Archaeology Discovery Day
Come and meet us!
Penny excavating the contents of the pot. Her finds are in the tray on the left
The contents were so fragile they had to be wrapped in plaster of paris before lifting (see the side nearest Penny) The pot they were in is the one in the foreground. Evan was on hand to talk about the other finds from Caerleon
Louise demonstrates how the pieces fit together
Tuesday 29th October saw many staff from Archaeology & Numismatics take over the Main Hall in National Museum Cardiff for our special half-term Discovery Day. We were overwhelmed with the positive response from all who visited us.
We wanted to give you an idea of a little of the vast range of work we do and see some hidden gems from our collections, which you might not otherwise get a chance to experience.
A special treat was one of our conservators, Penny Hill, working on a large Roman pot from the recent Caerleon excavations by Cardiff University. Normally the conservation work has to take place in a lab in our basement, but she managed to get this wonderful item upstairs for you to see the work being done on it. It was too fragile to be fully excavated in the field, so it was carefully lifted, mud and all, and brought to us. Penny was gently scraping off the centuries of dirt to reveal the pot and its contents of bone.
We’re not usually so lucky as to have a pot so intact. Usually they are broken into numerous pieces, with eroded edges and not all present. It’s like putting together a jigsaw, without the picture, lots of missing pieces, and with the existing pieces the wrong shape. Louise Mumford is also a conservator and brought along some replica pots to demonstrate how she works her magic on them. Our visitors learnt how to look for matching edges and assemble the pots. They also had advice on sticking back together their own broken treasures.
Siân, Jody, Mary, Julie and Alice led art activities based on pieces in our collection. Siân Iles’ specialism is medieval pottery, and she brought out some lovely examples of medieval tiles from our stores. Our visitors were able to see the wonderful designs on them, and how they built up across a floor to form a larger pattern. They then coloured in their own section of a “floor tile” on paper, to form part of a larger pattern which we displayed and added to throughout the day.
Jody Deacon works with prehistoric artefacts, and Mary Davis is a conservator with a particular interest in the analysis of materials, especially Iron Age and Bronze Age metals. They brought out some designs from Iron Age coins, and talked about how they were decorate with the symbols and patterns which meant something to the people of the time. Our visitors used multi-coloured scratch card to make their own beautiful designs.
Julie Taylor does the admin for the section, and Alice Forward is with us for a year on a Community Archaeology placement. Julie is a textile artist in her spare time, and is interested in the memory of places. An archaeological excavation can be like digging up the ghosts of the past – a small trace of someone, a stain in the ground, an unclear, faint picture. Julie and Alice helped the visitors to make “ghost pictures” – the visitors chose an object from our Origins gallery to draw on acetate, which was then transferred to light-sensitive fabric, making an ephemeral image of what you had seen. We have a few pieces which were left behind, so if you see yours here and want it back, do call to collect it.
Del Elliott can normally be found helping you to use the Clore Discovery Gallery or as a Museum Assistant in the general exhibitions. He also volunteers with our handling collection in the Origins gallery. He used a model of the “Celtic Warrior Grave” to talk to the public about the burial traditions of the Iron Age, the artefacts found in the grave and how they have changed over time.
Evan Chapman works with our Roman archaeology, and also looks after the image archive in the department. Some of our earliest photographs only now exist on glass-plate negatives; extremely fragile and difficult for anyone to use. The Museum has received a grant from the Esmée Fairbairn foundation to enable us to digitise some of these negatives, and Evan brought along a wonderful presentation of old photographs of excavations in Cardiff Castle, Llanmelin Hillfort and Segontium, also an archive of Early Christian Monuments from Glamorgan.
Last but not least, Jackie Chadwick and Tony Daly are the A&N illustrators. Photographs are a very useful record, but often a great deal of detail exists in the artefacts which simply cannot be picked up by the lens. Jackie and Tony have produced some incredible drawings, showing such things as the subtle marks left in the manufacturing process and the texture of an item. They also play a large part in the interpretation of a site or object, by illustrating how a site may have looked or an object used, based on the complex archaeological evidence. The visitors could chat to them about the process, see some of their work, and have a go at making their own illustrations.
We could not have done the day without our fabulous volunteers. Kym, Luke and Ciaran generously gave up their time and worked so hard with us to run the activities. A huge thank you to all of you!
The day was a bit of a swan-song for the Origins gallery – the gallery will close in February next year and the collection prepared for the new displays planned for St Fagans National History Museum. Archaeology & Numismatics is now part of the larger History and Archaeology Department, and the new displays are intended to cover the prehistory and history of Wales at a single site.
Archaeology will still have a strong programme of events in this new structure – look out in the What’s On guide for our regular series of lunchtime talks and Behind The Scenes tours. Another Discovery Day is on the cards during the CBA’s Festival of British Archaeology next July, and we are planning a one-day conference for next autumn; dates to be confirmed.
If you want to volunteer with us, you can get in touch with the Museum’s volunteer co-ordinator Ffion Davies.
We’d love to hear your thoughts – what did you think of the day, what would you like to see at the next one, what can we do better? Just comment below.
Bye for now
Return of the Vikings? 8th September
[image: A table is set up in a barn. It holds a light, laptop and various finds. Some are stones, marked with a finds label. Others are in labelled bags. Some bags have been put into boxes to give them extra protection. The boxes are labelled glass, copper alloy,]
The finds hut, where this blog was written. Boxes contain individually bagged finds, boxed by type - pottery, lead, copper alloy, etc. Other bags are still being processed. The large stones are possibly building materials.
[image: Two students sit on upturned crates each with a bowl of water in front of them. They use toothbrushes to clean pieces of animal bone ready for analysis]
Washing animal bone. The students use toothbrushes and soft wooden sticks to carefully remove soil.
[image: Ten seed trays contain varying amounts of cleaned animal bone. A white waterproof label attached to each tray describes exactly where the bone was found]
Animal bone finds drying in the sun. If there was any sun! The trays are labelled according to the 3D location ("context") of the finds
In the past week finds processing started in earnest, as stratified deposits were by then being dug across most of the site. In the first two weeks keeping on top of the objects coming from the site had only been a part time job: listing and packing the individual metal, pottery and glass finds that had been turning up. With the serious digging of stratified deposits, however, animal bone worth keeping for further study, started to emerge in considerable quantity. The midden (spread of dumped rubbish) in the main trench (Trench AG) was also being systematically sampled, producing tubs of soil needing processing.
The animal bone and the soil samples form the two main strands of the finds processing going on site. The animal bone needs washing and drying before it can be bagged up for future study: when it will hopefully give insights into the diet and farming methods of the inhabitants of the site.
The soil samples are processed in a flotation tank. A sample, held in a fine mesh, has water pumped up through it from below while being agitated and broken up by the hands of the operator. The flow of the water carries off light, organic, components (charcoal, grain, seeds and other plant remains), which is collected in a very fine mesh sieve. Meanwhile the bulk of the soil drops through the mesh into the bottom of the tank leaving the coarse residue of the sample in the mesh. This is mostly small fragments of stone but will hopefully also contain small animal and fish bones that would not otherwise get found. Both the material floated off and the coarse residues are then left to dry and bagged up for later sorting.
Return of the Vikings? 5th September
[image: In the trench, a wall of limestone blocks is seen. A change in soil texture and colour in the cut of the trench reveals a cross-section of the early medieval ditch. Labels mark significant finds]
Cross section showing ditch and wall
[image: Four students use mattocks and shovels to remove the topsoil. Trowels will be used once archaeology is reached]
Extending trench AH
[image: A long, narrow trench. A student uses a trowel to define the edge of one of two early-medieval defensive ditches which cross the trench, visible by changes in soil texture and colour. Another student mattocks away excess topsoil from the other ditch]
Ditches in trench AI
[image: Half of a copper alloy penannular brooch. The square terminal is decorated in a dot pattern. The other half would have mirrored this fragment, forming an incomplete circle. A long pin would have hung from the circle to complete the fastening]
Half of a copper alloy penannular brooch. The pin is missing. The other half would have mirrored this section; the break is at the top of the brooch as viewed here.
The teams in our three trenches have made excellent progress. In the main trench (AG), the full width of the stone enclosure wall has been revealed, and today we were able to identify a buried ground surface beneath (pre-dating) the wall, as well as upcast from the cutting of the early medieval ditch. In the north-east of the trench, a gully has been identified which formed one side of a small enclosure within the walls. This appears to have been a drip gully and drainage ditch around a timber building.
We have decided to extend our small square trench (AH) in the light of the human remains found a few days ago. This trench was sited to establish whether further burials existed in this part of the site, and the discovery promises to add significantly to our understanding of this episode of the site’s history. The crouched burial identified so far has only been partially uncovered (top of skull and femur), but it is clear that these articulated bones represent an addition to the small group of five bodies buried outside the defensive wall of the site during the second half of the tenth century.
In our narrow slit trench (AI) on the north-east side of the early medieval enclosure, the team has defined the edges on the inner and outer edges of the two defensive ditches, and a possible prehistoric feature at one end.
One of the more significant finds made so far is the hoop and decorated terminal of a copper-alloy penannular brooch. This is reminiscent of one found in the ninth- century Trewhiddle hoard. The midden deposits within trench AG continue to produce copious quantities of animal bone (important for our understanding of husbandry and diet), as well as ironwork.
Return of the Vikings? 3rd September
Exploring features in the main trench
[image: An excited team gather to view a human bone as it starts to emerge from the soil]
First glimpse of a burial
[image: A thigh bone, several hundred years old, buried in the soil. Other bones are starting to emerge to its left]
The long thigh bone (right)
After two weeks of hard work by all the team to remove ploughsoil, and backfill from previous years’ excavation, the archaeological remains are finally being examined in detail.
Today, one discovery brought the entire site to a halt, bringing everyone to gather around one of the smaller exploratory trenches opened last week. Following clearing rubble from the upper fill of the enclosure ditch, the longbone of a burial was found on the western side of the enclosure ditch. It is hoped that this exciting discovery will provide more information relating to a group of five skeletons previously found immediately to the south during the excavation seasons of 1998 and 1999.
Weather conditions on site are currently excellent for the detection of archaeological features. This is exemplified by the discovery of a several archaeological features within an area previously excavated in 1998 at the east end of the main trench. Some of these features were previously known from the earlier season, but remained unexcavated because of a lack of time.
Elsewhere in the main trench, the team has uncovered more of the enclosure wall defining the western boundary of the site, and have also begun the excavation of a slot through the enclosure ditch adjacent to that wall. Exploratory slots placed through midden deposits at the east end of the trench are finding animal bones in large quantities, which will provide valuable dietary information about the inhabitants of the site.
These tantalising glimpses into the archaeology of the site are getting everyone very excited, and we look forwards to seeing what new discoveries await us during the next two weeks.
Tudur Burke Davies
Return of the Vikings? Friday 31st August
[image: Two archaeologists use trowels to gently uncover archaeology. Assistants remove the waste]
The trowelling begins
[image: Changes in soil colour show two ditches crossing this trench]
Changes in soil colour show two ditches crossing this trench
Today started very pleasantly with sun and light winds, although became overcast by lunchtime, but thankfully still dry. The muddy remains of the deluges of previous days are now largely cleared away from site surfaces and we are down to midden layers across most of the main trench. The trench has now been allotted various sample areas to provide detailed insights into the midden layers, which are getting blacker as we go down through them. The main enclosure ditch where it crosses through this trench has been cross-sectioned, with a grey charcoal-flecked soil filling its upper layer. At the other end of the trench, not far from the spring and pool at the centre of the enclosure, the location of a single, important human burial found deep under the midden in a previous season (2001) is being explored and the backfill of the old trench above it is being removed.
Two smaller trenches are revealing details of the enclosure defences and ditches. One on the western side shows an interesting stepped profile to the ditch, almost as if those digging it were progressively deepening it as it crossed over the limestone scarp. Another long, narrow trench on the north-eastern side of the enclosure was started two days ago to test a possible double-ditch type anomaly which was noticed on the geophysics. This has proved to be correct, with two ditches crossing this trench. Work is now under way to establish their depth and extent, and hopefully to clarify whether one is earlier than the other.
Today is my last day on site as I am only able to supervise for the first half of the four week excavation season. It has been an extremely enjoyable and nostalgic return for me to dig on a favourite site with old friends, having been part of the site team here in the 1996-99 seasons. The weather this time has been less than brilliant, but we have had quite a few nice days amidst the rainy ones, and the forecast is now good. The student team (from Cardiff and Bangor universities) is excellent, at least as good as any we have had in previous seasons. I strongly suspect the most interesting discoveries of this season will now occur in the next two weeks! I will be watching this blog with interest.
Return of the Vikings? Week One
[image: Four students use mattocks to start a new trench.]
Breaking ground. What will they find?
[image: Students using mattocks and shovels to prepare a trench]
The student team
[image: The trench is deeper, students consider the next steps]
Deciding what next
[image: Image of cross made from lead. About 1.5 cm square. It would have hung from a necklace]
Lead necklace pendant
RETURN TO LLANBEDRGOCH (WEEK ONE)
The unexpected discovery in 2001 of an intramural burial within the early medieval enclosed settlement at Llanbedrgoch raised a new series of questions about the site, its occupants, their activities and their relationships with other regions.
We returned to the site a week ago, and the last eight days have focused on setting out the new areas of excavation, removing ploughsoil, monitoring weather forecasts and adjusting the daily tasks to make the best of at times trying conditions. The team of students includes volunteers from Bangor and Cardiff, and one from Toronto (Canada). Yesterday we were joined by some local, experienced, volunteers from Gwynedd and Anglesey. They have all been outstanding, and the early medieval archaeology of the site is already being transformed. Excavation is an ongoing process, and if you follow us over the next three weeks, the team will provide you with personal insights into the excavation.
Even though the research design has clearly stated objectives, the work often reveals evidence of a completely different nature. Our return this year was in fact the result of such an unexpected discovery and its implications. The burial from inside the enclosure (Burial 6) was not revealed in plan through specific searching for inhumations, or the recognition of subtle changes in soil colour or character, but by the decision to cut a narrow trench through the early medieval ‘black earth’ midden material in the south-western area of the site in order to reveal the midden sequence and facilitate section drawing and sampling.
In spite of the profound silence of the individual in this grave and those discovered in 1998-99, they continue since their discovery to help us answer in increasing detail a range of fundamental historical questions:
How did the people of Llanbedrgoch and north-west Wales, who had contact with Anglo-Saxons, Irish and Scandinavians, respond to such peoples?
How does the archaeological evidence for the politics and economy of early medieval Wales compare to that provided by other sources?
Were the daily lives of people at Llanbedrgoch during the sixth and seventh centuries different from those in the ninth and tenth centuries?
What types of diet and health did they enjoy?
How did Christianity affect their lives and burial practices?
We have already begun to answer some of these questions – one of the first artefacts to be found last week in the ploughsoil was a lead necklace pendant in the form of a cross – slightly larger than one found in an earlier season of excavation at the site.
This site continues to amaze, surprise and inspire – follow us if you can.
Return of the Vikings?
[image: A least four partially excavated skeletons can be seen in a trench. They are lying on their side, knees bent. One of the bodies was buried directly on top of another, head to toe. A group of archaeologists are excavating another find]
Excavating at Llanbedrgoch in the early 2000s
After a gap of more than a decade, a team of archaeologists has returned to excavate at Llanbedrgoch, Anglesey. You can read more about previous seasons at this Viking-Age settlement here http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/archaeology/vikings/
Mark Redknap and his team made an exciting discovery towards the end of the 2001 season - evidence that there might be an early medieval cemetery on the site. Are they right? Finds are appearing already, but what can they tell us? Watch this space to find out more!
Mark is joined this season by
Evan Chapman (Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales)
David Griffiths (University of Oxford)
Tudur Davies (University of Sheffield)
Brian Milton, an experienced archaeologist from Cornwall who has spent many seasons at Llanbedrgoch
Archie Gillespie, one of the two metal detectors who originally found the site and who is a dab hand with the archaeological trowel too.
Students from Cardiff, Bangor and Toronto Universities, and other volunteers.
Hopefully you'll get to hear more about them as the dig progresses over the next 3 weeks.
The Pin Lifting Challenge. Excavating Roman objects from a soil block
[image: Caerleon Roman Armour. Roman pins as they were found in the ground, some facing down and some facing up. How can they be lifted and still be kept together now their backing has perished?]
Roman pins as they were found in the ground, some facing down and some facing up. How can they be lifted and still be kept together now their backing has perished?
[image: The section to be lifted first is outlined in white.]
The section to be lifted first is outlined in white.
[image: Caerleon Roman Armour]
The section is stabilized and removed from the soil block. Now face down we can see what was hidden underneath.
[image: Caerleon Roman Armour]
X-ray of section revealing chain and line of dome headed studs
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
[image: Roman Armour from Caerleon. Position of plaque and pins in soil block lifted from excavation.]
Roman Armour from Caerleon. Position of plaque and pins in soil block lifted from excavation.
[image: Roman Armour from Caerleon. Plaque just before removal from the soil.]
Roman Armour from Caerleon. Plaque just before removal from the soil.
[image: Caerleon Roman Armour. Plaque removed from soil and before cleaning. The condition is good but the edges are fragile. The best preserved edges are defined in black.]
Caerleon Roman Armour. Plaque removed from soil and before cleaning. The condition is good but the edges are fragile. The best preserved edges are defined in black.
[image: Caerleon Roman Armour. The original position of the plaque is outlined in white. Underneath the plague tiny washers or roves were discovered, evidence that it may originally have been attached to something made from leather.]
Caerleon Roman Armour. The original position of the plaque is outlined in white. Underneath the plague tiny washers or roves were discovered, evidence that it may originally have been attached to something made from leather.
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 split into three, the smaller one containing the pins is on the lower left-hand side
[image: Caerleon Roman armour]
Caerleon Roman armour. The small block just after it had been opened in the lab, revealing a mysterious collection of objects.
[image: Caerleon Roman Armour]
Caerleon Roman armour. A detailed view of the overlapping pins and of the tiny face peeking through the soil.
Caerleon Roman Armour. The bend in the pin indicates the original thickness of the backing which has long since perished.
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?