Making sense of the un-excavated bits: Geophysical survey at the Black Friary

Ever wondered how archaeologists decide where to dig? One method is geophysical survey, which shows magnetic and electromagnetic changes underground…and sometimes above ground.

Geophysical survey is a useful tool for archaeology and many other fields as it is a non-invasive way to view three-dimensional segments of changes in the Earth’s physical properties below ground.  In archaeology, survey targets are often the small or weak ‘anomalies’ caused by human occupation. Choosing appropriate techniques for each site is key in acquiring useful results. Over two seasons, PhD student Ashely Green of Bournemouth University, carried out geophysical investigation.In this post, she tells about her research and results to date:

Ashely Green, PhD student, Bournemouth University

With permissions from the National Monuments Service  for site investigation (15R0023), I conducted two studies on the un-excavated areas of the Black Friary as part of my Masters and PhD research programmes.  The aims of the surveys were to combine previous geophysical datasets (‘legacy data’) with my own multi-technique surveys (ground-penetrating radar, electromagnetic induction, and gradiometry) to identify areas of archaeological potential and suggest new protocols for ground-penetrating radar surveys in order to acquire high resolution data and improve confidence in interpreting data.

The site was first surveyed in 1989 by Prof. William Kennedy and a team from Florida Atlantic University using proton magnetometry and earth resistance, which detect magnetic and conductivity changes in the ground relating to stone structures, areas of burning, ditches, and large ferrous objects (Kennedy 1989).  This low resolution survey provided a good outline of structural remains beneath the ground surface.

Kennedy 1989: Dot density plot of resistance data

The site was re-surveyed in 2010 by Ian Elliot (O’Carroll 2011), using similar techniques (gradiometry and earth resistance) but at a higher resolution. Results from the resistance survey improved upon Kennedy’s survey, clearly outlining surviving structural remains.

Earth resistance kit

Unfortunately, there was too much modern metal contamination to get clear results from the gradiometry survey. Due to this modern metal (ferrous) contamination, I opted to conduct ground-penetrating radar (GPR) surveys.

GPR detects changes (structures, voids, redeposited soil, stone, etc.) or boundaries in the subsurface materials; these features reflect back the electromagnetic pulses emitted by the instrument, at the ground surface.  Surveys were conducted at high resolution – surveying along lines (traverses) spaced 10cm apart for the cloister garth and 25cm for the town wall and cemetery boundary investigations, and collecting data every 2cm along those lines.

GPR results showed a number of responses of archaeological potential, meaning the responses were of similar size, shape, and amplitude to features you would expect to see on a medieval monastic site, but require validation via ‘ground-

GPR survey in action

truthing’.  Of particular interest were the ‘anomalies’ within the cloister garth – a loosely compacted (low amplitude) circular response associated with a loosely compacted linear response approximately 50cm below the ground surface, which could be a water well, and a number of responses that are the approximate size and orientation of medieval graves.  Results from other areas of the site required clarification, so a secondary electromagnetic induction (EMI) survey was conducted in the north range and across the possible location of the medieval town wall, the line of which is thought to be along the south boundary of the site (Shine et al 2016).

EMI instruments measure magnetic susceptibility (the ability for an object/material to become magnetised) and conductivity (the ability for an object/material to carry an electrical current).  The technique is useful in detecting stone structures, industrial areas, settlements, ferrous objects, and ditches.

Results from the north range were still quite ‘noisy’ due to the modern dumping, but one response of archaeological potential was noted on the magnetic susceptibility aspect of the survey: a linear, compacted (high amplitude), conductive response in the possible location of the medieval town wall was suspected to relate to the wall’s foundation. Thus far, no such remains have been identified in excavation (O’Carroll, Shine & Scott, 2016; 2017).

In 2016, surveys expanded in terms of techniques and location.  The focus became the medieval cemetery, the boundaries of which are estimated based on excavation results and landmarks within the landscape (O’Carroll, 2011, 2014; O’Carroll, Shine & Scott, 2016, 2017; Seaver, 2009).  We undertook GPR and gradiometer surveys at high resolution to increase the potential to detect any characteristic graves.

The survey results have been interpreted manually and a number of anomalies of interest were noted, but complete results will have to wait until the data has been interpreted using the automatic feature detection software, to result from my PhD research.

Where do we go from here?

The next steps, as with many geophysical surveys, are to resurvey areas of interest and unclear results at higher resolution with multiple techniques, expand the survey area, and finally ‘ground-truth’ through excavation.

 

 

Further reading:

Green, A and Cheetham, P. 2016. Poster: Reimaging the Black Friary: Recent Approaches to Seeing Beyond Modern Activities at the Dominican Friary, Trim, Co Meath, Republic of Ireland.  Department of Archaeology, Anthropology and Forensic Science. Bournemouth University
Kennedy, W 1989. An Archaeological Survey of the Blackfriary Site, Trim, Ireland. Report to the Office of Public Works, Florida Atlantic University.
O’Carroll, F 2014. Archaeological Research Excavations at The Black Friary, Trim, Co Meath – Interim Report. http://iafs.ie/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Blackfriary-E4127-C240-Report-2014.pdf
Seaver, M. 2009. Burials at the well: excavation at the Blackfriary. In Potterton M and Seaver M (eds). Uncovering Medieval Trim. Dublin. Four Courts Press.
Shine, D., Green, A., O’Carroll, F., Mandal, S., & Mullee, B. (2016). WHAT LIES BENEATH-CHASING THE TRIM TOWN WALL CIRCUIT. Archaeology Ireland, 30(1), 34-38.
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Stained glass – from discovery to conservation

Since 2015, the IAFS has been collaborating with Cardiff University Conservation department, on the conservation of medieval stained glass from the Black Friary excavations.

The stained glass, we believe, was installed during original 13th century construction phase of the friary. It has been excavated over several seasons however, from contexts that were deposited around the time of systematic dismantling (quarrying) of the friary buildings in the 18th century. Excavation thus far suggests that the glass was forcibly removed from the lead cames, possibly hammered out, and most of the lead removed. The glass has survived in various states of repair, from flakes of degraded glass to shards with discernible colour and patterns.

The excavation strategy varies, depending on the size of the deposit; we have excavated individual sherds of glass, caches of glass, and large window fragments that include glass still contained in lead cames. The individual pieces, and caches are recovered by hand into finds trays, and kept cool and damp until all pieces from an individual context or cache are recovered.

The glass is extremely fragile, and is treated with a specific methodology, agreed with the conservation team, to ensure that it reaches the lab in the same condition, as excavated. This includes keeping the glass damp, packing it in sieved soil to prevent further abrasion, and maintaining it in a stable environment until it can be transported to the lab; we have a dedicated fridge in our on-site post ex lab for this.  The glass is also photographed, so the conservation lab has a visual reference to accompany the find record. This helps in planning the conservation process, and in assessing any deterioration in the glass between excavation and conservation.

The window fragments identified are excavated using a ‘block lift’ methodology, designed to allow the excavation and conservation of the fragment in lab conditions. In 2015, conservation staff of the National Museum came to the site to demonstrate this technique: the artefact is isolated by excavating around and below it, leaving the artefact partially exposed and sitting on a ‘pedestal’. Ideally, the artefact is excavated only enough to determine its size, leaving a protective covering of the soil matrix around it. This is then wrapped and sealed with film wrapping (cling film), cushioned with acid free tissue or bubble wrap, and wrapped again to secure this. Finally, this is secured and stabilised by wrapping it with fine gauze bandages infused with plaster – the type used to cast a broken limb! This last bit is a slightly messy process that involves immersing the bandages in a basin of water, and immediately wrapping it around the prepared artefact to ensure that it is secured in place before its starts to dry out. Several bandage wraps might be required to fully stabilise the object. Once the bandages have dried and hardened, the block can then be lifted. This last step requires that the block is carefully levered up, and a prepared board slid underneath it to lift it. Depending on the size and weight of the finished block, this is in then further wrapped, or boxed and sealed, to ensure its safe transport to the conservation lab. When in the conservation lab, it can then be excavated in controlled conditions by the conservation team.

Our first batch of glass was sent to Cardiff, under licence to export and alter from the National Museum, in late 2015. Post graduate conservation students have been working through the collection, and have almost completed the initial conservation, moving now to XRF and SEM analysis. We are really excited to see the finished pieces and to hear the results of the analysis.

Follow the story of the glass on the Cardiff University Conservation Blog, by research coordinator Meredith Sweeney:

What happens when 239 boxes of stained glass and lead are brought to conservators? We buy fridges!

Looking Through the Window Glass

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Using 3D Lasers in Archaeology: Trim Castle project

3D Digital Scanning at Trim Castle: OPW Archaeology Talk

On Thursday June 30th, the OPW office in Trim will host a presentation on the current 3Dlaser scanning project at the National Monument sites of Trim Castle and the Black Friary, Trim, Co. Meath.

Dr. Rogers and students laser scanning Trim Castle

Dr. Rogers and students laser scanning Trim Castle

Professors Michael “Bodhi” Rogers of Ithaca College and Scott Stull of SUNY Cortland in cooperation with the OPW are conducting a 3D laser scan at these sites, using state-of-the-art scanning equipment.

The presentation will describe the results of this research and its application in advanced interpretation, conservation and preservation at the sites.

Rogers and Scott have collaborated on several projects combining archaeological excavation, geophysical archaeology, and 3D laser scanning including several landmarks in the United States, including Abraham Lincoln’s cottage in Washington D.C. and the Old Fort Johnson National Historic Landmark in Johnstown, New York.

The results will help inform future strategies for investigation, interpretation, and preservation at these sites, including on-line access to the archaeology through imagery generated by the scans, and advanced detailed recording techniques, preserving the site digitally for future generations.

“3D laser scanning is an emerging technology that facilitates digital preservation of standing structures,” said Rogers. “Our scanner pulses 50,000 times per second to take a reading every five millimeters. By moving the scanner around the site, we’ll create a full digital record that can be used to facilitate historic preservation planning, create virtual tours and aid in repairing any future damage to the structure.”

 “Our research at Trim Castle will be the largest historic structure we’ve laser scanned, which will provide us with interesting new challenges,” said Rogers.

Professors Stull and Rogers and the IAFS team will also collaboratively mentor students as they perform geophysical archaeological surveys and archaeological excavations at the Black Friary site.

The presentation will be on the 30th June 2016 at 6pm sharp in the Atrium in the OPW offices, Jonathan Swift Street, Trim, Co. Meath.

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Winter 2016: Lauren reports – last post from our intrepid intern

In the eleventh – and final – in a series of weekly blogs, IAFS/Learn intern Lauren Nofi reports on the last week of her internship.

This is what Lauren looks like underneath her hat and coat and 20 layers – she just has to visit in the summer:

Hello! This past week we’ve been getting some last bits of information needed for the site report as well as working on the site archive in general. Of course the weather was beautiful when we were sitting in the site office. Many a time I had to physically wrestle my intern (Ciarán) from sneaking out of the post-ex lab with a trowel…he claimed he heard a song coming from the trenches telling him to come to the main work area of Cutting 6 where our chapter house stood. My only explanation for this sudden and belligerent behaviour is trench sirens which are a thing I totally did not just make up. Trench sirens, like sirens of the waters of the ancient Mediterranean, call me to their doom with sweet songs. And I’m like, “Ciarán, bro, do not go into the trench. You’re going to your doom.” So aside from all of this doom, we had a very pleasant week of office work.

Our last bits of research were gathered and sent off to Dr Shine who had the herculean task of writing the main body of the site report. We were mostly just checking paper records for feature descriptions and putting together little cheat sheets of trench info. After this, we went through our old paper records and undertook a number of archival tasks.

We pulled out all the folders of every plan of every trench on site and went through them, cleaning up any rough edges, remnants of masking tape used to hold them to drawing boards, and checking their contents. We compared our drawing register information with what was actually written on each drawing sheet, adding grid points or supplementary information from our register. It was very interesting work as it allowed us to see areas of the site we had only known as backfilled cuttings as well as giving a glimpse of earlier phases of our two cuttings from this season. Soon all of these plans, section drawings and profiles will be scanned for the computer to add to our digital record of the site. I’ve talked about plans more than you probably ever needed to know, but section drawings and profiles are the other drawn records we take of spatial elements: section drawings are like cross-sections of an excavated area, while profiles map the elevation changes of a given area of trench.

After this, I began digitising all the old trench files while Ciarán chased down some specifics on our “show and tell” box of finds. Every cutting has a folder full of feature sheets, describing every feature within each cutting, as well as various registers and other notes. I started the process of scanning every page, compiling multiple sheets into PDF files for each feature, and converting them to an archive-quality PDF. Just like with paper records, one of the most important parts of creating and storing an archive is thinking ahead about how these physical materials may degrade over time. With our paper documents, we have to think about things like ink fading, or binder holes ripping, and things like storage conditions. For our digital documents, we have to think about how we will access them in future, so for example, we are using a type of PDF which will still be able to be viewed even if PDF reader technology improves and computer programs change in the coming decade. It’s all a lot to be conscious of, as our archive itself becomes like an artefact we have to conserve.

It’s my last week on-site, and I just wanted to say a quick thank you to everyone who made it possible for me to be here doing the stuff I love. So thanks to all the staff for helping me to become a better archaeologist; showing me the ins and outs to running both a site and field school. Thank you to all the amazing students who helped me become a better teacher, as y’all are one of the main reasons I love working at field school. Finally, I’d like to thank all of you who read and shared this blog; I honestly never thought my words would reach as far as they have, and it’s been an honour to be your host for our very first winter season at the Blackfriary. This whole experience was unforgettable, so from the very bottom of my heart, thank you all.

Lauren

 

 

Blog_2016_LN_11.2

No expense is spared for Lauren’s goodbye!!! Tasty AND tempting, food at ‘Supermacs’.

Thank you so much for all the hard work, and for doing this incredible blog. We are really going to miss you Lauren. Come back soon – Denis, Fin, Ciarán, Mairead, Bairbre and Steve xxx

 

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Winter 2016: Lauren reports – numbering, labelling and digitising

In the tenth (and penultimate) in a series of weekly blogs, IAFS/Learn intern Lauren Nofi reports on the progress in the post-excavation laboratory, looking at ceramics and the process of data entry:

Hey hey, this week was all about finishing registering and processing our last bits of LN Blog 1ceramic as well as completing quite a bit of data entry. The last part of our processing of ceramic fragments involved some nimble fingers and a lot of patience…come to think of it so did all the data entry as well.

The site is rich with ceramic material, mostly in the form of pottery, though occasionally we get tiles and unidentifiable bits of fired clay. This pottery spans the entire occupation of the site, so we generally categorise our sherds as either medieval or post-medieval. This is a common practice on sites with multi-period use, and allows specialists to more easily find the physical artefacts as well as trace trends within the spatial use of the site through time. Every single fragment we have, just as with other artefacts, is assigned a unique number. This number includes the site code, feature number, and artefact number within said feature. For artefacts made of metal, we simply place a permatrace tag with each specimen. For pottery and tiles, however, we write our number directly on the sherd.

Stone and worked shell artefacts receiving tags, medieval pottery (first two), post-medieval pottery (second two), pipe bowl (centre top), pipe stems

Stone and worked shell artefacts receiving tags, medieval pottery (first two), post-medieval pottery (second two), pipe bowl (centre top), pipe stems

The actual process of pot-marking is simple enough in theory, but once you actually start working you’ll see it takes a special kind of archaeologist to really excel at labelling efficiently and legibly. I am not this type of archaeologist 🙂

The first step to labelling a ceramic item is to inspect it for any special decoration or feature, something diagnostic (like whether it is from a rim or base. You can even determine the original size of the mouth or base of a vessel with these diagnostic pieces and a bit of maths). You definitely don’t want to write your artefact number on, say, the only visible bit of glaze since this later may be necessary for identification, or, even in some cases, reconstruction. Ideally, you would be writing the number along an edge on the inside surface of the vessel, which allows future display or reconstruction to be relatively unaffected by your labelling system. Sometimes it’s just not possible to determine an inner surface from an outer, or the shape of the sherd doesn’t allow for easy writing.

Tools of the trade: acetone (glass jar), varnish (tin), special and practically magical tiny-nib pen, and some brushes

Tools of the trade: acetone (glass jar), varnish (tin), special and practically magical tiny-nib pen, and some brushes

Once you’ve found a surface to label, you must place a thin strip of a special multi-purpose fixative: it’s basically a varnish, consolidant and glue all in one which conservators call Paraloid B72. When this dries, you add another layer of varnish. You’ve now made a writing surface which is removable, as reversibility is incredibly useful. This particular varnish can be removed with acetone, so if something must be re-labelled, a quick swipe of acetone and gentle scrub gives back your original ceramic surface no worse for wear. Next, you use a pen, often a specialised one with a very thin nib, to write your artefact numbers on your varnish stripe. One final coat of varnish and your find is now identifiable.

This is the teeny tiny pen nib

This is the teeny tiny pen nib

Fellow intern Ciarán and I developed a nice little assembly line of artefacts in various states of labelling. I handled the measurement for registering and varnishing, while he entered the measurements into our digital ledger and wrote the actual numbers.

Voila! A labelled potsherd

Voila! A labelled potsherd

I should say it wasn’t just potsherds and tiles in our ceramic collection, I did leave out my favourite type of object: clay pipe fragments. They are my favourite simply as nearly every site I have worked on has amassed nice collections of pipe stems and pipe bowls. These functional and occasionally even decorative objects begin their historical life in the colonial period of Britain concurring with the tobacco trade. Some specialists have actually used the dimensions of the pipe stem bore-hole and the bowl as markers for dating the artefact; in general, smaller bowls are often earlier due to the very low quantities of tobacco available in the first centuries of the industry. By the 1790s, clay pipes were also made into extravagant collectors’ items, with multicoloured glazes and extended hollow chambers. One type of these decorative pipes is known as Prattware and some feature comical heads and bodies curving to form the stem and bowl. Some of it is truly hideous (so naturally I love it). Our simple clay pipe fragments however have contemporary analogues all over the world, especially wherever the British tobacco industry reached (yes, I know we are in Ireland, but you have to think of major players in the beginnings of globalised trade and the influence of British law and socio-economics on Ireland).

Some pipe stems freshly labelled

Some pipe stems freshly labelled

My other work this week involved lots of computer work. I spent some time populating tables for all our cuttings listing the artefacts and ecofacts found therein for our upcoming site report. In addition, I collated information on all of our outreach activities since our founding as IAFS, also for our report. Lastly, I digitised our burials register, creating a searchable spreadsheet of all of our articulated inhumations.

 Until next week!

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Winter 2016: Lauren reports – metal artefacts

The ninth in a series of weekly blogs, IAFS/Learn intern Lauren Nofi reports on the progress in the post-excavation laboratory, looking at the collection of metal objects.LN Blog 1

Hello, hello, hello! This week we’ve been continuing in post-ex, cataloguing and sorting our finds from the summer and our recent winter session. We’ve been updating our catalogues and labelling objects as necessary, as well as checking and cross-referencing different registers. The infant burial I was working on has dried and been re-bagged and packed according to our burial storage procedure.

Some of the material we were sorting and labelling this week included window lead. We have a separate register just for window lead, but sometimes lead was identified as simply a lead object and registered with our general bagged finds. We had to ensure all the bits of lead used to support window glass were properly noted both on their bags and their locations were traceable through the registers’ entries.

How window lead appears when excavated, though often in much smaller fragments

How window lead appears when excavated, though often in much smaller fragments

The bits of lead used in window glass are called “cames.” Now I know some of you are probably thinking, Homegirl, why do you care so much about scraps of lead from windows? Well, homedawgs, let me tell you a little story about the importance of window lead:

Once there was a very important and well-known Colonial American site which shall remain nameless since this is a tale of archaeological horror. They found so much lead in the form of crushed and warped cames, the individual pieces were recorded as simply a bulk find and shortly discarded. One day, after over a decade of simply discarding their window lead, an archaeologist with a mind for conservation carefully pried open the tiny flaps (each called a “leaf” and which would have secured the piece of glass). The window cames would normally look like the picture above, but the crushed cames would have the small wings overlapping the glass sealed together.

A lead came with a double-channel forming an H-shape when viewed from the ends

A lead came with a double-channel forming an H-shape when viewed from the ends

The main channel of the came revealed a surprise: the maker and year was embossed within the lead. It just so happens the English lead workers had jointly enacted a set of quality control regulations requiring all lead to be marked with maker information, so if it failed, the proper action could be taken with regard to suppliers. Suddenly, a whole new source of historical information became available though it has likely been there all the time, in the thousands of discarded lead strips. The window cames allowed archaeologists to date the construction phases of colonial buildings in the area to within a few years!

Now to be clear, I’m not saying our window lead is even from the same century as my little tale above (ours is usually about three or four centuries older), but I just wanted to explain how a very simple object can open up the history of a site unlike any other. So I’ll never scoff again at the care with which some bulk finds are recorded, and I know I am much more open to post-excavation work to err on the side of hoarding. Not that everything must be, or even should be, saved, but you never know what technological or analytical breakthroughs may be made in a few years’ time, so keep your mind open but be judicious regarding what bulk material you save.

An intricate lead came with a floral motif

An intricate lead came with a floral motif

In addition to lead, we also had copper, iron, and glass, artefacts to catalogue or update entries in our registers. Some of our iron is immediately identifiable, even with its bulky rust. Iron usually corrodes and forms brown and orange-y concretions of oxidized material, which basically means it rusts and unevenly gets a little bigger due to the process of rusting. Copper and its alloys, however, often corrode anywhere from a bright green to a forest green, depending on the presence of other elements. There are of course many different types of corrosion encountered with metals in archaeological contexts, but these are often the most common and the most easily identifiable corroded metals. Glass corrodes differently, as it begins to break down into incredibly thin, brittle layers in a process called lamination. The materials in the glass itself, along with this splitting of layers, often produces iridescence. These layers each refract, or bend, the light which splits it into many colours. If you were to place glass laminated in this manner in water (DO NOT if it is archaeological, I’m just saying if you were to) the water would fill in the very tiny air holes between layers and allow most light to pass back through. This is why when you are (carefully) washing archaeological glass, it sometimes looks un-corroded temporarily.

Our next task is to register and pot-mark (literally write finds numbers on) all the ceramic material still in post-ex. I’ll talk a bit about pot-marking in next week’s blog. So long!

I found this iron key amongst our artefacts, the very key to fellow intern Ciaran’s heart. It’s old and crusty just like him

I found this iron key amongst our artefacts, the very key to fellow intern Ciaran’s heart. It’s old and crusty just like him

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Winter 2016: Lauren reports – more PEX!

In the eighth in a series of weekly blogs, IAFS/Learn intern Lauren Nofi reports on the progress in the post-excavation laboratory.

Hello, all! Briefer blog this week as we are still washing in post-ex!

Last week I wrote about all manner of bone-washing. This week we continued and finished cleaning all of our disarticulated human bones and sought to also process our animal bone excavated during this winter season.

One particularly exciting part of examining our animal bones as we wash them is when come across signs of butchery or other consumption via cut marks. Even fellow intern and historian Ciarán was quite tickled to come across any of these signs, which only means one thing: HE’S ONE OF US (ONE OF US, ONE OF US). This is a particularly nerdy archaeological thing to get excited about, but ask anyone working with animal bone in an analysis context, and they’d probably say the same. There’s just something cool about holding in your hand someone else’s dinner from nearly 800 years ago! Unfortunately I couldn’t get a good photograph of cut marks, just due to the lighting, but if I come across a particularly aesthetically pleasing example I will post it.

Some of our animal bone drying

Some of our animal bone drying

We had one feature which produced so much animal bone in our brief winter season it took several crowded drying racks just to accommodate it all! In the previous pictures you can see fairly robust bones and fragments, but sometimes we were working with much smaller quantities.

A small portion of our largest animal bone sample of the season

A small portion of our largest animal bone sample of the season

At our site, animal bone is considered a sample. Samples are taken for a few reasons, but most often for statistical or specialist analysis.

Some smaller animal bone samples

Some smaller animal bone samples

Notice the tags have numbers in a diamond or lozenge shape. This is how at a glance we can know whether the bones we are encountering have been classified as human or animal, since, of the two, only animal bone receives this designated shape. Recall our disarticulated human remains all had a specially assigned DHB number. Similarly, our animal bone samples will all have a sample number which relates to the cutting from which it came.

In addition to working with all this animal bone, I started washing some material I found quite moving: an infant burial. The bones themselves are ever-so-delicate and really require a soft touch. The process itself is slightly different as the excavators kept associate bones together, so I have bags for each hand, each arm, each leg, and so forth, to clean and let dry separately. (Once dry this will all be packed both to simulate the order of bones in the body but also allow the more fragile bones like the skull to be kept from damage.) Naturally I was briefly petrified as I picked up the very first fragment of cranium. Even though I have obviously worked with human skeletal material before, this has so far been some of the most difficult work. Not only does it necessitate fine motor skills, but the entire process sparks another mini-existential crisis like I mentioned last week over the tiny person in your hands. It reminded me that human bone was once part of a person; seeing, thinking, feeling.  With that in mind, we always treat human remains with the utmost respect.

 I’ll keep you all updated as I finish this, and we begin working with some of our worked artefacts.

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Winter 2016: Lauren reports – post excavation processes

In the seventh in a series of weekly blogs, IAFS/Learn intern Lauren Nofi reports on the first week without the IAFS winter program students.

Salutations! This week has been super quiet without our students, but we’ve all been hard at work in post-ex. We have a lot of artefacts to wash, label, and organise for storage. Right now, our post-ex staff consists of me, fellow intern Ciarán McDonnell, and a local student interested in archaeology and history.

Would you believe he has a PhD, yet he still pays homage to my expert cleaning of animal bone!

Would you believe he has a PhD, yet he still pays homage to my expert cleaning of animal bone!

Our post-excavation lab is on-site, meaning we were actually able to have students working in post-ex concurrently with those excavating. We had a backlog of material from the previous summer season which clearly provided tons of data we are still compiling; so much of the work involved the immense quantity of artefacts found in the summer of 2015. This season, which was shorter and involved different areas of the cuttings such as rubble spreads from walls, produced less material but also answered or made us re-examine questions from the previous season. I’ll talk a little bit about the very cool objects we did find, however, in a future blog. For now, I would like to discuss a bit of our post-ex process: bone-washing!

Bones on our site are catalogued and processed as samples, as opposed to finds. Some sites differ on their handling of bones, but for us, we want to preserve them and have them examined by a specialist so we take great care in our processing. We have three separate processes to wash bone, as we encounter both animal and human bone on site. Human bone is encountered in two main scenarios: as an articulated burial or as disarticulated remains. This blog discusses the processes for animal bone and disarticulated human bones. All of these processes involved a good bit of paperwork to allow us to keep track of every sample in every bag from every feature at any point in their long journey through post-ex. Our post-ex structure is definitely the most thorough finds and sample processing system I have ever encountered, and it’s actually a relief to be so meticulous. I like knowing exactly where everything is when I am working on finds and sample processing, and our system makes it almost stress-free because of our rigorous registering, labelling, and cataloguing.

When the animal bone was excavated, it was placed in a bag labelled with the site code, feature number, and date of excavation (along with some other tidbits of info like the initials of the excavator). It was also registered in a ledger and assigned a unique sample number, which is also written on the bag.

Tools of the trade.

Tools of the trade.

When it is time to wash these bones, this information is all copied onto a permatrace label used to identify the sample while it is drying. The washing date and initials of the washer are also added to the label. The pertinent info for this process is recorded in another ledger in a section strictly for the washing of animal bone. The actual washing bit is usually pretty relaxing. We used toothbrushes and paintbrushes to gently remove soil from the bones, bringing the water to the bone on the bristles rather than placing the bone in the water. The bones themselves are relatively stable, but soaking them in water would soften them and saturate them, making their drying process more complicated and heightening the probability of damage.

Some washed animal bone samples drying.

Some washed animal bone samples drying.

The cleaned bones are placed on a drying rack, with only one sample per container, though we have varying sizes containers to accommodate our differing sample sizes. The permatrace label we made earlier is here displayed.

We have an area of the post-ex lab reserved for drying samples, but our efficient washing over the past week actually outstripped the speed of drying, so there was something of a space-issue. Instead, the whole lab is now a giant dryer, so as we work it’s actually quite toasty!

Dryer drying racks of bone

I call this photo “Dryer drying racks of bone,” or more poetically, “Y’all gonna make me lose my cool up in here (up in here).”

The process for washing disarticulated human (DHB) bones is slightly similar. We have a register for disarticulated remains, and each excavated assemblage (which may consist of one or more bones) is assigned a DHB (disarticulated human bone) number. Again, the entire process is recorded in a section of the washing register, this time specifically for DHB.

The actual handling of these human remains is always gentle and with a good deal of almost…reverence? Awe is perhaps an even better descriptor. Here we have in our hands the bones of the very people who lived and worked in this town, even at this friary, and the cleaning and care of these bones is a job we undertake with all seriousness. I always have something of an existential crisis whenever I work with human skeletal material. These bones once allowed someone in a completely different time to walk across the same ground I’m standing on. These skulls once held someone’s entire consciousness. It boggles my mind, and it makes me feel at once connected to this person about whom I know very little. And I think this continued wonder, whether you’re an archaeology student or a professional with decades of experience, is absolutely essential to your role as archaeologist. Without this wonder, without this curiosity tempered with respect and allegiance to scientific enquiry, who are we? Our entire field revolves around the material evidence of the human experience, so please please please never lose your sense of wonder when you are excavating or undertaking lab work.

Out of respect for both the individuals we have excavated and the descendant community, no photos of these remains will be shown in this blog. In future excavation reports, there will likely be images of some of our burials, but please understand this is done with all ethical intention for the purposes of scientific study, and we have taken the greatest care in handling all of the human remains we have encountered.

So long for now! I’ll be back next week with more post-ex updates!

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Article: The Blackfriary Button

We are delighted the the Black Friary is included in the current edition of the
Meath Archaeological & Historical Society journal Ríocht na Midhe:

RnaM 2016 Vol XXVIICongratulations to authors Finola O’Carroll, Dr. Denis Shine, Mark McConnon and Laura Corrway; the article details research carried out on the find in 2014 of a button from the C18th Longford Militia, identified during archaeological excavations at the C13th Blackfriary Dominican Friary site. In this instance, the archaeological and historical evidence gives us a glimpse in to post-medieval activity at the site, and puts the site in  context during the significant social and political events of that time.

 

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O’Carroll et al. 2016.  The Blackfriary Button. Ríocht na Midhe Vol. XXVIII, 30-35.

 

 

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Winter 2016: Lauren reports – wrapping up

In the sixth in a series of weekly blogs, IAFS/Learn intern Lauren Nofi reports on progress in cuttings 6 and 9, on a field trip to the Hills of Tara and Slane, and on the last week of the IAFS winter program.

Howdy! As usual, another super busy week on site! This week I spent most of my time in Cutting 9. Cutting 6 crew took the rubble pile, to the east of the chapter house bench, down a bit and discovered a neater rubble spread which seems to correspond to the chapter house wall. They proceeded to plan this new rubble spread.

Cutting 9 is a much smaller cutting in area, but it extends quite a bit deeper. This trench was an attempt to find part the church’s foundation trench, and included areas which had once been under the church floor. There is a stone plinth, which was only one course of stones until we took down the surrounding area’s soil and found a second course directly under the first and visible in section. Cutting 9 had also produced several burials over its excavation, but we did not ourselves discover articulated bones. Articulation simply means the skeletal material is mostly in place as if a body had been buried and no further movement occurred. We did find some disarticulated bone during our work, which was not necessarily a surprise. The level of the masonry was also approximately the level of a burial whose roughly east-west-oriented grave cut was still visible. Just beyond this, our predecessors had dug a sondage to fully reveal another burial with the head to the north. A sondage is simply a trench or pit within an existing excavated area to further investigate a feature or to better reveal the stratigraphy of the area. We cleaned the walls and base of the sondage, hoping to gather more clues about the relationships between the disturbed soil of the burials (a sandy sort of soil), the disturbed soil of the masonry, and the seemingly undisturbed natural soil (a yellow-orange clay).

East side of Cutting 9; note the stones at centre-top, sondage at bottom

East side of Cutting 9; note the stones at centre-top, sondage at bottom

As of yet, we still aren’t quite sure of the possible foundation trench nor the exact deposition processes of the disturbed and undisturbed soils. We might do a little more work in this cutting next week, hoping to answer a few our questions. The last thing we did in this cutting this week was plan it. You should all be pros regarding the planning process after last week’s blog, and our students were absolutely on top of the process, producing a plan quickly and accurately.

Cutting 9 crew hard at work

Cutting 9 crew hard at work

This week we also had secondary school students join us for an afternoon – 52 50 of them plus two teachers, all the way from New Ross, County Wexford (the southeast). Our students used this opportunity to show our visitors how our site functions. They were able to present and discuss some of the finds we have discovered onsite, as well as explain the use of equipment, like (surveyors) levels. It was really great seeing young students attentively listening to our own students and both groups getting excited about the work we were doing. Our students really were at the top of their game for this event.

Field school director Dr Steve goes through the basics of archaeological excavation with the school kids from New Ross

Field school director Dr Steve goes through the basics of archaeological excavation with the school kids from New Ross

Field school students Morgan and Jake, along with Dig it Kids Lisanne do a show and tell with the excavation finds

Field school students Morgan and Jake, along with Dig it Kids Lisanne do a show and tell with the excavation finds

 

Learning to dig in cutting 11 – our specially designed teaching pit

Learning to dig in cutting 11 – our specially designed teaching pit

 

Field school student Claire teaches the students how to take a level

Field school student Claire teaches the students how to take a level

Field school director Dr Denis Shine shows the students around the dig

Field school director Dr Denis Shine shows the students around the dig

For our field trip, we had a chance to explore the Hill of Tara and Hill of Slane. Tara has been known throughout Ireland as the original seat of the High Kings, but in truth the site’s history stretches back at least 5000 years. The hill features a complex of monuments from Neolithic through the Iron Age and into the medieval period. There are circular earthwork enclosures, many described as Iron Age ringforts, as well as at least one major causeway. A Neolithic passage tomb (the Mound of the Hostages) stands almost hemispherical out of the earth near the summit of the hill. Many of these features are associated with specific figures from folklore and history (some of the well-known mythological cycles seem to date from the Iron Age but survived orally until the medieval period when they were collected and tweaked by medieval Christian scribes). There is also a stone called Lia Fáil which is called the Stone of Destiny and is said to call out when the rightful king of Ireland steps upon it. Unfortunately the students and I had no luck claiming the entire island as our kingdom, since the stone remained silent. Luckily the stone was placed in relatively recent times on the actual summit rather than near the passage tomb where it originally stood, which afforded us an incredible view extending in all directions of the Irish countryside.

The Mound of the Hostages (Neolithic Passage Tomb), from the south

The Mound of the Hostages (Neolithic Passage Tomb), from the south

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A rainbow (you can just about see it) lands at the Lia Fáil (the stone of destiny), at the Hill of Tara

Steve discusses the significance of the Mound of the Hostages

Steve discusses the significance of the Mound of the Hostages

The gang at the Mound of the Hostages

The gang at the Mound of the Hostages

The Hill of Slane also was used in multiple periods, and may have been used in prehistoric times. By the medieval period, however, an abbey or friary stood on one the mounds on the hill. The site is associated with fifth-century Saint Patrick, who was said to have defied the High King by lighting a fire on the hill while the king’s rule demanded only Tara have a ceremonial fire. Evidence of Anglo-Norman use of the site is also present in the landscape, as well as the presence of monastic architecture beyond the early modern period.

 

Steve tells the story of St Patrick at the legendary scene of the first Pascal fire on the Hill of Slane

Steve tells the story of St Patrick at the legendary scene of the first Pascal fire on the Hill of Slane

Inside the Flemings college – note the en-suite bathrooms and fireplaces in the dormitory (Medieval luxury)

Inside the Flemings college – note the en-suite bathrooms and fireplaces in the dormitory (Medieval luxury)

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I just want to share one little inside joke from our crew: “lad poses.” This trend of particular positions in photographs spread throughout our entire group very quickly, and now there are dozens of photographs of students at various Irish sites and in our own trenches, posing with dramatically folded hands or outstretched arms pointing off in other directions. It’s a bit hard to describe, so have a look below for our proudest and possibly dampest moment:

the pose...

the pose…

 

We had a really successful week, and it’s going to be incredibly quiet with our students all heading home. This was an incredible four weeks, and we can’t thank the students enough for all the hard work they undertook. Safe travels home, everybody!

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