Field Notes: Week Two
Corn height: tibial tuberosity (near about knee high)
We were back out to blazing sunshine at the beginning of this week, with seven students in the cemetery area and another eight in the roundhouse area – some students had been with us the week before, but we also had some new faces in the field.
This week in Trench I (the proper name for the cemetery area) we had six students (SIX!) working on one grave cut (that means at times, with me included as well, there were seven of us). That’s a lot. The reason for there being so many students in one place is that they were working together to excavate an adult individual whose cranium (part of the skull) had been identified when an earlier grave cut had been excavated. This meant that there was an awful lot of grave fill to trowel through; so many hands would make light work! Especially since a lot of what they had to trowel through was solid clay. :/ (Sorry again students.)
The area where the group was excavating was just below where Group A had lifted the juvenile individual last week. As they collectively worked their way through the grave fill, they came across an assortment of building materials (mortar, nails, roof tiles, etc) in addition to all of the other typical inclusions (disarticulated human and animal bone, rocks, sandstone, etc).
About halfway through the grave fill we came across a truncated juvenile burial on the south side of the grave cut. While we couldn’t excavate this individual in plan or therefore photograph it – because of its position and poor preservation – we did ensure that it was given a unique identifying number, lifted separately, and recorded in detail by the students.
Now, given that some of this individual had been excavated and exposed earlier, a few students were able to excavate carefully in this area to expose more of the upper skeletal elements – working from the head (in the west end of the grave cut) while others continued to take down the fill over the lower skeletal elements (in the east end of the grave cut).
On our way through the grave fill we came across a large amount of early- to mid- medieval roof tiles over the lumbar vertebrae (the lower portion of the spine) and for a while it looked like the skeletal elements might end there – with the burial being truncated just above the pelvis. While the grave fill had been taken down the same level all the way across the cut, almost all of the upper skeleton was exposed whereas none of the lower skeleton had appeared. In addition to this, the upper right arm and ribs had been truncated by another grave cut, which had been filled with what seemed to be disarticulated human bone from another burial. It seemed the students may have had another burial similar to all of those excavated last week.
However, a little patience and persistence from the students meant that eventually we did uncover the lower skeletal elements (the pelvis and femora). The reason it took a little longer, is that they were slightly lower down – the individual having been buried on a slight slope with the head higher than the feet, meaning there was more grave fill above them than the upper skeletal elements.
The students I think, while they would have been satisfied to work on any area of excavation in the cemetery, were quite pleased to have a very nearly complete adult skeleton to work on for the week – especially after spending time in the ‘Bone Cabin’ last week with some of the fantastic teaching collection.
The really interesting – and surprising – thing that happened next though, was that when the students continued to take down the grave fill around the lower limbs of the individual, beyond the femurs (from the knees down) they came across another individual. Careful excavation revealed it to be a neonate (an individual who has died shortly before or after death) that had been buried simultaneously within the same cut as the adult, placed right over their lower legs (the tibiae and the feet)!
The realisation that we had a double burial on site – and that the students were involved in the entire excavation process – was fantastic. While double burials are not uncommon (even of adults and neonates), I don’t think it was what the students were expecting to encounter in their first or second week on site.
After this discovery, the students spent a lot of time cleaning up the two individuals so that the skeletons and the grave fill could be photographed and recorded – before the skeletons were lifted. The lifting was a very tricky process, as the double burial and their positioning within the grave cut meant that the neonate had to be lifted first – and then the area underneath could be taken down further to expose the rest of the adult’s lower limbs and feet, before being re-photographed and then finally lifted itself.
But of course, everything went very smoothly and the students did an incredible job. The neonate was lifted incredibly well – and it is not always an easy thing to do. But while this ended up being pretty straightforward, the lifting of the adult was a little more complicated, for three reasons:
1) The grave fill around the individual had high clay content, meaning the bones were really secure in the soil and had to be very carefully excavated around before they could be safely lifted without damaging any of them.
2) Because of the sloping burial position, the individual’s skull had come to rest over its upper left ribs, clavicle, and scapula – and the cervical vertebrae (which make up the neck) were tucked in very closely underneath it. This meant, in order to keep everything intact – and again not damage anything – this whole area of the skeleton had to be lifted together in a block.
3) That disarticulated human bone I mentioned in the truncated area where the individual’s upper right arm and ribs used to be? Well, after excavating a little further down into the grave fill this was shown to be the feet and the beginnings (or ends) of the lower limbs of another individual!
But once again, because of the excellent excavation skills of the students involved, everything went perfectly smoothly – despite it starting to rain (yes, it’s true, Poulton doesn’t have exclusively sunny weather – apologies if my interim updates on Twitter have given you the wrong impression).
I was really pleased the students felt confident enough to deal with such an unexpected (and perhaps a little unusual) burial. I am also very thankful for their extreme patience and persistence in all of the tasks involves, as their efforts will have certainly allowed the skeletal elements to be lifted in the best condition possible, which will help enormously in the post-excavation assessments.
At this point, you may think the students would be done, however although both of the individuals from the double burial had been photographed, recorded, lifted, bagged, and stored, ready for cleaning and assessment, there was still work to be done!
Sitting comfortably underneath our shade gazebo (which was at this point shielding us from the rain) the students set about recording the grave cut and mapping it onto the site plan. This information is crucial to include in the records, as it will tell everyone who looks into the excavations at Poulton in the future (next week, year, decade, century…) exactly where every single skeleton was located on the site. In addition to all of the context sheets (skeleton, grave fill, grave cut, features, etc) future researchers should be able to recreate the entire site just from the documentation. (Which is important, as all excavation is at its essence destruction).
Now, I did have intentions to tell you all about the recording methods we’re using here on site (especially the planning and mapping), but, as is becoming my modus operandi, this little update has got away from me a bit. Therefore, I reckon I should save this subject for another blogpost. Here’s hoping you’re all up for a little mid-weekly online archaeology lesson!
Speaking of lessons, here’s what a few students, who are leaving us this week to head away for a summer of more wonderful things, had to say about their time at Poulton:
“It was a great experience – and everyone was really nice.”
“It’s really interesting and exciting. The last thing I expected was to be excavating real human remains on the first day!”
Oh and of course they also had a few more tips to anyone else joining us next week or later this summer:
“If you want a cup of tea or coffee put the kettle on a good fifteen minutes before.”
“ALWAYS bring a waterproof.”
Finally, not to keep you in suspense (but a little bit to keep you in suspense) I have managed to do a little bit of preliminary assessment on both of the individuals excavated this week from the double burial, but I shall save that too for another blogpost. 🙂
BONUS weekly update from Kevin:
Work on Trench L is continuing well, with two interventions across the east-west Roman ditch. Both are producing significant quantities of animal bone and pottery. We have finally found the other side of the gully where it is truncated by the Roman ditch. In the north-west section, we are making progress and appear to have come down to the pig burial which was observed in the sidewall last year.
We are excavating the first slot out of the northern arc of Roundhouse V, producing animal and calcined bone.
We have excavated the southern cairn which forms the base for the doorway of Roundhouse III. It produced a sizable fragment of calcined bone in a primary position beneath a large stone, which will be good for radiocarbon dating.
Finally, the dog burial. It was a small dog but was clearly an in-situ burial, hence good for further radiocarbon. It was not a newborn as a bone in the leg had fused. It was a small dog though, indicating that it was not adult. Sarah Viner-Daniels is currently analysing the remains.
Dog sacrifices and burials are common throughout prehistory and this could indicate a closing down ceremony for Roundhouse III.
TD;LR This week in Trench I we found a double burial and in Trench L they confirmed a puppy burial.