Cuttings & conundrums

When we first started excavating Blackfriary, we thought we had a reasonably clear idea of what we were going to uncover.  Archaeology, however, is humbling in the fact that you can dig all you want, and the result will not always be what you expected.  Welcome, everyone, to Cutting 3.

 Cutting 3, facing N.

When Fin left this morning for a meeting in Dublin, little did she know of the impending chaos that is the third cutting of Blackfriary.  The day certainly started out innocently enough, each team member having been given a specific task to perform under the supervision of Gian Marco. Malika was to create a sondage, or test pit, on the western wall of the cutting.  Gwen was to finish excavating an infant burial; Laura N. and I were to create sondages on the southeast side of a stone tumble with the goal of finding the subsoil, which is the natural layer of earth that exists apart from human interaction.  Finally, Morgan and Mary Claude were to plan the cloister wall.  Planning, for all you non-archaeologists, is a very tedious process which involves taking a grid and mapping each item within the grid onto a corresponding grid drawing.

Malika planning – Cutting 3

Fin was gone no more than an hour before these plans began to crumble faster than the stone tumble.  Gian Marco, an experienced archaeologist, seemed to sense the danger, and left us in Steve’s charge at tea time!  Malika, for one, continued to find more and more human bone until she finally came across what appeared to be a cranium.

Skull, almost complete, in sondage is W side of Cutting 3

Now, if you’ve ever had the opportunity to properly excavate a human skull, you are aware that it is a long and tiring process and very different from television shows where they have the whole entire skeleton excavated in about ten minutes.  In reality, there is absolutely no chance of this ever happening, especially when the bone with which you are dealing is hundreds of years old, and much of it falling apart at your fingertips.  Malika, who apparently has been blessed with the gift of bone-radar from the Archaeology Gods, also found a smaller cranium, a vertebra, a rib, a calcaneous (ankle bone), and tarsals (foot bones).

Skull, detail (lots of nice teeth for ageing!)

This would all be very lovely, aside from the fact that we are supposed to be excavating a church and not a cemetery.  One of the questions we must now address is why there are human burials where we expected to find a church wall.  Malika, however, did a fantastic job of patiently excavating the cranium, which actually turned out to be a nearly complete skull, cutting short her lunch break and staying late.

As for Laura and I, our sondages changed form often throughout the course of the day.  The original plan was to make one along the stone tumble running west to east, and another perpendicular along the side of the cutting heading south.  Then we were to make a sondage within the west-east sondage, with the goal of finding the subsoil.  With no prospect of subsoil, we continued digging until we were about two feet below the surface of cutting 3 with no end in sight.  Instead of subsoil, we found massive rocks, similar to those used for building with evidence of human interaction.

Planning in Cutting 3, facing E

What we ended up with was a very strange sequence of layers, with a wall at the top, a layer of soil below the wall, and a layer of collapsed rock below the soil.  We are now adapting our sondage to the find by making it about two by one square meters, thus expanding out toward the south side of the cutting.  Tomorrow we will likely continue with that goal in mind, and then off to Newgrange!

River Boyne at Newgrange visitor centre

Perfect weather for visiting Boyne Valley Archaeological Park!

Melissa Clarke, Ohio State University

Archaeological Supervisor

Blackfriary, 27 July, 2011


About Irish Archaeology Field School

The Irish Archaeology Field School (IAFS) is Ireland’s leading provider of university accredited, site based archaeological research and training. Our archaeological and heritage programs include research projects in a number of locations in Ireland, including in Co. Wexford and Co. Offaly (with satellite schools frequently undertaken elsewhere). We provide credited and uncredited programs (and internships) for novice and experienced students, and also specialise in the preparation of purpose-built faculty led programs incorporating excavation, historical research, remote sensing, non-invasive survey, ground investigation, landscape assessment etc. Whilst our programs are excavation-centered and aimed primarily at students of archaeology, anthropology and history, courses are open to all, and are guaranteed to give you an enriching and thoroughly worthwhile study abroad adventure.
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8 Responses to Cuttings & conundrums

  1. Emma says:

    Oh, oh! Quick question while I’m thinking about it–are the bones coming up underneath of that thick clay-like layer that is present in all of the cuttings? If so, are they doing it consistently? Would that mean that we’re still thinking of the clay-layer as the floor, or has that idea been voided in the past few weeks?

    • blackfriary says:

      Hi Emma,

      I’ll have to check with Fin on that but when on site yesterday, we started c.1m wide sondage along the W wall of Cutting 3, to the S of the E-W wall and mattocked down at least 20cm and was still F325, no sign of undisturbed natural yet. Burial 3 is up above that (would need to check level record – maybe 30cm above?) and there is re-deposited natural and all sorts in there so its all very mixed….still DHB coming out also I think! Laura N was removing somes stones in the E section, to the N of the area where the compacted clay is (hasn’t been tuoched yet) and will be taking that area down more as well so we’ll see! Siobhan and Jessica are arriving next week and will be tasked with getting on top of the paper work with Melissa…hopfeully things will start to beome clearer soon!


      • Emma says:

        Wow! Quite interesting! Thanks for the detailed info, helps put things into the perspective I was looking for. I can’t believe the things that are happening with this cutting…so not what we expected when we started on it!

  2. Jessica says:

    Amazing! The site is becoming incredibly complex.
    Keep up the great work!

  3. Emma says:

    That’s amazing!!! I can’t believe the amount of human bones you guys are finding. So jealous! Great pictures! Wish I was there!

    • blackfriary says:

      Neither can we!!! Everyone is enjoying the challenge though, and planning for a full osteo prgramme next year we think 🙂
      Hope the Aussies are treating you well?!

      • Kirsten says:

        We are! So amazed at everything you’ve found! Save something for me to find when I return next year! 🙂

      • Emma says:

        I’ll bet! Hopefully I’ll be able to make it for the osteo next year! That’ll be great. I have a forensic anthro class this year in which we have to “dig up a burial.” Fake, with plastic bones. It’ll be nice doing that after having already done the real thing 😉
        The Aussies are treating me very well! 🙂

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