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Reflection During a Day of Skeletal Processing

8 Feb

I have a day off from my normal job and I find myself carefully wet sieving the cremated remains of a suspected Romano-British individual in the processing room at the local unit, but I’m not alone here.  Instead I’m surrounded by recently excavated Anglo-Saxon remains drying slowly on paper towels, organised in numerous plastic trays on various shelves to my side and up above me.  In each tray there is a plastic zip bag, the site code and context number inked on for identification purpose and later site reconstruction.  By taking the right femoral head and neck (upper thigh) as an identifier of the minimum number of individuals (MNI), I count at least six individuals represented in the new assemblage, although there are a few trays I cannot quite see and as I am not here to look at them I do not uncover them.  A quick look at the morphology (size and shape) of the individual skeletal elements is enough to see that, demographically speaking, adults and non-adults are represented in the assemblage.

Browsing the mandibles (lower jaw) that are present I can see a few without the 3rd molar fully erupted, one or two lying in crypts waiting to reach up for the shaft of light from the outside world that would never come.  Another mandible has the majority of the teeth present, including the 1st, 2nd and 3rd molars in each half, but displays severe enamel wear of the crowns of the teeth (the occlusal, or biting surface), indicative of a rough diet and probable middle to advanced adult age.  The fact that most of the teeth are present suggest that the individual wasn’t too old though, as tooth loss is strongly correlated to increasing age for humans.

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A day in the archive stores analysing non-adult skeletal remains from an archaeological site. Photograph by the author use a Pentax ME Super camera and Lomography Lady Grey film, if used elsewhere please inform the author and credit as appropriate.

I turn my attention back to the cremated remains.  These are something of a mystery having looked at the context sheets dating from the excavation itself.  There is evidence for cremated non-human remains, likely to be bovine (cow to you and me) as there are a few distinctive teeth included in the bags in an associated context found near the cremated remains that I’m now processing, which itself has been bulk sampled at 100%.  A proper look through the sieved cremated material, which has been processed in accordance with the British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology guidelines, will have to wait though as they need to dry over the next few days, ideally for another few days after too.  Once dry I can go through each fraction sieved (10mm, 6mm, 2mm) and sort as human and non-human, before identifying specific osteological features and assigning the fragments to either skull, limb, or trunk sections of the skeleton.

As I think about this I remember that I must complete this human osteology report soon.

For many people the thought of touching or analyzing human remains is too much, that in many minds remains are parceled off to the medical realm or are hurried to the cemetery to be removed out of sight.  In reality though we are often surrounded by human remains, though we may not always know it and may not always want to know it.  In archaeology the skeletal remains of humans are often the only direct biological matter to survive of individuals and past populations.  They can encode and preserve a lot of information on biological matters and past cultural practices.  This has been steadily recognized within the past century as osteological methodologies are refined for accuracy and new technology is applied in novel approaches to the remains unearthed.  One of the prime concerns for any bioarchaeologist or human osteologist is that ethical codes and guidelines are adhered to, with the relevant legal permits acquired as appropriate.  As I glance upon the presumed Anglo-Saxon remains I remember that these too were unexpected finds by the construction workers, I briefly wonder how they felt and what they thought on seeing them for the first time.

Anyhow, back to processing the cremation and to thinking about writing the report.

It is pretty interesting as although I’ve part-processed cremations within urns before, with careful micro-excavation spit by spit, I’ve never fully processed a cremation to completion.  Whether these cremated remains represent human skeletal material, as the field notes state, remains a different matter though and it is one I am eager to solve…

Further Learning

  • The British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO) promotes the study of understanding the ‘physical development of the human species from the past to the present’.  As an association they provide research grants for projects in which all members of BABAO are eligible, as well as offering prizes for presentations and posters in their annual conference, which is held in the United Kingdom.  I fully recommend attending and taking part if you are associated with any relevant field.
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Guest Post: Brief History of Elmet Archaeological Services Ltd by Alex Sotheran

1 Sep

Alex Sotheran is the Archaeology Manager at Elmet Archaeological Services Ltd.  Alex has worked in field archaeology since 2001 after graduating from the University of York and helped to set up Elmet Archaeology in 2009.  He has a particular interest in the First World War and has worked on battlefield sites and training areas in the UK, France and Belgium.  In 2013 Alex graduated with an MA in British First World War Studies at the University of Birmingham.


Elmet first opened its doors in 2009 during the student training excavations at Brodsworth in south Yorkshire.  These training digs were run by Sheffield and Hull universities and were a chance for the archaeology students at both universities to undertake some archaeological fieldwork.  The Brodsworth project was also open to members of the public and it was noticed by Elmet’s founder, Christine Rawson, that there was a demand for archaeological volunteer work from people in the local areas of South Yorkshire.  Archaeology is one of those subjects that many people are interested in but few get a chance to actually take part in any hands on work, so Elmet was set up with that in mind.  It was intended to create a company that would specifically allow members of the public with no background in archaeology to take part in archaeological investigations with full training provided.

Therefore, Elmet was not only directed by community involvement but also steeped in educational outreach as well.  The company largely depends on funding from various community bodies across the UK, including, but not exclusively, the Humber Learning Consortium, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Council for British Archaeology and the Coalfield Regeneration Trust.

One of the first projects began in 2010 and was conducted alongside the University of Sheffield at Monk Bretton Priory; the two-week project attracted over 300 people through excavation work on a Tudor mansion and local history and family sessions.  On the back of this success, the Dearne Valley Archaeology Group was created with help from Elmet staff; it is now self funded and features regular talks on archaeology from various experts.

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Elmet Archaeology Investigates the site of Ulley in South Yorkshire, where geophysics was used to determine the nature of the archaeological remains beneath the field. Image credit: Elmet Archaeology.

In 2011 work began at one of Elmet’s long running projects, the Hickleton Hall Prisoner of War Camp.  Whilst searching for prehistoric remains the team came across the remnants of a Second World War camp, first used by I Corps as a headquarters and then used for housing prisoners from Germany and Italy.  The project is ongoing and 2014 saw a new season of work uncovering concrete hut bases, again with the help of volunteers.  Alongside the fieldwork was a project strand which aimed to collect memories and stories from local people who had experienced the prisoners first hand, one lady told us that two Italian prisoners would call round to her parent’s house every Sunday for tea!

The summer of 2013 saw staff from Elmet branching out into various commercial archaeology jobs.  The sites were in North Yorkshire and various levels of archaeological investigation were stipulated by the county archaeologist before wind turbines were erected.  One of the sites had a Romano-British boundary ditch running through it, but very little else.

In 2013 another large-scale project was completed after Rotherham Archaeological Society had approached Elmet with the intention of locating a possible Roman fort at Ulley.  This project took the form of a fieldwalking exercise and geophysical survey of a field that had been identified as containing a Roman fort by the one of the society’s founders, Mr Philip Smedley.  This potential site was flagged up in 1953 and the project was carried out as a memorial project for Mr Smedley.  Unfortunately the results proved negative and it appears that Mr Smedley had misidentified medieval ridge and furrow marks for the layout of a fort.  However, the project engaged over a hundred people in their local history and taught them archaeological skills at a basic level, further to this the project helped to raise the profile of the Society and increased their membership.  We like to think that Mr Smedley would have been pleased with what was achieved by the Rotherham Archaeological Society and Elmet.

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Members of the public taking part in field walking a site, looking for surface finds and artefacts that could indicate the nature of the archaeological remains underneath. Image credit: Elmet Archaeology.

The winter of 2013 saw Elmet excavating a cementation furnace in the industrial heartland of Sheffield’s Kelham Island.  This large brick-built structure dated to the middle of the nineteenth century would have been capable of producing large amounts of steel and was part of Sheffield’s industrial growth.  This was a commercially led project so only two members of staff were on site to conduct the work; however, we still continued our commitment to the wider community by sharing photographs of the project as work progressed.

In April of 2014 Elmet began work at the Silverwood Scout Camp, which previously had been the training ground for the Barnsley Pals during the First World War.  This project was particularly pertinent given the centenary of the First World War was just around the corner when the work began.  Again community members were involved in the geophysical survey and excavation of several concrete bases which formed the ablutions and latrine blocks of the First World War camp.  We even had a visit from the retired Colonel of the Yorks and Lancs Regiment whilst on site!

It is not just all twentieth century archaeology though, in 2013 and 2014 Elmet worked with the Wetlands Archaeology & Environmental Research Centre (based at the University of Hull) at Sutton Common, close to Doncaster.  The site at Sutton Common has an Iron Age enclosure, surrounded by banks and ditches and a complex entrance way.  However, Elmet were concerned with rather older remains, in the form of Mesolithic flint scatters and possible structures, which were located on the edge of a palaeochannel.  Volunteers and students from various universities helped on the work and it proved to be a rather interesting site.

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After highlighting the archaeological features of this trench at the WW1 site of Silverwood, excavators define the features by cleaning back the soil. Image credit: Elmet Archaeology.

Outside of archaeological investigations, Elmet have several other strands of community involvement, one being our weekly reminiscences group which brings together people suffering from dementia and gives them an outlet to attempt to alleviate their condition.  We also host a weekly family history group, where access to computers and heritage websites are provided to the attendees.

The next big project for Elmet is the investigation of a back garden in a village called Swinton, near Rotherham.  This is an exciting new venture for Elmet as it is a crowd-funded excavation, something we have never tried before.  The project came about after the house tenant, Mr Andrew Allen, found a surprisingly large amount of Roman pottery during gardening work.  Not knowing what to do with the finds Andrew contacted Elmet and we decided that we could excavate the garden, teach people the rudiments of archaeological excavation and recording and hope to understand what a large deposit of Roman artefacts was doing there in the first place!  The project can only be carried out by the willingness of people to donate to the fund and each strand of donation has its own reward, with the larger tiers carrying a chance to actually come and excavate with us!  There is more information on the Sponsume site for our project, it can be found here.

Elmet has also hosted several yearly Dearne Valley Archaeology Days, where we have attracted speakers from all over the country talking on a variety of current archaeological topics. Each year has been well attended and has grown in size and scale with each event. The 2014 event was a resounding success, with speakers such diverse topics as blogging in archaeology, the archaeology of Sherwood Forest, Egyptian mummies and Scottish hill forts! This is a tradition that is set to stay and only grow!

Elmet have many future projects on the boil, including a return to Hickleton and Silverwood.  Beyond this we hope to expand into education and training with our series of monthly archaeological workshops.  These are open to members of the public and are taught by experts in many fields.  The workshops we have run already have been well attended and received and included the varied themes of human and animal bones, stratigraphy, illustration, industrial metal working, GIS and a whole host more!  We have several fieldwork opportunities in the future that we are working on, so please drop us a line or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to see our regular updates!

Further Information

  • Details on the Elmet Archaeology’s remaining 2014 workshops (topics include an introduction to human evolution, map regression and archaeological illustration) can be found on the above link on their website.  The workshops are often held in Wath-Upon-Dearne, South Yorkshire, on Saturdays throughout the year.
  • Elmet have a Facebook project page for Unlocking Swinton’s Roman Past, and you can also sponsor the excavation and research with a donation here.  Backers of the project can choose what level of involvement they’d like in the project (dependent on the amount donated), and they can also take part in the excavation themselves and receive copies of the report produced.
  • The Dearne Valley Archaeology Group regularly meet up to discuss heritage and archaeology in South Yorkshire.  They hold monthly lectures from specialists around the region on a variety of topics.  DVAG also help Elmet Archaeology with their annual Dearne Valley Archaeology Day conference.  (I can attest as to how good these conferences are as I attended and spoke at the magnificent 2014 edition!).