Vote for Caistor

14 Dec

Hi blog readers. The Caistor Project has been nominated for Current Archaeology’s Research Project of the Year. If you’ve enjoyed this blog or visiting Caistor vote for us at

Day 24

10 Sep

This really really is the last day. The machine is coming to backfill and the marquees are gone. Even the earwigs have run away. The only thing which is still obstinately present is the skeleton in the north ditch, which is engaged in a battle of willpower with Heather. The skeleton (now christened George after his plastic namesake which we use in the kids’ excavation) seems to have been rolled or placed into the north ditch after it has begun silting up. There is no obvious sign of a grave cut although all the extremities (fingers, toes, etc) seem to be present suggesting that the body wasn’t left open to scavengers and so was presumably covered. The chances of us hitting the one body in a massive ditch system seem remote so the ditches may well have more dead bodies in them. More weird dead people from Caistor. If only we could find some normal burials then we could work out just how odd our other burials were!

Heather and Sarah plan the unfortunate occupant of the north ditch

As the machine backfills the rest of the trench, the body is finally lifted and that’s it for Caistor (apart from a load more finds processing and a couple of years of post-excavation work).

The final shots of the SFB with Giles and Dave B, who has finally proved that his geophysical results are real.

After 4 years we have really changed our understanding of Caistor. It’s changed from being a simple Roman entity, put in place after the Boudican rebellion, to something much more complex. Caistor followed its own path, “doing different” as they say in Norfolk, and was as much a town of the Iceni as it was a Roman town. We’ve shown how it developed gradually (rather than the street grid all being laid our at once) and showed how it reached its zenith in the late Roman period, when it was the focus of intensive activity in the 4th century and when a new forum was laid out on the levelled ruins of the first forum which had been abandoned 100 years previously. We’ve also conclusively located Anglo-Saxon occupation adjacent to the town, which really justifies the Norfolk Archaeological Trust’s purchase of Dunstan Field (focus of Anglo-Saxon activity). Finally, we’ve called into question the navigability of the River Tas, previously a cornerstone in all discussion of the Roman town.

It just remains to thank again our sponsors who have shown such faith in the project, particularly the British Academy who funded much of the 2010-2012 excavations, May Gurney who supported the excavations throughout, South Norfolk Council, the South Norfolk Alliance, the Foyle Foundation and the John Jarrold Trust who sustained the volunteer programme, the University of Nottingham, the Roman Research Trust, the Roman Society and the University of East Anglia who have supported different aspects of the research programme, Norfolk County Council’s Historic Environment Service, Norfolk Museums Service and English Heritage who provided much in-house support and advice for the project, and BAM Nuttall and Anglian Home Improvements who respectively provided a bridge and a van for the 2012 season. Finally the project would not have been possible without the consent and encouragement of the Norfolk Archaeological Trust who have ensured that Caistor will be preserved for future generations.

Ditches from the air (by Mike Page) with the streets of the town showing nicely

The biggest debt, however, is to all those who have participated in the project, as diggers, pot washers, trench guides, tent helpers, supervisors, and finds specialists. Their efforts and enthusiasm made the project what it was and its success is due to them. They will not escape, however, as the landscape aspect of the Caistor project is about to get bigger and better. To paraphrase the words of the legendary Arnie, “We’ll be back”. Keep an eye on for further details.

That’s all folks

Day 23

10 Sep

Although yesterday was officially the last day of the dig, we quite obviously haven’t finished. There are still skeletons to remove and recording to be done, and there is also the business of taking marquees down and packing away. Marquee dismantling always has comedy potential as once the straps are loosened there is a good chance that the who thing can blow away with assembled team members hoisted into the air like Mary Poppins or the spinning cow in Twister.

Mike Page’s shot of the now almost entirely excavated SFB.

Smack my ditch up. Mike Page’s final shot of the ditch trench.

The first event of the morning is the buzz of a low-flying aircraft as Mike Page does his final flight of the year with typically great results. His pictures show the SFB fully excavated (apart from some post-holes that had only been half sectioned) and the mighty ditches excavated to their full extent. They also show some frantic recording going on. John P sits in a scatter of tools and paper, looking like the bewildered survivor of a plane crash, while Heather and the Dear Leader attempt to uncover the rogue skeleton that lies half-way down the north ditch. The skeleton runs unhelpfully into the section meaning that a very large amount of soil has to be removed before it can be recorded and extracted. Meanwhile Sarah B has taken on the role (usually bagged by Giles) of being the one who finds the Mesolithic at the bottom of the trench. She is soon happily lost in a world of microliths.

John’s filing system suffers irreversible breakdown

On the other side of the river Giles and Adam empty and draw post-holes in preparation for the final photographs showing the SFB in all its Teutonic glory. This leaves everyone else to begin the mammoth task of dismantling base camp. Fortunately there is a large amount of cake left over from the night before so all participants are able to spend the day on a constant sugar rush that sustains them through the rigours of packing.

Camp orders for Sunday – an intense day’s activity fuelled entirely by left-over cake.

Day 22

7 Sep

And so it’s the last day of the last season of a four-year project. Except of course that it’s not. There’s still tons to dig and we will be recording into Monday. In the world of the Anglo Saxons, Giles is taking the baulks out of the sunken featured building to reveal it in all its Teutonic glory. As ever, all the finds are in the baulks and we get a 7th century coin and more bits of pottery. The baulks, of course, sit over the main post-holes, as this was a classic tent-like SFB. They also sit over a very intriguing centrally placed cow’s head, which the Dear Leader is keen to see as ritual, handily discounting the other 10 crates of animal bone that have come from the SFB. The animal bone is excellent and will form a pretty good assemblage to assess how consumption of animals at Caistor changes between the Roman and Anglo Saxon periods. But the head does look pretty odd.

Removing the baulks in the SFB. Note “ritual” cow’s head.

Meanwhile back in ditch world all the ditches are bottomed and the team clean up for final photos. The north ditch is a true monster and forms a substantial defence, although the middle ditch could be jumped by any self-respecting barbarian. All the ditches have produced excellent assemblages of material so we should be able to date them fairly closely (or at least date when they were filled in fairly closely).

The north ditch in all its glory

But onto more important things.  It’s officially the last night of the project and so we celebrate what we have managed to do over the last four years. We’ve had some great results, found some great archaeology, met some lovely people and had a lot of fun. But we obviously haven’t finished and so it’s back tomorrow to extract the rogue body from the north ditch.

The last night

“It’s getting chilly. Throw another student on the fire, chaps”

Sue’s 2012 dig cake, featuring the sunken-featured building in all it’s glory. There is also an earwig hiding round the back in commemoration of the great earwig plague of 2011.

Day 21

7 Sep

The storm passes and we awake to find the trenches full of sludge, which is not ideal. The Dear Leader made the schoolboy error of announcing that we were “on track to finish” the morning before the skies opened. This was a massive mistake. No excavation has ever been “on track to finish on time”, least of all one at Caistor. An excavation will finish when the last person is dragged kicking and screaming from the trenches before they are backfilled.

In the world of ditches, we finally reach the bottom of the south ditch (aka Neil’s bit). It has been proclaimed as being “two Jennys” deep, so we’ve had to step the trench in. Sir Mortimer Wheeler always used to get the smallest person on the team to stand next to his sections in the photographs to make them look bigger. Now, in the days of Elf and Safety, you have to get the tallest person to stand next to the section to make it look less alarming. So we step the trenches as we are sensible and responsible people.

Lydia hides in the south ditch to do a stick puppet show featuring a man and a dog. Note our safety conscious step.

Elsewhere, Chrissy has instigated a cunning T-shirt competition in an attempt to shift the remaining leisure wear. Guantanamo orange is still proving a tough sell.

Chrissy fails to convince her mother (the lovely Frances, who is a sprightly 98) to buy an orange T-shirt. Sarah tries to push the gladiator key-rings instead.

Day 20

7 Sep

It’s Saxons ahoy in trench 11 as a bit of bone comb comes up. Bone combs are a classic find on Anglo-Saxon sites, matched only by loom weights in the Anglo-Saxon smoking gun stakes. We’ve now got rubbish pottery, post-holes and bone combs. How much more perfect can our sunken-featured building get? Meanwhile back in the ditches trench, everyone steadfastly ignores the body discovered on the previous day and gets on with the more important business of shouting “train” at every available moment.

The skies darken over #caistor. Martian war machines not pictured

Around lunchtime the skies darken and start to look like the beginning of the Tom Cruise remake of War of the Worlds. Fortunately indestructible Martian tripods don’t erupt out of the trenches dispensing carnage and mayhem, but it does rain quite a lot. We run for cover pretty early to not make the mistake of the previous day and trench 10 make it to the marquee. Trench 11, however, is stuck on the other side of the river and its occupants are forced to cower under their B and Q gazebo as the lightning flashes.

Sheltering in the gazebo

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe …”. The Dear Leader channels his inner Rutger Hauer after the rain

The trenches fill with water very rapidly, with the sunken featured building becoming merely sunken and so it’s game over for the day. The only bright spot is that some visitors seek shelter in the marquee at the height of the storm and feel obliged to buy some souvenirs lest we send them out into the rain again.

Some wet people in the marquee

Day 19

7 Sep

We’re back at full strength on Wednesday and it’s another day of media based fun as the BBC4 aerial photography documentary makes its second visit to the site. Fortunately the sunken-featured building, which we hopefully postulated on camera on their previous visit to the site, has turned into absolute reality, thanks to the discovery of genuine crappy Anglo-Saxon pottery and the post-hole which Giles carefully excavated when no-one was looking. He only half-sectioned it, however, and it’s clearly real, so the accusations that he made it up are clearly unfounded.

Ian (who has come dressed as Action Man) finds some genuine Anglo Saxon pot

Heather does some more trowelling for the camera and the Dear Leader holds forth on bits of Samian, a topic of which he knows very little. Connor and Alex go for their 15 minutes of fame by staying behind at lunch-time to trowel in the background of the shot (as all archaeological documentaries are contractually obliged to have someone trowelling in the background). It is inevitable that any film crew on an excavation will want to film at tea break or lunch-time but luckily Connor and Alex are happy to prostitute themselves for the cameras and so the TV gods are satisfied.

Connor and Alex: guilty of televisual trowelling

Wednesday also sees the return of Elliott from Hexcam and his amazing Octocopter, which draws the usual gadget-hungry crowd. It’s quite a windy day, adding a potentially random element to Octocopter use, but Elliott flies without problem and gets some more great overhead shots of the trenches, before the skies darken, the ice-cream van turns up and it begins to rain. We make the schoolboy error of leaving it slightly too long to abandon site and get absolutely soaked. The ice cream man’s sales are poor.

Day 18

7 Sep

Tuesday has been declared a day off for both trenches. Neil is in, however, catching up on his recording (admittedly at a distance of over 100m from the trench), while Giles takes advantage of the absence of his team to carve some post-holes in the sunken-featured building. He finds a lovely big one which is the “classic” central post-hole at one end of the building. This really is the smoking gun as far as sunken-featured buildings go, meaning the SFB goes from “Almost Definite” status to “Absolutely Confirmed”. This is truly a top result and means that for the first time, Anglo Saxon occupation areas have been confirmed at the Roman town.

Ian and Wendy draw the sections in the lovely and absolutely confirmed sunken-featured building. Famous post-hole not shown.

Meanwhile, oblivious to all this excitement, the Dear Leader and Heather have decided to have a happy hack in the north ditch to try and bottom it out. All is going well. The sun is shining, the cricket is on, soil is being shifted and a rich variety of trains are being spotted. Then disaster strikes. Dishy Dickie, who is manfully manning his sieve, announces the discovery of a human toe bone. “Pah”, say Heather and the Dear Leader, not pausing to consider how a single toe might end up in a large ditch. Some more toes, however, this time attached to a leg, bring their cheerful day to an abrupt halt and they are forced to face the fact that an articulated human skeleton lies between them and the bottom of the ditch. Luckily we have a license in place to deal with human remains, due to the discovery of the headless body (copyright all newspapers) in week 1, but it will cause unnecessary delay, not to mention a bit of head scratching as to how a body ended up being thrown into the north ditch.

Richard: guilty of discovery of unwanted toe bone.

Day 17

7 Sep

Just another manic Monday, as the Bangles so succinctly put it. The ditches team, encouraged by Heather, have taken to shouting “train” every time said means of transport goes past the site. We are on the main line from Norwich to London so this happens quite a lot (every 20 minutes or so at peak times). Visitors are bemused by this behaviour but the trench guides just tell them we don’t get out very much. The Anglo Saxon team, who are almost right next to the railway line, remain steadfastly unamused by this childish behaviour and go stoically about their business ignoring the continual excited cries of “train” from across the river. They are perhaps not yet over the cake injustice of week one.

Heather and Lydia develop a train typology of which the salient features can be viewed below.

“train”! The SFB team is not keen on such frivolity, however.

“Little train” (in snow)

Baby train

Day 16

29 Aug

Sunday is marked by a huge increase in the amount of Saxon pot coming from the now Almost Definite sunken-featured building in Giles’ World of the Anglo Saxons. We now have two sherds instead of one, which represents a statistically significant increase of 100% in our Anglo Saxon pottery sherds.

Neil recovers from Saturday’s penalty travesty

Meanwhile the ditches are going down and down and the Dear Leader exhorts his team to greater effort, even resorting to digging himself. John P accurately sums this up as “leading from the front in a futile gesture” and indeed the DL soon gets bored and wanders off to point at something and scratch his chin reflectively. Everyone is cheered up by Heather J. finding a monumental piece of our gladiator Samian bowl. She takes a picture and sends it smugly to Dave G as it is bigger than his lion bit the previous week.

The Dear Leader gets down with the workers

It’s the Bank Holiday weekend but amazingly it hardly rains at all. The visitors come out in their droves. This is much needed as we still have quite a lot of merchandise left, including the tasteful Guantanamo Orange T-shirts, which thus far have not proved a great seller despite Chrissy’s modelling efforts. Peer is told that he must buy one as he is Dutch and therefore genetically disposed to like orange. The Dear Leader, meanwhile, tells his students that anyone using gladiator transfers in their essays next term will get extra marks but they remain similarly unmoved.