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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Winter 2016: Lauren reports – planning

In the fifth in a series of weekly blogs, IAFS/Learn intern Lauren Nofi writes about progress in Cutting 6 and post-ex work at the Blackfriary, and field trips to Monasterboice and Mellifont.

Felicitations! We’ve been busy, busy, busy, finishing our plans of the southeast of Cutting 6. In addition, post-ex has been handling the processing of last summer’s animal bone, and managing the material from our early cleaning of the trench. I had promised previously to talk a little bit more about planning, so get ready for a whirlwind tour of how we plan!

We use a lot of simple tools to plan: long measuring tapes, hand tapes, plumb bob, planning frame, a 2H pencil and eraser, and a pre-printed planning grid on a translucent material called permatrace. Just what are all these bits and why do I need them? Everything we plan is to scale, so the tapes, plumb bob, planning frame are all how we can ensure what we see on the ground is correctly depicted on our drawing sheet.

A plumb bob is simply a weight tied to a string which allows us to use gravity to find a perfectly vertical line (fun fact: The word “plumb” comes from the Latin word for lead, “plumbum,” which is the same root of our word “plumbing.”).

A plumb bob. But he prefers to be called Robert.

A plumb bob. But he prefers to be called Robert.

A 2H pencil is a harder pencil than what we usually use for writing, and this allows crisp lines slightly lighter than a common pencil. Our drawing sheets already have a grid, which allows us to use multiple scales, depending on what we are drawing. For a plan, we use a 1:20 scale, which means for every 1 centimetre on our page, we are depicting 20 centimetres of the earth. These squares on the grid are outlined and have even tinier squares inside them.

A sample of our planning sheet and example of scale. This is not a real plan, as there are no rocks which conveniently spell out “Plan” anywhere in our trenches.

A sample of our planning sheet and example of scale. This is not a real plan, as there are no rocks which conveniently spell out “Plan” anywhere in our trenches.

Our planning frame, similarly, has twenty-five squares each with 20 centimetre sides. One square in the frame represents one square of 10 by 10 tiny squares in our drawing, or one outlined square.

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A planning frame in use.

And you may be thinking this going to be a task for the artsy among us. Fear not, even I, the Worst Artist in the World, have completed many a successful plan. There are two main ways to plan an area, and both allow you to accurately and precisely plot anything you encounter on an excavated surface. The first way is to use a bit of the old maths graphing, where you find an object, such as a lone stone, and measure its position along an x and y axis. The second method involves the planning frame, and it is especially useful when planning a spread of stones, for example. Since each box of the frame will correspond to an outlined square on the drawing sheet, the process is as simple as one of those old colouring book exercises to move a picture from one page to another: you draw each box individually to create a larger picture. Voila! You have a to-scale plan of an archaeological area! Later, we will match up individual drawn plans both physically and virtually: we scan them into a computer program so we can align them all to get a view of several adjacent areas.

These are some of our plans. Our secret plans.

These are some of our plans. Our secret plans.

Anyway in the middle of all this planning, we had another wonderful field trip! We saw Monasterboice, a monastic site founded over 1600 years ago, as well as Mellifont Abbey, a 12th-century Cistercian abbey.

Round tower, high cross, and ruined church at Monasterboice.

Round tower, high cross, and ruined church at Monasterboice.

Monasterboice is situated in what centuries ago would have been a monastic enclosure, though now only a churchyard remains surrounding two small ruined churches and a round tower. The site features three extant high crosses, two of which are intricately carved. Muiredach’s Cross towers over nearby headstones, depicting biblical scenes on both sides. The entire body of the cross, save for the very top, is all carved from one block of granite.

Muiredach’s Cross (front and back), named after a 10th-century abbot. Note the heavy relief and extensive ornamental knotwork.

Muiredach’s Cross (front and back), named after a 10th-century abbot. Note the heavy relief and extensive ornamental knotwork.

Mellifont Abbey was the very first Cistercian abbey in Ireland. “Mellifont” comes from the Latin for “honey fountain,” though I’m not sure any further of the origin of such a delicious epithet. The abbey’s layout is still very evident and can provide a lot of information about the fusion of Irish and French architectural styles employed in its construction.

A panorama of Mellifont Abbey, with the cruciform church in the foreground. This view is almost looking across the transept. The structure in shadow is the chapter house, while the central façade is the last surviving bit of the “lavabo.”

A panorama of Mellifont Abbey, with the cruciform church in the foreground. This view is almost looking across the transept. The structure in shadow is the chapter house, while the central façade is the last surviving bit of the “lavabo.”

Two structures were immediately investigated by our students. One is the still-roofed chapter house. This building, like our chapter house in Cutting 6, would have served as a meeting place for the monks. A bench runs along the inner wall, just like our chapter house. Some original tiles are still in place! There was also a round façade in the cloister garth for a “lavabo” (from the Latin “I will wash”) where monks would have had access to water for cleaning themselves before prayer.

The inside of the chapter house at Mellifont. Note the vaulted ceiling, bench, and original floor tiles at the base of the bench.

The inside of the chapter house at Mellifont. Note the vaulted ceiling, bench, and original floor tiles at the base of the bench.

Once again, the sites we visited continued to shape our perception of our own site’s prime. Yet again we see architecture which, although stylistically different, underscores things like the scale of the church and cloister on our site. Lastly I just wanted to share another picture of a cloister wall, this time at Mellifont Abbey. I find cloister construction and masonry fascinating, and since I took a similar photo at Bective, I decide to take a photo of Mellifont’s double-column range.

Cloister wall at Mellifont Abbey.

Cloister wall at Mellifont Abbey.

 

Finally, finally…. Here are a few more photos, taken by IAFS intern Dr. Ciaran McDonnell

The gang at Monasterboice

The gang at Monasterboice

 

Assessing the impressive round tower at Monasterboice

Assessing the impressive round tower at Monasterboice

 

Our cloister was much more impressive than the one at Mellifont!

Our cloister was much more impressive than the one at Mellifont!

So long until next week!

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Winter 2016: Lauren reports – excavation

In the fourth in a series of weekly blogs, IAFS/Learn intern Lauren Nofi reports on the progress of the winter program, including what is happening in excavation and post-excavation, and the field trips through the Boyne Valley.

Helloooooo! Week 2 of our winter session started with some more cleaning (via trowel) all the surfaces in the south-eastern part of Cutting 6. We also finished up reducing the southern half of our area, level with the rest of the cutting. This area includes the Chapter House which has low walls and remnants of a bench still standing to demarcate it. We also have some courses of other walls, one of which included Purbeck marble, and another which may have been a garden wall. In addition to all of this, there is rubble from the collapse of bits of wall, which we have been carefully cleaning.

 

Common to many monastic establishments, one room would serve as a Chapter House, where the brethren would assemble and listen to the Rule of their order and hold other meetings associated with the operation of the site. In our Chapter House, we believe we have signs of a bench which would have run along the base of the walls of the room to offer seating in-the-round for the religious. One thing which makes Blackfriary so special is the presence Purbeck marble, which is a type of limestone full of fossils which produce a unique pattern when polished. This ‘marble’ was imported from the Isle of Purbeck, in Dorset, England, and thus tells us about the wealth and the prestige of our site; in fact, ours is the one of few friaries known in Ireland to include such marble.

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Students working in Cutting 6; the low wall delineates the remains of our Chapter House

 

Our aim was to clean the entire south-east area of the cutting to take photos and begin planning. Archaeological photos are a bit different from just our usual habit of point-and-shoot. Each photo must be recorded in a register, and within the photo itself we must also identify the site, features involved, and date. We also add a north arrow to help orient the viewer and ranging rods which help depict scale. Photos are best when taken directly over a feature, so as not to skew or overemphasize one area (oblique photos however can be helpful in some specific cases, such as to demonstrate shade/light behaviour with respect to upstanding features). By Thursday, we were ready to begin planning. We used measuring tapes to find grid coordinates which we transferred to our drawing sheet. We also employed a planning frame, which comprises simple wood and string device to help us copy what we see on the ground onto our prepared drawing sheets. In addition to all of this drawing, we measured the elevation of many points within our area to depict things like depressions and slopes.

In addition to these undertakings, we were also very lucky to have a special guest spend a few days with us and teach us about some surveying methods: Áine Coady is an expert in differential GPS surveying with an archaeological background. We learned how to operate a DGPS system, while also gathering GPS data for the project. What had from afar seemed a complicated, specialist task was actually made quite accessible for the students and me thanks to Áine’s efforts. Many thanks to her for a very interesting foray into survey!

DGPS Survey in progress

DGPS Survey in progress

Lastly I’d like to talk about this week’s excursion: Newgrange and Bective Abbey.

Newgrange is a megalithic passage tomb dating to approximately 5000 years ago, and is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Brú na Bóinne (Irish for the Bend of the Boyne). I’ve visited before, but it still brings chills when you see the stark white reconstructed façade and the triple spiral on the entrance stone. Squeezing through the passage into the inner cruciform chamber feels like time travel, and glancing up at the corbelled ceiling supporting thousands of pounds of rock and earth really makes one appreciate the scale of such a construction.

 

Newgrange (above) and two of the decorated kerb-stones

Newgrange (above) and two of the decorated kerb-stones

 

The entrance to Newgrange; note the triple spiral. The box over the entrance allows sunlight to penetrate the inner chamber and illuminate the carvings inside on the winter solstice

The entrance to Newgrange; note the triple spiral. The box over the entrance allows sunlight to penetrate the inner chamber and illuminate the carvings inside on the winter solstice

Bective Abbey is a 12th-century abbey, located about 7km (4.5 miles) to the northwest of the Blackfriary, now mostly ruins but with a beautiful partially preserved cloister. The buildings had been added to and renovated, as it was eventually used as a fortified private house. This abbey allowed us to see again firsthand monastic architecture, this time of the Cistercians whose aesthetic differences to the Dominicans seem to echo in their architectural differences.

 

Bective Abbey

Bective Abbey

Cloister wall from the ambulatory, the walkway around the cloister

Cloister wall from the ambulatory, the walkway around the cloister

So we had a very exciting but very busy week on-site, as well as a really unique field trip where we saw both Neolithic and Norman-era constructions: we spanned about four thousand years of history! Hope to have some more pictures of the planning process, which I will discuss a bit more next week as we finish up mapping our open area of the cutting. We’ll also begin excavating some of our features, so stay tuned!

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Winter 2016: Lauren reports – orientation

In the third in a series of blogs, IAFS/Learn intern Lauren Nofi writes about the arrival in Ireland of our Winter program students.

It’s the first week with students on-site!

Our first few days were spent mostly as an introduction. Several indoor sessions provided the basic background of the site, and the students were able to see maps, geophysical data, reconstructions, and analogues found on other sites. All of these things help to make both the visible and obscured bits of archaeology in our landscape make sense. It’s very difficult, even for a seasoned archaeologist, to visualize something in three-dimensions which has been compressed to only two. The very nature of our archaeological excavation process helps us figure out layer by layer the structures which once stood on site, and these visual aids make it much easier to comprehend just what we are looking at in the ground. Part of our introduction to the larger context of the site included a walking tour of Trim and Newtown Trim, where we examined the remnants of several related ecclesiastical sites, such as the Yellow Steeple in town, and the cathedral and St. John’s priory in Newtown. We were able to walk amongst the standing structures, which really gave us a feel for scale of these various religious locations.

One thing I noticed which made me very happy is how thoughtful student questions were both in our lecture sessions and our outdoor excursions. If this is any indication of the rest of the season, I think we’re all going to learn a lot about this site and get some really good new data.

Cutting 6 is where most of our work this season will be focused. It’s a nice open trench area with some extant masonry. We’re keeping the parts of the trench we’re not working on covered, but we were able to get a good look at the cutting while completely uncovered and discuss the various walls and stonework. As the week went on, we spent time getting a first good clean of some of the surfaces in Cutting 6 where the chapter house would have stood. Friday morning, however, brought a bit of a surprise, as none of us expected Thursday’s snow to stick.

Cutting 6, Friday morning.

Cutting 6, Friday morning.

I tentatively pulled up the tarp (it’s not really technically “tarp;” it’s a much more complex material, but it’s still all called “tarp” in my experience). Where was I? Ah yes! The most tentative of tarp-lifting! I poked the ground a bit with my trowel, picked up some soil in my bare hand, and concluded we could still work this ground. The tarp had actually iced over, but spared the earth underneath from freezing, so we were able to get right to work cleaning the south-east corner with both mattocks and trowels. By the afternoon we had levelled most of our main working area. The day turned out to be absolutely lovely, so we took the students on a quick excursion to see the town illuminated by the winter sun.

Trim Castle, our fanciest neighbor!

Trim Castle, our fanciest neighbour!

Now that everyone is settled in and familiar with our site and its larger regional context, we can really begin the investigation for the season. We’ve been given tasks for our next bit of work in Cutting 6, and we are simultaneously undertaking post-excavation work, so busy is an understatement. But it’s definitely the kind of busy that puts a jump in your step!

What’s going to happen next week? Well archaeology sometimes surprises us, so maybe I’ll hold-off on any predictions. In the meantime, don’t forget you can come visit the site between 2pm and 4pm every Thursday of the Winter season (until Feb 4th). That’s all from me, but I’ll check back in soon!

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Winter 2016: Lauren reports – setting up

In the second in a series of weekly blogs, IAFS/Learn intern Lauren Nofi writes about her arrival in Ireland and preparing for the arrival of our Winter program students.

Hello, all! I arrived on Monday, and everyone went right back to work getting ready for the season. So much goes on behind the scenes, and it’s quite evident a lot of planning has gone into this inaugural winter session. There’s been both office work and physical site maintenance, so it’s been a mix of experiences, all focusing on the logistics of running a site. Whenever I can steal a moment, I’ve been perusing the project’s collection of Trim-related books to learn more of the history of the region.

The site itself is surrounded by development on all sides, which is a new experience for me personally. There are definitely pros and cons to its location. For me however, on a purely superficial note, there is a grocery right nearby, so I can perpetually snack. I bring this up because we use the store as a landmark in our directions to the site. To the incoming students, please review the directions provided at http://iafs.ie/index.php/location/ so you can find us with ease. Our site is self-sufficient: we have a canteen, loos, tool sheds, and of course offices with electricity!

The weather has been fighting us a bit, making safety on-site of the utmost importance. We went over our safety plan as well as began assessing the state of the trenches, ensuring safe access even before we get to cleaning up any of the visible features. We need to ensure the edges of our excavation are clearly delineated, signposting where the section walls are deep. We are also removing rogue rocks from the surface around our open cuttings. On our site we call the trenches “cuttings,” and we will have handy maps so everyone can identify them as soon as we start excavating again.

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I mean, like, does this really need a caption? Safety is the priority.

We set up the post-ex cabin, which is where we will be working with all the artefacts during and after the season. You’ll get a chance to do some post-excavation work, such as washing and bagging finds. We have a really thorough system to ensure every single find can be traced back to its initial excavation. This is super important because archaeology is all about context. You’ll learn our finds processing method when you spend some time on post-ex, but don’t worry: there will be plenty of instructions, signs as reminders, and, of course, supervisors to help you as you begin your artefact work.

Some of our setup activities also include more office-based logistics, like preparing student guides, sorting maps and posters, and making signs for various areas of the site. We’ve also been organising all of our tools, from the very big, like mattocks, to the very small, like our pencil sharpeners. We have all the tools you’ll need to do any job on site, and if you are unfamiliar with them, we will teach you how to use them safely.

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Some processing guides, made ready for all weather situations. An archaeologist’s secret best friend is LAMINATION. I know, I was surprised too, but I have been converted to the cult of laminating machines.

I’ve been taking an inventory of all the artefacts in various stages of processing in our post-ex cabin. It’s really great to see all of the types of artefacts this site has produced. It’s also very helpful to see the systems and hardcopy records in place before the assembly line of artefact processing is actually undertaken.

We’re also planning out workshops and field trips for the coming weeks. I’ve seen a sneak peek of the list of locations and can personally vouch for their awesomeness.

Anywho, I wish I had a quirky signoff, but as yet I’m at a loss. We’re all very excited to meet everyone and start our season. See you soon!

Lauren

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