Days 11-15 Friday 7th to Tuesday 11th July

Ok, sorry for the delay in getting the blog out to you but between work, weather and a day off, it has been tricky finding the time to squeeze it in. However, things have eased off a little allowing me time to bring you up to speed. So here’s what’s been happening.

Trench six

Things have been relatively quiet in trench six. Most of the team there have been planning the stones which formed part of the mound structure. This is painstaking work as each stone is drawn individually and to scale, and there are rather a lot of them. The image below shows you everything in trench six, including two 2m scales to show you how large the trench is. The photo was taken by Richard, one of our volunteers and our thanks to him for this.

On Monday and Tuesday Nick was working on his other day job – minibus driver as it was time to take most of the Manchester students back to the university and pick up the second wave to bring them to Dorstone. This meant that his team joined in the work in trench seven.

A vertical view of trench six – all the stones for drawing!

Trench seven

Julian watering features again!

Over in trench seven things have been moving on apace. The weather for the most part has been very good, but it has meant that we have had to water the ground to both make it easier to trowel and to identify features. In the photo here, Julian is watering the eastern end of the ditch on Friday morning. During the course of Friday we continued to try to find the edge of the ditch. What we were looking for was a change in soil colour (from a pinkish clay to a browner clay) which is always a guide for archaeologists. More of the ditch emerged as the students did a lot of hard troweling in the sun.

Saturday was our day of and so over the course of the last three days progress was variable and then slowed a little as students left and yesterday it rained for most of the day. However, We are very pleased with what we have found.

Working on a pair of ‘slots’ over the ditch.

The strategy that Julian has decided on is to initially sample parts of the ditch. To do this we have used high-tech string and nails to mark out the areas of interest. As you can see in the photo here, we have left a narrow part or baulk between two areas or slots we’re excavating. As we take more material out, these baulks will help up see the profile or shape of the ditch and more usefully identify the sequence of how the layers built up over time.

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Neolithic pottery in the ground. There is a curved piece, and a large black coloured piece on the right of the picture.

Sunday bought excitement to site as Julian, of it just had to be him, found a very large piece of early Neolithic pottery in the eastern end of trench seven. It was a significant find, and Julian thinks it is one of the largest pieces of pottery he has ever found! Even though great care was taken we were unable to keep it in one piece. Nonetheless, it was packed in bubble wrap and a plastic box and taken back to our temporary office for safe-keeping. Once the excavation is over it will be analysed to give information about its style and possibly where it was made. Using a technique called ceramic petrology it is possible to identify the source of the clay used to make a pot.

Monday and Tuesday saw everyone working in trench seven. Our main problem was trying to find some of the terminals of the ditches. In most causewayed enclosures archaeologists have found lots of artefacts, bones etc in this area. So, everyone was busy looking for these, and we have now got several identified. Things have also got a little more complex as it appears that at some time in prehistory people have dug into the ditches and deposited what seems to be a mixture of burnt material.

One of many muddy boots on site on Tuesday.

Tuesday also saw the first day of rain, and we had varying amounts of it throughout the day. This made almost everything from trowelling to record keeping more difficult, and we want to thank everyone for a great effort yesterday!

In other news

Tonight sees the third of the series of lectures by project staff. This week sees Dr Nick Overton giving a talk on one of the most exciting materials found during the excavations on Dorstone Hill – Rock Crystal. He assures me it is a world premier, so we’ll see you down at Dorstone Village Hall this evening!


Day 10 – Thursday 6th July

Early morning on the campsite.

Day 10 dawned with the promise of another warm day on the site. And so it proved be. We are at an exciting stage of the excavation as there are features such as the ditch and pits/post holes ready for us to look at in detail.

Trench six

The orange material between the stones is daub.

It was a quiet day in trench six. Quiet but busy. Nick and his team are patiently planning all the features in the trench. As you might remember, they’ve uncovered some of the mound they excavated last year, and part of 2013’s features are also visible. As the team cleaned back the trench and found the level for this year’s work, they came across splodges (a technical term) of orange material. This is prehistoric daub that was made to be put between timber or wooden stakes to form a wall. We think it was made of a mixture of mud, dung and other organic material. What gives it it’s orange colour is heat – it has been subjected to intense heat or burning. The sort of burning that produced the burnt timbers found in the earlier excavations. All of this material seems to have been used in the creation of the mound.

As the team are so busy planning, they are not excavating and finding artefacts. So, in the gallery below, are some of the finds from trench six.

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Trench seven

Students hard at work revealing the ditch.

Trench seven was a hive of activity as most of the team were set the task of revealing the ditch segments of the causewayed enclosure. There seem to be four segments in the trench running from east to west. There’s a change of direction on the west edge as the ditch was shown by the resistivity survey to turn to the southwest and around the top of the hill. Work was a little slower today as we’d run out of water to soak some of the key areas of the trench beforehand. Still, everybody worked really had, and by the end of the day each of the sections we were digging across the ditch had shown that we were on target.

The darker layers of the ditch are beginning to show.

The upper layer or fill of the ditch is easily recognisable from the surrounding areas – it is a darker reddish brown and has areas of burning in it. Burning seems to be an important activity on Dorstone Hill, with so much evidence of it in the three mounds just to the north of this ditch. So, the question we as archaeologists are asking is “what is the significance of burning to people in the Neolithic?”

In other news

More visitors to site today! We were visited by Jodie Lewis of the University Worcester, another specialist in the archaeology of Neolithic Britain. She was squeezing a visit to us in before she sets of on her own excavation in Somerset in a few days time. Summer is such a busy time for archaeologists! More importantly we were visited by some of the pupils from Fairfield High School in nearby Peterchurch. They were given their own tour of the site by Nick! Lucky boys . . .

Dig Life

It was birthday time on the dig today with not one, but two birthdays to celebrate. It was Julian’s and Richard’s turn to have their temporary homes decorated by some of the students!






Day 9 – Wednesday July 5th

What a day! Really hot, dusty work in both trenches but our reward is that we’re beginning to excavate some of the features and both trenches are looking good!

Trench six

In trench six, by the end of work today, Nick and his team have reached the next stage of their work – recording all the features exposed so far. This means they’ve started photographing and then planning all the individual stones of the mound and the ditch. As well as taking photos from ground level, we use a pole-mounted camera for near-vertical images of the features such as the mound structure. It can be a bit tricky to get images at times as you need to use the self-timer function and then raise the camera on the pole. After a few goes at this, Nick got the right images for the ‘official’ record.

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Trench seven

In trench seven work on excavating the ditch of the causewayed enclosure has now begun. There are several segments of ditch in the trench that have now been exposed. Each of the has been targeted for excavation. As director of the project, Julian has been busy marking out sections to be dug using old-fashioned technology – string and nails. Each of the ditch segments has a section in it which will not be excavated immediately and these ‘baulks’ will allow us to look at cross-sections of the ditch. Why would we want to do that? Well, each cross-section will tell us the story of the ditch, from the time it was first dug until now. Sometimes these ditches were re-dug in the Neolithic, exactly why we don’t know, but there are as you might imagine many theories on this. By the end of the day the first few centimetres of ditch fill had been removed as the team were looking to find the edges. Julian was really pleased to see several finds emerging so early in proceedings, including a nice piece of flint he found himself! What made this flint so noticeable was the signs of what archaeologists call ‘re-touch’ where someone has removed small flakes from one side, producing a sharp edge which could be used for cutting or scraping.

Away from the ditch Hannah and Elena have almost finished excavating their small, but exciting feature. What made it exciting? As you know from a previous blog, flint, pottery and some hazelnut shells were found. On removing the second half, even more hazelnut shells were found, and then acorns! Hannah and Elena have looked in detail at the feature. It is shallow, less than 20cm deep and around 70cm in diameter. There were definite signs of burning and flecks of charcoal on one side. What could it be? Possibly a small fire or hearth is one idea that seems to fit the bill at the moment, but nothing is certain at the moment.

In other news

We get a small number of visitors each day, and so far there’s been an international flavour with some Swiss archaeologists and a couple of Australian tourists! Today we had a visit from a colleague, Adam Stanford. Adam is, among many things, a photographer specialising in archaeological sites. He’ll be taking some more fantastic images of the site, like the one we’ve used as the header image above! While he was here he showed us his latest acquisition – a new drone! He’ll be using this to capture the site from all angles and not just the trenches open now. He has a record of all the trenches opened since the project began, and a great ‘mosaic’ of all the work done so far is a thing to be seen!

Dig life

Life of a dig is not all digging, so we’ll give you a glimpse of those behind the scenes moments.

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Day 8 – Tuesday July 4th

What every well dressed digger is wearing this season! Ritchie’s boots after first-aid.

Despite the date there were no Independence Day celebrations on site today. Everyone was far too busy, even the two American students we have working with us.  We are working at full speed as the sun beats down on us – notice how I’m trying to get a sympathy vote here? No? Ah well. Ok, so what happened on site today?

In trench six, Nick and his team are making good progress. After exposing last year’s work they have cleaned all the archaeology and have begun to excavate new mound material. As they have worked, one of the things they’ve exposed is a number of areas of orange coloured material. Nick says this is the remains of some of the daub-like material that was part of the wooden structure built before the stone material was added and the large mound was formed. It was all added to the mound, and may represent the inclusion of ‘everyday’ material within a special site.

Elena and Hannah excavating a small pit. They take one half out first and carefully record the finds.

Well the good news is that the grid in trench seven is complete and that means that planning can speed up. It takes a while to plan a trench accurately and of course for most of the students its their first time, so things move a little slowly at first. In addition to this some of the features are beginning to be excavated. On the eastern side of the trench a small circular area containing some flint and pottery was the first to be dug.

Those hazelnut shells!

As you can see in the picture above, it is quite a small feature, but some very interesting finds have emerged. So far there has been flint, pottery, hazelnut shell and rock crystal in this small pit. While we are interested in the flint and pottery, the hazelnut shell and rock crystal are making us very excited! The hazelnut shells can be used to give a radiocarbon date for the site (more on that later!) and the rock crystal is a type of stone material that doesn’t occur naturally in the area, so that means it has arrived on the top of Dorstone Hill as a result of human activity. Once the rock crystal has been recorded and processed, there’ll be pictures of it up here!

Julian keeping the site watered!

In other news, we have been suffering from the ground being so dry, and desperate times call for desperate measures. In an effort to keep some moisture in the ground Julian has been using a simple way of doing this. Today however we solved this problem, well in part at least. We have a bowser, which is a large water container or tank on wheels. Only one problem with this, no way of getting it from tank to where we needed it. So, after a couple of trips to Hay-on-Wye and the builder’s merchant, we managed to get a system of sorts up and running and now we can use a hosepipe on site to keep in watered. Julian was very happy by the end of the day!

Day 7 – Sunday July 3rd

Tom from Cardiff University, setting out a drawing board to plan.

It was a quiet day on site today. We were are concentrating on getting all the cleaning finished. It’s increasingly hard work as the sun and wind continue to dry out the ground.

So while it doesn’t sound too exciting, work continues apace. All the grid pegs are in and the grid inside the trenches are now complete. Now it is down to planning, and so the students are learning how to produce scaled drawings of the features in the trenches. The whole process will take a couple of days to complete. As plans of areas of the trench are completed other members of the team are beginning to excavate more features. One of them has pottery and flint poking out, so we’re keen to have a look at this.

Elsewhere on the project there are more mundane things to be done. A good part of my day for example, was spent getting fresh gas containers from Hereford so cooking could continue, and taking under the weather students back to camp or the NHS Walk-in Centre to see a doctor. All in a day’s work!

A student’s view of it all

“Still alive. . . just. Only kidding. Still very much alive and spending my days moving dirt from one place to the next. Although it has been somewhat difficult and strenuous adapting to living out of a tent and outside of major cities it is a life that nowhere near as bad as I had feared a week ago. I may never get used to buses coming less frequently than every 10mins, but I’m sure my lungs will thank the change from the opaque London air.”

“Digging is tedious, particularly when scraping dirt off of what was essentially dirt. However, I am beginning to appreciate the days where there are no finds, as once you get past the disappointment you remember that you are contributing to uncovering parts of the human story, which may change the way in which English Neolithic monumentality is seen by both the academic community and the wider public in general. Despite remaining somewhat clueless with regard to what the supervisors and directors expect to uncover here at Dorstone Hill, I sincerely hope its something special.”

“Excavating is a lot different to the way it’s made out to be in warm centrally heated lecture theatres in Manchester. So, although I’m homesick and have very, very little desire to ever be a field archaeologist, I still find this experience to be a valuable one, as I have a far more tangible understanding of the process by which artefacts that I geek-out over in museums are obtained.”

“I’d be totally lying if I said I was upset that my time on excavation was coming to an end, but I’d also be lying if I said I regretted coming along for the ride.”

Soriyah Carnegie, Manchester University student.

Day 6 – Sunday July 2nd

The sharp-eyed among you will have notice there was no day 5 blog, that’s because we had a day off! Many of returned to site on Sunday after a good rest and a variety of refreshments in Hay-on-Wye!

The early part of excavations are very similar wherever you are. The trenches have to be opened, then cleaned and then placed on the site grid. The trenches as Dorstone Hill are placed or identified by using the Ordnance Survey national grid. So the news is not always exciting, but slowly and surely we are making progress in both trenches.

Trench six is looking good as Nick and his team have revealed some of the structure of the eastern mound.

In trench six where Nick is working with some of the University of Manchester students, they have uncovered all of the blue tarpaulins and are now cleaning up the structure of the eastern mound. Underneath this there is a ditch which, although you can’t see it here, forms a u-shape, the top of which is on the right hand side of the picture. They’re making great progress here, and they too are beginning to find prehistoric material.

Over in trench seven the last of the first of what will be several ‘cleans’ of the surface was almost completed. It has been very difficult for everyone as there was no overnight rain and after a day off site, the sun and wind had dried the clay to a nice concrete-like hardness! Despite this the students had done a great job getting the surface ready for planning.

Students are beginning to use planning frames.

As you will have read in one of the earlier blogs, the whole of each trench will be planned – that is all the features such as stones, the ditch segments and find spots – will be identified and drawn into a scale drawing. This will give us what archaeologists call a pre-excavation (or ‘pre-ex’) plan.

In order to do this we use something called a planning frame. This is a metre square frame made of wood or aluminium with a grid inside made of nylon or string. The grid is typically 20cm squares. When planning a large trench like trench seven the whole trench is first divided up into 10m  squares. Within the resulting squares a planning frame is usually placed on the ground and the grid gives scale to draw any features within it. Increased accuracy is achieved by using a hand tape-measure to measure distances. All the measurements are transferred to the drawing, which is made on a material called ‘permatrace’ which is a waterproof film, handy for outdoor drawing! All the drawings of plans will made using a scale of 1:20. That means that for every 20cm we measure on the ground will be 1cm on the drawing.

The end of the day saw the grid almost complete and the end of the cleaning in sight. After another long day in the field we were hoping that there’d be some overnight rain . . .

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Day 4 – Friday 30th June

Very early morning over the campsite – sunshine!

Day four looked to be off to a promising start at 5.30 a.m. with sunshine appearing over the back of the campsite – something we hadn’t seen for days! Sadly it wasn’t to last. By breakfast time the clouds had rolled back in over Dorstone.

Despite the slight chill in the air, the team were ready for another day. As it is Friday there was a spring in the step as tomorrow is our day off! We arrived at site to find that some overnight rain had kept the clay moist enough to prevent it hardening again. The state of the weather is a constant topic of concern on an excavation as it can influence what happens during the day. The forecast was for it to be overcast, a good thing in our case.

Dr Nick Overton with the crew of trench six!

Over in trench six Dr Nick Overton and his team had been making great progress over the past few days. They were working on the eastern mound and removing the backfill from last year’s excavations. This year they will be going to excavate more of the mound to help understand how it was constructed and what it’s final form would have been. The blue tarpaulin you see is the covering Nick and his team put down at the end of last year’s excavations to protect the archaeology they found and to act as a signal they had reached to right level.

Over in trench seven work progressed nicely on cleaning back the area to allow the team to begin to spot more possible features. Some light rain during the night made this a whole lot easier for everyone. Even though we are not quite in the layers we think are Neolithic, we are still finding things which tell us we are getting close. Among the finds today were prehistoric pottery and some flint tools. We’re beginning to get excited!

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Day 3 – Thursday 29th June

The team in trench seven get ready to start cleaning the trench.

Another overcast sky greeted us as we prepared for day three. By the time we got to site a little after 8.30 a.m. the clouds were drifting through the trees that skirt the edge of the field. Still, it was better than rain.

That said, it had rained again during the night which meant that the ground had become rather sticky underfoot. Despite this the team in trench seven got to work on cleaning of some of the clay which was still covering the surface we were looking for. The clay layer we were removing was still giving us the occasional surprise. We continued to find small pieces od Neolithic pottery, and one patch looked really promising for next week as there were several pieces of flint and pottery coming to the surface.

Sariya, one of the University of Manchester students helps identify grid pegs.

Elsewhere on the site, members of the team were continuing to lay out the grid around both of the trenches. This is a great opportunity for students to learn about some of the technology that archaeologists use everyday.  The students were in the capable hands of Dr Irene Garcia Rovira, who amongst many roles she has, is an associate director of the project. She takes them through each of the steps involved in using what is know as a total station. This machine helps us to measure distance, heights and angles that allow us to create accurate plans of the site and the trenches. Once we begin finding more artefacts we will use it to make a 3D model of where they were all found.

Just look how muddy it gets!

It was a long, hard day in the field, and as you can see here by the state of a wheelbarrow wheel. While they are on the excavation the students are gaining valuable work experience. This can range from helping prepare the food for the whole team (something all the students do) to learning about Health & Safety. In the case of the wheelbarrow, they learn it is important to keep it clean and relatively free of mud to reduce the risk of slipping when it is full.

One of our supervisors, Ann, is showing and explaining how to use a trowel to Zoe, Emilia and Kat.

For most of the students it is their first time on an excavation and so they have a lot to learn, particularly about how to excavate and use tools.  All of the supervisors take the time to introduce the students to how to excavate. This includes how to use a trowel and other hand tools, as well as paying attention to what you are excavating. Not an easy thing to do when you are new to it.

This piece of tarpaulin is covering an area with artefacts in it until we can inspect it more closely.

There were some bright spots for us. In the image here you can see that we have covered a small area which has some artefacts in it. There were some great artefacts found too, including two Neolithic arrowheads. How do we know thy are Neolithic? Well we can tell by their size and shape. They are what archaeologists call leaf-shaped arrowheads, because, well they are shaped like leaves! Once they have been processed by the team, well have pictures for you in our next blog.



Day 2 – Wednesday 28th June

What a difference a day makes. During the early hours of Wednesday morning I was woken by rain bouncing off the tent, and on getting out of it later I saw a lot of low level cloud and felt the odd spot of drizzle. It didn’t look too promising at 6 a.m.. However, the rain held off for the most part and we were able to press on with work.

The overnight rain had done it’s work and the hard clay had softened. Too much some thought, as it was sticky in places, making it difficult to shovel once the mattock had done it’s job. Despite this, the team was able to get plenty done and more interesting things were beginning to appear in both trenches.

Over in the small trench – aka Trench 6 – the tarpaulins which had been put down last year to cover the archaeology that had been found, began to emerge and the trench supervisor, Dr Nick Overton – was able to establish the limits of last year’s work and extend the trench a little further east to find more features. They also had time to erect an electric fence. Why Ian electric fence on an excavation? Well, the field still has sheep grazing on it, and if they get in the trench after we have left for the day, they can walk over the archaeology and possibly damage it. They can also leave us little presents which have to be cleared up the next morning!

Over in the big trench – aka Trench 7 – we were not so worried about sheep as we had yet to reach the level where we expected to find the ditch, pits and post holes shown on the geophysical survey. Here we had another hard day taking out the layer of clay which covers most of the trench. Despite having a JCB take out much of the upper layers of turf, top and subsoil, the depth of material to be taken out ranged between 5cm and 20cm. So some of theteam had a very hard day of it.

On the positive side, we are beginning to find some very interesting things. There have been some flint flakes popping up across the trench. These are pieces of flint which have been struck off a larger piece, possibly when someone was making a stone tool. In one corner of the trench quite a few pieces of quartz have been found, and this is interesting as quartz doesn’t occur naturally in the area. This means that it has arrived there by human action. Why? Well we don’t know yet, and it is very early in the exacation to speculate too much on this.

The star finds of the day however were to two arrowheads found. One in each of the trenches, and they were different types. Again, it is too early to speculate too much about these, but it suggest that we will be finding more soon!

We’ll be keeping our eyes peeled for more finds  as we continue to clean back the trenches. There’ll be another update later today.

Day 1 Tuesday 27th June

Hello everyone and welcome to the daily update from this year’s excavations on Dorstone Hill in Herefordshire. Each evening we’ll be giving you all the news from the excavation, campsite and village. So let’s dive on in!

Tuesday might seem an odd day to start work on a project, but Monday was taken up with getting everybody to the lovely village of Dorstone, nestling in the Golden Valley in Herefordshire. By tea time on Monday most of the students, volunteers and staff had arrived, unpacked and settled in. There was an official meeting where staff were introduced and we had a health and safety briefing from the campsite manager. Of course, no excavation is complete without a trip to the pub, so we had one!

Tuesday dawned with an overcast sky, but everyone was ready to get to work on the hill. As you might remember, there are two trenches in this year’s excavation and Prof Julian Thomas and I were down on the site last week supervising the opening of the trenches. On arrival on site all the students and volunteers were given an orienting tour by Prof. Thomas (he says I can call him Julian now) while the staff began getting the site ready.

In the big trench we had a quick look over to see if anything had emerged since we were last on site. Once the soil has begun to be removed, the ground begins to dry out and features such as post holes or pits can appear as dark marks in the soil. This is because the material that has filled the hole in retains moisture better than the undisturbed ground. Sadly for us there was little to see as there was a lot of reddish-brown clay across the trench. Still, we had expected this, but we always live in hope.

The beginning of any excavation is always hard work with not much  reward. In our case the whole of both trenches needed cleaning with a mattock. This is tool that is a cross between a pickaxe and a trowel (pictures will follow!). So for most of us it was a hard day’s work, as in addition to using mattocks to clean the trench, we need to move all the soil using shovels and wheelbarrows. Once out of the trench we put all the soil in what we call a spoil-heap. Not just a simple pile of soil, but one that must be kept in some form of shape or it spreads far and wide!

By the end of the day we had achieved most of what we thought we could. Despite not be used to the conditions the students worked really hard and can be pleased with the results. It isn’t the most glamorous part of archaeology but without it there wouldn’t be much to see. All the staff would like to thank everyone for their efforts on a very hard day!

Don’t forget, if you have a question for any member of the team, use the comment box below and we’ll get it in the next blog!