Archaeology

You are currently browsing articles tagged Archaeology.

Medieval Archaeology, edited by Roberta Gilchrist (Research Dean) and Gemma Watson from the Department of Archaeology, is a new publication in Routledge’s Critical Concepts in Archaeology series.

The four-volume publication reprints 77 influential papers carefully selected to highlight the key issues and debates in the development and contemporary practice of later medieval archaeology in Europe (c. 1000–1550 AD).  The four volumes are designed thematically: ‘Defining Medieval Archaeology’, ‘the Medieval Landscape’, ‘Medieval Life’ and ‘Medieval Social Archaeology’. The publication includes papers by Reading archaeologists Roberta Gilchrist, Grenville Astill, Mary Lewis, Gundula Mueldner and Aleks Pluskowski.

The set is aimed at an international audience and is intended as a one-stop research tool to complement degrees in Medieval Studies and provide a background in medieval archaeology and material culture.

For more about the book, visit the publisher’s website: https://www.routledge.com/Medieval-Archaeology/Gilchrist/p/book/9780415718165

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Fortune favours the bold

As a research and fieldwork active archaeology department, we are extremely fortunate to have one of Britain’s best preserved Roman and Iron Age towns on our doorstep – Silchester, or Calleva of the Atrebates, is less than 10 miles from the Department of Archaeology’s door. The department has been carrying out fieldwork at Silchester, led by Professor Michael Fulford, for nearly 40 years – and this largely undisturbed greenfield site provides many opportunities to pose new research questions, and then to answer them through cutting edge fieldwork.

Excavation planning: Step 1 – bring in the machine!

Excavation planning: Step 1 – bring in the machine!

Posing palace questions

For the last 4 summer seasons we have been searching for structural evidence that the Roman Emperor Nero (Emperor from 54 to 68AD) commissioned a palatial residence in the provincial capital of Calleva Atrebatum. Our excavations in Insula IX between 1997 and 2014 had thrown up tantalising evidence for this in the form of high quality building stone incorporated into the foundations of later Roman buildings, as well as pottery tiles stamped with Nero’s name. These tiles are found nowhere else in Britain, and their discovery hints at a high level of imperial involvement – and even investment – into the town. But where exactly was Nero’s palace?

Testing hypotheses

Archaeologists test hypotheses – and ours was that Insula III, centrally located within the town, held the secret – and possibly also the Nero commissioned palace. The Victorians had excavated here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and their resultant town plan suggested the presence of a stone founded building of good size. And indeed we thought we might have found it when, in 2013, we began digging in the south-east corner of Insula III and uncovered the colonnaded remains of a mid-1st century AD building, which, at first trowel, looked substantial and significant.

Location, location, location

However 4 seasons of work later, we can unequivocally state that Insula III did not contain a luxurious home to rival those of Rome, and built for a supportive British ruler or noble with Nero’s patronage. Instead we found an unfinished and fairly flimsy structure, built over layers of clay and gravel dumped to offset the soft and slumping fills of the underlying Iron Age pits and wells. It must have been a bitter blow for the builders of Nero’s time to realise that prime building land in the centre of the Roman town, next to the forum, was unsuitable for solid masonry structures. Instead we surmise that the area lay largely unused until the late Roman period when the desire for prime real estate overrode the restrictions of the earlier centuries and allowed the construction of gravel founded timber buildings, jostling for space in this most desirable of town locations.

New knowledge

Archaeology is a voyage of discovery and even if we don’t find what we hoped or expected, there is always a net gain in knowledge. This summer was our last chance to find Nero, and through the use of our – by now – tried and tested methodology of investigating the archaeology of Insula III by simply re-excavating the trenches dug by our antiquarian forbears and using the emptied trenches as ‘key-holes’ into the undisturbed layers, we uncovered a new and detailed sequence from the natural geology through to late or post Roman occupation, followed by 2 phases of Victorian excavation.

Seasons in the sun

We dug for 3 weeks in August and September of this year – and, as it turned out, we had the very best of an English summer: some hot days, lots of bright sunshine, and very little rain. A relatively small research excavation such as this also provides a great opportunity to give employability placement opportunities to our part 2 and Part 3 students, particularly those hoping to enter a career in commercial archaeology. But – to be honest- everyone should add an excavation to their CV – working as part of a team, communicating, solving problems: these are skills all graduates should have on leaving university. Plus, it is enormous fun – working together towards a common research aim, in what can sometimes be challenging physical conditions – what’s not to like?

Caedmon planning

Caedmon planning

 Turf, topsoil and talent

We opened 3 trenches – each with their own objectives – and we had a workforce of up to 20 on site, including a team working with our Finds and Visitors. The stage was set! Step 1 was to get the machining right – using a JCB to strip the turf and topsoil off is a challenging task. Take too much off, and you risk losing vital late and post Roman evidence; take too little off and you are condemning your team to days of backbreaking digging of sterile topsoil deposits and the risk of not finishing on time… With the help of a truly talented digger driver, we got it exactly right, and within a day we could quite clearly see the outlines of the diagonal Victorian trenches as darker stripes cutting through the topsoil and subsoil. Also immediately visible were striations and patterns of gravel which, on cleaning, began to show themselves to be outlines of a late Roman building completely missed by the Victorian excavators whose sole work purpose was to discover large pieces of masonry and exciting artefacts.

 

Hard at work on a summer’s day

Hard at work on a summer’s day

Antiquarian antics

By the end of the excavation, each trench had a story to tell, and when we left site with a complete record – plans, photographs, samples, finds, record cards – we left behind a very light touch on the archaeology of this major Roman town. We learnt a great deal about the nature of the Victorian intervention, as we tried to second guess their strategies – they do not record exactly how and where they dug – only what they found.

Sifting through the finds in their backfill is equally remarkable in terms of what they threw back in – what they deemed unimportant – or unrecognisable, becomes a treasure trove for us. The antiquarian archaeologists before us gave us no light and shade, no detail of the lives of the people living there. We can now fill in those gaps.

Roman New Build

As with elsewhere in Insula III, we identified substantial clay levelling of a 2nd century AD date, over an uneven surface, and not much construction work until the late Roman period – when a series of gravel-filled foundation trenches were dug to support a large, rectangular building in the north-west corner of the insula. This building had clay and gravel floors (most of which did not survive) and was subdivided into a number of rooms. Associated with it were a sequence of substantial postholes cut into the edge of the gravel surfaced street, dug and re-dug, used and re-used over time, recognising, marking and regularly replacing a boundary. The Victorian excavators of the 1860’s and the 1890’s did not recognise this as a building as such – and so we felt a great sense of achievement when adding it to the known plan of late Roman Silchester. Discovering a previously unknown Roman building is not something you do every day!

Losing Nero

Every excavation has its disappointments – and ours was no exception, We had begun this project in 2013 in the south-east corner of Insula III, looking for a palace of Nero, and we ended in 2016 in the north-west corner knowing that we had not found this building – at least not in Insula III – but knowing that there is enough material evidence to suggest that it is likely to be somewhere within the town. So – no wonderful treasures, no palaces of kings – this time – but we now know what Insula III was all about, and another piece of the jigsaw has been slotted into place. And we had a lot of fun doing so; thanks to a fantastic team!

Team 2016

Team 2016

Amanda Clarke

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

In July, a team consisting of staff and students from the University of Reading (Aleks Pluskowski, Rowena Banerjea, Guillermo García-Contreras Ruiz, Rob Fry, David Thornley (formerly at Reading) and Caedmon Bradley), students from the universities of Granada and Montpellier, spent a week in the province of Guadalajara, central Spain, prospecting and surveying two castles associated with the medieval Christian – Muslim frontier. The project was funded by the Society of Antiquaries and the Erasmus Programme, as pilot studies within the “Landscapes of (Re)conquest project” which is investigating the character of medieval frontiers in South Western Europe. The central part of the Iberian Peninsula represents an exceptional area for investigating the dynamics of frontiers, colonisation and social reorganisation during the formative period of the Middle Ages, when political control of territory fluctuated between Islamic and Christian authorities. Our fieldwork focused on two castles – Molina de Aragón and Atienza – that were linked to medieval frontier authorities during both Islamic and Christian periods of rule. Both sites are defined by the presence of substantial enclosed wards, largely devoid of structures above ground. The use of these spaces and therefore the roles of these fortified sites during the various phases of occupation remain unknown, and the complete lack of palaeoenvironmental investigations has also detached them from their landscape context. The aim of the project was to conduct geophysics surveys within these wards, to obtain environmental data from excavated irrigation channel and terrace within the vicinity of the sites, and to collect samples of building fabric and document phases of construction. This information would be used to characterise how the landscape was used and organised by Islamic and Christian frontier authorities.

20160706_170234

Most of our fieldwork was focused on Molina de Aragón, which consists of a fortified complex, located on a hill overlooking the valley of the River Gallo in the Upper Tagus, one of the principle mountain ranges in Spain and recently designated as a UNESCO Global Geopark due to its unique geological formations. The role of the site changed over time, from a rural fortification during the Islamic period, ruled largely by Berbers (8th–10th centuries), to a focal point for the defence of Al-Andalus against the expansion of Christian kingdoms from the north (10th–11th century) and subsequently the capital of an independent Islamic state, the Taifa of Molina, following the collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate. In 1129, Molina was conquered by King Alfonso I of Aragon. After fierce territorial disputes, it was bequeathed to the Lara family who maintained a virtually independent frontier lordship into the 14th century and developed the associated town. Molina passed to the Kingdom of Aragon for a short period (c. 1366–1375), after which it was incorporated into Castile, and finally into Spain. After functioning as a military barracks throughout the 19th century, the fortress was abandoned from the beginning of the 20th century. Rob Fry and David Thornley conducted magnetometry surveys within the wards of the castle, whilst the rest of the team focused on excavating and sampling an irrigation channel at the edge of the medieval town, taking cores to identify suitable deposits for further environmental sampling and sampling a terrace for OSL dating and geoarchaeological analysis. Environmental sampling was led by Rowena Banerjea with students from Granada and Montpellier. Caedmon Bradley documented the walls of the castle at Molina de Aragón with photogrammetry for his third-year dissertation.

20160706_164424

The second fortified complex included within the project – Atienza – is located within an expansive valley of the mountain range of the Sierra Norte. From the 8th century it was settled and used as a rural fortification by the Berber tribe of Banu Salim. During the Umayyad emirate and caliphate (9th c-10th century), Atienza was an important strategic centre on the border between al-Andalus and the Christian kingdoms. In 1086, the fortress was conquered and became part of Christian Castile. Subsequently, it became the centre of a frontier lordship, securing the border against both neighbouring Muslim territories and the Christian Kingdom of Aragon (11th-12th century). Atienza remained loyal to the kings of Castile in times of internal civil war (13th-14th century), and its prosperity was represented by the construction of fourteen churches, alongside the expanded castle and urban defences. From the 15th century its strategic and economic importance dramatically declined. In the 19th century it was significantly affected by the War of Independence. Here, Rob Fry and David Thornley conducted magnetometer surveys within the castle itself, its outer wards and some of the adjacent parts (now abandoned) of the medieval town. The aim of the surveys was to identify the degree of disturbance and the presence of buried structures where traces of occupation may have been preserved, to inform future excavations.

20160704_131719

The results of these pilot projects are currently being analysed, but they represent an important foundation for more extensive future investigations into the role of these centres of authority in the medieval multicultural frontiers of Iberia.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Want to know more about studying with us? We’ve got a new video up starring some of our undergraduates (and staff!) – check it out!

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

Our Part 2 Archaeology student, Harry Richardson, recently applied for and was awarded a place on the competitive Sainsbury Institute Winter Programme, accompanying Japanese students to heritage sites around the UK. Read on for more details…

 

20160219_110455

“The Winter Programme was run jointly by Dr Sam Nixon, a senior research associate of the Sainsbury Institute for Japanese Arts and Culture; and Akira Matsuda, who is doing his PhD in Public Archaeology at the University of Tokyo.

5 Tokyo students were each paired with 5 students from various European universities, including Tübingen, Zurich, York and UEA. Some had an archaeological background, although many were just interested in learning more about the UK. This was done with the intention of promoting an exchange of ideas, in the context of UK heritage which was introduced through a 14-day tour of English cities and archaeological sites. This included (but was not limited to) London, Bath and Norwich.

20160213_132807Each day, we were encouraged to reflect on our experiences and discuss major issues, such as the nature of archaeology and heritage, its relationship with the general public, and how this compares/contrasts with Japan and other countries. This was also done through daily questions, and also through group presentations to help consolidate our ideas. Other events of note included an exclusive tour of the Japan galleries at the British Museum by Nicole Rousmaniere (founder and former SISJAC director) and a final reception at UEA hosted by the Vice Chancellor and Simon Kaner (the current director) that also brought together Japanese students and staff on different programmes at UEA.

I applied to gain an insight into how people from international cultures felt about heritage in Britain, and also to gain knowledge about the issues affecting their countries. The programme largely achieved this, by not only consolidating my knowledge of heritage and the issues that currently affect it, but also through improving my ability to communicate my ideas coherently. Most of all, I enjoyed being received as part of a group who were all inclusive and friendly.

I would definitely recommend this experience to anyone interested in learning more about foreign cultures, improving their communication and language skills, or generally gaining experience for their next career move. UEA also run a Summer Programme, where students gain the opportunity to excavate at an archaeological site in Hokkaido with accommodation included.”

 

Harry Richardson

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

By: Ben Camp, Nick Harper, Alex Pope, Debs Young (MA students, Department of Archaeology, University of Reading)

 

Day 1

After a night at the British Institute at Ankara the first place we visited was the Anatolian Civilisations Museum in Ankara. It is housed in a fantastic Ottoman building dating to the 15th century AD. Called a Han, it housed shops and accommodation for travellers, located in the old citadel. The artefacts throughout the museum were astounding and we would throughly recommend it to anyone travelling to Ankara.

IMG_2346

Next we travelled with our bus and driver Selim Bey to Gordion, a site that has hosted such historic figures as Midas and Alexander the Great. We were greeted with the traditional British archaeological weather – rain and strong winds. First we went to Tumulus MM, stupefying for the size of the mound itself (53m high) and the size of the juniper logs covering the burial chamber, dated to 740 BC. Then we went to the mound of Gordion. We saw the Early Phrygian citadel and the Middle Phrygian gate. It was amazing to see how much was still standing.

 

Day 2

A long drive to Çatalhöyük, but it was worth every mile. Walking up the slope of the höyük (archaeological mound) in the sunshine towards the shelter only increased the sense of excitement and anticipation. Actually entering the shelter and standing in front of the 7000 BC village laid out before us was unbelievable. It is difficult to express in words quite what the site is like and know that this was a place that people chose to live in for generation after generation.

IMG_2577Following the track across the mound with the pottery broken and discarded beneath our feet, we then entered the South Shelter and were left stunned at the panoramic vista of the many levels which dropped in front of us. We highly recommend a visit to Çatalhöyük, and to one of our group especially it was a much dreamt of visit.

We then drove the short distance to Boncuklu, a site even earlier than Çatalhöyük and which could prove in the future to be just as important. After an informative tour of the site, the guard invited us all for chay (tea), but which actually turned out to be a three course lunch eaten cross-legged on the floor of his family home. Wonderful food in the company of very welcoming and friendly people just added to an already fabulous day.

Acemhöyük was the last stop of the day, and after another long drive in torrential rain, we arrived just before the sun set and climbed precariously up the slippery mud slope clad in waterproofs, much to the amusement of the local villagers, to whom we no doubt looked like the archetypical English archaeologists! The heavily burnt site was too muddy to explore in detail but we were able to determine the extent and rich colours of the walls, brought to life by the wet conditions, especially when the setting sun shone its rays on the burnt Middle Bronze Age palaces, dated to 1650 BC.

A late night arrival at the hotel was greeted with enthusiasm by all after a long but wonderful day.

 

Day 3

The drive to Kültepe-Kaneš was not particularly long, and whilst the mound is visible from a distance, the karum, possibly the most important element of the site, is not. The site principally dates to the late third and early second millennia BC, including the Old Assyrian trading period, with the two most important levels of the lower town dating to this period. Recent excavations and survey have revealed that the well-preserved ruins extend even further into the beautiful countryside than previously expected. The lower town produced some 23,500 cuneiform texts of clay baked in the great conflagration that consumed the entire lower town in the middle of this period. The mound is also important, with recent discoveries of a massive administrative building dating to 2400 BC.

After Kültepe-Kaneš we then proceeded to Alişarhöyük, climbing the mound and inspecting the early twentieth century excavation trenches. Our final site for the third day was Alacahöyük, where both the museum and reconstructed tombs were amazing. The reliefs and sphinx gate were beautiful examples of Hittite art and after exploring the Hittite palace we had tea at a local café before proceeding to our lovely hotel at Hattusa, famous capital of the Hittites.

 

Day 4

We started the day by exploring the religious sanctuary of Yazılıkaya. The site is famous for its rock reliefs and it is easy to see why. The rock carvings were extremely impressive and the entire site had an atmosphere which indicated why the Hittite chose this place as a religious sanctuary.

We then travelled the short distance to the Hittite capital Hattusa. We spent the next six hours walking and exploring this massive site in the hot sun, looking at the many temples, royal buildings and gates which are scattered across the ancient city. Walking really gave us a great idea of what this ancient capital might have been like at the height of its power and it was a brilliant experience which we would thoroughly recommend. As we walked from one end of the city to the other we climbed 300m in height! After a lovely meal at Mehmet’s glorious Kale Otel we made the long drive back to Ankara in the dusk.

 

IMG_2301

Day 5

In Ankara airport again, and it is with great sadness that we call time on the adventure. It has been the trip of a lifetime and the memories will last forever. Thanks to our driver Selim Bey and the British Institute in Ankara for facilitating the trip (particularly Selim Bey, who drove a crazy number of miles!). But special thanks must go to Professor Roger Matthews, who was the best host and guide we could have had. He really made the trip come alive. Until next time…

 

 

Special thanks to SAGES PGT fund and Reading International Office for their financial contributions to enable this field trip to happen, and to all our friends at BIAA.

 

For more photos from the trip, check out the album here.

Tags: , , , , ,

Image 1

Image 1

Recently, Pascal Flohr from the Reading Archaeology Department visited the Rif Mountains in Morocco to attend a workshop on ‘traditional’ farming societies. Researchers based on Morocco and in the UK discussed ways to study farming in the past (in archaeology) and present. Early farming societies are an important focus of the research and teaching in Reading, like the first farmers in the Middle East.

Image 2

Image 2

Image 1: While the workshop also consisted of lectures, an important part was learning in the field. Here, workshop attendants are collecting weeds from the edge of a crop field. Weed seeds are often found in archaeological excavations and can tell us about the way people were farming. For example, certain weeds are associated with manured crops, which means that the farmer was making an effort to improve his fields.

Image 2: Who needs powerpoint? Professor Hodgson (Sheffield) explains different weed categories and what they can tell us.

Image 3: The reason the workshop took place in the Rif Mountains in Morocco is that relatively traditional, small-scale ways of farming are still in use here.

Image 3

Image 3

Tags: , , ,

The University of Reading Archaeology Field School has a new location from summer 2015 – the Vale of Pewsey! Dr Jim Leary will be directing the project over the next few years and below, he explains a little of his background and experience in this fantastic landscape…

Dr Jim Leary

Dr Jim Leary

“As a prehistorian I have always been drawn to Wiltshire. I excavated there as an undergraduate, looking at the Mesolithic site of Golden Ball Hill, and have been digging there on and off ever since. I once even found and excavated a very ancient site there indeed. It was fantastically well-preserved considering it was 250,000 years old, and packed full of the flint tools and hunting residue of one of one of our early hominin ancestors. But it is the ancient Neolithic monuments that are the main source of fascination for me – and a challenge too: there is so much more to discover.

In 2007 I took charge of the Silbury Hill project, working inside the enormous Neolithic mound with a team of miners and archaeologists. It was an amazing experience, to be able to spend so much time actually inside Silbury. There was real concern that a big portion of the mound might collapse as a result of various shafts and tunnels created by past archaeologists and antiquarians. We had to stabilise the structure and make it safe for the future, but this was also an opportunity to gather archaeological information.

In the summer of 2010 I directed an excavation at the huge Neolithic henge at Marden in the Vale of Pewsey. It is the one no-one has heard of, and yet it is the biggest henge of all – bigger than Avebury and about 10 times the size of Stonehenge. One objective was to find the position of the ‘Hatfield Barrow’ – another conical mound, half the size of Silbury. The mound was dug into in 1807 but it collapsed and the remains of it were later removed by the farmer. We assumed it had completely gone but below the soil we found that some of the mound still remained – it was just 15 centimetres high! That is quite a reduction from the original 15 metres, but it did contain dateable material, which showed it to be the same date as Silbury.

Marden Henge

Marden Henge

Also inside Marden henge, we found the best-preserved Neolithic building in England. It wasn’t a house that was lived in, but probably had some other function – perhaps a sweat lodge. The people that used this building will have seen Stonehenge in use – perhaps even worshipped there. There may be more buildings at Marden, and this is one of the questions we need to answer when we go back. The Marden excavations produced other unique finds, including some of the most finely worked flint arrowheads I’ve ever seen. The pottery too, was highly unusual: one clay pot had been coated in bone ash – my guess is that it is human bone, but we’ll never know for sure.

Continuing with the mounds theme I’ve also made the news through my work at Marlborough Castle Mound – or ‘Merlin’s Mound’ as it is known locally. Now in the grounds of Marlborough College, this 19m high mound was once the motte on which Marlborough Castle was built shortly after the Norman Conquest. In the 17th century it became part of an elaborate garden; a spiral path was cut into it and shrubs planted. With the help of colleagues I drilled boreholes deep into the mound from the top. We were able to date some charcoal from the cores which told us that its origins go back to the same time as Silbury Hill; it was a Neolithic mound that had been re-used later on. It was one of those ‘Eureka!’ moments that are so rare in archaeology.

I am now gearing up to go back to Wiltshire. We will be undertaking further excavations in the amazing Marden henge. But more than this – we’ll be looking at a whole plethora or weird and wonderful sites all around it. I can’t wait!”

Tags: , , , , , , , ,