Thursday, 25 July 2013

What's next for #DigBromsgrove?

Our volunteers finished work on the site last Friday. One of the really important aspects of this excavation has been the way that everything -  from doing the initial clean to setting out the grid, drawing the plans, taking levels, digging the features, taking site photographs and filling out the record sheets - has been done by the volunteers. The professionals have been on hand to guide them every step of the way, but our volunteers have gained valuable experience of every aspect of an archaeological dig - hopefully, they've all learnt that there's a lot more to archaeology than digging holes!

Hazel and Dave filling out Context Sheets for the cellar
 All of this hard work meant that Richard and Rob had a stress-free day on Saturday, finishing off the recording, doing some final drawings and checking that all the paperwork was in order. Each different deposit, structure and feature is assigned a unique 'Context Number', which is used as the reference for finds, drawings and photographs relating to it. All of this information is collated on a 'Context Sheet', in addition to information about the relationship of the context to others around it, i.e. whether Context X (e.g. a yard surface) is earlier or later than Context Y (e.g. a wall). Also included on the Context sheet are dimensions, location information and the archaeologist's interpretation of what the context is is and how it relates to the rest of the site.

Context sheets can be tricky, especially on an urban site like DigBromsgrove, as it's not always easy to tell how a context fits in to the sequence of a site. People often assume that the deeper down in the ground something is, the older it is, but this isn't necessarily the case! For example, on this site we have a cellar, filled with 1940s and early 1950s household debris, which was the star of one of our previous blog posts. In this case, the deeper deposits are later than some of the surrounding features at a higher level, because they were filling a cellar that had, centuries before, been dug down through earlier levels.

Richard puts the final touches to the paperwork. In the foreground, Rob has set out a horizontal string line to draw the profile of the cellar wall...

...and here's the finished drawing.
 Thankfully, our volunteers did a really good job, which makes our lives a great deal easier! One final task we had to complete was to finish off the 'sondage' (a small trial hole) excavated in the northeast corner of the site, against the exterior edge of the rear wall of No. 4, in order to try to discover whether any traces of pre-17th century occupation exist on the site. One tiny piece of pottery that we discovered may hold the key: watch this space!

On Monday, the exhibition was packed up and moved to Bromsgrove Library, where it will remain over the summer. Pop along and take a look - some of our finds are on display along with maps, photographs and some background information. The site was filled in using a JCB, with sand being laid down first to protect the archaeological features. Many people have asked us why we can't keep it open. The answer is that, besides the obvious problems of having a large hole open in the town centre, covering the site over is the best way to protect the archaeological remains. Left exposed to the elements, sites can quickly deteriorate.

The site is backfilled by the 'Big Yellow Trowel'! Sand is laid over the top of the archaeology to protect the features.
 So what's next? Well, all the records and finds are now back at our offices in The Hive, Worcester. This week our finds volunteers have been continuing the process of cleaning, cataloguing and labelling the artefacts unearthed by the dig. They'll be analysed by our specialists, and once Site Director Richard Bradley has returned from a very well-deserved holiday, we'll begin the process of post-excavation analysis!

The finds, awaiting processing by our finds volunteers at The Hive, Worcester. The labels on each bag tell us which context the finds have come from.
 We'll continue to keep you all updated on the progress of the work, so keep checking in here to follow what we're up to. Hopefully, we'll soon have news on that tantalising piece of pottery! In the meantime, don't forget to take a look at our photographs on Flickr - more coming soon!

Rob Hedge

Friday, 19 July 2013

Cobbles, Walls and Tiles galore!

This week, besides uncovering the lovely finds from the infilled cellar, our volunteers have been patiently and steadily working away elsewhere on the site to expose more of the structural features of the buildings that once lined St John Street. As we move into the last day of excavation with our lovely team, we'll be photographing, drawing and filling out the paperwork that will become the lasting record of these features.

The inner face of the cellar wall, No. 6

The picture above shows the very nicely built sandstone block wall that formed the west facing wall of the cellar of No. 6. In the centre of the photograph you can see a patch of red sand covered by concrete, encasing an electricity cable that cuts through the wall. It was laid during the building of the Market Hall in the 1990s.
Modern service cables are a common feature on archaeological sites in urban areas! In this case, we've been lucky, as apart from that cable and a drainage pipe in the southwest corner of the site, there has been very little modern disturbance.

Volunteer Joyce exposing the cobbled yard surface at the rear of No 5

The cobbled surface shown in the photograph above would once have been the back yard surface of No 5. Cobblestones were a cheap and very hard-wearing surface before the advent of Tarmac and concrete, and were a common feature of pre-20th century yards.

The tiles that once formed the floor of a passageway between Nos 4 & 5

In the northeast corner of the site, we've removed layers of demolition rubble and mortar to expose a very nice tiled surface, which we believe was the floor of the passageway that divided Nos 4 and 5. In and around this area we're finding fragments of 17th and 18th century pottery: tantalising glimpses into the lives of the early occupants of these buildings.

Come along this afternoon, Friday 19th July, for our final organised site tour - no need to book, just turn up at the gate for 14:00. See you there!

Rob Hedge

Thursday, 18 July 2013

What's on: Friday 19th July

Tomorrow (Friday 19th July) is our last day of digging with our lovely volunteers, so we've got a whole host of events and activities going on throughout the day. In addition to site tours at 11:30 and 14:00, we'll have our friends from Discover History roaming the town 'in character' as Bromsgrove nailmakers.

We'll also have Worcestershire Archaeology finds expert Laura Griffin on hand in our exhibition on the High Street from 10:00 - 16:00 to identify any archaeological artefacts you may have found - bring 'em along and we'll take a look! We'll be displaying finds from the dig in the exhibition, in addition to historic maps and photos of the site.

At the north end of the High Street between 10:00 and 16:00, the brilliant 'Museum on the Move' will be bringing their interactive exhibition to the town.

So, come along tomorrow to find out more about what the #DigBromsgrove project has uncovered, and to learn a bit more about the fascinating history of the town.

Rob Hedge

A glimpse into 1940s life: For Victory and Freedom!

Over the past couple of days, we've been tackling the deposits within a cellar on the site of the back-plots of No 6, St. John Street. The structure appears to have been deliberately and quickly infilled around the time of the demolition of the building in 1951, in order to provide a stable, level surface for the car park.

How can we tell that the cellar was filled-in quickly and during demolition? Well, there are a number of tell-tale signs. Firstly, the deposit looks very similar all the way down to the base of the cellar, which is a good indication that it was laid down in a single event. In archaeology-speak, this type of deliberate infill deposit is known as a 'tertiary fill'. The material comprises loose brick and stone rubble, iron fittings, window glass, coal, mortar and plaster - all hinting towards demolition as the likely source for the material.

Mixed up within that deposit of debris are clues as to the date of the event. An enamelled saucepan, mid-century domestic crockery, glass jars and even a bicycle saddle (made by Brooks, who've been making traditional leather saddles in the West Midlands for over 140 years).

Some of the most evocative finds are those which reflect the shadow cast by the Second World War. These buildings were demolished just six years after the end of the war, at a time of rationing and post-war austerity. Reminders of the war would have been everywhere, such as the 'war grade' composite rubber bottletop, still attached to the neck of a mineral water bottle. Our favourite has to be the morale-boosting celluloid keyring below, with a slogan reminding ordinary folk of their responsibilities: 'For Victory and Freedom - It all Depends on Me'!

Rob Hedge.

WW2 Celluloid Token

Enamelled Saucepan

Brooks Bicycle Saddle...
...and the modern Brooks saddle on my road bike

WW2 'War Grade' |Composite Rubber bottle stopper

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

We love it when a 'plan' comes together...

Our volunteers putting the finishing touches to a scale plan

Over the past few days, if you've taken a look in our trench you'll have seen groups of volunteers drawing scale plans of the site, using the grid that we talked about in the last blog post. We've had a few interesting questions about the role of technical drawing in archaeology, so we'll try to answer them here!

Why don't you just take a photograph?

We do take photographs! Lots of them, in fact. The photographs form an essential part of the site archive. Every part of the site is photographed with a scale and a north arrow, and the details of the photograph (number of the feature, size of scale bar, related drawings) is noted in a register.
However, photographs can't tell the whole story. Perspective makes objects further away from the lens appear closer together, and whilst this can be corrected by digital rectification, this tends to result in a loss of quality. These problems can be overcome by using complex pieces of kit like the pole-mounted cameras used by Adam Stanford at Aerial-Cam, but....
...Another problem with photography is that it tends to 'flatten' features: it can be difficult to get a sense of depth and angle of slope through a photograph, and that information is crucial to interpreting archaeological sites.

So, why don't you just survey the site electronically?

Again, we do! It is standard practice on many archaeological excavations to survey the site using a 'Total Station' or GPS/GNSS staff-mounted survey units. This overcomes the distortion and 'flattening' effects of photography, and can produce an extremely accurate digital plan quickly and easily. However, there are details that we need to record that don't show up on an electronic plan. For example, one of the important functions of a plan is to record differences in the composition of different deposits. Is there variation in building materials? Flecks of charcoal in one area? A high proportion of stone in a layer? All of these details can be easily and quickly recorded in hand-drawn plans and sections (drawings of vertical faces).

Another reason for planning by hand (and I have to admit to being biased here, as planning is probably my favourite part of site work!), is that it really helps you to interpret the site, and forces you to take a really close look at what you're dealing with. Besides, many of the volunteers we're working with won't have access to expensive electronic survey equipment for their own archaeological projects, so it's important for them to learn the skills needed to do the whole process the old-fashioned way!

All our plans are drawn on 'drafting film', a translucent sheet printed with grid squares. Drawing is done with a hard pencil (usually 6H) at an agreed and consistent scale - in this case, 1:20 for plans and 1:10 for sections. One of the advantages of a translucent sheet is that drawings of different phases of the site as the layers are peeled away can be 'overlaid' to compare them.

So, next time you see us with drawing board and pencil in hand, you'll know what we're doing and why! Here's a photograph of one of the finished articles, all surveyed, drawn and levelled by our volunteers - Not bad for a first attempt!

Rob Hedge

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Finds ID day today, and site progress report

To kick of the Festival of Archaeology, which starts today, we're holding a finds ID day:

Found pottery in your garden? Picked up something unusual whilst walking the dog? Bring along your own archaeological finds to our exhibition between 10:00 and 16:00 today, where Worcestershire Archaeology finds specialist Laura Griffin will be on hand to identify them.

On site, we've finished the trowel clean of the site, and photographed the results. We're pleased with the progress - taking the time to do a really thorough initial clean has paid off, as the structures and features are now showing up really clearly.

The next stage is to draw up a scaled 'pre-excavation' plan of the site, before we start to dig into the archaeology. To do this, we need to set up a grid, from which we can then lay out tape measures to accurately plan the features. Each grid peg is labelled with an 'easting' and a 'northing', from which we can plot the location of any of the features and structures on the site.

Setting out the grid

Grids on most archaeological sites are set out electronically and located by GPS, but the ability to set one out the old fashioned way using tape measures, grid pegs and trigonometry is still an invaluable skill for an archaeologist for those occasions when technology lets you down!

Admiring the results!
Drawing the scale plan, with guidance from Worcestershire Archaeology's Tim Cornah
This weekend, we'll be starting to excavate into the deposits that we've exposed and planned. We'll also be cleaning and cataloguing the finds we've recovered so far, which will go on display in our exhibition on the High Street.

Rob Hedge

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Free Tours, and a site update.

This afternoon Emma Hancox (manager of the HER and Advisory sections at Worcestershire Archive & Archaeology Service) will be leading free walking tours of historic Bromsgrove. Tours will leave from the site of the dig at 13:00,15:00 and 17:45 today. It'll be a great chance to find out more about the (often hidden!) historic character of the town. No booking required, just turn up at the site!

End of Day 2, with some intriguing features appearing!

On site, the cleaning is revealing some really striking features, such as a very heavily burnt layer, visible as the black area in the centre of the photograph. Embedded in the top of the layer is an eclectic mix of household debris such as Bakelite fittings, plates and even some Lino, baked stiff by the heat of the fire! All this household debris suggests that the fire took place around the time of the building's demolition in 1951, but what we hope to find out is whether it occurred during demolition, or immediately before. Watch this space!

if you'd like to see all of our photographs in glorious high-resolution, including our 'Finds of the day', take a look at our Flickr page.

Rob Hedge

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Digging has begun!

Yesterday, the first of our volunteers arrived on site for the first day of the #DigBromsgrove excavation. One of the questions we were asked by a visitor is how the process of setting up an archaeological excavation takes place. So, here's a quick introduction to how we got from car park to archaeological site.

Site chief Richard Bradley directs the machining

Last week, we marked out the area to be excavated, then removed the modern deposits associated with the Market Hall and car park with a JCB. The machining was directed by Richard Bradley, the archaeologist in charge of the excavation.

It may sound strange to start a delicate and painstaking archaeological dig with a big mechanical excavator, but with a skilled driver and careful supervision, it is possible to remove very precise layers of material by machine. This Youtube video is a great demonstration, as Time Team's star digger driver Ian Barclay peels a banana using an excavator! As soon as we reached the archaeological deposits underneath the modern levels, the machine stopped and we awaited the arrival of our volunteers.

The site, machined and ready to be cleaned
The first crucial task on any archaeological excavation is to give the site a good 'clean', which in archaeology-speak generally means removing any loose material left by the machine, and then scraping back the top surface of the archaeology with a trowel. The aim is not to 'dig', but rather to reveal the archaeology more clearly. A good analogy is to think of sanding a tarnished piece of wood -  removing a very thin, even slice helps to bring out the grain in the wood, as a good trowel clean helps the archaeology to show up clearly.

The 'clean' is essential because before we start 'digging' down through the deposits, we need to have a clear idea of what we're looking at across the site. It will help us to start to think about the relationships between the different phases of archaeology and features across the site, and to plan which layers we'll excavate first.

After the first day, the site is already looking a lot cleaner, and the features and deposits are starting to appear as our hard-working volunteers toil away in the sweltering heat.

Our Volunteers giving a lovely demonstration of good trowel-cleaning
 Today, we'll continue the cleaning, and hopefully we'll be able to start seeing how the archaeology in our trench matches up (or not!) to the historic maps we've been studying. Fingers crossed!

Rob Hedge

Friday, 5 July 2013

Building a Sandpit

During the course of the #DigBromsgrove excavation, we'll have around 500 school pupils coming to visit the site. We like to to give people the opportunity to get a really good experience of the way archaeology works, so, although we can't have all 500 pupils excavating on site, we have the next best thing for them to try their hand at: an archaeological sandpit, filled with interesting features and artefacts (and, of course, sand)!

So, Project Officer Richard Bradley and archaeologists Ruth Humphreys and Rob Hedge spent today building a sandpit. We resisted the temptation to take advantage of the heatwave by adding water and holding a beach party, and here are some pictures of the results. I can safely say that none of us will be looking to swap archaeology for bricklaying, but it was good fun!

Rob's Sandpit: a blank canvas!

Ruth building a feature

Richard, using a trowel for an unfamiliar purpose!

The finished article! Now to fill it with 3 tons of sand...
 We'll be opening to the public on Tuesday, when our first wave of eager volunteers arrives to take up the challenge of excavating the site. Our exhibition, with more information on the project and about historic Bromsgrove, also opens on Tuesday. Pop along and see us at 87a, High Street, Bromsgrove.

Rob Hedge.

Friday, 28 June 2013

A gem of a photograph!

Last week, we received a fantastic group of photographs of historic Bromsgrove from the Brotherton collection. Many thanks to Bob Richardson for loaning them to us! They've now been digitised by our Digitisation and Microfilming Service, and we're working through them to see if any relate to the buildings on our site.

The picture below immediately caught our eye. The accompanying notes state that it was taken in 1951, during the demolition of the houses along St John Street. Much head-scratching ensued, and we spent a long time scrutinising the historic maps and working out angles and fields of view, to try to figure out the location of the buildings being demolished.

Eventually, we cracked it, and the answer is quite exciting: they fall within our #DigBromsgrove site area! We hope to position our trench to pick up the rear wall of the building, incorporating the yard area and the boundary with the building that adjoined it to the west.

The photograph's existence is a real stroke of luck for us, as it gives us tantalising glimpses into the way this area was built and rebuilt over the years. Our buildings archaeologist, Shona Robson-Glyde, pointed out that whilst the brickwork and windows of the rear wall of the house look to date from the early 18th century, the chimney and roof structure exposed by the demolition look like they may belong to an earlier phase of building. One of the key goals for the excavation is to establish the extent to which St John Street was subject to alterations and rebuilding over the centuries, so this photograph is an encouraging indication that there may be an interesting sequence of archaeological phases on the site.

One further question remains: we'd love to know more about the cars on the left hand-side of the picture! Are you a fountain of knowledge on classic cars of the late 1940s/early 1950s? Can you help us to identify them? If so, get in touch, or leave a comment below.

Rob Hedge

St John Street during demolition, 1951. Copyright: Brotherton Collection

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

DigBromsgrove: Digging in the Records…

Background research for #DigBromsgrove is well underway! One question we've been asked about the project is 'Why Bromsgrove?', and, more specifically, 'Why the Market site?' Hopefully, this post should answer those questions!

One of the reasons we're so keen to have an excavation in Bromsgrove is that in comparison to other Worcestershire towns, Bromsgrove hasn't been the subject of much in the way of below-ground archaeological investigation. We do, however, have quite a lot of information obtained from other sources like maps, historic documents and standing buildings, in addition to clues from the street layout and landscape.

Over the winter, the Worcestershire Archaeology team completed an in depth survey of the 'historic environment' of Bromsgrove Town Centre, as part of the THI scheme. The survey looked at historic buildings in the town, as well as the historic character and land use of different areas. It brought together the knowledge gleaned from previous work like the Central Marches Historic Towns Survey (available from Worcestershire's Online Archaeology Library) and the results of other archaeological work in the town, including an extensive survey of the existing historic buildings in the town by Shona Robson-Glyde, our buildings archaeologist.

The survey identified the area around St John Street and Hanover Street as probably the earliest area of historic settlement outside of the church precinct, due to its location between Spadesbourne Brook and St John the Baptist Church, thought to have been the location of a Saxon Minster. It also backs onto the course of the Worcester to Birmingham road, a routeway of Roman origin which has remained an important transport link throughout the centuries.

The construction of the Market Hall in the 1990s revealed glimpses of the once-bustling tenement plots that occupied the site until the area was levelled in the 1950s. 16th century deposits were encountered, along with a layer of burnt material dating to the late 17th or early 18th century. Unusually for narrow tenement plots such as these, some of the foundations were partly constructed from large sandstone blocks, raising the intriguing possibility that they were re-using stone from a much earlier building on the site.

In 1994, about 40m to the southwest of our site, the excavation of a manhole led to the discovery of a sandstone wall. Fragments of a 13-14th century cooking pot were found within deposits associated with the wall. This is likely to be a remnant of the foundations of the medieval buildings that once stood on the site. The wall was located about half a metre below the modern ground level, which raises the exciting possibility that we may have medieval remains surviving in the area.

At the moment, we're working on a 'map regression', which involves analysing historic maps showing the site, 'rectifying' digital scans to ensure they are all at the same scale and orientation and then overlaying them onto one another to observe the changes to an area over time. This is all done using Geographic Information System (GIS) software which allows us to build up a picture of an area using 'layers'. In this case, each layer contains maps of a different date, which can be switched on or off to allow us to compare them quickly and accurately. Below is a nice example as a teaser - the 1884 1:10,560 Ordnance Survey 1st edition map, overlaid onto the modern OS Mapping. To see the fruits of our efforts, pop along to the public exhibition next month and have a look!

Rob Hedge

Monday, 17 June 2013

DigBromsgrove: Call for Volunteers!

Between the 9th and the 19th of July, Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service will be leading a Community Archaeology project in Bromsgrove. An archaeological excavation will be taking place at the Market Place, at the south end of the High Street, with an accompanying public exhibition.

The excavation will be carried out by volunteers, with full equipment, training and supervision provided by our Archaeologists.

We are looking for volunteers who can commit to at least 2 or 3 days over the course of the project, to take part in the excavation. All ages and abilities are welcome! (though being able to get in and out of a shallow trench is handy). If you'd like to get involved but don't feel that digging is for you, we're also looking for volunteers to help us to clean and process the finds and to run the public exhibition.

So, whatever your level of archaeological experience, whether seasoned digger or avid armchair archaeologist, if you're keen to get involved with an exciting project to look at a little-explored area of historic Bromsgrove, get in touch with David Thomas with details of when you'd like to take part and what you'd like to do:

            David Thomas, THI Officer
            Tel: 01527 881343

Over the course of the project, you'll be able to follow the progress of the excavation and the background research via this blog.

We'll also be featuring finds, interviews with participants and behind-the-scenes updates on a variety of different social media platforms. Follow the hashtag #digbromsgrove to keep up-to-date with the project.