Celts and Romans in North Wiltshire

Answering Questions about Truckle Hill

Now that this year’s Truckle Hill excavation has finished its time to start trying to answer all of the lingering and difficult questions we still have about the Truckle Hill Roman bath-house and the mystery buildings underneath it. It is for this reason that the Truckle Hill Research Group has been formed. The group is made up of volunteers from the Truckle Hill excavation. Its purpose will be to increase our understanding of the Truckle Hill site by tying it into the context of the other Iron Age and Roman Archaeology of the area.
 
The group met for the first time on the 29th of October 2010 at the Chippenham Museum and Heritage Centre. The meeting was a great success. The Museum provided tea and coffee, I brought milk and biscuits, and once everyone had a cup of tea we started discussing all of the topics that could be researched that would help us understand the site better. As is to be expected there was some debating as well… particularly about the identity of the base… column, statue, or altar? We still don’t know. Maybe that will be one of the questions that the research group will answer.
 
By the end of the meeting the Truckle Hill Research Group had decided on what needed to be investigated, and on the form of their next meeting. The main topics of research for the group will be the Iron Age and the Roman archaeology and landscape around Truckle Hill, the wall plaster and the CBM from the site, and the connection between the Truckle Hill bath-house and the Truckle Hill Villa. Some volunteers will be going to records offices and investigating old maps, others will be exploring museum collections for finds from the excavation of the Truckle Hill Villa, and others will be searching for parallels to the earlier period buildings under the bath house.
 
The group’s next meeting is being planned for January, and will take the form of a field walk and photographic survey to look for material that has fallen away from the villa. I’m sure that by then the Truckle Hill Research Group volunteers will have some new and interesting information to share with each other.

Truckle Hill: Digging A Roman Bath House - Day 14

The last day of excavation has come and gone (quite a while ago, actually, my apologies for the delay). Since I was unable to be on site for the last day one of the volunteers, Jayne O’Connell, has been kind enough to send me an update and provide me with photos.
 
Day 14 definitely had better weather than the day before, and thankfully did not involve as much mud, or as much standing around watching a select few try to work. The day was given over to finishing touches – cleaning, photographing, and recording. Despite this the team still managed to reveal yet another wall! The paved floor received a final cleaning, and along with the column/statue base/altar that had received a good bath the day before, succeeded in making the trench look quite stunning.

The paved surface completely uncovered and cleaned. Photograph taken by Jayne O’Connell.

One of the main projects of the day was completing more of the drawing. This included an incredibly massive section drawing of the west section of the trench, which tells the story of the site so beautifully.
 
As always there was a fair bit of discussion on site. It being the last day the talk was turned to next year’s excavation. A wall was discovered in one of the smaller trenches on the west side of the site that seems to head off in the direction of the villa. This led the group’s collective imagination to produce a set of grand stairs running down from the villa and towards the bath house. Investigating any possible path from the villa to the bath house, however, would mean putting a trench in behind the tent and deck chairs that have been on site, in the same spot, for the past four years. It would also mean moving into the woods and facing the challenge of digging through tree root.

Brenda tackling a massive section drawing. Photograph taken by Jayne O’Connell.

The last day of an excavation like Truckle Hill is always somewhat melancholy. Along with the excitement of imaging next year’s excavation and new discoveries goes the task of saying goodbye to the people and the site, at least until the next excavation. At the end of this season this holds particularly true, as it is unlikely that there will be an excavation on the site of the bath-house again. Rather than give you my thoughts on this, I would like to share Jayne’s.
 
"I felt great sadness on the last day that we wouldn't be digging at the bath-house again, but I suppose, other than digging that one last trench up the hill behind the tent, we have probably learnt all we could about the site.  Now we need to conserve it and make sure those glorious walls remain intact.
 
I have always found it really hard to leave the site on the last day of the dig, it’s such a beautiful, calm, relaxing place.  It was very tough to say goodbye to the site this time maybe because I know we won't (I assume) be digging there in September 2011.  I had the most wonderful time, even though most days Shaun and I just seemed to be shifting rubble all day and not finding anything. It’s the camaraderie, discussions about this site and many others, that makes it such a special dig."

Site director Phil and quad-bike driver Dooey (who delivered our supplies) looking over the trench. Photo by Jayne O’Connell.

The excavation at Truckle Hill is indeed special. I cannot end this blog without thanking all of the volunteers for their hard work, dedication and enthusiasm. It is their hard work that has made learning so much about this site over the past four years achievable. You all form one very incredible team!
 
Though this is the last blog post for the Truckle Hill Autumn 2010 excavation, it will not be the last blog or update concerning Truckle Hill. If you are interested in keeping up with what happens after the excavation please keep returning to this site. The site report for this year will eventually be available here, and I will continue to provide updates as more work gets completed.

Truckle Hill: Digging A Roman Bath House - Day 13

We have had fabulous weather out at Truckle Hill. Most days everyone out at site has needed to put on sun screen. Today is the exception. It was raining hard when we all arrived on site, and making the clay in our main trench very sticky and slippery.
 
So, what do you do when it rains like this? You keep the kettle boiling, gather under the gazebo, and hope for a dry spell. When the weather clears again you can get in the trench and dig. Until then, you chat.

Rain Day

During the day that I have been gone the identity of the base, first a column, then an altar, has changed again.  The base is now being identified as the base for a statue, which is estimated to have been either 3/4 size or life size. Unfortunately no hint of the statue itself has been found. The flagstone surface alongside one of the forecourt walls has been entirely uncovered, and though incomplete, looks remarkable. Animal bones have also been discovered in amongst a collection of roof tiles that have been revealed in one of the trench sections.

Phil cleaning off the statue base

The rain eventually let up a bit, and reduced to a light, wet mist. It was just enough for a few people to get into the trench and continue working. In one section of the main trench rubble and clay were still being removed to reach the surface of the flagstone paving. In another, an investigation of some of the re-exposed painted wall plaster was undertaken. A group of volunteers formed a bucket line from the edge of the trench, to the few who were down on their hands and knees in the sticky clay. We were trying to make sure people didn’t have to walk around in the trench too much. The people stood in the trench, stationary, waiting for the next bucket, soon discovered that the clay was not entirely willing to give up contact with the bottom of their work boots. The sound that lifting a foot out of the clay made eventually got dubbed ‘the indescribable squidge.’ Even with the bucket lines formed, however, there wasn’t quite enough digging work for everyone with the ground so wet. One pair of volunteers took the time to try and identify the coin using an iPhone that had signal and the magnifying glass from utility knife.

One person excavates, while everyone else takes turns passing the bucket to the spoil heap

Using water that had been collected throughout the day from the run-off of the site shelter Phil took the time to clean any remaining dirt (now mud) from the statue base. The base almost shone once the dirt had been cleared. A groove on the bottom piece of the base marking out a rough square surface where the top half should have rested became very clear. The top piece of the statue base has either shifted in the ground, or was never placed exactly where it was meant to be. With the base clean the two volunteers that worked so hard to reveal it posed for a photo that will be used on the cover of this year’s site report.
 
We made it, working very slowly and very little in the wet conditions, until afternoon break. Then it started to rain again. We escaped the rain to have one last cup of tea, and it was decided that it was time to call it a day.
 
Here is hoping that tomorrow, the last day of excavation, will have blue skies.

Truckle Hill: Digging A Roman Bath House - Day 11

Today was an open day for people from the local villages of Castle Combe and Ford. As predicted the day was lively and exciting.
 
The volunteers are still working to reveal more details of the forecourt, and continue to excavate in the area of the newly discovered wall. There is a stone surface just starting to emerge alongside one of the forecourt walls. The area around the ‘altar’ is also still being investigated in the hopes of discovering a surface remaining at its base.

Excavation continues in the area of the forecourt while visitors tour the site and watch the excavation in progress.

I spent my day giving tours to people who decide to come out for a walk and visit the site. Mid-day, just as I said good bye to the first tour group, I heard someone call Phil. There is an unmistakable tone to someone’s voice when they have found something exciting. When I turned around to see what was going on a volunteer was standing up in their trench, holding something small in the air.  A Truckle Hill first had been found - a coin! As our tour group had not quite left, they had the opportunity to take a look at the coin just after it was found. We couldn’t have hoped for a more exciting finish to the morning.

In the trench with Truckle Hill’s first coin.

Enthusiasm at an all time high, lunch was spent passing around a book on the Shrine of Apollo at Nettleton. Nettleton is one Roman Mile from the site, and the book had some wonderful examples of altars in it, though they don’t seem to quite match the base that has been uncovered here at Truckle Hill. After lunch the volunteers returned to the work they had been doing in the morning, and I returned to giving tours. The day continued to be a success, with a large number of visitors arriving for the afternoon’s tour, and the stone surface, in-fact flagstone paving, partially uncovered near one of the forecourt walls.

Volunteers uncovering the flagstone paving alongside one of the forecourt walls.

As today is day 11 of a 14 day excavation things should be starting to wrap up. I won’t have the opportunity to visit the site again until day 13, and can’t wait to see what else changes while I am away from site.

Truckle Hill: Digging A Roman Bath-House - Day 10

The day started with a light rain. As we had two different groups from the Young Archaeologists Club visiting today this was a little bit worrying. However, the wet weather did give us the opportunity to have a cup of tea under the gazebo. This was the perfect time to go over what has happened on site in the last few days.
 
Another wall was found at the very end of the day on Friday, which has confirmed the existence of the forecourt. A large collection of roof tiles have also been discovered. They are in line with where one of the forecourt walls might continue on, and in line with the collection of roof tiles found on Day 6.  A new picture of this period 1 building is now emerging. It seems that it not only had a forecourt, but also a covered walkway on the forecourt’s north side. This building was destroyed, it now seems, by some sort of major event – a minor earthquake, or a major rain storm - that caused a land-slide on the hill.

The West Wiltshire Area Young Archaeologists Club at the end of their visit to Truckle Hill.

Since I was on site last it has been decided (for the time being at least) that the base belongs to an altar. It has been a tradition on this site to find something spectacular – something that requires another season of excavation on this spot - on the last or second last day. In 2008 the uncovering of a section of intact painted wall plaster resulted in the discovery of an unexpected earlier building underneath the bath-house. The running joke now is that there will be an Iron Age temple underneath the period 1 building.

The South Wiltshire Young Archaeologists Club hard at work excavating.

Thankfully the rain stopped before the first YAC group arrived, and our visitors had warm and sunny weather while they were on site. The additional company of the YAC groups definitely made the site very lively. Our visitors spent their time on site excavating in a trench a bit further down the hill, where they were finding pieces of wall plaster, tesserae, and CBM (ceramic building material). They also spent some time testing their knowledge of the site with some activity sheets.  I was impressed with the enthusiasm and creativity of these groups of Young Archaeologists.
 
Tomorrow is an open day for people from nearby Castle Combe and Ford, and will surely be just as exciting and lively as today.

The South Wiltshire Young Archaeologists Club holding their finds bags.

Truckle Hill: Digging A Roman Bath House - Day 8

Truckle Hill Bath-House is located in a quiet, peaceful valley on the side of a hill. It is a particularly serene location first thing in the morning when you arrive, and last thing in the evening as we pack up our kit. I prefer the morning arrival; after hiking down the valley through the woods, you are greeted with “Good Morning. Would you like a cup of tea?” Today started slowly with a nice chat about the previous day of excavation, mixed in with chatting about nothing in particular. Mornings are very civilized out at Truckle Hill - as are morning breaks, lunch, and afternoon tea. The beginning of all of the above is signaled by the whistle of a kettle.
 
As people slowly drift off into the trenches I received a detailed up-date on the previous day’s activities from one of the volunteers. A few pieces of tesserae, a very nicely carved stone, and the hint of a wall lying under some rubble have been uncovered. The goal of the day is to continue searching for the forecourt walls and for a match to the column base that was uncovered during one of the previous years of excavation. The entire base has never been entirely exposed. Two people are working to completely expose the column base and the surrounding area.

Volunteers hards at work clearing rubble and uncovering the column base

As the day continued we started to experience a strange anomaly out at Truckle Hill. During tea breaks and lunch people would start to disappear. These disappearances were followed by the slight sound of a scraping trowel drifting up from the main trench. Someone really didn’t want to stop digging today, and kept sneaking off during breaks to continue working!

Finishing work around the column base.. or is it an altar?

During the day a number of interesting items were recovered, including a piece of melted glass, some very nicely faced pieces of stone from a rubble pile, and the site’s first large piece of CBM (ceramic building material). The most interesting revelation of the day, however, was the completely exposed column base... which suddenly did not look so much like a column base any more. Seeing the large stone blocks exposed for the first time, the column base whose pair we have been searching for, now looks more likely to be an altar. During the next few days of excavation volunteers will continue to reveal features of the possible forecourt in this area, and now attempt to clarify the identity of the base – column or altar?

Truckle Hill: Digging A Roman Bath House - Day 6

Tuesday 7 September

I was told before the excavation started that very few finds are recovered on this site. When I arrived today, however, not only did I find the main trench transformed, and that five new trenches had sprung up around it, but also found full finds trays! The previous day, I have been told, was not so prosperous with only one find during the entire day. That one find, however, was rather nice – the head of a bone pin.
 
In the main trench the dark burnt material from the crop drier has been almost entirely excavated. It has created a large pile of black earth that will be used to cover over any exposed walls. This will help to protect the walls from the winter frost. It is the burnt black material that has yielded a good amount of Roman pottery. It has also made quite a mess of the people excavating the area. They are still down on hands and knees excavating the last remains of this sooty soil.
 
In another section of the main trench a nice collection of almost complete roof tiles have been exposed, one of them with the nail head still in place. The collection has allowed us to create a little demo roof on the side of one of our spoil heaps.
 

The small trenches that have sprung up are all investigating walls. Three of them have been opened to confirm the path of walls that were uncovered in previous years. The other two have been opened up to confirm the route of walls that have proved not to go in the predicted direction. One of the walls was supposed to turn south approximately where the edge of this year’s main trench is. But this year’s surprise so far is that instead of turning it continues on, into the hill and towards the villa, and possibly off into the woods. It is possible that it could be the outside wall of a forecourt to one of the pre-bath house buildings.
 
Despite the amount of work taking place on site the mood of everyone excavating is jovial. I wandered around the site taking pictures and asking questions for this blog, and stumbled on one particularly entertaining conversation regarding who the bath house had belonged to. The nearby villa seems the most obvious choice, but the villa is known to have had its own en-suite bath. As the valley does get quite cold during the winter and would be a bit of a walk from the villa, the (joking) decision was that the lady of the villa insisted on an en-suite as she was not willing to walk down the hill to perform her bathing routine.

Andy excavating the burnt material from the crop drier.

The day’s work concluded, happily, with a new research question: Was there a forecourt to one of the earlier buildings? Despite some rather sticky clay, and some very sooty hands and faces, everyone seems encouraged to have found a new theory to investigate. This week of excavation will hopefully confirm this new theory.

Truckle Hill: Digging A Roman Bath House - Day 1

Welcome to another year of excavation at the Truckle Hill Roman bath-house. Every autumn since 2007 Wessex Archaeology has been working with a group of volunteers to investigate the site which is near North Wraxall, Wiltshire. This year the excavation at Truckle Hill Bath-house is part of the Heritage Lottery Funded project ‘Celts and Romans in North Wiltshire,’ aimed at helping local communities get in touch with the history of the area, and get involved in researching and exploring their community’s past.
 
The first day of excavation welcomed volunteers and Wessex staff with unbelievable, sunny weather. When I arrived on site I joined the day’s group of volunteers in exploring the landscape surrounding the bath-house, led by one of the volunteers who has taken part in every year of excavation at the site. The project boasts new volunteers as well as a group of dedicated people who take part every year. This year’s excavation also had a special new addition - which was the reason we were off exploring and not digging. For the first time the trench at Truckle Hill was opened by a digger and not by hand.

Volunteers begin excavating for this season at Truckle Hill

In previous years the hard work of the volunteers has revealed the extent and layout of the bath-house, the existence of two separate, earlier buildings underneath it, and the reuse of the bath-house as a corn drier. Last year’s excavation led to the exciting realisation that the bath-house in fact faced up the slope towards the villa rather than down the slope as had been previously thought. This changed our understanding of the use of two of the rooms in the bath house; the tepidarium (warm room) is actually the caldarium (hot room), and vice versa!
 

The digger removed the top layers of soil on the west side of the bath house, where the trench has been opened to further investigate one of the earlier buildings.  Meanwhile the volunteers and I ate lunch and watched. Despite knowing that the digger was saving time and a lot of heavy lifting, I think everyone was getting fidgety, watching and waiting to get in and dig. Once our meal was over and the digger driver had taken a break for his, there was no stopping a few volunteers from getting into the trench and poking around with their trowels. It wasn’t long before the digger driver had completed his work and everyone could climb into the trench and get to work, joking about the incredible amount of work that they had completed in just one morning. There was even the opportunity, when visitors arrived in the afternoon, to share this joke. It did get let slip eventually that the digger had paid a visit in the morning.
 
All jokes aside, by the time we packed up our kit in the evening the trench had been transformed. The section edges had been tidied, the depth of a large burnt deposit from the corn drier was revealed, and the volunteers had been rewarded for their hard work by a large piece of Roman pottery.
 
I’m looking forward to getting back out to the site to see how much more the trench has transformed after a few days of excavation.

 

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