Identifying trench cuts, opening Cutting 4 and chasing the cloister wall

Thursday, 4 August, 2011

The bank holiday, as much fun as it probably was for everybody, came at a rather inconvenient time right in the middle of the massive project that Cutting 3 has become.  While we were at least able to make sense of the cutting last week, we continue to find human remains that slow the process of excavating the site.  In addition, today we are starting Cutting 4, which will divide our small workforce between two sections.

On Tuesday, Malika joined us yet again after deciding that she could not bear the pain of separation from Blackfriary.  She had to leave for real though on Wednesday evening, but it was good to have her company on site for another two days.  Tuesday also brought us two new students, Jessica from Canada and Siobhan from Minnesota.  Since they arrived right in the middle of the chaos of Cutting 3 , they went straight to work.  Both were here last year, so they were able to catch up before you could say “I found another skeleton!”

Speaking of skeletons, the cranium that we found a few weeks ago actually belongs to an infant burial in situ.  Luckily, the Archaeology Gods have blessed Jessica with the gift of patience and Siobhan with the gift of bone knowledge.  This week Jessica has been able to completely expose the infant’s skeleton without damaging any of the tiny bones.  Siobhan has been helping Jessica with the burial sheet associated with the infant, and she has also been cleaning and identifying bones from the other burials.  Using a one-millimeter sieve, she is working on separating the fragmented bone from the soil, a job which, like Jessica’s, requires intense concentration.  The pieces of bone that Siobhan is recovering are so small that she needs to keep them in an even smaller sieve so the sides of it protect the bone from the wind and keep it from blowing away.  One of the bones she recovered was an intact phalange so small that it was about the size of the end of a ballpoint pen.  Siobhan also has extensive knowledge of the human skeleton and can name about every fusion, notch, and muscle attachment in every bone.  If she had a competition with a medical encyclopedia, the encyclopedia would fall to the ground bleeding from its pages and Siobhan would emerge the champion.

Burial 3, Cutting 3: Siobhan & Jessica excavating the infant burial

Stephen returned from Bective and is now working on the opening of Cutting 4.  He and I, under Fin’s instruction, reduced the size of the original cutting to half, focusing on the cloister wall.

Melissa troweling back in Cutting 4, facing W

It is quite clear that there is something there because there is a distinct line in the soil aligning with the cloister wall in cutting three.  The north side of Cutting 4 is made of very rich, dark soil, while the south side consists of hard mortar and stone.  Fin had us photograph the cutting as soon as the contrast became evident to demonstrate the probability of an existing structure.  The actual exposure of what is likely the cloister wall is a very slow process because the soil is so hardened by years of use as a footpath.  Plus, as mentioned earlier, half of it consists of mortar and stone.  The day was quite hot and digging through such soil was certainly grueling work.  We were also slowed by the presence of human bone, as in Cutting 3.

Aside from the infant burial, at least two more individuals have been found in the third Cutting.  The bone is largely disarticulated, which makes it easier to excavate, though certainly harder to anticipate.  Laura N. learned this first hand on Wednesday after she drove her mattock through a human skull that was otherwise intact.  Ian and Mick, who is taking a break from his honey-do list to work on site, worked on revealing the layer below the stone tumble south the wall.

Mick, Ian & Siobhan in Cutting 3, more skeletal remains occurring under a wall adjacent to the robber trench, facing E.

Again, this was complicated by human bone including a cranium, ribs, vertebrae, and half of a pelvis.

Ian is happy to find a mandible with teeth!

They managed though to find the outline of the robber trench!  I had never understood the concept of finding the outline of a pit that was in the ground.  It’s covered up and mixed with all the other soil, right?  Wrong!  If someone has dug a hole, even hundreds of years ago, the soil that eventually refilled the hole is going to be different than the surrounding natural soil.  The robber trench was clearly outlined by clay on one side and backfill on the other.  This, by the way, is how forensic anthropologists are able to discern the outline of a grave and recover all the bone and evidence related to the scene of the crime.

As for our numerous finds, they are taking over.  We wash, bag, tag, and register, and it is still very difficult to keep up.  The finds trays are really more like uncontrollable, pubescent guinea pigs than innocent, inanimate objects.  We arrive in the morning, and they appear to have reproduced overnight.  Hopefully after a day of digging tomorrow, we will be able to catch up on paperwork over the weekend.

What will we make of Friday?  I’m wagering three or four skeletons, a lot of animal bone, some clay, and a wall!

Melissa Clarke, Ohio State University

Archaeological Supervisor

Blackfriary, 4th August 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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3 Responses to Identifying trench cuts, opening Cutting 4 and chasing the cloister wall

  1. Emma says:

    Jessica is back!! A perfect person for exposing a skeleton that takes so much patience! Ahhh, it looks like Laura N found the mattock that I used last year (and probably this year when I blasted through dog bones). Everything looks so exciting…keep up the fantastic work!

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