Friday, May 26, 2017

Humans of the Trench

At the heart of the dig here at Berkeley are the students; for 3 weeks, every Monday to Friday over 60 students gather outside Senate house at 8.45am to get on a coach in the name of archaeology. We arrive knowing the days finds are as unpredictable as the weather, and we arm ourselves with a bucket, trowel, shovel and gloves before descending into the trench. Each student has their own story of how they came to archaeology and here are just a few of Berkeley's students.


Amy is a second year student who was first drawn to archaeology because of the people she met in the field. She enjoys the open community archaeologists thrive in, and likes their (literal) down-to-earth nature. She appreciates that it is an active discipline, including lots of outside work but remains an academic discipline. Amy grew up watching Time Team and has always loved that archaeology can provide an honest narrative of history.


James is a first year student who has had an interest in early history from a young age. His favourite part of archaeology is the act of excavating, where there is always the chance you can find something that hasn't been touched in hundreds (or thousands) of years; something that was lost, discarded or forgotten. He enjoys that anthropology and archaeology cover such a wide range of subjects and that each unit he's taken this year has explored different cultures and periods of time.


Mia's a second year student who originally applied for straight anthropology. It was only after receiving an offer from the University and sitting in on a lecture by Dr Lucy Cramp that inspired her to switch to the archaeology and anthropology degree. She thinks that when she was younger she may have been subconsciously influenced by the adventures of Indiana Jones. History was her original passion and she explored a range of other disciplines before circling back around to history and subsequently archaeology.


Ed, a third year, discovered archaeology when he started looking to apply for universities and courses. He's always loved history and stumbled upon archaeology as it is the more physical side of history. He never wanted to do a desk job, and he finds archaeology suits him as he's able to track the progress, and see the results of his hard work in the trench. Before starting the degree he took part in the excavation of a Roman Villa; which, although interesting, didn't offer the variation of finds from different time periods that Berkeley does. Ed feels that Berkeley is the place where he learnt how to be an archaeologist.


Hannah has already graduated and is back with us this year due to her love of archaeology and her fond memories of the dig when she was an undergraduate herself. Hannah has known she wanted to be an archaeologist since she was 5 years old, when she can remember thinking she would love to find artefacts similar to those she saw in museums. When reflecting on her time at Berkeley she said she loved meeting fellow archaeologist students outside of her year. The strongest friendships she made at uni were the ones she formed in the trench. Berkeley will always be one of Hannah's favourite digs.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Why we wash mud: environmental sampling.

Archaeologists spend a huge amount of time unearthing and recording artefacts recovered during the excavation process. However some of the most important clues to past lives is not found in the stone and metal work of structures and material culture, but in the microscopic remains of organic material.

Samples are laid out in trays, ready for processing.
To understand the bigger picture of the past we use environmental analysis to uncover past landscapes of an archaeological site. Environmental sampling is an important aspect of archaeology as humans interact within their environments, which in turn have shaped human activity and behaviours (Dincauze 2008). Human life is heavily influenced by the presence of plants, animals and climates creating a relationship interdependent between all aspects of life.

Detail of a sample.
As climates and activities continuously change they produce a record left behind in the micro organic remains of plants and animals. Usually these remains get missed during the process of excavation, which focuses on picking up macro biological remains, material artefacts, and uncovering structures. We collect many buckets of mud and soil on-site to wash and sieve. We then separate micro organic artefacts into different categories for further microscopic analysis.

Microscopes in the laboratory.
The micro biological remains that get recovered from site contexts are rich in archaeological information about human relationships within their landscapes (Jones 2011). This process of environmental sampling enables reconstruction and the interpretation of past settlements, resource economies, and local ecology.

Part-processed finds (wet-sieving)
Further analysis of the plant and animal remains can answer some important questions about daily lives of individuals who occupied the site in the past, such as;

  • What flora and fauna were present within an environment at a certain time and how would this have changed over time influenced by climate, human presence and natural processes?
  • The temporality of occupation; was a site used seasonally, temporarily or permanently?
  • Did the site have single usage or multiple occupations, including the span of usage?
  • What were human daily activities, including food production and past diets, material manufacturing processes and ritual actions?
  • Can any economic and social status be identified through traded artefacts (as this can give an indication as to whom they might have had social networks with)?

Water pours through sieves to process finds.
Natural and cultural processes alter environments. These alterations can be interpreted by analysing preserved organic material using environmental sampling methods (Jones 2011). This analysis records small remains that are sometimes invisible to the human eye without a microscope. The remains are sorted into categories by type, such as charcoal, pollen, spores, molluscs, phyloliths, insects and wood (Campbell et al. 2015).

When the material is initially collected from the archaeological site, it is sorted by hand where appropriate. Other key techniques employed are wet-sieving and floatation. Both are low-tech methods that require simple set ups and plentiful water supplies.

Students hand wash artefacts and pass samples through sieves.
Samples are usually collected from all deposits and contexts to provide a representative sample. These samples can either be selected at random or systematically but usually a mixture of both is collected (Campbell et al. 2015). Steps are taken to avoid cross contamination. It is also essential that samples are recorded and labelled to create an organised database for further research.

Campbell, G, Moffett, L and Straker, V (2015) A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Methods, from Sampling and Recovery to Post-excavation (Historic England)
Dincauze, D F (2008) Environmental Archaeology: Principles and Practice (Cambridge University Press)
Jones, D M (2011) Environmental Archaeology: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Methods, from Sampling and Recovery to Post-excavation (English Heritage)

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A fine finial

On the first day of the second week at Berkeley, we uncovered a fragment of a decorative finial. Its decorative style and the location of the find suggest that it belonged to the period between the 13th and 14th century. It resembles the Perpendicular Gothic style seen in churches, where bold straight lines and elaborate designs were widely used.

Figure 1. Finial with scale
Surviving finials with similar designs can also be found today, and quite nearby too! The arch of the Berkeley burial chapel in the neighbouring church of St Mary features a row of finials. This chapel was constructed by James I. Berkeley c.1450, which places it firmly in the period when the Perpendicular Gothic style was popular.

Figure 2. The Tomb of King Edward II (photo credit:

Another example with a similar style can be found in Gloucester Cathedral, decorating the tomb of King Edward II, who was also murdered at Berkeley Castle. This tomb dates to the early 14th century.

We have a few possible explanations for the presence of the finial in the pit. It may once have been a part of the d├ęcor of St Mary Church until it was damaged and then discarded. The current decoration we can see today may be a reconstruction of the original. Another explanation is that there might have been an additional chamber for two tombs, which can currently be found in the nave of the church, that later would have been demolished. This finial might have been included in its decoration and, with the destruction of this chamber, it ended up in the pit, forgotten until today. Or it might have been a part featured in a tomb decoration and was snapped off during the moving of this tomb and was discarded.

Berkeley Castle Finial by bristoldigberkeley on Sketchfab
Authors: Alex Birkett and Rose Britton.


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Update from the trench: alignment's not just for the stars.

Previous excavations in Berkeley Castle’s butterfly garden (2005 - 2006) and The Berkeley Arms pub (2009) uncovered archaeological evidence for what is believed to be enclosure ditches that mark the outer limits of the Anglo-Saxon Minster precinct. Artefacts such as pottery sherds and several coins from the tenth century assisted in dating the construction of the ditches. These outer enclosure ditches were aligned at 010° from the north and are shown on Figure 1 as the outer blue line.

However, during further excavations of Trench 8 in 2015, a structure dating to the ninth century was excavated in the south east section of the trench, and found to have an alignment of 356
° from north. Constructed of robbed Roman masonry, Professor Mark Horton explains that the building was dated to the eighth or early ninth century through the excavation of three coins from the reign of Coenwulf, the King of Mercia (796 - 821 CE).

Figure 1. A map showing the excavated wall and building, and the possible outer and inner precinct boundaries. (Author: Alex Birkett. Map sourced: OpenStreetMap 2017)

During this season a wall has been excavated to the west end of Trench 8 that is constructed from robbed Roman masonry similar to the aforementioned structure. This wall was visible during previous years but is being excavated this season as we have reached the context in which it was built.

Over the past few days the feature has been drawn and half-sectioned, and students have taken soil samples which will be used for wet sieving to identify environmental specimens such as charcoal and oyster shell fragments, as well as smaller artefacts that may have been missed during excavation.

The wall feature excavated this season is of the same alignment (356°) as the ninth century structure and the Church of St Mary's, situated roughly 55 metres to the east, which follows the original contour of the hill on which they are situated. Professor Mark Horton believes this similarity in alignment links it to the origins of the Church. Although construction of the Medieval church began in 1225, aspects of the structure are believed to predate this, with an original construction date in the Anglo-Saxon period. The later Church structure includes reused stones with carvings and the foundations of a tower from the Anglo-Saxon period.
The current interpretation of this new wall feature is that it forms an inner precinct wall, see Figure 1, enclosing the previously excavated building and the earlier Anglo-Saxon church, which would likely have been much smaller than the current church. The wall appears to end just before the northern section of the trench and it is thought that this may represent an entrance through the wall into the inner precinct. As excavation progresses though the date and function of this wall will become clearer and so we are looking forward to finding out more information throughout the next few days.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Back in Berkeley - Stuart Prior returns

The last eighteen months were challenging for co-Director Stuart Prior. Last year, he was struck by a serious infection that attacked his brain and hospitilised him for an extended period. After operations, physio-therapy sessions, and bucket loads of determination, he was finally able to rejoin the project once more this season.

On the first day of the project, he lead our new students on a tour of the Castle and grounds, explaining why he is so fascinated by Berkeley.

Stuart spoke with the Engagement Team about his recent health challenges:
I was diagnosed with ADEM – swelling of the brain – it’s quite rare. I didn’t realise how bad I was, nobody told me at the time how rare it was. They don’t want to tell you these things, so I didn’t know if I would survive, I didn’t know if I could go back to work. 
At one point, they said that I might basically be permanently disabled, I might never be able to drive again, I might never be able to speak again. At one point I couldn’t even feed myself. So it was pretty scary. 
Today is a milestone for me. I’m actually back at work and back at Berkeley so it means a lot to me.
All our staff and students were delighted to welcome Stuart back to site. He is an inspiration to the whole team!

More about Dr Stuart Prior
Senior Teaching Fellow in Archaeological Practice
Stuart's research focuses primarily on Early Medieval and Medieval Archaeology and Castle Studies, whilst his teaching focuses mainly on Archaeological Practice and Landscape Archaeology. He also has research interests in Ancient Technology, Warfare and Experimental Archaeology, and a professional interest in Archaeological Health and Safety and Professional Practice.
Find out more: 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Romans in South West Britain.

The Roman conquest of Britain began under the Emperor Claudius in AD 43. The Roman Army had reached the South West by AD 45-47 under Aulus Plautius (Hornblower and Spawforth, 1998). Until the end of Roman occupation of Britain the South West was a centre of wealth, trade and farming, although as a whole South West Romano-Britain is under researched.

It has long been thought that the South West offered a strong resistance to ‘Romanisation’, particularly past the Tamar Valley which separates Devon and Cornwall, and that Cornwall remained largely out of Roman hands throughout the Romano-British period (InfoBritain, 2009). Recent research has refuted this interpretation and remains of Roman settlements have been found throughout the further South West, suggesting that Roman influence extended much further than previously thought. One of the sites which this re-evaluation of the evidence is at Ipplepen, in Devon, where a small settlement found in 2011 along with a coin hoard redrew the known borders of Roman influence in the South West. These borders have continued to shift as more discoveries come to light (Ord, 2011).

Figure 1. The distribution of Roman sites in Britain (Smith, 2015)

Parts of the South West including Bristol, Bath and Gloucestershire feature some of the largest and most abundant Romano-British structures and settlements in Britain (see fig. 1). 122 Romano-British Villas are known in the South West, concentrated in Somerset, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire, and at least 30% of these were built on earlier Iron Age settlements, showing the continuity of occupation at these sites (Smith, 2015). The South West would also have been well connected to other parts of the country as the Roman road known as Fosse Way ran from Exeter to Leicester, and would have run close to Berkeley Castle (Bishop, 2014).

Figure 2. The Roman wall discovered in the trench, highlighted in red.
The area around Berkeley is rich in evidence of the Roman period in the form of roads, villas and town houses, and many Roman structures and artefacts have also been excavated over the course of our thirteen seasons digging at Berkeley. Roman occupation is known at Berkeley from archaeological remains; a courtyard surface which were previously interpreted as a Roman road and the wall of an as yet unidentified Roman building is present on the site under the remains of a Tudor Pub (see fig. 2). The courtyard and building may be associated with an industrial metal working structure.

Figure 3. The Roman brooch excavated in 2016.
Roman small finds at Berkeley include a coin, roman cloaks pins and large amounts of Roman pottery found over the years. Last year Roman brooch of the Polden Hill type was found (see fig. 3) that dates back to the first or second century AD but was actually found in a later fifth century context. There is evidence of Roman copper and iron working in the Jenner garden, a Roman trackway with visible cart wheel marks and even suggestions that there may be a Roman temple somewhere on the site. As we begin our thirteenth season at Berkeley Castle new discoveries will hopefully expand our knowledge of Roman occupation and life around Berkeley and in the South West in general.

Bishop, M.C. 2014. The Secret History of the Roman Roads of Britain: And their Impact on Military History. Barnsley: Pen and Sword.
Collingwood, R. G. and Myres, J. N. L. 1936. Roman Britain and the English Settlements. Cheshire: Biblo & Tannen Publishers
Hornblower, S. and Spawforth, A. 1998. The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
InfoBritain. 2009. South Western England. InfoBritain. Accessed 16/05/17. Available at:
Ord, L. 2011. England’s Western-Most Roman Town Uncovered. BBC. Accessed 16/05/17. Available at:
Smith, A. 2015. The Rural Settlement of Roman England: Settlement Morphology And Regional Diversity: Establishing A New Model. The Rural Settlement of Roman England: From Regional Perspectives To National Synthesis, Reading. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Find of the Day - John Legg Clay Pipe

Our find of the day, the first of the 2017 season, is a fragment of clay tobacco pipe. Fortunately, the bulb end is intact and we can easily read the maker's mark "John Legg". With this clue, we consulted the National Pipe Archive and dated the artefact to sometime between 1700 and 1800.
Second year student Tess Kaye made the discovery.
John Legg pipes were produced in the small town of Brosley [Broseley], Shropshire. Coal and clay were the town's primary natural resources exploited during the Industrial Revolution. In the eighteenth century, the pipeworks were one of the largest international exporters of clay pipes in Britain. Today, Broseley Pipeworks form part of a World Heritage Site celebrating this period.
The marker's mark is legible on the flattened base (pedestal).
While some pipes of the eighteenth century were decorated, this is plain apart from milling marks below the bowl.
The dotted pattern along the edge of the bowl was caused by the milling marks.
The broken underside of the pipe with scale.
Second year student, Tess Kaye, had this to say:
"I was just really surprised to discover such an interesting find on the first day. It brightened up the morning!"


The National Pipe Archive (2016) list extracted from: Oswald, A. (1975) "Clay Pipes for the Archaeologist, British" Archaeological Reports, British Series 14, Oxford, 207pp.

Ironbridge Birthplace of Industry (2017)

Cambridge Archaeology Field Group November (2012) "Evolution of clay tobacco pipes in" England