ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
[personal profile] ossamenta
It’s cold and dark now, and there aren’t as many Christmas lights in peoples’ windows and gardens as I would like to see. I guess it’s a combination of bad finances and that many people in Oxford live in rented rooms (less storage for seasonal items, and of course you usually go elsewhere for Christmas). In times like this, it’s nice to be able to recall warmer times.

Six months ago I was sent out in the field, to a Roman settlement site not very far from Oxford. It’s a gravel quarry site, and as the quarry expands, we get called in again. It’s the site that never ends, or at least if feels like it. I really like it, as it’s rather easy to dig (unless the ground is very dried out) and there’s usually no difficulties in distinguishing the archaeological feature from the natural ground it’s been dug into (as opposed to other sites I’ve been on). At first it was great digging weather - not nice summer weather, but I didn't care - but as the weeks went on it got hotter and on the breaks we tried to sit in the shade of the vans and the site hut, trying to catch a breeze.


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The whole excavation area was filled with ditches and pits. Here you can see two parallel ditches, the right one just about cutting the left one. In the bottom right of the picture are some animal bone and pit sherds that were found in the right ditch.


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Most pits and ditches are fairly uninteresting. But once a while you get the ones with the intersting stuff. In the quarter-sectioned pit above, there was a horse skull, minus the mandible, and a pot at the base of the pit. The pot was probably more or less complete from the start, but may have been fragmented by soil pressure or during the excavation - we use mattocks, not trowels and toothbrushes for pit excavation. You can also see the several layers of pit fills. It took quite a while to fill this large and deep pit.

Pits were dug for a reason, usually either for storage, as part of production (flax retting pits etc) or for waste disposal. Animal bone is commonly found in pits, although on some occasions, we suspect ritual disposal rather than your average dumping of waste. Ritual deposits of animal bone are commonly been found in sites from the Iron Age and the Roman period*, often as whole animals, whole limbs or just the skulls. A horse skull without a mandible suggests that it was deliberately disarticulated, and the placement at the base of the pit is highly suspicious of ritual activity.

*: Ritual deposits have of course occurred way before the Iron Age and all the way to the modern period, usually as a good luck charm.

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Close-up of the horse skull and the pot.


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Another thing about this place is that it’s quite close to the ground water level (which admittedly has receeded a bit, perhaps due to the gravel extraction?) and you can still find artefacts of wood! During my time at the excavation we found a huge wooden post. Only a little tuft of wood was visible on the ground, and as it was excavated we discovered not only a substantial piece of wood, but also a large number of stones lining the post hole. The post hole itself was c. 80cm deep.

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When the post was removed, you could see the flat stone that the post was placed on.


As is usual on archaeological sites, we can’t excavate everything. We select slots in ditches, often where they meet up with other ditches so we can see which of these ditches is the older one, but also one or two slots straight across a ditch to see its depth and whether there are one or more fills. There is therefore a certain amount of luck involved in finding the spectacular finds, and it’s inevitable that some very interesting finds and/or burials will be lost to us.

As we moved across the site, like a slow locust swarm eating our way through (selected parts of) the archaeology, the parts where we had already been through were given over to the quarry staff, who came with machines to do the necessary work of levelling the ground prior to gravel extraction. One day we saw both the digger driver and the dumper driver standing at the digger bucket and rooting through it. Naturally we were curious and went over to them. It turned out that they had smashed through a fair amount of samian pottery, i.e. terra sigillata, and as they were interested in archaeology they wanted to see if it was something really nice. So we all pitched in, and twenty minutes later we had sherds from three almost complete bowls. We took the sherds back to the office and the fresh breaks were glued together. I finished on the site shortly after (back to the bone reports and their deadlines) but I hope someone showed the guys a photo of their find. Interested construction (or, in this case, quarry) site staff can make such a difference to archaeologists on site.


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The three bowls.

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The wide bowl.

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Decoration on the small bowl.

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The smallest bowl.

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Maker's mark on the smallest bowl.

Date: 2011-12-19 03:10 am (UTC)
ranunculus: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ranunculus
Thanks, very interesting post!

Date: 2011-12-20 03:09 am (UTC)
ragnvaeig: (Viking)
From: [personal profile] ragnvaeig
Samian pottery <3

Date: 2011-12-22 10:43 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tenthmedieval.wordpress.com
Those are gorgeous, especially the small one that's nearly complete. What marvellous happenstance! And the post-hole was really nice too; it's a demonstration picture for apprentice diggers, that one.

Date: 2011-12-23 10:25 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Wow! Those pots are amazingly complete considering. Kudos to the machine drivers for stopping and having a look.

Stephanie Vann

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