Archaeological interpretation, is it all just rubbish?

"And they always find in archaeology, a series of small walls. Every time, a series of small walls. 'We found a series of small walls, we're very excited. We think this proves that they had walls in olden days.' And then someone, very learned with glasses, says, 'The King and Queen entertained here. Courtiers and soldiers in this room. And elephants dancing hopscotch over there....' And you watch going, 'You're making this up, mate…. You don't know if it's true.'" (Izzard 1997).

The words of Eddie Izzard probably ring true for many people, how does “the learned person with glasses” know their interpretation that the series of small walls is in fact a building in which a King and Queen entertained their guests is correct? What evidence do archaeologists use to reach their conclusions? Here at Berkeley the western end of the trench consists of a large series of small walls (which is what brought Izzard’s words to mind) that we have the job of interpreting. Luckily for us we do generally discover a series of walls rather than just encountering one, or small sections of random walls, which makes our job a little easier.

One of the best examples of walls we have excavated in the last couple of years at Berkeley is the building we encountered in the north-western corner of the trench, see figure 1. One glance at the photograph may lead you to believe that interpreting the walls was easy, they form a large rectangular building, but do not be fooled rarely is archaeology ever that simple!

Figure 1: Remains of a building in the northwest corner of the trench. 

If you take a second slightly harder glance at the photograph it should become clear that the long wall running up the left hand side of the image is not in fact one wall, but two. The join between these two walls is highlighted in figure 2 below. So what appeared to be a simple series of walls is in fact more complex and poses a series of questions, all of which need answering in order to properly interpret these walls.

Figure 2: The red circle highlights the join between the two walls.

The first thing we need to determine is are we dealing with two separate buildings that happen to be about each other, or are we looking at a small building that was extended during its life? The easiest way to begin to get answers is to look at the two walls on the left hand side of the picture and work out how they relate to each other. Looking closely at the join between the walls it became clear that the lower section of the wall had a very large stone at its end (the end circled) which had been tied into the upper section of wall, so although they were on slightly different alignments the upper wall had been purposely built onto the end of the lower wall, suggesting that the original building was quite small and had needed to be extended at some point during its life.  

The next question is what period these buildings date to and then how long they were in use for. The easiest way to answer both of these is from the artefacts we excavate from within the occupation deposits within these buildings. The most reliable of these artefacts is the pottery, which although in most cases is not datable to within a decade can be dated to within 100 years or so, providing a date range. The pottery is sent to our ceramic expert once we have finished digging each year and he is able to tighten up the date ranges we (non-specialists!) give the pottery at the time it comes out of the ground. Most of the pottery found within the occupation deposits dated to the Tudor period, with some Late Medieval Tudor Green Ware, which was produced between 1380 – 1600AD (Laing, 2003). When the upper section of wall was lifted last year a piece of Tudor period pottery was found within the bonding material in the wall, indicating that the building had been extended during the Tudor period. The extension then does not seem to have been in use for very long as the 1544 map of the paddock does not show this building, indicating it had been demolished by this time.
So that leaves one final question to answer, what was this building used for? To answer this, we again turn to the artefacts to give us hints as well as the features within the building itself.

Figure 3: Under floor drains after partial excavation.

One of the running jokes between the students is that the corner where this building stands is drain city, with five drains having been recorded within the area, three of which are within the floor level of the building. The image above (fig 3), shows two of these drains after being partially excavated, although it looks like one drain, it is in fact two. The stones from the drain section on the right when first found were seen to cut through the filled up drain on the left. Both were covered in flagstones which would have formed part of the floor of the building.

The artefacts found within the occupation deposits are quite low in number and mainly consists of animal bone, a small amount of pottery and metal working waste. This is not typical of a domestic assemblage, as more pottery would usually be found in a domestic building. This lack of pottery coupled with all these drains leads us to suspect that this building had an industrial function, perhaps linked to metal working. Such an activity would require access to water and so a means of draining it away, which is why we have found so many drains in this area.

Hopefully next time the “learned person with glasses” offers their interpretation you will now understand the archaeological processes that have gone into forming that interpretation. However, one of the best things about archaeology is that interpretations change the more features we excavate and of course there are always little on site arguments when competing interpretations arise! The evidence can only lead us so far though and even among archaeologists there will never be full agreement over interpretations. The only way we will ever know for certain of course is to travel back in time, so I leave it up to the scientists amongst you to make that possible for us!  

Laing, L. (2003) Pottery in Britain 4000BC – AD1900 (Greenlight Publishing)

- Sian Thomas