Tuesday 7 June 2016

Binchester 2016: Day 1

So , we being our new series of project blog entries- today, we hear from Madelaine Ager, one our First year archaeology students:

“It’s the beginning of the fieldwork season and it has fallen to me to start off the blogging of what’s going on at Binchester. Yesterday, our first day on site, the main activity was cleaning the whole site using hoes and shovels. This was an important step because it allowed us to see far more clearly any differences in soil types which might indicate the presence of a feature. Once the site was cleaned small sections containing possible features were marked off and work began on clearing those to determine types of soil and the boundaries between them. The section on which I was working initially showed signs of a ditch running across it but once we had cleared it there was no trace of a boundary. We found sherds of pottery and ceramic building material, as well as bone fragments in our section. We continued our work searching for the boundary today, and our section was merged with the next one because the features appeared to be intersecting. Eventually we came upon the boundary between the dark fill soil and the gravel with our mattocks. We then cleaned up the area using trowels which allowed us to see the boundaries more clearly and define them. “

We should perhaps add,  yesterday was one of the hottest days we’ve ever had on site, and for many of our student it was their first day working on an archaeological project. They worked like Trojans and deserve a hearty pat on the pack (and probably a 99 with a flake!).

Back to Binchester: New season, New trench.

Yes, we're back! Although last year saw the end of our seven seasons of excavation on trenches in the vicus and inside the fort, we're still not finished with Vinovium. This year, we're going back to look at an area close the mausolea that were excavated by Time Team in 2007 (you can see the result of some of the GPR work they did here).

Rather than re-excavating the Time Team trenches, we are looking at an enclosure behind the one that contained the original mausolea structures. Unlike previous years, we are running on a much smaller scale, with just three weeks in the field for the next two summers. We'll also have a reduced team, with around 40 students and 10-15 volunteers. In another change, although we'll be continuing to regularly update the blog, it will now be done by different groups of students each day, with just the occasional intervention from myself (David Petts) or other members of the project team.

As usual, we'll also be updating our Facebook page and our Twitter feed (@RomanBinchester).

Sunday 15 May 2016

We're back! The dead centre of Binchester

It's been a little quiet from us for a while. However, we're pleased to announce we're going back into the field. Although we've completed excavation on our two main trenches (Trench 1 in the fort and Trench 2 in the vicus), we couldn't leave Binchester alone. This means that over the next couple of years we are planning two more seasons of excavations. Rather than looking at evidence for how the Romans lived at Binchester, we are instead going to look at how they buried their dead.

In 2007, when Time Team visited Binchester, amongst various bits of work, they explored parts of two Roman mausolea situated to the north of the vicus. These had initially appeared on the geophysical survey and the key question was whether these distinctive square stone structures were small Romano-British temples or mausolea. Excavation revealed that they were clearly burial monuments and a small number of burials were excavated. Yet, due to the nature of Time Team excavations, the excavation team only had a chance to scratch the surface of this interesting site. So, this year, 40 Durham students and a group of volunteers will be revisiting these fascinating structures in the hope of getting a better understanding of their chronology and to unpick what as going on around the edges of the funerary complex. The opportunity to excavate a major Roman period burial monument is a rare one, and only a handful have been excavated elsewhere on the northern frontier of the Roman Empire.

There are going to be some changes to our approach this year. We have a partial change in personnel; David Petts is taking a well-earned break and will be concentrating on his new project on Lindisfarne. Stepping into the breach will be Durham University academic staff, Sarah Semple and Mike Church with support from Brian Buchanan, a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow. Another change is the length of our season; after seven years of two-month sessions in the field, we are scaling back a little, and over the next two years we'll just be running three-week seasons. Some things will stay the same though; we'll have the great professional support of the team from Archaeological Services Durham University, and we'll continue to keep the blog and Facebook page regularly updated. We are back in the field on Monday June 6th, so keep an eye out for updates.

Saturday 23 January 2016

Binchester Party

Apologies for the long delay since the last blog update- but great news; there is going to be a party!!
To celebrate the end of the seven seasons of excavation on the Binchester barrack block and vicus we're going to have (a much delayed) get together.

Date: Friday March 18th 2016
Time: 6pm-10pm
Location: Department of Archaeology, Durham University

We will kick off with a couple of short talks- David Mason talking about the results of the project and David Petts taking a lighter look at what we got up to and thinking about the future - followed by a get-together in the Department of Archaeology common room.

Who is invited? Everyone who has been involved in the project over the last seven years- staff, students and volunteers.

Everyone please bring some food to share! We'll provide paper plates and drinks

If you plan to come please let me know at d.a.petts@durham.ac.uk to I have a rough idea of numbers

Sunday 19 July 2015

Binchester 2015: Day 35

An emotional day as we completed our seven-year project at Binchester- after a total of nearly an entire year's excavation, hundreds of Durham students and volunteers, and amazing archaeology, we have had to come to a halt to allow us to analyse and understand the nationally important remains we have discovered.

Despite this, we kept working right up to the wire. In Trench 1, we took the opportunity to excavate a number of sondages across the site just to give us a glimpse of earlier levels. In general we have tried to avoid these kind of small-scale interventions in favour of open-area stratigraphic excavation, but given the fact that we were completing the project they do allow us to at least to get some sense of the underlying stratigraphy. One of the sondages, started earlier this week, went through an area of slumping in the southern end of the barrack and ended up revealing a possible well. Today, we cored it to find out how far it went down - it turned out that it was at least 3m deep (measured from the surface of the excavation) - there were hints of wood revealed in the core. In another sondage nearby, we revealed further damp deposits, which again included fragments of wood, possibly indicating a wooden lining to the intersecting gully.

We also carried out a rapid investigation of areas of the alley to the west of the barrack, just checking areas which had not been explored in detail- inevitably this through up new stretches of wall! We appeared to have the gable end of the narrow stone building which lay perpendicular to the barrack- this parallels the odd building at the northern end of this alley. It is extremely hard to get a sense of the chronology of these structure- do they indicate a replanning of the fort at some point. It is frustrating that we will not get  a chance to examine these in more detail.

In Trench 2, there was plenty of planning and recording- but again, there were new discoveries and developments. Most intriguing was a clear stretch of new wall that ran north-south from the road front underneath the metal working area. It was joined the west-east wall that runs along the road front itself, but it is not clear how/if it relates to the Roman bath-house structure- one possible hypothesis is that this defines an area at one time used as an exercise yard, although it is hard to be certain. Elsewhere, last minutes delving in the large strip building that partially overlies the bath compound wall unexpectedly revealed that underneath the substantial but crude post-pad wall lines were the remains of a well-built wall. I'd always assumed that the entire building was a very late addition- but it now seems that it may have just been a late rebuild of an earlier, underlying structure.

As we came to the end of the day, with about five minutes before packing up  Laura revealed the intact rim of a pot embedded within the fill of the metal working area. Following rapid excavation this turned out to be a completely intact pottery vessel complete with its handle still in place- a wonderfully fitting end to our time at Binchester....

Although this was the last day of the excavation, this won't be our last blog post- over the next week I'll be posting acknowledgements and thanks to all who helped with the project, as well as a more detailed explanation of why we have stopped. I'll also try and post a wider overview of what we've found in our trenches over the course of the excavation and some thoughts about what our big questions are for the post-excavation process. But for the now...vale!

Thursday 16 July 2015

Binchester Day 33-34

Apologies for the lack of blog yesterday, I had to go up north to give a talk about the project to the splendid Bamburgh Research Project . Today we entered the penultimate day on site, although there is no sign of slowing down as we head straight for the finish line. We also had lots of visitors- including Dr Pam Graves from Durham University and camera people from the University and Archaeosoup.

In Trench 1, the dark areas continue to expand- we benefitted from a visit from Dr Mike Church from the Department of Archaeology who was able to distinguish areas of burning in situ from secondary dumping layers and also identified the possible presence of charred barley grains in the burnt debris. Further investigation of the large fire reddened area suggests that it might be secondary dumping of burnt material from elsewhere- it was clearly subject to sustained and high temperature burning, but a section put through it today showed the layer of soil beneath it to be lacking in any sign of the scorching that might be expected if the burning had occurred in situ.

Other work in Trench 1 has included identication of a possible well (or at least a deep straight sided pit)- an area of slumping investigated on Tuesday as a sondage resulted in a pit nearly 2m deep with clear indication from careful coring with a road iron that the internal deposits continued downwards.

In Trench 2, we seem to have finally bottomed our road front section, with the appearance of the probable foundations of the bath-house and what looks like patches of natural. In the adjacent road front areas, the patchy area of stones and dark material continues to be a patchy area of stones and dark material. However, in the metal working area, a previously vague line of stones had transformed into a proper stretch of walling of at least two courses. It is not clear how this relates to either the bath-house or the road front- investigation at the point where the road front wall and this new wall should intersect has proved uninformative.  Yet more crucibles have appeared and the remains of a cluster of small bronze rivets and an iron blade which suggests that this was originally a knife with a riveted handle. A very peculiar stone object came from this area- it is either a stone pot lid or more likely a base for a stone vessel.

Down the side of the bath-house, there are small number of mysterious new features appearing the porch area, including some of our voidy stake-holes and a distinct patch of burn clay. In this area Michelle discovered another nice bone needle.

Other top finds over the last days include more crucible fragments, various copper alloy "things" and the detectorists recovered another great brooch.

Tuesday 14 July 2015

Binchester 2015: Day 32

A busy day, although the end is nigh...

In Trench 1, the black features are getting bigger and bigger- it is still not entirely clear whether they represent burning in situ or material dumped from elsewhere. It's not just about burning though; in the north-west corner of the barrack, a small north-south linear feature found when delving below the current layers looks like a beam-slot- but from what? It appears to pre-date the material we assume is part of the industrial phase; perhaps part of a very early barrack. Unfortunately, we won't have much chance to explore this further- it is just a tantalising hint of what else remains in the trench. Stephen also had a good go at turning one of our pits at the south end of the barrack into a sondage. He hit something that looked like natural, but only after going through a good 0.5m of soil-like material containing fragments of bone and industrial residue.

In Trench 2, the area in front of the bath-house remains interesting. There is now a nice metalled surface at the bottom of the main section/slot. The metal working area also continues to produce more crucible fragments and other related material, as well as some more post-holes. In between, there is a confused spread of stones and clay which keep looking like they are going to turn into something but never actually do. Finally on the western side of the bath-house, the putative gully has transformed into a definite gully with capstones in places. Nearby a  number of stake holes have appeared within the demolished porch- these must either be earlier, or alternatively cut from a higher level but only surviving clearly where they pierce the compacted gravel.

The metal dectorists continue to perform a valuable surface, recovering today's nicest find, a small bronze sea monster or sea creature (or as some have suggested, the Lambton Worm....).