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Lunchtime Lowdown, Post-excavation

Day of Archaeology 2011: Cosmeston round up

29th July 2011, what day was it? No, not Friday, Friday, but the Day of Archaeology 2011:

Yesterday was the inaugural Day of Archaeology, a project conceived by Lorna Richardson (UCL PhD student) and Matt Law (Cardiff PhD student and commercial archaeologist). The project, designed to give a window into the daily lives of archaeologists, had over 400 contributors chronicling their work on the 29th July.

Naturally, we at Cosmeston Archaeology felt it important to be involved in such an amazing project (we didn’t leave it slightly late to sign up, honest) and, over the course of the day, contributed five (yes, FIVE!) blogs detailing the post excavation work on the Cosmeston archive currently being undertaken in Cardiff University. For those of you who missed these, we bring you a summary of our contributions along with a selection of favourites from elsewhere.

The morning started with an introduction to our work by Alice, who revealed that post excavation is the perfect job if you enjoy alphabetising your CD and DVD collections (believe me, she does). Alice is currently supervising a group of six students undertaking a post-excavation course as part of their degree studies. Three of the six contributed blogs yesterday, we will bring you posts from the other three during the next few weeks.

After the brief start we had morning tea with Nicolle Grieve, a  3rd year student studying BA joint honours Ancient History and Archaeology. Nicolle’s main job so far has been to digitise photographs from the 1980’s GGAT excavation to cross reference them with the catalogue to build a digital archive. An important task, because, as Nicolle puts it:

…post excavation is about organising and ensuring the material and information is preserved. With the completed digital archive it not only makes the work of archaeologists studying the finds of the 1980’s easier but it allows us as archaeologists to find patterns within similar sites and find links in which we can form theories.  The overall process of post excavation is the most time consuming part of archaeology but the final stage, cataloguing the information ready for publication, is in some ways, the most rewarding part in my opinion.

Next up we had Louise at lunchtime who, as well as informing us about the work she was undertaking, talked about how she found herself studying archaeology as a mature student:

Archaeology and medieval history is something I’ve been interested in for years, but never really knew how to get involved with any projects and I was put off applying for a history degree by my careers adviser when I was in college. ‘Why do you want to do a history degree when your A level subjects are sociology, law and English? Best you apply for an English degree somewhere’. Rather disheartened by this negative response I decided that education wasn’t for me and I joined the world of full time employment. I tried my hand at many different careers, from care assistant and pharmacy technician to burger van and mushroom picker, but I never felt satisfied with the work, so as my 30th birthday was fast approaching I took the plunge and enrolled at Neath Port Talbot college to do an Access to Humanities course. It was brilliant. The lecturers were all very supportive and encouraged us all to go down which ever route we felt was right for ourselves.

As a result of going back to college I have ended up studying Archaeology and Medieval History at Cardiff University. Part of the course requires you to undertake work placement in an archaeological environment. I chose to do post excavation as it’s what I would love to do with my degree eventually, I find it fascinating how small fragments of pottery or bone can be dated and analysed to give us a better understanding of how our ancestors lived. I think that in post excavation more time can be taken to look at the finds and details from site that may have been missed in the field.

Remember folks, it’s never too late to get your own hands dirty!

Our final student contributor for the day was Kyle Young, a second year (going into third year) archaeology student. Kyle provided us with some detail on the medieval pottery he has been learning about over the past week and also informed us why he thought doing post excavation was important for understanding sites better:

I was at Cosmeston for the 2010 season and the work I am currently doing with the finds from the site is enabling me to have a better understanding of what occurred there. Through working on the site I  could see and understood what it was, but it is through studying the finds that I am beginning to fully appreciate what actually happened within the manor house, and also during the post-medieval period when it was demolished.

Finally we returned to Alice, who wrapped up the days work:

As Louise also mentioned, marking pottery is necessary for a number of reasons. Firstly, boxes get dropped, mice can chew through plastic bags and plastic bags degrade. With pottery all marked up, there is no danger of losing context, enabling future generations to study assemblages. Secondly, particularly with pottery, interpretation of contexts can be helped if it is clear that parts of one vessel were deposited within a number of different features. To keep a record of this, and to enable reconstruction of the pot, you need to be able to know specifically where the sherds came from.

Alice also let us into a deep, dark, secret; why she loves pot:

I first began to find it particularly interesting when I was excavating in Leicester city centre on the High Cross development. The work there was bringing up massive amounts of ceramic material and I was particularly frustrated that I couldn’t identify the sherds (other than what was medieval and what was Roman). This lack of knowledge cultivated a desire to be able to know my way around a ceramic assemblage. I was lucky enough at ULAS to have a supportive manager, Nick Cooper, who began my formal training. Since starting the PhD at Cardiff University I have developed a good knowledge of South Welsh pottery. This saved me this week, as people were tired of just marking random bits of pottery, but once they were able to recognise what they were marking the job became far more interesting.

Reading the last paragraph back has slightly surprised me and made me realise how exciting my life must seem…

The team hard at work on the Cosmeston archive

The team hard at work on the Cosmeston archive.


Of course, the Cosmeston contributions to Day of Archaeology were jut a tiny drop in a sea of brilliant insights into what archaeologists do, and elsewhere there were some fantastic contributions from archaeologists associated with Cardiff. The excavation at Ham Hill (a joint project between Cardiff and Cambridge Archaeological Unit on one of the largest hill forts in Britain) provided some brilliant details on the latest work, along with a rather touching account of what it’s like to dig for the very first time by Joe (a first year undergraduate):

I’d be a liar if I said the thought of excavation didn’t worry me. As someone who has never been on a dig- let alone camped before I had horrific expectations and ridiculous hopes.

It was no secret that I looked forward to learning practical skills  the most, camping was definitely my biggest worry but the first thing I learnt was just get on with things – go with the flow.  I came to excavating a few days ago with no practical knowledge and already I’ve learnt about dumpy levels, sieving, and the importance of paperwork (yeah, you even escape it in a field…) I also learnt that the people you don’t talk to in class or never heard speak before will become the best people in the world when you live together for weeks.

Dr Tim Young, who runs GeoArch (a Cardiff-based archaeological consultancy) and teaches geophysics to undergraduates, talked about getting ready for the Cardiff excavations at Caerleon (don’t forget to check out their blog from Monday) and being an archaeometallurgical specialist. If you like the archaeometallurgy aspect, then also check out Ruth Fillery-Travis and Paul Belford’s contributions. 

Dr Richard Madgwick, who recently completed his PhD at Cardiff and is now a lecturer at Bournemouth University, informed us of the tasty diet pigs received in times past:

First task of the day is to finish writing a paper on reconstructing the diets of Bronze Age pigs through isotopic analysis of sites in South Wales (Llanmaes) and Wiltshire (Potterne). I processed 150 samples of animal bone, which retains a chemical signature of the animals’ diet. Results demonstrate a wide-range of foddering regimes. Some pigs were entirely herbivorous, others had diets which included lots of animal protein, perhaps as scraps from meals. It also seems likely that several of the pigs were fed on that cornerstone of a healthy diet – poo!

Another former Cardiff PhD student, Dr Ffion Reynolds, is currently working for Cadw as a Council of British Archaeology Community Archaeologist. Ffion is normally a Neolithic specialist, but used the Day of Archaeology to take us on an exclusive behind the scenes tour of Caerwent Military Base, the location of a former propellant factory and munitions dump:

Since the departure of the Americans in 1993, the site has become a troop training area, as well as an explosives demolition practice area, which is limited to a few structures. These days, a number of buildings are used by visiting troops for training purposes, and also by civilian companies as storage.

Recently twentieth century military sites have been recognised as an important element of our heritage and, as such, we’re hoping to set up more community projects at the site….

Ffion was organising tours of the site over the weekend, and is planning to report on how people engaged with this fantastic piece of historical archaeology, so check back on Monday to find out how it went.

The End

There are so many great posts on the Day of Archaeology website, covering everything from commercial archaeology in Texas to museum archaeology to Egyptology, that I could spend the rest of the day linking to amazing blogs. Half the fun, however, is digging through and finding your own things. So please take a look and let us know of any other cool entries you find!

+Matt Nicholas


About Matt Nicholas

Hello, my name is Matt Nicholas and I'm an archaeologist. I recently finished a PhD at Cardiff University on the analysis of early Anglo-Saxon non-ferrous metals excavated from a group of cemeteries in Suffolk. I grew up in a town called Worksop in North Nottinghamshire. With sites like Creswell Crags and Roche Abbey on my doorstep becoming an archaeologist was an occupational hazard of childhood. I was lucky enough to get my first job excavating an Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Whitby Abbey before studying for a BSc in Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford (2000-4). After my undergraduate studies I worked in commercial archaeology for a few years (in locations from Suffolk to Sudan) before studying for an MSc in the Technology and Analysis of Archaeological Material at UCL (2007-8). I then proceeded to spend two years employed at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (where I didn't stab myself with a poisoned arrow and only broke one object). I don’t like pickled beetroot. All posts, comments etc. represent my own personal musings, and are not representative of any past or current professional affiliations.


One thought on “Day of Archaeology 2011: Cosmeston round up

  1. I like this post, and have enjoyed reading all the students posts keeping me iinformed with the excavation and post excavation. I particularly enjoyed Beths post because of her interest in the pottery finds as this is my favourite part of archaeology. Best wishes to you all for your future.

    Posted by ritaroberts | August 10, 2011, 6:09 pm

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Day of Archaeology 2011

Cosmeston contributed to Day of Archaeology 2011. Click through to see our posts!

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