny day I cut open a bin liner and laid it out on the grass like a small tarp, then I poured the thickened slip out on the plastic. This increased the surface area the sun could reach and it was noticeably thicker by the end of the work day, but it still wasn’t drying out fast enough. We had to rearrange the experimental schedule and move pottery back a week – I had only a week to get some workable clay and I was running out of ideas!

 

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Spreading out the clay to increase the surface area for evaporation.

 

My final effort involved pouring the clay into an old pillowcase, tying it closed with string and hanging it from a tree to allow the water to drain out with gravity and air. The better part of the week passed before I noticed much of a change, but much to my relief, the night before we were scheduled to make the pots we had somewhat sticky but relatively workable clay!

 

 

Step 3: Forming the pots

Before beginning our pot making, the students used rocks to crush up a few soft pieces of sandstone sourced from Trench 6; we used this sand as temper.

 

 

Since wheels were not used by prehistoric potters, the students learned to use the two most common methods of building pottery without a wheel: the pinch method (formed by pinching a solid ball of clay into the desired shape) and the coiling method (rolling out rings of clay, stacking the rings, and smoothing them together). A small amount of temper was added by each individual to their own allotment of clay. Of course we had some creative minds in the mix who ventured beyond the utilitarian forms like bowls and jars, and by the end of the day we had quite a collection of unique creations! We set everything we made on two log disks that would be easily moveable and would absorb moisture. After that we just had to let everything dry out completely to prepare them for firing.

 

 

Step 4: Firing

When it was time for firing, we began by building a small fire in our fire pit on site. Pottery has to be heated very slowly, so we began by placing the dried pots around the edge of the pit and then slowly moving them in close to the fire. Once the pieces were against the central fire, we began placing larger branches over and around the pots, completely covering them and creating a kiln effect. We kept a large fire burning for about an hour and a half, then allowed it to die down to coals. Since our time on site was limited to 5 hours and the pots needed to be cooling before we left site, we weren’t able to keep the pots firing for the ideal amount of time, which for our purposes would have been around 4 hours.

 

The final step of firing is allowing the pots to completely cool before removing them from the pit. Before we left site for the day, we dug the pots (none of which had broken!) out of the coals, stacking them against one wall of the fire pit and shoveling the coals to the opposite wall. We then covered the pots with a layer of grasses and sedge, placed a couple of metal sheets over the pit to protect the pots from rain, then left for the night.

 

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The fired ceramics hot from the fire.

 

Upon examining the cooled pottery the next day, I was pleased to see that none of the vessels had cracked or exploded during firing. Additionally, the pieces had fired, if not completely through, then most of the way through despite the shortened firing time. The fired pots are noticeably brittle and not completely water tight, but with a little more practice we could probably produce vessels that would be more serviceable. Since we accomplished our goal of using only raw materials from site and a fire to create prehistory-inspired pottery – and we had fun doing it – I’m calling this experiment a success!