Supervisor Diary

July was a busy month, particularly for our student supervisors as we took a two-week break from teaching and used the time to catch up on paperwork and to make some progress in areas where we are keen to answer specific questions this season before backfilling for the winter. During the break, site director Fin took a few days for a well earned break,  and site supervisor Joanne Gaffney continued work with the student supervisors.

Student supervisor Emma Lagan, in her third Season at Blackfriary, and second year as supervisor, she gives an account of some of her time on site:

Right! Well, this has been dormant for a bit, so I’m going to try and organize it well. We’ll see how that goes. I apologise for very sketchy details in the beginning, but it gets more detailed as it goes on!

Wednesday, July 9th:

Horses arrived on site! These could be our new protection against vandals—our hope is that the presence of the horses, belonging to a local man and on site with permission from the council, will deter motorcyclists and such. It’s pretty awesome, really, to have them. This morning, Jess and myself went down to the post ex office to look through all of the bones and separate the animal bones from the human bones. We had a presentation this week by Fiona Beglane, a zooarchaeologist from Sligo Institutive of Technology; she showed us the difference between animal and human bones, and how bones that have a similar function (arm bones) look in different animals – it was very informative,, especially since a lot of our site has a mix of animal and human bones! We learned that animal bones are functional on archaeology sites because they can tell you a lot about the people—what animals were they keeping, and how did the patterns change? It can help tell you about diet and behaviour.

Tuesday, July 10:

The site this morning was swamped from the rain over the past few days. Jess and I started planning the charnel pit on the east side of Cutting 3. Tara and Mick went into Cutting 1 and started cleaning up the foundation, trying to learn more about how it all works in conjunction with what we have in Cutting 3. John, Sean, Rachel, Beannán and Dolores were all working in the south half of Cutting three, pulling back the various layers. Because the weather actually cleared up towards the end of the day, we stayed an hour later on site.

 Work in Cutting 3

Wednesday, July 11

Today can be described in three words: “planning” and “pulling back.” More of the same as yesterday—Jess and I continued on with OSB3 (Ossuary Burial No. 3), while Sean and John planned their corner, and Dolores and Rachel were pulling back the SE corner of the cutting.

Planning of OSB3 in situ

Thursday, July 12

More planning! And cleaning! A lot of my day was spent working with Jess cleaning back OSB3 so that we could see everything (namely the ribs and pelvic area which were covered by too much dirt to plan). The position of the hand was revealed to show that the hands were crossed over the pelvis. Elsewhere on site, more skulls were discovered, much to Fin’s dismay! The south east corner of Cutting 3 is absolutely chock full of disarticulated bone. You never know what’s going to turn up! Another skeleton has been uncovered, fully articulated, on the western baulk. John has nicknamed it “Sue” for the moment. Sue’s skull was originally present but was very fragile, so had already been removed in order to preserve it as much as possible.

Kirsten planning Sue/Agamemnon

Friday, July 13

This was the last day for everyone on site who wasn’t staying on to supervise. Some, like Colleen, had already left earlier in the week, but Sean, Tara, Anna, and Rachel all had their last day today. It’s always weird, and hard, saying goodbye! But I’m sure we will all meet up again on this dig again at some time in the future. It was a field trip day—so while work was done in the morning, everyone went on the field trip to Newgrange in the afternoon. Jess and myself stayed back in order to work on OSB3 while the weather held. Jo was around to help us as well. We managed to get the (finds) bags prepared and all the basics ready, but we were only able to get the skull and a few vertebrae up. This is actually the most difficult part, as you have to be so careful with it, and parts of it had already collapsed as it was. However, with this up, the rest of the excavation should be relatively (hah!) easy.


OSB3 in situ

Monday, July 16th

On site:  This was our first day with the dig “shut down.” It was Kirsten’s first day back on site, and Siobhán arrived as well. She’s our resident bone expert, essentially, and really awesome! Most of this day was spent washing bones, as the weather was not great at all. We got into Cutting 3 around 4pm, towards the end of the day, to get done what we could. Kirsten and I worked on OSB3—the burial within the ossuary—starting to lift from the vertebrae down, since the skull had been removed by Jo at the end of the day on Friday.

Tuesday, July 17

On site: I spent the morning working on lifting OSB3, which was removed up to the feet by lunch time. Siobhán, who loves articulated feet, finished working on those after lunch. The process wasn’t too bad once I got the hang of it. Vertebrae are actually a bit of a pain to lift out of the ground, since they have bits that like to dig deep into it, and hide under other bones! Elsewhere on site, Kirsten and John worked on their burial, who has been renamed several times to the point that it’s now just confusing, planning the burial and starting to lift it. Fin gave us a talk on what she wants to achieve  over the next two weeks; basically, our goal was to work on the ossuary, reducing it to a sterile level (where no more bones are showing up) in order to try and get a better idea of what is going on there and the order in which things (burials and bones) occurred. Also, we wanted to see if there was a line of demarcation between OSB3 and the burial which had occurred directly to the south and at a higher level than it. In another section of the cutting, Grid H, we were looking to try and determine what was going on—this is the section of the cutting that has been titled “Bone City” or “Bone-a-palooza” because of the absolute sheer quantity of disarticulated bones we are getting in that area.

Wednesday, July 18

On site: Our first day without Fin! And we managed to survive it! Impressed? Anyway—the plan of the ossuary that Jessica and I had started the week prior was finished completely, since the surrounding stones hadn’t been 100% plotted as they’re more likely to stay in better condition than bones, so we had worked on taking the bones up.

 Gravediggers! (L-R) Dolores, John, Kirsten, Siobhán, Beannán & Emma

Grid H—Bone City—was further divided into four quadrants. This allows us to work within the specific quadrants and keep everything more precise, since the grid itself covers a fairly large space. With the amount of bones that we have been turning up, such a sub-division is necessary. John and Kirsten continued to work on their burial, who was assumed at the time to be a female (it has since been sexed to be a male, most likely). They finished their plan and began excavating the bones.  We had to shut down site about a half an hour early due to an absolutely ridiculously obscene downpour.

Thursday, July 19

On site: Kirsten and John finished excavating their burial, which has proved to be one of the most interesting skeletons on site thus far. Agamemnon, as the burial Sue has been re-named, has a total of 25 vertebrae, when you are only supposed to have 24. There seems to be an extra lumbar vertebrae (the very bottom ones) of which there are only supposed to be five. This vertebrae is actually very, very visibly deformed, and looks as though it was trying to fuse into the sacrum.


Articulated right hand of Agamemnon/Sue, placed over the left arm

I continued with my work in the ossuary, finally excavating! (I hadn’t actually done a trowel back since I’ve been here, only planning and lifting bones. My trowel was absolutely humming with excitement!). In order to get a good position, I had to lay on a board which was stretched across the ossuary North/South. Quite entertaining, really! I think I managed to identify potential sterile (natural) soil by the feet, demonstrating a possible grave cut or at the very least cut for the ossuary. There also seems to be the same soil by the head, although I’m still working on finding it by the pelvis. Finding this sterile soil will give us a better idea of what was going on within that internment I was still finding bone both above and some below the level of the actual burial itself. Initial levels suggest that the base of the ossuary might be approximately five centimetres below the level of the foundation trench for the church.  This will be something further pursued in the upcoming weeks.

Emma lifting burial 25 (Loki), skull in great condition!

Elsewhere on site, Jessica spent most of the day registering the skulls and doing a lot of maintaining records and generally keeping order. There’s not much to write about it, but this is a super important job that she has, pulling us back into organization and keeping us on track! With everything that we have going on, this is an extremely important task, and she’s an absolute wonder with it! We’re so lucky to have her around as one of our supervisors. Siobhán also did paperwork, organizing the disarticulated human bone registry. Dolores and Beannán spent their time taking down Grid H so that it was all at the same level (sort of), so that we could try and get a bigger picture. By the end of the day, Agamemnon was fully excavated, and Kirsten moved on to the excavation of what we hoped would be a solitary skull to the north of Agamemnon. It turned out that there were vertebrae attached, denoting a fully articulated burial. We named her (thinking that it’s a female, based on the skull) Andromeda, nicknamed “Andy.”

Friday, July 20

On site:  Kirsten continued working on Andy. We had to reduce the level above the burial, bringing it down so that we could actually try and get it to something workable. We found some nails, which could potentially suggest a coffin, although another interesting thing is the way in which the shoulders of the skeleton seem to be curved in, suggesting a shroud burial (now hopefully we’ll find shroud pins!) John continued to work in the area where Agamemnon was, seeing if he could determine a grave cut, especially since bones not related to the burial seemed to turn up underneath of it. Jessica continued with her paperwork and site maintenance, cleaning up and preparing the office for our Open Day on Sunday. Siobhán continued to work on the registry in the post-ex office. Dolores and I started planning Bone City, which had already had one plan done. This new plan allowed us to show the difference in levels and to get the skulls that have turned up in there planned, so that we could start recording them. Comparing it to the other plan lets us make a kind of see through map of the levels of bones. It really is crazy what we have going on there! Today was John’s last day—it’s sad, he shouldn’t be allowed to leave us!

Kirsten displaying the warped vertebrae of Agamemnon/sue (at the neck)

Sunday, July 22

On site: Open day! This day was a success! We gave three tours of the site, which all went very well. Many Trim residents came out to take a look at what we are doing, and they seemed genuinely curious, interested in helping, and also voiced concerns about vandalism. Hopefully this will spread the word, and our site can continue to grow and be protected in the process. We all worked very effectively as a team, and it was pretty fun giving tours of site!

 Monday, July 23

On site: Much of my day and attention was devoted to Agamemnon, along with Kirsten. The weather wasn’t conducive to working out on site, so we spent a majority of our day washing bone and cleaning, although we did manage to do some minor work on Andy. Agamemnon, the burial that Kirsten and John were working on, continues to be one of the most interesting ones that we have at the moment! Here’s what we found out:

  • There is an extra 25th vertebrae
  • The 5th lumbar vertebrae (which is most likely the 6th) was trying to fuse into the sacrum
  • The cervical vertebrae 1-7, are twisted in alternate directions, starting with a twist that would cant the head to the right (which explains the position of the head in the grave), and the neck to the left and then back to the right again.
  • There is an overdevelopment on the left sides of all the vertebrae.
  • The left femur is slightly taller than the right by a few millimetres, and also appears to have a larger femoral head.
  • The left tibia turns laterally at the knee, showing that his leg would have been twisted out.
  • Muscle attachments on the legs are not as defined as they typically would be for someone who spends a lot of time doing work with their legs, meaning the legs were not used very much. Judging by the fact that the deformities so far would have left a visibly physical deformity, this is not surprising
  • Age estimate is approximately 14-16, potentially older, but most likely in this frame
  • The height, without official measurement, compares roughly to Kirsten’s, putting him at approximately 5’6”
  • Based on the pubic symphyses and curvature of the sacrum, it is most likely male not female.

Pretty awesome, right?!

Tuesday, July 24:

I spent a majority of this day with Kirsten cleaning back and exposing Andy. We found a pottery shard! Luckily, it was dated (we think) to a late medieval phase, which would have put it at around the end of the 1400s, and therefore still in keeping with the earlier find of a coin found about five centimetres higher, that has been (tentatively!) dated to 1495. Chronologically, it still makes sense! Our other awesome find of the day was a nail about 3”/8cm long with some wood still attached. The head was facing down towards the burial, with the point up. Not too sure about what exactly its purpose is yet, but we got it out in very good condition! Also, we discovered a couple of things about Andy. First of all, the arms are crossed with the hands near the arms as opposed to by the pelvis. The bones of the hand are not very well articulated (not like Agamemnon’s, which was a very nicely articulated hand), so we have been leaving them untouched for the moment. The os coxae of Andy is not fully fused, the iliac crest is billowy and the femur heads and other epiphyses also don’t seem to have begun to fuse. This most likely means – without consulting with Siobhán, since she was off site – that Andy is very young, probably around 14 years old.

Elsewhere on site—and once again, I wound up getting so absorbed in my work that I can’t give too much detail—Dolores washed, Jess did more registry, Siobhán was out, and Sylvia, our volunteer finds specialist, came and did some conservation work.

Wednesday, July 25

Today, Kirsten and Beannán continued to work on Andy until she was fully exposed. They did a wonderful job getting the full skeleton completely exposed without too much hassle (the patellae are still in place! This is actually a lot more difficult to accomplish than you might think!). After the exposition, photographs were taken and then planning commenced. They got down to about knee level before we had to wrap up for the day. Plans are to get this finished tomorrow and then excavate the bones. Yay, progress!

This morning, I gave a tour to visiting Professor of Anthropology, Elizabeth (Betsy) Lawlor; who was in for the day while she’s over for her vacation. An anthropology professor at college in CA, she has been trained in archaeology; I gave her a tour around site in the morning, and then she assisted us in excavating one of the skulls in the afternoon.

After tea, Betsy, Jo and I worked on taking out the skulls of two separate burials. These burials were, as we discovered on Friday, articulated which is wonderful because they might be on the same level as Hector from a couple of weeks ago, giving us a position in which all burials may have occurred, but also very unfortunate because of their location within the chaos that is the charnel (ossuary) pit. Because they had been excavated and exposed to such an extent already and were in some of the best condition that we have seen so far, it was decided that they would be removed separate from the other burials, in order to protect them.

The skull I got to work on was nicknamed “the screamer” because of its position with an articulated open jaw tilted to the south. Since its removal it has been dubbed “Loki” after the trickster god. Why, might you ask? Well it gave me extreme grief trying to get it out. In order to get in a position to remove the skull, I had to remove the disarticulated pelvis behind it. There was another pelvis underneath that then got in my way. Not wanting to have to dig to remove that (as there were several other bones popping up in the way of the pelvis) I figured I’d remove the spare mandible by the left side of the skull. In order to move that, I had to move the vertebrae out of the way. In order to move that, I had to get rid of a rib which was tucked precariously under another pelvis. Once the rib was up, the vertebrae came out and exposed a humerus  which was sitting in the mandible. And that was nearly lodged behind a rock which was under something like a scapula. But I got that out, and then the mandible, and then the vertebrae of Loki, the hyoid (!!!) and then finally—FINALLY—the skull. And then it was lunch time.

Well afterward, Jo and Betsy got their skull out. Which was actually rather comical because they had been teasing me that they were almost done with theirs, but I finished first.

Once again—Jessica, the wonderful, amazing supervisor that she is—worked on getting our registries all in order.

 Jessica checking levels

We have two days left without students, and a couple of plans left to go. We have to excavate Andy, get many levels on the charnel pit, excavate some of the big bones there, see if we can make any sort of sense of it, work a bit on the area around where Agamemnon was, and get all of the registries and files in order. With any luck, we will be progressing onward out of this cutting and starting a new one soon—it is our hope to possibly go searching for the other corner of the cloister! Hopefully the next update won’t be too far off!


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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