Excav critiq

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This critique will examine the RAF St Athan excavation report by Barber et al. (2006) and asses the aims and purpose of the excavation. It will also consider the arrangement and presentation of both text and illustrations for clarity and reasoning. A general critique of the complete report and the conclusions given will also be commented on.

Site and rationale for excavation

In the early 2000s the Defence Aviation Repair Agency (DARA), located at RAF St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan, planned to build a new 'Super hanger' as part of the redevelopment plans for the airfield. However, as a result of archaeological interest in the proposed construction site, based on the discovery of sites and artefacts in the surrounding countryside which spanned the prehistoric, Roman and medieval periods, Cotswold Archaeology (CA) were contracted, in the first instance, to evaluate the site and then later to excavate it. Excavation work took place during March and May 2003.

The authors are concise in their rationale for the excavation at RAF St Athan and are very clear as to the location of the site which, in addition to an Ordnance Survey (OS) grid reference, is visually supported by a series of clear black & white scaled maps that are linked to a table detailing pertinent archaeological sites and artefacts in the locale.

Planning and history of excavation

The excavation report states, in its 'Introduction' (pp. 49-50), that CA were commissioned, in 2001, to undertake an archaeological 'desktop study' of RAF Athan and its surrounding area in lieu of planned redevelopments by DARA. However, the dichotomy that confronted CA was fact that DARA was located on Crown land and as such was not bound by the Government's Planning Policy Guidance note PPG16 (archaeology and planning), which states that it is best practice for a site to undergo an archaeological evaluation prior to the granting of planning permission (Grant et al. 2005: 126). The situation was therefore resolved by DARA agreeing to voluntary fund CA to carry out an archaeological evaluation of the 'Super hanger' site, which they undertook during December 2002 and February 2003 (p.50).

Following a survey of the site using magnetic susceptibility scanning CA selected four discrete areas for a more intensive survey using magnetometry. Then, as a result of anomalies detected in 'Area 2', CA put in three evaluation trenches which confirmed that there were 'a substantial undated enclosure ditch, a Roman ditch and several post-medieval field boundaries' on the site (p.50). Therefore, on the basis of this discovery, DARA agreed to fund an archaeological excavation of the area, albeit within a specified period of time.

Due to the imposed time limitations the excavation strategy employed by CA, as detailed in 'Excavation methodology' (pp.50-53), was one of mitigation whose written specifications had been approved by the local authority. Consequently an area of 2.7ha was mechanically stripped and the archaeological features 'sample excavated and recorded' (p.53) (Fig. 1). However, more features became apparent towards the end of the excavation so, with limited time available, CA placed the emphasis on the collection of artefacts from surface fills that were complimented by machine-cut sections that would both aid in the identification of the features and potentially supply more datable items. It was acknowledged in the report that this approach had 'resulted in the limited interpretation of these features' (p.53).

The chronology of events relating to the granting of both permission and funding for the excavation are well documented. The text is also complimented with well presented annotated figures.

Stratigraphic and artefactual evidence

The primary focus of the excavation was the square-shaped Enclosure 1 which was identified as a Period 2 structure (i.e. Middle to Late Iron Age) (Fig. 2); CA, as stated in 'Excavation Results' (p.53), having assigned four periods of human activity to the site.

Sectioning, by hand and machine, of Enclosure 1 revealed a roughly 3 to 4.5m wide ditch which was nominally wider at the corners and had a general V-shaped profile to a depth of about 1.5m, although on both the east and west side it was truncated at the bottom to create a 0.5m wide flat surface. Stratigraphic evidence indicates that the ditch was recut on two occasions, the first of which was solely focused on the northern part of the ditch (i.e. from the gateway to the corner) and resulted in it being displaced slightly to the south with a corresponding movement of the gatepost-pits (Figs. 2 & 3). Also discernable was a 3-4m wide internal bank that had been constructed from excavated ditch material (i.e. stone) and the subsequent recutting and scouring of accumulated silt (p.56).

Stratigraphic evidence indicates that the initial basal fills of the enclosure ditch were of accumulated silt and sub-angular stones from bank erosion. Recovered artefactual material from the ditch fills comprised of Late Iron Age pottery sherds, with five large sherds from a single item being recovered from recut 1 and the speculation that it could have been an intentional deposition (p.57).

Two potential roundhouses were identified in the north-west corner of Enclosure 1 as were numerous, enclosure-based, two and four-posted structures (Fig. 2). The stratigaphic evidence for roundhouse 1 (RH1) only really exists as one section of a curved 'V-shaped' drip gully, 0.3 m wide and 0.2m deep. However, no internal features such as postholes or hearths were discovered and the only recovered artefactual material comprised of a single pottery sherd (p.62).

The evidence for roundhouse 1 (RH2) is far more compelling as it is defined by two opposing segments of a curved 'V-shaped' drip gully, 0.4 m wide and 0.15m deep. In addition internal features comprising of four postholes and a 'hearth' were also identified (p.63). Again only a single pottery sherd was recovered.

The south-east segment of RH2 gully was identified as having a 'drainage spur' that cut-through the end section of the RH1 gully (Fig. 2). However this spur itself might have been linked to a feature opposite the RH1 gully that itself had been truncated by a later period feature. As the author's remark, the 'stratigraphic relationship' is not clear and therefore interpretation is problematic (p.62).

Features discovered outside Enclosure 1, and assigned to this period, comprised of some ditches relating to a field system and a small, 1m deep, rock-cut pit that contained, amongst other things, pottery sherds and numerous stone fragments. The authors speculate that this may have been a small quarry (p.66).

On the basis of stratigraphic evidence from the Enclosure 1 ditch sections the author's have concluded that it was during the Roman period of activity (i.e. Period 3) that the ditch was comprehensively backfilled and the internal bank deliberately slighted; the later accounting for the introduction of 'large quantities of residual Iron Age pottery' into the upper fill levels together with some associated Roman pottery (p.66). The only substantial structural Period 2 discovery was that of one or two 'T-shaped' drying ovens located in the former 'space' bounded by Enclosure 1. Drying oven 1, which still had some of its stone lining in situ, was located close to the site of RH2 (Fig. 4). Discovered in association with this oven was a 'socketed iron object' which was found in an adjacent context and believed by the authors to have been a 'stoking or clearing device' (p.68).

A new field system, was also discerned, as were trackways, pits and some ditches; one which may have been related to a roundhouse. Artefactual evidence pertaining to CA's Period 4 activity (i.e. Post-medieval/modern) was in the form of recovered pottery sherds. Also evident were boundary ditches that were found to conform to the field systems laid out in the 1921 OS map (p.71).

Specialist report

Renfrew and Bahn (2008: 13) state that 'the aim of archaeology is the understanding of humankind', therefore the following specialist report has been selected for an appraisal because it specifically deals with the people who had an intimate relationship with the site.

Human Skeletal Remains, by Teresa Gilmore

Following the introductory text, which is supported by a table of burials data that includes the radiocarbon dates for the six inhumations recovered during the excavation, the report goes onto address both dental and trauma issues before culminating with a short discussion.

Dental pathology is confined to the analysis of Burial 1 as this was the only skeleton recovered with any teeth (Fig. 5). However, Gilmore appears to make a simple mathematical error when talking about 'six of the moderate teeth' as she then cites them as comprising '3 incisors, 1 canine, 1 molar' (p.104). Her comparison with the results presented by Roberts and Cox (2003: 100) for Iron Age dental carries and calcus indicated that Burial 1 was lower than the national average. Roberts and Cox (2003: 100) also note that 'dental disease is a reflection of the economy'.

On the subject of trauma, Gilmore observed that Burial 4 had an old healed fracture of the left forearm which had calcified and that the injury, in association with problems to the wrist and hand bones, probably prevented the individual from using their left wrist (p.104). Her subsequent comparison with the results presented by Roberts and Cox (2003: 100) for Iron Age fractures revealed that out of 35 individuals recovered from Yarton, in Oxfordshire, 1 had a forearm fracture.

However, as Gilmore concludes, the six recovered skeletons are too small in number to be a viable statistical base to indicate the health of the populations, particularly as the burials spanned different periods of time and were in different states of preservation (p.104)

Whilst the report was difficult to understand, with respect to the medical terminology used, it was also very interesting because it was dealing with the medical conditions that affected these people in life and which one can empathise with today.

Complete report

The report is logically structured, progressing sequentially from the introduction to excavation details and then onto the 10 specialist reports, where data are presented either tabulated or listed. In the case of the plant macrofossil assemblage they are identified in a table by both their Latin name and, where appropriate, their common name. However, the recovered mollusca are identified only by their Latin name which makes the text harder to digest. Also the radiocarbon results are repeated virtually verbatim elsewhere within the report, but the information is relevant in these sections and it would disrupt the train of thought if one had to keep referring back to the radiocarbon report.

One criticism that can be levelled at the report is the fact that it contains the colloquialism 'in the light', which appears in the text on three separate occasions (p.50, 106, 108). Given that CA is a commercial organisation one would have expected a more rigours vetting of the material prior to its release for publishing.

The report concludes with a distillation of the reasoned interpretations espoused in the discussion section, which assessed the site data against pertinent published material. Where possible these external sources (i.e. 'Reports consulted but not cited') have been examined to ensure substantiation of the expressed interpretations and it is therefore believed that the concluding statements are valid.

Finally, as archaeology is a destructive discipline its raison d'être is to make it findings known, and in this respect CA has achieved its objectives. Furthermore, the knowledge gained from this site has challenged the existing assumptions on both 'burial practices and settlement patterns in south-west Wales' (p.110).