Training Excavation with YAT at Dig Hungate York Part 2

As promised! This post will cover analysing soil types, identifying inclusions and more!

The much smaller than expected pipe!

The following day we dug up the rest of the pipe that we had begun to uncover on Monday. This was followed by standard sea-level readings using the methods described in my previous post (such as the plumb-bob and staff for planning).

A second component to the planning and recording of this context included analysing the soil type present using a question key. This is a protocol which presents a series of questions about the soil type using various test to determine the answer (sorry if that sounded obvious!) These include:

  1. Squeezing the soil in the palm of the hand and if the result is that it sticks into a ball shape then in all likelihood the soil type is clay based
  2. If the clay can be broken apart and moulded into other shapes then the soil can be determined as ‘not crumbly’
  3. The soil is then rubbed in between fingers to see if it is ‘gritty’ or ‘smooth’ in texture
  4. Soil colour is then determined and from the protocol sheet the type is determined (in this case it was a reddish brown
  5. From these four procedures we were able to determine the soil type! (YAY!) – a silty soil!

The soil was then analysed for inclusions (not ‘finds’ but rather elements that are not of excavational value but are still present) in the soil. The occurrence of these inclusions are considered to be ‘frequent’, ‘moderate’ or ‘rare’ in presence and sizes range from small, medium to large.

The inclusions present in the soil analysed in this context were:

  1. Charcoal – in small fragments in a moderate quantity
  2. Ceramic Building Material (or CBT for short!) – in large fragments in a frequent quantity
  3. Rocks – in large size and frequent quantity

After completing the first session of the day we moved onto our first lecture at the York Archaeological Trust headquarters where we were shown a collection of pottery pieces and fragments from various parts of the British Isles spanning a range of centuries.

Anglo-Scandinavian pottery samples

When processing pottery the classic questions asked are often ‘What? Where? Why? and How?’

The way to determining the relative age or date of a piece can achieved through a range of different processes including kiln stamps, thermoluminescent dating, inclusions analysis and more.

There are two ‘genres’ of dating techniques: absolute and relative. Absolute dating techniques use scientific methods of analysis whereas relative techniques uses the aesthetic features of a piece to determine its chronological age.

The location of a piece of pottery can either be intrusive or residual:

  • Intrusive being when a piece from more recent times has dropped down through to older layers in the soil and is thus out of place for time period
  • Residual being when an older piece moves up through the soil to higher levels

Where the piece of pottery is from can be determined by considering the drove ways, rivers, sea and local geography and geology as indicators to the possible route it took.

Unfortunately, potters documents were rarely kept as the profession did not often weild great monetary wealth unless a dispute over the sourcing of clay arose and thus a court consulted. There is also some indication to the time period in which a piece was made if it is decorated or made in style or theme with a historical event of the time

Whistle-stop timeline (or maybe not so much of a whistle-stop!) of pottery from the pre-historical to 19th Century:

The first pieces of pottery found in the UK date around 4,000 BC – In York the pieces are roughly 300-400 BC.

Pre-historic – Iron Age Pottery:

  • Coarse, muesli-like, underfired (bonfire technology), crumbly
  • Usually grey, black, blotched with reddish patches
  • Simply decorated or stabbed, incised decoration or applied
  • Simple, small forms
  • Can be confused with Anglo-Saxon pottery

Roman (circa. 71 – 4th century):

Roman pottery samples

  • Wheel thrown pottery, proper kilns, sophisticated forms and surface treatment
  • Decoration, burnishing, painted, deliberate roughening, very rarely glazed
  • Can be oxidised

Anglo-Saxon (circa 5th mid to 9th century):

  • Huge technological leap backwards to Iron Age style production
  • Soft, grey, blotched red surfaces, hand or coil built, bonfire style firing
  • Cremation pottery often more elaborate and intricate than domestic
  • Can be shell tempered, grit tempered, sand tempered or grass tempered
  • Usually simple jar and cooking pot style forms

Anglo-Scandinavian – i.e. Viking Age (circa mid 9th to mid 11th century):

  • Technological advances from Anglo-Saxon pieces (re-introduced from the Continent) – e.g. simple wheel-thrown pottery, kiln technology
  • Increasing range in forms from cooking pots to pitchers to lamps to bowls
  • Simple decoration via applied decoration and roller-stamping
  • Occasional lead-glazes – Stamford ware
  • Some sand tempered, grit tempered, shell tempered
  • Usually reduced (grey, dark grey, occasional white)

Anglo-Norman (mid 11th till end of 12th century):

  • Northern ‘gritty’ or ‘pimply’ ware (muesli in appearance)
  • Standard bowl and jar forms with squared or clubbed rim
  • Pronounced wheel throwing marks are common
  • Often hard fired
  • Typically buff (white, pinkish) in colour with gritty texture
  • Rarely decorated
  • Very common – i.e. wide geographical prominence
  • Often sooted on exterior
  • Splashed glazes on simple jug and pitchers – early forms of ‘table wares’

Medieval: 13th and 14th century:

  • Typical forms are elaborate jugs with applied decoration, polychrome glazes, incised decoration or any combination
  • Pottery is out on show in manor and castle, on the table at banquets – something to show off
  • In humbler places, jugs are still common just less lavishly decorated
  • Glaze tends to cover more of the body – painted on rather than splashed
  • Copper glazes – bright greens are more common and colour depends on the reaction with the clay

Late Medieval: 15th and 16th century:

  • Forms are bigger and clumsier as the ‘hay day’ of pottery retreats to only kitchenwares
  • Glaze is often partial, sometimes flakey
  • New forms include cisterns and massive jugs

Post-medieval: 17th to 18th/19th century:

  • More changes occur in pottery – slipwares introduced as well as imported porcelain and ‘majolica’ – tin-glazed and painted earthenwares etc
  • Utilitarian wares continue – glazed and unglazed earthenwares – black, yellow, green glazes usually on a terracotta body

Post Medieval Pottery

Banded slipwares – 18th & 19th centuries:

  • Fine yellowish glazed buff earthenwares
  • Decorated with horizontal bands, sometimes mocha or tree-like motifs from spitting chewed tobacco into the glaze

Black glazed – 18th century:

  • Red body with black glaze
  • Tyggs (multi-handled tankards), mugs, bowls, jars and pancheons as forms

Post Medieval & 18th/19th century pottery

Cistercian – 16th century:

  • Red body blackish brown glaze and sometimes white decoration
  • Reversed – white body and red slip decoration
  • Table wares, particularly cups, mugs, tankards
  • Develops into black glaze

Cream ware – 1770-1900

  • Fine table wares: cups, sauces, plain and decorated

English stonewares – 1670 – 1900

  • Buff, grey fabrics with buff or brownish glazes, many production centres – York, Leeds, London
  • Mainly blacking bottles, ale bottles, flagons and jugs that are often stamped with the maker/sellers name or initials

Porcelain – 1700 – 2012 (circa 1600BC in China, exported to Britain 1650-1900)

  • Discovered in Europe when trying to turn lead into gold
  • Vitreous or glass like, fused, translucent, rings when tapped
  • Decorated in under and overpaint enamels

Source (with thanks) : York Archaeological Trust

Part Three: Introduction to conservation, small finds and matrices!


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