Events Blog


Practical Archaeology Course 2006: Day One

Today was the first day of the first of three week long practical archaeology courses running this year at Down Farm, Sixpenny Handley, on Cranborne Chase in Dorset. This week the team is made up of people who are considering archaeology as a degree subject or career and want to gain some practical experience first.

The day began for our fourteen-strong team with introductions from Margaret Bunyard (Education Manager) and Dr Catriona Gibson (Site Senior Project Officer) and a site tour and introduction to Down Farm from Dr Martin Green.

Martin’s family have owned the farm for three generations and he has spent much of his life exploring and excavating the archaeology of the farm. He is a highly respected archaeologist and an excellent on-site resource! Introductions over, we had a guided tour of the archaeological features on the farm, and the finds from them which are now in his wonderful museum – plenty of inspiration here for the week to come.

In the afternoon we started work on site. This year we will be excavating an area between the 2004 and 2005 excavation areas to try and gain a fuller understanding of prehistoric activity in this part of the farm. Our first viewing of the site revealed a few indistinct “blobs”, but after the 20 x 20 metre site was cleaned with hoes, brooms and shovels the site was transformed to reveal a pattern of postholes and possible pits spread right across the area. Based on previous work here it is thought that these features date from the late Bronze Age, however this will need to be confirmed by excavation, which will take place over the next three weeks.

Behind the scenes

After the course participants had left, the final stages of the excavation began. These included finishing off the recording and excavating of any archaeological features that were started during the course.

Once this task is done, the archive is complete and the maximum amount of information has been extracted. As any course participant will tell you, archaeology is all about the archive since the paper record, together with any finds, is all that remains from an excavation. In fact many people have commented on the similarity between being an archaeologist and working in an office! There are countless registers, forms, records and indexes to be filled in, checked and cross-referenced.

Once all this had been completed final photographs of the excavated site were taken.


Then finally the task of backfilling, the cause of many an aching muscle. All the excavated features were refilled with soil. Those such as the ditch and quarry hollow, which may be continued next year, have been lined with a special fabric to help protect them, and to prevent any cross contamination from the soil of the back-fill.


Practice makes perfect?

Jake Keene was operating his iron smelting kiln again today. While last week’s results were “quite good” this week’s were “not wonderfully successful”. As you can see from the picture, this smelt produced hardly any useable iron. Jake’s 98 experiments have shown that the consistent production of iron is very difficult. This is useful information in itself and demonstrates the skill of the Iron Age craftsmen.

Recording and excavating have continued on site, thankfully under kinder weather conditions. The post holes are starting to make sense as ancilliary structures. The two large post pits now appear to be the entrance to a roundhouse. This is just north of the roundhouse found last year. Further post-excavation work may well reveal more information. So thank you to all the participants for adding to our knowledge of the site.



Rain doesn’t stop play!

Despite the rain, excavation and recording has continued. As wet weather makes the features more visible on the chalk, the numerous postholes are beginning to make sense. We have now established that there are at least three more four-post structures to add to the one found last year. These structures are commonly found on prehistoric settlement sites and are thought to have been grain stores. They would have built as small square huts or sheds supported above ground by posts in order to keep out vermin.

Below are pictures of two of these structures, the posts have been highlighted in red. And yes, the blurred splodges on the pictures are rain drops!




Iron smelting - The results

The iron smelting with Jake Keene was a good example of experimental archaeology. For Jake this was smelt number 98 and in his words it went “quite well”. The pictures show that when the bloom had been removed from the kiln it was sawn in half to show how much iron was inside.

The iron shows up as a silvery colour. It was never Jake’s intention to work this piece of iron. However, if it was re-heated and beaten several times it would have produced a small bar of iron that could have been forged into an object or a tool, such as a blade.


Landscape, location and loads of pots

Wessex Archaeology’s Survey Officer, Doug Murphy, came out to the site to show how modern GPS survey is used in the field by archaeologists. Course participants were given a chance to use the equipment to survey the archaeological features that they and the others had dug.

Martin Green led a second, longer tour of the surrounding landscape, allowing people to gain a greater understanding of the archaeological heritage of the area.

The afternoon pottery lecture was highly informative. Matt Lievers from Wessex Archaeology brought along a selection of prehistoric and later pottery. Everyone benefitted from the chance to see and handle a wide range of pottery while they listened to Matt.

Congratultions to all of the participants on week one of the course.


Ghosts of posts

As excavation continues on site, our knowledge about who built it, how and when, is growing. Several of the post holes that have been excavated revealed post-pipes. These occur where, in the past, a wooden post has been removed from a post hole and the resulting void has filled up with soil. The picture on the left demonstrates this: the dark vertical band is the ‘ghost’ of the post that once stood within the posthole, the lighter soil to either side of the dark patch is the original chalk packing that would have been used to keep the wooden post in place.

Chalk, however, is not the only type of prehistoric post packing to have been used on this site. This picture shows a postpit which was uncovered on site today. You can clearly see the large flint nodules which were used in the same way as the chalk, but probably to support a much larger wooden post. Hopefully further excavation will reveal more about the type of structures or buildings these posts would have formed part of.

The most exciting discoveries of the day have been several sherds of pottery. Those shown in the picture above are the first pieces of decorated pot uncovered this season. They show the two bands of decoration around what would have been a small bowl. The style of pottery appears at first glance to be what is known as ‘All Cannings Cross’ which dates to the Early Iron Age. This confirms our belief that this site was created during the Early to Middle Iron Age (700-100 BC). Slowly but surely we are beginning to piece together the history of the site. Below is another example of a post-pipe visible within a post hole.

Pounding, Pots and Pyromania!

Whilst the on-site recording continued apace, there were other activities on offer. Several people spent the morning learning about and processing pottery and other archaeological finds. Some of the finds were those uncovered on-site this week and others were a range of finds from different archaeological sites. This activity allowed participants to see and handle a wider range of artefacts.

Participants also took part in some real experimental archaeology, courtesy of archaeo-metallurgist Jake Keene. The aim was to take several kilos of iron ore and charcoal to produce a ‘bloom’ of iron. In order to do this participants pounded up lumps of iron ore and weighed out kilos of charcoal for the furnace. Then they took it in turns to pump the bellows, in order to maintain a constant temperature of 1,500 degrees centigrade.

Experiments like this improve our understanding of the complex processes of prehistoric metal working and make it easy to understand why ancient metal workers might be seen to be performing acts of magic.

The kiln is still burning, so log on again tomorrow to see if the experiment worked!

Relentless recording

Archaeological recording was the main task of the day. Once they had excavated their features, course participants began the task of recording what they had dug.

This involved learning new skills such as technical drawing, planning, surveying and filling in context sheets. These are all methods used by archaeologists to gain and record as much information as possible. Since any excavation is in fact a form of destruction, it is essential that one form of evidence - the soil/objects in the ground, is replaced by another - the written and illustrated record left for future generations to study.

In the afternoon Chris Stevens, an environmental archaeologist from Wessex Archaeology, led a workshop about geoarchaeological techniques. This included explanations as to how archaeologists are able to recreate entire landscapes and environments from the soil samples they take during excavation.



A first brush with archaeology

The Practical Archaeology Course for 2005 got under way on Monday. After a warm welcome, participants were escorted around the site by Dr Martin Green, the local expert archaeologist. They were shown the sites of previous excavations and given an introduction to the archaeology of Cranborne Chase. The fascinating tour ended at the museum, where everyone had the opportunity to see the many finds from the excavations.

After lunch the real hard work got underway! Participants began the exciting task of ‘cleaning’ the area to be excavated. This meant using hoes, trowels and brooms to literally clean the chalk. As they did so they got their first glimpse of the archaeological deposits that they will soon be excavating. So far they have uncovered a large number of postholes, several of which are almost certainly from buildings.

Log on again tomorrow to track their progress and discover the site as they do!

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