Monday 22 November 2010

New light on the end of Roman Binchester

We're working away on the post-excavation phase of this year's fieldwork, and some interesting fragments of metalwork are coming up which shed light on the important transition from late Roman into the early medieval. Dr Rob Collins (Portable Antiquity Scheme), our finds advisor writes

"Two objects found in the 2010 excavation at Binchester have been tentatively identified as belonging to occupation of the site in the 5th century. The ring-headed pin (top photo)was an object of the Scottish Iron Age that continued to develop and see use into the Early Medieval period. The example found at Binchester is of a simple form, cast integral, and does not display any of the more elaborate decoration of the handpins more commonly dated to the Early Medieval period. The form of the Binchester pin may date to the Roman period, but ring-headed pins are not commonly found at Roman fort sites.

The second object can be more confidently dated to the 5th century. This is the terminal fragment of a Fowler class E penannular brooch (Bottom photo). The terminal itself is a stylized zoomorphic head, and the hoop of the brooch is decorated with moulded rings. In the northern frontier, these appear in the last quarter of the 4th century at the earliest and found at a number of Roman fort sites, notably those with known stratigraphic sequences dating to the 5th century."

The ring-headed pin was found in Trench 2 in the vicus, frustratingly, however, it came from the post-medieval linear that cut across the site and is thus out of context. The brooch fragment was found in Trench 1 in a rubble spread that lay between the barrack structure and the rampart.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

The Beautiful Rooms are Empty

We are pleased to report that the full excavation report from the important campaign of work carried out at Binchester in the late 1970s and 1980s by Iain Ferris and Rik Jones is now available. This splendid two-volume publication includes full analysis of these excavations as well as substantial wider contextual material about the fort and the history of research there. This is going to be essential reading for those interested in the fort (including ourselves) and will certainly help redefine our research priorities in future seasons. The report is available from Durham County Council for £35 + £8 p+p.

Monday 1 November 2010

Aerial-cam shots of Binchester

I've not yet had a chance to post some of the fantastic vertical and oblique shots taken of the site in September by Adam from Aerial-Cam. Using a digital camera on an extendable low mast attached to a Land Rover, he is able to take what are essentially low-level aerial photos. This has given us some excellent shots of Trench 1 (the fort) and Trench 2 (the vicus).

Friday 22 October 2010

Binchester on Radio 3

Apologies for the short notice, but I've just found out that you'll get a chance to hear about Binchester on Radio 3 this Sunday evening (9.30pm-10.15pm). During the summer, Bettany Hughes and her radio producer came to Binchester to talk to us about the site for part of a larger programme about Roman Britain. The blurb from the BBC website describes the programme "Historian Bettany Hughes looks at our first contacts with the Romans and how people loved or resented their new overlords. Our relationship with the Romans used to be a cosy one - once we saw them as our fellow imperialists who civilised 'us natives', and a jolly good thing too. Even now that some of that 'special relationship' has persisted. We love discoveries of forts and towns and baths, and we're lot less impressed by a nice British round house. Yet perhaps 97% of our ancestors would have been living in those roundhouses, many of them turning up their noses at Roman culture beyond the odd bit of bracelet or pottery.

Where we do pay attention to the native British, it's to the freedom fighters like Boudicca and Caractacus, but we rarely think about ordinary life under occupation or the culture shock of suddenly finding yourself living in a Roman town. Roman towns would have looked as alien to our ancestors as the dizzying streetscapes of Bladerunner with their tall rectangular stone buildings, cacophony of languages and intimidatingly foreign way of life.

Nor do we think about the most important woman in early Roman Britain, the dazzling ruler of most of Yorkshire - the pro-Roman Cartimandua, queen of the Brigantes who built one of our largest iron age settlements at Stanwick and who caused an international incident when she ditched her husband for his armour bearer. Her canny but failed experiment in client state-building would set the future for the whole of the North of England. She was a much bigger player than Boudicca. It's up in the North that we see occupation in shockingly modern terms, as those enormous Roman armies set up permanent home, sucking the local areas almost dry and becoming the law of the land. Up here, occupation bites."

Next week at the same time, you'll get a chance to hear myself, Alex Woolf and others talking about the end of Roman Britain. Enjoy!

Thursday 21 October 2010

New images of artefacts

Just a quick note to say that I've uploaded some new images of some of this year's finds to the Binchester Picasa web album - scroll down to the bottom of the page to see the pics. I hope to shortly upload some of the fabulous aerial shots taken for us by Aerial-Cam, and hopefully some of the early versions of the site plans from this year's excavations.

Monday 11 October 2010

Literacy at Binchester

As term starts, we are getting back on course with the post-excavation work on the proejct. This includes tackling the huge amount of finds work that needs dealing with. Recently, Jenny Jones has been X-raying some of the ironwork recovered from site, which has thrown up some interesting results. What we thought was rather a nice knife blade has turned out to be a pierced iron bar, but another object (see picture) has turned out to be a simple iron stylus, probably used for writing on wax or wooden tablets- a nice indicator of literacy at the site.

Wednesday 6 October 2010

Durham and Stanford

Great news from both the Durham and Stanford teams. The Department of Archaeology at Durham University, has recently been ranked second in our subject in the Times Good University Guide 2011 and in the 2011 Complete University Guide. We are already ranked as the leading research department in the Research Assessment Exercise in 2008This is testimony to the Department's success in all aspects of the university experience. Meanwhile, the graduate program of the Department of Classics at Stanford ranks at the top of 31 Classics programs in the United States rated by the National Research Council (the main university ranking system in the US).

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Binchester latest

Catching up with Binchester. Apologies for the lull in activity with this blog since the end of the excavation. However, things have not been quiet with the project. Although the Stanford team headed back at the end of July, we kept the excavation open over the rest of the summer so visitors to the fort could see the fruits of our labours. We were also able to get some overhead shots of the two trenches taken by Aerial-Cam; they really show the site to its best. I’ll post some of these wonderful images in upcoming days. We finally got the site covered over last week (thanks to help from members of the Durham Archaeological and Architectural Society. Still much to do though. The major job is to crack on with the finds processing, particularly washing and marking up all the ceramics and bone recovered this year. This will be done by members of the Durham Arch and Arch and students from the Dept. of Archaeology at Durham University- it should keep them busy!

Saturday 14 August 2010

Season Two: Day Forty-five

Final dispatch from Dave Mien "So that’s it for another year with the excavation coming to an end. On a day when the weather was absolutely foul, with rain, wind and a very moderate temperature, it would have been no surprise if no volunteers had turned up, but about a dozen arrived to work. Levelling, planning and very limited trowelling took place, though unfortunately no memorable finds were made, only small amounts of pottery, mostly Roman. Today was quite a sad occasion with the weather reflecting this and the final photograph shows the fort in dismal mode.However, the next season will soon be here and this scene will be transformed with the fort bathed in warm sunshine and lots of excavators unlocking the secrets of Binchester."

And finally, from me, its now the end of a great second season for the project- I'll review the year's progress next week!

Thursday 12 August 2010

Season Two: Day Forty-Four

Nearly the end of the excavation and there are enough volunteers, together with Janice and Jamie, to ensure that the planning will be completed on time. Some volunteers are still trowelling in the fort but Matty is careful not to disturb the areas that have been carefully planned. However, the site still had a little of the Time Team Theatricals, because late yesterday afternoon a great find was uncovered. It was a knife, about 10 inches in length and although found in the higher levels of the site, it is thought that it is Roman in origin. Obviously this has still to be confirmed after conservation, but it may well be one of the finds of the season.
Since the find may be so important it is worth considering where it was discovered. In the second photograph the indentation can be seen near bottom centre, where the knife was excavated at an angle of 45 degrees, very close to the surface. Interestingly in the background lies the “pit”, which makes one wonder what will be discovered here and indeed throughout the site next season. Today there were a few finds, mainly pottery, and a very small bead, so the excavation gives up its’ goodies right up until the end.

Wednesday 11 August 2010

Season Two: Day Forty-Three

More from David M. "A fresh batch of volunteers arrived, so the number of workers was greatly increased and showed the popularity of the excavations amongst the local community. Only the fort was open and the vicus looked a sad prospect with no-one actually there, after so many weeks in which it was a hive of activity. Matty ensured that the volunteers had plenty to explore and it was in the eastern section, that had previously provided a number of hob nails, in which the largest number of volunteers were deployed. At long last the “mystery pit” was planned and it is hoped that when all the data is collated the actual feature will be identified and put into the context of the site. Again more visitors arrived on a day in which the weather was extremely mixed."

Tuesday 10 August 2010

Season Two: Day Forty-Two

Latest news from the front via Dave Mien "Work again continues, but purely in the fort. The vicus does not now require any volunteers with Janice just checking the plans. Here we can see, somewhat roughly, how the plans come together and find another use for the site office! In the fort the volunteers trowelled in several areas. Of course “the pit” was investigated and 6 volunteers trowelled in the eastern region. Matty found several people willing to plan, however, there is still a large amount of planning to be completed. Happily there was a steady stream of visitors, so interest from the locals, and general public in still extremely strong. As for finds, there was a good amount of Roman pottery found together with several nails. Importantly a purple Roman intaglio was discovered, again in the proximity of the pit feature, and it is hoped to identify the details later. Rain arrived about lunch time and the showers became more regular with the clouds more threatening but the volunteers, as normal, worked on."

Season Two: Day Forty-One

From Dave Mien "Now reaching the end of the season, “All is quiet on the Binchester front”. There are still a number of volunteers working, but they are mainly in the fort. The vicus is very much into “closure status”, with Janice tidying up the plans and ensuring that all is in order. However, the volunteers still trowel in the fort mainly in pairs dotted around the trench. No finds of note have been made and the mysterious pit still has workers trying to unlock its’ secrets. Matty is frantically trying to persuade the volunteers to do some planning, because, as the photo shows there are plenty of plans to finish off! Nevertheless work continues and I have no doubt by the end of the week the site will be completely up to date and another successful season taken place."

Friday 6 August 2010

Season Two: Day Forty

Another missive from David M.
"It would seem that the American students have taken the sunshine with them, so hurry back! Today was windy, cool with rain showers and the number of workers on the site reflected this. There were very few and one visitor from New Zealand, who expressed an interest yesterday, came and was enlisted to help plan within minutes of arriving. The four workers in the vicus continued to plan so no discoveries were made. However in the fort many of the volunteers were trowelling and hob nails were “the order of the day”. A sizeable number were discovered close to the large pit and everything pointed to them being Roman. I was also informed that the Samian pot mentioned earlier in the week had been removed and was a pretty patterned example of Samian ware. The photograph today shows Peter Carne examining the pit which has been a mystery throughout the excavation. It was also a chance for Peter to demonstrate his skills, though unfortunately to a very limited audience and for Matty to show that cold weather doesn’t affect a professional archaeologist!"

Thursday 5 August 2010

Season Two: Day Thirty-Nine

Under threatening skies the volunteers continued to work on both trenches, again largely planning. As the excavation reaches a conclusion for this year, priority lies in ensuring that the dig has been fully recorded. Due to good housekeeping and hard work from all involved, this aspect is well under control and should be completed in time. We received more visitors including the American student Miriam, who is shown on an earlier blog page, together with her family, who thoroughly enjoyed their visit to Binchester. In the small amount of actual digging that took place more pottery was found in the fort and this may be connected to the pottery vessels discovered earlier in the week. The vicus revealed an interesting example of recycling. This is a possible Roman quernstone which, as can be seen, was broken in two and one section used as a part of a relatively recent wall. The photograph also indicates the amount of planning taking place with trowelling being carried carefully, so as not to upset the strings and tapes strewn across the site. Adding to the sense of finality, two of the stalwart volunteers, Terry and Pauline, have now left the site after five weeks, but work will continue until next week.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Season Two: Day Thirty-Eight

Courtesy of David Mien

"There is a definite “end of season” feel about the excavation, with numbers of volunteers down and a desire to ensure that all planning has been completed. However this does not mean that excavation work has eased and indeed there has been an interesting find made in the fort. This caused some excitement amongst the volunteers, who all made an effort to see it in situ where it will possibly remain until next year. The find is a Samian pottery inside a larger calcified grey ware bowl and is situated in a channel close to some large cattle bones.

In the vicus the majority of the volunteers were engaged in planning, but the site of a Roman altar was identified and some continued the search for more features and goodies. It was mentioned earlier about the number of visitors the site has received and this trend was seen again today. As well as a steady flow of public visitors, groups arrived from the Archaeology Department of Durham University, Northern Archaeology amongst others, all of whom showed a great interest in the excavations."

Season Two: Day Thirty-Seven

The second day with only the Community volunteers excavating continued steadily. The weather again was good, amazingly no rain, and the twenty workers completed work uninterrupted. Interestingly for the second day running another twelve groups of visitors were shown round the site by the supervisors, so their day was more hectic.

In the fort, and indeed the vicus, the volunteers combined planning and excavating, with the planning aspect becoming more important as the season ends. The fort saw more features being developed, and the large pit identified much earlier in the excavation, now having a smaller pit within it. Two other pits have been excavated, one containing a number of nails and perhaps carved stones. We are still in the later phases of the site and will now have to wait until next season before going deeper. The workers in the vicus were busily planning and excavating the features in the northern area and more information should soon be available about them.

Tuesday 3 August 2010

Season Two: Day Thirty-Six

I'm off site for a while, so over to one of our volunteers David Mien for an overview of today's work

"This was the first day without the American students, so the trenches were sparsely
populated. However the twenty or so community volunteers continued the good work under what was a leaden sky, though happily the rain held off.

In the fort trowelling was the order of the day, with no planning taking place, a complete reversal from Friday when ten students and volunteers were doing this. There was, in true Time Team fashion, near the end of the day the discovery of a stone lined circular feature, which bore similarities to a feature already excavated. Hopefully tomorrow some further details will emerge which I will pass on. Some large cattle bones were also found and they may have some relationship with the large skull excavated a week ago.

The vicus trench contained only five volunteers, who again largely trowelled, and one of whom made the best find of the day. This was a large coin, which may be similar to an earlier coin find, and although some aspects were faintly discernable, careful cleaning in the laboratory will be required. The excavators mainly concentrated on an 18th Century gully and the day here ended in some planning and no further discoveries."

Season Two: Day Thirty-five

Today was hectic as we tried to tie up loose ends before the departure of the Stanford crew. Lots of last minute planning and recording to ensure that the site was in a good position to be handed over to the community group for the final haul towards the end of the project. Looking over the site we've achieved a lot in the last month. In Trench 1 we've defined the southern end of the structure and started to unpick the complex sequence of cobbled surfaces and rubble spreads in the southern half of the trench. In the northern half of the site, perhaps the major development was the discovery of the large pit in the north-east corner. This has proved to be a complex feature and is clearly far from fully excavated. It is clear that the larger pit was cut into by a later clay-lined feature. We're still not certain how deep the original pit was. It is possible that we are seeing the pragmatic re-use of an area of subsidence formed by the original pit for some form of craft-working. Today we cleaned up the stone feature that we thought might have been a stone window-head; in fact it is has turned out to be a large fragment of a stone mortar (date uncertain)- we had another smaller example from the south end of the main building last year. In Trench 2 it turns out we've now got a date for the linear feature that cuts through all the buildings to the norht of the wall (or at least a tpq for its infill), as we've found a coin dating to 1752 in its main fill. Work over the last few days has confirmed the presence of a number of shallow stone-lined scoops/depressions containing lots of animal bones (mainly cattle skulls and foot bones). These circular features appear to be a feature of both trenches. In both areas they appear to be broadly late/post-Roman in date, but we are lacking good dating evidence. I suspect we're going to need to use C14 dating to resolve this conundrum. After a long day and a final site tour our US partners headed off (at least as far as Ustinov College for a goodbye party!). They've been a really important part of the Binchester experience over the last month. We've enjoyed having them in Durham and are looking forward to their return next year!

Thursday 29 July 2010

Season Two: Day Thirty-Four

Apologies for the lack of an entry for yesterday- I was away from site all day discussing things medieval with English Heritage. Thankfully nothing wildly exciting occurred in my absence. Today, there has been a lot of plannning and levelling going on. We need to catch up with a lot of these jobs as the Stanford team finish tomorrow. Meanwhile, we've begun working on Steer's 1936 slot through the corner tower again, and continued cleaning up the south end of the barrack. The mysterious pit in the north-east corner continues to be confusing, we are now taking out the baulk to try and find out the extent of the clay-lining of the smaller recut of the larger pit. More recording and planning in Trench 2, with excavation continuing on the post-Roman linear feature. I've not mentioned one of the more interesting features of the eastern stone building in this trench. We have identified the base of at least three openings within the wall. These are unlikely to be doors; we know from elsewhere that they are not at ground level, and they are also splayed. One is also too narrow to be a convincing entrance feature. We are presuming that these are windows. In my limited spare time I've not had much luck in identifying other examples of surviving Romano-British windows in the published literature. Presumably because its relatively rare to get Roman walls surviving much above foundation level. I'd imagine there must be some from the Wall forts, I've just not had much of chance to work my way through all the site reports. Any observations or parallels appreciated. I've posted an image of one of these splayed windows above so you can see what I mean. The outside of the building is to the right, with windows splayed towards the interior on the left. There is another 'window' almost immediately adjacent (another reason why they are unlikely to be entrances). It looks like it was subsequently blocked.

Wednesday 28 July 2010

Season Two: Day Thirty-two

Lots going on today. In Trench One we've begun to pick off some of rubble within the smaller rectangular structure. Hopefully this will enable us to work out its precise relationship with the surrounding cobbled features (and maybe even get some kind of date for it). The big pit in the north-east gets ever more confusing; more cattle bones and now its clear that it had a recut which was clay-lined. Purpose? No idea at this stage... We are also starting to explore one of the probable ovens built int the eastern rampart. In Trench Two the main focus of work is on the linear feature that cuts across the site. Although we've broadly defined it, we're trying to clarify its precise limits. Obviously this is easy where its cut straight through stone walls, but less clear elsewhere. In the small structure to the south-east of the second strip building (with some surviving wall plaster) we are starting to get to grips with what looked like a stone lining. It is now clear that there were at least two 'layers' of the pitched stone- so currently looking more like rubble collapse than a proper stone-lined feature.

Tuesday 27 July 2010

Season Two: Day Thirty One

Not much to report on site today, so a brief consideration of the weekends field trip. We headed up to Segedunum at Wallsend then up to Corbridge (another Dere Street site) and then along to Vindolanda finishing up with Milecastle 42. Some rather random observations...

Going up the viewing tower at Wallsend it was clear how much bigger Binchester is compared to Segedunum. Even though they are both cavalry forts Binchester is noticeably larger and more elaborate. For example, the praetoria at Segedunum lacks the elaborate bath-house found associated with the Commander's House at Binchester. The barracks are also aligned in a different direction. However, it was noticeable how much larger the barracks at Segedunum were. Our 'barrack' in Trench 1 at Binchester is appreciably shorter and narrower. Its important to remember though that we are looking at what is presumably the latest iteration of a sequence of barrack constructional phases, and the earlier versions may well have been much larger. Our Binchester barrack also lacks the traditional arrangement of cavalry barracks with the stables placed next to the soldier's quarters (with the stables all having drains). Again, the late date of what we can currently see at Binchester probably expains this.

It was great to visit Vindolanda; another major dig. A very different kind of site though, with multiple forts. At Binchester we just have the two forts, the earlier one visible on the geophysics and the main fort we are currently working on. COnsequently the area of the vicus they are exploring at the moment starts relatively late and finished relatively early (probably late 3rd century AD). At Binchester the vicus continues in use until at least the late 4th century and possible later.

Season Two: Day Thirty

Quiet day today- everything humming along nicely. Quite a lot of planning going on at the moment; although work on the big pit in the north-east corner of Trench 1 continues apace as it gets bigger and more confusing. Photos have been taken of the stone lined area in the main building and the cow skull has been removed. We hope to start excavating the other half of the feature early next week once recording has been completed. We're also increasing the level of work in the eastern area of the trench which has seen little action so far this season. Members of the Arch and Arch are working to define the stone banks and related features and clarify the sequences here. In Trench 2 lots more work on the large ditch that seems to cut through all the strip buildings to the north of Dere Street. Clearly later than Roman activity, but otherwise lacking a date; my hunch is that its related to the medieval or post-medieval use of Dere Street. Elsewhere, we've begun investigating the area of stone slabs within the little extension to the building at the eastern end of the trench. Current interpretations include stone cist, slab-lined working area and building collapse!

Friday 23 July 2010

Season Two: Day Twenty-Nine

A busy day on site as the Stanford Continuing Education students return for their second day with us. We are really making great progress at the moment. A series of features, probably shallow stone-lined scoops or working hollows are becoming increasingly clear along the western side of the barrack block; they contain substantial quantities of cattle bone, particularly skull and foot bones. More generally in Trench 1, work continues in the large pit in the north-east corner; this is almost certainly not later medieval in date, and is probably late Roman or early medieval. Its function is unclear, possibly a water hole or even top of a well? Elsewhere, we are really untangling the features in the southern end of the building, including getting to grips with the recently uncovered southern gable wall. Work in this area has uncovered a small hoard of mid-4th century coins, which is pleasing.

Meanwhile in Trench 2, all the buildings are looking really nice. The work around the end of the larger strip building where there appears to be a midden dump has uncovered a large fragment of a rather nice dressed millstone, seemingly made of Rhineland lava. We have also confirmed that a possible linear feature that ran parallel to the road and seemed to cut through some of the stone buildings really is a significant feature. It clearly cuts straight through the stone walls of some of the structures: its date, however, is entirely uncertain. Finally, in this area, during work on some of the structures at the eastern end of the trench, we've uncovered a rather nice fragment of worked architectural stone (see picture above).

Season Two: Day Twenty-Eight

I was unable to get to site today, as I was visiting another excavation. Melissa Chatfield from Stanford and myself were in York visiting the site of the University of York's excavations at Heslington. Their dig is on the site of an area of Iron Age and Roman activity on top of the glacial morrain to the south of the city. It's an area I know well having done a little community archaeology in the village about five years ago. In recent year, due to the expansion of the University campus, there has been extensive development in the area revealing a wide range of archaeology, including a small Roman villa and the recovery of an Iron Age skull still containing a brain! We visited the site as the York project excavated a small Roman pottery kiln this year, and worked with Graham Taylor of Potted History and a local school to reconstruct it. Next year at Binchester we are hoping to do reconstruct something similar. This is of particular interest to Melissa who is a specialist in prehistoric pottery technology and is hoping to find out more about the relationship between Iron Age and Roman pottery techniques. We were shown round the site by Cath Neal, the director of the project, who gave us a real sense of the range of features found this year. This is clearly an important site, particularly as it lies in the immediate hinterland of the major Roman city and legionary fort in York. Many thanks to Cath for giving us a chance to visit.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Season Two: Day Twenty-Seven

We welcome 28 students from the Stanford Continuing Education programme onto site today. Following a site tour, they've been set to work in Trench 1 to define the intravallum road and some of the related rubble dumps close to the rampart. The weather deteriorated distinctly in the afternoon, although we were able to work most of the day. The most interesting feature being worked on today is the building at the eastern end of Trench 2 in the vicus. We have evidence for a stone strip building with a possible extension to the south, potentially overlying part of the road. One of the interior walls of the extension still retains some of its original wall plaster (undecorated as far as we can see). Within this structure area a series of pitched stones; these may either be an intentionally lined stone 'cist' quite similar to the features within the barrack block in Trench 1, or they may simply be traces of collapse within the building. More generally the interior and walls of the this building are becoming better defined, includng a number of possible entrances, at least one which has been subsequently blocked.

Season Two: Day Twenty-Six

After the excitement of the weekend its back to the grindstone on site today. Things are moving really well at the moment, with plenty of features appearing across the site. One of the most interesting areas today is the large feature in the north-east corner of Trench 1 which has been producing some medieval pottery. Initially it appeared to be simply essentially a thin layer of material overlying earlier features. However, it is increasingly clear that it is actually a substantial pit. It appears to be stone lined. Its fill is mixed and contains a number of pitched stones which seem to be suggesting tip-lines. In the south-east quadrant we've uncovered a cow skull covered by a large stone, we may also have at least one more skull in the pit. In the north-east quadrant we have a big piece of shaped stone that may be part of a window - we'll know more once its been removed. It is not entirely clear whether the pit itself is medieval date; it has proved difficult to define its edges in places, and it is possible that the medieval material comes from a layer overlying the pit itself. It could conceivably be as early as late-/sub-Roman.

Monday 19 July 2010

Season Two: the weekend!

On Saturday we went on a fieldtrip to Bamburgh Castle and Holy Island. This gave the students to get a better understanding of Northumbria in the early medieval period. The castle at Bamburgh is very impressive despite extensive 18th and 19th century remodelling. However, the most exciting thing is the on-going archaeological excavation. Following on from earlier work by Brian Hope-Taylor in the 1960s, recent investigations by the Bamburgh Research Project have been uncovering traces of Anglo-Saxon activity on the site (with more stratigraphy still to get through). Graeme Young, the project director,kindly gave us a site tour. It was a salutory reminder of how different in character the more ephemeral archaeology of the early medieval period can be when compared with the Roman period. We then headed out to Holy Island to visit the site of the monastery founded on the island by Aidan and King Oswald in the 7th century. No standing traces of this foundation now survive, although the ruins of the 12th century priory refounded on the site still stand. Some of us made it as far as Lindisfarne Castle; again, the current remains are relatively late (16th century). However, the site is precisely the kind of topographical location used for secular power centres in early medieval period (such as Dumbarton and Dunadd); a little archaeological investigation of this site would certainly pay dividends.

Friday 16 July 2010

Season Two: Day Twenty-Five

Another busy day on site- largely avoiding the rain that menaced for most of the day. Rather low on numbers for various reasons, but we still got plenty of work done. Lots of planning in Trench B- nearly have all the road planned now. Also the buildings and the areas between them becoming better defined; there clearly appear to be substantial areas of rubbish dumping, including lots of bone and pottery. In Trench A, work finding the edges of the new large medieval feature continues apace. Alongside the barrack it appears that there may also be some possible pits- date unknown. Taking the students from Stanford up to Bamburgh and Lindisfarne tomorrow for a little early medieval archaeology as an antidote to all the Roman sites they’ve seen so far!

Thursday 15 July 2010

Season Two: Day Twenty Four

Finally, I’ve found a moment to update the blog. Apologies for the delay in catching up with this- I’ve been away on paternity leave and only just got back. Pleasingly a lot has been going on in my absence. The arrival of the teams from Stanford and Texas, as well as the presence of around 20 members of the local community means that we’ve been able to really keep up the progress we were making earlier in the season with the Durham students.

In Trench 1, we have extended the trench to the south to allow us to locate the southern end of the barrack block. In turned out that this gable end to the structure was literally just sitting in the edge of the baulk. By making the trench a little larger we’ve been able to ascertain that like the northern end wall it is of relatively light build – very different to the more substantial side walls. We’ve also got what looks like a doorway. Like the northern entrance this is not situated in the centre of the end wall, but is offset to one side. Cleaning of this area has shown that we’ve got a probable small porch structure associated with the entrance and, rather pleasingly, a stone with a probable socket hole for the door. We’ve also got a nice fragment of painted Crambeck ware from this area (see picture below- thanks to Chris Breedon for the image).

Elsewhere in the building we’ve continued to be defining and excavating the two cut features; these are increasingly complex- we have been making sure we’ve been taking plenty of soil samples. This will hopefully allow us to identify any potential plant macrofossils and industrial residues, which may help us clarify the purpose of these features. The northern feature in particular appears to have been a substantial stone lined scoop or hollow, with the stone lining contiguous with the flagstone floor of the central compartment. To the north of this feature there appears to be an area of wear on the barrack floor leading to the door in the northern gable wall. The real challenge with this entire sequence is trying to date it- it all seems post-Roman, and at least some of the features parallel the sub-Roman activity from the commander’s house; however, much of the other activity is still lacking any absolute dating. We’ll really need to ensure we develop a good programme of scientific dating to make up for the lack of diagnostic material culture, potentially including C14, archaeomagnetic and thermo-luminescence dating.

Elsewhere in this trench, the main development has been the identification of large pit or dump of medieval material in the north-east corner of the trench, just to the south of the corner tower. This amorphous feature is well-defined in some places, but we’ve yet to identify with certainty all the edges. It includes certain medieval pottery, but we also retrieved a very nice decorated jet ring and a blue glass bead of probable Roman date from it.

In Trench 2 we’ve also extended the trench slightly to better understand the northern end of the stone strip-building. This has revealed a probable midden area abutting the structure; it seems to contain substantial quantities of cattle bones, mainly jaws and other skull fragments; seemingly indicative of butchery here. Further east, the new workforce has cleaned and clarified the structural remains, including evidence for a number of other stone buildings (again seemingly associated with animal remains including jaw bones and antler fragments. One of these structures also appears to still retain wall plaster, although it is not clear whether this was on an interior or exterior face. Perhaps the biggest development in the trench, however, has been a much better understanding of the road. The roadside gully that I’d previously mentioned now appears to have a metalled base. It is not clear whether this metalling is limited to this exposed area or whether it runs under the main ‘road’. It is possible that this gully is a narrow road or path in its own right with the main rubble ‘road’ actually being a dump of stone to form a work or activity surface. Personally I think we will find that the metalling in the gully runs under the main rubble area and its part of an earlier, larger, road surface. Intriguingly, the gully also makes a distinctive curve to the south as it runs westwards across the site.

In addition to the excavation we’ve had plenty of other activity on site. We’ve had a visit from our academic advisory group who seemed excited about progress, particularly emphasising the importance of the post-Roman activity within the fort. They were more sanguine about the 4th century date of the activity in the vicus, pointing out that Binchester could probably better be grouped with the forts and towns of Yorkshire where this might be expected, rather than being placed alongside the Wall forts, where vicus activity does decline earlier. We’ve also had plenty of other visitors, including school groups. We were particularly pleased to welcome a group from Tudhoe Grange School. I’d been into visit them previously to help them learn about archaeology and the Romans in County Durham. When they came out I gave them a tour of the fort and our excavation, and they helped us with the pot washing. Finally, yesterday, we were visited by Radio 3, with the popular history broadcaster, Bettany Hughes, who came along to find out about Binchester in the Roman period and the transition to the early medieval period in northern England for a forthcoming series.

The metalled gully; note the distinct bend!

Fragment of painted Crambeck ware (4th century AD) (Photo by Chris Breedon)

Monday 5 July 2010

Season Two: Day Sixteen

After a fallow week, during which site was quiet (apart from a passing visit by Mick Aston) activity recommenced with a vengeance today. We had a large number of people out today - 45 from the Dept. of Classics at Stanford, around 20 from Texas Tech and 20 members of the local community. This number of people can be a blessing, allowing us to crack on with a number of tasks. These include expanding both trenches. As noted earlier, Trench A is being expanded slightly to the south to allow us to include the southern end of the barrack building, whilst in Trench B we are expanding the trench slightly to the north to allow us a better understanding of the northern end of the strip building. The large workforce has also allowed us to make a real start on some of the basic post-excavation work, including the all important finds washing and processing. More to report soon

Friday 25 June 2010

Season Two: Day Fifteen

Today was the end of the Durham first year's time on site. We mainly spent the day getting all the loose ends wrapped up. Next week we are having a quiet week- there will be no work on site, although we are being visited by Mick Aston (of Time Team fame, as well as being well-regarded academic in his own right) - he is being awarded an Honorary Degree by Durham University next week. The key job now is to get every thing ready for the arrival of lots of new excavators in the week beginning July 5th- we have around 40 from Stanford and 20 from Texas Tech, as well as 20 members of the local community, so there will be no shortage of hands. This means we can get on with a couple of major jobs, particularly the initial clean of the rest of Trench B and removing the final areas of topsoil in Trench A. Having completed the latest stage of planning we will also be ready to really get stuck into some of the key areas in both trenches...just hope the weather holds.

Thursday 24 June 2010

Season Two: Day Fourteen

Nearly the end of the three week stay of our Durham first year undergraduates. Lots of little jobs to finish off - context sheets needing completion and drawings and plans to get sorted. Work was rather slow today as lots of people had to complete various pieces of university paperwork and some people were back in the labs doing environmental processing. In Trench A we've really defined the floor surfaces within the southern end of the barrack block; we've been considering the possibility of extending the trench slightly to get the southern end of the building, although we'll need to talk to other members of the project team and our academic advisory group before we do this. The key thing is we've reached a stage where the layers of rubble that overlapped the building have now been removed and we can now clearly define the features that lie within the walls and those outside. This means that we can shortly proceed with getting stuck into the features within the barracks. We've also found at least one post-hole clearly cut into the walls. Is this a nice early medieval feature like the post-pads in a similar position at Birdoswald or something later? More importantly, are there any more? We can also now clearly see that the clay layer that is beneath the flagstones and can be found elsewhere within the building post-dates the cruder wall and is contemporary or later than the later walls. This clay later itself is then covered by flagstones in places. It does appear currently that the walls were at their current level by the time that the flagstones were laid; possibly our single post-hole may represent a later superstructure over the floor (and its associated clearly defined hollows containing probable industrial activity). So, we're starting to really define the relative chronology- all we need now are some hard dates. Given the lack of a diagnostic early medieval material culture suite for the 5th-6th centuries AD in this part of the country and the high degree of residuality of Roman material we may have to seek a series of C14 dates to tie this sequence down a little; close comparison with the sequences in the the forthcoming publication of the excavations in the commander's house will also be useful.

In Trench B, the planning is almost completed. More work on the strip building is revealing evidence of some internal surfaces and other probable features. Whilst outside work on the roadside gullies has revealed at least one small pit (which inevitably contained nothing...). Lots to do in the forthcoming weeks.

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Season Two: Day Thirteen

Another slow hot day. We knocked off early today for the football, but worked through lunch to ensure as little time as possible was lost (it looks like we are now, officially, 'not as bad as France'). More planning, but some interesting things appearing - we are getting more of the walls from the strip building in Trench B. In the same trench we've also noticed a small building seemingly running at a 45 degree angle to the other structures and the road.

We were also visited by a school group. We get a lot of members of the public visiting the site, as the excavations are open to anyone who comes to look at the fort. I have encouraged the students to take turns showing people around. Pleasingly, many of them have taken to it like a duck to water, showing hitherto unknown histrionic ability.

Season Two: Day Twelve

Work is slow on site as we do lots of planning, so I though it be worth flagging up some of the other things going on with the project. One key aspect that will become increasingly important is the environmental aspect of the site. To date we've mainly been working on the highest layers cleaning and planning so we've been taking relatively few samples. However, as we start digging more features we are increasingly taking samples of soil for more detailed analysis to look for plant macrofossils, small animal bones etc back in our labs in Durham. In general, preservation does not appear to be great; we have quite acid soils and the site is very well drained as we sit on a gravel plateau. This means that we don't have many moist an-aerobic deposits which preserve organic remains. Sadly, this means we are unlikely to every find the "Binchester Tablets"- nonetheless, the large ditch may well preserve organic remains better and it is always possible we might find some wells (the whole issue of water supply is a vexed one). To prepare the students for future work on environmental archaeology, today we had a number of our BSc students in the labs having an introduction to environmental archaeology from Jacqui Huntley, the English Heritage Regional Science Advisor. We were also joined by members of our partner, the Archaeological and Architectural Society of Durham and Northumberland, who will get the chance to spend the next few days working wiht our students in the labs.

Monday 21 June 2010

Season Two: Day Eleven

Another scorching hot day. We're continue to plan in Trench B, but we're also continuing to explore the gully along the north side of the road. Its probably of quite a late date, but contains some interesting furrows/ruts. Their relationship to some of the walls we've been assuming were Roman is unclear as they don't appear to cut them. Are the walls much later than we think? Elsewhere, having finished planning parts of the trench we're beginning to go back and investigate some of the previously identified features, including the large stone strip building. As ever, plenty of finds. In Trench A it is becoming clear that there appears to be some chronological implication in the different types of masonry construction in the main barrack building. It seems that the nice wall with stone facing and rubble core may sit on an earlier phase of less sophisticated walling; we don't think these are foundations, but are more likely an earlier wall fabric. Elsewhere, flagging is emerging to the south of the area of post-medieval activity cutting the barrack. It now appears that the flagging may have covered much of the southern half of the building, but was cut by a later (post-medieval feature). We can also see a probable earlier clay floor beneath the flagstones, which appear to sat on, rather than embedded in it.

Sunday 20 June 2010

Season Two: Day Ten

Well, it’s the end of week two and things are really progressing on site, helped by a spell of really good weather. In Trench A within the fort, we’re starting to get a much more detailed understanding of the sheer complexity of the late activity on the barrack block. We’re starting to show the variations in the basic build of the wall in more places than we had last year, and its looks increasingly, as we expected, that we are very much looking at the last phase of a complex and long-lived building. It appears that the flag-stone floor is one of the very latest stages of activity within the building; it doesn’t seem to have been part of the main late Roman occupation layer. We are also starting to look at the features cut into the floor of the compartment at the north end of the building – we’ve already found that the stone-lined channel gets significantly deeper as it heads east and appears to be overlain by an area of later paving.

In Trench B I think the main story of the last fortnight, and perhaps the most important conclusion so far, is that activity in the vicus goes on well into the later 4th century. It is generally assumed that vici fell out of use in the late 3rd century or early 4th century. However, here at Binchester, we are getting plenty of good evidence, particularly coinage and plenty of late pottery (such as Crambeck Ware and calcite-gritted ware) that the vicus was still in use well into the mid/late 4th century. The big question of course is, how late did it go? Into the 5th century?

Thursday 17 June 2010

Season Two: Day Nine

Another hot day on site; wilting spirits were improved by shameless bribery with some of Asda's finest cheap ice lollies... More slow work planning and recording. The removal of the balk in Trench A has been completed with (surprise surprise) more rubble surfaces revealed. In this Trench the most exciting progress has been in the re-excavation of the previous trench in the corner turret, with the first hints of surviving coursed masonry beginning to appear (see picture). More drawing and recording in Trench B, although some more cleaning and excavation has been going on. In an area to the west of the patch of large flagstones, the edge of another stone appears to have been tipped up and is clearly disappearing under the later road surface (don't forget these high layers of Dere Street are probably post-medieval in date - the Roman levels of the road are probably a good metre below our current level).

Wednesday 16 June 2010

Season Two: Day Eight

Just a short one as I've been off site for most of the day. Lots of planning going on today, with the students honing their archaeological recording skills. Once this phase of recording is completed, we'll be in a position to start moving forward again. I'm particularly excited about getting a better understanding of the floors and other features at the south of the barrack. Meanwhile, in the north-east corner of the site we are still grappling with Steer's trench. In Trench B we've also unncovered a surface comprising a number of very large flagstones. which seem to be overlapped by the later road surfaces of Dere Street. More cleaning is needed to reveal its full extent.

Tuesday 15 June 2010

Season Two: Day Seven

Work on site was fairly humming along today- good weather and plenty of people made for a busy excavation. In Trench A we are still unpicking the sequence associated with the post-medieval activity area and also trying to get a handle on the flag-stone floor in the central compartment of the structure, which now looks like it might be quite late. There are also clearly a number of features associated with the floor itself and the two probable sub-Roman scoops/pits. Its going to take a lot of careful work to work out the precise sequence of events here. Elsewhere, the excavation of the earlier trench associated with the corner turret continues; but is it Steer’s trench or possibly a feature cut by Hooppell – we need to go back and look at some of the earlier reports in more detail. In Trench B its mainly a case of planning uncovered areas and cleaning back to identify features, particularly along the edge of the road and in the main building. Some nice finds, including a red glass bead and some copper alloy pins.

Monday 14 June 2010

Season Two: Day Six

Back to the grindstone after the weekend; as it was raining the students spent some of the morning learning how to fill in context sheets. The weather then cleared and we were able to get on with some constructive work on site. In Trench A, the area of post-medieval disturbance in the south-east corner of the barrack building appears to be resolving itself into some kind of smaller building building inside or over the late Roman structure. It may have been associated with the metal working as we found slag and other industrial residue in the area last year. Elsewhere the re-excavation of Steer's trench revealed what appeared to be a drill bit, possibly used by the pre-War archaeologists ('the archaeology of archaeology...'). More generally, Trench A has seen the continued excavation and recording of late features. The stone lined gulley within the main building has been further uncovered showing that it appears to be dipping down to the east; it is possible it may even go under the external barrack wall (although this will need further work to clarify). It also produced a rather nice little bone disc, possibly a gaming counter. In Trench B in the vicus there has been more cleaning and planning. The range of material coming from this area is very interesting - plenty of coins, but also more signs of craft and industry to compliment the possible glass working reported last week. Most notably we may have evidence for the working of jet and shale. One of the bracelets found last week appeared to be unfinished, whilst we found several small tablets of shale of a type used for working today (clearly different from the natural stones found on site). The image at the top of the page is of a nice little copper alloy head; intriguingly it weights almost excactly one ounce. Could it have been used as a weight?

Friday 11 June 2010

Season Two: Day Five

Well, we've got to the end of the first week. The weather was far kinder today, even a bit of proper sun in the afternoon. In Trench A, we've ceased cleaning and are now focussing on excavating features. We're tackling some of the gullies and other features that cut into the intra-vallum roadway in an attempt to clarify their sequence. Meanwhile, we're also looking at the area to the west of the main barrack, we never really addressed properly last year. After a good titivate over the last couple of days we'll be ready to plan it next week. In the corner curret we also think we've identified the trench dug by Kenneth Steer in the 1930s and we've begun to re-excavate it. This will allow us to see some interesting stratigraphy in section. In Trench B we have made the decision not to take the entire area down at the same level; instead we are focussing on a number of sub-areas within it. This is partly to enable us to get a sense of stratigraphy as we crack on into the key features quickly and avoids having to spend excessive amounts of time cleaning. It will also give the students a chance to experience all aspects of excavation in their three weeks with us. The relationship of some of the structures to the roadway is becoming clearer now. It is clear that the Roman street frontage is further towards Dere Street than I thought earlier on in the week, and in places the later layers of the road run over the top of the Roman walls. We've got at least one nicely preserved stone walled strip building runnning back from Dere Street with evidence for a hearth inside it and another possible hearth or industrial oven next to it. Excitingly, we recovered a blob of molten white glass from this structure today- are we going to find evidence for Roman glass working?

Thursday 10 June 2010

Season Two: Day Four

Better weather today- no rain, but a stiff wind particularly in the morning (at least it will help people to dry out). On Trench A we have been doing more cleaning, but also starting to excavate features identified last years. This includes tackling one of the large scoops within the main barrack block, as well as trying to better understand some of the cut gullies that cross the cobbled area. Interestingly the layer of stones that looked like it was part of the fort defences is now more compllicated. Rather than running the entire length of the northern edge of the trench it is smaller and has a fragment of north-south wall at the east end; its looking more like a feature built into the rampart than an integral part of the defence.

In Trench B we've been cleaning back; we've marked out a series of sub-areas which we are focusing on, including one of the structures and parts of the road surface. The students did great work cleaning these up and hopefully planning should start tomorrow. Plenty of good finds- more coins, bangles (glass and jet/shale) and a lovely piece of 4th century Crambeck Ware mortaria with a painted decoration.