Corn height: ridiculously variable – talus/ fibula lateral malleolous (ankle) to saggital suture of cranium (over my head) [you just wait if we get some decent rain]
We have had the most ludicrous weather during our field school thus far this summer, but last week takes the (increasingly soft and melty) biscuit. The students who have been out to Poulton definitely haven’t got a representative experience of British archaeology (rain, mud, cold, rain, mizzle, mud, cloud). Our site is protected from quite a lot of the wind, making it a sun-trap. It’s been that hot on site that the shade tents (formerly the rain tents) are essential. Even more frequent breaks are enforced. We’ve been through I don’t know how many gallons of water, sunscreen, and bugspray. The clay-rich soil is like concrete and in constant need of wetting down. But we can’t really complain… can we. It’s beautiful! Especially when a rather thoughtful individual brings out ice creams for everyone!
This week has been fantastic and for more than all of the usual reasons. This week I got to teach students about the actual reality of osteoarchaeology – that you will not always be excavating well-preserved, perfectly complete, nicely articulated burials. It may sound a bit disappointing, but for the students who have come out to learn the practical skills of archaeology, it is incredibly important to understand the many different kinds of situations that you may encounter in the field. I am a big believer in honest archaeology for all.
We’ve had two groups on site this week, one busy excavating an individual that had been truncated by the grave cut for the ‘triple burial’. It was an adult lying just below the level of the three juvenile individuals lifted in previous weeks. While their upper body was still largely intact (their right humerus had been truncated), their femora and tibiae (upper and lower legs bones) had been truncated… although their fibulae (lower leg bones) were still in situ. It is incredibly common for medieval burials to be disturbed, truncated, disarticulated, etc. However this was a very interesting example. The group working on this particular individual went through all of the regular tasks such as exposing the skeletal material and preparing everything for recording and photographing and followed the lifting of the individual up with mapping and planning the grave cut, before beginning to wash the bones.
The second group on site had a slightly different week. They were tasked with excavating an individual that had been identified while excavating another individual in previous weeks. This individual was represented by a cranium that was exposed in the side of the grave cut. Now on site, every cranium is given its own skeletal identification number, because each one represents a unique individual. However, after a full day of digging (through the nearly solid clay) we discovered that this cranium was disarticulated (not associated with the rest of the skeleton). The rest of the skeletal material had either been truncated and removed from its grave cut – or – this cranium had been truncated and removed from another grave cut. However, everything (everything) gets recorded, photographed, planned, mapped, lifted, washed, etc… even disarticulated crania.
Given this was all completed relatively quickly (it doesn’t take as long to excavate an isolated cranium as it does an entire individual, as I’m sure you can imagine, this group was moved nearer the other group, where another cranium had been exposed in the side of a grave cut. A lot of what we do on site actually attempts to minimise our level of disturbance, but in a cemetery like that at Poulton, with all of the intercutting graves it is often difficult to not expose another individual in the process of excavating another. Now, I won’t keep you in suspense for long… it very quickly became clear that this was also another disarticulated cranium.
Following all of the necessary steps once again (there was a lot of practice recording for this particular group this week), we moved on to another area that needed to be taken further down, in order that we could (you can probably guess) excavate an individual that had been previously exposed in the side of a grave cut. We’d move from the south of the cemetery to the north (where the Roman ditch it being excavated) and what a change for the students – the soil was lovely, loamy, loose, and very easy to trowel. Before too long, queries of ‘What’s that?’ OMG! It’s something wooden! Is that the lid of a box? There’s a hollow underneath. It can’t be medieval. Maybe it’s from the war! Quick ,trowel (carefully) through this soil. Good thing this soil is easy to trowel. Maybe too easy to trowel. This… soil that is… backfill. Oh, it’s a just board. False alarm everyone. Stop planning the perfect pun-filled newspaper headlines.
The students set away, under the careful eye of Kevin (chief mattock-instructor) clearing away the backfill and bringing the level down to where the previous excavations had stopped some many years before my time. They just got into the original grave fill and began trowelling away again when… home time!
Thankfully, we have lots of returning students (including all of those in the latter group) next week, so they’ll get to finish what they started. While the new recruits – well we’ve got an area of excavation all set up and ready for you (I even watered down before I left for the weekend, you lucky things you). Hopefully by the end of this field season we’ll have been able to take down a section of one quadrant in the south cemetery, all the way to the natural level, where the archaeology *stops*. All we have to do is stop encountering more archaeology along the way.
I’m not so sure that the students are with me in hoping that that happens sooner rather than later!