Over this past couple of months in my occasional writings for the Coleraine Times on archaeological discoveries in historic Coleraine, I have reflected upon 17th-century houses, the town’s ecclesiastical heritage (St Patrick’s church and the Dominican friary) and its defences (the town walls and the ‘citadel’).
Almost all of these discoveries were made in a ‘rescue’ context – in other words, where development would result in the disturbance or destruction of archaeological remains.
Paradoxically, once the decision has been taken to dig a site, it is left to the archaeologist to destroy the remains – excavation is destruction.
Every scrape of the trowel, or shovelful of dirt, pares away the remains, hence the need for careful techniques. The archaeologist leaves the dig with a carefully compiled archive of records, plans and photographs, which becomes the basis of a report or article.
These days, such a data archive can be held on a CD. By far the biggest volume of ‘archive’, particularly from urban sites such as in Coleraine, is the collection of ‘finds’.
Almost all archaeological excavations yield ‘finds’ (most frequently pieces of broken pottery and animal bones, but also glass, metals, shells etc) and Coleraine is no different in this regard. Excavations have yielded thousands of finds.
The discovery of any object raises questions such as – ‘what is it?’, ‘why is it there?’, and ‘what does it tell me about life in the past?’
Pottery fragments are, by far, the most common finds. Once a pot is broken it’s useless, and the broken pieces are thrown away. By its very nature, pottery is almost indestructible, whereas bone may rot, iron may rust, and even glass may decay over time (some glass from Coleraine excavations had the consistency of granulated sugar!).
Pottery found in Coleraine reflects the town’s history as a major settlement on the north coast, its many links with England and Scotland, and as a port. 17th-century Plantation Coleraine, with its influx of colonists, was as much a part of European globalisation and capitalism as the early American colonies.
For example, pots made in Devon, and widely exported, can be found both in Coleraine and in Virginia’s Jamestown, founded by the English in 1607. In the 18th century, the impact of the Stoke-on Trent pottery industry – and consumer tastes in drinking tea, coffee or chocolate - can be seen in stone-lined rubbish and cess pits found in New Row and Stone Row, where characteristic ‘slipware’ potsherds were frequent finds.
17th- and 18th-century pottery from Britain, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Irish-made, litters the ground beneath modern-day Coleraine. Almost all of the ironwork of that period was imported from England – for example nails, knives, locks and keys, and hinges.
Some of the early 17th-century glass goblets – fragments found near Ferryquay Street - are in the Venetian style. Clay tobacco pipes and wig-curlers are mostly English imports, while it is likely that most of the butchered animal bones – cattle, sheep and pig - discarded after meals, derive from livestock bred originally from English strains.
The finds, of course, don’t come with labels saying ‘made in England’, or wherever. Just as with the Antiques Roadshow, the archaeologists’ identification of objects relies on accumulated experience, sharing knowledge with colleagues, and study.
The pottery and the clay tobacco pipes, in particular, are useful for dating. For example, our earliest Devon pottery dates from 1605, while white stonewares can be no earlier than c.1720 (when the techniques for making it were developed). Wedgwood pots can be quite closely dated from the mid 1700s onwards.
Once the major hurdle of identification and dating has been overcome, interpretation – the telling of the ‘why?’ story – takes over. Most of the finds are quite simply everyday rubbish. Organised rubbish disposal appears in 18th-century Coleraine, in cess pits dug to contain waste (including ‘night soils’ and chamber pots!)
Large pottery sherds with ‘fresh’ broken edges, such as those from a rubbish pit behind a house in New Row, conjure images of a recent domestic accident. Tiny, abraded fragments, on the other hand, may reflect the digging-over of a garden for many years, or building development, breaking the potsherds into ever-diminishing pieces. Then, just as now, fashions, costs and tastes changed, and the consumer made choices. Tobacco pipes, for example, didn’t exist until smoking was ‘invented’, and pipes themselves change and evolve, reflecting the volume of tobacco imports and taxation. The use of the fork, at table, is considerably later than the use of knife, spoon or fingers!
The ‘dig’ is the public face of archaeology, the thrill of discovery and growing understanding. But, in a rescue context, it usually takes place within tight constraints of time.
As with the tip of the iceberg, the bit you see (the dig) is only a small part of the whole. Most of the work, the discove
ry and understanding process, takes place once the archaeologists have left the site.