Living on a Prayer?

Woah, we’re halfway there! Week 2 is done, and it’s been estimated that the amount of work we’ve done in these two weeks equals that done in three last year! With the clock ticking towards the end of the project, the pace is picking up. Now for a rundown…

One of our fearless leaders, Dr. Morris, having a brainstorming session. On the left, Mjolnir the Legendary Mattock is pictured in the foreground.

In the north of the trench we are targeting specific areas to answer our questions about the phasing of the fort. One of these areas is the north eastern stone guard house and specifically its relationship to a structure to its immediate south and the clay rampart it is cut into on its eastern side. Once thought to be from different phases of the fort their foundations now look to be set into the same clay layer, indicating that they may be contemporary with one another. The southern building may be a timber annex resting against the stone guard house. Our understanding and interpretation of the archaeology in our trench is constantly evolving as we uncover more. In the last two weeks of the project we will continue to examine their relationship with each other and the surrounding areas.

On the right is the guardhouse with its exposed threshold stone. On the left is the possible annex building. Down the middle runs the foundations of the wall to the guard tower.

In the stone guard house and on the stone wall we are working down to reveal their foundations, which will allow us to examine the initial construction process of the stone fort and the stages of wall building. If we are lucky, we may also see features from the earlier timber fort. Beneath the wall and clay rampart we are hoping to see wooden “corduroy” foundations similar to those found in previous excavations in and around Ribchester. As we work our way through these layers, we are always on the lookout for concrete dating evidence like coins or stamped pottery to help us assemble an accurate timeline of the fort’s construction.

In the middle of the trench, running west to east, is the intervallum road. This pathway would have run parallel to the walls inside the fort. A slot was cut into the road surface at the end of last year’s dig, and extending it this year has revealed the earliest phase of the road, with its well-ordered, neat cobbles, and its sandy foundations. But as we began to see the core of the road, we realized that there may be postholes, beam slots, and other structural features running through it, showing evidence that there were buildings there at one time. As we extend the slot through the road further, we hope to uncover more that will help us further understand these structures and their placement within the fort and in relation to the road.

The slot cut into the intervallum road, showing its sandy foundation and how layers of road surface built up over time as it was paved over.

In the south half of the trench, evidence of longstanding occupation and industry is beginning to be better understood. Currently, the most prominent feature is the kiln, a large clay oven thought to have been used to dry grain, given its proximity to the granaries to the west. But cut through the kiln complex are several large postholes, which indicate the presence of a very large structure. This is also supported by geophysical analysis conducted in the area east of the trench. Evidence points to the presence of an imposing building there. And cut through those postholes are later beam slots, signifying another structure in place of the first two. The archaeology here is intricate, given that multiple phases of fort through several centuries of time are present. Our hope is to examine this changing use of space further and discover more discrete dating evidence.

Three of the large postholes, as well as the later beam slot cutting through them.

The overarching message at this point is that when thinking about the fort, we need to do it in terms of relationships: how do these features relate to one another? Not only from a single point in time, but through multiple phases as the life histories of these structures change within the fort. With only two weeks left, we’re working hard to answer every question we can.

Ribchester Artefacts

Archaeologists use material culture to assist in constructing interpretations for the sites that they are excavating. Some artefacts help to date contexts; such as coins and pottery. For example, finding a Roman coin in a sealed Roman context means that, that particular feature could only have existed some time after the coin was produced. Pottery and Quern Stones help us to understand what types of activities were taking place on the site, and can also indicate what types of produce were being transported and stored.


Amphorae are large pottery jars manufactured for storage and transportation of goods in bulk. Ranging in size they held between 20 and 80 litres of goods, these goods included wine, oils grains, seeds and fish sauce among other goods, the were also used for secondary storage purposes. The contents of Amphorae rarely survive into the archaeological record. The fragment discovered here was used as packing material in one of the post holes that formed the pit it was uncovered in.

The Outside Surface of a Large Fragment of Amphora Found this year
The Inside Surface of a Large Fragment of Amphora Found this year

Quern Stones

Quern stones are used for the grinding of grain into flour and it is suggested that they were used on a personal level to grind the grain ration of a working roman soldier, this would support the number of stones being found scattered throughout the site. The issue of grain as rations from the granaries is presumable because grain stores longer than ground flour or meal. Quern stones are identifiable by their dress faces and angular construction, these are made so that the stones are better able to grind the grain.

A Quern Stone uncovered in this years field season


Coinage, is an important archaeological artefact, especially as it can help date areas and layers of a site. This is true for all sites on which they are found, but is particularly very true of roman coins due to the size of the empire and its many eras.

One of the more obvious reasons for the usefulness of roman coins is the obverse (head) side of the coin, which depicted the emperor of the time and their titles. This can be valuable for the dating of sites, as the names and reigns of these emperors are recorded within the historical record. They can also help to show change within the imperial household, such as change in imperial dress and hair, which can provide a useful insight into the possible outside influences on major Roman society.

 Furthermore, on the reverse side of coins, it is quite common to find a form of propaganda. These can include: a depiction of the benefits of roman rule, the virtues of the emperor and their links to the gods (ie. deified roman emperors, and other roman gods) and loyalty of the armies to the emperor. Some coins commemorate major events or achievements of the empire, one such example being the depiction of Princeps (emperor) Claudius’ conquest of Britain in 43AD. Such a coin would be a major propaganda boost.

 Interestingly, sometimes after a coin had been made it would be dipped into precious metals to increase its value during times of economic hardships. Metal analyses of these coins could be invaluable to understanding Roman economy .

 At Ribchester we have currently found 79 coins, unfortunately many of them are too corroded for us to be able to identify fully. However, we have discovered one very well preserved silver denarii which bears both the face and name of emperor Vespasian who ruled from 69-79 AD and started the Flavian dynasty. Finding a coin that can be identified in such detail is really helpful in being able to find the earliest possible date of the context that it was excavated from. Finding coins in archaeological excavations also helps us to identify the types of economic system people were using, in this case a coin-based economy

Silver Denarius of Vespasian

Ribchester Revisited 2019: What is Outreach?

Once you have overcome the perception of the archaeologist as a bushy moustached Victorian explorer, equipped with monocle and tomb exploring buddies, as well as the all too exciting portrayal in Spielberg’s Indiana Jones, it can be hard to see archaeology as anything more than an academic pursuit. Though the discoveries made during excavation will no doubt rewrite or support historical narratives, it would be inaccurate to see archaeology as simply support for the writings of Historians. If the purpose of archaeology was solely to provide footnotes for academic sources, this would only benefit a small portion of the community, but by giving tours and getting the locals involved, archaeology can help strengthen interest as well as pride in local heritage, and history in general.

Aside from excavating at Ribchester, there are three activities us students can participate in – finds, environmental, and outreach. Of the three, outreach is the most overlooked in our blog post recaps, and as we, the authors, are currently on outreach, we thought we’d tell you all about it.

Cleo, one of the authors, planning this blog post

While on outreach, we have three major jobs. The first of these is giving tours of the site to the public – both locals, who come in to check up on the progress of the excavation, and those from further afield. We also give tours to visiting school groups, and visitors to our neighbour, the Ribchester Roman Museum. In addition, we contribute to the digital and social media presence of the dig, in the form of blog posts like this one, and video diaries to document the dig and it’s progress.

Our guestbook includes visitors from New York, Washington state, and Hong Kong!

Tours give us the opportunity to interact with both the local community and other visitors on a personal level, and to pass on what we’ve uncovered and learned about the site to people the information might not otherwise reach. We’ve got a table full of artefacts for visitors to interact with, along with site maps and historical pictures, and there is always a tour guide ready to answer questions and show visitors around.

Outreach projects – which also include lectures, presentations, and volunteer programs, both for adults and children – can also serve to get people more interested in archaeology and local history. From an excavation standpoint, developing a good relationship with the local community is important for our dig, and can help with the long-term preservation of both this site and the other Roman archaeology around Ribchester.

A Ribchester local volunteering to help us excavate.

Tours, blog posts, and videos can encourage people to interact with archaeology, both locally and on and international scale – and it can help to demystify what it is that we archaeologists do in a trench. And hopefully, we can inspire some of our visiting school children to be the next generation of archaeologists like us!

Ribchester week 2: looking to the future

As of this post, we’ve just finished Week 1 of the excavation for this year. Here’s an update of what we’re working on this week.

Declan Jamieson. Just look at this guy. Bet he eats weird soups.

In the South end of the trench, one of our teams found several postholes and beam slots of what looks to be 3 buildings. Declan, who is on this team, says he is hoping to investigate both the larger postholes and what is underneath the kiln, which is in the same area.

Niamh Shulmeister. Fastest trowel int’ North-West.

Further North is the transitional zone from industrial areas in the South to the military installations further along. There appears to be multiple temporary structures in this area due to the existence of poorly laid stone floors, beam slots and postholes in the same area.

Niamh, who is working in this area, is hoping to find out if the beam slots in this section align with those further South, which would indicate a continuation of the structure into the contexts bordering the road. It could also be indicative of another building in situ of it.

Edward Buxton. Actual sunshine incarnate.

Along the East-West Roman road, our team has found a hole of some sort which has been excavated. Ed is hoping to find out if this hole is related to any beam slots or postholes nearby, which would indicate a structure of some sort cutting into this road. We’ve also continued to excavate this road and have found that the quality of construction improves as we excavate, confirming that the road quality declined overtime.

Drake Marshall. Cool guy. No joke here.

As we move toward the Northern defences we enter the guard house areas. Last week our very own Drake with the help of his other teammates continued excavations of these structures and are edging ever closer to being able to accurately date them. With the road being situated underneath the earlier guardhouse it has been agreed that it cannot be the earliest such building. Hopefully the sharp minds working there can answer this question once and for all.

Kelsie Barett. She whom we endure.

And finally we reach the hardy Northerners working on the defensive wall and beyond, but unlike the final season of ‘Game of Thrones’ we’re confident we’ll reach a satisfying conclusion here. Team member Kelsie was kind enough to spare us a moment today and explain the plan for the wall/ramparts future. The archaeologists will be working down the layers in 5cm spits until they reach the organic layer, giving us an exact time frame for the forts construction. And I must say I can’t wait to find out. This fort has become somewhat of a crush of mine and I want to date it badly.

Return to Ribchester 2019

The Village Hall, our home for the month.

Excavation at Ribchester has begun for another year. This year we have quite a large cast of returning students from previous years, as well as a collection of students here for the very first time. For the two authors of this blog, this is our second year of excavating in Ribchester, with both of us coming from far flung Canberra, Australia. The trip here is quite a journey for us with 25 hour flights each way (which don’t come cheap), new time zones, strange weather (we’ve never seen so much rain) and so much green!

But it’s all worth it once we get here. The other archaeologists are fantastic (which is good considering we’re living, eating and digging together for the next month). The camping is something we didn’t miss so much, the field gets bitterly cold on clear nights, but it doesn’t take long for us to get used to it again. With wonderful Janis cooking us
dinner each night (and sometimes lunch at her sandwich shop when our homemade sandwiches start to grate), it doesn’t take long for this village to start feeling like home again either. Most importantly however, the trench is here and ready to be further excavated.

Hard at work in the trench.

The site here in Ribchester is fascinating: an urban style site with complicated layers, features and finds worth shipping ourselves to the other side of the globe for. Coming back and seeing all our work from last year ready and waiting for us to continue it felt a little like coming home.  Ribchester is a singular site, and our trench is a singular puzzle waiting for all of us to figure it out, how could we resist the opportunity to return to finish it?

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.