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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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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.

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Excavation Diary: Week 2 at Barnham

Excavating the paleosol in Area I

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!

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Excavation Diary: Field Trip

Students listen to a talk by Peter Hoare at Lakenheath, Suffolk

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.

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Excavation Diary: Bricks, Bats and Barbecue

After a week, the excavation is settling into its routine. People are getting to know each other, the areas are looking more like archaeological trenches and the pattern of daily life is established. From time to time someone, usually a visitor to the site, ‘volunteers’ to give a short talk to the group that is relevant to the work on the site. Today we had a talk from Peter Hoare about the history of brickmaking in Barnham and the pit which was dug for clay to make bricks from the 18th to the early 20th century. After lunch work resumed on site and by the end of the day, and the first week, the site is looking tidy and the artefacts are beginning to appear. The evening’s entertainment began with a game of rounders and continued with a barbecue enjoyed by all as the mid-summer sun dipped below the horizon.

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Excavation Diary: 50 Shades of Clay

Tuesday was our first full day on site and a buzz of excitement filled the air, with eager faces and an intrigue to learn. We started by fully uncovering Area III, the largest and deepest trench on the site, and prepared for this season’s excavation by cleaning what has been buried for over a year, battling creepy crawlies and the warm weather.

Area I at Barnham, previously excavated during the 1990s

Once this was completed, I and a team led by Claire and Anne-Lyse began work on Area I. This area had been excavated previously in the 1990s and again last year, but the hillside had partially collapsed revealing more of the Palaeolithic deposits. We secured the unstable edge and removed the backfill from previous excavations, neatened out the sections and began trowelling off the topsoil, eager to find the palaeosol and any potential finds. This was surprisingly strenuous and time-consuming, but we supported each other through chatter, banter and occasional jokes about rocks.

We continued on Wednesday, after sponging out the rainfall from the stormy night, but we were getting desperate to reach the palaeosol as our wrists were strained and concentration was wavering. Our morale was boosted by the occasional flint flake and burnt flint find. After working through what felt like 50 shades of clay – brown, reddish brown, black, and so on – we finally hit it and a mixture of elation and relief was mutually felt; I have never been so happy to see another layer of sediment! However, this excitement was cut short as the heavens opened and we had to pack up quickly before the site got too slippery. We covered the site to protect our work and headed home early for a well-deserved shower and a sit down.

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Excavation Diary: Tea Duty at Barnham

Written by Sarah, a volunteer at the 2019 Barnham excavation.

Tea breaks are integral to field work at Barnham. In the mornings, team members shrug off yesterday’s aching muscle memory, cleaning up debris that has accumulated in the trenches overnight and picking up where we left off the day before. Morning tea break offers a circle of cushioned chairs beneath a sweeping sky of swirling grey and white clouds. Beside us, a rolling field of grass spreads out towards a horizon of tall trees. The grass veils tractors and equipment that remind us we are gracious guests trying to make sense of an ancient landscape on modern farmland.

The tea area in the Barnham site hut

As we are divided into different areas to work, first tea is the first opportunity to check in on everyone’s progress and exchange stories. Here we discuss small moments of interest, where things have not quite gone as planned, or someone has found something interesting. By afternoon, the team has broken into the prime vigour of progress for the day, and everyone has worked up a proper appetite. Lunch (with tea) is a welcome halfway mark to the day’s work. By afternoon, aches, pains, setbacks, and tedium begin to take their toll – broken by moments of surprise and laughter (or a bit of sarcasm). Afternoon tea is a final pause before the last push to meet goals, piece together the day’s big-picture puzzles about the site, and wrap up work.

The tea breaks lift morale and facilitates social health on site. Tea duty is therefore an important responsibility that rotates through each team member. Today was my day to make tea for the team. Being Mormon myself (a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), I don’t drink tea. Nevertheless, I was happy and excited to help. I was amused (and so were the kind staff members and fellow students checking on me) as, at first, I kept repeating my questions about the difference between the hot water “teapots” and the steeping kettles. Not to mention I spilled quite a bit of hot water and tea while preparing for morning break, trying to figure out how to pour out of typical teapot spots into kettles and mugs. It was immensely satisfying to serve my wonderful team members and help host these essential gatherings that punctuate our work day. And, according to my new friends, I made a mean cup of tea!

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Excavation Diary: Barnham Arrivals

It’s the first day of the excavation, a day for getting to know each other and the site, sorting out the equipment, tool shed and office and beginning to prepare the excavation areas for the work ahead. This year’s team sees a nice mix of old and new faces; students studying at Leiden University, UCL, and Durham, Brighton, Liverpool and Reading universities will be working alongside staff and volunteers from the British Museum, Natural History Museum and Queen Mary University of London.

Some of the Barnham 2019 on the first day of the excavation

Following a site induction, most of the team got to work recovering Area III from the ravages of winter, bailing out water, removing leaf litter and lifting the plastic sheeting that has protected the area since last year’s excavation. This job has been done well, so tomorrow we should be able to begin excavating. Meanwhile, our digger driver Dave and his brother Colin are extending Area I by removing the backfill to reveal in-situ sediments to the east of the old excavation area. This may take a couple of days, but once it is complete a team will begin to excavate the ancient soil horizon along the southern margin of the site that we hope will preserve evidence of human activity.