Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Syon Abbey Excavation

Day One.
“It’s like gardening!” One lady exclaimed as she knelt down upon a mat laid out over the dirt. Despite the amusement with which she made this exclamation, in a way it was, as archaeologists do cultivate the human remains they find, harvest fragments of human memories, things shattered and scattered, forgotten upon the pillow of earth and laid to rest there. For me, archaeology is the midwifery of the past, as you release the infants of a forgotten world from the earth to be brought once more to light and born again.
(Clearing, gently removing the soil, feeling for features, the first stage of excavation)
My first impression was a sea of new faces of varying ages and backgrounds, all with very different expectations and driven by different motivations. It is like the setting of an Agatha Cristie crime novel. Gender wise, women decidedly outnumber the men on this particular session at Syon Abbey, though not by a considerable amount.  We receive a general introduction to the site; a background in its history and of course in health and safety, which is always rather macabre; from the perils of uncapped pegs to infamous landscape gardener “Capability Brown” and the forewarning of a possible ducal visit. Our introduction, given by the head of archaeology at Birkbeck, is immaculately dressed in such surroundings amongst us all kitted out in waterproofs and steel capped boots; he is in a suit. Notwithstanding, his jacket screams archaeologist as it is smeared in the dusty earth, signs of borrowings.
We amble over to the trenches. It has rained and the earth is damp and just as the rain makes all of nature’s flowers that more vibrant so does it enhance the natural variations in the earth’s hues and the imprints of remains. These little silhouettes are like fingerprints marking the unique yet identifiable traces of passing lives, of deaths, constructs and deconstructs  and after the rain are all the more visible to the human eye. “No magentas,” our supervisor tells us merrily following this remark that he is in actual fact colour-blind. We must pick a hue form a list of descriptions issued by the London Museums Archaeological Handbook. Albeit in an ink-blot like form I remembered the impression of a distinctly darker colouration in the soil leaving a stain behind.
Next we were shown the Time Team trench, as well as the more verdant patches where former trenches had been.
Requiring some powers of concentration, as does any new activity, not to mention some graft we were able to drown the fatigue incurred on this first day with copious cups of tea. This made me think about war-time Britain and tea’s place in boosting morale. It worked.
It was glorious the first time we actually managed to get our hands dirty. My meter patch turned out to be mainly crumbled masonry; a “robber’s trench,” I was told, perhaps situated above a wall. It was of a very different consistency and colour to the rest which was brown and silty clay or Thames alluvium.  Both textures felt very different to excavate, and it took getting accustomed to find the best technique for either. This robber trench was powdery, full of large, hard clumps of red-brick, plaster foundations and building material. Subsequently, I found quite a bit of roof and floor tiling (we think we are presently at a level of 1400-1500 date wise). I also came across some red brick, dissolved into paler, crushed matter, some charcoal (modern in date) and a slushy, yellowish clay as well as a greyish clay. I feel my section was, as one would expect with a robber trench, somewhat contaminated date-wise. There was also a lot of flint. Nevertheless, these were the finds from our area during that day:
·         A clay-pipe stub(without bowl) – good for dating purposes.
·         Many medieval roof and floor tiles, the latter of which had (in some cases) blackish-yellowish glaze, fairly simple, without much design save colour variations indicating the fashion of the time (latter part of the medieval era.)
·         Worked mortar (joining section) and lint as well as worked greenish stone.
·         Fragment of glass (possibly part of a stained glass window).
·         Human remains – appeared to have been crushed but there was evidence of cranial and smaller bones (perhaps disturbed remains?).
·         Structural wise we have uncovered parts of a wall.
The Time Team surmised that the walls extended past the other side of the house and was a massive complex, perhaps even equivocal to Westminster Abbey.) Our supervisor has thrown a healthy dose of moderation on this and predicts a more modest structure, perhaps as little/ next to nothing in fact has been detected let alone recovered on the other side of the house, but, at present nothing is to be declared proved or disproved, so it’s an arena open to all kinds of discussion. 
We were then talked through the standard single context method sheets and encouraged to question the supposed objectivity by discussing how some aspects of the forms were open to more subjective interpretations as well as on how archaeologist’s might define a “context.” As expressed by our supervisor; a context may perhaps be best defined as human impact or activity or event, perhaps even in some cases natural, that has created a record within the ground, e.g. a wall, a pit, a burial (or flood/fire.)
“Imagine people leaving traces whilst going about their daily routines, it is those traces we’re attempting to uncover and we’re hoping those people have left us many traces.”
We were also introduced to the notorious eighteenth century figure of Capability Brown, landscape gardener and planner, whose digger happy ways has pitted the record somewhat and in places churned the soil about. His traces have succeeded in blotting out some of the earlier ones and sections of his dynamic projects have cut through remains. It is quite a sad sight to see, a bit like seeing the remnants of egg shells after a heavy boot has powdered them by inadvertently stepping all over them! Unfortunately, many of these destroyed fragments are human remains.

Day Two.

(Recording on-site of our trench, showing the emerging walls and vaults of the cyrpt)
I arrived at the dig today worried that it might rain, it was so overcast. Luckily it held out. We were given an introduction to technical drawing. We must first find the right angle using the south, west pins, attach the tape in pairs and plot using a scale of 1:20 onto graph paper, recording relief and slopes, according to what the eye witnesses, through the use of small, sideways triangles tailed with a straight line, longer or shorter depending on the steepness of the drop.
We were then shown levelling. Our TBS (temporary bench-mark is sea-level point) is at 6.12m. We were then taught how to mark height measurements from within our trench and the appropriate formulas to calculate the actual depth at which we were digging, and height of the remains recovered. First we took the back-sight measurement, so what we could read from the staff at the TBM from our dumpy level. (for us today our excavation was 2.00m.
(Above: A friend using the dumpy-level.)
TBM+BS = HT (HT is the height of our dumpy level).
FS is the foresight, anything measured within our trench.
HT-FS = reduced level.
The reduced level + all arithmetic needed to be included on our drawn record.
Finds for the day:
·         More roof tile (complete with holes).
·         Floor tiles bearing a yellowish glaze.
·         Blue stained glass
·         Oyster shell.
·         More human remains; those of the pelvis and fema bones, a discovery made right at the last minute.
·         Our (probable) garden feature.
·         Work started on clearing the buttress
·         Our supervisor, Scott, believes he can now start to see the definition of a crypt/burial arches and a mattock was subsequently taken to the area to clear it down to brick level.
·         Lots of flint, brick and crumbled mortar which leaves a greyish, green, cloying mass in the ground. We also found small patches of black in the soil, this has been perceived as most top soil, most likely at this level due to contamination.
(The wall: an excavated feature in our trench)
In terms of finds, things have become amusingly competitive, as our area seems to be much more fruitful than the adjacent group’s. The other team’s excavation trench is absolutely immaculate, but is at present bereft of any finds. This has drawn some complaints from those assigned to work there, especially when we are taking tours of each other’s areas.
Closing today my team-mate Angela and I excavated a second layer (we were on level 2010 and now are on level 2011). It was a clearly defined feature of some descript, made up of various bits of brick and general building debris. We were asked to excavate a section that had been marked out with pegs and string. We started this section together and Scott, our supervisor, noted that the space we had excavated dipped on either side. This vacancy created by our labours defined the scooped out space as a “context.” Quite what it was is still unknown, perhaps a garden feature. What struck me as I scraped away was the fragility of these remnants of whatever had been confirmed by the vacancy it had left behind in the trench. While, perhaps quite understandably, Angela lamented a little that our area failed to yield up a body or a buttress I found the experience moving in its own way. What we were digging was, after all, another part of that fleeting, butterfly wing of a moment in time, revealed and swept away, no more than a simple breath shuddering through the files of the earth. A little mysterious stain. Yet, its presence, the shadow of its once existence implied by its very absence, is communicated to us in the present.  This little shadow, cast by existence will be recorded and filed, kept in the archives on the site and we would have the honour, however small or humble, of committing it to collective memory.

Day Three.
Today we were at the mercy of the weather and were hit by rain by mid-morning, it was short, sharp shower. Angela and I were working on our first Single Context sheet at the time and as luck would have it, were nicely sheltered. We sat inside one of the little huts going through the MoLAS red guide, deliberating over the colour of soil and its conclusions and very soon realised what a subjective thing the whole thing was. Sue, the Osteoarchaeologist was working alongside us examining bones. The rain fell outside we were in a good position for tea and biscuits and so generally a nice time for us, though I felt rather shamed and bourgeois seeing all our friends running, or trudging towards us covered in mud at break time.
Scott is now sure our context is a cut for garden bedding. I wonder dreamily over my tea what type of flowers would have grown there. Angela is officially less impressed as we shall not find bodies.  We have some environmental archaeology planned for the site, but there may well also be historical records that typify the sort of plants grown at the Abbey and a Late Medieval Monastic garden. Apparently very little is known however about the actual plan and layout of these gardens.
After the rain, the day-dreaming it induces, unable to be active we all contemplate, we amble over to the buttress, one of the more spectacular of features in sense of prominence. We have now located the Time Team trench, a homage to whom is kept in the tearoom and is a piece of a polystyrene tea-cup drunk by one of the motley crew. It strikes me as quite funny having excavated a part of a previous excavation and kept it, ancestor worship! At one end of this trench is a hole caused most likely according to Scott, not by clumsy machinery, but, from the manner in which it forms a semi-circular shape, a tree planted on the site by Capability Brown’s landscape gardening.
(Butress with a hole, probably caused by Capability Brown's landscape gardening. Thought to be caused by a tree planted atop the old structure, which has subsequently smashed through the weak masonary.)
We received some instruction today on the geology of the site, which can help in indentifying worked stones, contexts and generally human activity as opposed to natural. Specifically relevant to our site was the information that Syon House is located on Taplow Gravel, Lanley Silt – “Brick Earth,” wind blown off glaciers. The Paleochannel was dug out by Capability Brown (he is fast becoming the Boogieman of this whole account) and transformed into artificial lakes. As a result the topography of the site has been largely modified by Capability Brown’s landscaping. Another such example being the rather amusingly named “HAHA,” a brick wall used to keep cattle out of the water meadows that would formerly have been utilised by the monks and nuns.
What geology can say about the human occupation of the site:
·         There was a paucity of good local building stone (local material being mainly chalky and porous)
·         Lower Greensand was used as rubble and Ragstone (otherwise known as Knetish Rag.)
·         Flint was used as infilling.
·         Rhygate Stone and Upper Green was used for internal tracery and door jambs.
1420 – building materials could be brought down from Yorkshire by boat as the site was close to the river. This would have been useful especially as to carry by cart at such a distance would have meant the cost of transport would be higher than the price of the stone.
The discovery by a number of us of oyster shells was explained to us not only as evidence of oyster consumption but of their use in a process called galletting, whereby the shells were used for levelling layers in the walls. A number of marbles were also discussed; Palladina marble used from Roman times onwards for graves and monuments. Purbeck marble some of which came from Sussex and may have arrived at the site through Northumberland bringing the stone from Sussex to Syon.

Day Four.
Today Angela and I tidied up the second half of our garden feature and sectioned off the area in a new single-cut context sheet. Today we completed our section in area ‘M’ (our trench). We now need to take levelling measures and add them to our drawing.
After a morning of tidying and recording we then went to learn about finds and how to treat them. The textbook accompanying this set of study skills was called “First Aid for Finds,” which I found quite cute. We were also given advice on how to identify them. On a table set under a tree, without a raindrop in sight today, glittered a number of shards of ceramics wearing beautiful glazes. A black and yellow striped was the signature glaze of Isleworth style ceramic finds.
We handled the objects to familiarise ourselves with the feel of them. There was a piece of volcanic rock that had been used as a pumice, part of a wheel for grinding, a number of post Medieval pottery pieces that were twice fired, firstly to make biscuit ware and secondly for the glaze, some Roman pot pieces moulded with slip (liquid clay of a differing colour) that had then been sold in 18th century Italy as souvenirs. These latter fragments were classified as exceptions as they had delicate details such as the carved name of the original Roman potter as well as markings made in the 18th century saying things like ‘Naples 1867’ or ‘Roman Pottery Naples.’ Anything such as glass, fragile metal, organic materials/ items etc needs to be treated separately, whereas anything else ubiquitous is “bulk.” Bulk mainly consists of pottery.
Organic material should be kept moist to avoid contraction; e.g. leather, ivory etc. Bone, human remains etc should be placed directly into a plastic bag. Cling film can be used to keep things protected for up to three months as they effectively provide the sort of anaerobic environment needed to arrest deterioration.
Metallic objects should be kept dry. A coin needs to be left even if covered in corrosive oxidised metal and the surface should NOT be rubbed in an attempt to clean it.
We also viewed flint knappings, fossils and the way that inclusions had been used in some clay works in order to fashion more durable vessels. We viewed an Anglo-Saxon piece of pottery with grass matting (the matting left an impression upon the soft clay at the time of drying). It reminded me of the Ramon ware, a very early Japanese pottery, where grass was wrapped around to create a weave type decor.
Find’s analysis was an interesting experience, the gentleman presenting was fascinating but I confess alarmed me a little by using me in rather violent hypothetical situations in order to demonstrate his points. First he spoke of murdering and burying me and asking the group what would remain of me, which evoked some enthusiastic if not a little macabre responses, (one gentleman very kindly pointed out my glasses, at which point I removed the offending objects for a second, with a rueful smile.) If this were not quite enough the gentleman then started by turning to me, now resigned to my fate as his rather hapless demonstration dummy, “now, if I lopped off her hand in Saxon times I’d have to pay compensation, but not as much as if I scarred her face, this will tell you a little about the values of society at this time.” I nodded grimly. On his magic table of finds he had clay pipes and a number of nails, ship-building nails and those for flooring, all kinds exist but are apparently ill-recorded.  “Now,” he asked us, “if you discover jet or ivory in Assyria,” my ears pricked up at this, “what can you do, or what must you do to protect it until professional conservators can be called on site?” Ideally this type of material must be kept moist, but in the desert this isn’t always possible. I thought perhaps to wrap the article inside a bag or place it in cling-film (provided you have such things on site, this gives you three months to get it to a lab.) You can however, he informs us somewhat sheepishly, allow it to dry out a little and ever so slowly, placing it in a bag and monitoring it carefully for any changes.
After lunch we did some more recording and in the afternoon, to prepare us for tomorrow, we were shown how to draw a section. There are three types of drawing; plan (birds-eye-view), profile (the shape of the cut/section without details) and a section (shape/profile including details.) We need to show the stratigraphy; so topsoil and the various other soils from dark to light and any inclusions we feel to be important, e.g. shells (used for keeping the wall construction level), bones, stones etc.   
(Using measuring tapes and strings to define sections for recording through illustration.)

Final Day, Day Five.
(Infant Burial Remains)

Today the focus of the dig was osteoarchaeology, looking at human remains. Remains may bear many kinds of clues as to lifestyles or bear traces of other surrounding objects (burial gifts, personal objects). Green staining can be found from jewellery worn about the waist, wrists or on fingers, this whispers speak of the shadow of a former object fashioned form copper, since powered within the surrounding matrix. Many of the remains here have been truncated by the works of Capability Brown, as mentioned earlier, skulls are missing within a number of burials. The percentage of remains found in situ require recording as do their contexts, many were found in secondary contexts (displaced) and many were found entangled within the secondary context, the recording of this event took much patience and meticulous work by the illustrators!
Supine burials are those where the body is buried on its back, pulvine bodies are those buried face down (usually disgraced individuals, examples of this can be found at Sutton Hoo.) Vertical burials/bodies are very rarely found, only sometimes in South American archaeological sites. If the head is flopping downwards or to the side it can be surmised that the head was resting on a stone pillow.
The colouration of remains indicates the pH of the soil (e.g. chalky soil such as that at Syon Abbey leaves the bones white.)
One of the main clauses when being granted a licence to excavated human remains is the re-patronage/ reburial of the remains (most well known case of early contention over this issue was in North American archaeology regarding the remains of Native American Indians).  Usually the reburial is in accordance with the belief of the individuals uncovered, which is assumed through the context within which they were found.

Environmental archaeology.
A study of animal bones was suggested (1950s) as aiding better comprehending aspects of human behaviour. For example the absence of large numbers of animal bones suggests organised land use. Evidence of butchery can inform as to diet and hence also the wealth or lifestyle of a community. Bones form good cuts of meat or from younger animals suggest the consumption of higher quality meat. This could indicate, in the case of Syon Abbey either a wealthy community or the spirit of sacrifice (ritual).
(Environmental Archaeology: Flotation Process)

(Environmental archaeology: Dry-Sifting process)


(Using a finer mesh to find smaller remains)

(Using water spray to clean and help clarify finds from soil, stone.)


(Dry Sifting)

(Dry Sifting)

(Flotation Process)

It was a poignant end to the excavation to examine human remains, to see how fragile the body is and how our life experiences, our legacy is a narrative written into our very bones, there for the future to read, interpret and try to decode us. Of course, this complete and perfect reconstruction is impossible, polluted too much by the experience the onlooker and interpreter bring to that process. It is a translation and reworking of a past life’s reality, a posthumous narrative of the lived narrative. On the train back, discussing the dig with friends from the dig and the head of archaeology we came across an issue of much debate in the world of archaeology; metal-detecting. We sat on the train and pondered the relationship between trained archaeologists and those ardent amateur or aspiring collectors of treasures. The stress in this debate, is as always the concern for a loss of context. What gave rise to this was a bit of clandestine activity on the dig itself. A passionate metal detectorist had been permitted access to the site to scour the spoil heap for any possible missed metal objects. As such the detectorist served as benefit to the excavation. However, the site supervisor, much to his dismay had seen the metal dectorist in an unexcavated trench, making a big hole.  The dectorist was taken off the site for his zealous desire to probe into unexcavated territory. The importance of context need not be stressed in great detail. Suffice to say an artefact out of context is as good as a word extracted from a sentence in the narration of human history, it is a word, but without the surrounding words it cannot form any meaningful part in the story.

(Searching the archaeobotanical remains through dry-sifting)

I would certainly recommend the experience of excavation as essential to the aspiring archaeologist and to those with a passion for the subject. Archaeology in the field is an experience that teaches more immediately. The physical completion of activities is a much more effective way to learn than trying to explain the techniques through copious texts describing the processes. Like all sciences, an experiment conducted and witnessed in the lab can aid understanding of processes and theories in a way text alone cannot. This all goes without saying perhaps.
(Syon Abbey Essay to be added soon)
For more information on Syon Abbey:
To participate in the Syon Abbey excavation this summer (2011):

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