Friday, 11 December 2015

Time flies like a...

Terrifying fact: there are just 3 weeks until 2016. And that means we're now starting to put together the plans for next year's excavation season, and the 2016 Discovering Dorchester Field School!

The 2016 season holds many exciting things in store for us. We will be continuing in our allotments trench, exploring the character of this Roman 'small town.' We are now fairly uniformly down into the middle Roman layers of the site, and we are working to better understand the nature of the activities going on in this central spot in the town.

We will be continuing to pick apart the layers of the road, and to understand the rather unusual features we discovered last year, including a strange plank-slot running perpendicular to the course of the road across its surface, and a possible beam slot and wattle fence seen on its western edge. 

Along the northern edge of the trench we have nearly finished emptying the late Roman ditches, and we can now begin to try to unravel the complex series of intercutting features and layers through which those ditches were cut. 

And finally, we will be looking at the open area in the centre of the trench and to the west of the road, which in the past has produced several spectacular hair pins and other pieces of metal work. Being so close to the centre of the town, and directly adjacent to the main road, this space might be expected to contain significant and recognisable urban structures. Rather than shops fronting onto the street however we have found a large ovular feature, seemingly up to a metre deep, the fill of which has been found to contain evidence of burning, iron nails by the dozen, and large quantities of animal bone. Work this year will excavate more of the fill, seeking to understand what the purpose of this feature was, and what else is going on in this part of the Roman town.

The dates of this coming season's courses are:

Undergraduate Field School
Sunday 26th June - Friday 8th July

Public Field Schools
Sunday 10th July - Friday 15th July
Sunday 17th July - Friday 22nd July

We've already had lots of interest in places on the Undergraduate and Public Field Schools. Registration will open up on Monday 4th January, when I will be sending out more information to those who have already expressed an interest to me. Do contact me then to get our Information Booklet, or to book your place:

And stay tuned for another post soon to see what we've been up to in the off-season!

Saturday, 25 July 2015

And we're done!

After a marathon four weeks,  with just one day off for the supervisors, the season is done. More than 70 students have been shown the archaeological ropes, tons of soil have been moved, thousands of pottery sherds unearthed, and we only had significant delays for weather on one single day: the very last.

Week 4's students had been proceeding excellently with the various archaeological tasks, gaining skills for their skills passports, and uncovering more archaeological layers. In the north east corner of the site we have emptied a good deal of the post Medieval (possibly 17th century) cut feature, and so can now better understand the damage it has done to the Roman deposits beneath. The long east-west ditch along the northern baulk of the site clearly seems to cut the Roman road; whilst the fill is dense with Roman pottery and coins, it seems most likely that the ditch is post-Roman, given our understanding of the chronology of the layers of the road. 

Elsewhere in the trench we have had some intriguing parallel slots appear in a layer of the road, perhaps created by beams laid on their edges, with stones arrayed along them to hold them in place; interpretations suggested have included markers for the progress of work, or some form of gate structure across the road. We're not really entirely convinced by either of those suggestions however! 

Some of the star finds of the week included a fragment of roller-stamped flue tile, a material which often tends to be associated with the bathhouses of mansiones in Romano British small towns; a bone needle with its eye intact, a rare thing given their fragility; an extremely long piece of copper wire (c. 15cm), perhaps part of a hair pin; and a Domitianic dupondius, one of the earliest Roman coins to come from the site so far.  

We were all set for a good final day of finishing off the digging of contexts, filling in context records, and section and plan drawings, but unfortunately the British summer had other ideas, as we received several centimetres of rain. By about 10am the downpour had become too heavy to continue work, with the ramp out of the trench becoming slippery and the archaeology under threat. The perils of digging in Britain!

The trench is now in the process of being put to sleep again for another year. We are really thankful to all those who took part in this year's excavations, including the students, the supervisory team of Laura Jones, Peter Forward, Abigail Tompkins, Esther Fisher, Patrick Cuthbertson, Thomas Matthews Boehmer; our finds officer Anni Byard; all those who gave lectures; Cliff Sofield; and John Gibbs and Alan Davis for all their assistance with tools and logistics. 

We're all looking forward to being back next year however - watch this space for more updates and details of the 2016 season (once we've properly recovered). 

Sunday, 19 July 2015

End of week 3, Open Day, and the beginning of Week 4

Apologies for the radio silence - lots to catch up on, following a hectic week and weekend!

It feels like a long time ago, but during the rest of last week our students continued to work very well. Some great finds have come to light, including two pairs of tweezers, a fragmented nail cleaner, and several sherds of terra nigra pottery - lovely fine black slipped wares from northern Gaul dating to the first century AD, including two with potters' stamps. The week was wrapped up with an update from our director, Paul Booth, on the progress that had been made and how our understanding of the site was developing.

Copper alloy tweezers from a 'toilet-kit' - one of two pairs found in week 3

Paul Booth wrapping up the week's developments

Yesterday, instead of being a day off for the supervisory team, was our annual Open Day, and we had a great turnout, with over 200 people coming along to see what we've been up to this year. We had displays of some of the more interesting finds, tours of the site, and the opportunity to handle Roman pottery and animal bones. For the kids we had plenty of pottery and bones to wash, as well as a big pile of dirt full of interesting finds awaiting excavation.

Caution, young diggers troweling!

For the grown ups, the biggest draw of the open day was our supervisor Peter Forward's now famous Roman food stall. We had freshly baked spelt bread with epityrum, a crushed olive and herb mix made to a recipe recorded by Cato the Elder (234-149 BC), as well as grapes, whole olives, and dulcia domestica, honeyed dates stuffed with pine nuts, made to a recipe recorded in Apicius, thought to date to the late 4th or early 5th century AD. 

Peter and his incredible food

Thomas Matthews Boehmer giving a site tour

After the weekend's activities we welcomed a fresh new bunch of recruits this morning and got stuck in to our final week of the dig. The baulks bisecting the late Roman ditch are set to fall, the road continues to go down, and the ovular feature continues to challenge us. Plenty of digging and even more section and plan drawing ahead of us! 

Monday, 13 July 2015

Week 3 underway

In stark contrast to the baking sun of the last two weeks, this week has begun rather damply. And we're not complaining! The showers and drizzle of the last two days have lowered the threat of sun burn considerably, cooled us, damped down the dust that has been blowing into our eyes, and shown up some wonderful colour changes in the soil (which under the hot sun had been changing to a uniform grey seconds after a clean trowelling).

This week's students have started well, getting to grips with the basic excavation methods and theory, and now starting to move on to the detailed recording methods. We have several University of Oxford Department of Continuing Education Diploma of Archaeology students, alongside some returning faces and some keen new ones. Some have even started to collect skills for the BAJR Skills Passport.

In the trench we are getting close to having emptied all of our slots through the northern baulk ditches, and with some having had a really good clean, it is becoming more and more apparent that despite their depth, they are not just cut into the natural soil, but deep archaeological layers. This either means we have a row of earlier pits, or a lot more work to do!

On the Roman road, we had a the rather exciting find of a copper alloy brooch, probably of a Nauheim derivative type... this means probably a 1st century date, but with those upper layers of the road most likely dating to the third of fourth centuries, it had clearly been curated for a while before being deposited.

 Our Nauheim derivative Brooch, 1st C AD

In the centre of the trench we had further confusing sequences of layers in our large ovular feature, with large scale evidence of burning, dumped pottery, butchered animal bones, and iron nails by the dozen! Plenty of further work needed to understand this thing.

Other great finds today included more stamped pottery, an iron brooch (cunningly masquerading as a nail), and the intriguing discovery of a carefully worked top portion of an amphora from southern Spain. The Dressel 20 oil amphora had clearly been carefully removed from the body, the edges filed down, and the handles broken off. We have very little idea why they did it, with ideas ranging from drain soak-away to party hat... Let us know if you have any thoughts on facebook!

Our beheaded Dressel 20 oil amphora, with pound coin for scale. Rather a large thing to bring from Baetica to Dorchester on Thames...

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Week 2 drawing to a close...

Only one day to go of the Undergraduate Fieldschool and week two has flown by. The students continue to learn about planning, sectioning, levels, photographs, and all things context recording.

At the eastern end of the trench the sequence of Roman roads keeps producing new and (frustratingly) complex stratigraphies, whilst the centre of the trench has thrown up an intriguing ovular feature with an Aurelian sestertius, extensive evidence of burning, and a number of detached cattle horns. We continue to empty the ditches towards the northern baulk, grappling with post-Medieval meddlings.

Some of the star finds include a beautifully worked bone hair pin, some clipped and stamped Samian bases, glass beads, iron tools (a punch and a chisel), and the ubiquitous iron nails, pottery, animal bones, glass ware, and metal-working evidence.
The base of a Samian Vessel, stamped with the name of a potter, possibly Cinnamus, 
who worked at the kilns of Lezoux, Central Gaul, c. 160-190 AD. 

This week we heard seminars on the topics of landscape archaeology from Dr Chris Green and Dr Anwen Cooper of the EngLaId project, environmental archaeology from Professor Mark Robinson, Roman pottery from our very own Paul Booth, archaeological photography from Ian Cartwright, and tomorrow sees us sitting down to the early medieval period in the Upper Thames Valley with Abi Tompkins.

It's not been all work and no play: yesterday evening we made the climb up the Wittenham Clumps taking in various archaeological and historical sites, including the Dyke Hills late Iron Age ramparts, the late Bronze Age hillfort of Castle Hill, the Victorian Poem Tree, a fantastic view of the North Berkshire Downs (and the Ridgeway) and the Chilterns (and Icknield Way), and a striking sunset!

The Dyke Hills

The view north westward from the top of the Wittenham Clumps

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Week 1 done

What a week. Including the hottest July day on record!

The undergraduate and work experience students worked unbelievably hard, in very difficult conditions, to remove all the remaining backfill from the trench. When we arrived on Sunday it was a mess of soil and terram matting; with hard work with shovels, mattocks, and wheelbarrows, all that soil was dug out and trundled to the top of the mountain of spoil. In an incredible three days we had some beautifully clean archaeological surfaces on which to start work. We were really impressed by their hard work in baking sun.

Work just beginning on Sunday morning (in wonderfully cool and damp conditions)

The trench at the end of Tuesday as temperatures hit around 30ÂșC

With the backfill and terram removed, we could finally start work on the archaeology. We have begun excavating a second slot down through the layers of the main road through the town, working hard at removing the highly compact cobbles, flints, and pieces of ceramic building material packed in to create the tough surfaces. We have also been removing more of the fill of the three mid-Roman ditches that run along the northern baulk of the site. We've had a hunt backwards into somewhat more recent history as well, removing some of the backfill of several trenches dug by Professor Frere in the 1960s, always recognisable from the fragments of clay pipe! 

Training has focused in these initial days on troweling and surface cleaning techniques, the context excavation and recording system, and plan and section drawing. Finds washing and processing has also begun, and yesterday we gave our first "Find of the Day" prizes, for two lovely Colchester brooch fragments, including the spring and pin from one in excellent condition. Pictures to come! 

We're promised slightly cooler temperatures this week, so will press on downwards! Stay tuned for more updates and pictures. 

Thursday, 25 June 2015

T-minus 3 days!

We're so nearly there. I've spent the last 3 days, with the help of Patrick and Peter, two of our supervisory staff, making the preparations on site.

When we arrived, the outline of the trench was neatly delineated by the presence of giant hogweed, which in the last two months had grown up to 3 metres tall. With the help of an 8 tonne digger and a dumper the backfill has been removed, the spoil heap piled high, and yesterday and today the tools, huts, (portaloos), have been brought to site, and our brand new marquee has been put up.

It now looks and feels like an excavation site, and we can't wait to get started on Sunday!

The giant hogweed before we started... up to 3 metres tall!

 Vegetation cleared...

Backfill removal begins. 
The cloth at the bottom (terram) protects the archaeology, and shows us 
how far down to dig to just remove the backfill. 

And 3 days later, we're practically done! C. 900 cubic metres of soil has been removed, which works out at something just over 1,000 tonnes...! Glad we don't have to do it all by shovel and wheelbarrow.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

T-minus 2 weeks, and registrations closing

We have just a few days left now before the machines come in and start to take out the back-fill, and we're all getting rather excited about the prospect of getting out of the office and into the field!

This means it is your last chance to sign up for the fieldschools, as registration will close on Friday. Don't miss out! Details can be found here, and you can get more information and registration forms by emailing me at

Sunday, 17 May 2015

T-minus 6 weeks

The sun has started to make an appearance for more than a few minutes a day, and that can only mean one thing: digging season is nearly upon us! Preparations are well underway to continue our excavations down into the 2nd century AD layers of the site, and we can't wait to get started.

Keep those registrations coming, as we're nearly full! This season promises to be really excellent, with some exciting talks lined up and hopefully some fascinating archaeology to be uncovered! There are still spaces on the Undergraduate Fieldschool (27th June - 10th July), and the two one-week Public Fieldschools (12th - 17th and 19th - 24th July). Contact for more details.

In the mean time, we had the pleasure of showing the Early Medieval Archaeology Student Symposium conference group around the village in April. Whilst the focus was on the Abbey and other early medieval finds from the village, including the 'foederati' burials in the Dyke Hills, we also had a bit of brief back-story on the prehistoric and Roman landscape to put it in context, and an update on the results of the ongoing excavations in the allotments. We then went on to be shown around the medieval burh of Wallingford, with a fascinating tour from Dr Neil Christie of Leicester University.

Edward Peveler gives a talk on the prehistory of Dorchester to the EMASS 2015 delegates

Our thanks go to Neil, David Wilkinson, and the Dorchester Abbey for their help in making it such a successful and insightful field trip.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Dig season is coming

Preparations are now well under way for this summer's dig. Supervisors are in place, tools are being sourced, and registrations are coming in fast! If you would like to join us this summer, do get in contact with for more information.

A couple of us took a trip out to site at the end of February, partly to see the condition of the trench and our new information board(!), and also to say farewell to two individuals who have really helped with the smooth-running of the dig: Peter and Lizzie, who managed the front of house at the Fleur de Lys pub, are moving away from Dorchester to be closer to their family. We will miss them deeply, and are so grateful for all they have done for us in the last few years, from pulling pints, serving up the pub's excellent food, letting us charge our phones, to passing on details of the dig to interested pub-goers.

We also wish to thank John Metcalfe as he retires from his position as Keeper of the Abbey Museum. He has tirelessly supported the project, not only creating the wonderful exhibition in the museum, but he could also be found in the trench with us every summer, putting many of the undergraduates to shame with his energy and enthusiasm.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Registrations now open for 2015 Dorchester fieldschools!

Now that we've recovered from Christmas' over-eating, registrations are open for the 2015 Discovering Dorchester fieldschools.

The undergraduate fieldschool runs for two weeks from Sunday 28th June - Friday 10th July.
The public fieldschools run for one week, and go from Sunday 12th July - Friday 17th July and from Sunday 19th July - Friday 24th July.

This year promises to be very exciting as we dig further down into the early 2nd century and 1st century layers of the Roman town. We will be continuing our excavation of the central road through the settlement, hoping for more dating information on the three different surfaces identified last year, and investigating how the road relates to the area directly to its west, a piece of prime real estate very near to the centre of the town. We will also be further exploring the complex series of ditches that run along the north side of the trench, and the early features through which they are cut that could further enlighten us as to the presence of the postulated early fort.

On both the undergraduate and public fieldschools you will be taught in small groups by experienced supervisors, learning skills in digging techniques, context recording, plan and section drawing, and geomatics. There will also be a series of lectures on various topics, given by staff from the Institute of Archaeology, including talks on animal osteology, the local pottery industry, the region through different periods, and archaeological photography.

If you would like more information on either the undergraduate fieldschool or the public fieldschools, please email