Ermine Street Community Dig – The Dig Diary 2016
by Lynne McEwan
Photographs by Lynne McEwan, Charles Simpson, Zoe Tomlinson & Doreen Kel
That’s it, the digging is done! In the last year, we’ve completed 50 square metres of excavation over 23 test pits with the help of more than a hundred volunteers. The project will carry on as the finds are processed and conservation work takes place on the many lovely items we have found. To see how we did it, read on…
Pit 23 – 06/04/16
We’re on our final test pit. Appropriately, it’s in the grounds of Bishop Grosseteste University, where we dug our very first pits almost exactly a year ago. Pits 1,2 and 3 provided us with a rich assortment of finds stretching all the way back to the Roman period. Pit 23 is an enlarged test pit, position close to the site of Pit 1, so we are hoping to build on what we already know about this site.
It’s the right decision. Finds are soon coming thick and fast. Initially, they are a mixture of Victorian and Medieval – pipe stems, tile, shards of pot. Then Bob unearths a lovely piece of Roman Samian pottery. We think it shows Hercules with his sword and shield, but it will need cleaning before we know for sure. There are also other large fragments of Samianware, possible from the same bowl. it’s all very encouraging.
The weather is proving to be our biggest challenge, with a mixture of rain, hail and strong winds. Buckets, kneeling mats and the plastic lids from our records boxes are blown around. We resort to placing large stones in the finds trays to stop them being flipped over by the wind. Eventually, as the rain starts again, we decide on a temporary retreat to the lab. The trench is covered up to protect the exposed archaeology. Even the spoil heap has to be covered to prevent the soil being redeposited around the site in a way that is, frankly, unhelpful. The forecast is bad for the rest of the afternoon. It’s looking like we might have to call it a day.
But then the British weather does what it’s famous for. It changes. The wind is still there. It’s still freezing, but the sun has come out and suddenly everything looks a bit better. We get back to work.
Two distinct features are emerging at either end of the trench. At the northern end, Bob and Charles work on what appears to be a pit of deposited material
cut into the surrounding area. At the opposite end, Anne and Avril clear away loose soil to reveal patches of bright red and yellow. This could indicate a hearth, oven or kiln. We’ve found evidence of this type of structure in the area before, so this is an interesting development.
It’s the final day of the final test pit. Everyone has been hard at work over the last few days and the key features of the trench have become clear. At the northern end, where Bob, Matt and Avril have been working, is a large pit cut into the surrounding soil. This is excavated down to the natural subsoil. The in-fill contains a mixture of mostly medieval material with a few item of Roman pottery.
In the centre of the trench is a mass of closely packed stones, many stained with bright yellow and red deposits. It extends across the trench and runs out under the base of the wall. Fiona, the other Matt and Allan have excavated down to what is is possibly a medieval hearth. The colours are the result of the chemical changes that take place during burning. It’s impossible to be more precise at this stage, but there are plenty of finds relating to this context. Further investigation will reveal more it’s purpose and history.
At the southern end, between the hearth and the trench wall is a small area that has been rich in finds. We continue working here until, close to the edge of the hearth, we come across something quite unexpected. Emerging from the soil is are human bones. It looks like we’ve uncovered a burial.
All work stops while it’s decided exactly how to proceed. The first decision is how old this skeleton may be. If it’s within a secure Roman or Medieval context, surrounded by dating material, we can proceed. If it looks like it might be modern, ie, less than a hundred years old, we need to call the coroner. We’re certain this isn’t modern.
Human bones are treated very differently from the other items we find. An intact burial is almost always left in situ unless there is a pressing reason, such as building development or for research purposes, to remove it.
If the bones have been previously disturbed and are jumbled up we do record and remove them. This is always done by an archaeologist, not a volunteer. The bones are treated with respect and not left on public view. Usually they are reburied at the site with the services of a religious official.
Our field archaeologist Charles carefully removes the bones. It proves to be the incomplete, disarticulated remains of a child aged around 6 or 7, a fragment of the jaw showing the first adult teeth. It’s a solemn moment for us all, a tangible link to to the people who lived in our city before us.
It’s time to begin the final phase of this dig. Measuring, photographing and drawing the features for the record. Everything we’ve done across the 23 test pits on this section of Ermine Street will be available to future archaeologists and researchers once it’written up by our archaeologists Zoe and Charles.
It’s a team effort with Nikki, Lewis, Fiona and Nigel tackling the south end and Avril, Matt, Graham and Allan getting to work on the northern end. Since it’s a Friday, it is also chip day so there’s just time for a quick team photo before everyone fills up on carbohydrates for the back filling ahead.
Buckets, barrows, shovels, spades are put to work back filling the trench. Even feet are required to stamp down the sieved soil. In a short space of time the spoil heap has disappeared and the turfs go back on. The kit is transported back to the shed. We’re exhausted, but happy and proud to have been part of such a great community experience. All that’s left is to get down the pub and start making plans for the next adventure…
Pit 22 – 29/03/16
Many of our volunteers have been away for a couple of weeks working on another part on Ermine Street, Lincoln’s lower High Street. This was part of the Bricks and Bones project, searching for the lost medieval church at St Botolph’s. Today, we’re back on home turf for the penultimate test pit of this community dig.
We’re at our most northerly digging location, on Riseholme Road. One of the aim’s of the project is to establish the extent of Roman activity and settlement along Ermine Street as it stretches north out of the city. We’ve already significantly changed what was known with the discovery of a Roman burial and buildings beyond the established northern boundaries of Lindum Colonia. Is there more to find? Hopefully, Pit 22 will gives us some answers.
Digging starts in earnest but it’s not long before we hit a problem. We are excavating in a narrow strip between two 1930s houses. We are only a few feet down when we hit the asbestos base of the property’s soak away drains. The test pit is partially refilled and extended out away from the house.
Soon we are finding 20th century material along with older Victorian remnants, such as clay pipes and even a Lincoln brick. The weather is mixed, with even the occasional thunderstorm. The gazebo is quickly positioned over the test pit to save the archaeology. Nigel gets the job of emptying the loose material in the bottom of the pit, but we are quickly down to bedrock. It seems our luck has run out this time. There is no evidence of Roman activity at this location, but that in itself tells us something.
Pit 21 – 08/03/16
We’re back on Newport for our next venture and we’ve no shortage of volunteers on site. We’re already finding plenty of Victorian pottery, pipes and tile. It’s the first full day on Pit 21 and already Allan has uncovered a wall base.
The heavy rain yesterday meant that, unfortunately, digging had to be cancelled for the day. It also resulted in the death of our long serving gazebo which finally collapsed after many repairs and a year of buffeting from the Lincoln weather. We said our farewells and some very helpful binmen took it away for us. After a trip to the gazebo shop, we pressed on.
After initially hitting what looked like the natural subsoil, further digging revealed what we initially took to be the surface of a medieval market place. It was given a good clean. On closer inspection it may be even earlier, possibly Roman in date. It’s a great result and a great end to an excellent week’s excavation.
Pit 20- 29/02/16
Welcome to the new digging season! We’re an enthusiastic bunch here at Ermine Street Dig. So with the Christmas decorations barely back in the loft, it’s time to get the trowels out.
Our first pit of the new year is in a front garden, close to Riseholme Road. Our archaeologist Charles Simpson decides the best spot is on the bank leading down from the current road way. There is some debate about the original line of Ermine Street and we hope that this slope relates to the original Roman road. The volunteers set up and remove the turf. We’re ready to go.
Despite the rain and the cold we have a good turn out of volunteers. They have come prepared. Seven layers of clothing seem to be the average. Flasks of tea are now compulsory.
We are soon finding lots of 20th century pottery. Soon we begin to turn up some lovely pipe stems. The detailing on them will help us date them and locate where they were manufactured. The find of the day is two sections of a Victorian child’s alphabet bowl. The blue and white ceramic with letters embossed around the rim.
The weather forecast predicts snow but in the end, it’s only sleet and hail. Our diggers carry on undaunted. We uncover a distinctive feature on the south side of the test pit. Unfortunately this turns out to be a Victorian gas pipe. Luckily, it’s close enough to the edge of the pit to allow us to continue working around it. The soil has a high percentage of clay which makes it very sticky when wet. It’s hard work to trowel. It’s also important to keep a sharp eye out for small finds which can be difficult to see caked in mud.
It’s bitterly cold. At lunch time, The Fearless Four decide to retire temporarily to the Archaeology Lab at Bishop Grosseteste University to defrost. It’s also a good chance to bring in the Finds for this afternoon’s processing session. These include a lovely copper alloy pin, spotted by our eagle-eyed digger Nikki.
In sharp contrast to the previous few days the sun is out and the wind has dropped.The gazebo is abandoned and the chairs moved to a sunny corner. The finds are still coming thick and fast, a lovely selection of Victorian pottery, tile and pipe stems. We get some help in the afternoon from a couple of nearby residents, Maxine and Jo. One of them immediately strikes gold, finding a small piece of Roman black burnishedware pottery in the sieve. Who says there’s no such thing as beginners luck!
As we go deeper the finds have become frustratingly elusive. The soil coming out of the test pit is carefully sieved and the spoil heap monitored to make sure nothing escapes us. It appears we may be on the edge slope of the Roman road of Ermine Street. However, later extensive landscaping has churned up the archaeology creating a complex picture that is difficult to interpret. It all adds to the bigger picture of Ermine Street but it will need further work to decide exactly what the data is telling us.
Ermine Street Community Dig – The Dig Diary 2015
30/10/15 – It’s the end of the digging season, so we’re off to the shed, and the lab, for a winter of Finds processing and report writing. We’ve enjoyed your company. Join us again on The Dig Diary next Spring, when it will be trowels out, and waterproof trousers on, once again at Ermine Street Community Dig.
Pits 18 & 19 – 26/10/15
We’re back on for the final dig of the season. Pits 18 and 19 are at The Old Manor House, so it’s only a short trundle along Newport with the wheel barrows from our base at Bishop Grosseteste University. This property has not been investigated before, but it is close to some previously excavated Roman sites. The glowing autumn colours and the warm sunshine put everyone in a good mood. Hopes are high for an interesting and enjoyable week’s digging.
Pit 18 is located at the rear of the building. We survey the area and decide to enlarge the pit size. This will make it easier to accommodate the high number of volunteers we are expecting. We remove the turfs; the garden top soil immediately gives up a rich selection of Victorian deposits. We find a glass stopper for a perfume bottle, lots of blue and white ceramics and the inevitable clay pipes.
Today, the sunshine has deserted us and we are wrapped in a shroud of mist. In Pit 18 we quickly hit a thick layer of redeposited soil. This contains a substantial number of Roman and Medieval finds and the washing table is soon doing brisk business (left). The Roman material includes tegula, box flue tiles, greyware and colour-coatedware pottery. There is also some pieces of Medieval shell-temperedware ceramics. This is a disturbed deposit, material that was relocated at sometime in the past, but it gives us a taste of what may lie ahead in this interesting excavation.
Our newest, and youngest, volunteer Amy reminds us why it’s important to remain sharp eyed while sieving. Amongst the soil removed from the trench, Amy finds a lovely Roman bone hairpin. It’s our first small find of the day and cheers everyone up. Amy celebrates with a dip into The Dig Biscuit Box. Unfortunately, the biscuit turns out to be coconut flavour. Yuck! Seems you can’t win them all.
Meanwhile, in Pit 19 at the front of the house, we have hit a stoney layer which contains pottery and a number of pins and needles. During Medieval times, Newport was much wider and hosted a market. We are keen to find out if any signs of this market remain.
The weather forecast was bad and it wasn’t wrong. A few of our hardy, or should that be semi-aquatic, volunteers turned up to drink tea and stare at the torrential rain. It’s depressing to watch a nice, clean trench bottom slowly being covered in a layer of wet mud. It is impossible to dig, so it is decided to abandon the site for the day, and retreat to the warmth and dryness of the lab at Bishop Grosseteste University. There’s plenty of work to be done. Thankfully, Caroline has brought lots of cake, so we are all set.
A busy Finds session is soon underway. There is plenty of pottery to be marked from the previous test pits. Other volunteers get down to washing the material excavated yesterday from Pits 18 & 19. There are some surprises in store, including this beautiful little flint from a flintlock pistol or rifle (left).
The team are back on site again despite the heavy rain showers. The damp slows progress and it becomes almost impossible to sieve the spoil. However, an interesting feature has appeared in one corner of Pit 18, and we soon have a nice selection of Roman pottery from within it, including some Samianware.
The Finds trays are filling up with water almost as quickly as we can fill them with ceramics. We decide that some pre-washing is required, just to give us a clearer idea of the material that we’re digging up. Lynne is tasked with the job of rinsing off the worst of the mud off and bagging up the Finds to be taken to the lab.
Once there, they will get a proper clean and probably a session in the specialist oven to dry them out thoroughly before they are numbered and stored. It’s been a tough morning, so Anne decides emergency chips are required, even though it’s not Friday. Nobody argues.
It’s our final day at The Old Manor House and it’s still raining. The clay soil has formed a sticky mud that needs cleaning off boots with a trowel at regular intervals, to stop people slipping over. Pit 19 at the front of the property has produced a few interesting medieval Finds. We also have what appears to be a pebbled surface. It’s unclear at the moment exactly what this surface is, or how far it extends out from our test pit. It’s one of the frustration of being limited to a one metre square field of vision.
But, in Pit 18 things are really getting interesting. Just as we’re finishing up, something important and exciting appears. You could bet a Dinarius on it. On the last day, of the last dig, we seem to have uncovered an unknown Roman building. The race is on to get it surveyed, drawn and photographed before we have to start back filling in a couple of hours. It’s an exciting find. After a quick refuelling with tea and chips, it’s back to work.
Meanwhile, at the front of the house, Pit 19 is recorded and Nikki, Stewart and Alex begin wheeling barrow load, after barrow load, of soil from the spoil heap back into the pit. Luckily, Dig Dog Alfie (left) is on hand to cheer everyone up and make sure no biscuits are going to waste. Soon the turfs go back on. The site looks as tidy as it did when we arrived. Good work.
Pit 18 is much larger and several tons of soil have to be moved to fill it. Archaeologist Dr Duncan Wright from BG University turns up to lend a hand and is quickly given a shovel. Everyone pitches in to back fill and clear up the site. It takes more than an hour to get the all the wet and heavy soil back in. It’s beginning to get dark. Finally, Duncan and our Field Archaeologist Charles lay the last of the turfs (left). We’re done digging for this year. There’s plenty of Finds to process, and work to be done in the shed, cleaning and repairing the kit. And next Spring? Well, then we start digging all over again. Can’t wait.
One of our new volunteers, Nikki Goldblatt, has created this lovely logo for us. It’s based on a piece of Samian pottery, a type of high-status Roman ceramic, we dug up in Pit 12. After some debate we decided that the animal depicted was a wild boar.
In Roman times, he graced the table of a rich Lincoln family. Now he is gracing our Twitter feed. We enjoy the symmetry in that. Pop over to our Twitter account and have a look at him. He’s a handsome beast. Well done Nikki.
Pit 17 – 9/10/15
The rain tipped down as we opened up our latest pit this week. The gazebo again proved itself worth the investment. Between the heaviest showers, the volunteer team managed to strip the turf off and start digging. This pit is close to one of our previous excavations, Pit 7 at Castle Academy school, and is a similar distance from the present Riseholme Road. How closely the current highway follows the line of the original Ermine Street is the subject of some debate, so we are very interested to see if we find any evidence here.
The weather soon picks up and Avril even uncovers a pipe stem of her own. (right). This is an item absent from her personal finds check list, which is strange given the number of stems found so far. Avril is encouraged and vows to turn her new experience into a pipe-a-day habit!
Some lovely Victorian pieces appear, including this fragment of an ointment jar (above right). We have a nice tray full of blue and white pottery and pieces of blue glass which may also have come from a container for medicine.
A couple of feet down we hit a substantial layer of tarmac. It proves a heavy job to remove. The property we are digging at is a fairly new build, but local knowledge from Stewart suggests that we may be on the site of an old access lane which ran close to the allotments. We will need to look at the old maps to follow this up.
By the end of the week more interesting finds are appearing, including a section of tegula, a Roman roof tile, (right) We also
get a visit from Hector the pug who keeps an eye on Brian’s digging technique, (left).
Unfortunately we’ve reached to maximum depth of our excavation. After the final drawing and photography, we back fill. We’re aware that we’ve not found a great deal of material in this test pit. However it’s good to be digging again, especially this late in the season. Sometimes, not finding objects is as significant as finding many.
13/9/15 – Out and About
Our Field Archaeologist Charles Simpson gives a presentation on the work we are doing at Ermine Street Dig as part of Southwell Archaeology Day in Nottinghamshire. They are impressed by the scope and depth of our project and we hope to link up at future events. We’re impressed they have their own beer. It’s something to aspire to.
11/9/15 – In the Lab
Today we had a visit from the ceramics specialists Ian Rowlanson, Jane Young and Jo Gray. They assessed the trays of washed pot shards for us to provide dates and identify the pottery types. The edges of the pot have all been carefully washed by the volunteers in order to reveal the structure of the material itself which is important in accurately identifying the pots. The exciting news is that they have dated our pottery right back to 1st Century Roman Legionary ware. We’re very pleased with this result.
10/9/17 – In the Lab
We’re taking a short break from excavating to process the finds at the lab at Bishop Grosseteste University. This will mean washing, drying, sorting by fabric, numbering, bagging and archiving all the material we have gathered so far.
Specialist processes are required for cleaning and storing some fabric types such as plasterwork, mortar and metals. There is lots to keep us busy through the winter. Our volunteers are soon hard at it, powered on by the fuel of all archaeologists – tea and cake.
Now it’s time for a quick game of ‘Guess the Age of the Spoon.’ These spoons, or possibly little scoops, came from our test pits. We know how old they are because they came out of a particular context, that is a section of the pit at a certain depth and with other dateable finds. The one on the left is Victorian, the one on the right is Roman. But then you knew that already, didn’t you? We’ll be sending these items off to be x-rayed and cleaned. We’re looking forward to seeing what sort of decoration they have on them.
Volunteer Nikki Goldblatt produces some lovely sketches of our boar’s head Samian ware. What a fierce beast! We’ll be looking at other Samian pottery found around Lincoln, and further afield, to see if we can trace the likely origin of this lovely creature.
Pit 16 – 17/08/15
We begin Pit 16 at a property on Riseholme Road. The weather is good, but soon goes downhill. The forecast is poor. The gazebo goes over the pit to protect the archaeology. And the diggers, of course! We soon hit the natural subsoil. It’s disappointing, but the fact that we haven’t found anything is significant in itself. It’s all valuable research.
Pit 12 – 10/8/15
We’re back at Pit 12, the rich pit which grew up to be an L-shaped trench. Brian and Jill get the job of cleaning up the whole trench ready to start the next phase of the excavation. Avril soon finds what we hope is a whole intact Roman vessel. (pictured, right)
At the other end of the trench, we’re soon distracted by some beautiful, stamped Roman pot. It is immediately nicknamed ‘daisyware’ due to the flower pattern stamped into it. Pieces keep coming out of the trench and soon we have the whole rim. This is important as it helps establish the size of the pot. We have so many pieces we may even have the whole pot. Reconstructing it is a job for a ceramic specialist.
It’s very pretty and we are all touched by the fact that the potter’s thumb print is visible on the inside of the fragments where the wet clay was stamped or pressed into a mould. Suddenly we feel a real, tangible and personal link to the individuals of the past whose lives we are uncovering here on Newport.
Our hosts at Pit 12, Jackie and Glen, spoil us with coffee and home made scones which quickly disappear. But there is no time to stop. We are collecting so many finds that Alan, Jill and Lynne spend several hours back at the lab, sorting, bagging and labelling what we already have ready for the next stage of processing. Our Finds Archaeologist Zoe Tomlinson will be back from her trip to the USA soon and we don’t want to get into any trouble!
Marilyn gives us a reminder of the importance of remaining sharp eyed when sieving. We’re getting used to their being lots of bits of severed tree roots in the spoil coming out of the trench. While on the riddle, Marilyn spots that one such bit of stick type stuff is, in fact, a beautiful Roman bone pin. Once cleaned up it shows some decoration. Later in the day we find lots of fragments of Roman moratoria, a type of shallow kitchen pot (left). Pit 12 is proving to be such a rich pit. Just as we are packing up for the day, Katie and Scarlett find another bone pin, this time with finished decoration on the end. (pictured, right)
It’s proving to be Ladies Day in the trench with Avril, Marilyn and Nikki all turning up some lovely finds. There’s evidence of a Roman building, a possible gaming counter and a copper alloy spoon. There is also some unusual Roman ceramic that appears to have a fired glass glaze.
We also have a visit from Lincoln City Archaeologist Alastair MacIntosh and his children. We soon put them to work washing finds and even in the trench. You are never too young or too old to find work at Ermine Street Dig. Age is no barrier in archaeology.
We say a reluctant and rainy goodbye to Pit 12 with its multitude of lovely finds and interesting archaeology. We will be making sense of it all as we put together the final report over the coming winter. We begin the closing up process by laying sheets of tarpaulin over the bottom of the trench to protect the archaeology that is still in there. Then it’s just a case of getting out the wheel barrows and shovels and putting all the soil back in place. But before we begin back filling, we have one special job to do. Homeowner Jackie and her family have put together a time capsule and we bury it among the tarps with a note for future archaeologists. We wish them as much luck as we have had.
Pit 14 & 15 -03/08/15
Pit 14 is opened up at our new location at an old rectory building close to Newport Arch. Brian is soon joined in his pit at the front of the property by new volunteers Nikki, Scarlett and Katie. We have had to alter the original position of the pit, in order to work around the services that connect the house to the main cables and pipework out on Newport itself. It’s something we are very careful about in this urban setting. We never like to make ourselves unpopular with our hosts by slicing through their broadband!
Pit 15 is at the rear of the same property on the site of the chicken coop. The chickens have moved out for a while, having helpfully already removed all the grass and scraped up the soil surface before we arrived. Bob and Avril get cracking on this one. Expectations are high as we are close to the site of an old priory and several other recorded medieval properties. We are the first group to dig here. We soon find lots of Victorian demolition remains in both pits. It looks like the finds processing volunteers are going to be busy.
Pit 14 is close to the road, and a bit more visible than at some of our other locations. This is great as we’re soon visited by local residents and even more new volunteers. Anyone who looks even slightly interested is immediately given a job. Newbies Thomas, Emily, Gill and Ian are soon getting stuck in with their trowels. The finds washing table also attracts some willing helpers. We hope people will return and visit us as we move along Ermine Street.
We become intrigued by a feature appearing in the bottom right hand corner of the pit. Initially it was full of demolition rubble, but once this was cleared it appears to have some sort of surface at the bottom. We can’t tell if it is related to the wall feature. We also can’t tell at this stage how far, or in which direction, it might run from our test pit.
It would be great to extend the pit and follow the wall out, but we haven’t the space or the time to do this. What’s exactly is going on down there? It’s all a bit of a mystery at the moment.
Meanwhile, at the finds table, one of our most experienced volunteers Immy has the important job of recording the dozens of metal finds turning up at this site. It’s important to keep them dry. In Pit 14, Scarlett and Katie find some beautiful Victorian ceramics. This pit has a multitude of layers, finally yielding some nice Roman glass and Samian ware.
In Pit 15 The medieval wall feature is removed and we dig down to discover a real gem. Below a further 12cm of packed soil, is a beautiful constructed surface. It is the last afternoon of our last day at this site. The wheelbarrows are standing by. We’re about to backfill. The surface is a layer of small, fine cobble stones, the size of pebbles. But how old is it?
Charles gets in the trench with trowel and immediately finds some bone lodged between the stones. Then he finds some pottery shards. The pottery is Roman. It’s the result we’ve been hoping for, a previously undocumented Roman construction outside the city walls. Lots of happy diggers.
Pit 13 – 24/7/15
Our new site is in a courtyard garden very close to the Roman gateway of Newport Arch, so we’re all very excited about this test pic. Bob and Brian soon find and interesting feature, (left) No sooner is that recorded and removed than Avril comes across another, which proves to be a medieval foundation layer. (right).
As this is an English summer, we return to full wet weather gear as the torrential rain continues. The wind and chilly temperatures make it hard going, but Charles
motivates his diggers with promises of hot tea and sticky buns. It does the trick and we carry on, doing our best to protect the bottom of the trench from the rain. The moisture binds the clay soil together and makes it very difficult to trowel effectively. There is also a real danger of missing small finds as every object soon resembles lumps of mud in these conditions. Eventually, the deployment of a volunteer, holding a golfing umbrella over the test pit, proves the best solution.
We dig on and further down we find a medieval mortared tile surface (left) which is drawn and lifted (right). After checking the quality of the tiles, we discount the idea that this could be part of the lost church of St Nicholas, destroyed during the civil war. Unfortunately we have run out of time and we have to say goodbye to this interesting pit, for now.
Pit 12 – 13/7/15
This site is close to the line of Newport and not far from the Roman Newport Arch, so hopes are high that we will find something interesting here.
We also rediscover a beautiful medieval well, possibly from the Augustinian Friary. The well is in an awkward spot, directly beneath a substantial Victorian, or possibly earlier, garden wall which we cannot remove.(right)
The well is going to be a challenge. The owners of the property were aware of it, but no one has any idea of its condition, or even how deep it might be. With no natural light we cannot see the bottom. We drop a small pebble. It’s several seconds before we hear a tiny splash.
Our archaeologists Zoe Tomlinson and Charles Simpson decide that the best way to survey it is to create ‘well-cam’, a combination of Go-Pro camera, light source, suspension line and lots and lots of gaffer tape. We know the well is deep and has water in it, so to avoid dunking the camera, a weighted measuring tape is dropped down until a point when it returns wet. The well is over 20 meters deep.
Exploration of the top of the well with a torch shows that it is bottle shaped, that is a narrow opening flares out to a diameter of around 2 meters wide. That means we are effectively standing on the shoulder of it. Should this medieval structure be unsound, there is a very big drop below us. We all feel a little shiver of unease, and consider the bravery of the workmen who built it. On safety grounds, we limit the number of people approaching the well to two at a time.
Charles and Zoe deploy the well-cam and record some great video footage as the camera descends. The well is in surprisingly good condition, with few tree roots or other damage to its walls. The water at the bottom is stunningly clear.
We are all awed by the beauty and ingenuity of medieval workmanship. It supplied fresh drinking water to the people of Newport for hundreds of years. This is a masterpiece in stone, built to last.
Pit 12 is already producing some lovely finds. Today we unearthed a beautiful piece of Roman Samian pottery. After cleaning, and some discussion, it was decided that the animal shown was a wild boar.
We also found plenty of other Roman pot and our first piece of tesserae, the tiny building blocks used in mosaics.
It’s very encouraging that we are already finding such high status Roman pottery.
The Historical Research Group toured Lincolnshire Archives (right) and found some great documents for us to look at. This is an important part of the Ermine St Community Dig project as it helps us prioritise where we dig. It also gives us some idea what we may find at a particular site. Sometimes, it can even tell us who has been there before – butcher, baker or blacksmith. It’s also useful to know if any previous archaeologist dug there and if they did, what they found.
This helps us accommodate all our extra volunteers. The good weather, and the excellent finds, have encouraged people to return. We’re happy to have them, there’s plenty to do. Also, as the pit gets deeper, the added space also allows people to climb in and out more easily!
We also say a temporary ta-ra to Zoe, our archaeologist in charge of Finds, who is off the United States for a few weeks. One of the projects she will be visiting is the archive being created at the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York, which includes artefacts and oral histories. It’s an aspect of archaeology that we rarely think about so we’re all very interested to hear what she finds. To mark the event, and also celebrate Immy’s 18th birthday, more of Jill’s marvellous cake is consumed, although we need to dig up a bit more Samian pottery before we have a complete set of cake plates!
Stewart finds even more Samian ware. There are plenty of quite large pieces coming up now. A few even have the metal staples in place that show where the pot was repaired. These are high quality, high status items that would have been passed on as heirlooms or important gifts. Being Friday, it’s also chip day and this week we’ve certainly worked up an appetite.
More great finds from Pit 12. We’ve also had some of our volunteers from previous weeks come back to join us. Alex, (right) a student from Castle Academy who worked on the test pit there, is given the delicate job of working on the flattened Roman pot found beneath a mortared surface. What a great job he did. (right)
Once the pot is cleaned up, it is decided to lift the fragments. These will be cleaned and bagged together. It will be a job for a ceramics expert to decide if the pot can be reconstructed. It looks very much as if the pot came to rest in this upside down position and was then flattened by the later items that were deposited on top of it.
As this is a secure Roman context, it also raises the possibility of recovering any contents of the pot that were present when it was buried. Whether it was buried and later disturbed, or whether it was thrown into a rubbish pit, isn’t clear. It raises lots of questions. We recover a sample of the deposit from inside the pot for later analysis.
The pot was eventually lifted by one of our long term volunteers Jill, (above right) only to reveal…even more pottery.
This week, we also had another visit from Alfie – the dig dog, who lives with Stewart. You may have spotted Alfie already. He loves to help us with the biscuits. He also enjoys having his picture taken.
He’s a committed digger, but isn’t allowed in the trench. We remain unconvinced about his ability to tell the difference between Finds and Food. It’s a test we apply to all our volunteers – it’s nothing personal, Alfie. After a hard morning trowelling some of those bones do look rather tasty.
This week ended with the tantalising prospect of a wall alignment. We’re covering up this excavation with a tarp as we have a pressing appointment with another test pit, but we’ll be back.
This is an important part of the project as it allows us to spread the word about the work we are doing at Ermine Street Community Dig.
It’s also a great way to catch up with other groups, hear about the work they are doing, and perhaps learn some useful tips that we can apply to our own project.
Pits 10 & 11 – 30/6/15
Our site at Avalon Court retirement flats is a snug strip between the front of the old barracks building and the road. Despite surveying for pipes, cables and services running from the building out to the street, we soon hit a problem in Pit 10 in the shape of an unmarked Victorian drain which appears still to be connected. History of a sort, but perhaps not exactly what we’re after. We continue to work round it for a bit.
Over in Pit 11, the finds are coming out thick and fast. As we dig down, we find what appears to be the remains of brick, 19th century workers cottages which would have opened right onto the road.
It’s very, very hot. Today’s temperature is officially 33 degrees but in our enclosed, sun-drenched slot between the high hedge by the road and the brick frontage of the barracks, it feels a whole lot hotter.
Shade breaks are now compulsory. Volunteers are queuing up for finds washing, just so they can plunge their hands into basins of cold water. Scorchio!
But we carry on. Pit 11 produces the two finds of the day within minutes of each other. First, Avril uncovers a Victorian silver teaspoon followed shortly by a Roman mortaria base. It seems we may have uncovered a cesspit, which is proving particularly rich in finds. No actually, it doesn’t smell that bad. or perhaps we’re just getting used to it.
Pit 8 & 9 – 23/6/15
We have a lovely garden setting for our next two pits. Archaeology student Dan joins us again and Brian and CJ get going on the riddle (pics). We find plenty of 17th and 18th century building rubble and more clay pipes, one with, what looks like, Southern & Co stamped on it. Our lovely hosts are looking after us. Once the back filling is done, we finish with the obligatory tea and cake to celebrate another successful week.
Pit 7 15/6/15
We begin work at Lincoln Castle Academy on pit 7 pupils from the Sixth Form who are soon put to work stripping off the turf. We’re expecting a high number of volunteers and visitors so it has been decided to join together the 1m X 1.5m pits into a single trench to allow easier access.
The excavation has generated lots of interest and we’re soon visited by staff, pupils and Marvyn Prior from BBC Radio Lincolnshire. He interviews our archaeologists Charles and Zoe, and LAG Chairman Brian about the aims of the project and our success so far. We also trial our live streaming of the dig through Periscope, an online video streaming service that’s let’s viewers see what we’re up to.
Sophie, Darryl, Molly, Josh, Joe and Mr Rowe get down to work in the trench. We’ve uncovered post holes, lots of clay pipes and the arm of a little bisque doll.
Pit 6– 3/6/15
An exciting end to digging at Pit 6 when we discover, right on the last afternoon, a strange patch cut into the natural subsoil. This proves to be a Roman burial (right) of what is probably a young woman. We’re missing the skull and the lower legs, which have been lost sometime in the past. The remaining part of the skeleton and the grave are intact. This is a very exciting find as it’s the furthest north from the Roman city ever recorded. We’re looking at Lindum Colonia in a new light.
Spurred on by our exciting find, The Historical Research Group study the maps we have of the Newport area at Bishop Grosseteste Library. The research element continues at an open lab session where we also carry on with our programme of pot washing. We also begin to mark the cleaned animal bones with reference numbers.
Pit 5 – 12/5/15
We begin digging Pit 5. The weather is getting better and we’re soon washing the finds in the sunshine. We soon come across a lovely piece of Roman stamped mortaria, a type of shallow kitchen vessel with a rough inner surface used for ginding and mixing. The stamp may be the name of the potter, or another identifying mark, which will help us understand if it was made locally or arrived in Lincoln through trade. (Pics). As if this wasn’t enough, archaeology student Dan finds a beautiful Roman gaming counter. (pic)
Pit 5– 26/5/15
This will help us get an idea of the sort of time periods that we are digging in. It also enables us to start building a reference collection of pot samples which will help with the speedy identification of pot shards that we dig up in the future.
We also began our Historical Research Programme by looking documents and talking to local residents. In a startling break with tradition, a slice of watermelon was spotted on the site. Could this replace the usual cake? We think not. And Zoe, our archaeologist is thrilled with a delivery of Finds crates, all new and shiny and pink!
Pit 4 – 29/4/15
Pit 4 is opened up and almost immediately Avril finds a beautiful marble. We also uncover an interesting selection of Roman finds. Normally, we would start digging in May or June, when the weather was a bit warmer and drier. It’s easier to dig and we can also wash and dry the finds on site, but that’s just not possible at the moment.
So, this week we also run our first Finds Processing Session indoors at Bishop Grosseteste University. This gives everyone the chance to take part in the miraculous processes of cleaning, which can turn a dirty piece of pottery into a vital clue about our Roman or medieval past.
The pottery, bone and tile are washed with clean water and a toothbrush. Roman glass is gently sponged to prevent it flaking.
Items such as metals, plaster and mortar require processing by specialists and are bagged separately. Everyone has a great time. Lots of hard work is done, powered on by a giant chocolate Swiss roll.
We also visited the residents at Avalon Court for a tea and pottery session. The retirement flats are on the site of the old army barracks on Newport and we’re looking forward to putting in some test pics at the front of the old façade later in the summer.
Pits 1-3 – 27/3/15
We launch Ermine Street Dig by opening up the first three test pits at Bishop Grosseteste University. The campus borders Newport, which closely follows the line of the Ermine Street Roman road, so it’s the ideal spot to begin digging.
We quickly uncover a mixture of interesting finds modern and ancient. Find of the Day is part of a lovely clay pipe with ‘Burns Cutty Pipe’ stamped on the stem. Research reveals it was probably manufactured in Glasgow in the second half of the 19th Century.
Arrived this morning to find that high winds overnight have shredded the small gazebo and sent the larger one rolling around the site. It is early in the year to begin excavating, and the state of the weather will play a big part in how quickly we get on.
Luckily, we have lots of volunteers old and young on hand to help. Normal digging is soon resumed.
Pit 1 becomes a training pit for the very youngest, but still yields some interesting finds, including this lovely tile fragment unearthed by Alex.
The wind is still whistling down from the north. Suddenly we all feel a strong empathy with any Roman soldier who was sent marching up Ermine Street in these conditions. It’s also an added incentive to dig. The more you trowel the warmer you feel. Volunteer Avril is soon busy out of the wind in the bottom of Pit 3 where she cleans up an interesting layer of limestone fragments from medieval construction works. Tea and biscuits all round.
We’ve had a great week on site, despite the cold. The three pits have yielded plenty of medieval pottery, building materials and Roman Samian ware which will all be cleaned, sorted and recorded as the project continues.