Skull & Crossed Bones Revealed!

Big day today; we finally tipped the gravestone fragment overlying the skull and crossed bones stone. These were most likely chucked in with the rubble in the 1920’s. Everytime we have turned a stone, hoping to reveal an inscription, we have been disappointed. Understandably, expectations were set low.

Planning, section drawing and excavation. What a talented group we are!
Planning, section drawing and excavation. What a talented group we are!
... and don't forget the sieving ...
… and don’t forget the sieving …
Conquering the summit of the spoil heap (without oxygen tank)
Conquering the summit of the spoil heap (without oxygen tank)
Learning the archaeologists' pose
Learning the archaeologists’ pose
Yet more finds found
Yet more finds found
Archaeologists are wary of being approached from behind
Archaeologists are wary of being approached from behind
Yuck! My glove!
Yuck! My glove!
Working on the section drawing
Working on the section drawing

Meanwhile, the west section of our eastern test pit was drawn. As soon as I remember to scan it I will add am image into this post. The leaders backfilled once members had left (we always save the best jobs for ourselves). We can now start on our last test pit in this phase of the excavation.

We finished the session with a low point; lifting and turning the stone overlying our skull and crossed bones. We were not disappointed in our disappointment.

Reverse of gravestone fragment
Reverse of gravestone fragment

One day we’ll come across the Dunfermline Graveyard equivalent to this recent photograph from Pompeii.

Pompeii victim not crushed by falling masonry
Pompeii Victim not crushed by falling masonry

More Sunshine, what can this mean?

Very weird YAC session today, it was still dry and sunny. The graveyard soil is beginning to dry out and become more difficult to work. Bone in particular has to be excavated much more carefully, with wooden lolly sticks and toothpicks, when the earth is dry.

Sieving

Here are some photos of YAC members sieving their hearts out. As the soil dries out sieving becomes both easier and more productive.

Putting today's spoil into a bucket, ready to be sieved
Putting today’s spoil into a bucket, ready to be sieved
Sieving onto another part of the spoil heap, to avoid resieving the same spoil
Sedentary sieving
Sedentary sieving
Cleaning up a trench
Meticulous sieving whilst excavating
Power sieving
Power sieving
Working in the trenches
Working in the trenches

We are working on tidying up the south west trench in readiness for final recording and backfilling. Above, you can see a YAC member and assistant working on leveling the base of a trench and revealing the bottom edges of gravestones so we can measure their depth.

Below, members are working on the tricky grave discovered in the southern side of the trench. It is close to a large table stone previously excavated, underneath a smaller table stone, then disappears under the fence and towards the tree that has been slowly tipping it up with its roots.

Despite limited access and a difficult reach, we have explosed the entire depth of the curb stone and discovered a miscellany of finds in the fill of the curbed area.

Found it!
Found it!
Bone being identified (or not)
Bone being identified (or not)
Knee preservation measures
Excavating makes you happy!
Excavating makes you happy!
Planning for the future
Planning for the future

Meanwhile we have been drawing sections of the eastern test pit edge. They show very nicely the depth and composition of the rubble spread in the 1920’s. Once this is done we can backfill and move north along the row.

Section of North Trench Edge
Section of North Trench Edge
Excavating makes you miserable
Excavating makes you miserable

A Graveyard in the Sun!

At last! Back in Dunfermline Abbey Graveyard again and enjoying warmth and even sunshine. We had a really good turnout and a few new members along to try their hands at excavation.

There was a high bone count today as we finished excavating a small assemblage of long bones, probably chucked back in in 1927 immediately before rubble was put down to prevent further subsidence.

Clearly something interesting going on
Clearly something interesting going on
Some intial finds interpretation
Some intial finds interpretation
Intense supervision
Foreground: Active supervision; Brackground: Static supervision
Hard at work
Hard at work in the graveyard, which is a perfectly normal thing to do
Sieving spoil for missed finds
Sieving spoil for missed finds
Look what we excavated (very carefully)
Look what we excavated (very carefully)
Standing around, so must be break time
Standing around, so must be break time
Standing around, so must be break time
Pretty sure there is some eating going on in the background of this picture
A couple of leaders clearly not doing that
A couple of leaders clearly not doing that
YAC member working on wrecking his knees
YAC member working on wrecking his knees
Teamwork in the graveyard
Teamwork in the graveyard
A find perhaps? A Worm?
A find perhaps? A Worm?
A bothersome tree root
A bothersome tree root

 

Some Bones

Here is a selection of bone, still uncleaned, that we recovered today. To view a larger image just click on a picture.

Human Vertebrae
Human Vertebrae
Interior of fragmented Occipital (back of skull)
Interior of fragmented occipital (back of skull)
Exterior of fragmented Occipital (back of skull)
Exterior of fragmented occipital (back of skull)
Ulna (forearm) and fragmented Femur (thigh bone)
Ulna (forearm) and fragment of femur (thigh bone)
Note the cut mark on this bone
See the cut mark on this bone? How do you think it was caused? Knife? Gravedigger’s spade? Is it a human or animal bone do you think?
A selection of teeth (middle one probably from a sheep)
A selection of teeth. You should be able to spot the odd one out.

Back in Anstruther

Saturday was warm and sunny, so naturally our first meeting for ages was indoors! Once again the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther played host to the cleaning and sorting of human bone fragments from Dunfermline Abbey Graveyard.  Just a few of us along today: Campbell, Kathryn, Michal, Niamh and Ryan worked away at cleaning, sorting and supervising leaders Henry, Mark and Rob.

Stan helping a member identify a bone (it was a heel)
Stan helping a member identify a bone (it was a heel)
Sorting bones into trays by broad type
Sorting bones into trays by broad type

We were joined by Dr Ennis Cezayirli from the School of Medicine at St Andrews University and a colleague of our leader Henry. Ennis is expert in identification of human bone fragments and was a great help to us.

Bone washers, washing bones
Bone washers, washing bones

 

From Graveyard to Dovecote

Sorting and separating viewed from a safe distance

Last Saturday it was sufficiently warm and dry to hold an outdoor YAC session. We had an impressive turn out, with Aisling, Algirdas, Brodie, Caleb, Fraser, Katie, Michal, Mollie, Nicoleta and Ryan all contributing to an enjoyable and productive session.

We met up in the graveyard, as you do, to sort some of the finds and also to pick through sieved spoil from the dovecote in Pittencrieff Park, looking for the small bones of small animals, rusty roof nails and the like.

Once everyone had arrived we headed up to the dovecote to excavate and sieve yet more of the spoil from last summer. We have opened a new trench in the dovecote at right angles to the existing one. So far we have more evidence of fire, with finds of burnt animal bone and patches of ash and charcoal with fallen roof tiles mixed in.

One of the more substantial fragments of burnt wood has mortar on one side, suggests that it might once have formed part of an internal wooden frame against the wall to which the pigeon nesting boxes were fixed. If this interpretation is correct, then did it burn whilst still standing or after the frame had been dismantled?

We have been interpreting the evidence of fire in the dovecote as the remains of camp fires, lit for warmth and cooking purposes. But maybe there was an uncontrolled fire inside the dovecote that brought down the wooden nesting boxes and ladder? I think a visit to the library might be in order.

All the photos were taken by Aisling this week.

Sorting finds, dreaming of freedom
Sorting finds, dreaming of freedom
At work in the graveyard
At work in the graveyard
Sorting and separating viewed from a safe distance
Sorting and separating viewed from a safe distance
Impressive shovel action
Impressive shovel action
Sorting pottery and other finds
Sorting pottery and other finds
Is this a bone I see before me?
Is this a bone I see before me?
Excavating in the dust of the dovecote
Excavating in the dust of the dovecote
Hunting for finds in the spoil and raising dust
Hunting for finds in the spoil and raising dust
The luxury of indoor excavation
The luxury of indoor excavation
Sieving for gold, but finding small animal bones
Sieving for gold, but finding small animal bones
Triumphant young archaeologist
Triumphant young archaeologist
Alert young archaeologist
Alert young archaeologist
Evil young archaeologists?
Evil young archaeologists?

Archaeology Family Fun Day

Small People Hunting for Small Bones

We were invited by Edinburgh Archaeology Outreach Project (EAOP) to help with their first Family Fun Day, held at Summerhall on Saturday, so naturally we did. Aisling, Campbell, Ella, Kathryn, Keziah and Nicoleta came along to help run the Fife YAC stand and to enjoy the other activities on offer (including the rather tasty looking cakes).

We brought along the horse skeleton excavated by AOC near Cromarty and some of the sieved spoil from the dovecote in Pittencrieff Park, to let people have a go at finding small animal bones. We gave away lots of YAC postcards, so hopefully there will be at least one or two new members joining the Edinburgh group.

With 224 visitors visiting Summerhall over the course of the day, we were kept busy right up till 4 o’clock closing time. All four bags of spoil were sorted by lots of potential young archaeologists at no cost to us. Interestingly, the adults were much less eager to offer free labour. Meanies!

As usual, most of the photos were taken by Aisling.

The YAC Table
The YAC Table, Spot Cassidy with the Horse Bones
Small People Hunting for Small Bones
The YAC Floor: Small People Hunting for Small Bones
Some Archaeological Science
Some Archaeological Science
Pinning Bones onto a Skeleton
Pinning Bones onto a Skeleton
Treasure in the Sands
Treasure in the Sands
More Bones
More Bones
Stone Age in a Metal Box
Archaeology Scotland’s Stone Age in a Metal Box
Bronze Age in a Box
and Bronze Age in a Steel Box
Faces Painted
Faces Painted
Loyal Face Paint
A Source of Inspiration

Back in the Abbey Graveyard

Extending a trench

No rain, ground not waterlogged or frozen, temperature above freezing; conditions are about as good as they are likely to get for excavating in Scotland, so we met up for a couple of hours work in Dunfermline Abbey Graveyard on Saturday. An excellent New Year turnout: Brodie, Caleb, Ella, Fraser, Ivan, Kathryn, Lee, Michal, Niamh and Olivia all braved the cruel whim of YAC leadership.

After a quick clear-up of leaves and dead branches blown onto the site over the Christmas vacation, we got back to work in three active trenches. The first is a test pit, excavated to determine if there is a gravestone lying at the foot of George Watt’s 3 room plot. So far there isn’t, but we have worked through the usual layer of 1920’s rubble down onto a more earthy stratum of midden (rubbish) beneath.

On Saturday we recovered an interesting mix of human bone fragments and animal teeth, probably sheep.

Excavating and cleaning finds
Excavating and cleaning finds

Meanwhile, in the north-west corner, we continue to work on extending the trench to expose more of the wall-like structure that we assume was constructed to provide a secure foundation for a row of gravestones.

Extending a trench
Extending a trench

Here we found our first complete clay tobacco pipe bowl.

Bowl of clay tobacco pipe with leaf decoration
Bowl of clay tobacco pipe

Apparently some people would carry on smoking a pipe until there was almost none of the stem left before throwing it away, which is probably the case with this specimen. Cool isn’t it? The literature on pipe manufacture in Dunfermline doesn’t mention this model of pipe, so we have yet to identify the manufacturer.

Bowl of clay tobacco pipe with leaf decoration
Bowl of clay tobacco pipe with leaf decoration

Back down south, some of our Edinburgh University, Archaeological Society friends worked on the curbed grave. Access is not easy, as you can see. The area within the stone curb has been at least partially filled with a mix of clay, rubbish and bone fragments, both human and animal.

Working on the curb stone
Working on the curb stone

A fragment of humerus was recovered and cleaned.

Cleaning a bone fragment
Cleaning a bone fragment

We would have worked on our plan of the gravestones, but some fool forgot the tape and so the plane table was taken down again. Sorry about that.

Final meeting of 2017

Final meeting of 2017

We met one last time on the 23rd at the Scottish Fisheries Museum. Just a few members made it so close to Christmas: Andrew, Campbell, Daniel, Elspeth, Fraser and Keziah.

We sorted and cleaned bone excavated in Dunfermline Abbey Graveyard, helped again by Skelly and Stan.

Stan looking a bit tired
Stan looking a bit tired

It’s fine for Skelly, he lies on his back the whole time, but poor Stan hangs around, standing for the entire two hours, being poked about by YAC members.

We sorted trays of clean, dry bone fragment by type and then bagged them up. Inevitably we were left with a small number of unidentified specimens, some of which are likely to turn out to be animal. We were pretty sure that there were at least bits of chicken and pig bone to add to a growing assemblage of non-human bone.

About to bag sorted bone
About to bag sorted bone
Bagging up the sorted bone
Bagging up the sorted bone
Niamh being cheerful
Niamh being cheerful, while Stan rests the top of his head on the table
Not quite sure what's going on here
A demonstration of how not to sit on a chair

At the other end of the table a group of cleaners got on with that. We have excavated a lot of broken glass over the months, much of it thick, bottle glass. Some is just plain, but other pieces are coated in a gold paint of some sort.

Cleaners cleaning
Cleaners cleaning

This tends to come away very easily, especially when the glass is wet, so we cleaned gently with damp toothbrushes.

Cleaning and sorting glass
Cleaning and sorting glass
Carefully cleaning glass
Carefully cleaning glass

We also got on with cleaning some of the smaller bone fragments that we have excavated over the last few months. Some of these pieces will be too fragmented and damaged to identify, but there are likely to be more teeth, smaller human bones such as distal phalanges, and animal bones amongst them.

Cleaning bone fragments
Cleaning bone fragments

 

Archaeologists in captivity: state-of-the-art conservation or animal cruelty?

We released our herd of archaeologists into a small reserve in Dunfermline Abbey Graveyard (Fig. 1) on Saturday, really just to get an idea of just how well they will settle into a purpose built facility. Aisling took all of the photographs you see below.

The enclosure is small, but carefully designed to keep archaeologists of all ages engaged and interested, encouraging them to behave as they would in the wild. While this approach to conservation remains controversial, it does allow members of the public to observe natural behaviour at close quarters and perhaps come to appreciate and better-understand these colourful creatures before it is too late.

Keeping Archaeologists behind very thin bars
Fig. 1 Keeping Archaeologists behind very thin bars

In common with other species dependent on a largely beer-based diet, adult archaeologists spend much of their time resting. Even so, some inquisitive individuals took an interest in the camera (Fig. 2) and even seemed to perform to it on occasion.

The group is at ease.
Fig. 2 The herd spends most of the time resting.

A real test of the purpose-built environment came when we added a new individual into the group (Fig. 3). With plenty of room to excavate quietly, the newcomer was soon joined by both adult and juvenile archaeologists, and accepted as a  member of herd.

Nifty trowel work, only just caught by the camera.
Fig. 3 Nifty trowel work, only just caught by the camera.

In Figure 4 we see an example of how members of the herd began to modify elements of the environment to make it more to their liking. This adult is extending a trench, probably in the hope of exposing more of a wall-like feature that could be seen in the trench edge.

Extending a trench.
Fig. 4 Extending a trench.

The archaeological young are generally more active and playful than the adults, perhaps in part thanks to a sugar-rich diet. At this age, whilst they are keen to explore, the spoil heap seems to have a special attraction (Fig. 5).

Attempting to achieve optimal sieving altitude.
Fig. 5 Young archaeologists learning to achieve optimal sieving altitude.

Figures 6 and 7 illustrate a common archaeological parenting strategy. Supervised by one or more of the adults, these vulnerable juvenile archaeologists remain safely concealed in small test pits about 1.5m square. Here they develop the trowelling skills they will come to rely on when fully grown.

Two young archaeologists practise trowelling in the safety of their test pit.
Fig. 6 Two young archaeologists practise trowelling in the safety of their test pit.
Young archaeologists like to keep their trench edges tidy.
Fig. 7 Young archaeologists like to keep their trench edges straight and tidy.

The herd takes communal responsibility for the young, allowing parents to leave the group to go on extended foraging trips. In Figure 8 an adult, probably a male, has adopted the “crouched pose”; showing to the herd that he is watching over one of the youngsters.

Note how the adult has removed a glove and displays his bare hand. We believe this is intended to reassure the young archaeologist, perhaps indicating that the adult is not a threat and will not steal any finds.

Archaeologists in captivity are now a common site in British towns
Fig. 8 Archaeologists in captivity are becoming a common site in British towns

The classic behaviour that everyone hopes to witness is the excavation of a find, followed by excited examination and sharing. Research has exposed as myth the old idea that archaeologists will only respond to centuries old artefacts. Whilst it is true that individuals often show clear preferences, we now know that any old tat will do, even old crisp packets or juice cans, just so long as artefacts are recovered by excavation.

The hypnotic effect of a find on the bearded archaeologist. He is now at his most vulnerable.
Fig. 9 The hypnotic effect of a find on the bearded archaeologist. He is now at his most vulnerable to predation.

In this sequence of photos we observe several find-related behaviours. First, the almost ecstatic response of an individual to even a small and quite rubbishy find (Fig. 9).

Next, comes the  “putting it back together” behaviour (Fig. 10). This can sometimes occupy small groups of specialist archaeologists for months or even years.

Suddenly the pieces fall into place
Fig. 10 Suddenly the pieces fall into place

Finally we see evidence of the first stage of finds hoarding (Fig. 11), with artefacts brought together in protective, tray-like receptacles. This preliminary stage is often followed by cleaning, sorting and bagging of related finds together.  Eventually most finds are deposited in large boxes and hoarded for many years. As with many aspects of archaeologist behaviour, we still have  no idea what lies behind these complex, almost ritualistic, behaviours.

This ulna was carefully excavated by a young archaeologist.
Fig. 11 This ulna was carefully excavated by a young archaeologist.

Along side the exposure of old bits of structure and the recovery of artefacts, archaeologists like to draw the things they find. To this end they have developed complex, symbiotic relationships with otherwise inanimate species such as the plane table, alidade and tripod (Fig. 12 and 13).

This elderly, one-eyed archaeologist kneels and offers his shiny tooth to the holy alidade, completely ignored by the young archaeologist.
Fig. 12 This elderly, one-eyed archaeologist kneels and seems to show his shiny tooth to the “holy” alidade, while the young archaeologist reverently averts his gaze .

Again, these little studied behaviours have an almost ritualistic quality to them, but presumably provided some evolutionary advantage in the past, before much of these creatures’ habitat was lost.

The ritual of the tape and pole, never before captured on camera.
Fig. 13 The “ritual” of the tape and pole, never before captured on camera.

It would be misleading to suggest that our experiment in Dunfermline was an unqualified success. We observed some aggressive behaviour in the bearded archeologist (Fig. 14). Perhaps with a little more space and access to a confectioner who stocks chewing gum, this outburst might have been avoided. Fortunately none of the young were injured.

The alpha archaeologist asserts his authority and demands chewing gum.
Fig. 14 The alpha archaeologist asserts his authority and demands chewing gum.

A less obvious negative behaviour was observed in a young member of the herd (Fig. 15). His dance-like moves have only been observed in archaeologists in captivity. They are thought to indicate rising stress, here caused by a lack of spoil-filled buckets to sieve. A slight adjustment to the environment might be all that is needed to restore balance.

The young archaeologist has learnt to dance for passers-by.
Fig. 15 The young archaeologist has learnt to dance for passers-by.

There were miscalculations setting up the spoil heap area of the enclosure. The young archaeologist in Figure 16 spent an extended time at the summit. Descending too quickly,  she suffered the archaeological equivalent of the bends and spent several minutes in painful spasm. She recovered quickly and is none the worse for her experience, but we will need to knock a few centimetres from the spoil heap to avoid a repetition.

The physiological effects of high altitude sieving can be extreme.
Fig. 16 The physiological effects of high altitude sieving can be disturbing to witness.

The most surprising behaviour was witnessed in one of the adults. At first glance the archaeologist in Figure 17 seems to be excavating quite contentedly. In reality she is digging an escape tunnel, demonstrating a hitherto unexpected intelligence.

Working on escape tunnel number two.
Fig. 17 Excavating or working on an escape tunnel?

All in all, the brief trial proved to be a useful exercise. We were able to observe some characteristic archaeological behaviours at close quarters. Most of the herd took well to their temporary home, despite the exceptions outlined above. With lessons learnt and a deeper appreciation of these remarkable creatures gained, the next step is to make a few adjustments to the enclosure and then to reintroduce the archaeologists for a more extended period, perhaps overnight.

Has this archaeologist noticed his captivity?
Fig. 18 Is the moving expression on this archaeologist’s face a realisation of captivity?

It is premature to claim that our brief experiment has answered the many criticisms of members of those who claim that it is simply not possible to devise an archaeological environment both humane and confined (Fig. 18). However, it is difficult to deny the promise shown by the Dunfermline experience.

Change

In the autumn Dunfermline YAC started to hold one meeting a month in the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther. Anstruther isn’t in Dunfermline, so I suppose that means that Dunfermline YAC isn’t really just Dunfermline YAC any more. To reflect this change we have moved our blog to a new URL: http://yac-fife.org. Hopefully see you there some time.

The Scottish Fisheries Museum, Anstruther
The Scottish Fisheries Museum