Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Big Dig

The first day we were taken to York Archaeological Trust site headquarters where we met the site manager Toby. I have to say Toby has natural comic timing and he has a greyhound "like" dog named Harry (Who is let into various pubs around York, where the owners buy him dog treats - how awesome is that!!!).

Toby introduced us to the site and what they had found there so far: Roman burials; Viking housing plots; two Churches; Victorian drains; ovens; lots and lots of cess pits; a communal loo's. He showed us some pictures of some of the lovely finds such as a beautiful stone carved face which was found original turned over to the smooth side which was being reused as part of floor in a guild hall (See lots of recycling back then!).

We would be working on block H2 a very small section of the site.

Toby proceeded to explain to us the difference between stuff and things (This was very amusing to me, some of you would know why!). Stuff being bulk finds like animal bones or pottery shards, things being something that has been crafted liked a worked piece of antler or a piece of metallic blob!

We we're then taken out and shown around site, and told we would be split between three trainers and Toby left them to choose - I have to say when he said that it felt like it we were being chosen for a sporting team at high school.

Since we were in the first couple of weeks there were very few trainees, and that was awesome because we got more one to one time with the trainers.

My trainer was Ben, a really awesome guy he was very willing to have a chat with us, answer all our questions and explain what needed to be done. He was also very patient with me when my trowel committed suicide by plunging into a deep pit... filled with water... he was heroic when he tried to fish it out but had no luck (damn thing doesn't bite) he told me that I would have to come back next year to claim it. Or if they find it; it would be a lady in the lake scene, angels sing, trowel shining, new king of England, ect!

For the two weeks I was with an American guy Jacob; who was 16!!! and this was his second dig!!! (Not jealous at all!) We also had another American join us - an over 6 feet tall rugby player Jim.

We had two placements looking after us - Jeff and Matt. Poor guys had the best jobs; like weeding, emptying out sludge from pits, wheelbarrowing and having to tell us trainees 'No that's just a rock!'

Our tools for digging we used mattocks, shovels, spades and trowels. The pit we were assigned to for the first week was a medieval refuse pit which was dubbed by the end of the week 'The Pit of Confusion' - because as Jacob and I dug down it had step on one side and we couldn't find the edge of the other side - and it just kept on growing and growing!

Since the ground was hard - we had to mattock a lot of it... I've never used a mattock before - and for nearly that whole week I was stiff from my butt down to the back of my knees. I was walking like a zombie and every time I sat it was as if I was 100 years old!

Mostly in this pit we found lots and lots of animal bones and shards of pottery. Funny how our enthusiasm and carefulness went slowly evaporated as we went further down.

First I was very excited: Oh my gosh!! What's this!!! Wow - what a huge bone!!! Let's slowly trowel it out.

Later I wasn't as excited: bone... *chuck in finds tub* bone... *chuck in finds tub*

'The Pit of Confusion' did hold a few pretty little surprises for us: Ben found a copper alloy ring, Jacob found what looked like a modern day nail - but it was actually carved out of bone, I found a was a iron blob - we weren't what it was, it would have to be x-rayed.

The second week Jim and Jeff took over 'The Pit of Confusion'

Jacob and I were were assigned to a new pit - we dug down it became too small for two people - so I got to take over the digging. The content was slightly different to 'The pit of confusion' there was less bone and pottery, and had more organic material such as ash, charcoal, and bits of clay. Ben thought it was a cesspit - yummo!

But it was very fascinating; I cleared one layer and we came to a very different layer underneath - it was kind of yellowy/ brownish. First I had to find how far this layer went - this was a fun job... this layer was sloped down and was very thin in some sections so I had to be careful.

Trying to clean it up was a job and a half - this is how I was introduced to Archaeological Yoga - because as I was cleaning it - I could not step on it (because we would have to take a photo!) and since it sloped, all the crumbs of where I'd clean would go down it to the bottom part of the pit - which was not easily accessible because I had a cut from another pit curved around it. So at times I was on my stomach and my side trying to get those little crumbs to have it looking pristine for its photo shoot.

Of course doing the photo wasn't easy either - Matt and I had to wait for cloud cover to take it. Once when we had got it I grabbed the chalk board with the information on it... and smudged it! So I had to rewrite the information and we had to wait for more cloud cover to do it.

After we did that we had to do the rest of the recording which included; evaluating the soil type, mapping the pit (which I managed to stuff up, even though I mapped once before!) and doing the levels.

Then it was up to me to dig that layer out and we put all this lot into an environmental soil sample to find all the interesting bits in it!

Other then the digging we had lectures on finds, pottery, conservation and matrices. Which most of them were really interesting.. . The conservation one really peaked my interest - conserving wood and metal is such a delicate process which I would like to look further into. Although I would rather work on metal over wood - only because of the fact 2 - 5% of wood is conserved. The rest is just thrown out - how depressing!

The group cleaned finds, bagged them and sorted through the organic finds. Sorting through the organic finds I dubbed 'shifting through shit' - because while you got some lovely bits of bone and rock occasionally you'd get a bit of moss with some shit hanging off the end, if your lucky with some fruit seeds in it!

The skill was to be able to tell if something was a rock or a bit of poop which you did by testing it's strength - if it breaks... it's poop!

The first time we started organising the organic finds Toby popped in, showing us a giant Viking poo - "Just remember this isn't the actual size it would have been, it would have shrunk! I'm surprised we didn't find someone dead next to it!"

Toby was good at popping in showing us cool stuff - like a whole horses leg and a 5,000 year old stone axe that was found in the pit next to 'The Pit of Confusion'

After work, we were very social. We went to the pub and had a few pints together, we did a fast ramble around York once a week (I call it a fast ramble because Toby was our tour guide and he set the pace and it was a very disjointed tour of York - but far more interesting then any walking tour anyone would provide because there were so many little intricacies only an local archaeologist would know). On Fridays its BBQ or dinner night - one of those nights I got home at 5.30... really didn't know I had it in me!

My Nan proceeded to call me a Dirty Stop Out from then on!

The two weeks were just amazing. It was nice to be in such a great working environment and I've learnt I like to work outside (away from the computer!)