Thursday, November 17, 2011

"...and we've got just three days"

June 1977 - December 1978

Recent conversations brought to mind a profoundly influential episode in my early years that originated from one of my earliest trips.

I had been on the usual trajectory (birth - school - university - career - death) when a hiatus occurred in my first semester at art college in early 1977. Being faced with the proposition by my lecturers of "expressing your experiences in life through your artwork" I came to the conclusion that my only experiences so far with life were school. And I didn't fancy making artwork about that.

So I upped and offed to the UK to try and get me some experiences.

After a disastrous start as a trainee manager at the Metropole, a business hotel in Leeds, an altercation with a piano saw me quit the position for a brief spell of unemployment.

hotel metropole

Leeds is one of Britain's largest cities in the north of England and is very close to the historic city of York of which I frequently visited.

On one of these visits I found myself captivated by the viking archaeological excavations of Coppergate that were in progress at the time and which subsequently became known as Jorvik.

coppergate viking dig 1977 (image courtesy of the web)

I spent a good hour and a half leaning over the fence watching the diggers in action. On the way back to my home base in Leeds I began chatting to the woman sitting next to me on the bus. I began telling her how amazing I found the excavations and she suggested that I contact the local archaeology unit to see if they wanted volunteers. I was surprised as I expected all of the people on site to be trained archeologists.

The following morning I rang the West Yorkshire Rescue Archaeology Unit as it was then known and offered my services as a volunteer. I was surprised when they accepted.

So the very next day I was at their headquarters at 08.30 am. I was taken out to their main site in a small old mining town called Castleford, or Lagentium as the Romans would have known it.

Almost immediately I was assigned the task of dismantling a section of old Medieval wall. This entailed removing each stone one by one and checking carefully for any finds that might be lying amongst the clay mortar. I was thrilled to be, on my first day, on a dig up to my elbows in mud and clay actually taking apart a Medieval wall! Yee hah!

It wasn't until several months later that I realised this was one of the crappy jobs the real archeologists didn't want to do!

But my enthusiasm was, as they say, unbridled and I was regularly first on site and last to leave. So keen was I that after 4 weeks of volunteer work and an injection of council funds I found myself being given a paid position. Suddenly I was being paid to do what I was more than happy to do for nothing. And ironically, after 3 months I was put in charge of volunteers!

The Castleford dig had been in operation for almost a year when I arrived. The Archaeology unit had been given permission to try and clarify a series of early Roman forts that had been found in the town before the whole area was to be destroyed by a major road bypass.

The site as I first saw it consisted of a lot of holes in the ground with almost no visible structures. Early Roman forts were built of wood with clay and turf defence ramparts. This left little behind except for post-holes and patchwork quilt-like colourations in the soil.

defence ditch in cross section

turf rampart

But it was during a lunch break in the final stages of wrapping up the site that a team member, whilst digging in an area of the site not scheduled for excavation, suddenly discovered a small section of finely dressed (i.e. chiseled) stonework wall foundations.

This piqued the curiosity of the digging team and we immediately began to use our own spare time to uncover more. By chance, this small section of wall turned out to be the corner of a Roman 'Natatio', or cold plunge bath, belonging to what would turn out to be one of the finest examples of Roman Bathhouse complexes in the North of England.

the natatio or cold plunge bath - centre foreground of the photo is the rectangular drainage ditch for the bath. The entire floor surface is the original and is made of opus signinum a form of Roman cement.

It was this discovery that led to the Councils cash injection and my ensuing employment. Suddenly the dig's life was extended, the entire bathhouse uncovered and the road bypass was ... well ... bypassed!

bathhouse foundations

stone channel to carry water to the baths

pilae stacks - small columns to support the bath floor for underfloor heating

yorkshire evening post coverage

here I'm excavating a chunk of wall plaster that collapsed into the room

far corner of the excavation

clay metalworking kiln I discovered and uncovered

showing how close to the present day surface was some of the archaeology

bathhouse complex photo

complete bathhouse site plan

artists reconstruction of what the bathhouse perhaps looked like

Having had some background in the Visual Arts I found myself being useful for other activities apart from digging. I was trained to use surveying equipment for site planning, I was also involved in site photography, and section and finds drawings for use in later reports. (The following photos are drawings I made back in 1978 for my own report of my experiences and not for the Archaeology Unit.)

carved bone pin

brooch and ring drawings

hypocaust (underground heating) section drawing

roman trumpet brooch

small copy of a large section drawing

diggers adrian tindall and steve wager using a planning frame - this frame was 2 x 1 metres with 10cm gradations in elastic. It was laid over the ground and each 10cm square corresponded to a single square on graph paper. The elastic allowed the squares to 'mould' themselves over objects.

A slow and laborious job was planning. The above site plan drawing is therefore an exact reproduction of every stone in situ of the entire bathhouse complex.

Apart from Castleford, during my 18 months with the unit I also worked on their other more long term excavation: Dalton Parlours, a hill top site comprising Stone Age, Iron Age, Bronze Age, Roman and Saxon settlements superimposed over an acre of farmland about 18kms North East of Leeds.

dalton parlours saxon skeleton

dalton parlours hypocaust

Also on rainy days I spent time cleaning finds and glueing potsherds together, assisting the 'beetle man' separating and classifying insect parts, and in mid winter when the ground was frozen I worked for several months with 16th Century tithe maps from the city archives scouring them for potential archaeological information which could then be transcribed onto modern day constraint maps.

When I finally returned to Australia 2 years after I had left, and re-enrolled in Art College I had me a sack full of experiences!

My time with the West Yorkshire Rescue Archaeology Unit was quite an extraordinary and powerful experience which had a very positive and lasting influence on my early sculpture work.