Geldeston excavation

Title: Geldeston excavation

Duration: 20.07 mins

In 2006, a very curious wooden structure was discovered at Beccles. This turned out to be about 2000 years old, dated to the late iron age.

Since then, along the River Waveney, a number of other sites have been discovered.

The first one of these after Beccles was at Barksham and more recently a new site was discovered at Geldeston.

Geldeston is the site of our most recent field training excavation.

Back in the Iron Age, 2000 years ago, the landscape along the edge of the River Waveney was very very different. This was before it was drained. The landscape we see nowadays has grazing cattle, is relatively open grassland, but back in the Iron Age this would have been much wetter.

The wetness of these landscapes is one of the great values of these sites. The wetness preserves the sort of materials which you wouldn't normally get on an archaeological site. Here, because of the peat, we actually have wooden structures preserved which would normally rot away.

Most of our excavation is started off by machines, mechanical diggers to get down to the levels where the archaeology is. But occasionally you find yourself wanting to extend the trenches to try to find more detail or to see where a feature continues.

Because of the wetness the conditions are often quite difficult for working.

Every morning when we come to site we always start off by trying to drain the water off the surface. This allows us to actually walk on the surface and do the archaeology. But even then it's so wet that we have to make sure that we stay on planks and other structures just to keep off the peat.

If we walked directly on the wet surface, it just becomes very messed up and the archaeology can be damaged.

Every morning when we come to site we begin by draining off the water. These trenches become full of water overnight just because of the very high ground water levels. Once they are drained, even moving around on the sites can be quite difficult so we have to keep to plants and boards and pallets to make sure that we're not damaging the archaeological surface.

- This is a revised plan of the trackway that Henry and Ben found in trench one there. We're not sure what it means yet but hopefully through more excavation we'll be able to find out.

The site at Geldeston, much like those from Beccles and from Barsham, consists of a walkway through the wetlands. But they're more than that, these things are constructed by massive vertical timbers. These things are up to about half a metre in diameter and probably stood above the Iron Age landscape by three maybe four metres and they defined a route with these three lines of timber posts.

One of the advantages of these timber posts is that when you pull them out you not only get the actual post itself, whereas on a normal archaeological site you'd just have a post-hole where the post used to be, but because you have the post you can start examining things like the toolmarks, how many axes were used, just to trim between the points.

Now, some of the work is not as technical as others. Working in wetlands is quite often dominated by a scientific approach. A lot of analysis happens after the excavation. But on site, some of it is quite brutal. As you try to extract some of these posts from the ground, some of them can be one and a half metres tall, requires a feat of engineering. We do this by digging round the posts and using a variety of knots and some pulley systems. In this case we're working on a deadlift, just to pull the post out intact so that we can then analyse what detail there is from the Iron Age people on the tip.

So the archaeology on a site like Beccles or Barsham or Geldeston is a real balance between intricate very gentle excavation where you're using your fingers rather than even a trowel so that you're not damaging the wood. Combined with using lifting equipment and a lot of brute force to pull it out.

There is a certain level of satisfaction when you actually do get a complete post out and you can see the tip of that post for the first time in over 2000 years.

On site, when you consider that the site of Beccles was over 500 metres long and with posts based every one and a half metres in three lines, just imagine there's quite a lot of wood which has implications for the actual landscape around it. The management of the woodlands around the site. Although we're digging a site, we're learning about the entire Iron Age landscape.

When the posts come out you can just see the beauty of the actual axemarks and the worked wood.

In addition to the excavation and the pulling up of the posts, there's also a very large amount of recording which involves drawing, filling in forms to identify species of wood, to record exactly where things came from, which will all go into the archive and help with the analysis later.

This is very important because a lot of the wood is going to be sent off for a variety of dating methods - carbon dating, dendrochronology - this means that we can actually get sometimes a date for a site which goes right back to the season, not just a year.

At Beccles we managed to get a date for the entire site of Spring 75BC, down to three months.

We work quite long days on site but it's not just working, it's also a lot of fun. Some of this is in things like we often have a barbecue on site, particularly when we're working late in the evening.

So, obviously, if you're going to have a barbecue in England, it's going to guarantee the weather changes.

Like many regions, on the Waveney there's a lot of local interest in the archaeology there. We held an open day this year and we have on previous sites in the area, where we have visitors from the local community come along and they see the site, we talk to them about the archaeology and show them really what's right on their doorstep. We get quite a lot of interest.

As well as lifting posts, the actual intricacies of archaeology require some very delicate work. This involves excavating the surface of the peat to find pieces of pottery. Because peat continues to grow through time, it's very difficult to identify where the land surface was at a particular period.

This means we have to be careful as we go down. It becomes defined in these landscapes, by areas of woodchips, fragments of human activity, pottery, those sorts of elements which know were actually on that Iron Age land surface.

We're also taking samples for palaeo-environmental work - reconstruction of what the past landscape was like - and dating of the Beccles settlement itself.

Pottery is quite rare on these sites, although we've had bits from each of the sites we've looked at. At Geldeston we had some Roman pottery which was found actually higher up in the layer above the site. We also had some late Iron Age pottery, from within the structure itself. It's great for giving an idea of the dates whilst you're still on site. Although of course these samples will be taken off by specialists and they'll be analysed to get the maximum amount of information.

As well as doing an open day for local residents in the area, we also held a talk, a public lecture in the Village Hall, where people came along, we could talk about not only the Geldeston site, but also the work we've been doing in the region over the last five years or so. To show them some of the artefacts, to talk through what we've discovered and to give them our best interpretation of what's going on in the Iron Age in that landscape.

This also gives an opportunity for people in the community to tell us about discoveries they might have made.

One of the challenges of working with organic remains in archaeology is they are preserved because it's wet but as soon as you take them out of the ground they are starting to deteriorate. They shrink, they dry out and even when you try to keep them wet there are still changes.

One of the things we're very keen on is trying to record those minute details as quickly as we can before they are lost forever. We use techniques such as laser scanning which is using laser technology to crate very high resolution 3d models of the actual timbers at the point when they're taken out of the ground.

For Geldeston on the last day of fieldwork we brought a selection of timbers back to the office and that evening we scanned them so we have a very accurate submillimetre record of all of those cutmarks, the axemarks and woodworking technology from the Iron Age.

One of the challenges with all archaeological sites is that we are studying events that happen sometimes thousands of years ago by digging things up. You can't see these things on the surface nowadays. This has implication for both trying to communicate what these sites might have looked like to other people but also as part of the research process as we try and interpret these sites we have to visualise what they might have looked like, it helps in that process.

Traditionally we'd do this in our heads or by drawing pictures. Because of the advances in computer technology, particularly gaming technologies, we can use the computers to reconstruct what the environment, the plants and the structures - the archaeology - looked like at a certain time.

The site at Geldeston has been reconstructed in a gaming environment which you can see here. This leaves us with a number of challenges. We know from the environmental evidence what plants were growing, how wet it was in certain areas. We know from the archaeology where posts were and other structures, but bringing all that information together into one place - this gaming environment - means we can actually see it for the first time in over 2000 years.

My name is Kristina Krawiec. I'm a Research Associate with the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity at the University of Birmingham. I've worked here for the past eight years, both on commercial and research projects.

My role in the Geldeston training excavation is general overall supervision. Teaching the students in fieldwork practice. Post-excavation practice and general skills. But also to keep an eye on the archaeology, to make sure everything is being done correctly.

As I say, I've worked on both commercial and research and there are obviously certain differences between the two but I think the basic fundamental principles will always remain the same. I teach the students that the skills they learn on the training excavation they can take either way or leave but hopefully they get a really good understanding of the process and the practice and why we do the things that we do. And why it's important that everything they contribute on a training dig forms a part of the archive and will go down in record and what they write is really important.

I think what I like most about teaching the training excavations is that you get to impart your wisdom and the things that you've learnt as you've gone on to undergraduates that they may not get that sort of experience in lectures so it's really important that they learn from someone who's done it for a living. I think they get a really good understanding of what it is that an archaeologist has to be capable of doing.

Whether that's the process, learning to fix a generator, construct a walkway out of whatever you've got lying around, all these things are important skills and teaches that a research excavation isn't a setpiece, it's not designed for them, it's real and it's how archaeology is. I think that is really important for both training excavations and also if they did want to take it into the commercial sphere.

My name is Kaji Green, I'm a first year student here at the University of Birmingham, studying Archaeology and Ancient History. I was a member of the Geldeston excavation this year and it was my first experience of being on an excavation and being a first year student I was unsure what to expect. Especially since we get a lot of our understanding of what archaeology is from tv culture like 'Digging for Britain' or 'Time Team'.

We encountered a number of challenging difficulties such as difficult working conditions, the weather, water management, but alongside this it was conducted in a really friendly atmosphere with really friendly people which made learning a lot more easy. The aspect of excavation that I think was most interesting was the fact that unlike in other degrees in the university, archaeology isn't solely academically-oriented. It has this whole other practical side to it. You'll learn the theory in lectures and get a chance to try it in the real world on excavation. I believe this process is really quite interesting. I'd definitely recommend first year students and second year students to go on an excavation.

My name's Richard Hughes, I'm a year two Archaeology undergraduate. I've been going to the site at Geldeston this year. Last year I looked at dryland dig in the Lake District and this year it's a wetland dig. It's a completely different experience to previously and it was good to be able to bring together a lot of the things that I've learnt over the last two years to take onto the site. To learn new things and put into practice various skills that I've got from the lectures. And also to bring together a lot of the more theoretical aspects into the dig.

It's also the greater part of it is learning from your lecturers on your dig, the researchers and professional archaeologists who you can learn so much from different environments that you're exposed to in this particular degree. The other good thing was the way that what you have learnt and passing that on to first years as well. Taking your own experience from previous years and giving it back to first years. A learning and giving process, it's really interesting.