Today was the last day of our Durham 1st year undergraduates on site, having spent three weeks here learning the basics of archaeological fieldwork. In this time we've made a really good start and got much more done than we were anticipating. Following two days of tv crew, it was back to the grindstone, finishing off all the drawing and recording which was still left. The highlight in Trench 1 was the identification of an articulated deer leg placed in a pit to the east of the barrack block (see picture). This has straight sides and is clay lined, and has the possibility to turn into a well. Elswhere, the remaining stone-lined working hollows were recorded, although there seems to be others ready to be excavated. In Trench 2, amidst all the recording, we were able to continue working on one of the pits and removed more of the fill of a robber trench along the line of a section of the wall of the eastern strip building.
Sunshine and showers today. We were badly down on numbers and the site was not in good condition due to the rain, nonetheless, we still got a good day's work done today. The camera crew were out againand a number of us were interviewed about the project (the picture shows Rob Collins being interviewed by Alice Roberts).
There was a lot more basic planning and recording in both trenches, but there was also some excavation. In Trench 2 work continued on one of the robber trenches, whilst we continued to slowly dismantle one of the stone-lined pits. Meanwhile on Trench 1 the big pit continued to be excavated (when I wasn't standing in it being filmed) and a number of the newer pits to the east and north of the barrack were recorded. We also began an area of excavation on the rampart, trying to assess the point where the cobbles and the ramparts met - not easy in the mud. At the south-end of the trench, we were again dismantling cobbles. We have some interesting stratigraphy going on in this area. We have a large stone-lined pit within the barrack, this appears to be overlain by a very small square structure (too small to be a building) which appears to be contemporary to the cobble spread that includes our almost certainly medieval structure. This acts to emphasise the relatively early medieval nature of the pits.
Tomorrow is the last day on site for most of our Durham students- so a final push on the planning and recording and tying up loose ends. We want everything to look good for a visit from members of staff from the Dept. of Archaeology at Durham.
We finally lost our run of good luck with the weather today- after a fair morning the rain descended at lunch time and never let up, so we lost the afternoon's work. It was too wet to even do much planning and recording, but it did give the supevisors a chance to catch up with some paperwork and other admin jobs, while I took the students around the commander's house and bath suite in the main fort. In the period of good weather in the morning we continued our push with recording, although we also got cracking with removing the stone lining from some of our pits. which appear to have multiple layers of stones.
The other main highlight was the arrival of the television crew from 360 Productions who were here to film us for the forthcoming series of Digging for Britain. Today this mainly involved filming site shots from the top of a cherry-picker and close up images of some of our finds. Tomorrow, the presenter Alice Roberts is coming to site to do some more recording - just hope the weather holds!
I was barely on site today due to lots of boring meetings, so thanks to Jamie for todays update: The rain held off so we got another full days work in. We bottomed the smaller stone-lined pit in Trench 2, which doesn't seem to be a contiguous stone surface but rather has a break across the middle which is quite intriguing - further work tomorrow will establish whether there is a real break or whether the stone lining forms some sort of trough at the base. We also started work on the robber trench on the eastern side of the western strip building, and kept on working on other stuff - nothing major really, just more planning, sections and recording.
The environmental processing has made an interesting discovery in the samples from the big pit in Trench 1 - when processed the sample produces a yellowy scum unlike anything from the other samples; the deposit is also quite greasy in places, which is leading to the idea that this may reflect the presence of animal fats (which could be a further link to tanning). Obviously this needs to be checked with further analysis such as looking at lipid content.
Another day in which the rain stayed away (although it's sheeting it down as I write this). Things are really crystalising as far as our 'tannery hypothesis' goes- we've been able to a little background research and things seem to converging. So let's look at what we've got. First, we have a series of pits of varying depths lined with stones, often set in clay. The sheer number of pits and their design suggests they were deliberately intended for on-going use, rather than simply to act as refuse or cess pits. Some of these pits appear to be associated with gullies and working surfaces (at least one of which has what appears to be limestone).
Associated with these pits, we've found large numbers of animal bones. These are mainly cattle and are largely head and foot bones. The fills of the pits are largely organic (with good preservation, including plum stones in the big pit in Trench 1).
Tanning is a process which has multiple stages, as the hide is progressively cleaned and preserved for later use. This involves soaking the hides in pits with a variety of substances, which may include lime, cattle brains, urine, oak bark, fruit and dog poo (yes, tanning smelt). The hides themselves usually arrived at the tanners with the foot bone and skull parts still attached. As you can see, at Binchester, we have the correct bone assemblage, a good range of appropriately sized pits and some additives (including lime and soft fruit). This all contributes towards a good working hypothesis. But there are still further things we might find that will support our arguement further. For example, it will be interesting to see if the environmental processing reveals oak bark (or dog coprolites!). Another potential field of enquiry is an exploration of the chemical signature left by the processes in the soil. Rather conveniently we were visited today by Dr Jane Entwistle and one of her students. Jane is from the Dept. of Geography and Environment at Northumbria University and a specialist in soil geochemistry. Her student, Emily Parsons, is going to help us look at the chemical signatures that survive in the pits, as part of her undergraduate dissertation. All that is left is the issue of dating!
Despite gloomy prognostications, todays threatened rain never appeared. This meant that we got another full days work done on site. In Trench 1, we saw the large pit to the west of the barrack expand- it is possible to clearly see where the barrack wall has partially subsided into the bid (this has also occurred further along the wall line). Interestingly, this large pit is different from most of the other cut features on site in that it's not obviously stone lined (although there are some stones along one edge). Elsewhere, however, new stone-lined pits are appearing, including yet another one with the inevitable cow skull in the base - and we keep on finding more mandible fragments. In Trench 2 are focus has also been dominated by our pits- the eastern most one has now been drawn and photographed and can be fully excavated, the larger pit in the main building has also now nearly been bottomed out.
Given all our thoughts about the pits and animal bone on site recently, it was really pleasing to be joined on site today by one of my colleagues, Professor Peter Rowly-Conwy. He was at Binchester with a group who have been attending a Mini-Series in Archaeology run by Durham University at Newcastle's Centre for Life who had come for a day's digging. Peter is also a leading expert in the archaeological interpretation of animal bone, so we were able to quiz him about our assemblages. Obviously he could only give an impression based on rooting through muddy bags of bone and looking at the material we were actually uncovering as we worked. Nonetheless, he confirmed our suspicion that the assemblages were dominated by fragments of cattle skulls and feet bones, with far fewer bones associated with eating meat. This supports are tentative hypothesis that all our pits might be associated with tanning leather, as cattle hides often retain the feet and head bones before they are processed into leather. He also noted the presence of a range of other bones, including pig, sheep, red deer and dog. We're certainly planning a more structured analysis of all this material over the next year or so.
I've also been meaning to mention the work of one of our second-year students, Mark Household. Mark has returned to Binchester for a second year running, although this tme he is not just digging. He is also taking the chance to work on his dissertation project, which is an assessment of the utility of taking aerial photographs of archaeological sites using kites. This is not a new technique, but the advent of digital cameras means that it's increasingly easy to get some good photographs. Pleasingly, he is just been awarded some funds from the Derrick Riley Fund to support his work. He's already getting some great results - I'll post some of thedr images on the blog in the next few days.
We are now heading towards the end of our second week on site. In Trench 1, there is activity happening in four main areas. In the space between the buildings we've unpicked more cobbles, almost certainly medieval as we found a long-cross penny (so probably 13th/14th century in date -see picture below). The new walls are more clearly defined, but still on resolutely peculiar alignments. We're now back exploring the area to the west of the barrack; we've uncovered a large pit immediately adjacent to an area of the barrack wall. This is different in character to our stone-lined pits - it's substantial (several metres across) and appears to have caused subsidence causing the wall to partially collapse outwards. Further northwards, we're clearing an area of stone that may be the partial remains of some stone-lined pits, although this is not certain. Elsewhere in the trench, the 'big pit' continues to go down! Finally, there are a few other stone lined pits being excavated- one inside the barrack structure. In Trench 2, the large pits within the eastern building have been further explored- they sit neatly within the rooms, implying that the foundations at least were in place when the pits were dug. From the limited processing of the environmental samples taken from them so far, there does appear to be good organic preservation. We are now at a stage where all the way along the northern edge of Trench 2 we have a series of stone-lined pits/hollows. These appear to get smaller and shallower as they get nearer the fort. This may be a real phenomenon or something to do with differential preservation. Several of them (as well as some in Trench 1) may have some kind of gully or channel leading to them. We really need to start thinking about the nature of these features. Although there is some variation in size, there are some linking features, particularly their stone-lining (often bedded in clay) and the frequent appearance of butchered animal bone. This bone superfically appears to consist mainly of cattle heads and feet, although we need more formal analysis to confirm this. One hypothesis we have is that they may be somehow linked to tanning; although we are having difficulty finding archaeological evidence for Roman or early medieval tanning that we can compare our features with. Of course, there may be other reasons for their construction- anyone out there have some ideas?
A slightly abbreviated overview of site today as I spent most of the morning at the top end of Weardale (of which more below) and most of the afternoon trying to get my car nailed back together again, so I wasn't on site much. In brief, however, Trench 1 saw more work on the new walls between the two buildings, more work on the big pit and the identification of yet more stone-lined working hollows. In Trench 2, the large pits in the eastern building saw more work (we're still going down) and the final definition of some stretches of wall.
The main aim of my trip to the top end of Weardale (Westgate to be precise) was to visit another excavation. Archaeological Services Durham University is working with the North Pennines AONB on a community archaeology project (Altogether Archaeology)on the 13th century castle that stood at the 'west gate' the Bishop of Durham's great deer park of Stanhope, and acted as the headquarters for the Bishop's extensive estate in upper Weardale. This work has revealed some substantial traces of the original building including thick walls, splayed windows, and most impressively, part of a spiral staircase (see picture below).
Heading up Weardale is also a useful reminder of the importance of the location of Binchester. We tend to focus on its position on a key north-south route, linking York with the Wall and Stanegate. However, it is also situated to control lateral movement along the dale, which opens out from being a relatively narrow valley close to Binchester. Although seemingly bleak and under-populated, Weardale and Teesdale have long been home to an important lead mining industry. This was almost certainly active in the Roman period - the remote Roman fort of Whitley Castle, near Alston was probably built to control the lead mines. It is also likely that, as in the medieval period, the moors were also used for grazing cattle, possibly using a system of transhumance. As such, the Dales, which lead right into the heart of the Pennine uplands would have acted as important coridors allowing access to the moorlands. Excavations by colleagues at Newcastle university at Bollihope Common , which lies on a tributary of the Wear, has produced evidence for Iron Age and Roman period native settlement. It is also salutory to remember that the upper dales could also have been a landscape of leisure. In the same way that the medieval Bishops of Durham had a hunting park in the area, we know that Roman army officers were also hunting in the area a thousand years earlier. Two Roman altars dedicated to Silvanus, a god often associated with hunting, have been found in Weardale , both indicating they were related to hunting trips from the fort at Lanchester.
Down on numbers a little today, as six of out students were back in Durham doing an introductory session on Environmental Archaeology alongside some members of the Durham Arch & Arch. Environmental archaeology is a key element of the project, particularly as we are beginning to encounter some good dark deposits, which look like they might have good organic preservation (let's not forget our plumstones from the big pit!). This year, for the first time, we are doing some environmental processing on site; our environmental archaeologist Carrie Drew is supervising our students doing some flotation of some of the samples we've taken. This involves washing the samples in running water, the heavier silt sinks to the bottom, whilst the lighter organic remains (such as charcoal, grain and seeds) floats to the top and can be skimmed off and kept for later analysis. Our flotation kit is a clever set up which allows us to recycle the water we use and has an impressive range of silt traps (aka dustbins!). Work is going well on this front and we're certainly recovering some interesting material
On site, in Trench 1, George has nearly finishe his stone-lined pit, and we are continuing to pick away at the stones between the barrack and the small structure- this is revealing some walls, but on very odd alignments! We are also now moving on with excavating the big pit, which produced a fragment of copper with what appears to be gilding surviving on it. In Trench 2, work is still focusing on the larger building at the east end of the site. Nearly all the walls are defined now. Importantly, our two areas of darkish earth are turninng into what appear to be more stone lined pits (on quite an impressive scale)- however, these don't seem to contain as much bone as some of those in Trench 1- they also have much darker fills which should have good organic preservation. Tomorrow, we start planning and recording Trench 2 with a vengeance
We have had lots of rain over the weekend, which has done wonders for the site, which was far too dry. In Trench 1, it was a fairly quiet day. Hilary finished recording the current stages of the big pit, and we're ready to make real movement with it tomorrow. Elsewhere, George and Hugh continued looking at one our stone-lined working hollows. The small building was photographed to allow us to continue the job of unpicking the associated cobbles and there was more clearing and cleaning in and around the south end of the barrack building. In Trench 2, things moved quickly, particularly around the big building at the east of the trench (dare I call it the 'bath' building?). Lots of progress on picking out more of the walls. The major development was in the areas of dark soil mentioned previously. In at least one case this appears to be the fill of yet another stone-lined pit/hollow. In the adjacent area, we've made quick progress removing the dark soil- for once we're able to get cracking with mattocks and shovels. It's one of the few large areas of deposit we've had so far that hasn't been full of stone and rock. Its dark colour suggests that it may have good organic preservation, so we'll ensure that we take plenty of samples. Leanne, Steph and Lizzie are busy on the area of the building to the east of the post-med ditch, carefully picking and cleaning around the interior walls. It's clear that multiple courses of stone wall survive. In general, it is becoming increasingly clear, that although we don't have the dense concentration of cobbled stone surfaces we saw in Trench 1, Trench 2 is producing a similar range of stone-lined pits/working areas associated with butchery debris. But what is the date?
A few weeks ago our coin specialist, Dr Philippa Walton, came to have a look at the coins from last year's exvations. These are her initial comments
Preliminary report on the coins recovered from the Binchester excavations 2010 Philippa Walton
Around 900 coins were recovered the excavations undertaken by the University of Durham and Stanford University at Binchester County Durham in 2010. In May 2010, I examined 420 of these coins, equating to approximately half of the assemblage. Of these, 418 coins date to the Roman period.
The majority of coins recorded were recovered from unstratified or post Roman contexts and therefore the coins are not suitable for stratigraphic analyses. However, following the Applied Numismatic principles pioneered by Richard Reece and John Casey, they are useful for obtaining a better understanding of the broad chronology of the site and periods of intense activity.
The chronological distribution of coins
270 of the Roman coins were identifiable to the extent that they could be assigned to Reece periods as summarised by Table 1. A further 148 coins were recognisable in date but were either too corroded or dirty to assign to a particular Reece period. However, it was possible to assign them to a century or range of centuries by size and composition as summarized in Table 2.
The 2010 assemblage has a similar chronological range to that recovered in 2009, with coins dating from Reece period 5 (AD 96-117) through to Reece Period 21 (AD 388-402) recorded (See Figure 1). However, more second and early third century coins are represented in the 2010 assemblage and there are small peaks in the Antonine (Period 7) and Severan (Period 10) periods. This is likely to be a reflection of the earlier stratigraphic levels reached during the excavations in 2010.
However, it would not be sensible to read too much into the 2010 coin assemblage in isolation. Indeed, until the earliest stratigraphic layers have been excavated, only tentative comments on the composition of the assemblage can be offered. For this reason, the 2009 and 2010 assemblages have been combined and analysed as a single group (See Figure 2). As noted in my previous report, coin loss at Binchester is strongest in the late third and fourth centuries AD (see Figure 1) with far greater coin loss than average between Periods 14 (AD 275-285) and 18 (AD 348-363). It is not possible at present to account for this prolonged peak in coin loss. However, the peak in Period 17 is also present in the assemblage recovered from previous excavations at Binchester, as are peaks in Period 16 and 18 to a lesser extent (Reece 1991). It may indicate significant activity at the site during this period. A brief survey of other published coin assemblages from the North East (South Shields, Piercebridge, Chester-le-Street, Greta Bridge, Corbridge, Carrawburgh, Housesteads) demonstrates that a period 17 peak is not characteristic of the region although Corbridge (Reece 1991) does possess similar per mill (coins per 1000) values for the period AD 260 to 348 (Periods 13-17). Overall, this profile has far more in common with southern rural sites, although this is to be expected as only late levels have been excavated thus far. The latest coins from the site are three copper alloy nummi of the House of Theodosius. Two possess legible reverses. One is a VICTORIA AVGG issue dating to AD 388-395 whilst the other is a SALVS REPVBLICAE issue dating to the AD 388-395/402. These issues are among the latest copper alloy coins to be supplied to Britain and attests to the continued use of money at Binchester even in the very late fourth century AD.
The first week on site finished with a downpour, not a bad thing as the site is dry. It was impressive how much the moisture made the contrasts in soil colour come through more clearly. Progress continues to be good. In Trench 1, the big pit looks like its going to have good organic preservation - indeed we had five plum stones out of it! We (ie Hilary and Mark) have taken it down to the level of the smaller clay pit and got it drawn and photographed. To the west of the barrack, we've more or less got everything to the same level. George is working on another of our shallow stone-lined pits whilst others have been finishing off at the south end of the building. We have now reached the stage where almost all of Trench 1 (except the small building) is at the same stratigraphic level- this means that we can look forward to some serious stone removal soon! We're already carefully unpicking the deposits of stone at the east end of the small building, with a focus on establishing the relationship between the building and the rubble bank. We're just wondering whether the wall at the east end of the building is actually the gable end; it's quite high, could it instead be related to a feature dug into the rampart? The final job in this trench has been working on the cobbles between the small building and the barrack where some other walls appear to be emerging (on some very odd alignments).
In Trench 2, the focus today was on the large eastern structure - David Mason has suggested it might be related to the nearby bath complex. Crucially across the site we now seem to have a layer of 'late' activity that is looking increasingly like what we've found in Trench 1 (ie shallow stone-lined pits/hollows) containing butchery remains. We also have what looks like two large dark areas (pits or dumps of material) in the large building- largely devoid of stones, is this a post-Roman dark earth?
Overall, looking at the last week, we've made real progress. Things are likely to slow down a little in the coming week as we have to focus on doing some planning and recording, nonetheless, we fully expect to continue at a rate of knots.
Lots of movement today, and happily no rain. In Trench 2 we completed taking out the post-medieval ditch. Some people then got to work cleaning our trench sections- not very glamorous, more gardening than archaeology, but an important job. Others got cracking with today's main task which was to move on with the removal of the blueish cobbles that made up the small track alongside Dere Street. This has revealed some more large flagstones, but not everywhere. Elsewhere, other, different surfaces are emerging, and in one place a large socketed stone- perhaps a support for a colonade or loggia? Despite the varying nature of this street frontage, it does look like we've got most of the front area of the structures along the road now, although there is a notable lack of substantial front walls. In the east end of the trench we've been able to start clearing and defining the large structure which we started looking at last year. We've given the interior a good clean. In the small extension, we identified a couple of small features cut into what looked like burnt clay. One produced a small piece of what appeared to be Calcite Gritted Ware, although of a buff colour rather than the more common grey (perhaps a sign of burning?). We've also found what, at the moment, appears to be a further small annexe to the extension, although with far less substantial walls. It may turn out to be something else entirely. In Trench 1, the hugely satisfying task of removing layers of cobbles continues. We are really getting a much better sense of the small building's context- it's still looking very medieval (something supported by the discovery of a nice medieval looking buckle from near the door). Currently, we are particularly focusing on removing rubble from the east end of the building to clarify the relationship between the building's gable end and the rubble bank that runs behind the embankment. At the big pit, the students have defined a large internal clay feature or lining, so we're still not at the bottom of it yet. They've also started to outline the edges of another large pit immediately next to it, which is intriguing. Finds from the site today included a beautiful decorated jet spindle whorl and a nice piece of decorated glass, probably a rim fragment of a late Roman bowl.
Another really constructive day today- we're making real progress already this season. In Trench 1, the most important development was the identification of a new stretch of wall that lies to the east of the barrack block. Pleasingly, this appears to line up with another stretch of wall which has emerged due to the weathering of a previously excavated area. This wall seems to run parallel to the existing structure. I just wonder whether we've actually got a second tier of rooms with the eastern wall of our current structure actually being a central spine wall to a much wider building. This would make our barrack much more like the kind of cavalry barracks known elsewhere on the wall, such as at Wallsend. It is possible that the western half survived better as it was subsequently re-used in the sub-Roman period, whereas the eastern section fell into disuse. This is still only a hypothesis, but it would explain why our barrack structure appeared so idiosyncratically narrow. Elsewhere in this trench, the big pit still looks like its bottoming out, but intriguingly, we may have another similar feature almost immediately adjacent it. We are also working hard to define the precise stratigraphy of the second, smaller building- does it lie over a patch of cobbles that might be a Roman road surface or are they just part of its foundations?
In Trench 2, the post-medieval ditch is all but completely excavated. This has revealed a number of pieces of wall in section. This, combined with the realisation that a large west-east aligned pit excavated last year was in fact a robber trench, has allowed us to confidentally identify a second strip building, lying just to the north of our existing one. It appears to house the large oven/kiln structure. We've also made great progress in locating the street frontage. We've more or less got the front of the strip buildings and areas of large flagstone paving, which is appearing from beneath later road surfaces. There are still lots of questions though; is there another building between our new strip building and the large structure at the north of the trench? - there appears to be enough room. Also, what is happening in the southern edge of our trench? - more structures or are we too close to the fort ditch?
Getting into the swing of things now- the students know their way round and are able to get on well with their work. We got lots of work done today even though we had repeated showers of rain over the day. In Trench 1, we've been working well on defining the features to the west of the barrack. On the smaller building, we're really starting to get some better definition, as we continue to carefully pick away at the edges of the walls. We've now got a really clearly defined doorway, complete with a socket hole marking the position of the door (apparently we'd found this at the end of last year, but I must have missed it). Also more work on the big pit, which looks like it might be bottoming out. In Trench 2, we've nearly finished emptying out the 18th century ditch- we've been able to pick up at least one probable wall line, as the ditch gives a cross-section of the Roman layers it cuts through. There has also been splendid progress on the road, with a new, and well-defined, road surface being uncovered in several places. Plenty of finds, including more jet and fragments of at least two bone pins; the metal detectorists also got a silver denarius from the spoilheap.
Other developments include the succesful construction of our wet-sieving apparatus, which appears to work. This will allow us to carry out more environmental processing on site. Sadly, I left my camera at home, so I'll put a picture up tomorrow.
First day on site in season three (BIN11). We had around 55 Durham 1st year undergraduates out this morning for the first day of their three week field school. Unlike the previous two seasons, we had no new trench to open. This meant that we were able to get going immediately with some serious excavation. In Trench 1, we have a number of key tasks. First, we want to try and get a better understanding of how the shallow pits containing evidence for substantial butchery which lie on the west side of the main building relate to the cobbled surfaces on the other side. This means we are putting a lot of effort on to defining the pits (and other possible features) a bit more clearly. We are also finally trying to get a better sense of the chronology of our small rectangular building in the south east of the trench. This again involves trying to understand how it relates to the surrounding cobbles, so lots of careful removal of stones to look forward to. On the northern edge of the trench some students were working on the final vestiges of topsoil from the rampart, whilst work also continued in the large pit (still of uncertain date).
In Trench 2, the majority of work was focused in two areas. On Dere Street itself, we are removing a series of sections of road to try and located the underlying Roman street frontage, although we are also leaving substantial balks in place. We also allowed the students to get some experience in digging features removing the remaining fills from the unexcavated sections of the 18th century roadside ditch.
Already the finds are appearing; not surprisingly we've had plenty of bone and pot. We've also already got a number of coins, two small blue glass beads and a fragment of a jet or shale bracelet. All in all, a great start to the season (but lots to do over the coming weeks).
We're nearly there- work starts on site this coming Monday (June 6th) when about 60 eager (?) Durham students will descend upon Binchester for their three-week archaeology fieldschool. The covers are already off the trenches; the site may look a little green (blame the hard winter we've had), but it won't take long before it starts looking like a proper archaeological site again. From Monday I'll resume daily blog posts outlining our progress.
This blog will share information about the major new field project at the Roman fort of Binchester (Co. Durham), run jointly by Durham County Council, the Dept. of Archaeology, Durham University and Dept. of Classics, Stanford University and the Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland. It will communicate news, events, and once the field season starts a daily update of the discoveries on site. To find out more visit our website