By Aidan White, VI Form
Archaeological Excavation with Dorchester-On-Thames Field School
I spent the first two weeks of last summer rummaging through a 2000-year-old garbage
heap, and it was great! Let me explain:
I plan to pursue archaeology in college and potentially as a career. Archaeology programs in the United States are rare and focus mainly on research topics within North and South America. For a broader archaeological education, I plan to head across the pond to the United Kingdom or Ireland, and in order to gain an advantage in the application process, as well as out of sheer interest in the field, I applied for the Mathews Fund Grant in order to take part in an excavation. The dig was put on by a company based in Oxfordshire, England, and focused on a tiny village just outside of Oxford called Dorchester-on-Thames. During Roman times, the village was the site of a Roman settlement. This particular excavation had been used for a number of years as a field school for university students, and I was lucky enough to get a spot. I was the only high school student there. I expected to be on the lower end of the age spectrum, but I had not been prepared for the fact that most of my fellow attendees would know each other already. After schlepping my backpack from Birmingham Airport to Oxford, finding a bus to a tiny village, and walking to the cowpaddy turned campsite, I was exhausted. As I set up my tent, the other members of the dig greeted their friends. After an hour of settling in, we were asked what we would prefer for dinner that evening. The choices were a Sunday roast, and the ever stereotypical English delicacy known commonly as fish and chips. I opted for the latter, and fantasized about the impending meal as we were given an exhaustive tour of the village which comprised an abbey, three pubs, and a Co-Op.
Since the excavation was located in the center of town, it had to be filled in again at the end of each summer. The archaeology was covered with tarpaulins and plastic sheeting to separate it from the backfill which was placed on top. At the beginning of each summer, the backfill was removed by a team of workers using a backhoe. Unfortunately, they had not quite finished in time, and the first three days of the fieldwork were spent manually removing the remaining backfill. This was some of the hardest physical labor I had ever done and involved eight-hour shifts of a mixture of digging and pushing wheelbarrows of soil uphill to be dumped at the edge of the site. The pile of dirt was nearly two stories high, and it was equipped with a network of trails to allow the steady train of wheelbarrows to travel up and down the mound. Archaeologists have come to realize that the artifacts that come from an excavation aren’t nearly as valuable as the knowledge that can be gained from them. A key part of the
archaeological process is the dating of artifacts, which is most easily done through examination of “stratigraphic layers” or “stratigraphy” in the earth. Different weather conditions and geological phenomena affect the coloration of soil, which builds in layers over the centuries. A cross section of these layers can show their change over time, and archaeologists must take great care in preserving the stratigraphy of a site. Artifacts taken out of the ground are stored with a document that details their location in the site, as well as the stratigraphic layer they came from.
Artifacts are often overlooked during the excavation, and find themselves in the backfill pile. There is little use for these “unstratified” artifacts and I was allowed by the director of the excavation to keep a small sherd of Roman Era pottery and a broken clay pipe from the 1600s:
This piece of jar below had not seen daylight since around 600 A.D. and was one of the largest finds to come from the site during the two weeks I was there. I found it with one of the Oxford students, with whom I am still in contact. The light brown patch at the bottom of the image is a piece of a cattle rib.
My area of the trench was believed to be a Roman “midden” (trash pit), and so the majority of my finds were broken pottery, nails, oyster shells (oysters were very popular among Romans), and animal bones.
(Above) I dig along a wall in the midden, scraping small layers of dirt into a hand shovel in order not to miss anything.
(Below) Artifacts were cleaned by hand with a toothbrush and water and then placed in the sun to dry. They were then labeled and bagged according to their type and location within the site.
This experience helped me understand what studying archaeology in college would entail and I learned a lot about fieldwork. Slowly removing dirt from around a 2000-year-old artifact is incredibly satisfying and comes with the knowledge that you are likely the first person to see the artifact since it was lost or thrown away by the person to whom it belonged.
Aidan White is a VI Form boarding student from Great Barrington, MA. He enjoys watching old movies, woodworking, and drawing cartoons.