Beneath the Sands of Time

Some of you will have seen shots of my time spent on the island of Alderney during July. It was probably the tenth time I’d been there to lead an excavation at the Nunnery, but time shifts and this year brought new experiences and new surprises.

Yes, that’s the view from my room!

The Nunnery itself has been reconfigured as a Field Centre, operating under the eagle eye of the Bird Observatory Warden (okay, that was a bad pun). We hope that bird-watchers and ringers will stay there in migration season, and heritage/natural history buffs in the high summer. I was the first resident of the almost-finished hostel, all on my own for the first night, up in the attic watching the sun rise over France when the oystercatchers and seagulls awoke me at 5am. It was of course mid-heatwave so there was no question of closing the windows. For a week I had no radio, no TV, no internet and not even a live phone signal; which was blissful when it wasn’t infuriatingly inconvenient.

Isabel and Dave mark the width of the original gate

Week one, I was progressively joined by more colleagues  and we started Trench 16 just inside the Nunnery gates. The sun reflected back off the Roman and Revolutionary-era stonework as we battled a giant fuscia then dug downwards to uncover the mystery of the Roman gate. There was a hint that it had been narrower than the modern one, and so it proved – by 800mm or so. It had no fancy quoins like the 18th century gate though – just an ordinary corner.

Mystery building from above

In the back of the trench was another section of the mystery building we’d seen in 2016, lurking just beneath the surface but cut through by the 1793 ‘coal store’ foundations. Loads of what looked like 18th century pantiles had to be shifted to have a look at the foot of the Roman wall – whether they came off the mystery building when it was destroyed I don’t know. Down in the same hole though were glazed ridge tiles peculiar to French churches. Maybe there was a ‘Nunnery’ at the Nunnery once, after all.

 

 

Tanya records the stone pavement

After I left for a break, things shifted gear. My colleague Phil de Jersey opened up two trenches in the field opposite, hoping to find more of the Iron Age burial ground we spotted last year. I was going to lead a group of school students to investigate a set of walls we’d also seen to check if they were Roman. As luck had it, Phil and Tanya found the Roman buildings first. Buried under a metre of windblown sand the walls still stood chest- high and in one trench was an impressive stone pavement.

 

 

The cross-walls emerge in Trench C; the Nunnery in the background

For Trench C, I chose a location indicated by a local dowser as being a likely junction of walling and my students quickly found it – again not far under the surface. Four walls met awkwardly, including one where a huge 85cm square slab made up the first course. As ever we were operating on a shoestring but help came from many quarters when we needed it, from landowners allowing the dig in the first place to that welcome excavator to fill the holes in at the end.

Some historic maps marked that area as ‘The Old Town’, although nothing remains above ground today. Since Victorian times there had been reports of odd Roman finds out on Longis common – a coin here, a skull there, ‘huge walls’ in imprecise locations. Now we had proof that all these disparate finds were linked. Some 100 metres separated Phil’s trench from mine – and once the other evidence is added in we have a picture of an entire Roman settlement buried under the sand-dunes of Longis. Several people used the phrase ‘Pompeii of the Channel Islands’ and I was the one who ended up being quoted using it. Apt in that we could have well-preserved Roman houses, streets and courtyards just beneath our feet; less apropropriate as the Roman town was probably long-abandoned before it was buried beneath a massive ‘sand blow’.

Alderney now has a unique and extensive site bigger than anything we have seen in the Channel Islands or adjacent French coasts. The benign sand preserves  bone, pottery and the metal objects we need to date and interpret the site.  The Common is not threatened by a new motorway or multistory car-park so is a perfect research site. And the views are great – eat your heart out Time Team!

It was my first dig where the sun shone every day for 3 weeks  and the rain held off until 30 mins after we closed the site that final Friday. We swam most days in the wide bay at Longis, Alderney’s natural harbour; probably the reason the Roman fort and settlement were put there in the first place. The sun went down glowing on 4th century stonework, black rabbits emerged from their burrows on the Common and we rinsed off the sands of time before picking one of Alderney’s pubs or bistros for dinner. A site tour and great media coverage sent a buzz through the island, capped by a final lecture. So we ended on a massive high, exhilarated by what our small team had found.

To find out more about the Nunnery and Longis Common digs, follow the facebook page ‘Alderney Nunnery’. We’ll be working on the finds and reviewing the evidence during the winter, and with luck will return again next year.

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Bring Up the Bodies

I felt as if I was in a scene from a Jeffrey Flint novel. An email came in saying a skull had been found in the island of Alderney, then a phone call from the police concerned they had a crime scene. It had turned up in a trench being dug for an electric main across the dunes of Longis Common. Was this a crime scene or an archaeological site? Which aspect of ‘blood and trowels’ was involved?

From the start I was pretty sure the skull was ancient – there were reports of Roman burials in that area dating back to Victorian times. However, sensationalist stories swirl about Alderney and inevitably some people started to wonder if this was a slave worker murdered or worked to death by the Nazis during their occupation of the island. The fact that the skull came from under the road, and the road was laid round about the war, suggested to me that this was most likely to be pre-war. The depth of 1.2 metres was also about right. There is I believe a whole Iron Age and Roman landscape buried under 1-2 metres of sand at Longis, possibly a whole village or fort. Only a hundred metres or so from the finds stands the best preserved late Roman small fort in Britain – the Nunnery.

 I couldn’t fly to Alderney as notice was too short to get a flight, but my local colleague Isabel was able to examine the bones and the site. The police decided this was not a crime scene and we archaeologists were in business. I was able to bring the bones back with me latter than week in an ‘evidence’ bag. Then came a call that more skulls had been found. It was 8.30pm and I was settling down for a movie. There was still free seats on the Friday morning flight, so I was in the island by 9am next day. Unlike the UK, little Alderney has no resident professional rescue archaeology unit to call on but the all-volunteer Alderney Society were on hand to lend assistance.

 It was summer-holiday brochure hot and I always love working in Alderney. The site overlooks wide Longis Bay with France 9 miles in the distance. Workmen soon showed me the lengths of wall – presumed Roman – emerging from the 300m long trench. We walked the trench and spotted something sticking out of the side. It was an Iron Age pot that had been clipped by the excavator scoop. I could easily dig it out of the sand with my hands, scooping fragments of pot, charcoal and burned bones into bags to be ‘excavated’ later.

 My colleague Isabel and I then tackled the second skull, which was jutting into the trench just over a metre down, within a stone-lined cist whose lid had been partly torn off by the excavator. The skull had also been damaged (and was still protected by ‘Police Do Not Cross’ tape) but I set to, again mostly with fingers. I had only once dug up a skeleton and that was in 1980. Then I had used a teaspoon to gently remove a Merovingian woman’s bones from a wet sticky ditch, using a paperclip to clean her teeth.

 

 

In the case of Alderney it was fingers, and we had a race against time as the project needed to push forward and the all-sand sections don’t stay in place very long. I believe Skull 2 to have belonged to a woman, and she (?)  was buried with her chin on her chest, looking at her feet. Maybe she had been lowered in a shroud to give her that hunched posture. Her face was almost intact and I found the lower mandible as well as some vertebra. The ribs were well under the road so I left those in place.

 And then we found a third body, a few metres further down the trench. This was a small skeleton- possibly a juvenile, Skull 1 had also looked like a juvenile and I’m wondering whether it once belonged to this body as I only saw legs and a pelvis. A full skeleton was a different matter to retrieving damaged skulls. We’d also walked the trench with Rick from the engineering team and found half a dozen other likely spots. It was time to halt the commando raid, take stock, and call for reinforcements.

 

Jason and the Archaeologists

_D8A7004Yes its excavating season. Time to bring out the digging t-shirts,  cowboy hat and trusty 4.5″ pointing trowel.

This August we returned to the Nunnery in Alderney, where our team last dug in 2013. This is Britain’s best preserved Roman small fort, continuing in use as medieval castle, Napoleonic barracks, German strongpoint, farm, hospital and holiday home. At some point in history it may even have been a nunnery, but we don’t know when.

We enjoyed 9 days of solid Alderney sunshine, only braving the rain to backfill on the last day. Nothing quite matches the experience of being on a dig with a dozen close friends. It is an intense and mindful experience. As director I thought of little else for two weeks other than the next layer we had to remove, the photographs needing taking, the record to complete. Our diggers needed to be fed at regular intervals too.

I actually ‘dug’ very little. In truth I scraped away at a few points to confirm the IMG_2038relationship between layers and I emptied the grand total of three buckets. Surveying, recording and photography occupied much of the time. Although we were looking for the gateway of the Roman tower (and found it!) most of the objects we found were post-medieval as the site has been re-occupied, rebuilt and generally messed around with for 1700 years. The pic on the right has me with a surveying pole at the bottom of a pit which had been full of WW2-era rubbish, standing between a German faux bastion and a post-medieval building 6ft below the surface. Right behind me is the inner face of the Roman fort wall, revealed down to its base for the first time.

Anyone interested in what we found should check out the ‘Alderney Nunnery’ Facebook page.

The site is in a glorious location, right on the sweeping beach of Longis Bay. We managed four swims after work when the tide was coming up not quite to lap the feet of the Nunnery’s fallen east wall. Afterwards, the evenings saw us enjoy Alderney hospitality at its best by sampling a different pub or restaurant each night. I put on more weight thanks to the food and wine than I lost perspiring on site! All good things must end and I’m back in the garret in Guernsey now, sweltering in the heat even though it is past nine o’clock. I have a great pile of finds record sheets, context record sheets, levels, photographs and two hours of video to work through before writing the dig up for publication. In many ways, my work has only just begun.

Asterix #5: The Fiat Gearbox

It was a divers’ joke. The object they found was a blue-grey colour, heavy, metallic. It was the size of a man’s oustretched palm, with a circular central hole and three vanes each with a screw hole. Three further supporting lugs added strength. They called it the Fiat Gearbox, or the Messerschmitt gearbox, thinking this might be a relic from the Occupation rather than a piece of the Roman ship. There was a fair amount of modern junk which had collected in the scour pits formed by Asterix, including  a ‘Sealink’ saucer, so it was not an unreasonable idea.

Then we found a second one, embedded deep in the pine tar. There is even video of a diver chipping it out. I had the job of cleaning this, painstakingly using a pin drill to cut away the clinging tar. It was clearly Roman – and far more ancient than Fiat!bilge pump j

A quick literature search showed that similar objects had been found on several Mediterranean wrecks of the Roman and Byzantine periods. Each was subtly different, but the general design was the same – a metal fixing with circular hole supported so it would attach to a wooden structure. The Lake Nemi bilge pumpobjects were bearings for a bilge pump. Finds from the sunken barges on Lake Nemi dating to the time of Nero offered the best indication of how these would work. A simple chain of cups was powered by a crank and served to scoop water overboard. The design had clearly been in use for at least three centuries by the time Asterix went down.

The presence of a bilge pump explained the ‘limber holes’ cut onto the undersurface of the floor timbers in Asterix. these would allow bilge water to flow freely along the hold of the ship. They only made sense if there was a pump – and this pump had to be located at the lowest part of the ship. Out two parts were however found up in the aft hold, too far back to be effective. Either the pump could be unshipped when not required and was stored at the back, or our two bearings were being carried as spares. One is on display at Castle Cornet and the second at Guernsey Museum. Cleaned and conserved, less burnt than the first,  the second one has a dull bronze-brown colour.

The presence of this ‘Roman’ invention on an otherwise ‘Celtic’ style ship further shows how ‘Asterix’ employed the best technology each culture could offer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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