The excavation tool store contains many things, including a very large number of buckets, both black and orange. It seems that local DIY stores must have had their entire stock bought up by the excavation!
When the sediment samples are brought up to the sieving area, they are laid out to dry, then transferred to buckets to be soaked in water with some washing powder (a very effective way of breaking down the clay lumps). After soaking overnight, the samples can be sieved and the residues bagged up for later sorting and identification.
The massed ranks of buckets spread out across the field stand as testament to the large quantity of material that is being excavated – several tonnes will have been processed on site by the end of the dig.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s the start of week 2 of the excavation and in Area I excavation of the palaeosol is well underway: a series of samples have been taken for laboratory analysis, and the excavation team are now carefully troweling through this former landsurface. A number of exciting finds have already been made!
Meanwhile in Area III, steady progress is being made: 10 cm spits of sediment are being dug, bagged and moved to the sieving area for processing.
Preparations are also underway for future planned work. Rain threatens and the forecast is not good for the next 24 hours!
Archaeological excavations are about the minutiae of a site or a trench, and it is sometimes difficult to think about the wider context of the work immediately at hand.
A tradition of the Barnham excavations is to take a day out to visit other sites in the local area and to use the opportunity to consider Barnham in its regional landscape, environmental and archaeological setting and introduce the students to some of the research questions that the work at Barnham is working to address.
Today’s field trip visited Maidscross Hill, Lakenheath, Warren Hill, Mildenhall, Beeches Pit, West Stow and Barnham Heath to explore the Breckland’s Palaeolithic record. The trip generated some interesting questions and discussion.