Sunday 30 June 2013

Binchester 2013: Back to the grindstone

OK - from tomorrow we'll be back in business for another four weeks on site. This time with a new crew of US students and members of the local community. Hopefully we'll keep up the fantastic progress we've made so far this year. In the meantime, here's some images of one of our nicest finds of the last week on site before our break. It is decorated bone handle from a folding knife probably carved from the wall of a cow or horse-sized metacarpal. The green staining is probably from a CuA band around the top for decoration or support of the blade/handle join.

Sunday 23 June 2013

Not just Romans: Binchester is contributing to international research on the natural (and cultural) history of fallow deer!

Today we have a guest blogger, Dr Naomi Sykes from Nottingham University. The Romans introduced many things to Britain: new building styles, settlement types and material culture but they also introduced the fallow deer (Dama dama dama) – or rather… those spotty ones that you see in the pars of stately homes.
A few years ago researchers from the University of Nottingham proved conclusively that fallow deer were imported to, and maintained at, Fishbourne Roman Palace in Sussex at some point around AD 70. Further evidence for established fallow deer populations in Roman Britain has since been found on the Isle of Thanet (Kent), where populations were present from at least the 2nd century AD. Genetic studies have suggested that these deer were, in all probability, brought from Italy but, so far, their distribution in Roman Britain seems to have been restricted to the southern England.
Imagine the excitement, then, when a complete articulating hind-leg of a fallow deer was recovered from Binchester. On the 18th May 2012, David Petts sent an email to Naomi Sykes from the University of Nottingham, Director of Dama International – a project investigating the timing and circumstances of the fallow deer’s diffusion across Europe. The email from David went as follows:
“Naomi…just dropping you a line as we have some possible Roman (or maybe even sub-Roman) fallow deer bones from our excavations on the Roman fort at Binchester. I saw your paper on Roman fallow deer in Journal Arch Sci and thought I should flag this up with you, as we are quite a lot further north than your other examples”.
Good call David! The Dama International team were on the case immediately, taking samples for isotope and genetic analysis.
The isotope data came back first and suggested that the animal was certainly born and raised in Britain – a promising start! The genetic results, however, were not what the team was expecting; the Binchester deer showed no similarity to other Roman deer, or with those from Italy, instead they grouped genetically with medieval and modern deer from Britain.
There were two possible explanations for these findings. First it could suggest that the Binchester deer was an animal imported from somewhere else in Roman Europe (possibly Turkey) and, given the continuity with the medieval British deer, it would indicate that all modern European fallow deer descended from this imported population. The problem with this explanation is that the Dama International team were pretty certain that all the Roman fallow deer in Britain died out with the withdrawal of the Roman Empire (there is no good evidence that fallow deer were present in Britain during the Anglo-Saxon period). If the Binchester deer was really Roman, it would suggest that the fallow deer population endured into the medieval period…and overturn all of Dama Internationals research…
The second possibility was that, rather than being Roman, the Binchester deer was instrusive, perhaps a medieval deposit. There was only one option: radiocarbon dating. After securing funding from the NERC Radiocarbon Facility, samples of the Binchester deer’s bone was sent to The Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit (ORAU) – the results came back yesterday and….drum roll please… the deer has been dated to AD 1181-1269. It is a medieval after all, which explains why the is genetically distinct from the Roman deer. This finding allowed the Dama International team to sigh with relief: their research was still on track and it seems more likely than ever that the fallow deer introduced by the Romans did die out with the withdrawal of the Empire. These results still leaves an interesting question: why was a complete fallow deer leg deposited in a ditch in the 12th/13th century?! The most likely answer is poaching. In the medieval period, hunting and the consumption of venison were restricted to the elite, who liked to serve up venison on feast days. However, the concept of feasting was not lost on the peasants, who regularly poached deer to serve at their own parties. Poachers risked being caught by Forester and Parkers – we know from documentary sources that peasants were often in court for poaching. The best way to avoid detection was to get rid of the evidence by quickly butchering poached animals and discarding their bones. Is it possible that the Binchester animal represent a moment of Robin Hood-style poaching? We think it is, and it is certainly as good a story as finding Roman fallow deer in Durham. To find out more about Dama International visit or follow them on twitter @DeerProject

Friday 21 June 2013

Bincester 2013: Day Fifteen

And so the first stage of Binchester 2013 draws to a close. Today was the last day for our Durham undergraduates participation in the excavation. We've had an excellent three weeks on site and made really great progress- certainly exceeding our expectations. In Trench 1, the focus really was on tidying up and finishing off recording- Fabian did a cracking plan of the latrine. We got the pit photographed and Stuart and Mark were doing sterling work planning the new barrack area. Still some nice finds, with Charlotte finding her second silver coin of the week. In Trench 2, the boys were recording the small room and its splendid floor, whilst Rhian and Jenni made good progress on the inside of the post-pad building. There was also planning and recording underway in the large room. In addition to the excavation we had some additional work underway today. Ashley our HLF/IFA Geophysics trainee completed the outstanding areas of geophysics in the north field (thanks to Mr Sedgewick, the farmer, for letting us in). We also had a visit from Professor David Sanderson and Tim Kinnaird from the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Council, who demonstrated some new kit for doing portable luminescence analysis, using some of the material from the section in the small room as a practice example. This gave our BSc a students a chance to see this work done in the field. Our professor, Ian Bailiff, came out to see the kit in action, which gave me an opportunity to chat about the possibilities for luminescence dating on some of our hearth features. We had a slightly early finish (well deserved) and had time for a few team photos- a great end to the first three weeks of the project!

Thursday 20 June 2013

Binchester 2013: Day Fourteen

A hectic day for me - running to and from Durham and liaising with lots of visitors to site, including a group from Manchester Grammar School and a group of Durham students making a documentary about the site. In Trench 1, things are winding down a little, as we try and tie up final loose ends before our down week. The focus was on planning and recording, although there was a little light trowelling at the south of the trench and Charlotte found a nice silver coin. In Trench 2, it was a little busier. Jo and David have fully revealed the floor of the corridor now, and were busy drawing the sections that were visible. Meanwhile, there was further work in the large room. Our MGS volunteers and Matt and Jamie were working on the road side area to the west of the bath-house. Matt found a rather nice gold on glass bead and a worked jet spindle whorl. In the house, the students were working away on the interior- nice finds included a large section of Rhineland lava quern. Last day of the Durham students on site tomorrow....

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Binchester 2013: Day Thirteen

Another day of good weather although the runes don't auger well for the rest of the week. In Trench 1, we saw the cleaning up of the latrine for photographs - this involved tidying up the interior and tarting up the outside edge of the walls. Worth it for some good images. It is now pretty clear that the culvert within the structure connects to the one outside. This would presumably have brought water into the building which was then used to sluice the sewage into the fort ditch. Hilly's pit continues ever downwards- Matt thinks we really have got the edge now- we shall see... We also had people planning the interior of the new section of building and at the southern end of the trench, there was some poking around on the surfaces. We've always known that the barrack shows immense variability in construction technique and that the northern compartment was the most coherent section of it, with the interior division being part of the same build as the side walls. Looking at the building today, I noticed for the first time that the solid floor surfaces we do have are confined to this section, and that the big pit we have inside the walls of the barrack are butted up to, but external to, this section. Does this mean that this northern unit was maintained in use longer than the rest of the building? In the southern end of this building, whilst tidying up the floor surface, Hannah came across a small group of copper alloy objects. One is almost certainly a crossbow brooch (broadly 4th century), there were also two objects that appear to be arrow heads or bolt heads of some form, but made out of copper alloy, which strikes me as unusual (although I am happy to stand corrected), although a quick bit of research has flagged up that a collection of copper alloy bolts of was found in the fort of Copaceni in Dacia. There was also a copper alloy ring shaped object. This is a really interesting little group of items- it will be good to get the brooch conserved so we have a better sense as to its type. In Trench 2, we finally found the floor of the corridor! The chain gang down the hole have identified a probably surface of flagstones, which is a relief. However, in the larger room, its just the same old story of lots and lots of cobbles. In the post pad building, we found yet further stones with holes for upright supports. It now looks like these stones were arranged around the entire structure, with just a gap facing the road frontage, indicative perhaps of an opening on this side. Alejandra also found a rather nice rotary quern stones. I do wonder whether it has actually been set into the floor surface of one of the phases of building.

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Binchester 2013: Days 11-12

We've had other action in the trench. The two rooms in the main building continue to be the focus of extensive clearance, although we still haven't bottomed out the smaller room. We've now reached the point where hard hats are in order. We've also now got a nice clear entrance between the two rooms, neatly marked out by a large jamb stone forming part of a doorway. In the side of the corridor beyond the dividing wall, we've started to remove material, inevitably coming down quickly onto another stone surface. Inside our multiphase post-pad building we're still worrying away at the interior. Today, this resulted in the discovery of a nice hand/arm shaped bone object- probably a knife handle. In Trench 1, the focus has been on the latrine- I think we can confidently call it that now! The cobbled surface north of the barrack, clearly runs down to the entrance threshold of this structure, showing that at the very least, they were in simultaneous use, even if not constructed at the same time. The large stone block that had been sitting on the flagstones adjacent to the stone trough turned out to be...another stone trough (but upside down). We've also removed a stone that showed some working- this is almost certainly half of a key-hole shaped toilet seat! Kim has now been able to locate the probable drainage gulley that underlay the stone floor and seems to connect to a stretch of external gully. Next to this, we have Hilly's pit, which continues to go down....

Friday 14 June 2013

Binchester 2013: Days 9-10

Apologies for the lack of blog entry yesterday - normal service has been resumed. We've had two busy days on site. In Trench 1, we've already nearly reached the stage where the area within the new wall is at the same level as the interior of the main barrack block. Just a little bit more cleaning and we're there. In the pit, Karen and Fabian are still edge chasing- once again, things seem to be getting a little more complicated in the pit that just keeps on giving... Yesterday, it produced a rather fine copper alloy bell! We've also seen fantastic progress in the new rampart building- which we'd barely started on last week. It is now all but completed- with the trough and the flagstone floor looking particularly fine. Fired up by our success we've had a poke around the remains of the interval tower further west along this rampart in the hope of finding more structures, but to no avail. Next week, we may take another look at the corner tower- although this will involve trying to move some large flagstones we gave up on last year. In Trench 2, it is looking like we may nearly have bottomed the corridor- finally coming down onto a hard (ish) floor surface, if not the flagstones we were expecting. The logistics of getting people and spoil in and out of this area are getting complicated- we're now relying on a ladder, with the ad hoc stairs coming out shortly. It is salutary to compare the depth in this room with that in the larger adjacent room- if its the same depth, we still have a serious bit of earth moving to do! However, we are still making good progress here; although much of this is inevitably focused on yet more stone surfaces. At the end of play on Friday we have had a couple of what looks like glass making or recycling debris, including glass seemingly bonded onto bits of pot (which at first we thought might have been glazed pot, which gave is a panic...). In the post-pad building, there has been plenty of planning and recording and now we are working on the interior again. It is clear that there are two, if not, three, phases to this structure, which is then overlain by a layer of stones that spills down into the main building. Nice to see clear evidence of stratigraphy and phasing. Finds this week included some nice pins and a possible stylus.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Binchester 2013: Day Eight

Slightly truncated entry today- I had to spend most of the afternoon in the office, so was only on site in the morning AND I've left my camera at work, so no photos (I'll add them tomorrow). This morning we had our usual weekly visit from the County Archaeologist, David Mason, I think he was impressed by the progress we've made. We also had a group of A level Archaeology students from York College coming out to visit the site before going to Durham to visit the Department. In Trench 2, it's mainly been recording again, although in the main building, the deposits are still being removed. First thing we indulged in some serious stone shifting. A little more probing in the corridor suggests the floor may not be as near as we thought... the students consoled themselves by removing a cattle skull In Trench 2, we were also planning, but Nicola and Karen were making great progress with the end of the gully where it enters the pit and Fabian continued battling away in the pit (now re-christened Fabian's Crater). Nearby, Andrew, Kim and Laetitia continued in the small rampart building containing the trough- it's going to scrub up well! Tomorrow's blog may be somewhat abbreviated as I'll be in meetings all day :-(

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Binchester 2013: Day Seven

First hint of rain today- but it didn't hang around. Starting with Trench 2, we've seen the first outbreak of planning going on. The students cracked through getting the post-pad building drawn, so can look forward to a day of context sheets tomorrow. Just next to the building, John and Olivia have been quietly fossicking around in a little corner between it and the main structure. Over the last few days this has been producing huge quantities of animal bone- some of the densest deposits I've seen so far, all from a relatively discrete area. Cameron, our bone guru, has been getting very excited... In the smaller room, Vincent, Joe and Charlotte have been continuing ever deeper- we did a little tentative probing and reckon we have another 6-8 inches before hitting a solid floor- very exciting! In the main room, yet more stones being removed, including some of the big ones in the eastern side. This means we are now more or less back in sequence again. Nicest finds from this trench were a couple of bone pins In Trench 1, more work on the new wall. Now looking very impressive- although confusingly we've got a small stretch of yet another wall running parallel and between the edge of the barrack and the main new wall. It is only a couple of metres long and pretty rough and ready. Nearby, Karen is continuing cleaning the gully up to the edge of Hilly's pit, were Fabian is making great progress with edge hunting. Meanwhile, to the north, the stone trough has cleaned up nicely and appears to be sitting on a flagstone floor (or possibly set into it).

Monday 10 June 2013

Binchester 2013: Day Six

Today has very much been Trench 1's day. Much of the focus of activity was on defining the course of our new north-south wall that runs parallel to the east side of the barrack block. It is now more or less clear along its entire length. It also appears to line up with a wall projecting southwards from the edge of the north rampart. The cleaning work has been very useful- it is shown that the nice pot we had the other day was clearly carefully placed in a hole cut into the foundations, pretty conclusive evidence of some kind of special deposition. Our problematic gable wall has been followed along in an eastwards direction to the point where it is cut by Hilly's pit. Frustratingly this pit has completely destroyed the intersection of the gable and the new wall. We can only assume at this point that they were connected and part of the same structure. We've also seen another small stub of wall emerging from the eastern rampart, running west-east. It is probably part of some kind of feature built into the rampart itself. We have a similar situation where the stub of north-south wall emerges from the north rampart (this is the bit of wall that aligns directly on the new wall). Here, late on Friday, Matt identified an adjacent west-east wall; together they appear to form some kind of small rampart structure. In working on the interior, we found the top of a nicely worked stone trough. Have we found a latrine? At the southern end of the barrack, the team working there have probably stumbled across a small dispersed coin hoard- they have (I think) at least eight Roman coins as well as good number of unidentified Cu objs, which may also turn out to be coins. In Trench 2, Vincent and Joe finished removing the layer they were working on, so the room was tidied up for a photo. Next door, in the big room, the dark layer over the next layer of flagstones has now been removed. These will need to be cleaned up and planned soon. We will also need to remove the large slabs in the north-east corner of the room, as we are possibly getting out of sequence. Ideally, we like to remove the features stratigraphically. To the south of the building, the eastern end of the post-pad building has been cleaned up, and the entire structure was tidied up and a photo taken. Generally, in this trench today, a lot of the features appeared to be producing quite significant quantities of animal bone. So, overall, progress is continuing at a decent pace, and the weather is still set fair. How different from last year!