Week 4 Round-up

This week included a lot of recording and sorting, some massive earth-moving, and preparing to leave site!

We digitised a bunch of plans and context sheets, and we also continued monitoring the finds in the archive annex and updating the database with location information.

We were so grateful to have friends of the project get those incredible drone photos for us on Tuesday. You can see some sneak peeks here.

A very excited trench team looking at the drone photographs.

Some interesting finds came out in all the processing, such as the yellow glass bead and bone pin below. The bead came from an environmental sample taken in 2013 of 9th/10th-century context; multiple 2013 samples run this season also produced several other beads, but all but one of those were ceramic (the other a crinoid fossil, “Saint Cuthbert’s bead”). The bone pin is from a context tray from Trench 5c that we looked at today before organising storage. It was from an area of the long stretch of medieval wall where we had previously only been finding modern material, until we extended the trench (see below).

In the trenches, we moved so much earth!

First, we extended the old 2002 trench along the longest stretch of standing wall which we are calling Trench 5c. The extension was to learn more about the rubble that is scattered perpendicular to the face. Some of the stone positions suggest that another wall came out of the length we still have.

Then, we fully exposed a large stone surface abutting the dolerite up at the postern gate trench we called Trench 5d. It’s not clear exactly what was happening, and we thought bringing down the inner face would answer our questions. It only gave us more questions! Two large stones with tool marks appear to have fallen down into the northern end of the trench. On the southern side of the trench, a large spread of mortar appeared.

Thursday was the big day of rubble-removal with the help of Stuart and Steve from the Castle team. We would bet at least a [literal] tonne of rock was removed. On Friday, the well-room was cleared of the big stones, so we mattocked and shoveled as much soil as we could. We also cleaned off the steps! Finally, we photographed the steps and well-room even though both are not yet completely excavated.

It’s our last day on-site this season, so we wanted to let you know about what to expect in the off-season:

At least two blog posts will be headed your way in the next few weeks. First, Alice will be providing an update on the environmental assemblage and what it tells us about cereals at Bamburgh during the early medieval period. Then Graeme will do his usual end-of-season post with a round-up and tentative interpretations, plus some thoughts on our next steps.

Please also keep an eye out for news regarding our publication of the Bowl Hole research!

As always, follow us on social media for the latest information on our research and upcoming field school opportunities. That’s all for now, but you will definitely see us next year, back in the outworks!

Way Back Wednesday: Marine Life

A few members of our team went into the archive annex this morning to do some housekeeping: checking on and changing silica gel packets in the boxes of small finds. We have indicator strips that show when a box is no longer dry due to ambient humidity. Lauren grabbed a random box of environmental archaeology small finds to have a nose around, and, much to her surprise, it was mostly material she herself had found and recorded while managing environmental processing in 2013: stycas, glass and ceramic beads, and some flint flakes. In an amongst those bits from nearly a decade ago, two examples of local marine life appeared.

First, another St. Cuthbert bead! This one was found in 2010 in a burnt context from Trench 3. It seems to be associated with the stables phase of the trench, around 10th century. We hope to do a deep-dive post (pun intended) on crinoids in the future, as they have been on our mind after the large one we found earlier this season.

The second was something that struck Lauren and the finds team as odd years ago: it looked like a tiny cowrie shell. True cowrie shells (family Cypraeidae) were often found historically in Indian Ocean trade networks, so this miniature version was separated out as a small find because it seemed non-native to the area. The sample was taken in Trench 1, associated with an early medieval linear feature. Further research shortly after the dig in 2013, however, revealed more information about this tiny mollusc.

This shell is from the family Triviidae which has a two species local to the North Atlantic and North Sea, but the species are often called the “European cowrie” and “northern cowrie.”

The European or spotted cowrie is used to refer to trivia monacha (da Costa 1778), a carnivorous snail that lives at the low tide of the shore. They usually have dark spots on the pinkish upper shell, which our specimen does not have.

The “northern cowrie” is trivia arctica (Pulteney, 1799) which has an unspotted shell. These species were actually thought to be one and the same until 1925. Both species prey on sea squirts, and they are in turn food for fish like Atlantic cod, who also occasionally turn up in our animal bone. Our shell is also a bit chalky to the touch, but it’s not immediately clear if ours is a proper fossil and thus old at the time it was deposited in the sample or if it was alive contemporary to the occupation of the context from which the sample came.

Living t. arctica specimen, image by Frans Slieker (NHMR).

Why do we care so much about tiny molluscs? Why does it matter that this was found here? Molluscs are extremely useful when studying the environment in the past. Some snails have very specific habitable ranges that can help us infer climate information, and today is especially valuable in understanding periods of climate stability and instability in the past. Others are fantastic to chemically profile to understand the water and plant life signatures for a particular region, which was a methodology we used in our interpretation of the Bowl Hole burial ground skeletal material.

This particular shell was saved because it looked different from the mollusc shells we had been finding previously. It turns out it was local, but it was probably not being collected for food unlike the winkles we find en masse, so we don’t have examples of it in the record.

For more information and more images:

Gallery of the Family Triviidae via National History Museum Rotterdam

Differentiating the species

T. monacha, European cowrie: entry for Encyclopedia of Life, entry in World Register of Marine Species

T. arctica, Northern cowrie: entry for Encyclopedia of Life, entry in World Register of Marine Species

Museum Monday

This Monday, we’d thought we take a bit to talk about the re-installation of some of our most interesting artefacts in the Castle’s state rooms. For years, many of the conserved finds from the BRP and Brian Hope-Taylor’s excavations were tucked away in a little room at the far end of the gift shop in their own little exhibit. The only problem was that folks would reach the gift shop and often go no further. We were stumped as to how to draw attention to the artefacts and information placards when there was delicious fudge and souvenirs in the previous room. A few years ago, some of the artefacts were integrated into the existing state rooms displays, Our one-of-a-kind (okay, one of, like, three in all of northwestern Europe) 6-billet pattern-welded sword was logically in the armoury on the first floor of the keep; it’s uniqueness was sometimes not recognised when displayed amongst the shiny and sharp medieval and post-medieval bladed weaponry. While this melding of artefacts into existing spaces increased the quantity of eyeballs on the artefacts, it still felt like something was missing. How could we best use these artefacts to tell the stories of Bamburgh Castle?

The past year has allowed the curators to combine cutting-edge technology and some tried-and-true, good old-fashioned museum display protocol to give us a more holistic glimpse into the three millennia of occupation of the site.

The first room, what was the medieval kitchen, has been streamlined to focus on five particular assemblages in detail. The large wooden model of the castle is still there, but it is now joined by video screens and a projected animation on the upper story wall. The video screens stand behind the glass display cases or freestanding artefacts. This room features the Bamburgh Beast and filigreed thumbnail (both of gold) each in a minimalist mount, while the carved-interlaced stone chair-arm is positioned as it would have been during its period of use to really help you understand the wear patterns on the leading edge where great kings would have rested their fingers. Each video panel shows magnified views of the objects as castle owner Frankie Armstrong pleasantly and engagingly shares further information about the objects in his family’s care. From these short videos, you really get a sense that a deep responsibility to the stewardship of this shared heritage is the underlying driver for this revamped exhibit.

As you wind your way through the adjacent rooms, you eventually reach the salon where the curators have taken great care to give voice back to half of the population that is often written out of history elsewhere: the women. Here at Bamburgh, however, formidable women stand out to us through the material culture individuals whose names are now lost to us and the documented works for the public good by named post-medieval owners. The salon, a heavily gendered space in the early modern period, is the perfect matrix for these snippets of women’s history through objects. We hope in the future to see this exhibit expand to include more historically gendered objects (such as latch-lifters and girdle tools) and really engage with this idea of performed gender and femininity. As the named women hold elite status as well, so we hope to be a part of developing the artefacts on display to include objects associated with lower status women in our long history here.

The ground floor of the keep is our next stop, where there is now an interactive dig touch-panel. It allows you to excavate computer-animated grid squares of our former Trench 1 and Trench 3 to find artefacts that our team discovered over the years.

The traditional museum display case are also used in the base of the keep, with cases full of interesting artefacts and small placards describing them. The cases are now mostly organised by theme, allowing you to see every-day items like stycas, knives, and dice, and the more high-status and ornate material grouped together as well. Also, the fantastic sword we discussed earlier has found a home in the lower level of the keep.

You can still come visit us to the end of this week to chat about the archaeology with our team up at the windmill in the West Ward, and then take a walk through the state rooms to see some of our best finds in their new displays!

Week 3: Round-up

This week was particularly full of environmental processing, finds sorting, and trench recording! Not as much rubble has been removed from the main trench as the blocks left are much too big to be moved by hand, but we will have an update on the steps below.

The flotation tank has been up and running almost non-stop to get through backlogged samples. Nat runs a tight ship, and that ship is the HMS Floaty McFloatface. Multiple crude ceramic beads have been found this week in sorting the floated material.

Ceramic bead.

In finds, we’ve spent a lot of time sorting the huge volume of washed material from last week. Among this, we found an unusual number of very large teeth from cattle and horse which we discussed further here. And we found a possible buzz-bone!

Worked bone that may have been a toy or musical instrument.

We also spent some time illustrating finds to scale under the guidance of Finds Supervisor Margot.

LJ drawing a small copper alloy buckle.

A “new” bit of wall that has peeked out where it is interrupted by the Victorian stairs that go down to our old Trench 5a. It has been de-greened and a small trench has been opened up between St. Oswald’s Gate and the arch that looks towards Lindisfarne. So far we’ve revealed a lovely spread of mortar on the medieval masonry and lots of modern rubbish at its base.

The main wall along which the 2002 trench used to run has been further revealed and photographed. Multiple teams have each taken a few metres of wall to draw. These are just like the section drawings we do of vertical stratigraphy (the layers of occupation, or lack thereof, we can see in the soil), but instead we’ve got the masonry blocks of a standing wall to draw to scale.

More steps in Trench 5b have been partially uncovered, but not fully excavated due to particularly stubborn (and massive) rubble. These give off medieval vibes akin to what was found elsewhere in the early survey of the outworks stairs undertaken by our director long before we opened these trenches.

Steps down toward the arch.

What more will we discover in our final week? Stay tuned!

Way-Back Wednesday: Things Get Dicey

Digging around the archives, we came across a number of lovely bone dice! Not enough for a game of Yahtzee, but we’ll take what we can get…

Our dice all are made of animal bone, polished smooth, with incised ring-dot or ring-ring-dot markings for each face. The incision is a common decorative technique using a hand drill and found on all sorts of objects across time and space, and, when they represent numbers on dice, they are called pips which seem to simplify over time to single dots. Dice games are known to have existed since the Neolithic in Scottish contexts, but actually started as other thrown objects probably associated with fortune-telling and, later, gaming using four sides of a sheep’s “knucklebone” (more of an ankle bone). The Romans loved dice and used large and small variations; the Egyptians are believed to have the first 20-sided die (for you DND fans) during the Ptolemaic Period. Dice would have been extremely popular ways to pass the time and hopefully win something valuable during the Roman and medieval periods.

Modern dice have opposite faces that add up to 7, so the faces would be paired 1-6, 2-5, 3-5. Early dice were not perfect cubes, and in the medieval period they may have had opposing faces that added up to prime numbers: 1-2, 3-4, 5-6. Some medieval dice had repeating numbers and were rolled in pairs: one die had 1, 2, 3 on two faces each, the other with 4, 5, 6. Dice are rare in the early medieval period but often in the 7 configuration we are familiar with. They usually reappear in the archaeological record in our area in the 12th century in the primes system. Standardisation only becomes fashionable at the end of the medieval period around 1450 when they move back to the 7 configuration. Check out this open access article comparing late medieval dice in the Netherlands and UK.

Some of the dice we have on display in the castle may have been “loaded,” primed for cheating, one method of which involves weighing one face with a drop of mercury so that the opposing face turns up more often. For more on an assemblage of dice including several cheat dice, check out this brief piece from Fordham’s Medieval London project. We haven’t done a proper statistical analysis of the rolls of any dice from our archive yet, but we may have rolled a few for bragging rights in the windmill. There was no clear run of luck for any of us, which must be a good thing.

Let’s talk a little about the dice we pulled from the archive. Because the early records of the dig are not all digitised, we could only access summary spreadsheets from our office in the windmill, so we unfortunately don’t have as much information about the contexts as we would like. This is absolutely something we can revisit as we reconcile records in the archives! All but one of the dice are associated with a single context in the centre of Trench 3, and the outlier is actually from a context just below the one in question, both part of the medieval to late medieval midden.

Two pieces kept apart for hundreds of years…SF1549 and SF1556

The first die is actually in two pieces discovered on separate occasions in the same area in 2004. SF1549 (meaning “small find number 1549) is a broken quarter with the only complete face showing a 1. SF1556 is another rough quarter showing part of side 5 and part of side 6. When put together, side 5 is complete. The 1 side is opposite the partial side 6, which tells us this is a die in the 7s category. The pips are double-ringed dots. The hollowed inside of the die shows no sign of tampering.

They match!

SF1756 is much smaller, but also a 7s die. It too has a double-ringed dot motif for the pip, and there is no obvious cheating mechanism. This was found in 2004.

SF1756.

SF6394 was found in 2009, associated with the same context as the others. It also has opposing faces that equal 7 and a double-ringed dot motif. There is also no particular penchant for landing on a particular number when rolled.

SF6394.

The last die we pulled was SF1896. This one was found just under the context where all the previous ones were found. This die is not even close to a perfect cube, as it has only two square faces: sides 1 and 2. The shape may have been why side 1 and side 2 tended to face up more often than any of the narrow rectangular sides. The incised pips are a single ring and dot. York Archaeology (formerly York Archaeology Trust) has a wonderful gallery with a similar rectangular die that seems to also have the 1 side on the square face. Our die is the only one in the primes configuration we have found so far digging through the archives, so there’s a chance this is earlier than the 7 configuration dice, that otherwise are expected to be late medieval. This context was under the context of the other dice, which by the law of superposition suggests that what is deeper in the stratigraphy is earlier (few examples exist of this rule failing in archaeology).

Care to try your luck?

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.

Week 2 Round-Up

This week we have had the students rotating through even more jobs than last week! In addition to finds washing and sorting and digging crews, we designated teams to work on environmental processing and the massive finds database we are building.

Environmental processing is explained further here, but it is a method of recovering extremely small organic material like charred seeds by agitating soil gently while water flows through it.

The most talked-about find in the environmental sample was a large crinoid! Crinoids are sea lilies (related to starfish and urchins), which first appeared on earth 300 million years BEFORE the dinosaurs. There are still extant species today! During the medieval period, the bits of their stem column worked as natural beads, because often they are found with a round or star-shaped hole in the centre. Locally, they are known as “Saint Cuthbert’s beads.” If we find any more, we will for sure do an in-depth post on them!

Crinoid fossil.

In the castle’s labyrinthine lower levels, we worked on updating and reconciling data in our finds archives and confirming shelf-marks. Boxes of interesting finds were opened, reassessed, passed around, and discussed while doing this archival work. We even found material that was discovered, recorded, and bagged by Constance and Lauren back when they were new staff in 2013!

During finds washing and sorting of early medieval contexts, several pieces of worked bone were discovered, including what looks like a toggle. We also had an strange tooth that was possibly worked which at first looked like bear, but it may actually have belonged to a seal. Wild bear (as opposed to imported bear) extinction is hard to date, as no one agrees what part of the medieval period they disappear, but seals are still present around the Farne Islands visible from the castle.

In the trenches, digging slowed down aside from the removal of the rubble in the two chambers split by the masonry-and-brick stacked walls. The arch has been further revealed!

Revealing the arch.

We have also begun to shore up walls and ground surfaces to prepare for the removal of the massive bits of rubble. Hard hats are now required in the rubble areas.

The trench team started recording the masonry via photograph and then via plan. Photographs are taken on a digital DSLR camera in colour, and each is recorded in a catalogue. We use large poles as scales to represent up to two metres!

Photographing each wall face.

Planning involves drawing the features and contexts in the trench to scale. What’s great about planning is that you don’t need to be a great artist to do it; when you use a planning frame like pictured below, you simply have to copy each square of the frame into a set of boxes on the grid paper. It’s like in colouring books, where you have to move a picture from the left-hand page into empty boxes on the right-hand page.

All smiles when planning.

We hope to clear more rubble out next week once everything is recorded thus far!

Way Back Wednesday: Glass Beads

The weather this morning was a bit ugly, so some of the students went into the archive annex in the castle to organise small finds from years past. We were reconciling information in our database and the physical storage containers and shelf-marks. As we nosed around the different boxes, we came across two blue glass beads excavated in 2012 from Trench 3. (It was a weird blast from the past for Constance and Lauren, who were both students at the time.)

9th-century blue beads.

Both beads came from the eastern half of the trench at a level pretty securely dated to the 9th century. The bead on the left, a globular bead, was from the northeast corner where a very compact, stony context was located. The bead on the right, a barrel bead, was from the southeast corner, where we found a large area of burning and evidence that suggested it was possibly the site of a stable.

Most of our knowledge of early medieval beads actually comes from surveys of grave goods. Between the 5th and 7th centuries, much of the glass was recycled from Roman material; when new beads were made, their chemical content suggested they came from raw glass from the Near East. The period of the beads we’ve found are not associated with graves, as furnished burials were less common in Christianised communities. This unpublished thesis from James Robert Nicholas Peake talks a little bit more about early medieval bead production via a case study from RAF Lakenheath assemblages. It’s only in the 8th and 9th centuries that we have on the ground evidence for production in Britain becomes available. Things like beads would have likely been produced by travelling artisans, rather than as a household industry. The 9th century is also a time when the fluxes (material that lowers the melting point of silicates) used to stabilise the batch of ingredients were purposefully richer in potash (potassium oxide) instead of natron (soda ash), which protected the glass from water damage. The blue colour of our beads was probably due to the addition of cobalt, but could have been exacerbated by Roman cullet (leftover broken bits added to fresh glass) during the 9th century.

There’s a really great open access book that talks all about early medieval beads in English contexts you can read here.

To Scrub-a-dub, or Not to Scrub-a-dub?

A major part of finds processing is cleaning the material that has come from the trench, because you can’t identify something if it’s covered in mud! Many artefacts are washed with clean, detergent-free water, while others that can’t get wet are brushed off dry.

Brushing a bit of long bone.

We place a tray of dirty finds next to a basin of water and place the cleaned finds in a blue tray with newspaper to aid with drying. Both trays must be labelled with year and context number to keep track of where things were found

The most common tool we use is a toothbrush with synthetic bristles, and instead of scrubbing the artefact while submerged, we bring the water on the brush up to the artefact. This prevents the artefact from soaking up too much of the water and becoming unstable and falling apart.

The toothbrush is a pretty gentle tool, even with vigorous brushing for example on very muddy animal bone. Sometimes, however, you’ll find areas you can’t quite reach due to the toothbrush head’s size. In those instances, we use more pokey tools, but start with the softest (wooden skewers) before using something more heavy duty (metal dental tools). This is similar to the process professional archaeological conservators will use in a lab: you always start with the gentlest tool and work your way up to something harder. Conservators also use more unusual tools before they reach for the dentist’s kit, for example, using rose thorns or porcupine quills to scrape off stubborn bits!

But before you even get to sit down in front of your basin set-up, you’ll need to know what can get washed and what needs to be kept dry.

Bone

Animal bone (including horn cores and antler) is almost always perfectly suited to washing unless you find something super unexpected like preserved flesh (but this is not really an option in our soil environment). This category also includes worked bone, but if there are incised lines, you’d want to be particularly careful not to damage any decoration.

Human bone can be washed, but only extremely carefully, and it should be handled outside of view of the public. It is important to note any areas of discolouration due to contact with metal objects and not wet those areas. For example, if a green stain appears on an arm bone, the individual may have been wearing something made of copper alloy that eventually rested directly on the bone in the burial. Similarly, an orange stain could suggest an iron implement was nearby. We hope to do a future blog post on corrosion, but these two are the most common examples that leave a trace on human bones.

Animal bone.

Ceramics

Prehistoric pottery can be extremely delicate and friable, crumbling even as you excavate it in moist soil, and thus may need to be left alone for a few days to dry naturally. Then it can be gently dry brushed to determine if it should be wet again at all. You may also use a sponge to clean these early earthenwares. Most historical pottery, in general, is a robust material in that it survives in the archaeological record, regardless of being in pieces. Glazed pottery can be washed, but not scrubbed vigorously on the glazed surfaces. Painted pottery surfaces should not be washed, as the pigments could easily be lost. When we find Samian ware, a Roman ceramic type from Gaul (modern France) (hyperlink), we do usually wash it, but without the scrubbing tools. We do this to preserve the surface, but still be able try to identify the pattern and any maker’s mark. If pottery seems to have food residue on its surface, we do not wash it, and, if possible, can send it away for further analysis to learn about the diet of the community that used it.

Green glaze (13thC)

Clay pipes

Pipe-stems and pipe-bowls, can be washed fairly easily, but you must take care when clearing out the borehole so as not to send a crack down the whole stem. Pipe-stems were often broken during use, and anywhere you find British influence after the commodification of tobacco you find broken bits of clay pipe.

19thC clay pipe stem with edge of bowl and spur.

CBM

Ceramic building material like fired bricks or tiles can be washed, while unfired clay, mud bricks, and daub is brushed while dry.

Ceramic building material.

Charcoal

We don’t wash charcoal, as it will crumble easily. Instead, we dry-brush it gently and bag this separately. In special cases of large charcoal deposits, they will be taken as a sample rather than collected with bulk finds. Environmental archaeologists can then examine the sample to try to ascertain wood species and possible dendrochronological (tree-ring) data.

Charcoal fragment.

Glass

Glass can be washed if it is not iridescent—that is, if it doesn’t have gold flakes on the surface or rainbow-coloured patches. These are ways glass corrodes, where the layers of glass pull apart from each other allowing air in between. The bouncing around of light in these tiny air gaps leads to the beautiful colours visible.

Shells

On our site, we used to wash all shell that we found, all molluscs but from gastropods (like snails) to bivalves (like oysters). We no longer wash oyster shells because they often simply fall apart when brushed.

Snail and oyster.

Stone and mortar

While we don’t find a vast quantity of stone artefacts on our site, we have in the past found tools and debitage (waste flakes) of flint. Flint, along with other worked stone, can be washed, unless painted or covered with mortar. Mortar clumps and mortar spreads on stone are brushed while dry.

Stone with mortar.

Metal and slag

OH NO. DON’T EVEN LOOK AT THE WATER BASIN WHEN YOU SEE METAL.

8thC iron knife blade.

It’s not the end of the world if you do start washing something and suddenly realise it’s heavier than it looks or reveals a metal surface. Just stop brushing immediately and allow it to dry. If it is dry, you may dry-brush it gently. We just want the soil off the surface because it’s within the skillset of the professional conservator to best decide how to handle the corrosion. We also do not wash slag (metal byproduct comprised of impurities).

More Bronze Age Pottery!

In a previous blog post, we shared our exciting pottery find from Trench 6 at the Kaims site: a single rim fragment of cord-impressed pottery with a tentative Bronze Age date.  In our 4th week of the season, a further 21 fragments turned up in the same area!  The find included two more rim pieces, four with cord impressions, and 17 undecorated fragments of various sizes from (we believe) the lower portion of the vessel.

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Pottery fragments lying in situ in Trench 6 before excavation

After giving the collection a gentle wash, we were surprised to see that on the surface of several of the fragments are what appear to be small finger nail impressions running in horizontal lines in the fired clay.  They don’t appear to be intentional decoration, so they could be marks left by the vessel’s Bronze-Age creator during the forming process.  If after further analysis our suspicions are confirmed, this would be very exciting for us, because this find will be a rare glimpse of an individual person’s fingerprint on this landscape.

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Pottery fragments after washing

When the new pottery was compared with the original fragment, we found that the three rim pieces fit together, along with the remaining two decorated pieces.  This gives us a much more reliable idea of the possible size of the vessel, which might have had a rim as wide as 45cm.  Right now we think we might have the remnants of a very large bowl or jar.

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The 5 decorated pieces that fit together

One fragment revealed another feature of this vessel: a thin, raised band of clay running along the middle of the vessel, right at the bottom of the criss-cross, cord-impressed band of decoration near the rim.

Due to the poor quality of the clay and low firing temperatures, the vessel would not have successfully held liquid, but could have been used for food storage.