Virtual Dig

This week we have been role playing with the 3rd year students. Nothing to do with dressing up in plastic armour and pretending to be an Orc. This is (mostly) serious stuff about the management of archaeological projects. Over the past few weeks students on our ‘Introduction to Professional Practice’ module have been writing a project design for a small excavation in or around the Roman site at Ribchester to answer the research questions of their choice. By today they had all successfully costed a four week project within budget and so this morning we tried to simulate the running of these projects.

The students worked in groups with a site plan in front of them while my colleague Jim and I sat in the middle of the room throwing spanners in the works. For every virtual day of their dig the project teams wrote out what they were going to do that day and then we told them what archaeology they uncovered as a result of those decisions. As on a real dig, the main focus was often on making sure all the imaginary diggers were productively employed. As they were pretending to dig in the environs of a Roman fort, keeping up with the finds processing quickly became a big headache too.

Fantasy find of the day was a parade helmet fragment from one of the pits. Fortunately everyone had left a bit of spare cash in their budgets for conservation.

Back in the (relatively) real world of archaeology I have been working on the pottery from the cave excavations in Goldsland Wood we carried out between 2005 and 2007. So far I have examined all the sherds from Wolf Cave. This is interesting as they are all parts of the same Early Neolithic bowl and, of course, Wolf Cave is one site where we don’t have any Neolithic radiocarbon dates for the burials.


This is a fairly representative bit of the rim of this pot. The vessel walls were quite thin – around 7 mm thick – showing that it was skillfully made. The clay was tempered with something which has either leached out or was burnt out in the firing, leaving visible pits and holes in the pot surface. This is quite common in Neolithic pottery in Wales and western England. This photo also shows the simple out-turned rim of the pot well. Although we only have about 5% of the original pot left, by comparing it  with other local pottery of this type we can be fairly confident that it was originally a round-based cooking pot. It was probably about 150 mm in diameter with upright walls and a hooked rim to make it easier to handle on the embers of the cooking fire.

Goldsland site A trench pottery plan

This plot shows where the sherds and smaller fragments of the pot were found outside the cave mouth. Neolithic pottery was fired on open fires and so,although it would have been functional pottery, it wouldn’t necessarily have been particularly robust. I think it is possible that the pot we have was originally placed outside the cave in one piece, probably where the north-west part of our trench was. Frost and rain would have soon reduced a whole pot to the rather sad bits and pieces we found. The fact that we have only found parts of one pot, rather than little bits of lots of them, suggests that we are not dealing with the remains of a settlement. I think the pot probably contained something that was left as an offering at the cave. I am still thinking it is likely that at least one of the burials we haven’t dated yet was also Early Neolithic.

I haven’t looked at the pottery from the other two Goldsland caves in detail yet. George Rock Shelter, where all the dated burials were Early Neolithic, seems to have lots of little bits of different types of pottery, including at least three different Roman pots. This will be an interesting contrast with the Wolf Cave pottery.


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