Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Monday, July 5 DURHAM (and BINCHESTER)

Today is the day we will finally put trowels to earth.

As I leave my room I am becoming increasingly paranoid about my room key. It is a typical key and is not on a key ring. The door to my room locks automatically. The bathroom is down the hall so I have to take the key with me AT ALL TIMES. I just know I am going to lose the key, or forget it when I walk out the door. The only way to get a new one is to go back to the main building and hope there is someone in the office. And that I’m dressed appropriately for walking down the street!
We sit down to a traditional English breakfast – badly cooked eggs, sausages, mushrooms etc. The room is buzzing with nervous excitement. Looking up and down the table, I see several women wearing makeup. “Just where, exactly, do you think we are going today?” I wonder.
Lunches, in plastic bags, are passed out. My sandwich, which qualifies as veggie, has bits of egg in mayonnaise on white bread. This is really going to be a problem.
We walk to the bus and away we go. As we drive thru some typical English countryside I watch the clouds rolling along. At first I think this cool overcast weather might be a problem. However, I will quickly learn this is ideal digging weather.
We arrive onsite and walk out onto a big plateau. Back in Roman times the fort, and its associated town occupied the entire plateau. There are two large trenches already dug. One is in the fort and one in the town. There is a third site, which was excavated many years ago, that made up the commanders villa and bath. The bath is now covered by a building and is set up for visitors. In addition, there are have a dozen large trailers set up to support the dig, holding an office, tools, chairs, etc.
There are nearly 80 people who will be working in the trenches this week. There are about 40 from Stanford, 20 from Texas Tech (who have already worked at two different sites in Europe and will be working here before heading home) and about 20 people from the local community. Durham University has a large outreach effort to the local community to get them involved in local projects and it is very successful.
Before we begin digging, we are given a lecture by Dr. David Mason, who is the County Archaeologist for County Durham and executive director of the Stanford-Durham Research Project. He talks about the history of the Roman occupation of the site and previous excavations, including the one that found the commanders personal bathhouse.
Next up is Peter Carne, who is Manager of Archaeological Services at Durham University and is charge of all day-to-day activity at the site. (All the work onsite is being supervised by folks from the Archeology Department of Durham University. The Field Archeology department at Durham is considered to be one of the finest in the world. None of our Stanford folks are involved in site supervision.) He gives a long discussion of work done to date in both trenches and “what it might possibly all mean”. (The “what it possibly might all mean” bit changes everyday, as new stuff is discovered or expected stuff is not discovered.)
I have to laugh looking at the current state of the work in the fort trench. To the untrained eye, as Alex likes to say, it looks like a big pile of rubble. (Which, to a degree, is exactly what it is.) As Peter talks and points with his twirly stick, patterns do begin to emerge. I am impressed at his ability for spatial thinking. He sees things in 3-D that are not clear in the somewhat 2-D nature of the site.
Finally, it is time to get to work. I am assigned to work in the fort. One of the first jobs is to extend the trench, as it appears that part of a building foundation is still under the grass. I pass on this work, thinking, “pace yourself”. Along with three other people I begin work around some previously uncovered stones, the goals being to further define them and see if any patterns emerge. This turns out to be much harder than it looks. The ground is as hard as the stones we are working around. We begin to find things right away – bits of pottery, nails and animal bones. Some of the bones crumble when you touch them, the large ones less so. Each category of finds goes in a bag marked with the date, a location number and description of contents (“pottery”, for example)
At 11am we break for tea. (Yes, tea. This is England.) Everyone sits around and nibbles on something from their lunch bag and works on getting to know one another. (I have had the foresight to bring along some trail mix.)
Back into the trench. In our area the going is slow, the hard ground making progress difficult.
Lunch is at 1.30pm. There is much amusement at going thru the lunch bags and trying to figure out exactly what we have been given. The English have gone crazy for flavored potato chips (sorry, “crisps”), a trend that has not made its way to America. So the variations of flavors are all new to us. For me, at least there is some fresh fruit.
After lunch, more digging. We are being supervised by Natalie, who is a bit hard on us if we are not using the proper techniques. Her supervisor, Matt, comes by and notices the struggle we are having with the hard ground and the lack of finds. He brings over a Mattock and shows us how to use it. A Mattock looks like a pickaxe with two heads, a sharp pointy one and a 3-inch wide flat blade. It is the later we will use. Striking the ground at a flat angle it scoops up the soil, making much faster progress than a trowel. It can only be used in the absence of large rocks.
Using the Mattock, we begin to make better progress, removing more dirt. One big difference between this dig and the one at Pompeii is the level of stratification we are going to work on. In Pompeii, we could remove 4 to 6 inches of soil at a time. Here, they want a level of stratification of less than two inches. (This gives them better control of the ability to interpret finds based on their depth in the soil.)
Four-thirty arrives and we put away our tools, clean up and get back on the bus for the return trip to Durham. After a day of digging we are all very dirty!
I drop all my digging stuff in the room, change into clean clothes and race out to one of the camping stores. I need an air mattress so I will have something firm to sleep on. I find one. Hooray! Next, it’s back to Tesco for more food that I can take to the site to supplement our bag lunches. I have the strangest urge to say “Merci” to the store clerks when I have completed my purchases. Thinking about this, I realize that my last three trips to Europe have all been to non-English speaking countries and it is odd to be in one that does. It will take a couple of days to shake off the urge to respond in French.
Armed with a trusty bottle of Tabasco, I head off to dinner. Everyone is still trying to get to know one another, meaning another meal spent introducing ourselves.
After dinner we have a group meeting to go over the ground rules and other issues. We will have a field trip each weekend to various sites in the local area. The list looks great.
We still do not have Internet access in the houses. The University is insisting on giving everyone a separate ID and password and this is taking some time to set up. We are told that the sports pub just down from #1 (The Varsity) has free wireless access – buy a pint and they will give you the password. After dinner a number of us head there with our laptops. The people with PCs get on with no problems but those of us with Mac laptops can’t. For whatever reason, the Macs won’t pick up the signal. I can get it on my iPhone (and someone with an iPad also has no problem) but the laptops won’t work. Sigh. At least I can get my mail on my phone.
I return to my room and get my mattress inflated. I toss the good mattress on top of the bad. I am still wiped out from the past week and easily fall asleep.

About the images:
1. The fort.
2. Working in part of the vicus.
3. Finds cleaning and labeling.

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