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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here we found our first complete clay tobacco pipe bowl.
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.
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.
A fragment of humerus was recovered and cleaned.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This tends to come away very easily, especially when the glass is wet, so we cleaned gently with damp toothbrushes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
We met in the relative warmth of the Scottish Fisheries Museum on Saturday. Our task was to continue processing bone fragments from the Dunfermline excavation.
The disturbance and study of human remains is an ethical nightmare for archaeology. Our excavation in the old Dunfermline Burgh graveyard hasn’t disturbed any intact burials and hopefully never will. The bone we find has already well churned and broken up by previous activities; reuse of burial plots and the great rubble laying event of the 1920’s.
Even so, we are obligated to treat human remains with respect and to reinter when we eventually backfill. Whether or not our study of these remains counts as treating with respect I am not completely sure, though it is certainly much less disrespectful than their past treatment within the graveyard.
We split into teams, each with a tray of unsorted, cleaned bone and began to sort. Henry had brought along two life-sized plastic skeletons to help us match fragments up with complete bones.
Even with the help of our plastic and very flexible friends identification proved tricky in some cases. We soon realised that there was animal bone mixed with the human bone, something we had noticed before in the graveyard. We tentatively identified cattle and chicken bone along with various other mystery creatures.
That said, with a bit of practise members were soon picking out the more easily identifiable fragments. That is not to say that certain individuals (especially leaders) got completely fixated with trying to identify a few of the strangest fragments.
We spent the second half of the session cleaning bone with toothbrushes and lolly sticks. We learned what it is to clean with luke-warm water and found it to be very good. It’ll to be tough going back to cold water.
The key to cleaning is to be gentle with the bone being worked on. Especially where the surface has gone, it is so easy to clean way parts of the bone itself.
The clean bones were placed in trays to be allowed to dry out before they too are sorted and added to the assemblage of bone ready for study.
Meanwhile, the sorted bone was bagged up and labelled, with one or two curiosities still being puzzled over when it was time to pack up and head off.
To continue our occasional series, we’ll take a look at activities intended to chill the extremities without excessive risk of hypothermia.
Archaeological fieldwork presents many opportunities to get cold. Our own efforts to feel the chill have mostly taken place in the old town graveyard beside Dunfermline Abbey. It’s a great spot; north facing and sheltered from the sun for much of the year. That said, you can try out the ideas described below on almost any dig site in Scotland.
Sieving cold, wet soil
A great activity, almost guaranteed to chill the feet, is sieving. If you forget your gloves, or they get damp from poking about in the wet soil, cold hands are a fairly safe bet too.
Ideally you’ll be so absorbed in hunting for bits of bone, rusty nails and the like that you won’t notice the chill gradually extending from the tips of your toes and fingers, till you have achieved the dull ache of the uncomfortably cold.
If you must wear gloves, remember to keep them thin, ideally made of acrylic and very pervious. All the while, remain as still as you can. Unfortunately one of the “cool” team will have to warm up collecting buckets of soil from the trenches, but the rest of you will be satisfyingly icy in no time.
Some of you will have to excavate in order to generate the raw material for sieving. Try to avoid any unnecessary mattocking or shovelling, you will stand little chance of achieving a sustainable, cold temperature. If you really must, then you could try wearing far-too-warm clothes. Build up an unhealthy sweat that you can exploit to achieve rapid chilling. Just strip off a layer or two once done shovelling and switch to sieving. The problem comes in trying to limit the inevitable temperature drop to your hands and feet.
Even when trowelling, there is a natural and regrettable tendency to settle into a work rate sufficiently vigorous to prevent cooling of the hands. We are also encouraged to kneel on protective and, alas, insulating mats. You will really have to keep to a slow trowelling rhythm with frequent pauses, perhaps with the palms of your hands pressed against the cold earth.
As trenches get deep enough to enter you will encounter a further obstacle to achieving a decent drop in temperature, as you become increasingly sheltered from the chilling wind.
Notice in the next photo how the experienced leader crouches on her mat, maximising surface area exposed to the cold wind. The posture stretches the knees of her trousers tight against her legs, so minimising their insulating properties. To balance, her bare fingers are pressed against a cold, damp gravestone. By contrast the inexperienced YAC member is unnecessarily well sheltered and relies on remaining as still as possible and the advantage of small size.
Below the group is joined by another YAC member. She has already learned to keep her head above trench height and to remove her hood.
Our next photograph demonstrates mixed success. True the YAC’ers have bare heads above the tench sides, but they are far too close to each other to lose heat effectively and they were working far more quickly than they needed.
Finally, we observe two members keeping out of the trench and so exposed to the chill breeze. Both have bare heads and one has given up a kneeling posture in order to maximise cooling to the feet.
An activity that could have been purpose-designed to make hands cold! It allows the planners to stand quite still for long periods, it is easier to draw without gloves, the ranging rod is metal, so fingers tend to get cold even with gloves on and the more people involved, the less each has to do and the more standing around in the cold there is! Finally, every mistake can end in remeasuring and drawing, so rewarding sloppy work and careful checking.
The Building Site Strategy
Lastly lets take a look at a technique borrowed, like so much in archaeological fieldwork, from the building industry. Studies have conclusively demonstrated that a thing archaeologists enjoy even better than actually doing fieldwork is to stand around discussing it. We at YAC have a huge advantage over the grownups here: we can’t stand around for hours at a time in the archaeologist’s natural habitat, the pub across the road.
This strategy works well with bare hands; ideally out of pockets and used gently to add emphasis, or to point at things. Try to stand in as chilly a spot as you can, ideally in a cold puddle, without unnecessary toe movement.
You will probably be wondering how the old chap on the left expects to get cold hands while holding what looks like a hot, takeaway coffee. What you can’t see is that the coffee has been left to stand long enough to go quite cold. This experienced old codger is exploiting extreme feelings of guilt that force him to finish the icy beverage, thoughtfully purchased as it was by an esteemed colleague.
I can’t over-emphasise enough just how incredibly important it is to be as tiny, small as you can manage, for these and all other cold inducing activities. Poor circulation is also a great boon and simply achieved by the over-committed.
Our photos this week were taken mostly by Olivia and Aisling. Not only did they do a fantastic job, but they achieved impressively cold hands, especially Olivia, who held the camera with a metal body.
Here are a few of the portrait shots they took of certain leaders, included here as a warning to us all.
And Finally …
A fantastic turnout today, plenty of “old hands” and four new members too! Everyone worked wonderfully, rewarding us (alas, not till all the YAC members had gone home) with the revelation of most of the top of the southern gravestone! Well done to everyone who contributed to it’s exposure. Clearly we have another double, with no inscription, at least on the top surface. Invisible ink? Evidence of a secret society in 19th century Dunfermline?
“Oh, had a good time in the graveyard on Saturday thanks. You?”
People who know us well will know what we mean, even if they still think that “a good time” in a graveyard sounds a bit wrong. To strangers and casual acquaintances there follows an explanation that includes some or all of the following elements:
Not deep enough for coffins or skeletons;
Just fragments of bone;
No treasure, mostly rubbish, some gravestones;
Yes, gravestones under the ground;
Young Archeologists’ Club;
Yes, young people, children;
Yes, in a graveyard. It’s fun!
It’s probably something that most people would have to try for themselves to really get just how absorbing it is to explore the jumbled and churned last resting place of Dunfermline’s past citizens.
Anyway, enough of that; what did Aisling, Alexander, Brodie, Campbell, Ella, Fraser, Kathryn, Lee and Olivia actually get up to?
We continued to work in the eastern test pit and will attempt to continue down through the rubble that supports George Watt’s low marker.
So far we haven’t found anything as exciting as gravestone fragments or porcelain roses, but we do have more clear evidence that at least some stones were reset into the supporting rubble in the 1920’s.
We have been working on this site for well over a year now and exposure to the air is allowing moss to colonise the stones exposed by excavation, so we are cleaning them before they get too bad. In future we will need to cover trenches with a water-permeable fabric to keep out the light while we’re not working.
As ever, we continue to sieve spoil for missed finds. Small nails and teeth are fairly common finds. We have had more members attending recently and so have put a lot more effort into sieving.
Some members find the work very calming. Mindful sieving?
Our late summer surprise gravestone and curb continue to emerge. We are attempting to excavate to the base of the curb stone,
whilst excavating down onto the headstone at the western end of the monument. I was all for getting through quickly with a mattock, but the wealth of finds and some fierce looks quickly persuaded me otherwise.
The photographs make very clear just how awkward the curb is to get at.
The narrow trench over the headstone, full of leaves in the photograph below, is proving difficult too; we’ll have to move part of a spoil heap to improve access. Well, that’ll teach us not to excavate so carefully in future!