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August 2019: Flotation…but not as you know it!

When we undertook the excavation in Brixton Deverill in 2018 we discovered and carefully mapped and sectioned key Roman and later features, including a deep trench which contained waterlogged horizons/contexts at its base and what our professional advisers believed to be a gravel platform for some kind of processing.  Samples – including snails, pollen, wood, charcoal etc – of each context were taken for further work on specific environmental indicators.

We are amazingly lucky to have on our doorstep in Codford Dr Mike Allen, who owns and runs one of only two privately owned environmental archaeology laboratories in the country. We are also hugely fortunate that he is so keen to support groups like ours and with his abounding energy and enthusiasm help us develop our environmental archaeology skills. So, after some to-ing and fro-ing matching volunteers with Mike’s  availability, we settled on the last week in August as our processing period, which as a best guess would be 5 days for 3 volunteers.  We were blessed with unusually good weather for the processing, which was lucky since most of the work takes place outside!  Sat in the sun around one of Mike’s outdoor seating/BBQ spots, we began with a morning’s introduction to the tasks ahead. He introduced us to the principles of sample preparation by flotation, which has a number of stages: soaking the samples; large tank primary flotation (outside); laboratory based second flotation; separation/fractionation of residue by wet sieving; drying and sorting of residue; examination and assessment of the flots collected by flotation. All the while accurate labelling of EVERYTHING is essential!

Prior to work beginning, several of the samples had been subdivided into 10-litre sub-samples and, in readiness for flotation, pre-soaked in large plastic wine/beer fermentation tubs with a quantity of hydrogen peroxide to break up aggregates.

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The primary flotation tank (Ed. I think it’s the one in the middle!)

The first stage of processing takes place using a large stainless steel flotation tank into which the sample ‘soup’ is poured. Water is drawn by a submersible pump from a lower reservoir and forced through a series of tubes within the flotation tank, which have holes in them thus creating a constant flow of agitated water. As the tank fills, the water flows over the lip of a weir and into a fine mesh (300 micron or 0.3mm) sieve. Anything which floats over the weir (eg charcoal, wood, shell fragments, plant fibres, grains and husks) is therefore collected as flots in the sieve and the water drops into the reservoir tank and is re-circulated. The  mesh size allows suspended sediment (clays and silts) to pass through. To help the process the operator gently agitates the sediment ‘soup’ by hand, hopefully releasing any flots that may be held down by heavier muck clinging to them. Samples took anywhere from 1 to 3 hours to process (fine in great weather but can’t be much fun in cold and rain!). We quickly learned that opening the water flow valve too much leads to a torrent flooding the sieve and the loss of important flots!  Once we (Mike) was satisfied that no more flots were likely, we carefully removed the mesh basket liner and decanted the residue into a bucket for the processing second stage. Meanwhile the flots were set to dry on their labelled sieve. Ready for the next sample!

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Flots caught on the 300micron sieve: charcoal, shell fragments, plant remains.

 

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Secondary flotation in the lab sink.

Mike explained the importance of second stage flotation as many flots are missed in Stage 1. Stage 2 involved working in the lab at a large purpose-built sink. The residual sample (minus its flots from Stage 1 and some of the very fine sediments that went down the waste gate) was now placed in a 5 litre bucket of water. After swirling the sample around with a large spoon or by hand, the liquid was carefully and slowly decanted through a 500 micron sieve; the bucket was then refilled and the procedure repeated until no further flots appeared. The sample was now ready for wet-fractioning through a small nest of sieves, while the flots retained on the sieve were dried for examination and assessment, along with the flots from the primary flotation. Fractioning the remainder of the sample proved tricky, particularly where there was a large proportion of peaty plant remains that clogged up the finest mesh sieve at the bottom of the stack. These samples required heaps of patience as it was very tempting to tip too much sample into the top of the stack, only to find that the bottom sieve was overwhelmed! Eventually there were two sets of flots, material caught on each sieve and a lot of water and silt/clay that had gone down the drain!

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Sieve fractions drying in the August sun

Each sieve fraction was now laid out in the sun on a drying tray on newspaper to thoroughly dry. Once dry (anywhere between an hour and two days), the fractions would be examined for any artefacts (which are bagged and labelled individually), and then weighed and the weights recorded on the master chart. The coarsest fractions are discarded and the rest bagged, labelled and stored.  Simples, and that’s the story of one 10 litre sample: only another 170 litres to go!

Once the flots have dried they will be assessed by Mike and he will decide whether they have sufficient merit to pass them on to specialists in grain and husk, wood/charcoal etc identification. He will of course do any work on snails himself!

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Cleaning up is important too: and no, we didn’t brew wine or beer!

It wasn’t all work! We had some great conversations over coffee and lunch with Mike and his wife about all manner of things from families to gardening and of course archaeology.

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Sorting and carefully examining each dried fraction for anything apart from natural stones!

This was a very interesting week and we were exceptionally well looked after and trained by Mike, to whom we are very grateful.

 

Blog by David Croot

 

 

 

 

Result’s Workshop – 16 August 2019

Forty-three of us gathered in the village hall on the evening of 16th August to hear three fascinating talks summarising the results of the Deverills’ Archaeology Project (DAP) over the last 18 months.  This size of audience was a pretty good effort as the weather was horrendous.  Given the amount of water being dumped on us perhaps it would have been more fitting to have heard a lecture on maritime archaeology.

David Croot introduced the results session and the speakers and made particular mention of the organisations that had made the project possible financially: the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Warminster Area Board and the village hall.

Dr David Roberts then gave a very comprehensive overview of the project’s achievements, which have been impressive: six geo surveys, three talks, two excavations, funding wins, public engagement and, most important of all, significant gains in ou

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Fortified by two glasses of wine, David Roberts talks us through the ring barrow.

historical knowledge of the valley.  He then went into more detail on the three surveys, showing us slides overlaying the results on mapping and explaining (or surmising on) the various features that were evident.  Some of the features, such as the ring ditch (or is it a henge?) in Church Field, were very striking and are pointers as to where we may concentrate our work in the future.  David then described the two excavations and his first thoughts on the results.  The Brixton dig in 2018 not only provided many of us with our first experience of archaeological excavation techniques but has revealed some form of enclosure, possibly for animals, which is probably contemporaneous with the villa.  However, the most interesting results are yet to emerge – the analysis of the samples taken from the dark, waterlogged context in Trench C.  This analysis will soon be undertaken by Mike Allen (NB. a volunteer still needed to help Mike during the analysis period 22-30 Aug.  Contact David Croot if you can help this key piece of work).

While David drew breath, Dr Claire Rainsford stepped in to give us a summary of the early analysis of bones recovered during the excavations.  While the samples were small, they seem to show that in the Roman and medieval period people enjoyed roast beef whereas in the post-medieval period roast lamb (or perhaps shepherd’s pie) was favourite.  We also enjoyed a diversion into experimental archaeology, which revealed how it was discovered why fish bones don’t tend to appear in the archaeological record (detail of the experiment redacted to spare the squeamish).

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Claire Rainsford describing our bones’ finds.

David then took the floor again to describe this year’s Kingston dig.  While relatively little was found, the excavation has given us a better understanding of the ground adjacent to the ford and showed that although Roman pottery was found, the area was mainly in use in the medieval period as some form of working platform.  David concluded by showing us the map of known finds in the valley and then pointing to where our work had increased the sum of knowledge.  In the short period of the DAP’s existence this was quite impressive, not only giving us a warm glow that our work to date had been very worthwhile but also an inspiration for our future work.  David then introduced Dr Jörn Schuster, our small finds expert, who gave us an overview by way of a statistical analysis by type and quantity of the small finds we have made.  Given the small quantities, it was difficult to produce dramatic conclusions but it was interesting to learn about nails and buckles various.  The most impressive find was a large key and one can imagine the conversation that followed its loss centuries ago, which probably went along the following lines, “What do you mean you’ve lost our only key to the manor house front door?  It’s massive, you couldn’t have lost it!  Alright, if you really can’t find it, saddle the donkey and get yourself to Cordens and get a new one made.  See you in 5 days.”

There then followed a wide ranging Q&A session after which David Croot thanked the speakers for their talks and for all their work to support the DAP, which generated warm applause.  An excellent evening and one which has given us a solid foundation for next year’s work.

Blog by John.  Photos by Denise.

Dem bones, dem bones…

Zooarchaeology training – 14th August 2019

On Wednesday nine of us gathered at Home Farm, Teffont Evias for an afternoon of animal bone study led by one of the world’s rarities, a freelance zooarchaeologist.  Clare Rainsford generously gave her time and expertise to DAG to throw some light on this fascinating subject and Home Farm kindly allowed us to use their office space as the weather was dreadful and the barn reserved for the study was far too inhospitable for us less-seasoned archaeologists.

So what did we learn? First up we learned that zooarchaeology is the study of the relationship between archaeological bone finds and ancient peoples.  Clare then chucked us in the bony version of the deep-end by setting us the challenging task of assembling a cat and a sheep skeleton from what appeared to be bags of random bones. We approached the task with lots of enthusiasm but less skill, with the sheep group being particularly flummoxed by the hind leg differences between sheep and man.   By studying the difference in skeletons we were taught to distinguish between bird and mammal, the predator and the prey, the herbivore and the carnivore, the cloven-hooved and the single-hooved or ungulate. We learned how to identify horse and cow teeth from the patterns in the chewing surface, although there were varying degrees of conviction over the similarity of patterns to butterflies and snoopy dogs! 

Importantly, we gained some understanding into how the socioeconomic status of a past society can be determined to some extent through animal bone finds.  For example, deer bones found in an urban environment could suggest that the animals had been brought from their natural habitat for sport or food, a possible sign of economic prosperity.

20190814_152334DAG Chair David Croot getting to grips with the difference between a horse’s hoof and a chicken wishbone.

The afternoon was very informative and enjoyable and we left Teffont Evias considerably more knowledgeable about animal bones than when we arrived.

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The knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone…

Our sincere thanks to Clare for putting over this complex subject in such an entertaining and understandable way and the next time we are on an excavation we will be better equipped to identify the bones we dig up.

Blog by Eve and photos by Sophie.

July Finds Processing

Five of us gathered on 1 July in Upper Deverill’s village hall to mark the finds from the June excavation of the north-east corner of the cricket pitch.  This was a pretty quick affair as the excavation had not produced large quantities of finds; in fact the number of bags of finds was only just greater than the number of volunteers!  A vast improvement since the last marking session was our use of permanent Lumocolours instead of scratchy dip pens and nail varnish.  Many thanks from the volunteers for the sustaining tea and eats!

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Bag KDF 19 1101 taking its place in history

June excavation dig diary

Day 5

Following Sunday’s dreadful weather, Monday started quite kindly! This would be our final day of activity, so the teams cracked on with small extra excavations in some key parts of the two pits whilst the post-ex team processed the outstanding finds that had dried overnight. There were a few new finds from the morning’s work, and a few trays’ worth of finds from Saturday and Sunday that hadn’t quite dried were left for onward transport, drying and processing in David’s garage!

By lunchtime the anticipated rain arrived on cue, along with 13 schoolchildren from Crockerton Primary school and their teacher and 2 parents.  Denise Wilding gave a talk  with a Powerpoint presentation on archaeology, supported by the two Davids, and after this the children paid a brief visit to the active excavations at the bottom of the cricket field. As the rain got heavier the whole party retreated to the village hall where Lou, Lorraine, Denise and David had prepared some sand trays with hidden ‘finds’ for them to discover.

Long discussions followed about the significance and interpretation of animal bones, teeth, pottery and coins. Of course we could not ignore the fact that the children’s school is located on Potters Hill, in a place called CROCK er TON (the place where pots were made). Were any of the pot sherds we have found made in Crockerton? Not a question we could answer! The children thoroughly enjoyed their visit and who knows, maybe some future archaeologists were amongst them!

The day was wrapped up by the teams finalizing the recording of the trenches and logging all the finds that have been processed to date and bagging the weighed finds.  The last job was to thoroughly clean the village hall and load the kit into the HE Landrover.

Tuesday would see the pits back-filled and the site tidied up by Chris the digger driver.

(Blog by David Croot)

Day 4

After a morning of clearing trenches 1 and 2, we welcomed the 7th Warminster Brownie Pack on site.  The Brownies’ visit followed on from a presentation David Croot gave to the pack in May, assisted by Lorraine and Lou.

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The Brownies get a first view of the excavation.

The Brownies started with a guided tour of the two trenches given by our own real-life archaeologist, Dr David Roberts.  This was followed by an opportunity for the Brownies to have a go at digging for themselves. Although they were unable to dig in the trenches, they had great fun digging in the spoil heap, once Rod had demonstrated that you really can find hidden treasure in the disregarded spoil!  The Brownies had a great time and soon began to be able to tell pottery and bone from flint and stone, with one Brownie even finding a wonderful piece of pottery with a thumb-print pattern below the rim.

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Great find!

Once they had gathered their finds, they took them to Ted and Denise where they were shown the techniques of cleaning finds and even had the opportunity to have a go themselves.

With the assistance of DAG, the Brownies now have enough experience and evidence to allow them to earn the Archaeology Badge, a new badge and the 7th Warminster Brownies will be the first pack in Wiltshire to earn it!

(Blog by Louise and Lorraine)

Day 3 

Ed and I finished removing the fill from part of the linear ditch in Trench 2 where yesterday we had found a couple of lovely glazed Medieval pottery sherds. We then completed our context sheets (oh joy), including using the Munsell chart to determine the colour of our ditch fill. Soooo many brownish hues to choose from!

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Our finds from Trench 2

The heavy rain held off until afternoon tea break (see, David Roberts is not such a slave driver). Good timing and today we were treated to brownies of a different kind, thanks to David and Lorraine’s daughter, which were delicious. 

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Drawing a section

At the end of each day’s digging, David asks for a ‘willing’ volunteer from each of the trenches to explain what has been happening in their trench that day. Luckily for me, I got this out of the way early on and did my turn yesterday, so I could relax! It is a great idea though to ask us diggers to give the trench tours as it encourages us to keep tabs on what is happening in our trench. There are always opportunities to discuss ideas with fellow diggers and the management! Our supervisors, Mike and Jonathan, together with David, are all good at asking us questions about the features we are digging and giving clear explanations as to their reasonings if they disagree with us!

It was another good day on site and I’m looking forward to finding something Roman tomorrow, hopefully…

(Blog by Sophie Hawke; images by Jane Hanbridge)

Day 2

Flaming June? What a joke!! Cold, torrential rain overnight and all morning followed by heavy downpours in the afternoon. Needless to say we cancelled all activities for the day on the basis of the weather forecast. I wonder if we will be excavating two swimming pools tomorrow!!?

Some may ask why the Deverill valley is so keen to keep its archaeological secrets (snow, unexploded ordnance, and now heavy rain in June!).

(Blog by David Croot)

Day 1

In warm sunshine, we unloaded kit from Historic England’s Land-Rover, stowing every mattock and finds-tray in the village hall on an immense tarpaulin kindly loaned by DAG volunteer Sarah.  In the corner of the field where we’re excavating, nettles stood as high as a proverbial elephant’s eye: fortunately, the tracks on Richard’s Kubota excavator can flatten anything, so no need for Chairman David to fetch his brush-cutter.

Richard had barely scraped off a single length of turf when animal bones and sherds of pottery began to appear: could we be on the right track, as geophys results had strongly suggested?  Once the Kubota was swinging its digging-bucket further up-slope, hard-hatted volunteers scampered onto the area already scraped, cleaning back the surface, and straightening its edges as far as crumbly top-soil would allow. Operations were closely supervised by Richard’s terrier, perched in the cab’s doorway.

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‘Historic’ David and the machine

Soon finds were mounting up in a tray, smartly context-numbered, and a lovely clear chalky surface lay before us: this is the cue for much peering and speculating about whether any clues as to possible features are yet revealed.

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile Richard was scraping off the surface for our second trench, a bit nearer to the village hall.  This caused Historic David (not to be confused with Chairman David) to become slightly excited and wave his arms:  “Look!  Here is clay – here is a bank – here is one edge of a ditch …”  The Kubota scrapes a bit more.  “And here is the other edge of the ditch!”  The word “possibly” was in there somewhere.  Several pairs of hands were moved into the new area to define the possible bank and generally clean back, in the process gleaning another tray of finds, including part of a vessel’s base – could be Black Burnished Ware, local Dorset pots that the Romans used in industrial quantities all the way from Poole to Hadrian’s Wall; “and the obligatory oyster shell” commented a neighbour from down the valley who had dropped by (having Roman remains in his own back garden, he’s seen a few oyster shells dug up).

As shadows lengthen, it is time for the ancient ritual ceremony of Unrolling The Orange Plastic Mesh; and so ends day 1.  “We have one day more than they have on Time Team” says one of the Davids.  But what does the weather have in store?  Tune in again for episode two.

 

 

 

 

(Blog and images by Matthew Tagney)

DAG session with Warminster Brownies

David Croot, Lorraine and Lou responded to an invitation from Brown Owl to help 15 of her 7th Warminster Brownies pack to achieve their Archaeology Badge. The Archaeology Badge is a new badge for the Brownies and this pack will be the first in the area to work towards it. The trio were met by 15 very excited but well behaved Brownies, all aged between 7 and 10 at their community-centre home. We were welcomed with a special Brownie Hello and following this, David started the evening by giving a fun PowerPoint presentation which was geared towards the age group on how to achieve their badges.

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The presentation given by David to help the Brownies gain their archaeology badge.

The presentation was followed with a session “digging” for buried finds (including coins, jewellery (borrowed from Lorraine), bones and pottery) in sand trays, identifying the items and giving them some kind of interpretation. There was a lot of discussion about the items that they had found (especially the shiny coins and jewelry)!

Lou had also brought along some of the pots her dad had found whilst in the fields working with the tractor.  The afternoon was very well received by the pack who were really engaged and were full of questions about archaeology. We thoroughly enjoyed the session too and hopefully other groups will ask for a similar event. Many of the brownies will be visiting the Kingston Deverill dig in June as part of their archaeology badge activities and we look forward to seeing them!

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Artefacts for the Brownies to examine, including  pottery and bottles.

Blog and photos by David, Lorraine and Lou.

 

Geophysics Week 25 – 30 March

John Russell recounts an eventful week of geophysical survey, with some unexpected discoveries!

We’ve just completed an excellent – and varied – week of surveying in the Kingston end of the valley. Unlike our last geophys week, this one was completed in marvellous weather.

We started in Church Field, which for a field situated opposite the church is both aptly and cleverly named.  The original intention had been to spend most, if not all, of the week in this field but unfortunately it had recently been sown so we were only allowed two days of surveying. With the new timescale in mind, and under the expert guidance of Paul Durdin, we set to with gusto and soon the field was a blur of tape measures, bamboo poles and red pegs, all to the accompaniment of the steady bleep of the magnetometer. By the end of the day three ring features had been revealed by the mag, the largest being some 50m in diameter. The other two were very faint but one had been covered by the res, which showed a ring about 30m in diameter with the high resistance response inside the ring ditch suggesting it could be a barrow. We also made a number of surface finds from field walking, including some Samian ware shards, and parts of quern and wet stones.

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Some Samian wear finds

Soon it was upsticks (well, bamboo poles) and we moved our effort to Seagram’s Field, a dauntingly huge field on the road to Maiden Bradley.  Excellent progress was made until agriculture struck again and we were told that the field would be drilled sometime during the day.  Keeping firmly in mind that it is farming rather than archaeology that puts food on our tables, we kept going until the tractor and drill were ready to start. Fortunately this wasn’t until the mid-afternoon, by which time we had achieved a solid amount of work.

On the following day surveying continued apace until there was an announcement of a munitions find. Initially this generated huge excitement – was it a ballista bolt in mint condition? Or a hoard of perfect flint arrow heads?  Or an Anglo-Saxon sword with gold inlay? Sadly it was none of these but rather a World War 2 2inch HE mortar bomb, probably dropped by the Deverill’s equivalent to Pte Pike.  All the correct procedures were followed and the next day the bomb was detonated by an Army EOD team.  Although the field suffered a small dent and we lost half a day of surveying effort, we have the satisfaction of knowing that we have removed a potential threat to the farm staff.  At Seagram’s Field our surveying has revealed various linear features scattered across the mag results, possibly parts of enclosures. The clearest feature though was in the southwest part of the field: a sharp rectangular enclosure with a double ditch on its eastern and northern sides. We surveyed this with both mag and res – the latter showed a smaller internal enclosure, along with suggestions of other features. The form of the rectangular enclosure suggests it is Roman. Surface finds in this field were few and far between: a few pottery shards and some small pieces of worked flint.

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The Magnetometer

Although we didn’t conduct the surveying we intended, this was a successful week greatly helped by the wonderful weather. Our thanks to Paul for his patience and guidance, to David Stratton for allowing access to fields for survey, and well done in particular to Adrian and Matthew for their work with the mag.

Blog by John Russell.