The Pin Lifting Challenge. Excavating Roman objects from a soil block
Everything has now been recorded, so the next step is to lift the pins! The decorative pins were once attached to an organic material, possibly leather, this has now gone, replaced by soil and once the soil has been removed there will be nothing holding the pins together. So the challenge is to lift and conserve the pins in such a way to preserve the original fish scale pattern and any dimensions of the group, which may help identify this mystery object in the future.
A bit of a challenge, so I decided to lift only small sections at a time, which does mean breaking up the largest surviving section unfortunately, but I should be able to reconstruct this later.
In the first image you can see that some of the pins are facing up and some facing down, indicating that the material the pins were once attached to was folded, this has perished leaving the pins in this position. So now it’s not just a mystery object it’s also a layered mystery object! Oh joy!
On the next image, outlined in white, is the first section to be tackled; I thought I’d start with the smallest and simplest first! The upper surface of the pins is faced up with Japanese tissue and adhesive. Once dry I excavate round and under the section then lift and turn it over.
Not as straight forward as I thought as something new appears, not just pins, but a disc headed stud. The x-ray also reveals the remains of a chain, plus a line of dome headed studs
On cleaning, the chain can clearly be seen attached to the stud and would have once been suspended from it, possibly linking up to another stud elsewhere on the armour. There are also enough dome headed studs running in a line to suggest they were part of a deliberate pattern. The remains of a tinned surface and therefore white metal finish survive on the upper surface of the stud and at the end of the pin there is a washer or rove identical to that on the plaque featured on the previous blog. So there is a good chance that they were once part of the same object, but again it’s too early to be sure.
The disc and pins are now cleaned and preserved, in the last photo they are laid out as they were in the ground. The dome headed pins were in direct contact with the disc suggesting they were on the same layer as the stud, which was facing downwards in the soil and attached to something folded under the layer with fish scale pins, which were facing up. Hope that makes sense!
Now to tackle the next section and I have a feeling that this may be full of surprises as well.
Unearthing more mystery objects from a soil block lifted during excavations at the Roman site of Caerleon
The second significant object in the same block as the pins (highlighted in the previous blog in this series) is an unusually shaped bronze sheet decorated with a stud depicting a human head. The head is wearing what appears to be a Phrygian cap. This type of soft, conical shaped hat with the top flopping forward was originally associated with people from the eastern part of the Roman Empire.
The head, cast in solid bronze, measures from ear to ear about 2cm. Soil and debris obscure the detail but I can see under this the features of a face peeking through, including large almond shaped eyes and curly hair poking out from under the cap. Looks a bit of a mischievous character to me!
The bronze sheet is an odd shape too; the edges are damaged and eroded in places. I’ve indicated with a black line the surviving edges I can be sure of. The damage on the other edges means unfortunately that they may not reflect the original dimensions of the object.
The sheet is not flat either, these bends and folds in the metal look like they were made in antiquity as the original patina is still smooth and undamaged around these areas. If the metal had been bent after the green patina was formed then this fragile surface would have cracked and flaked off revealing the metal below. So was this metal sheet originally wrapped round something more three dimensional? Difficult to say at this stage, it is also possible it got damaged in antiquity when flung on a pile of other armour and scrap, before it finally got buried. It’s amazing such delicate objects have survived at all!
When the sheet was lifted and turned over, four metal pins were found protruding out of the back. One, in the middle, belonged to the decorative stud; the pin had been punctured through the sheet to secure it. The three smaller pins are part of the sheet, created during the original casting by the looks of things.
Where the metal had been lifted there was a dark stain in the soil, probably the only evidence we will ever have that an organic material was once present. Among this there were fragments of a small doughnut shaped object. On further examination its original location could be identified as it was dislodged when the plate was lifted. The object lined up with the central stud and is in fact a washer or rove associated with securing items to leather. Two other tiny roves were found and all 3 have now been reattached to the pins at the back of the sheet. These now give us an indication of the thickness of the original backing material, which is about 3mm. The possible association with leather links this object to the pins lying near by. These were also applied to a flexible backing like leather; therefore there is a strong possibility that these artifacts were part of the same object, but more work has to be done to establish this.
Excavation of Roman Armour from Caerleon
The large block of armour was initially far too heavy to lift in one piece, so we had to split it into three. Julia has been working on the largest section (see previous blog) and I’m now excavating one of the smaller blocks.
At first glance this second block contains a number of interesting objects. A piece of bronze sheet with a cast head, a plain bronze disc, scale armour, a selection of iron objects (not yet identified) and something composed of rows of overlapping flat headed pins, similar in appearance to drawing pins. At this stage it’s difficult to tell if these objects are associated or not.
The most striking object in the block is the cluster of overlapping disc headed pins that have been laid down in rows and imitate scale. When new and brightly polished the copper alloy discs would have shimmered and caught the light. They are now very fragile, little metal remains and their shape is preserved by the green copper corrosion products. Retrieval and conservation is going to be fun and probably age me about 10 years!
The pins were once attached to a backing, probably made of leather which would have been flexible and allowed movement. This has now perished, leaving a black stain in the soil. I’ve kept samples so we can have a closer look at this later. However, the thickness of the backing material can be established by measuring the distance between the head and the bend in the pin.
Now the backing has gone, the soil is the only thing keeping the pins together. It’s going to be a challenge lifting them and preserving the pins original association. This is vital though as it might help identify this mysterious object .
In a time before modern mechanisation it is hard to work out how the Romans managed to make such small and perfectly formed little pins. A closer look down the microscope reveals interesting manufacturing marks but doesn’t really help with the intriguing question, how did they make them? On closer inspection different types of pins have been used, some are domed, some flat and there are also slightly larger studs, which may indicate that the pins were possibly laid in a pattern. I've put a few pictures up just in case anyone has seen an object like this before or fancies a challenge and work out how these little disc headed pins could have been made?
Investigation of Caerleon Armour: X-radiography
After having managed to break the large soil block up into small enough blocks to get into the x-ray machine, I finally began the task of x-raying the archaeological artefacts.
For this, I had the chance to use the Museum’s newly acquired computerised radiography system. Here, instead of using the traditional wet-plate method requiring film and much time spent in a dark room, we use a phosphor plate which can be used around 1000 times. This plate is read by a scanner, and an image produced within about 45 seconds.
This new system has allowed us to capture so much more detail about the inside of the blocks and the condition of the armour than would ever have been possible using the traditional method. The x-ray records the density of materials at every point, and the software used to view the image allows for manipulation in much the same way as programs like Photoshop: we can zoom into areas of the image, adjust brightness and contrast, apply filters, invert the negative, etc. Thus far all of the features have been x-rayed, and the results have been astounding: I have included copies of the images, complete with annotations. It would appear that a lot more existed beneath the surface excavated than previously supposed.
I had hoped that the x-rays could be used as a guide for further excavation of the features and eventual extraction of the artefacts: however, the condition of the metal inside suggests almost complete mineralization of the iron, and cautions against this course of action. The most that can really happen with these soil blocks now is that they are extensively x-rayed, and stored safely in case of future research.
Aside from highlighting areas of interest on the x-rays, and explaining certain phenomenon, my role as conservator for this project has come to an end. Now, curators, archaeologists and specialists will have to identify objects in the x-rays, marry up these images with the photographic record of my excavation, and begin to tie this information into the narrative of the site overall.
Deconstruction: Blocklifting from the Blocklift
As mentioned in the previous post, the only way to advance the study of this large blocklift was to take x-rays of the excavated ‘features’, in order to get a better idea of the condition of the archaeological metals, and to see if there were objects beneath the ones excavated. For this to happen, the five features had to be separated and lifted in miniature blocklifts.
As readers can see by the first photograph which shows the whole soil block after the completion of micro-excavation, separating features was a difficult task: whilst feature 1 was a discrete item, easily removed from the rest of the block, I had to make certain executive decisions about breaking up the rest of the block. Where possible, I tried to divide the features from each other using the cracks that were already present in the block, or by cutting over and under overlapping features. Inevitably, some damage did occur to the peripheries of features during the lifting process.
The process of blocklifting was remarkably easy: effectively, I blocklifted these features in the same way that they were lifted on site, except that as I was working in a laboratory, I had the opportunity to use conservation-grade materials in a much more controlled environment.
To begin with, I had to stabilise the artefacts in preparation for a process which would jar them quite a lot. I first consolidated the exposed artefacts using a removable adhesive called Paraloid B72, and then added a layer of melted wax, called Cyclododecane, to provide a more intimate support. Handily, this layer will eventually sublime by itself.
I then wrapped features in Clingfilm, to act as a barrier layer between the archaeology and the rigid material I would use hold the block together. For this, I selected polyurethane foam (readers may have come across this whilst completing DIY projects; it is often used as an insulating filler), as it has a very low density, and will not interfere with the attainment of an image of the mineralized iron plate. Polyurethane is prepared by mixing two liquid components together, and could be poured around the covered feature, reaching all nooks and crannies. Walls of plastic card and clay had been built around the feature to enclose the polyurethane.
Once the polyurethane had hardened, I began to pedestal the feature being lifted, before undercutting it. The separated feature could be turned over, and large amounts of extraneous burial deposit removed, which would have otherwise interfered with x-raying the metal artefacts.
I repeated this process until all the features were lifted, and prepared for X-radiography.
Caerleon Armour: Feature 5 and the Shoulder Plate
This blog entry discusses the last area of the large soil block to be micro-excavated; feature ‘5’, located in the middle of the block. The position of the other ‘features’ (F1, F2, F3 and F4) in relation to this central one can be seen in the annotated photograph of feature 5, and plates with two identifiable edges have been outlined in various colours to guide the reader’s interpretation of this area. As with ‘feature 4’, feature 5 encompasses a large cluster of over-lapping iron plate, which have deteriorated significantly. In the centre is what looks like a shoulder plate (judging by the degree of curvature) lying on its side and seen in profile.
The third photograph show the back of the shoulder plate; you can clearly see how neat the corner of this plate is (despite the condition of the metal), and as with a plate in the previous entry, the corner of the plate looks rounded. Excitingly, a copper alloy rivets rests at the plate’s edge. Readers will have noticed that few copper artefacts or armour components have been recovered from the soil block assemblage overall- the armour (at least that which has been partially excavated) was efficiently stripped of copper fittings and pieces prior to deposition.
The fourth photograph illustrates the depth of the archaeology. Additionally, behind the main shoulder plate (outlined in yellow), is what I think is a second plate from the shoulder area of the cuirass (outlined in green). These plates were probably connected to each other in antiquity by the internal leather strapping, and it looks like their relationship has been preserved in the soil. Detecting the shorter edges of the second plate is difficult, as the heavily corroded plate has disappeared into a mass of blended of soil and iron corrosion products.
Beneath the first shoulder plate lies a distinctive plate with a good, clean edge (last photograph- as before, the shoulder plate is outlined using a dashed yellow line). This plate bears lumps of brighter orange corrosion products and given their relative size and positioning, I believe that these protuberances are all that remains of the interior fittings which would have held the leather attachments.
This entry marks the end of the micro-excavation stage of this conservation project: however, a huge amount of work remains to be completed before the contents of this soil block can be fully understood. As I have repeatedly mentioned, only x-rays will be able to provide us with a clearer idea of the exact condition of the iron artefacts, and of unseen objects beneath those excavated. The next stage will be to deconstruct the block into smaller blocks, of a size that will fit in the x-ray machine camber. The easiest way to complete this will be to essentially block lift the separate ‘features’ from the large soil block.
Micro-excavation of Caerleon Armour: Overlapping Plates and Curved Corners
This is a very short entry today, introducing feature ‘4’ of the block- a mass of overlapping plate. It has been difficult in this area to detect the edges of separate plates, and few diagnostic features have appeared. The first two photographs show the ‘feature’ overall (remember that the boundaries of this area are arbitrary constructions), and as in the previous post, I have included annotated and unannotated photographs.
The ‘profile’ of feature 4 can be made out in the third photograph. You can clearly see the burial deposit the lorica is resting on here- a real rubbish layer of soil, stones, bone and tile. This room was clearly neglected long before the dumping of the military items.
The fourth and fifth photographs show areas labelled as ‘1’ and ‘2’ on the overall annotated photograph. These plates are slightly more distinguishable than most in this cluster, and are recognizably plates of a lorica segmentata cuirass. These plates have straight edges, and in the case of plate ‘2’, two parallel edges, which can be measured (this plate is 7.5 cm in width) - these are important dimensions for curators, who can compare these measurements with those of lorica plates from other Roman sites, and work out where on the cuirass they might have come from.
Finally, one of the most interesting artefacts to come out of this feature is the plate shown in the sixth photograph, labelled as ‘3’ on the overall shot. It measures 7 cm in width and has a curved corner- this is great to find, as the corners of lorica plates were slightly rounded for comfort’s sake. Thus far, this is the only plate uncovered in this whole assemblage with this trait.
Continued Excavation of Roman Armour: Problems with Corrosion
This blog entry discusses the third section of the large soil block to be excavated: for ease of identification and documentation I have called this area ‘Feature 3’. This label will be important in the future, after I have deconstructed the block and need to be able to keep track of the position of groups of artefacts within this large assemblage. This instalment discusses a relatively small area of the block, with the main focus resting not so much on the lorica plates present, but on the corroded remains of fittings attached to them.
As here we are chiefly looking at vague shapes, I felt that it was important for this entry to include both annotated and un-annotated versions of photographs, so readers can come to conclusions without my interference. The first photograph is an image of this third part overall, and the second photograph includes arrows and boxes indicating particular areas of interest examined in this entry. The third photograph has been included to give the reader an idea of the depth of the archaeological artefacts, the thickness of the iron plate, and an impression of the poor condition of the remains.
In order to introduce the ‘fittings’, a short note on the corrosion processes that have taken place in these blocks is most definitely necessary. The more I excavate and study this block the more I realise that the different components of the lorica segmentata have corroded in dissimilar ways. The exposed plate has a firm, dark magnetite surface, on top of which are localised areas of powdery, orange corrosion. I believe this second, more disruptive type of corrosion product (an iron oxide), are the remains of iron rivets and fittings.
I think there are two reasons for the fittings to have corroded in a different way to the iron plate: firstly, as a result of being in contact with the leather strap which would have run vertically the length of the inside of the cuirass- the release of acetic acid by the leather could have jumpstarted corrosion. Secondly, the fittings could have corroded more quickly than iron plate, given the greater amount of working and energy required to create there more complicated shapes. The fourth photograph I think illustrates my theory quite clearly: here we are looking at rivets, belonging to two overlapping plates (which could well be in this position because they were neighbouring plates on the cuirass when in use, and at the time of deposition), that have corroded more drastically than the plate. I believe, given their shape and positioning these were rivets and washers holding the leather straps, and we are looking at the interior side of the plate.
Working on the above theory, the fifth photograph shows a detail photograph of the area enclosed within the dashed red box and marked with a ‘1’ on the main annotated overview. I believe this lumpy feature, clearly different in colour and texture to the plate underneath, is again the remains of rivets and washers holding the internal leather straps in place. You can see here how an iron component can corrode in such a way as to increase in physical size: the resulting ‘object’ is larger than the item really was in antiquity.
The sixth and seventh photographs show another area of plate with corroded fittings (and in the corner, a copper alloy rivet).Here we can see a rectangular feature (outlined in the seventh photograph), which I believe is essentially iron corrosion, holding the shape of a now non-existent leather strap.
An x-ray will hopefully provide more information about these ephemeral features, though detecting areas of corroded and degraded material (which will have a low density) on a background of denser archaeological artefacts and burial deposit, could be difficult.
Continued excavation and investigation of blocklifted lorica segmentata
Just a short blog entry today, describing the completed excavation of another area of the soil block, and some of the interesting features that have cropped up.
This section of the block is composed of what appears to be two flat lorica plates, one lying at a 45 degree angle to the other. Note the length of the straight edge of plate; I believe that this plate will be one of the large plates that came across the middle of the cuirass. I have included annotations indicating small areas of potential importance, such as the corroded remains of fittings (see red arrows), which stand proud to the surface of the plates. The gap between the plates, which shows how damaged and broken the edges of the lorica set really are, can be seen in the second picture.
I have found another fragment of plate with a rolled edge (see third photograph), though the roll itself is much narrower in comparison with that exposed within the girth hoop (refer to previous blog entry). The fragment itself is also a little too small to detect any curvature or to easily extrapolate a larger shape, but could this fragment be part of a plate (the breast or backplate) that would have been in contact with the wearer’s neck? All comments and opinions regarding this little hypothesis are welcome.
I have included a macro shot of a small cylindrical item: whilst this may be physically unimpressive, I believe that this could be the iron pin that would have been drawn through a lobate hinge, holding the shoulder plates together.
As mentioned above, obvious fittings that are immediately identifiable still haven’t been found, and careful excavation has only managed to produce vague shapes of what is essentially metal corrosion. I have included in the last photograph a view of an area of probable lorica attachments and fittings, though only a very good quality x-ray will be able to make any sense of these lumpy features.
As a last aside, I thought I should provide a brief explanation for the condition of the buried lorica segmentata. Readers may have noticed how exposed finds lack the thick crusts of rust and voluminous corrosion products typical of a lot of archaeological iron objects: this is most likely because the thin iron plates corroded extremely quickly, with the iron leeching into the soil. Whilst this does mean that I will not have to spend hours removing powdery iron corrosion in order to reach a more certain surface on the iron, it also indicates that the remaining ‘object’ is more of a pseudomorph lying on top of the soil: this is why the ‘plate’ most often does not respond to the pull of a magnet. This level of deterioration will have implications for the eventual conservation treatment of the armour, as I may be unable to extract the iron plates (which have very little physical integrity), from the soil.
Excavating a Girth Hoop
To the right is an image of the lorica segmentata girth hoop, complete with a copper alloy tie ring, after excavation in the conservation laboratory. The general shape of the hoop, which is lying on its side, can be discerned, and it is obvious that the plate is broken in several places. I had hoped to be able to see how the solid tie ring interacted with the girth hoop, but unfortunately too little of the iron plate remains in a stable enough state to remove enough of the obscuring soil currently supporting it. An x-ray of this area of the block will show the complete shape of the tie ring, and hopefully how it is attached to the plate.
To reiterate, I am excavating the artefacts in this soil block in the same way that archaeologists do in the field, and am coming across the same extraneous stones, silty-soil and common artefacts such as ceramic building material and animal bone contained within the burial deposit that are found on the average archaeological site. As the stones, tile, etc, do underlie so much of the fragile iron plate, I will not remove them at this stage, though I am aware they could be covering more artefacts.
Within the hoop further broken plates can be seen, most notably a flat plate with a rolled edge: this is one of the few plates that can at this early stage be attributed to a specific area of the cuirass; the only plates with rolled edges were the lowest girth hoop above the hip, and the breast and back plates. Given the flat nature of this plate, it is most likely the lowest girth hoop.
To give readers an idea of the depth of the archaeological remains in the soil block, I have included photographs of the back of the girth hoop, as well as a photograph showing the interior. Of interest in the third photograph is part of a plate held to the back of the girth hoop by corrosion and burial products, and how thin the lorica plate with a rolled edge is in the fourth.
Not all artefacts excavated in this area of the soil block can be as easily identified as the plate with the rolled edge; some of the iron has suffered greatly, and only vague shapes in the soil can be distinguished. Removing soil from the surfaces of these mineralized objects has been challenging, as I have to be careful not to take away any burial deposit that might contain corrosion that may be part or all that is left of the archaeological object.
I have not recovered as many fittings, such as buckles, rivets, washers and studs as those found on cuirasses from other Roman sites, and it will be these attachments, and their position on the body armour, that will be very important when trying to work out which plates were breastplates, backplates, shoulderguards, etc. As expected, I have not found many of the valuable copper alloy fittings which could have been removed for re-use during and after the occupation of the fortress by military forces, although I have found possible iron components, harder to spot given the corroded nature of the metal. For example, in the last photograph, the red arrows are pointing towards vague rectangular shapes slightly proud of what is an extremely fragmentary lorica plate; these might be the remains of fittings. Again, only high quality x-radiography will provide us with an image which might allow curators to make an identification of what these deteriorated artefacts are.
The hoop and other items will remain in place until the rest of the block has been excavated, when deconstruction will take place.