First week at Birdoswald

It’s Day 7 at Birdoswald excavations for me! I was supposed to be here earlier but ended up having to self-isolate as my daughter’s nursery bubble had a positive covid case. How funny that has become such a standard part of life. It was a little frustrating watching all the news and photos from the dig being posted online whilst being stuck at home, but I am so happy to have finally got here! I am especially grateful to the wonderful B&B where I am staying, Bush Nook, who very kindly let me alter my dates at the last minute and have been wonderful hosts. Fancy bacon sarnies and coffee for breakfast, and a nice hot power shower – what more could an archaeologist want from fieldwork accommodation?

I was perhaps a little ambitious in my plans to cycle to site every day. Although it is only 2 miles away, the route it turns out has two rather steep sets of stairs and hill, so I abandoned the bike and took to a leisurely stroll each morning. It is absolute bliss after being stuck working at home for over a year, and each morning I have felt so lucky to be commuting along Hadrian’s Wall to get to work. Some of the things we have found so far include two portable alters (one of our students was on the news talking about these!), loads and loads of pottery of all different shapes and sizes – I knew very little about Roman pottery but am learning every day. It is fascinating that we have so many different types, coming to the northern frontier from all over the Roman Empire. I particularly like the mortaria, vessels that were used in food preparation, and of course the famous fine Samian Ware with its intricate decorations. One particularly exciting bit of Samian pottery recovered a few days ago is a lions head with a hole in the mouth, which would have been a pouring spout on a Samian dish. Similar examples have been found elsewhere, where the lion head is still attached to the dish.

And of course the most exciting thing of all has been the environmental samples! Newcastle PhD student Phyllida Bailey has been doing an amazing job overseeing the flotation tank, and we are now getting into a good rhythm of sample processing. The flotation tank, for readers who are not familiar, is basically a large barrel of water attached to a water pump. The pump pushes the water to the top of the barrel, where we have a large piece of fine mesh fabric. We put our soil sample in here, with the aim being to dissolve all of the soil – the light material such as charcoal will then float on the water (hence ‘flotation’), and any heavier material such as pebbles or sand will sink to the bottom. The lighter material then  flows into a second sieve with a very fine mesh, that catches all of the charcoal. What we end up with are two samples – the light faction and heavy fraction. After all of the soil is removed, we then dry these samples and work out what everything is back in the lab.

For the past couple of days we’ve been working through an incredibly rich sample from a burnt deposit in the suspected bath house area, that may be related to the fuel used for heating water. There is so much charcoal in this sample that we’ve had to run them through the flotation tank multiple times to separate all the charcoal. We can already see lots of large pieces of wood charcoal, twigs and some bits of bone. Watch this space for more updates from the laboratory!