Labels, Labels, Labels

We always tell students and visitors that archaeology has way more paperwork involved in it than you see in popular culture portrayals. In addition to myriad paper forms and their increasingly digital counterparts, we also rely heavily on labels and labelling conventions that are used in every department on site.

Tools of the trade.

Our trusty Sharpie is always on hand for label emergencies. (Sharpies are also like currency on a dig, you protect them and hand them over only occasionally and with great suspicion of those you loan it to.) What may seem like normal paper beside it, however, is a little bit of high-tech stationary: it’s known colloquially as Tyvek, which is technically a trademark in the United States, but has become a generic name for the type of material our labels are made from. This phenomenon is known as “generification,” where a brand becomes a generic term, thus putting the brand’s legal right to their name in jeopardy. For example, plasters in the UK are called “band-aids” in the US, named for the brand “Band-Aid.” It happens sometimes with the word Sharpie in place of other permanent markers too! Even words like elevator and zipper were once trademarked, but they became the word everybody used for those inventions.

Tyvek is a synthetic material made of high-density polyethylene fibres spun together and trademarked by Dupont. HDPE used in things like plastic bottles, and they can be recycled: they are labelled as number 2 with the little recycling logo to ensure they are processed in the proper recycling stream. Tyvek is commonly seen as house wrap on construction or renovation projects, but it can be used for things like PPE (personal protective equipment) and packaging as well. The way the fibres are smushed together and not woven makes the material water-repellent, and thus weatherproof. It also means you can’t rip the material with your bare hands; you need sharp scissors or a utility knife. They can be written or printed on, but, as you can imagine, with the amount of labels we are writing every day, it makes more sense to just use a Sharpie.

We use these labels in finds trays at the trenchside and as-yet-unwashed at the washing station, in the blue plastic drying trays for washed bulk material and wet environmental samples, on the sorting trays of bulk material, and in the environmental samples themselves.

Environmental samples that have been floated drying in blue trays.

The finds trays at the trenchside have two bits of information on them: the site code and the context number. The site code includes the letters BC for Bamburgh Castle and the last two digits of the year the material was excavated; everything we find this year is labelled BC22. Our context number is written in a circle or in parentheses to represent an area of activity or occupation within the trench. This same information is copied onto new labels when the material is being washed to denote where the drying material has come from and when it was found. When the material is dry and ready to be sorted, the label is kept on the sorting table or tray and copied onto bulk finds bags (more on that in a mo).

Bits of animal bone excavated in 2019 in the middle of sorting.

Environmental samples also have that same information, but with an added number written in a diamond denoting what sample it is. When we take a sample of a context, we assigned the sample a number. We put multiple labels in each bucket or bag of sample, as well as labelling the bucket or bag directly. When we separate the heavy material from the flot (which is collected in a little mesh bag), each of those are labelled too! The sheer quantity of labels is unending! In the picture below, you can see an old sample that was in storage was also marked with how many total buckets of sample were taken, here “2 of 3.”

An environmental sample that has not been floated yet.

When we are dealing with bulk finds that have dried and are being sorted, we write the site code, context number, brief identification, number of pieces, and weight in grams. It goes on a little label AND on the plastic bag.

Sorted animal bone.

For small finds, which are the more unique or unusual artefacts we find, we do the same process for labelling a bulk find with one more added number: a small finds number. These numbers are taken out consecutively from a register during the season and written in a triangle. Here’s the bone toggle with all the information required to track and analyse it.

A small find and its bag.

Is that too many numbers and letters for you on a Sunday evening? I understand. To settle down, have a bowl of soup.

Soiled! (Part 1)

We are hoping to start up our environmental processing next week when environmental archaeologist Alice joins us again, but until then we wanted to give a refresher on that beautiful, beautiful matrix: the soil. While soil may just be dirt to most people, to archaeologists and soil scientist it’s a massive book to be read right beneath your feet!

There are a number of qualities we can use our senses to experience and describe, but we’ll just discuss some of the most common characteristics we look for and record on data sheets.

The first thing most people notice about soil is the colour! Colour can help be an indicator of the type of soil you’ve got if you’re familiar with the local geology, as it’s mostly based on the mineralogy (for example, yellow may signify clay in one area, but red might signify clay elsewhere because of what minerals are present). Organic matter leads to dark brown and black soils, while iron-rich soils are reds, oranges, and yellows. Soils that have been leached out tend to be light greys and beiges. Soil colour can also be affected temporarily by water retention; think of the difference between dry sand and wet sand. Archaeologists have two main ways of describing and recording soil color: the “three-word method” and the Munsell method.

The former is what we use on site at BRP, and it is pretty easy to use once you know the order of descriptors. The first word is always “light,” “medium,” or “dark.” The third word is always the main colour. The second is a colour word sandwiched in the middle with the suffix “-ish” that describes the main colour. For example, the soil could be described as medium yellowish brown.

Medium yellowish brown soil.
A bit of earth.

Unfortunately, once in a while when looking for a way to describe the soil we had in the old Trench 3, your brain would immediately go to “medium brownish brown” which is completely useless but always hilarious.

The Munsell system is a bit more complicated but meant to be an international standard. Teams purchase (very expensive) little binders with pages that look like paint swatches depicting the spectrum of Earth’s soil colours. Every shade is given an identification code with letters and numbers. They are based on three characteristics: hue (redness), value (light or darkness), chroma (brightness). Hue is organised as a ratio of yellowness to redness.

Munsell page. You can see how the numbers increase down the axis and from left to right.
The code in the top right means 10 parts yellow to 1 part read.

The drawbacks of a Munsell ID however are that it’s harder to picture the soil colour in your mind unless you’ve memorised the whole chart. Sure, you can figure out the colour family by looking at the hue portion of the ID, but it’s not as easy to imagine the exact value and chroma from the associated digits. You can make relative comparisons by knowing the higher numbers, but it’s unlikely you could guess the exact light/dark or bright/dull numbers.

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week!

Environmental Archaeology Crash Course: Flotation

Environmental Supervisor and archaeobotanist Alice Wolff gives us some insight into her work on site:

Today’s blog is going to be a more in-depth look at the environmental archaeology activities here at Bamburgh. Last weekend, we had three open-day sessions where members of the public helped us process some samples through flotation. In this blog, I’m going to break down what exactly we did and what it helps us learn about the site!

A wooden tank labeled “HMS Floaty McFloatface."

What is flotation?

Flotation is a method of processing bulk soil samples using water. Essentially, the different materials in the sample (such as the soil, the rocks/bones/artefacts, and the charred material) have different densities. When you put the whole sample in water, the soil and the artefacts sink while the charred material floats. This allows us to extract fragile and hard-to-see objects such as charred seeds or fish bones that are essential to our understanding of diet and environment at the site but are nearly impossible to excavate in the trench.

Flotation at Bamburgh

After recording pertinent information about the sample – i.e. where it came from in the trench, its volume and weight, what the soil looks like – we dump it into a 500µm mesh that lines the flotation tank.

Two students with their hands in the flot tank.

Next, we raise the water level until it covers the sample completely. We then shut off the water and gently massage the dirt with our hands.

Two pairs of hands submerged in muddy water in a flot tank.

Once most of the soil has fallen through the mesh to the bottom of the tank, we turn on the water again and let it flow through the spout, catching any floating material in a 250µm mesh bag.

A stream of muddy water flowing into a white bag held in place with clips.

In order to conserve water, we use two settling tanks and a pump. This allows us to recycle water and avoid flooding the castle at the same time!

Two students at the flot tank in front of two black bins filled with muddy water.

Once flotation is finished, the heavy fraction of the sample (the bones/rocks/artefacts) is dried in trays while the light fraction bag is hung up on a line indoors out of direct sunlight to dry slowly. After drying, both fractions are sieved, sorted, recorded, and stored in our archive for future researchers to look at! The heavy fraction can be picked over by students, but the light fraction requires the use of a microscope to separate out and identify the charred seeds.

The members of the public only spent a few hours in enviro, but our students spend at least one full day per week doing flotation and/or sorting. On particularly sunny days, enviro is a welcome break from the trench! After spending so much time carefully studying the various materials we find in samples, students return to the trench with a better understanding of what they are digging up and why environmental samples are so important for filling in the picture.

 

Festival of Archaeology Update/Youth Takeover III

Our second day of environmental archaeology tutorials as part of the Festival of Archaeology went well, without the intermittent monsoons of yesterday! We will have a step-by-step guide to environmental processing later in the week to explain just what we were doing.

Tomorrow (22 July) is both the Youth Takeover celebration as well as A Day in Archaeology. Click here to read about a day in the life of people in various archaeological roles as well as some behind the scenes info about how digs work!


Below is another Youth Takeover post, where Nathalie (21, left) talks about making archaeology more accessible.

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Accessing Archaeology

As a student in ancient history and history, I had only come across archaeology in lectures and readings, but have had little opportunity to actually study it apart from the most introductory modules. Archaeology provides so much evidence that is vital to our understanding of the past, but can be overlooked when just looking at documentary evidence. I think that it is extremely important to include archaeological study in any study of the past, particularly as it provides a much needed different perspective, often a multidisciplinary view.

I have always been interested in archaeology, visiting sites throughout my childhood, in particular spending hours wandering around the British Museum. Even now I still drag my parents and reluctant sister to numerous obscure sites (some turning out to be rather big adventures) wherever we go. More and more through my degree, I have come to realise that it was archaeology that truly moved me. I have been taking any module I could that was related, which was surprisingly difficult as my university still doesn’t actually have a proper archaeology department. Through the opportunities that field schools have provided, I am starting to build up some experience in the field that I was missing in the classroom. However it worries me that this is something that is not always possible for many financially.

Field schools can sometimes be prohibitively expensive, especially as a student. This could prevent many people of every demographic getting vital experience due to socioeconomic circumstance rather than their ability. This is compounded by the fact that many archaeology jobs are not well paid, making it difficult to even support yourself, let alone pay back the multitude of loans needed to get the degrees in the subject you love so dearly. I myself plan to pursue a masters in archaeology, but I feel so absolutely lucky that I am able to do this, as many don’t have these opportunities.

Archaeology in the future needs to become more open to people from all backgrounds, but we as a field especially need to address socioeconomic diversity. We must do all we can to promote low-cost or free field schools and scholarships (which is difficult to provide because of competition and lack of funding, I know, I know), or even push for restructuring of the wage system both to allow professional archaeologists to pay back loans and also make it a more viable long-term career prospect. If we don’t make this change now for the future of archaeology, it will continue to be a field closed off to many.

Festival of Archaeology: Day 1/Round-up: Week 5

Today is the first day of our free Festival of Archaeology programme at the Castle. Participants get to spend a half-day with Environmental Supervisor Alice Wolff processing soil samples, sorting the residue (artefacts and gravel), and examining the flot (the charred seeds skimmed off the top of the soaking sample). This programme was made possible by the Mick Aston Archaeology Fund through the Council for British Archaeology.

Here are some pictures of the environmental samples being floated!

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Round-up: Week 5

This week we took down the Porch, the area in between the latrine pits, as well as the area south of the porch that abuts the entrance ramp sondage. We were able to mattock the area, which tickled everyone because everyone loves a mattock.

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When we first extended the sondage (mini-trench) near the entrance ramp, there were two large flat stones just a few centimetres down; the one in the centre of the sondage is visible in the top left corner of the photo. This of course was not nearly enough evidence to say anything meaningful…until we had a bit of rain. The rain revealed something peculiar: three areas drying at different rates. The right of the main stone was light brown, the area in front of the stone was light brownish yellow, and the left side of the stones out of frame was dark brown, and all retaining water differently. We call this “differential drying.” Usually when a patch of earth doesn’t dry as quickly as others that means that something is happening under the surface, like stone that has affected the drainage path of the water or clay is acting as a shallow bowl. We thought that we might possibly have a linear feature, but the constant cycle of rain and bright, drying sunshine kept revealing and obscuring it over the past week. We sometimes wondered whether it was a mass hallucination.

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As we worked outside of the sondage near its northwestern corner, suddenly more stones appeared at roughly the same angle of the boundaries of the weird light yellow patch. They formed a little channel that we are carefully chasing as it heads toward the eastern latrine pit. The only artefacts found associated with this linear feature were some fragments of copper.

On the western side of the trench, we reach the edge of excavation from BHT and our re-dig from many years ago and began taking down the midden deposit. Here is the cutest little section ever excavated:

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We finally bottomed out the western latrine pit! We reached our re-excavation horizon, as well as BHT’s initial attempt to fully excavate it. We were so excited to reach unexcavated soil perhaps holding some Iron Age material…but the excitement was not long-lived, as it turns out BHT stopped only 15cm above the bedrock. Oh well!

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Lastly, the weird northwest corner of the trench continues to gift us more mysteries. The Roman glass bangle fragment (hyperlink) came from this area, which had been quartered and each quadrant excavated individually. It’s remained damp through the sunniest days, as usual.

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Calendar of Upcoming Events

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We’ve got so many cool events in conjunction with the Council for British Archaeology’s Festival of Archaeology coming up and wanted to drop you all a breakdown of the next week!

17 July – Ask an Archaeologist Day

Send us all your burning archaeology questions on here, on Facebook, or on Twitter using the hashtag #AskAnArchaeologist. If you’re using Twitter, please make sure your account is unlocked so we can see your questions! Tweet your questions to @BRParchaeology to reach us, but don’t be surprised if you get some answers from other archaeologists…we’re very talkative. This initiative is to get people from all walks of life into the conversation about archaeology! We hope to help connect interested non-experts with archaeology, museum, and heritage professionals in a more accessible way. We love sharing our work (which is our passion), and this is a great way to give people some insight into what we do.

 

20-21 July – Festival of Archaeology FREE Environmental Archaeology Experience at Bamburgh Castle

Our very own archaeobotanist Alice Wolff will be running half-day tutorials both Saturday and Sunday on how we process environmental samples! Come spend a morning or afternoon with us and get a behind the scenes look at some of the great work our team is doing to better tell the story of Bamburgh. These two days of programming are supported by the Mick Aston Archaeology Fund.

Sign up here! It is completely FREE. Sunday still has some slots open, but Saturday is booking quickly, so what are you waiting for?

 

22 July – A Day in Archaeology

Have you spent some time with us on the dig as a student? Volunteered on any dig recently? Share your story in the week leading up to A Day in Archaeology by uploading a blog post or video telling us what your typical day looked like. Check out the posts so far this year, or dive into the archives. We’ll be posting about the most mysterious member of our team…me…the Outreach Officer! So stay tuned to the website above for what a typical day looks like in a public-facing role at a field school!

 

Meet the Team: Environmental

This season we are really refocusing on environmental archaeology to better tell the loooooong story of the site. Archaeobotanist Alice is analysing all the data from our soil samples, so here’s a bit about her background in her own words.

Alice Wolff, Environmental Archaeologist

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Like a lot of the team here, I decided to be an archaeologist when I was six and haven’t changed my mind since! I’ve been digging in England since 2013 and doing environmental archaeology since 2014, but only joined the BRP in 2018. Prior to joining the BRP I received my BA in Medieval Studies from Smith College and my MPhil in Archaeology from the University of Cambridge. When I’m not in the field I am a rising second-year PhD student in Medieval Studies at Cornell University where I study human responses to climate change in the first millennium AD. At the BRP I spend most of my time running the flotation tank and looking at charred plants under a microscope.

YAC Attack Day 2 and The Riddle

Today was part 2 of our weekend of YAC-tivities. For part one, click here.

We had some participants from the York chapter of the Council for British Archaeology’s Young Archaeologists’ Club. Like yesterday, everyone got a chance to work with Alice on environmental processing and analysis. We’ll hear more from Alice about her work here with the BRP and why it’s so important next week. Once again, we’d like to thank the Mick Aston Archaeology Fund for helping us deliver this weekend of programming.

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We also wanted to reveal the answer to The Riddle. Did you miss it? Click that link and have a read and a think. We’ll wait.

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Okay. Are you ready for the solution?

The solution to all three versions of the riddle is a “coat of mail.” What’s so fascinating about these poetic little riddles is that they provide us with so many words associated with the craft of weaving. Linking the tiny loops of metal involves weaving them in and out of each other, rather than weaving weft and warp stretched across a loom. Just like a garment, your mail could be mended, extending its lifetime maybe even from parent to child. The elevation of handicrafts to poem-worthy status is a common feature of Anglo-Saxon riddles, giving us such a lovely but brief glimpse into everyday life.

sutton hoo mail

This is actually part of a corroded coat of mail from the 7th-century burial at Sutton Hoo.

 

YAC Attack! Day 1/Round-up: Week 3

Today’s YAC attack is by some of the members of the Flodden chapter of the Council for British Archaeology’s Young Archaeologists’ Club! We were so excited to have them on site with us, and they brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm. That’s why archaeological education and community archaeology are so much fun for us here at the BRP. Through the generous support of the Mick Aston Archaeology Fund, we were able to host these future archaeologists and really give them a day in the life of an archaeologist at Bamburgh Castle.

We had our young archaeologists rotate through a few of our daily activities, with special emphasis on the environmental work of Alice Wolff. They learned to process environmental samples through flotation, sorting, and analysis. But we didn’t just help them with the technical stuff, we really wanted to explain WHY we are looking so carefully at the palaeoenvironment. We can learn a lot looking at how past communities subsisted through times of plenty and times of scarcity, and Bamburgh Castle’s long history of occupation makes it a great candidate for exploring long-term cycles of environmental stasis and change. We broke them up into teams, and their team names did not disappoint!

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Team Ducky McPlatypusface running the flotation tank, gently letting the water break down clumps of soil to release any charred seeds that would float to the top.

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Team Artichoke looking at the heavy fraction produced via flotation, as well as some small finds that were in the sample.

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Describing the soil before processing via the flotation tank.

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Analysing some seeds under the microscope.

Both teams spent time with Alice (above), but also got to work with Tom Fox on some finds washing and Tom Howe and Kelly Tapager in the trench.

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Finds washing and intro to zooarch with Tom Fox.


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Excavating The Porch with Tom Howe.


Round-up:

This week had some up-and-down weather, and it was quite windy atop our perch in the West Ward. Regardless, we made some great progress throughout the trench.

The western wall just north of the BHT mortar mixer and the section adjacent to said mortar mixer now are some lovely sections, which our students cleaned and planned. On the way down, we found an interesting flattened aluminum cylinder that launched a day-long research dive you can read about here. Here we are taking an environmental sample:img_20190706_153042

The cobbles in the southeast corner of the trench lay mostly untouched this week, but the sondage near the entrance ramp to the trench was extended and it approaches the cobbles to the south at a fair clip.

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In the northwest corner of the trench, that weird section we always go on about, we’ve decided to divide it into quarters. We excavated the southeast quadrant and then took an environmental sample of the northwest quadrant which included a large patch of charcoal smears and orange clay.

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The environmental department has a new serif tank (link to twitter) we’ve named HMS FloatyMcFloatface. We’re telling everyone that we planned to name it after David Attenborough but took a popular vote and Floaty won as a write-in. Too soon? Too soon.

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In terms of finds, we might have been a little spoiled the past two weeks, so we aren’t too worried that we’ve mostly been finding vast quantities of animal bones. Finds supervisors Tom Fox has been using these animal bones to run sessions on zooarchaeology identification. We sat in on a few between tours and it was a great refresher for the basics, but also completely changed the way the rest of us non-zooarch-experts look at the animal bones that comprise the majority of our bulk finds.

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We also have two metal…somethings. The copper alloy object may be a strap-end that’s now clogged with soil. The lead object looks like a thin, rectangular piece of lead was rolled up to create a cylinder, or possibly rolled upon itself to give a spiral cross-section.

The Festival of Archaeology is just under a month away!

cba fest

This is your big, bold reminder to come join us at Bamburgh Castle on 20th or 21st July.

Our free trench-side activities will focus on environmental archaeology, under the guidance of environmental supervisor Alice Wolff. Participants can join one of our half-day sessions for hands-on experience in recording, sorting, and analysing soil samples. Sign up here!

Three dark-haired women stand around a square tank of muddy water.

Environmental Supervisor Alice works alongside two students on a brisk day.

Now you might be thinking, “What are soil samples, and what could they possibly tell us?” Environmental sampling is a process by which archaeologists can collect and study the fills or even floor surfaces of archaeological features; these fills include the soil that is inside rubbish pits, postholes, and even buildings. The samples are carefully collected and then processed with a sieve and running water known as a flotation tank. The sample is suspended by a small mesh and water is pumped from beneath it. The water separates the silt from the small rock fragments, allowing the tiny grains of silt to sink through the mesh. The small rocks and any artifacts will rest in the mesh, while charred seeds and sometimes even the shells of small molluscs (like tiny snails) will float to the top and can be skimmed off into another fine mesh. You end up with three resulting products: pure silt, rocks and artifacts, and the skimmed material known as “flot.” This flot can be analysed under a microscope to identify the seeds and molluscs. Seeds tell us all about the domesticated and wild plants consumed by a community on a site, while small molluscs can actually tell us about the climate because certain species only survive in very particular temperature ranges. The rocks and artifacts will be dried and sorted to get a clearer picture of what the area sampled was used for. And the silt? Mostly clogs up our water jets, to be honest. It’s a good bit of fun, but when you join us, be sure to wear something that you won’t mind getting a little muddy, as well as sturdy footwear!

The Festival of Archaeology is a celebration of archaeology where everyone is welcome to listen, learn, and get their hands dirty! It is a Council for British Archaeology initiative, and this year the focus is on the intersection of archaeology and scientific technology. We’re able to run our event during the festival this year due to a grant from the Mick Aston Archaeology Fund. We hope to see you there!