Sally Jones shares her experience of her first archaeological excavation, undertaken by the Deverills Archaeology Group in August 2018.
The warm August morning saw nineteen people gathered in a garden in the Deverill Valley: professional archaeologists, experienced amateurs, talented enthusiasts and a few, like me, complete archaeological novices. All were united in a common motivation to understand the people who preceded us through this special space, leaving an imprint, however slight, of their daily lives, experiences and histories. Over the next 10 days the professionals from Historic England would coach, encourage and lead us through all the stages of an archaeological excavation.
The garden was near the site of an historically significant, large Romano British Villa, discovered 3 years ago. Earlier in 2018, geophysical surveys of the garden area had revealed a possible enclosure defined by a perimeter ditch, together with a medium sized structure/building on the SE edge.
The enclosure exhibited rounded corners, which hinted, tantalizing, of Roman origins and a possible connection to the Villa.
Our task was to determine if excavation could support the Roman connection and, if not, what else lay hidden beneath these grassy acres that would further our knowledge of the history of the Deverill Valley.
Three trenches were mapped. HE brought out our assault tools: mattocks, spades, shovels, trowels, wheelbarrows and an improbable number of yellow buckets. For the uninitiated, the difference between a mattock and pickaxe was not immediately obvious, until practical employment revealed the distinct advantages of the flat edge.
Turves, topsoil and an additional stony level were removed. Our mentors pronounced themselves satisfied, and cautiously suggested the possible appearance of Roman archaeology, by way of ditches, in all 3 trenches.
A small number of ‘finds’ showed examples of Medieval, Post-Medieval and, yes, Roman pottery sherds, together with some rather intimidating animal teeth.
Possible Roman Ditch
Rain threatened from the outset and only a little over an hour’s digging was achieved. Now we were to witness the frustration of the seasoned archaeologist, as, even in this short space of time, one of the hoped-for Roman ditches ‘disappeared’ under further trowelling.
Rain called a halt to outside work and we retired indoors for a teach-in on finds identification.
Marking a Find
HE experts in pottery and flint identification gave us the most interesting insight into their respective worlds.
Roman pottery was mostly wheel turned (we learnt to look for the ripple effect) and well made; it was seldom glazed. ‘Glaze’ soon became a harbinger of dashed expectations. Many a hopeful sherd, on cleaning, revealed itself to be tainted with the despondent green glaze characteristic of medieval pottery and, like true Romano British enthusiasts, we soon cultivated the requisite dismissive shrug, so excellently demonstrated by our mentors, in the presence of green glaze.
We were educated in spotting the cuts and whirls of debitage, the offcuts occurring in the manufacture of flint tools. As the week wore on, it became clear that our earlier Valley settlers had left us much debitage, or by–product of their labours, but thoughtlessly failed to discard a single cutting tool or arrow head to excite us further.
…Days Three, Four and Five and the trenches started to disclose their own special stories and round-up talks at the close of each day’s digging were beginning to reveal serious trench envy amongst some of the excavation participants.
Trench Envy, A Bad Case
Trench B’s Roman Ditch, evidenced by exclusively Roman Pottery Finds
Trench A was definitely failing to deliver, having revealed two ‘Red Herrings’ by way of Victorian drainage ditches, evidenced by a small section of clay tobacco pipe. With more hope than expectation, another possible feature was being offered up to the mattock in this trench.
Hopeful in Trench A
Trench C, however, was unveiling an interesting puzzle, with the beginnings of a possible Roman track, a Roman ditch and another decidedly peculiar parallel ditch, the depth and width of which seemed to be growing by the hour.
Puzzling over Trench C
HE’s education programme was designed not simply to enlighten us in the finer points of trowelling. With great patience from the professionals, the technical aspects of excavation were not permitted to slip through our fingers.
We looked at stratigraphy, the layering of deposits in our trenches and became very familiar with the particularly unyielding alluvial clay deposits typical of this area.
Context sheets for ‘deposits’ and ‘cuts’ were produced and we were soon rolling soil samples between our fingers and identifying colours courtesy of the Munsell soil guide. Finds from each context were bagged and labelled with their respective site reference and context number.
Then came the photography (light relief):
…followed by the complexities (to the novice) of section drawings and measurements; building up an accurate and annotated cross sectional map of each trench. A Harris Matrix was drawn to create a flow chart recording the sequence in which the levels and features of the trench occurred.
Section Drawing of the Trench A
Having established that the cry of “Dumpy Level !” was not an order for me to start leveling my trench, we moved on to general surveying techniques.
During the 10-day duration of the dig, HE engaged with local residents and DAG members through several conducted tours of the excavation. One of these tours was fortunate enough to coincide with the appearance of an Environmental Archaeologist in Trench C.
Taking Soil Samples
By studying the tiny things, like soil, pollen and snails the environmental archaeologist hopes to discover the nature and occupation of the site. Snails will reveal whether the site once had long grass, short grass or woodland. Pollen will tell what cereals were grown, chaff will tell whether the site was producing and growing, or buying in and processing. We can learn what type of foods were prepared and eaten.
…Day 5 and 6 and back in the trenches a more consistent image of the site was beginning to evolve. Trench A and B confirmed the existence of the boundary ditches surrounding the main enclosure and the small southern building/enclosure. No evidence was found of the foundations for this building, but in all likelihood it was wooden in nature, possibly a barn.
Trench C was now the decided hero of the week. The excavators were uncovering a blushingly embarrassing wealth of Roman pottery. Utilitarian in nature, the sherds were suggesting cookware and everyday utensils. A hypothesis was beginning to emerge.
Squeezing into Trench C
In the above photograph, it is also possible to see the cobbled surface of a raised Roman track heading off towards the Villa.
A fourth trench was opened in the middle of the enclosure, attempting to explain the area of high resistivity visible in the geophysics; was it a cobbled pathway? Probably.
By Days 8 and 9, the excavation was drawing to a close and a clearer picture beginning to unfold. As the geophysics hinted, the large enclosure indeed seemed to have been Roman and probably part of the support structure for the Villa, perhaps an area where cattle were penned before slaughter, having been brought to the site along the Roman track. The smaller structure/enclosure to the south may have held a barn, as its ditch was too shallow to have acted as a boundary, but might have been drip gully to take water running off the roof of a large wooden building.
We look forward to the post-excavation work supporting these finds, soil samples, pottery analysis and carbon dating of the fragments of wood. The Villa would have had a huge support network; it is fascinating to speculate what else lies out there.
The landscape of this area has changed little over the intervening 1,500 years, but now, as we watch the sun set over the Western Downs we try to imagine the lives of those who lived on our land before; gentle smoke rising from a fire, a clatter of wood on cobbles across the track way, raised voices and laughter.
Our little excavation has merely scratched the surface of this special place and we look forward to understanding more as we explore further along the Valley.