Since the beginning of February, we have travelled the streets of Salisbury, stopping off to consider locations which have been examined by archaeologists before the sites were due to be developed. The results have revealed hidden pictures and stories of people who have lived in the area for thousands of years. Each site has its own fascinating tale to tell, providing evidence that sheds new light on locations that are familiar to present-day residents and appealing to inquisitive individuals alike. The stories have been compiled from information collected from archaeological fieldwork and supplemented by documentary searches. Perhaps it is time to pause in our journey and consider briefly how archaeologists collect this data and how it can be woven into meaningful conclusions.
Archaeology works on the basic principal of a sequence of events which need to be unpicked and interpreted. As most people know the earliest event is at the bottom and subsequent events are represented by layers that accumulate above them. This process, which we have witnessed in Salisbury, helps to explain how thicknesses of deposit develop. Of course, as we have also seen, sometimes the reverse happens, and layers are totally removed, resulting in a gap in the sequence. The sites that we have been considering in Salisbury all fall within an urban environment, where events can sometimes be condensed into a series of very thin layers. These changes can be recognised by subtle variations in colour or texture but can themselves be cut through by later intercutting pits and foundations, disrupting the earlier events.
Medieval floor levels overlying an earlier pit at excavations at Bedwin Street, Salisbury. Each thin layer represents a separate event.
The archaeologist is required to observe and think about how each layer relates to other layers, how it arrived at its present location, noting the composition and structure of material which might indicate that it was dumped or more deliberately laid down, was accumulated naturally by wind or water and what might have happened to it since it was deposited. These observations, thoughts and conclusions have been documented conventionally using written records, although increasing use can now be made of digital recording systems. Similarly, many of the sites that we have visited were photographed using film, but digital images are now standard. The story of each site is completed using scaled plans and sections and located by accurate survey. The level of detail can be especially challenging but is necessary.
Gathering the information: excavation and recording.
The archaeologist needs to remain focussed, recognising where fragments of the same layer might be linked together across different parts of the site. To help with this process the urban archaeologist often places layers and features in their correct stratigraphic order using a ‘matrix’. This indispensable chart is a ‘family tree’ type of diagram which makes it possible to reconstruct a series of events, starting with the first one at the bottom and adding events as they build up. Dating is added by using the finds from individual layers. Archaeologists love to ask, ‘Where’s it from?’ when asked to date or recognise objects. The answer to this crucial question is vital if an object is to tell us when it was made and what it might have been used for. It is why archaeologists place so much importance on recording individual layers and noting the information on each finds bag. In this way, the story of the site can be reconstructed as a series of joined-up events which tell what happened and when.
Layers! Preserving a record of the site with written records, photos, drawings and interpretation.
Once the detail has been finalised the observations in the trench can be used to provide a ‘canvas’ to which detail can be added, including the buildings in which people lived and worked. Much of the reconstruction can be guided using the excavated foundations. These provide the imprints from which the buildings themselves can be visualised. Thankfully many of Salisbury’s standing medieval buildings share similar foundation footprints and can be employed to form the basis of the reconstruction. Further embellishment is made using the objects that are found. The composition and date of collections, especially pottery, provides a useful indicator of status of the people who used them and identifies variations in occupants across different parts of the city. As we have seen yet more detail can be added by collecting and processing samples which hold clues of industrial waste, plants and foods which people consumed.
The primary records are catalogued before they are stored for posterity in Salisbury Museum. The final conclusions can be presented in a variety of ways; as a written report, an artist’s reconstruction or, increasingly in the digital age, as a virtual reality experience.
The test pit dug at Salisbury Museum during the Festival of Archaeology in 2018 showing a wall foundation with an overlying drain, presented as a conventional photograph (left), and as a 3D model (right, built by Paul Derwent) providing an alternative interactive view.
However, the true value of the stories from each site is achieved when the individual chapters are used to compile a more rounded account of Salisbury to place it in our national story.