Excavating the Roman Empire in Britain

 

By Leanne Gunn

The teen team and scientists at Arbeia Fort, South Shields. CC-By-Terry Frain

The teen team and scientists at Arbeia Fort, South Shields. CC-By-Terry Frain

This summer I spent two weeks working alongside 12 teenage volunteers helping to excavate part of the Arbeia Roman Rort and its surrounding settlement in South Shields, Newcastle.

The project was run by an international environmental charity called Earthwatch, who have been working with the archaeologists at Arbeia for over a decade.

The trip gives volunteers hands on experience in real life archaeology including excavation surveying and cleaning, conserving, and marking artifacts.

The science of Archaeology

A cross section showing layering (stratigraphy). The oldest layers are at the bottom.  CC-By-SfjMarit

A cross section showing layering (stratigraphy). The oldest layers are at the bottom.
CC-By-SfjMarit

Over time sediment gradually builds up in layers. Newer layers cover older layers and can often be seen as different colour bands when viewed in cross section. This sequence of layering within the rock record is known as stratigraphy and is an important principle of archaeology.

Excavating is not a case of just digging about and seeing what you find. It is a careful process of removing these layers and gradually uncovering older and older surfaces. .

Archaeologists use the artifacts they find to work out the time period of the layer of sediment.

Roman pottery is a great dating tool because they are commonly found and their design changed frequently over time. The reason fragments of pottery is so common is not because Romans were clumsy and dropped all their pots; but because pots were cheap to make and buy, used often and would only last a couple of years before being thrown away and replaced.

Excavating Arbeia

Alex and Nathan drawing wall collapse in the 'mud pit'.  CC-BY-Terry Frain

Alex and Nathan drawing wall collapse in the ‘mud pit’.
CC-BY-Terry Frain

Current excavation at Arbeia is focused on two sites just outside of the fort walls and this was where our team were working.

One site shows the defensive ditch surrounding the fort into which the fort wall collapsed sometime after the 4th Century. Soon named the ‘mud pit’ by volunteers, work here concentrated on scrapping the mud from around the collapsed stones and then drawing, removing and measuring them. Each stone removed was cleaned and checked for any inscriptions or important markings.

Ella, Jackie and Zach using mattocks to remove the overlying yellow clay. CC-BY-Terry Frain

Ella, Jackie and Zach using mattocks to remove the overlying yellow clay.
CC-BY-Terry Frain

 

The other excavation site was a settlement or Vicus situated close to the Roman fort. In many ways this was harder, dustier work.

For the first week our teen volunteers removed the hard yellow clay which covered a black layer known to contain lots of Roman artifacts. Once the black layer was exposed the volunteers were finally allowed to ‘dig in’ and it was well worth all that hard work!

“Rock or pottery?” became a commonly asked question from the volunteers and my geology background came in surprisingly useful. Soon however, excitement over the discovery of bits of animal bones and Roman pottery paled into insignificance when Alex uncovered a Roman coin!

Small finds: Alex and his roman coin and Lindsey with her roman brooch. CC-BY-Terry Frain

Small finds: Alex and his roman coin and Lindsey with her roman brooch.
CC-BY-Terry Frain

Small finds like coins or jewellery are rarer than pottery and the archaeology protocol after finding one is much more complicated. The precise location of the coin or jewellery is measured using surveying equipment and photography before being whisked away for careful cleaning and thorough study. Despite the coin’s discoloration, the head on the front was eventually identified as the Roman Emperor Nerva who reined for just 16 months from September 96 A.D. to January 98 A.D. A great find!

 

The Earthwatch Institute

Earthwatch is an international environmental charity striving to engage people worldwide in scientific field research and education. They run expeditions for adults and teens to all corners of the world, allowing volunteers to actively help world-class scientists to peruse their research. To find out more about Earthwatch and the full range of expeditions they offer click here.

 

The scientists at Arbeia

This project would never happen without the support of the scientists at Arbeia. Thank you to Paul Bidwell the lead scientist, Nick Hodgson and Alex Croom who taught the group all about archaeology and to Terry, Dave, Peter and Steve who helped guide us all in the field and kept us digging even when it seemed like nothing was to be found.

 

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