Monday, 30 September 2013

Week 4

A dark and murky day though we didn't get rained on. Quite a contrast to Saturday which was like a summer's day when we had 2010 visitors to the site!

Week 4 and the clock is ticking so we have decided to open a trench within a trench. This will hopefully allow us to identify the depth of archaeology that survives here and the nature and date-range of that archaeology.

Brian and Dermot mattocking off the top layer in the box trench

The horizon we are excavating is still yielding the ubiquitous animal bone but also produced multiple broken fragments of a green-glazed pot with a grey fabric and included the handle and a rim sherd (no basal sherds). This may be the same type of pottery as the medieval Scottish greyware Cormac McSparron found when excavating at St Augustine's church last year - we will need to compare them. We also found another rim-sherd of everted rim ware although the decoration is different to that found on Friday.

green-glazed pottery sherds including a strap handle
sherd of everted rim-ware
On Friday we also received a postcard to the dig site!! This is a definite first for all of us, and pretty cool. Thank you Ivor.
 Postcard from Ivor addressed to the site in the car park [the picture on the front is of Cormac' s Chapel, Cashel]


Friday, 27 September 2013

Day 15 Friday

Another good day and less scratching of heads.. We think we have the fills/layers of a pit/ditch/slope which are all dipping down at an angle. The ribbed glass we found yesterday in the upper layer has been dated it to to the late 13th to 14th century by Gregory (a glass-man who called by and has previously volunteered with us at Prehen) and identified it as coming from a goblet. Today Grace found a rim-sherd of everted rim-ware (also known as Ulster coarse ware). This pottery type dates to between the early-13th to early 17th century but as this piece was decorated with raised ribs it may be more tightly dateable.
We have also uncovered an area of burning, cut through by the burials, and associated with a large stone, a possible hearth stone. This is a piece of dressed stone with a pecked surface and presumably is reused - possibly from the monastery? 
Tommy and Paddy were also back and removed most of our spoil heap.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Open Day

Just a reminder that we will be having an Open Day at the site this Saturday 28th, between 10am and 3pm and everyone is welcome. The car park will be pay and display as usual. The site is located off Bishop Street Within, opposite the courthouse.

Aerial view of the city taken at the end of our first week on site (13.09.13). The Bishop Street car park and the excavation trench is visible towards the centre foreground of the picture. Photo by Gail Pollock, NIEA: Built Heritage.

Day 14

Today was a relatively quiet and slow day after the media madness of yesterday. Having said that, we started to count the numbers of visitors to the site from lunchtime and by 5 o'clock we had a tally of 420!
 A notable brief interlude after lunch when we had no visitors
We spent much of the day working on the western half of the trench. There has persistently been a subdivision within the trench with the burials and loamy garden/urban soil  into which the graves were cut confined to the eastern half of the trench while anomalous spreads, lenses and possible linear features (differentiated by the differential composition of the soil, e.g. darker or lighter in colour, mores/less clay or stones, etc.) distributed across the western half. We have speculated that the absence of burials in this area may mean that they were respecting a boundary of some sort. Much of the spreads of material in the western half are quite stony and relatively sterile and reminiscent of redeposited subsoil - possibly upcast from a bank latterly slighted and spread out when the city walls were built. The finds suggest we are in the 'Dowcra' phase of the development of the town (late 16th - early 17th century) so perhaps these deposits are the remnants of part of Docwra's fort.

We recorded and investigated some of these anomalous lenses and layers during the day, one of which yielded another musket shot (bringing the total to 6 so far) and a sherd of vessel glass with raised ridges.

 Brian recording and Tony Wilkinson (volunteer) excavating

Wednesday, 25 September 2013


Wahoo - we have a two week extension! The minister, Mark H. Durkan, visited the site this morning and made the announcement with much media interest (including UTV Live and BBC Newsline).

Environment  Minister Mark H. Durkan with, on left, Roisin Doherty, Museum Services, and Emily Murray, excavation director. (Photo - Tom Heaney, nwpresspics)
The Minister also made the announcement of our major find - a sherd of an Early Bronze Age urn dating to circa 2000 BC and a flint scraper. These are the oldest finds from the island of Derry and although we might have expected settlement here in the prehistoric period (the island is strategically located on a bend on the river Foyle, a major river, and protected on the opposite side by a stretch of bog), this is the first piece of positive evidence. Saint Colmcille was reputedly given the site on the island for his monastery by a local King Aed, who had a fort here. It was clearly deemed a defensible and strategic site in the early medieval period and presumably was viewed the same for centuries and millennia before.
We are, however, still excavating down through the post-medieval period - the two Bronze Age finds were not found in context and had been disturbed by later activity. Brian started to excavate down through a linear feature, a possible ditch, and produced another of the very small tobacco pipe bowls (date range 1580-1610) while Stuart started to excavate a small pit which produced multiple sherds of a green-glazed pot possibly medieval...

 View of the site at midday - section of wall (cut through by burials) bottom right

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Gambling soldiers?

Today, John declared, was better than sliced bread because... We found four dice which appear to be made from bone, each just 7mm across, AND an Elizabeth I copper halfpenny, minted 1601!
The 4 dice found when sieving (by Dermot, Emily, Sean and John S)
The Elizabethan halfpenny with a harp and crown and a shield on the reverse (the 2nd of two coins from the site - both found by Sean)
Not only did we find these five fabulous objects we also found a very small tobacco pipe bowl - the smallest any of us on the site have ever come across - and possibly 16th century in date.
We are now below the burials which we have provisionally dated to the 17th-century based on the finds and stratigraphy. The discovery of the 1601 coin and early pipe bowl below these would allow us to suggest that we are potentially in the earliest phase of English settlement and conquest of the town under Henry Docwra. We know he set up camp around the ruins of the monastery. Perhaps the discovery of these finds along with the dice could be from gambling soldiers stationed in the fort..??

And just to round off the day, we found part of a wall - could it be part of the remains of the Augustinian monastery....??
Stuart excavating the remains of the wall
Three classes from the Long Tower Primary School visited us today as did Mark Patterson along with the newly appointed bishop, The Rev. Pat Storey. Mark recorded a couple of interviews to go out on air tomorrow and for his FaceBook page (follow the link for the footage).

Monday, 23 September 2013

The start of Week 3

A glorious sunny day to the start of our third week. We weren't long on site before the thermals were discarded and the bottles of sun lotion that have been sitting on our window sill didn't seem quite so misplaced.. It was also a day of fabulous home-baking; apple and loganberry tart from Hazel and brownies from Sean! A diet-dig this ain't...

Today we were visited by three classes from the Model Primary School along with a coachload of mostly American tourists who had an added stop on their Derry City tour. People called by throughout the day including Canon Howe and his wife who used to live in the Rectory formerly on this site. They were amazed with the excavation and amused that their Rhode Island hens used to run about in the garden above all this (it would be great to get a photo if it exists..).

We lifted the last two of the five burials we had planned to excavate. One of these, one of the pair in the double burial, displayed an unusual anomaly. When Grace and Darbhina (volunteer) lifted the lower arm bones of the right arm, the radius and ulna, they discovered an elongated depression or hollow running across  the vertebrae underneath where the arm had rested. This is a post-mortem anomaly but suggests that the vertebrae must have been unusually soft or week.
Grace and Darbhina excavating one of the skeletons which displayed an elongated depression in the vertebrae - close-up below.

The excavated grave cuts
We also completed the recording of the grave cuts (context sheets and profiles) and planned the site. Greg visited us again and metal detected the spoil discovering another musket shot, smaller than the two we had previously found (possibly a pistol shot?).

We also found a worked piece of stone that has a circular cut, through which it has been broken - possibly a door pivot stone?

A pivot stone?

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Day 10

A day at the zoo - or at least that was how it felt sometimes with so many people visiting the site and looking down at the burials while we excavated them.

We had our first visits from school groups - the P5 class from Fountain Primary School who took a short walk from their classroom to visit the site and a group of secondary school children all the way from Normandy accompanied by retired St Colman's history teacher, Tom Costigan. Emily also did interviews on Radio Foyle's lunchtime news and a piece went out on BBC Radio Ulster on the 3 o'clock news both of which seemed to draw in the crowds.

Kieron Tourish and the BBC were back in the afternoon with another short piece featuring on BBC Newsline  (at approx. 15mins; there is also a link on BBC NW website though I am not sure where they got 'the feet bones that are quite small' quote..). We were also visited by the Derry Journal, Derry News and Derry Daily, and by the city's Lord Mayor Martin Reilly and SDLP's Mark Durcan.

As for the archaeology: we completed the excavation and recording of the seven skeletons we have so far revealed and started to lift five of them (with the juvenile excavated on Monday, this will bring it to a total of six). Two of the adults uncovered at the eastern side of the trench we will leave in situ and re-bury when we backfill the trench. We have identified the grave cuts of five more burials: we will record the outline of these, some of which run into the baulk (i.e. beyond the edges of the trench), but we will not investigate them any further.

One of the skeletons has a prominent groove in his/her upper incisors from clenching a pipe - clearly an avid smoker! The same skeleton also displayed a green staining on its cervical vertebrae indicating the presence of copper-alloy pins probably from a shroud long since decayed and rotted away.

The pipe smoker

We also made a couple of interesting finds - the grave fill of one of the skeletons yielded a lead strap with a stamped 'A' at one end (function - ?) and a possible stone gaming piece. Malcolm (volunteer) also found a metal clasp possibly from a leather belt and Margaret (volunteer) discovered the tip of a copper-alloy pin whilst sieving which appears to have been made from a rolled sheet of metal.

The lead strap with stamped 'A'

With the skeletons excavated we can now start to excavate deeper and hopefully discover earlier features... More next week.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Day 9 - a blustery day in the car park

Another wet and windy, and busy day unearthing bodies in the car park... We will be excavating the skeletons tomorrow so if you want to see them before they go you would need to get to the site tomorrow morning.


Tony Corey, a professional photographer from the NIEA joined us for the day and took lots of photos and we also had a visit from NIEA archaeologists Gail, Edith, Kara and Christina. Emily also did an interview on Drive 105 with Felix Healy.

Paul Logue (NIEA) and Ruairi O Baoill (CAF) called by and they confirmed that the two pieces of medieval pottery, unglazed earthenware, are the earliest pieces of pottery from the town while the worked flint found last Friday is not a gunflint but a scraper either prehistoric (possibly Bronze Age?) or early medieval. Flint scrapers would have had multiple uses but one of the things they were employed for was to prepare skins or hides. And if the scraper is indeed medieval we could suggest (we're archaeologists - we're good at this!) that it was used to prepare vellum for use in the scriptorium of the Dub Regles. The annals record the death of the scribe of Derry in 724 who presumably lived, died and was buried in the Columban monastery.

John Hegarty, one of our volunteers uncovered the base of a wine glass or goblet late in the afternoon while the 2nd John (John Strickland) found the bases of two bottles close by; these probably once held the wine, sherry or madeira drunk from the goblets.
The base of a wine glass or goblet just out of the ground - probably 17th-century in date
Our most glamorous volunteer - Hazel Philson from St Augustine's

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Day 8

Today was much quieter on the media front although we still had a lot of interest from the public with people calling by throughout the day.

Stuart showing the site to local traffic wardens

We cleaned back the trench and took a series of record shots with the telescopic pole. We also made a plan of the site and took pre-excavation photographs of each of the grave cuts - diving in and out of the site hut several times when serious showers passed through.

In the afternoon we started to excavate the burials. The fills of the cuts have yielded some small fragments of window glass, clay pipe stem fragments, animal bone, bits of mortar and brick, occasional marine shells and some fragments of pottery all of which indicates that we are still in post-plantation levels.

Two of the burials mid-excavation.

Stuart started to excavate one of the skeletons at the northern edge of the trench and where he expected to find the skull he instead found the feet - the skeleton was aligned west-east in contrast to all the other burials so far exposed. Reputedly priests, ministers and bishops were buried with their head in the east so that on Judgement Day they would rise and face their congregation - perhaps we have the remains of a bishop or priest?

Burials during excavation - the west-east burial is to the right of the photo, and the double burial towards the centre

We also started to excavate the double burial. One of the skeletons appears to be smaller and more gracile suggesting that we may have a man and women (husband and wife?). All of the skeletons we started to uncover today are of adults.
The sieving continues - Billy and John, two of the volunteers, sieving away

Week 2, Day 7 & a bit of a media circus

We had a pretty hectic day on site. BBC Radio Foyle met us in the car park for an interview just before the 9am News and we also spoke to Mark Patterson during his lunchtime show as part of a panel - with John O'Keeffe (Assistant Director/ Principal Inspector of Historic Monuments, NIEA) and Mark Lusby (City Walls, Heritage Project). Later that morning we were interviewed, along with Roisin Doherty from the museum, by UTV's Gareth Wilkinson and Kieron Tourish of BBC both of which went out on Tuesday's 6pm News programmes (BBC Newsline - at 17 mins.; UTV Live News).Throughout the day we were visited by reporters/photographers from the Derry Journal, Irish News and Irish Times and lots of visitors to the site, local and foreign, curious to see the dig for themselves.
Roisin Doherty being interviewed by Kieron Tourish, BBC
Gareth Wilkinson, UTV, filming at Bishop Street

The excavation and archaeology still continues despite the media circus. We now have at least 11 burials, including the juvenile (excavated on Monday). The skulls of four of these have been partially revealed. The location of these four and the other burials are all demarcated by their grave cuts and fills. The 'back fills' of the grave cuts are all darker than the surrounding soil into which they have been inserted which allows us to identify them.
The site put to sleep at the end of the day. The outlines of the grave cuts can be seen and the finds trays cover the partially exposed skulls.

One of the grave cuts appears to be a double burial and there are two inter-cutting burials. The burials do not extend across the western side of the trench which is really interesting - the absence of burials in this area may indicate the presence of a former boundary or ditch.

Finds are much less frequent - animal bones (food and butchery waste) are the main finds, some clay pipe stems, nails (probable coffin nails) and a gun flint (possibly Irish). Greg Devine, a metal detectorist (and sculptor) joined us on site today and searched through some of our spoil with the assistance of John Hegarty, one of our volunteers. They discovered another musket shot along with more nails. There is little if any disarticulated human bone which would suggest this was not an intensively used burial ground.

Greg Devine scanning the spoil heap.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Start of Week 2 at Bishop Street

A wet and very windy start to Week 2. A trench full of leaves and puddles to mop up before we got digging and even then it was start-stop as squally showers moved in. The afternoon was marginally better - at least it was a bit less wet...

Mark Patterson was back on site, once again in his fancy blue runners (despite the mud) and he broke the news of our discovery of human remains - three articulated skeletons so far but it is likely that more will emerge as the week progresses. Dermot and Brian excavated the juvenile skeleton, recorded it and lifted it while under media scrutiny - we had BBC Radio Foyle, BBC Ulster, Joe Mahon & Lesser Spotted Culture,The Belfast/NW Telegraph and Derry Journal all on site.
 The juvenile skeleton excavated today - the blue tags mark the location of nails indicating the presence of a coffin (the wood has decayed)
Brian and Dermot planning the juvenile skeleton
Part of a clay pipe stem was found in the fill of the cut for the coffin and skeleton indicating that we are still in post-medieval deposits. We started to excavate and remove the central baulk (garden soils) as the two other articulated skeletons lie beneath. We have uncovered their two skulls just to the west of the baulk, and as with the juvenile skeleton, these too are orientated east-west mirroring the orientation of St Augustine's church (and presumably the earlier versions that preceded it on the same footprint). Traditionally Christian burials were made east-west, with the head at the western end so that they can face the coming of Christ on Judgement Day.

The team (CAF crew & volunteers) excavating the central baulk

 Emily & Mark Patterson (BBC Foyle) on site this morning