Final Week of Ribchester Revisited 2018

With the 2018 excavation season coming to an end, the fourth and final week at Ribchester has been hectic, and there have been lots of exciting things going on. Drone photos were taken of the site to show the state of the excavation and the progress that has been made over the course of the month.

The site open day took place on Saturday the 14th.  It featured site tours throughout the day by students, an in-depth site tour by lecturer Ash Lenton, and a talk by lecturer Jim Morris on the excavation thus far. Morris’ talk included comparisons between the Ribchester Revisited’s first year and the project as it stands today. In addition to an informative presentation, locals were able to view some of the finds that have been discovered during the course of the excavation. The diverse array of objects on display included a brooch, beads, a finger ring, and some exquisitely decorated Samian ware pottery found in the north of the trench.

This week there has been a mad rush to finish clearing contexts and completing paperwork. In the last few days, post holes, a wicker-lined pit and a drainage ditch for the East-West road have been discovered. The wicker-lined pit in the north of our trench has yielded some truly exciting finds including a carved bone knife handle, a wooden handle for an unidentified tool, bits of Roman glass, and pieces of preserved wood planks and leather.

 

With the archaeologists turning up finds left, right, and centre, our finds team has been working double-time to clean, catalogue, weigh, measure and photograph the finds from this year’s excavation. With this being our second-last year at Ribchester, everyone is keen to finish the season on a good note and leave the trench clean and ready for our final year.

From all of our team here at the Ribchester Revisited excavations, thank you to everyone who has made this project possible and to the Ribchester community for welcoming us back so graciously year after year.

Here’s to our next and final season!

The Ribchester Revisited team

Best foot forward: hairstyles, hobnails and horses

Last weekend the team were treated with a series of performances by groups of dedicated re-enactors, for the annual Ribchester Roman Festival. This was a wonderful opportunity to see the Roman cavalry and infantry in action, who entertained the crowd with impressive displays of horsemanship and military prowess.

Despite the continuing heat, genuine Romans were dressed to the nines and smiling as they talked about their lives and work, explaining their fascinating displays and wares.  A couple of Roman matrons sported incredible hairstyles following the fashions of the imperial court and explained Roman beauty secrets.  Did you know that crushed butterfly wings make a dazzling green eyeshadow, chalk applied to the skin creates that desirable pale tone and the heady sweat of gladiators is a potent aphrodisiac?  We found the offer of free sausages more tempting than these tips to be honest, but the students learned a lot about the Roman experience and aspects of material culture.  

We examined the soles of various replica hobnailed boots to better see how many nails might occur in one shoe – to the dismay of a few of the team, it was definitely a lot!  The number of shoes we’ve been finding this year is growing steadily, which means a lot of extra work in finds processing.  It also slows down the pace of excavation as we carefully plan and record each individual nail.  But joking aside, we are really excited about our hobnail finds as excavating and recording hobnailed shoes in a drier context like ours doesn’t often happen on a dig; with the leather sole gone, the tiny hobnails left are easy to miss, so our painstaking work here will aid research into this important element of design history.

 

Many stalls had replica objects based upon real items found in various museums across Europe, including a stall showcasing the kit of a Roman legionary.  The assemblage of objects included repair tools, writing implements, camping kit and things for gaming and gambling – these are the sort of things we’re looking out for while we excavate, as they paint a picture of the social life of the soldiers stationed here at Ribchester.  Incidentally, they’re also the kind of objects our team of archaeologists possess.  Life on an excavation is in many ways similar to the life of the legionary and sometimes we really do feel that we are walking in their shoes.

 

The Romans were very fond of gambling and we were encouraged to cheer our support for our favoured horses during the cavalry displays.  The riders used leather saddles reconstructed from examples found at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall which have no stirrups; they re-enacted various cavalry moves like team formations and shooting arrows at a target, demonstrating the balance and skill required by such soldiers.

 

We also ran a booth at the festival to promote our work and answer questions, encouraging visitors to come see the excavations which they did in big numbers.  We’ve also been featured on the local radio and news since the festival so we’re happy to see more people responding to our finds and visiting to find out more.  We have an Open Day on Saturday 14th July with a tour of the site by our lovely director Ash and a talk about the project this year.  Be sure to come to take a look before our season ends on Sunday 15th July!

A Day Out of the Trench

 Yesterday, the team went for a stroll along Hadrian’s wall to put into perspective some of the archaeology we have been finding. We passed several wonderfully-preserved mile castles as we went, stopping at one of them to learn a bit more about how the wall was defended and managed.

Guest lecturer Andrew Gardner stopped at various points to discuss what the exact purpose of the wall was; was it a strictly defensive border, or was it more permeable to allow for travel and trade between Britannia and Caledonia? Andrew is a roman archaeologist who has recently been asking questions about identity within the late roman period. Have a cheeky purchase of his book, An Archaeology of Identity, if you would like to learn more! We’re sure he’d appreciate a little extra pint money.  

The route took us through the scenic Northumbrian countryside. The treacherous terrain must have been very impractical to build on, which shows not only the power of the roman empire, but the tenacity of their soldiers. We also learnt about the inconsistencies in different parts of the wall; where some commanders chose to put mile castles at exact intervals regardless of the landscape, some adapted and put them in a more sensible place.

 

The walk ended at the roman fort at Housesteads, where we drew comparisons between their guardhouse and the one we’re excavating at Ribchester. There, we sang happy birthday to enthused supervisor Joe Howarth, who turned 22 that day. Another year older and not a penny richer, Joe!

 

It was interesting to consider the fort not just as a military installation, but as a place that people lived for long periods of time. We discussed different interpretations of the family lives of soldiers, whether families would have spent much time together within the fort, and whether this would have changed much over the centuries. 

Overall, the day was a lovely learning experience and a chance to take a breather from the hard work and the heat, while still immersing ourselves in the archaeology of the area. 

It’s Coming Home! Halfway through the 2018 season!

It's Coming Home!

Halfway through the 2018 season!

Our American students and volunteers celebrating the 4th of July with our make do 'fireworks'.

Moving into our working week, the archaeologists routine was jolted slightly by a change in the daily schedule, thanks to the British weather’s continual attempts to melt the usually chilly north-west. Starting now at 8:45am, a few tired grumbles could be heard around the breakfast tables, plus a couple of late starters who forgot to change their alarms. 

Roman Coin found in the upper northern part of the trench.

It’s Coming Home!

As a lucky coincidence our excavations have coincided with the 2018 FIFA world cup. In glorious style many of our British team members and their new buddies rejoiced in the victory no one saw coming! England winning against Columbia in penalties.

It’s Coming Home!

Some of the team in the south using a dumpy level to record the height of a context.

After a hard day’s work, the university excavation team retired to the River Ribble and Village Hall, and out came the evening crew. We were lucky enough to have the local Ribchester Cubs and Beavers come in and under the guidance of our experienced supervisor ‘Rusty’ AKA Adam, helped excavate the Thomas May trenches.

Rusty AKA Adam helping lead the Cubs and Beavers in excavation the northern trench section.

With a trip up to Hadrian’s Wall happening on Thursday, students are expanding their understanding of the archaeology of Roman Britain. With many students doing interest-led projects for their final assessments, this will provide a good opportunity to see trends and traditions further afield than just the Bremetenacum at Ribchester. 

Our week three started with bang! With American 4th of July celebrations landing on a working day we decided to join in on American fun and fanfare slightly early, on the 2nd! With lessons in S’mores (yes, real Graham crackers too), ‘fireworks’, a BBQ cookout, all topped off by a rendition of Hamilton the musical, our taste of American festivities was complete. 

In true British style, talk of the weather has become a mainstay for the excavation team. It’s not uncommon to hear faces smeared with sunscreen and dirt, exclaim how “done” they are with the heat. The luckiest members of the excavation team retreat to the far northern reaches of the trench (so far north its ‘off the grid’) where shady spots deep in the Roman ditches, and Victorian Trenches, are plentiful. 

One of the student archaeologists hiding from the sun in the Victorian era trench.

As per usual our Tuesday featured a site tour by our charismatic excavation lead Dr Duncan Sayer, who has encouraged us to continue considering the complex relationships between features and their stratigraphy throughout the whole site. Some of the areas of interest touched upon included the ongoing finds of 100+ hobnails still in the shape of shoes, a furniture stud from a ‘well’-like feature, plus a lovely Roman coin. 

Dr Duncan Sayer providing a site tour of the northern part of the trench, where a myriad of hobnails have been found.

On Wednesday afternoon students were given an expert talk from Peter Webster. Peter excavated at Ribchester in the 1970s and shared his keen knowledge on Roman pottery and how they changed forms throughout the different stages of the Roman empire in Britain. 

Students listening to Peter Webster explore the wide world of Roman pottery.

A Rock, a Sandwich, and Afternoons by the Ribble

Here at the Ribchester fort excavation site, progress is being made despite the abnormally hot summer weather. International students and native Brits alike have been surprised by the heat. For the past few days, dust-covered and suntanned student archaeologists have voiced their desire for rain. 

Excavation continues in the defensive ditch in the far north-western area of the trench and the removal of various clay layers is ongoing in the south. As usual Thomas May and his trenches from 1908 are still wreaking havoc as Victorian material has been found in almost all areas. Planning has progressed and students continue to improve their skills. Ice-cream has become an important staple in students’ diets.

One of the most exciting things to have occurred over the past couple of days is that Stephen the stone has been confirmed as a natural stone despite its odd appearance. 

Recently, much progress has been made in the trench including the discovery of what are believed to be three roman shoes. These finds consist of 70+ hobnails found in one of the north areas of the trench. 

Morale has been a bit low, but with the help of Stephen the stone and post-excavation visits to the Ribble, spirits have been bolstered. We continue to have groups of school children come visit, though unfortunately the extreme heat has resulted in a decline in canine visitors to the site – much to the dismay of the archaeologists.

The highlight of almost everyone’s day is definitely the meals provided by Janis and her team. Frequent visits to Janis’ sandwich shop and sitting by the river are excellent ways to escape the heat. 

Ribchester Revisited 2018: Site Update

The unseasonably warm heat at Ribchester continues well into the second week of digging. As layers and contexts are planned, documented and excavated the finds and environmental teams are hard at work.

The environmental team is led by Don. Environmental archaeology involves looking at evidence of ancient plants by using water filtration. Water filtration traps the plant remains, such as seeds and cereal, which are then dried and examined. Sand, silt and clay are filtered out, artefacts are also recovered in this process, frequently retrieving beads, pottery and nails in accordance to Historic England guidelines.

Finds, led by Viki, involves the cleaning and packing of all finds excavated from the site. Everything is entered into a database for our records. Processing the small finds, such as stamped pottery and hobnails; these finds are also photographed for the database. The running total of hobnails has now reached over 70 in one area which contains the outline of a shoe.

It’s time for some demolition at the site. Teams are planning and documenting in order to progress to removing layers relating to the defensive ditch, rampart and clay floors. Teams in the North of the trench, in the eastern section, are in the process of recording and planning in order to start digging with mattocks to uncover more of the history of the rampart and its relationship with the exterior wall and the first timber fort known to the site.

New questions are being raised about the site itself as interesting features, structures and pits are being revealed. A new trench from the Thomas May excavation in 1907 has been uncovered and the team is trying to deduce the extent of it. The extent of demolition from the Roman occupation is a prominent question this week and its relationship with ‘rubbish’ pits.

The whole team is working hard and smart, regularly applying sun cream and taking water breaks. 

Ribchester Revisited mid-week 2, feeling hot!

Week two at Ribchester has begun with unseasonably warm temperatures. Remember we are in Lancashire, where it is rarely this hot and all students regardless of origin are struggling with the weather. Steps were taken to beat the heat including the dispersal of ice lollies amongst the students. Additionally, a lecture by Don O’Mera, the sites archaeobotanist for the duration of the dig, provided a much needed respite from the oppressive heat.

                                                  

Each of the students are beginning to find their feet, developing their excavation skills and knowledge. Each team can be seen working dynamically as a group, becoming faster and more confident with planning, excavating and recording finds. We have had 317 number of visitors who have enjoyed learning about both the site and all the students who have travelled to excavate it.

Students are beginning to ask questions about the sub-areas of the trench, including overall function of the site and purpose of individual structures. There has been a marked improvement in planning skills and context sheets are being filled with a greater degree of accuracy than before.

Three school groups who visited the dig on Tuesday, received tours of the granary and the excavation site from Jim. The children were very well behaved, and answered various questions, such as what did the Romans bring with them to Britain? The children visited Ribchester Museum and had lunch in the Village Hall.

In the mid-section of the trench, further work has been done to excavate over fifty hobnails. This was an extremely significant find as these were found in the shape of a shoe. This is the clearest outline of a shoe that we have found on site so far. Each nail has been carefully excavated and recorded for further analysis.   

                                                  

Interpretations of trench areas are changing as excavation continues. A pit in the south of the trench is thought to be a well, and a bead was found in this area. In the north of the trench, a black area of soil has been identified and we are debating whether this may be part of the remains of the earlier wooden fort. More small finds are being recovered from the guardhouse, including animal bone.

Work carries on throughout the site, despite the hot weather.  Just to remind everyone we run tours of the site between 11am and 5.30pm on Tuesdays to Sundays.

Ribchester Revisited 2018: The First Week

         With the first week of Ribchester Revisited’s 2018 season coming to a close, the trench is bustling with activity. The team has grown used to camping next to the neighbours – a herd of rather boisterous dairy cows – and waking to the early morning cacophony of bird calls from the hedgerows. Thus far, no tents have been lost, despite a few windy nights, and most of us have managed to stay dry. The number of sunburn victims has remained low thanks to Jim’s hourly reminders to apply sun cream.

The team exploring the workshop area on a sunny morning.

           To the southwest, new post-holes have been unearthed as stones were removed. These could indicate that the workshop occupied an area larger than previously thought or point to an additional separate structure.

The mysterious area between the road and the guardhouse.

           Within the walls of the guardhouse, several stacked layers must have each context recorded in detailed plans before being carefully trowelled back. As we go deeper, we may begin to see earlier phases of construction.

Team members in the northern ditch of the fort.

          Just over the wall from the ditch is the large clay slab mentioned in the previous blog post. It is now thought that it is what remains of the rampart leading from the inside of the fort to the wall. Extensive excavation is soon to take place in the area in an attempt to uncover evidence of the earliest timber phase of the fort.

Home sweet home? Tent sweet tent!
Our neighbors, the party animals.

A new year of digging means that long-standing questions can get answered, but it also creates new mysteries. Southeast of the road that runs east to west through the fort, the archaeology uncovered is shaping our ideas about occupation at the site in the post-Roman era. There is evidence of a structure, possibly a workshop with signs of metalwork and glass production. With many layers to get through, each being carefully recorded, excavation of the space is ongoing.

Two team members excavating the new post hole.

          North of the road, many of the questions being asked involve the fort’s defences, including one of the northern gate’s guardhouses and the wall, rampart, and ditch. Between the guardhouse and road, a rather ambiguous area has been planned and prepped for excavation. Argument persists over what exactly the space could be, but further searching may soon provide an explanation.

Careful planning is taking place on the guardhouse floor.

           At the northernmost end of the trench, a team is hard at work removing soil from the first of several ditches that radiated out from the walls of the fort. They may have reached the same natural layer of clay the Roman soldiers dug into when first constructing the fortification.

The clay rampart, where it would have risen towards the wall.

          And so we have one week down, and three more to go. With the first days of the excavation come and gone, work has begun in earnest, and the archaeologists are eager to chase down some of the many questions Ribchester Revisited seeks to answer. Tea consumption is at an all-time high, and a potentially disastrous chocolate biscuit shortage has been avoided thanks to a timely grocery delivery. Public tours of the site have started, and we have been visited by many schoolchildren and adults alike. The current number of dogs that have toured the trench is 10.

Ribchester Revisited 2018

Welcome back for another year at Ribchester. It is day 4 of this year’s excavation and the team is beginning to settle in and get to work.

Before we could start digging this year we had to reclaim our trench from a year’s worth of shrubbery that had overgrown it.

It took some hard work, but after a few close encounters with some stinging nettles the trench was clear and we could get to work.

This year our excavations will be focusing on four main areas. Each of these areas will have a corresponding team: a collection of our international team from Australia, USA, Canada and England.

Excavating the guardhouse.

The clay base of the ramparts, the wall and the ditch.

A possible workshop in the south of the trench.

A possible building to the south of the guardhouse.

The other areas will be detailed in later posts, but this blog will discuss the clay base of the stone ramparts which are pictured above, beneath which we hope to find the remains of an earlier first century fort. So far we have managed to uncover the stratigraphy of this clay base (right). In this photo we can clearly see several different coloured layers of earth.  There is a large clay layer at the top which we believe was purposefully laid down as a foundation for a stone building above it. The darker black layer below this (near the orange string) is likely an organic layer, possibly caused by the cutting and laying down of wood to provide a base for the clay. What’s exciting about this, is that below this layer we stand a chance of discovering the remains of the earlier first century wooden fort. Something we don’t think we will find anywhere else in our trench! 

We were helped (or hindered) in this by making use of an earlier trench dug in 1907 by Thomas May who conducted several excavations on this site. He left us several drawings and notebooks about this excavation (left), however some of them have gone missing over the last century, so we are discovering the archaeology of his excavation whilst we uncover the archaeology of the Roman forts on this site as well. 

By the end of these four weeks we hope to have all of this gone. Duncan (one of our project directors) estimates we have about 8 tonnes of clay to move! That’s a bull elephant worth of clay to move!  Luckily we’re well experienced moving large amounts of dirt and soil, this is how much we’ve collected on our spoil heap so far (right)!

Roman Military

Roman Forts and the Military

 

General Information About Roman Forts:

These spaces were permanent or semi-permanent bases for Roman troops. Most fort spaces occupy around 20 hectares. The Roman troops occupying these spaces were often auxiliary’s. They were not Roman citizens, but instead were drafted from other provinces within the Roman Empire (Historic England, 2011).

Many of the earliest forts had turf ramparts and timber internal buildings, these were usually constructed during the initial conquest and are common in the first century. The dominant shape for forts is rectangular, and these would have been surrounded by outer ditches. Forts often went through a second phase of construction where the timber fort would be replaced with a stone fort, this would often be surrounded by stone walls rather than timber ramparts

 

Internal Layout of Forts:

Forts would have been divided by internal roads/streets, with administrative centres in the middle of the fort as one of the central buildings. There also would have been workshops and equipment stores, and the Granaries, which were long narrow buildings with raised floors supported on posts

Plan of the standard layout of an Auxiliary Fort. Including the Latin terms for the parts of the fort (Historic England 2011).
Plan of the standard layout of an Auxiliary Fort. Including the Latin terms for the parts of the fort (Historic England 2011).

 

Function:

Forts were spaces used to house troops who were responsible for controlling the surrounding territory (Historic England 2011). Forts were linked together by the Roman road system, which provided a network to strengthen their control

 

The brief overview above gives you a bit of background information about the fort space itself and its internal layout, but, what about the people who occupied these spaces? We have already seen that auxiliary units most likely wouldn’t have been Roman citizens themselves, and the fact they travelled from other provinces outside England suggests that they may have had different ways of displaying their identities to the Pre-Roman and Roman Britons. Below are a few artefacts found at Ribchester, with some of them coming from our excavations.

 

Evidence for Roman Soldiers at Ribchester:

Ribchester Helmet:

  • Any look at Roman military artefacts from Ribchester has to start with the famous Ribchester Helmet.
  • The Ribchester Helmet was discovered in 1796 by children playing on the waste-ground behind their cottage.
  • Experts have suggested that the Helmet originates from the 1st-2nd century and was not likely to have been used in combat as it was such a finely crafted piece of equipment. Instead the interpretation is that it would have been used in mock battles (British Museum, 2018)
Image of the Ribchester Helmet discovered in 1796 (British Museum, 2018)
Image of the Ribchester Helmet discovered in 1796 (British Museum, 2018)

 

 

The next few artefact types are examples of the types of objects we have found during our excavations, and don’t necessarily represent the most common artefacts associated with the Roman military.

 

Hobnails:

  • A common find at fort sites, and something we have found a lot of during our excavations at Ribchester, are hobnails.
  • Hobnails are associated with Roman shoes, and at some sites, they have even been discovered in the pattern of a shoe shape, with the leather having worn away.
  • There has been research into the pattern of the hobnails and the types of shoe that they would have comprised!
  • So far during our excavations at Ribchester we have found over 80 hobnails!
Image of one of the hobnails found at Ribchester
Image of one of the hobnails found at Ribchester

 

Horse Fittings:

  • Decoration on horse harnesses were one of the main ways that an individual could show off their rank or wealth
  • During our excavations so far we have found evidence of 3 objects associated with horse fittings
  • We have also found 1 example of a terret ring. Terret rings are metal loops, which would be part of a horse harness. When in use the reins would run from the drivers hand, through a terret ring, and attach to the horses bit to all the horse to be guided without becoming tangled up.
  • We also have an example of a hipposandle, which would protect the hoof of a horse and was the predecessor of the horseshoe.
Image of the Terret Ring found at Ribchester in 2017
Image of the Terret Ring found at Ribchester in 2017

 

Image of the Hippoesandle found at Ribchester in 2017
Image of the Hipposandle found at Ribchester in 2017

 

  • Button and Loop Fastener:
  • These fasteners would have been used to hold two pieces of fabric together, and are often associated with the fastening of a dress or cloak
  • Fasteners are quite common finds during the excavations of Roman forts suggesting that they were associated with the military
  • So far during our excavations we have found 2 fasteners
Button and Loop fastener found at Ribchester in 2017
Button and Loop fastener found at Ribchester in 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Further Reading:

https://content.historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/iha-roman-forts-fortresses/romanfortsfortresses.pdf/