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?
“Get up to much last weekend?”
“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!