Posted tagged ‘archaeology’

Sorry, I’ve been busy (Scone excavation!)

August 8, 2008

I have been plugging away on my dissertation and it has been absorbing my life. It is due September 1st so you can see that I need to buckle down. I am working on the applications of geophysics on battlefield sites. I am talking about locating war-graves, and a through time (aka chronological) perspective of battlefield characteristics and what can be detected with different geophysical techniques. Normally, I’d say ‘please don’t rip me off’ but given the time frame I will instead say ‘good luck ye intellectual pirates!’

Well at the end of last month, I helped to excavate Scone (not pronounced like the baked good, more like Schooner without the ‘er’), which was the seat of power in Scotland and the site of a medieval abbey. I also did a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) survey there a few months back.

I was there for three days and I did the following. I helped uncover the abbey floor, I excavated a 500 year old mother and child burial (well the “mother’s” gender has not be confirmed), I found more scattered (AKA “disarticulated”) human bones then I would have liked and I helped to backfill the trenches. Going back to the disarticulated bones, sadly, looters and 19th landscapers simply dug through burials, and managed to both scatter and shatter the bones.

I have pictures of the eight or so burials that we encountered, however, I will not post them out of respect for the dead. Speaking of the dead, it is very interesting to see how the tourists reacted to the visible presence of human remains. Children, well mostly children, would race up to you and ask ‘where are the skeletons?’ I got so blasé about pointing out the best viewpoint to see burials that after informing a group of people I was shocked when one lady indigently replied “Oh, how macabre!”

The questions people ask you when you are working on a burial never cease to amaze me. They range from “are they going to be reburied afterwards” to “are those real”. I’ll just assume they were talking about the burials. Here is what I wanted to say – no people, I spent hours creating mock burials so I could spend even more time “back-breakingly” and publicly excavating my own forgery. Ain’t I a stinker!

Jokes aside, spiritually and religion is always on the forefront of many questions. Many would ask if we could determine the religious beliefs of the dead; others would ask about crystals and spiritual alignments. Hey, it takes different stroke for different folks.

While the dig was on the peacocks were malting so many of us archaeologist were carrying on with feathers in our caps. Well, at least I was; just call me Yankee-doodle-dandy. On second thought, please don’t. Oh and here is a picture of one of the peacocks from the last time I was a Scone.

The Albino peacock complex

The Albino peacock complex

Right, back to Roman sieges, and their components that are visible to different geophysics techniques. Hell, if I get good enough grades on this puppy I will post it.

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Geophysics! With enough money, and insanity, you can do it at home!

July 8, 2008

Geophysics is like most TV archaeology programmes, the majority of the work is behind the scenes and unglamorous but important if any work is to be done. So how does one go about conducting a geophysical survey on an archaeological site?

What you’ll need
At least three people – one person to use the machine and collect the data and two “line monkeys” (and eventually one person needs to be able to use the software to view the results)
Many measuring tapes- preferably fiberglass and 60M long
Bamboo “canes”
At least 2 clotheslines with one meter intervals marked off with colored tape
Ranging rods (large metallic rods with alternating colors)
A geophysics recording device- resistivity or magnetic device depending on what you are looking for (Geoscan and Bartington are the two largest producers)
Interpretation software- geoscan seems to have the most widely used software
The right conditions- preferably flat, well drained and non magnetic soil with no brambles or flesh craving insect to be found

How do you get started?
A major concept to get your head around is the idea of a “baseline”. No, I’m not talking about the mating call of middle-class guys that you can hear before you even see their Jeep TJ or their Honda Civic. A baseline is a centerline that acts as the backbone for your survey. If you are doing a larger scale “landscape survey” then you would have a very long baseline which would be in the center of your area of interest, say a Rome fort. You are using this line to divide the landscape into smaller grids of 20 x 20M or 10 x 10M.

From this centerline you measure, or subdivided the line into, 20M intervals (or 10M ) and the triangulate the other two points. Yes that’s right, you have to use math in archaeology. Kids, remember to learn trigonometry and geometry. You have the length of two known points, how do you learn the unknown point(s)? Help me Pythagorean theorem! If you are making 20 x 20M grids then here is a hint, you make a triangular with measure tapes with one tape measuring 20M and one measuring 28.28M. Then you switch the tape measurements, make another triangle and now you have your first grid!

Now use the bamboo canes to stake in a tape along the base line. Imagine you have made a giant square on the earth and one side is now measurable. Stake in a tape opposite to the measurable side of the box and now you would have the “line monkeys” use the tapes as guides and stake the clotheslines over the tape. Now the data collection/fun can begin.

Simplifying matters (for those who aren’t experienced geophysicists), the surveyor would carry the geophysical device and collect data when the machine was over the colored tape of the clothesline. When one line is complete, they would move over a meter, turn around and start the process anew. Meanwhile the “line monkeys” would perform the “ritual dance” of unstaking the clotheslines and moving them into the next position. The line monkeys have to move around the surveyor so that the data collection is not stopped or compromised, least they have to redo the data collection for that line. Once the grid is complete, the tapes on either side are moved to the next grid, much like the movement of two inchworms, and the process begins again.

I hope that you understand some of the basics of a geophysical survey. Now here are some complications that occur. When you are working on a slope the tape measurements become inaccurate and the wind can catch the tapes like a sail and rip them out of your hands. When doing a magnetic survey the ends of the tapes have metal in them and have to be kept at least 2Ms away from the machine. As if thats not bad enough many farm animals enjoy chewing on the fiberglass tapes and knocking over the canes. Don’t believe me? Check out this picture.

Not the bambo cane!

Not the bambo cane!

Ridgewayus hic! (Ridgeway was here)

July 2, 2008

Last night I finished my geophysical tour of duty. At Scone we finished hunting for the Medieval Abbey and associated outbuildings with GPR. The last two days (The 25-26th of June) we investigated the proposed area of the Medieval village with a fluxgate gradiometer (which looks for magnetic anomalies bellow the ground). It turns out we were on the edge of a rig and furrow field (an old farming technique) and we might have located a homestead or a field building. We also scanned the nearby Skittery (sp?) ditch, which was a massive open sewage system. Sadly, this ditch was infilled in modern times and has a lot of metal in it, which effectively ruins any chances of interpreting the ditch feature.

I took Friday (June 27th) off. By took off I mean washed all of my non-magnetic outdoor clothing and readied myself for another batch of geophysics.

Saturday, June 28th, we traveled to Ecclefechan and set up a grid system at the Roman fort of Burnswark. There are actually two Roman forts, or castra (singular-castrum), based around a massive Iron Age hill fort. We primarily investigated the southern fort, which is a unique creature. The Iron age hill fort was excavated and thousands of lead slingshot were found in the ‘destruction level’. Originally thought to be a siege site, it is now thought that the hill fort was used as a training ground for the Roman. The fort has a smaller ‘fortlet’ within the typical double ditches of the larger fort. Also on the northern wall there are three mounds known as the ‘three brethren’. The purpose of these mounds is unknown. It is thought that they were created for an artillery platform for ballistae. Personally, I do not believe this as I think they are simple too close to the hill fort.

After a few days of thinking over their purpose, I have come to my own conclusion. I think that they are gateways modified to drain water away from the Roman fort. Many Roman forts have a rectangular wall a few meters out from the earthworks so that the Roman soldiers can control access to and from the fort. The fort is downhill from a very large hill, I think that water would easily enter and flood the Roman camp. I think that the standard gate system was modified with mounds so the water would collect in the ditch around the mounds and be likely be diverted away either outside the earthworks or through the double ditches. It is just a theory but any person who has camped downhill, especially in Scotland, will know just how a bit of rain can ruin your day.

There was 7 people in our crew, 95% were fellow post grads, and armed with two a fluxgate gradiometers and a resistivity meter (which compares the electrical resistance of ground) we covered a huge area. Under the watchful eyes of thousands of sheep we marched up and down the slopes to the sounds of beeps from our high tech devices and the bleating of sheep. It was a great experience and the longer you stayed at the base of that hill, the easier it was to envision Roman soldiers in testudo (tortoise) formation marching up to the hill fort with suppressing fire in the form of hails of lead sling shot. There may have been an actually Scottish opposition present (likely called  ‘Picts’ which roughly means “painted ones” due to the usage of body paint and tattoos) to return fire and clash in close combat  or it may have only been a daily drill. Only time and additional archaeological investigation will give us any answers.

Peacocks and physics er…geophysics

June 23, 2008

This is the first day of an entire week of geophysics. I am working at two separate sites and today was my first day at the site of Scone (pronounced like schooner without the er), Scotland. Scone is a medieval monastic site that is also the original location of the “stone of destiny”. I used ground-penetrating radar (GPR) for the first time. Affectionately referred to as  “the plough” or “the lawnmower” the GPR unit skims across the ground and as the wheel moves there is a sensor which triggers the transmitter unit and the data is collected by the receiver unit (which appears as white boxes which are slightly separated from each other). GPR is amazing because it can collect huge amount of data that allows for 3D analysis and, with enough luck, you can even tell exactly what is bellow the ground and what is it made of. We took readings every 5cm but the wheel sensor undertook all of the hard work and we managed to cover a huge amount of ground.

The work is being undertaken at Scone because it faired so poorly during the reformation. Most Catholic buildings had at least some standing elements left for archaeologists and historians to record, however, the landowners of Scone did not like to gaze upon a crumbling church and had any surface remains destroyed. Now almost nothing is known about the layout of the site itself.

It was a beautiful day for surveying and apart from tourists the site was plagued with peacocks. I have some great pictures of a seemingly interested peacock eavesdropping in on our geophysics discussions, however, because people are identifiable I won’t put them up yet (without consent). On the estate, there is an incredibly beautiful pure white (albino?) peacock. Given its uniqueness it was constantly harassed and tried to scare off these camera-happy predators by brandishing its tail. This defense mechanism would backfired and it would simply draw the attention of every tourist within view. I call it the “white peacock paradox”; I am sure there some underlying comment about the rich and famous in there somewhere.

Indiana Jones and the Risk Assessment Form!

May 21, 2008

With the upcoming release of the movie “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”, archaeology is again at the forefront of media attention. Some of my comrades directed me to the following article on how Indiana Jones does not seem to be a real archaeologist. It is shocking, I know. The fictional Dr. Jones is more of a scruffy, Nazi-slaughtering, ‘tomb raider’ (yes Lara Croft you are an archaeological criminal as well). Listen I hate fascism so I don’t mind the departure of a few racist goons but taking artifacts out of context (without employing the proper procedures) and making the entire field of archaeology appear to be a ghoulish endeavor through the desecration of graves (via his use of a femur bone as a torch), this just not acceptable Indy!

Many will be saddened to know that archaeology is not one big adventure. Sure it is not your normal job as I was firing muskets two weeks ago but it is a job. Although, archaeologists are sometimes called the “cowboys of science” we try very hard to come across as professional and an important part of the planning/pre construction process. How else can we bring our wages to acceptable levels? A field archaeologist, with a university degree, in the UK makes £15k that is not enough money to start paying back any type of student loan. I think I mentioned this earlier but back in Canada a construction worker with a high school degree makes more money that an archaeologist with a university degree. The big question is will this newest movie help or hinder us in our cause. Only time will tell. The next big question is will it entertain us. *Fingers crossing* I sure hope so!

While ‘true’ archaeology can often be very boring, tedious, and makes very bad TV shows/films. Can you imagine Harrison Ford’s character filling out paperwork for his adventures? Hell, I would love to read THAT risk assessment form!

  • Project leader: Dr. Henry ‘Indiana’ Walton Jones, Jr
  • Sources of risks and associated/potential risk/s

The jungle-illness, damage/destruction of equipment, personal injury and/or death

Pit lined with spears-personal injury or death

Pressure triggered blowgun traps-personal injury or death

Optically triggered spear trap-personal injury, death and/or loss of treacherous guide

Pressure triggered ‘rolling rock’ trap-personal injury, death and/or loss of Fedora hat

Treacherous guide-becoming stranded in a collapsing temple in an unfamiliar jungle with an angry tribe likely leading to climatic meeting with personal nemesis, personal injury and/or death

Armed and angry indigenous tribe-personal injury or death. Highly likely that it will lead to death as I am stealing their sacred idol and can’t speak their language

Snake in cockpit of seaplane-loss of temper with pilot over choice of pets

  • Practices, methods and techniques that will be employed to minimize risks

“Stay(ing) out of the light.”

Running like hell and employing fancy footwork

Employing a bullwhip to bypass obstacles

Utilizing a bag of sand as a counterweight when attempting overcome traps meant to stop the looting the sacred site

Swimming across an unfamiliar body of water to escape via seaplane

Somehow, I cannot imagine him getting the funding for that particular project. He didn’t even think of wearing a ‘high-viz’ leather jacket or a saftey-Fedora, pfft… rookie mistake.

I have to say though I have had fun thinking this up. I will likely continue this kind of joke as the countdown to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skill continues.

Brown Bess and Tonsillitis

May 14, 2008

I love working in the battlefield archaeology center. Last week one of my coworkers casually asked me if I wanted to shoot off some muskets after work. Clearly, I said yes and it is great fun. I was wearing my aviators, under the required goggles, and I felt very Hunter S. Thompson-ish. Now we weren’t just shooting the guns to sound cool. We were conducting an experiment on the correlation between the final appearance of the musket balls and the soil in which they embedded themselves. We did the shooting at “the farm” which had a hill, which we used as a back catcher for any rogue musket balls, and a lot of sheep around ahh Scotland.

On the less fun side of my life I was just informed that I have tonsillitis. Yesterday it felt like I was swallowing razorblades and then the fever hit. It is a cruel trick to be sweating buckets and feeling freezing cold simultaneous. I tried to go to the clinic yesterday but they are closed on Tuesday afternoon for no apparent reason. I dragged my carcass out of bed this morning and now I am popping penicillin tic-tacs and I already feel a bit better.

It is times like this that I appreciate the diversity of sources for innovation and discovery. It seems to me that the words which follow the greatest discoveries and innovations are some form of “what the hell”. Clearly, I am thinking directly, and thankful, of Fleming’s contaminated plate culture. Henri Becquerel and the discovery of radiation is another great example. Becquerel left a bag of uranium salts on some photographic film and, on a hunch, developed the film only to find that the salts had fogged, by exposure to radiation, the portion of the film they were sitting on. My knowledge of the effects of radiation hurts me to think about carelessly throwing bags of radioactive stuff about but I can’t really judge the person who first discovered it. One could argue that another example of careless behavior is giving black powder muskets to a bunch archaeologists. Ya seriously who does that?

Job placement announcement

May 1, 2008

I apologize for using a teaser and then following it up with only the deafening sounds of silence. Come to think of it, my blog is always silent but you get the point.

My work placement will be very diverse but the part, that is concrete and, I am excited about is my involvement with battlefield archaeology. I, think, I can safely announce that I am compiling the work undertaken by the British archaeological television show “Two Men in a Trench”. There are at least twelve battlefields; they range in dates from the medieval era to the Second World War. The battles include Culloden, Bannockburn, Dover, and Flodden just to name a few.

I will be working on the largest archaeological evaluation of battlefields in Europe! I think I am actually compiling the largest archaeological evaluations of battlefields in the world but I can’t prove that and I don’t care enough to waste my time looking in it to. If you somehow do know that my work constitutes as the largest in the world, don’t even tell me; my ego is just the right size and I think I would just look silly with a “big head”.

There is talk of a lot of other cool stuff but nothing is certain and I do not want to come across as a liar, a braggart or some unholy combination of the two. I am content to ride this crazy wave for now.

OK I have to brag here for a minute. I get to work on the first battle where that new-founded “grenade” was used. Back in the day when they looked like something Wyle E. Coyote would use to try to kill Roadrunner, and no I don’t mean anvils either. Being in Scotland I find it interesting that I get to work on the battles where Scotland gained, and then lost, its independence. Heck, I get to be a true spectator to the very poor military track record of Scottish rebellions. Hold on a second, didn’t I just promise not to brag and doesn’t that make me a liar? And so the slow descent begins.

Well my lunch break is over so I probably should get back to…wait for it…archiving the last “pitched” battle in the UK. Yes, that is correct, right now I am thumbing through the mud-caked field records of Culloden. It is like being there, minus the blood, the mud or both. Wait, did you hear that? That my friends, is the sound of my blog is silently yelling with joy.