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Just Another Day in the Office

The focus of attention on an archaeological excavations is what’s happening on site but an often-overlooked part of the story is the work done by people away from the trenches which is just as important. Simon Lewis talks to Sophie Hunter about her role in the Barnham Palaeolithic Project.

Cleaning an artefact from Barnham

SL: Sophie, thanks for sparing some time to chat. Please can you tell us about your role in the Barnham excavation?
SH: My main job is finds processing; drying and re-bagging fauna; washing and re-bagging burnt flint; washing and marking lithics; packing up finds, ensuring that they are in good order, going to the correct institution and in an undamaged state. I am also the office manager, with a diverse range of tasks including procurement, a first aid and counselling service, and looking after the accounts with the help of Tudor Bryn Jones. After the excavation ends, back in the real world, I also contribute to the post-ex work by sorting residues and preliminary identification of faunal remains.

SL: Which bit of your varied job do you find most interesting and why?
SH: This is very difficult to answer as I thoroughly enjoy all my roles. As finds processor, I am incredibly privileged to see and handle every single find that is recovered on site. Doing the accounts is probably at the lower end of the spectrum, for obvious reasons!

Sophie at work in the site office

SL: Which do you prefer working with, lithics or fauna?
SH: Oohh, that’s a tricky one… Both! Lithics are my favourite thing to wash and I like the challenge of writing on the tiny pieces. Choosing a good spot to mark also means that I get a thorough perusal of every flint artefact. Fauna used to put the fear into me, as I assumed it would be impossible to get to grips with – there are so many different species and different bones. If you think about how many different species of mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians and birds there are (including ones that are now extinct), and tot up how many bones each has, that’s a monumental amount of different bones to learn. However, since taking on the role of sorting the residues from Area III, and with plenty of help from Simon Parfitt, I am gradually expanding the bone bank.

SL: What’s the most unusual find that you have processed in the office?
SH: Last year we found a very exciting and special tool. That’s probably the star of the show for this current phase of excavation. A piece of pyrite was also recovered, which will help in determining whether the burning was natural or man-made. This year, the winners are: a large chopping tool and a ginormous core in the flint artefact department; and some amazing lion foot bones (c. 20% larger than the lions we have today), a rhino tooth, and plenty of pond terrapin in the faunal department. A good non-archaeological find last year was a parched and shrivelled up mole carcass, which is in the process of being prepared for the reference collection.

SL: It’s an intensive three week excavation, what happens to all the finds that you process on site when the excavation ends?
SH: It is indeed an intensive three weeks, and not solely because of all of the hard work… Different finds go to different places. The lithics and burnt flint go with Nick Ashton to Franks House (British Museum), where they are catalogued by Claire Lucas. The faunal remains go to the Natural History Museum, to be cleaned and identified. The sieving residues also go to the NHM, where they are sorted and provisionally identified. Following this, they are analysed by the relevant specialist (experts in mammals, fish, birds, amphibians and reptiles). Geological samples end up at Queen Mary for analysis. This year we have possible charcoal, so this will be analysed over the next twelve months.

Labelling artefacts at Barnham

SL: How long have you been involved in the Barnham excavations?
SH: Since 1991, when I was 10. The Headings (farmers) introduced me to the team, who kindly took me under their wing. I was hooked immediately – by the excitement of the archaeology, in addition to the very interesting characters and sense of community. It is amazing to be back here again after all this time, and with some of the same people. I have never looked back and feel very lucky indeed to be part of something unique, interesting and fun.

SL: Sophie, thanks for telling us about your varied and interesting work for the Barnham Project.

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Excavation Diary: Visitors at Barnham

An important part of an excavation is the opportunity for people to visit and see how the work is progressing. Visitors can be other researchers with an interest in archaeology and the Quaternary or members of local groups. All visitors are given the Site Tour by one of the team and are able to see the work being done on site as well as some of this year’s finds. Today, Dr Richard Preece gave a talk on his research on molluscs and what they can tell us about past environments, including his work on samples from Barnham.

Bags for transferring sediment to be sieved for faunal remains

Meanwhile on site, work continues apace, and there is a relentless transfer of white bags full of sediment for sieving from the pit to the sieving area.

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Excavation Diary: Counting the Days

Students and volunteers excavating Area I

The last week of the excavation usually sees the pace hot up as the work accelerates to ensure that the things that need to be completed before the end of the dig are done. Work in Area I is nearly finished, section drawing and sampling are all that remain to be done. Redeployment of diggers from Area I into Area III has increased the rate of progress; sampling the large blocks of sediment is progressing well and the careful troweling of the deposits is yielding both lithics and faunal remains.

Planning for next year is also being discussed and the research questions and excavation priorities identified. A visit from researcher Professor Dave Horne provided an opportunity for a lunchtime talk on ostracods and their use in palaeoclimate reconstruction.

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Excavation Diary: Mine Craft

At Barnham East Farm, local farmhands had removed enormous volumes of Pleistocene brickearth before Lower Palaeolithic artefacts dating from ca 400 000 years ago were uncovered in the nineteenth century. At Grime’s Graves, a short distance north of Brandon, and a mere 4500 years ago, Neolithic peoples mined through Chalk bedrock to a depth of 14 m or so using antler picks, before reaching the so-called floorstone, flint of superb quality for artefact manufacture. How did they know that their persistence might be rewarded?

In more recent times, local flint was used to make gun flints in Brandon. In correspondence with a friend, Worthington Smith, author of Man, the Primeval Savage (1894), warned: ‘I have never been … & I have nothing from the place. It is the flint-knapping place where gun-flints for barbarians are made and a hot-bed of forgers, forgeries & liars. I have been afraid to go’. Brandon is now much calmer, and the group enjoyed a trouble-free visit to Greenwell’s Pit at Grime’s Graves yesterday evening. Safely clad in harness, hard hat and gloves, 24 of us descended a 12 m ladder and explored, by crouching or crawling, the various galleries leading from the floor of the flint mine. Thanks are due to Rob and his colleagues at English Heritage for treating us so well. Neolithic saddle querns and a paramoudra at the top of the steps to another of the approximately thousand pits, and a fine view of patterned ground as we wandered back to our vehicles, completed a memorable trip.

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A French Perspective on Barnham

Simon Lewis talks to Dr Anne-Lyse Ravon to find out more about her first experience of digging at Barnham.

SL: Anne-Lyse, thanks for taking a few minutes to answer some questions. Please can you tell us a little about your research expertise.
AR: I am a specialist in Lower and early Middle Palaeolithic lithic industries in Western Europe, but particularly in north-western France, where I direct excavations at the Lower Palaeolithic site of Menez-Dregan.

SL: This is your first time taking part in the Barnham excavations, what were your first impressions of the site?
AR: Barnham is a huge site, with different areas to correlate. The geological context is very different from what I am used to in Brittany: I usually work on coastal sites.

Anne-Lyse points discusses new finds with the excavation team
(Credit: Simon Lewis)

SL: What have you been working on for the last two weeks?
AR: I have mainly been working in Area I. Our first job there was to expose the surface of the cobble layer excavated in the 1990s, and then to excavate a palaeosol. This palaeosol preserved a lot of charcoal and burnt flint, which is particularly interesting for me.

SL: Has it been successful?
AR: Yes, very successful: at the end of the 2 weeks, the excavation of the palaeosol is finished, and we recorded numerous charcoal fragments, which is quite rare for this site.

SL: What have you enjoyed most, and least, about being part of the Barnham team?
AR: What I enjoyed the most: identifying charcoal and heated surfaces, because this is something that is very familiar to me, since we have a lot of charcoal and hearths in Menez-Dregan. What I enjoyed the least: the heavy rain during the night which caused a bit of the section to collapse before we arrived on site, and we had to work in the mud that morning.

SL: How does Barnham compare with excavating in France?
AR: Same techniques and methods, same recording systems, the only difference would be that in France, we provide all the equipment for the dig, including trowels: here everyone comes with their own trowel!

SL: This is your last day on site, where are you heading for next?
AR: Directly to Brittany: I’m heading to Menez-Dregan on Monday, where we are going to excavate for 8 weeks, up to the end of August.

SL: Thanks Anne-Lyse, and good luck with the field work at Menez-Dregan.

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Excavation Diary: Mostly Sunny

Fire experiments during the Barnham excavations

After the storm earlier in the week the weather has improved and today was warm and sunny. Parts of the site are shaded, others in full sunshine, so water, sunscreen and a hat are important additions to the field kit.

Surveying and drawing new sections is now underway and sampling of blocks of sediment that need to be removed this year can begin. With a week to go there is still a lot to do and new discoveries today have added a further dimension to the work for next year!

For the last couple of days a small team have been working on an experimental fire; carefully constructing a hearth with probes to measure temperature and replica flint flakes buried beneath the fire. The results will help with our understanding the effects of burning on sediment and flint.

Tonight: rounders – the rematch!

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Excavation Diary: Finds at Barnham

The steady flow of finds from the excavation areas has continued today. Remains of small vertebrates and fragments of larger bones are fairly common in the Barnham sediments and are sometimes found during excavation. Larger identifiable fossils are, on the other hand, quite rare so when one turns up, as happened today, it is a cause for some excitement as the sediment is carefully removed to reveal the shape and size of the fragment.

Inevitably opinions vary as to the species and the particular bone that has been found and people gather to hear Simon Parfitt offer his expert opinion on the latest discoveries.

An early end to the day allowed time for a visit to the former nuclear storage site at nearby RAF Barnham.

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Excavation Diary: No Surrender!

Storms, surfaces resembling skating rinks and swimming pools for trenches — those constant fears of archaeologists working on British sites — have been encountered on two occasions since we arrived ten days ago. Clearing-up with pump, buckets and sponges was carried out cheerfully and without complaint by all concerned, and the site was soon looking close to its very best. Our so-called weather station — an ancient rain gauge — has recorded two peaks, but we have been relatively fortunate: the official meteorological station at Santon Downham, a mere 12 km to the north north-west, registered greater rainfall totals. As if to emphasise the importance of the weather, everyone is involved in two sweepstakes: forecasting the number of rainy days (those with >2 mm rainfall in 24 hours; our ‘days’ run from noon to noon as no-one could be found to take readings at midnight); and predicting the rainfall total for the excavation period. The most optimistic participant (5 mm total rain) was eliminated days ago! Grand prizes await the winners.

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From Brickearths, to Bricks, to Palaeolithic Archaeology

There is an important connection between brickmaking and the Palaeolithic in Barnham, as explored by Peter Hoare.

Barnham Brickyard (Credit: Euston Estate)

The archaeological site at East Farm is located on the floor of an overgrown pit set amongst arable fields and farm buildings on the edge of Barnham village. Today, we are confronted with a hole in the ground measuring ca 130 m west to east, 70 m north to south and 6 m deep.

Rumour has it that brickearth (a portmanteau term) was quarried here as early as the eighteenth century. A small part of the history of Barnham brickmaking is recorded in the sole surviving ledger, covering the period 22 August 1895–30 December 1912, held by the Euston Estate (East Farm is just one of several properties on the ca 2530 ha estate). So perhaps more than 150 years of brickmaking are unrecorded. Brickearth digging took place seasonally until the 1930s to supply the Barnham brickyard.

No photographs of raw material extraction can be traced, and the only known surviving photograph of the brickyard, which was demolished many years ago, is a small, poor-quality print held by the Euston Estate (reproduced left).

There were two principal types of clay- and silt-rich brickearth: one produced white bricks (Unit 5c of the stratigraphic story), the other red ones (Unit 7). Bricks and related products were made for a great variety of uses on the Euston Estate, but the brickyard also operated on a commercial basis, supplying Lord Iveagh on the neighbouring Elveden Estate, as well as numerous local builders and others.

Apart from the single Euston Estate ledger, no account of brickmaking at Barnham appears to have survived. Peter Minter, owner of the famous Bulmer Brickyard, Essex, has told us that he believes Barnham bricks would have been produced in a similar way to that of other eastern counties brickyards, including his own.

Re-exposing old clay pits by removing backfill: spade marks left by clay digging

The highly calcareous brickearth from Barnham Area III would have been tempered with sand or less carbonate-rich material; the amount of space available to dry the bricks before firing would have limited the rate of production; and eighteenth-century kilns would have held between 4000 and 5000 bricks. Each man is likely to have made ca 1000 bricks per day in the nineteenth century; it is now ca 500 at Bulmer.

Although the records are incomplete, the peak period of brickearth quarrying and brickmaking probably occurred at the start of the twentieth century. The south and west wings of Euston Hall were destroyed by fire on 5 April 1902, the fourth occasion on which the premises were badly damaged by fire. Rebuilding took place with little delay. Brickyard ledger entries for ‘Mr Heath Euston Hall’ start on 8 June 1903 and end on 15 April 1912, but 89% of the material was produced in the second half of 1903 and in 1905. The wings were rebuilt on the same plan, consuming, amongst other items, 322,975 red bricks, 3500 white bricks, 650 plain tiles, 150 paving bricks and 130 glazed pantiles. The total cost was £577 12s 5p, equivalent to ca £68,000 in 2019. The south wing and most of the west wing were pulled down by the tenth Duke of Grafton in 1952!

Excavations in Area III reveal old clay pits.

Brickearth extraction was responsible for revealing the Palaeolithic archaeology for which East Farm is renowned. The earliest evidence for the discovery of artefacts is of ‘… two flint implements …’ found in 1882, but they probably came from the gravel pit to the east of the village. Other late nineteenth-century finds are likely to have been of an opportunistic nature, some discovered in the wash-pit at the brickyard.

Barnham artefacts purchased from East Farm in ca 1905 included two twisted ovates, one of which is said to have been used by the brickearth diggers to clean their spades! By the time of the first formal excavation at Barnham in the 1930s, the brickearth diggers had produced numerous sections for archaeologists to explore. But that’s another story.

Further Reading

There is just one brief description of brickearth extraction at Barnham East Farm in Ashton, N.M., Lewis, S.G. & Parfitt, S.A. 1998. Excavations at the Lower Palaeolithic site at East Farm, Barnham, Suffolk 1989–94. British Museum Occasional Paper 125, p. 292.

Readers might like to refer to The Brickmaker’s Tale (The Bulmer Brick and Tile Co, 2014), Peter Minter’s account of his family’s brickyard.

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Excavation Diary: Rain at Barnham

The rain arrived overnight. A steady downpour in the early hours had eased off by the time the team got to the site to survey the damage. The on-site rain-gauge recorded 14 mm of rainfall and thankfully the damage was not as bad as it might have been. Swapping spades and trowels for buckets and sponges, the team set to work on the mopping-up operation. The quantity of water in the excavation trench was manageable and the damage from a couple of collapsed sections was quickly dealt with. After brief shower mid-morning, the weather became warm and sunny and the excavation returned to business-as-usual. Good progress was made in both excavation areas; in Area I, excavation of the palaeosol is well underway and should be completed in the next day or so. In Area III, sampling continued and newly exposed blocks of sediment were prepared for surveying, recording and sampling. An enjoyable evening as guests of one of the excavation team in Ely rounded off the day.