Diggin’ Deep at 100 Minories

As I mentioned in the last post, we are digging deep at 100 Minories. We finished up last week at a depth of around 7.5 meters beneath the ground surface. Working this deep is extremely dangerous and we are given a long brief about all the equipment required, called an induction.  We are in a testing phase, basically exploring the depth of the deposits while evaluating our needs for post-excavation specialists (pottery, animal bone, etc) so that L – P Archaeology knows how how much to charge for excavating the entire area. Evaluating trenches are used sparingly as they are understood to potentially interfere with the broader archaeological sequence. Preservation by record–fully excavating and recording all of the deposits impacted by the building–is standard operation in the City of London (different from just London London). London archaeologists consider these 2x2m test trenches as inferior for interpretation and while they are recorded meticulously, they are used to evaluate the presence or absence of cultural remains and are not used as a primary excavation technique as they are in the States. Basically, yes, there were Romans here, no we cannot characterize their lifeways from digging a phone booth through their deposits.

For example, there was some debate over whether to call this feature that Neralie is cleaning brick paving or a garden path:

While the pit is roughly 2x2m Neralie is standing in a 1x1m that was excavated in the corner to determine a further sequence–we were not allowed to remove architecture in this case as the site may not go to full excavation…in theory, at least. You’ll also notice that she has 2m of concrete above her, and no shoring, as the concrete was determined to be stable. She does have a superstructure over the pit to ensure that nobody falls in:

In the 1×1 she is down about 1.20m from the bottom of the concrete, at that point shoring was installed.

Checking out these test trenches was an interesting return to squares after digging in open plan for many seasons. We do not collect all of the finds, just a sample to characterize each context, again to determine which specialists we’ll need to look at the materials from the site. The top trench has reached what passes for “natural” here, river terraced gravels, but it can still contain “monkey rocks”–the rather unique term that London archaeologists use for mesolithic artifacts. Another term that I’ve only heard here is “plus.” I’ve drawn them plenty, the little plus-sign at the top of the Harris matrix that indicates surface, or no previous deposits. Here “plus” can be material remains–all of the modern intrusions that are not recorded in detail are called plus and are dug out before the matrix begins. Sorry, contemporary archaeologists! Though with 7m of strat to record, the “messed-about” nature of the surface deposits in a place that is as heavily occupied as London, and the time/money calculation always running in the project manager’s head, I can’t find much to criticize. Criticise. Whatever.

Lest you think we are entirely crassly indifferent to more modern garbage, these were saved from the fills associated with the construction of the brutalist concrete building at 100 Minories that will be destroyed before we continue work. It’s a Coke can that you have to open with one of the old can-openers and two tags that had “1961” written on the back of them. They were near some rebar found in test pit #4, and probably were attached at some point.

The evaluation trenches are closed now–we’ll move off site today and I’ll be back in California in a little more than  week’s time. I’ve enjoyed my crash course in London archaeology, and hopefully I’ll be back for more in the Spring.


100 Minories Project

Chiz, deep in a trench.

“Hi boss, sorry I’m late!”

After a month of woeful visa problems, I finally got on site at the 100 Minories Project with L – P Archaeology. We’re working on getting the website for the project up and running, but I’ve spent about half my time on site, down a fairly deep trench. I’m digging in a 4m deep 2x2m shored trench right next to a giant underground concrete wall that is part of the tube. There are a lot of disturbed post-medieval deposits that are, as I learned today, primarily poop. Never say that London archaeology is glamorous, I guess!

I’m working with Chiz Harward who is an absolutely incredible resource for London archaeology in particular and excavation methodology in general. He endures my questions about peg tiles and “cessy” deposits vs. midden deposits, how clay pipes are made and fired, and health and safety on archaeology sites with aplomb. As far as I can figure it, he’s trained a lot of the archaeologists that I deeply respect and I’m pretty chuffed to work with him.

I have to say that working in London is pretty humbling. Like I said, I turned up on the last week on site. As anyone who has ever worked on a developer-funded project knows, the last week is CRAZY. You are pushed to dig more and faster. FASTER. So I found myself the first day on site, trying to get my eye in, under the gaze of 5 construction workers (builders), someone from the planning commission, the dig director, and the most experienced London archaeologist ever. Since I am at the bottom of a deep trench, it’s probably the most horrible panopticon kaleidoscope ever. I actually felt a little lightheaded and made the most classic mistakes–working in circles, not cleaning things properly, and just getting frustrated and losing confidence. Absolutely deadly in field archaeology.

It’s humbling to work on new continents, on new projects, on new sites. I can see why academic archaeologists stick to one era or one area–you have to relearn site assemblages, deposits, and feel like an idiot as someone describes particulars of the stratigraphy that are known to even the most junior of hands on site. The thing that holds it together is, at heart, single context archaeology. Still your fears of overdigging or underdigging, quiet your interest in getting to exactly 10cm beneath that  last “level” and trust your eyes and your hands and the change in the soil. It’s much harder to do than you think.

I have a million things to say, about how amazing it is to be on site where health and safety is first, obnoxiously first, and how great it feels when people actually understand the risks associated with our job and value me enough to insist that I know every nuance. How A-frame gantry hoists would have prevented the destruction of many large & lovely ashlars while trying to get them out of the trench in Dhiban. Dealing with deep site excavation while keeping your archaeologists safe. And as I said on Facebook, walking through an enormously rich part of one of the richest sites in the world, with people turning their noses up at you because you are essentially wearing the shit of their ancestors.

So, expect to hear more about 100 Minories. I’ve learned about peg tiles and hoggin (flinty gravels that serve as ballast) and how gas monitors work. We are digging pits that are essentially in the basement of a brutalist 1960s structure–the excavation will proceed after the building is demolished and we’ll clear away all of the archaeological deposits, down to seven meters in places. London commercial archaeology is where single context methodology began and it is fantastic to work at the source.

Special Delivery – Endless Canvas’ Huge Warehouse Graffiti Show

SWAMPY – from Fecalface.com.

I’ve been more peripatetic than usual lately; we subletted our apartment in anticipation of a visa that was a month late in coming so I’ve been housesitting all over the East Bay. I’ve stayed in four different places, all inhabited by archaeologists–I’ve started making jokes about how I’m studying their settlement patterns. I thought about drawing plans of the layouts of the houses, but then felt like it would be an invasion of privacy–so what kind of implications does that have for archaeological practice?

Special Delivery – by Fecalface.com

Anyway, last Saturday night I took the bus down from my latest domicile in Richmond to check out Endless Canvas’ unbelievable “Sistine Chapel” of graffiti art in a warehouse in West Berkeley. It was held in the former Flint Ink building, a warehouse that has been vacant since 1999. When I walked up to the warehouse I was stunned to see a huge line full of families along with the requisite cool kids. The three floors of the warehouse were lit with industrial spot lights and there were multiple DJ setups, infusing the concrete with thudding hip hop and techno. The building was absolutely covered and I walked through the warehouse several times, up stairs, looking down elevator shafts and out onto the nearby train tracks.

There were several gargantuan pieces by my favorite Bay Area artists–GATS, SWAMPY, Deadeyes along with a few I didn’t recognize. I didn’t have my DSLR, so I took a few shots with my iphone, but I felt that it was mostly unnecessary–so many people were shooting that you could probably reconstruct the entire installation from images on the web. Besides, I’m not sure I could really add to the gorgeous documentation:

Devote, by Endless Canvas

Along with the photographs are a series of videos that show the intense connection to place that graffiti artists have and how they express this through their art. The videos also features a “buffer,” a guy that goes around and paints over the graffiti art and so is deeply familiar with all of the different artists.

When I walk through Oakland the graffiti resonates so strongly with my experience of the city. New pieces, old pieces, new artists, artists referencing each other–it’s an intense dialog with place that can be both intimate, you won’t see certain pieces or stickers unless you walk the street and grandiose, such as the huge pieces that welcome you back to Oakland after you go under the Bay in the BART. Graffiti in Oakland is a passionate expression of defiance and home and I feel deeply lucky that I managed to be around for its effloresce.

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