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Practical Archaeology Course 2008: Day One

Today was the first day of the 2008 Practical Archaeology Course run by Wessex Archaeology at Down Farm in Dorset. Over the course of the next two weeks 25 intrepid volunteers will be taught all aspects of the excavation and recording process on a real archaeological site. There will be talks on archaeological finds, tours of the farm and the excavation of archaeological features on site.

Excavation begins on the 2008 Practical Archaeology CourseExcavation begins on the 2008 Practical Archaeology CourseThis is the fifth year that we've run the course and the third year that we've worked in what is known as area 3B. Despite being only 16 x 25m in size, we realised when the area was first stripped in 2006 that we had several years work ahead of us. This is a feature-rich site which has seen hundreds of years of Iron Age occupation. This year we hope to finish excavating area 3B and answer some of the questions we have about the settlement and about the people who lived in it.

The morning began with introductory talks and a tour of the farm and museum led by landowner Dr Martin Green. Martin is a popular and knowledgeable archaeologist who has come closer to understanding the secrets of Down Farm than anyone else. We spent the afternoon up on the site and our team had their first look at the area they will be excavating over the next week. Our first task was to clean the site using hoes and brooms. This is hard work but it is essential as it reveals the features on the site. By the end of the day seventy postholes and several small pits had been revealed ready for us to begin excavating tomorrow. Will we find the information which can tell us about the people of Down Farm 2500 years ago, or will we raise more questions than we answer?

Practical Archaeology Course 2007 - Day 10

Today was the last day of Wessex Archaeology’s 2007 training excavation at Down Farm in Dorset. The weather finally broke and instead of the glorious sunshine we’ve had over the past two weeks the day was overcast and a little damp. Nothing could deter our volunteers though and we spent the morning on site continuing the excavation of our postholes. By now our team was so efficient that features were being recorded with ease and speed. This is fantastic progress considering that most of our diggers were complete beginners at the start of the week.

Progress this past two weeks has been amazing – seventy-nine postholes have been excavated and fully recorded, and three slots have been put through the enigmatic quarry hollows in the south of the site. In total our teams have generated over two hundred context numbers (the numbers that we give to each archaeological event in order to understand and talk about them) which would be considered a very respectable number for one of our commercial digs.

Each year that we’ve been here we learn more about the Bronze and Iron Age inhabitants of Down Farm. We’ve found their settlement and identified the enclosure ditch flanking the western edge. We’ve found pieces of their pottery and their flints. Tantalizing clues have emerged as to the animals they kept and what the people were eating. There’s still a lot of work to do though. Our postholes show no sign of abating and appear to continue off to the north, east and west of our current excavation areas. Supported by the geophysical survey conducted last week, this gives us possible areas for future investigation.

We’d like to thank everyone who has dug with us this year for their hard work, patience and enthusiasm. We’d also like to thank Martin Green for welcoming us onto his farm and for his support, tours and demonstrations throughout the fortnight. Thanks are also due to the two cake-making Margarets, to Rob and to Cindy who have brought us gifts of food.

Today was the last day of Wessex Archaeology’s 2007 training excavation at Down Farm in Dorset. The weather finally broke and instead of the glorious sunshine we’ve had over the past two weeks the day was overcast and a little damp. Nothing could deter our volunteers though and we spent the morning on site continuing the excavation of our postholes. By now our team was so efficient that features were being recorded with ease and speed. This is fantastic progress considering that most of our diggers were complete beginners at the start of the week.

Progress this past two weeks has been amazing – seventy-nine postholes have been excavated and fully recorded, and three slots have been put through the enigmatic quarry hollows in the south of the site. In total our teams have generated over two hundred context numbers (the numbers that we give to each archaeological event in order to understand and talk about them) which would be considered a very respectable number for one of our commercial digs.

Each year that we’ve been here we learn more about the Bronze and Iron Age inhabitants of Down Farm. We’ve found their settlement and identified the enclosure ditch flanking the western edge. We’ve found pieces of their pottery and their flints. Tantalizing clues have emerged as to the animals they kept and what the people were eating. There’s still a lot of work to do though. Our postholes show no sign of abating and appear to continue off to the north, east and west of our current excavation areas. Supported by the geophysical survey conducted last week, this gives us possible areas for future investigation.

Group photoGroup photo

We’d like to thank everyone who has dug with us this year for their hard work, patience and enthusiasm. We’d also like to thank Martin Green for welcoming us onto his farm and for his support, tours and demonstrations throughout the fortnight. Thanks are also due to the two cake-making Margarets, to Rob and to Cindy who have brought us gifts of food.

Practical Archaeology Course 2007 - Day 9

Today was the only day of the dig dedicated entirely to excavation… and excavate we did!

Mud was disappearing fast as the digging and recording of postholes continued at Down Farm. Fuelled again mid-morning by cakes generously brought in by friend of the dig Margaret, we kept up a good pace of work. Indeed by the end of the day our excavators were so efficient that they hardly needed our guidance and training any more – excellent progress!

Hard at work digging on siteHard at work digging on site

Today was our most prolific day in terms of finds. Several nice sherds of pottery were recovered from a post hole to the south of our excavation area and two struck flint flakes came out of the second half of the posthole with the chalk packing which was mentioned on Tuesday.

The most intriguing find has to be half of the lower jaw bone of a sheep found by one of our excavators in what we believed to be another post hole.

The sheep jawboneThe sheep jawbone

But why is this bone here? Was it placed for ceremonial reasons? Or was it simply being discarded like rubbish into a handy hole? Or is this actually a pit dug especially to hold rubbish from the surrounding structures? Certainly something for us to think about as our excavator continues to dig the feature on Friday.

This afternoon was probably the warmest of the dig so far and with the chalk reflecting the heat it’s fair to say that we were scorching! Despite this we had more visitors including Rob, one of last week’s diggers, who came back bearing gifts of cake – thank you!

Tomorrow will be the final day of this year’s dig and whilst we’ve learnt a lot by cleaning the site and excavating the features, there is still a lot of work to be done. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as identifying structures by looking at a plan of the site and joining up the dots. The post holes that we have been uncovering span a time period of hundreds of years – at least from the Late Bronze Age to the Middle Iron Age. So holes that seem to form lines, arcs and structures might not, in fact, have any relationship to each other. Hopefully a comparison of the fills, post pipes and packing materials seen in the half-sections that we have cut, along with comparison of the depths and dimensions of the features, will help to identify holes that have been dug and filled in a similar way. This may highlight features that are contemporary with each other, and thus we will begin to see our structures emerging from the depths of time.

Practical Archaeology Course 2007 - Day 8

We made our way to site this morning through a landscape heavily shrouded in fog. It was eerie and a little cold. With the fog dampening the sound of traffic and obscuring the neighbouring farmhouses, it was almost possible to imagine what it must have been like for the Iron Age inhabitants of Down Farm waking up on a similar autumnal morning.

By mid-morning the fog had lifted and the site was bathed in bright sunlight. Today’s progress was again impressive and today our diggers finished the recording process and began new features. The site was a veritable hive of activity and by lunchtime everyone in our team was on at least their second feature.

Some of the postholes on site, which had been half-sectioned, have now been 100% excavated. By removing the second half of the material within the cut we are making sure that we have collected all of the finds and that the half section we drew is a true representation of the feature. One of our diggers removed the second half of her fill today and has revealed an amazing set of packing stones. These are large flat pieces of flint that have been placed vertically into the cut in order to secure, or wedge, a post into place. They are used in the same way that chalk packing material, mentioned yesterday, has been used.

Flint packing stonesFlint packing stones

In the afternoon we were joined by Pippa Bradley, Wessex Archaeology’s flint specialist, who came for the second week running to talk about struck, burnt and worked flint. Last week her talk helped many of our excavators to identify worked flints and I’m sure the same will be true this week. Pippa uses real examples of struck flint found on various sites to illustrate her talk and it’s great for us to be able to see a collection like this and learn about them at the same time.

A demonstration of flint knapping by Martin GreenA demonstration of flint knapping by Martin Green

After this Martin Green gave a demonstration of flint knapping. This isn’t something that you get to see everyday and it really does help to understand the type of tools used in the past and the processes that went into their construction. The team would like to thank Pippa and Martin, and Matt who came yesterday, for spending time with us these past two weeks.

We really could have watched Martin knapping flint all afternoon, but eventually everyone was dragged away and we returned to site to spend the final hour continuing our excavation and recording.

Practical Archaeology Course 2007 - Day 7

The day dawned bright and it was hot at Down Farm as our volunteers made their way to site. Tremendous progress was made yesterday afternoon and by the end of Tuesday some people were already beginning to record their features.

One volunteer excavated what has to be one of the best examples of a post pipe that we’ve seen on site so far…and probably the best example that I think I have ever seen!

A fine example of a “post pipe” - the soil is darker as the post rotted away in the groundA fine example of a “post pipe” - the soil is darker as the post rotted away in the ground

A post pipe is formed when a hole is dug, the post is inserted and then packed into place using locally available material. In this case chalk that had been removed to make the initial hole had been put back in to secure the post into an upright position. When the post is no longer in the hole, either through deliberate removal or through decomposition, the void left behind gradually fills with silt, borne by wind and water. In this case it looks as if the post may have been left to rot in situ as the line between the packing and the post pipe is incredibly clear. In the photo the packing is the light grey material to the left of the darker brown post pipe.

As the day progressed the site became very busy. Our volunteers were recording, photographing, excavating, drawing and taking levels. By lunchtime we’d made tremendous progress on what, for many people, may be one of the most challenging days of the dig so far. As last week’s team will tell you, the archaeological recording process is detailed and can be complicated. However, with great patience and perseverance we got through it and as most people now have one feature under their belts, the dig will become easier from now on (I promise you folks!).

Work progressesWork progresses

In the afternoon we were joined by a seasoned contributor to our Training Digs, Matt Leivers. He gave a talk on prehistoric pottery, using examples from the archaeological record. An indication of how popular this seminar was is the fact that the team didn’t return to site until nigh on 3.30pm having kept Matt talking for an hour and a half!

We finished the afternoon back on site enjoying the last of the afternoon’s sunshine and continuing with a little more light recording.

Practical Archaeology Course 2007 - Day 6

Today we met this week’s students on the Wessex Archaeology 2007 Training Excavation, who will be excavating with us at Down Farm in Dorset. These include two familiar faces, who have visited us before, and one young lady who has traveled all the way from Australia to come on the dig! Incredible!

The day began in the same way as it did last Monday, with introductions and a health and safety briefing. Once these unexciting but necessary preliminaries were out of the way we set off with Martin Green for his short tour of Down Farm and a visit to the museum. This is an excellent way of familiarizing our diggers with the type of archaeology they may encounter and provides a gentle start to the week. But enough of that, let the hard work commence!

Fortunately for this team, the site has already been cleaned by last week’s group, for which we are very grateful! This means that we can crack straight on with the excavation. Dave Godden, one of Wessex Archaeology’s Project Officers, who is running this week’s dig, began the afternoon with a brief introduction on how to half section a feature. After this everyone was assigned their own posthole. Throughout the course of the week they will be responsible for digging and fully recording their posthole. What they find out about their size, shape and fill will add important detail to our plan of the site. This will help us to work out the origin and purpose of the postholes and increase our understanding of the early inhabitants of Down Farm.

2007 Practical Archaeology Course - Day 5

Today was the last day on site for this week’s diggers who have now truly earned their archaeological stripes. We spent the morning up on site finishing the week’s excavations. This meant more digging, more recording and more photography. I’m pleased to report that this week’s team are now so proficient at this that they barely required the assistance of Wessex’s three site staff!

Chris Ellis set up the GPS system and gave those interested a brief lesson in how to survey an archaeological site. The results of today’s survey will, when downloaded onto a computer and processed, create a map of the site. This means that we will have a drawing of all the features, both excavated and unexcavated, and this can be added to the survey of work done here in previous years. This helps us to understand how the postholes might fit together to form structures and accurately locates them for future reference.

We were joined again at lunchtime by friends of the dig Margaret and Margaret, who brought with them gifts of cakes! Archaeologists always respond well to food and the team would like to thank the ladies for their generosity. We’d also like to wish Leslie, who has been digging with us this week, a very happy birthday. As you can see from the photo, Leslie has worked exceedingly hard, as have all our diggers, and we hope that he’s not too tired to enjoy his birthday celebrations!

Working HardWorking Hard

In the afternoon Martin Green led his now legendary Long Tour of Down Farm (as opposed to the Short Tour of Monday morning) and showed the team some of the other features of the landscape of Cranborne Chase.

This week’s volunteers have worked exceptionally hard to help us to understand the archaeology of Down Farm, and in the process all have become competent excavators. We’d like to thank everyone who came on the dig for their participation and enthusiasm.

The team from week 1The team from week 1

On Monday we meet our next sixteen volunteers and will continue to investigate and to report upon, the archaeology of Down Farm.

2007 Practical Archaeology Course - Day 4

Today has been one of our hottest…and busiest days so far. The site was a hive of activity as this year’s intrepid participants continued excavating and recording the features begun earlier in the week. Trowels were digging, cameras were snapping, pens and pencils were scratching and across the site tape measures were blowing gently in the breeze. The progress today was simply brilliant! Throughout the course of the day some features were completely finished and new ones were being started. The feverish digging also produced some new finds including more pottery and struck flint. But the star find was a piece of worked animal bone found in one of the large ‘pit-like’ features, that we currently believe to be quarry hollows.

Rob and Darren with the piece of worked boneRob and Darren with the piece of worked bone
similar items from other sites have been interpreted as weaving implements.similar items from other sites have been interpreted as weaving implements.

We were also joined on site today by four of Wessex Archaeology’s geophysicists who conducted a magnetometer survey to the west and north of our excavations. They identified a series of ‘anomalies’ that appear to represent five or six more quarry hollows, a number of postholes and a large linear ditch following a similar alignment to that found in our 2005 and 2006 investigations. So it looks as if the settlement that we are currently studying continues into these areas. This suggests a possible direction for more work here in the years to come.

We’d like to say a big thank you to two long-term friends of the practical archaeology courses we have run at Down Farm. Margaret and Margaret, who visited the site today, bore with them gifts of lemon drizzle and chocolate banana cakes. Both were very gratefully received and may well be partly responsible for fuelling the pace of work on site today!

2007 Practical Archaeology Course - Day 2

This morning dawned bright and sunny as the participants of this year’s training excavation arrived at Down Farm. After a swift cuppa we headed up to the site to continue the cleaning that we began yesterday afternoon. It was an arduous, though highly worthwhile, task and by 10.30 the whole of the area was cleared ready for excavation to begin. Clearly time for another cup of tea!

After a break we began to excavate the site. To begin with we need to do more cleaning to define individual features. Then comes ‘half-sectioning’, which means removing the mud in one half of the feature to leave a vertical face - a section.

The site was eerily quiet and for the first fifteen minutes or so all that could be heard was the industrious scraping of trowels on chalk as our volunteers got to work. Gradually we began to see the shape of the features under excavation and our first finds emerged from the mud. Flint flakes worked by human hands, fragments of red and black pottery and large gnarled pieces of burnt flint were removed from the ground. This is a fantastic start to the dig. The information that we can gain from studying these items, and the features that they came from, will hopefully tell us more about the prehistoric people who lived at Down Farm.

In the afternoon Matt Leivers, one of Wessex Archaeology’s prehistoric pottery specialists, came to give a talk illustrated with real examples of ancient pottery. His visit was well timed as he was able to give a preliminary date for the pottery found this morning, placing it in the middle Iron Age. This means that we are likely to be the first people to see these artefacts for over two thousand years – a humbling experience.

After Matt’s talk we returned to the site to continue the excavation begun this morning and we will report on our findings as they happen.

2007 Practical Archaeology Course

Day One

Today was the first day of Wessex Archaeology’s 2007 training dig. The morning dawned overcast with dark clouds amassing in the west as our fifteen volunteers made their way to Down Farm in Dorset. The farm, owned by keen archaeologist Martin Green, has been our venue for the past four years and this year we hope to continue work in areas started in 2006.

A tour of the museumA tour of the museum

We began with introductions and a safety briefing from Wessex Archaeology’s Chris Ellis, who is running this year’s dig, after which Martin led the team on a short tour of the farm, familiarising us with the landscape and history of the area we’re working in. We then went to Martin’s museum to look at the type of things we are hoping to find. The majority of the finds in the museum have been found at Down Farm and include a stone slab with Neolithic engravings, a large and varied collection of worked flint and a human skeleton!

By the afternoon the morning’s clouds had dispersed and we walked up to the site for the first time. Over the past year the chalk has weathered and the features that we saw in 2006 have been obscured by the eroded material. We can’t dig what we can’t see so it was out with the hoes, trowels, shovels and brooms to clear the site and reveal the features. It was tough work, especially with the sun blazing down, but within a short space of time the team had cleared most of the site.

Beginning the excavationBeginning the excavation

This revealed post holes – lots and lots of postholes! Some big ones, some small ones, some which seem to form a line, some with packing stones visible in the fill and some which appear to form four and six-post structures on the ground.

Towards the end of the day one group of volunteers uncovered an ‘amorphous feature’… which is a nice way of saying blob, that could be a quarry hollow similar to those seen here in previous years, or could be something else entirely.

Only excavation will tell!

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