Liss Dig - 2005

Tuesday 13 September 2005

First day of our Liss dig. Met Vietta who told us we were the wrong people. Personally I think Vietta should have her own TV show. I liked her immediately.

The site has two massive (dare I say 'brand new'?) tents. One for breaks and lunch and the other for the Site Director and finds personnel. All very swish and, hopefully, waterproof. I bet there's a few jealous weasels.

At the beginning of each day's work, George, our illustrious site director (he was a supervisor at Fishbourne when we were there though, obviously, he wouldn't remember me), took us through the health & safety schpiel. He repeated this every day and it's interesting how much funnier it was the first day. Not because I got used to it but because George became bored with the jokes, I think.

liss dig portaloosThe portaloos (of which there are six) are emptied on separate days so each morning Colin will tell us the "toilets of choice", these being the nicest. All of them seem fine - even Dawn (official portaloo testing weasel) approved.

Next George called forth the supervisors (Ken, John, Jonathan and Antony) who, apart from Antony, were all old enough to guarantee a certain respect. I'm going to state right here that there were no students on this dig. Antony was the only person dressed like an eco-warrior reject fallen from his tree. Being alone, it meant he could act like an adult and not a wanker. Proves what I say about packs of students!!

And one more thing! I dug for five days and did not once see any thongs either on feet or disgustingly visible buttocks! Oh, sheer bliss is a civilised dig. But back to George…

People who had dug previously (this year) were to return to their supervisor while us new-tons were divvied out. Dawn and I were given to Ken, who firstly walked us all the way out to the trench before telling us we'd need trowels, buckets, kneeling pads and coal shovels which were back in the lock-up where we'd just walked from. We all walked back and tooled up.

Dawn and I managed to wangle a spot next to each other in the trench containing the north east corner of the aisled hall, scraping and trowelling. That is until Ken suggested some mattocking was in order. Cue to mad mattocker (does every dig have one?). Instead of the 50cm Ken wanted, MM removed at least 500! He removed so much natural you could have built a sandpit (sand being the natural - natural is the level after which you will find no more archaeology).

Shortly after this I was moved to a long trench, given a mattock and, with two other poor guys, told to prove Ken's theory that there was nothing there. I have to say here that it's one thing digging madly and finding nothing and quite another actually expecting to find it! Sort of futility upon foolishness. EXCEPT! We found something.

After mattocking for a bit, being the most experienced (!!) I was nominated to start trowelling while the other two kept going with the heavy weaponry. I just scraped away, having a fine old time, listening to George teach groups of school kids about ancient worlds. I better explain!

george teaches kids about archaeologyEvery day a group of school kids visited the site. They were divided into groups which would take part in different activities (including George's travelling tuition). After a while they would swap around.

Anyway, just near to where I was scraping, an odd piece of metal was protruding from the ground. It had been discovered the previous week and been christened Excalibur due to it's aspect. The kids, on being told it's name, would then ask why George didn't pull it out of the ground, to which he replied "because I'm not the one true king of England" which seemed to satisfy them. To be honest I heard a few theories about what this is (it was obviously iron but the shape is clearly unclear), my two favourites are:
1. It's a gladius or Roman gladiator's short sword; and
2. One of those stakes that farmers use to run electric fences around cattle (quote from Ray: "I mean look, you can see the round ceramic disk")

I just continued scraping away until Ken came by and claimed I'd uncovered a Roman B road ("The BXIV?" I quipped) and to stop with my trowelling and start mattocking the other half of the trench! To be honest I couldn't really see the road but the ground was slightly discoloured in an unnatural way so…actually by the end of the week it turned out to possibly be the remains of a central courtyard within the villa complex of either three of four buildings!

Ken thought I'd maybe found a pothole as well but, again he wasn't very convincing. Or convinced. He is a bit obsessed with his mosaics. Last week someone accidently found a bit of tessera when digging a bit too deep and Ken is convinced any level of dirt coloured black with flecks of white is an indication of a mosaic. Fingers crossed! But we haven't seen one yet...

By the end of the day I was totally knackered! But so nice to go home and hop straight into a hot, full force power shower.


Wednesday 14 September 2005

Very difficult getting out of bed this morning. Most of my muscles have shut down and gone to Italy for the rest of the week. Like jelly, I prepared to leave.

There's no shops near the dig so each morning I have to make sandwiches and remember water and chocolate. It's a major task I can tell you! Not something I'm used to.

Day two saw Dawn once more trowelling happily while I joined two new guys armed with mattocks and shovels, preparing to complete yesterday's trench. We chopped, we shovelled, then we trowelled.

Before heading off to our respective trenches, Dawn pointed out to me a guy who bore a striking resemblance to Harold Shipman. She said he gave her the heebies. He was with me, mattock in hand, in my trench. Seeing as I was not in need of any medical attention (well, not that I was admitting to) I figured I was ok. Since the dig, Mirinda has claimed she has seen another Shipman look-alike so I can only assume we are seeing clones.

If my muscles weren't happy at the beginning of the day, that's nothing on how they felt by morning tea! I was in agony. Actually that's a gross understatement. Still, as I told myself through gritted teeth every time I moved any part of my body, you have to work through it, don't you.

After morning tea (I spent half of it getting into a seat and the other half getting back up again) it was up to where the wall goes west-ish. Our job: to find the course of the wall and possibly the southern edge. So not just mattocking and shovelling but de-turfing as well.

The three of us got down to it, ignoring the rain that started to fall. At one point the rest of the volunteers abandoned work and headed for the shelter of the tents. We hardier souls only stopped work when George came over to tell us the bone lady had arrived. Actually we had our backs to the rest of the dig site and had no idea everyone else had left off digging.

We dragged our dampness down to the finds tent to listen to a lecture on bones given by the bone lady. I have to call her this as we were never introduced. She had an amazing accent and natural enthusiasm for her subject (much in the vein of Christine Stapley, the herb lady) matched only by the odd assortment of bones she showed us. Her knowledge was truly encyclopaedic. She held up a tiny plastic box and shook the minute collection of bones, saying it was once an eel measuring over 30 cm! There were not a lot of bones, I can tell you. She went on to fondle cow bones, sheep bones, all bones. She informed us that if we found goat bones in our Roman Villa, we should get excited and jump about, as this is quite rare. The same with fallow deer, introduced by my old chum Bill the Bastard post-1066. Apparently a few trend setters sneaked in before his invasion, presumably disguised as Gaulish traders selling chocolate biscuits.

As we stood, squeezed into the tent, listening intently, the rain continued to fall. Actually I was half in and out, but my faithful Akubra guaranteed all but my left leg remained dry. Except when I put my head down and created a waterfall onto my boots. Afterwards it was lunchtime in the other tent, basically watching the rain.

muddy and soaked gazApres déjeuner, George gave us all a choice: we could leave and consider the day a washout or we could stay, dig and get filthy and wet. Many people left, but a few hardy souls remained - I forced Dawn to make a decision and, for some obscure reason, she chose to stay. So, joining me in the new hole were about 5 older women, Dawn and a crazy young guy whose innocence and naivety had to be seen to be believed.

We shovelled and mattocked and got filthy - I ruined my old digging boots - until the call came for afternoon tea. As Dawn had made the decision after lunch, it was my turn to decide on staying or going. We left. Imagine my chagrin as we passed Vietta only to be called wimps with all the derision only an English lady of a certain class can manage. I nearly turned and returned. But squeezing my mud encased boots off my feet (they were too dirty even for Dawn's car) I hopped into the passenger seat and sighed with relief.

Quickly after getting home I was under the shower then I collapsed onto the lounge and watched TV. I had had the bright idea of going to yoga tonight. It was never gonna happen; I was in agony!



Thursday 15 September 2005

This morning at the dig, the sun returned and everything was glorious once more. Each day there are different groups of people sprinkled in among now rapidly becoming familiar faces which means each day there are more to spread out. We, in Ken's team, were put into the trench dug in the rain yesterday, prepared to trowel back, looking for the elusive wall.

Before we could start, however, Big John scoured the area with his metal detector, marking likely spots with little plastic sticks. One in the top right hand corner he announced "is definitely a coin". When Ken asked people to pick a spot, I waited a nanosecond then chose the coin one! Ken made some comment about my haste but I just said "Quick and dead, Ken, quick and dead." More like just desserts, as it turned out. I scraped away at the spot but there was nothing. Eventually Big John returned and, using his detector, sifted through the soil until he found a piece of lead about the size of the dot on top of this 'i'. Ken told me to fill in the hole I'd made and not to do it again. But he smiled when he said it.

After lunch the northern end of the aisled hall trench had dried out enough for us all to trowel in it. So we left the new trench and returned to the old one. As I'm so good at finding nothing, Ken put me in the trench between any finds, knowing I'd not bother digging any more holes if all I managed to find was sand. Suffice to say the rest of the day was spent scraping off about 50mm from the top of the trench.

At the end of each day George takes us all round the entire site, explaining and interpreting what the day has wrought. Over the week he has explained to us what an aisled hall is, how it stood in relation to a villa and what we continue to look for. It's an excellent way to keep up with the dig as a whole when you're generally lost in your own little section.

Just to see if I have it correct, here's my version of George's explanations (based to a large extent on Barry Cunliffe).

An Aisled Hall
The first inhabited structure on the site. It would have comprised four walls, a row of posts and a thatched roof. It would probably have been made of wood although the foundations were (obviously) stone. I say obviously because that's what we're finding. As time went on, the hall was divided into sections (rooms) with the animals having one end and the humans the other. When the villa was built, the aisled hall would have become a barn and possibly housed some sort of industry.

Relationship of Structures
The Aisled Hall was at the southern end of probably a three sided courtyard. As you faced the hall, to your left was the villa and to your right another large structure (having not found this one, it's hard to say what it was or when it appeared). Behind you there may have been a stone or wooden wall which closed off the courtyard. In this wall there would have been an entrance. In the previous dig (2002/03 ?) a bath house was found outside the southern wall of the aisled hall.

Continuing Search
At present the trenches are continuing to follow the lines of the buildings, hoping to map out the entire complex. This initial year is to give George some idea of where to dig with more effect next year.

My apologies to George or Barry or John Manley or anyone who actually know what they're talking about if the above is a load of old tosh…

This is a drawing of what the Stroud Roman villa probably looked like.




Friday 16 September 2005

Another day spent in the trench with muscles just starting to feel normal again. I must admit to a bit of wonder how I managed at Bishopstone last year seeing as I toiled, ached, slept little in a little tent and managed to stay drunk for most of the nights. Maybe the alcohol is the clue here.

This morning Dawn was down for finds washing but, due to a quick word in the right ear, she managed to return to her trench, alongside Shirley, who, it seems, lives not far from us.

rays samianware fineThe biggest find of the dig so far was made by Ray today. A lovely (though admittedly small) piece of decorated samianware. Someone with a lot more knowledge than me (and a handy reference book) claims the trim dates to around 32AD. I later overheard one of the supervisors claiming the aisled hall was probably built around 200AD. As the samian was found just outside the wall of the hall, can we assume this was either a family heirloom accidentally broken or a lucky purchase from a Roman chariot boot sale?

Still, whatever the explanation (and I reckon some poor slave probably got a right telling off for breaking it) Ray was overjoyed and spent a lot of his time explaining to people where he'd found it and how lovely it was. During lunch it even spent a lot of time being passed around the circle of diggers. He was pleased as punch…and rightly so to!

At the dig is a flipchart. On a sheet of the flipchart, hung on a large easel, is a table containing all the digging dates. All days are full of volunteers but it has been decided that six extra people can be fitted in each day. Earlier in the week I managed to grab the sixth place on Saturday. I, naturally, offered it to Dawn but she assured me she could fit in a Thursday so I could have it. The next day she confessed that, in her excitement at such a wonderful dig, she had forgotten the school run which prevented her from digging during the week.

My muscles are now at peace with the rest of me so tonight I managed to do a little more than lay around like an invertebrate.

Saturday 17 September 2005

No Dawn this morning, so Shank's pony it was. The pony took some whipping but eventually it started on the early walk up to Haslemere station - there are precious few trains to Liss - and a quick trip betwixt the two stations and, beneath glorious, balloon filled skies, I slowly walked to the site. Actually, balloon filled is a slight exaggeration, there was only one but since my ride, when I see one, I see millions.

Since the site is a mere half mile away and my path took me by the church, I wandered round a bit before arriving at the dig just behind John, who was first.

Gradually people arrived and I helped Vietta furl the tent sides and carried a few of the sifting frames across. And I've just realised I've said nothing about the wonderful sifting frames!

liss archaeological groups sifting framesOn my many other digs (ok, ok, two) when spoil or loose is sifted, we've used small frames with wire netting tacked to it, sitting over a wheelbarrow. This is fine and works perfectly well. However, Liss (and I think John made them) has frames that sit in a raised frame at an easy height, making the sifting so much easier. The kids love it and spend hours creating little pyramids of earth at the base of the wooden 'tables'. There is also a rather odd swing-like sifting frame which doesn't really work too well but looks excellent!

At 9 I once more joined Ken and took up where I'd left off yesterday.

Today a group of scouts turned up to work on Colin's kiln, the construction of which is coming along very nicely though I overheard someone say it is likely to crack when fired up given the speed with which it has been built and the clay being used. I hope not as it's a lovely bit of construction work and deserves to work.

After morning tea I found some bits of iron slag in my idle trowelling, leading me to suppose that perhaps there had been a furnace (or at least a forge) in the converted aisled hall. This ties in nicely with the fact that these halls, when no longer inhabited by people, became hotbeds of industry.

At lunch Jonathon came over and, very earnestly asked me if I'd replace a woman he had shovelling out his deep pit who, suffering from claustrophobia, was not really doing anything but helping the shovel avoid falling over. Naturally I said yes and, after lunch wandered over. Unbeknownst to me, two guys Jonathon knows from another dig had dropped by and asked if they could help so I was returned to Ken and my growing pile of iron slag.

trench at liss roman villa digLate in the afternoon Ken wandered along the trench asking for volunteers - I hid beneath my hat - and, getting no response, asked me if I'd like to do some de-turfing. Asked like this, I naturally said 'no' and continued trowelling! Fortunately the guy just behind me was volunteered. I say fortunately because he was driving me mad with his almost permanent chatter about musical instruments and the generosity of school music departments.

So my final afternoon passed very pleasantly, stopping just short of bumping bums with the woman trowelling behind me. George even jumped into the trench and did a bit of cleaning up round a posthole.

At close of play, George did his usual summing up and then it was, sadly, time to leave.

The one thing I missed with this dig was camping out for a couple of reasons. Firstly the beer and camaraderie which comes with it and secondly the fact that I normally write up each day as it happens, allowing me a much better recall of events. I didn't start writing up this dig until the week after I'd left so apologies if it's not my usual entertaining style. Also it was all too good so there's not a lot of my sharp, incisive wit!

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