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Hen Caerwys Dig Diary 2014

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This Dig Diary charts the progress of the fourth season of excavations at Hen Caerwys deserted medieval village in Flintshire. The excavation is taking place between the 23rd June and 5th of July and is being run by Cadw and Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust with help from local volunteers.

Dig diaries from previous seasons of excavations at Hen Caerwys can be found here.

Monday 23rd June 2014

Cadw photo, Hen Caerwys, 2014

Under the watchful eye of Cadw's Will Davies, the digging starts . . . . .

The start of a new season of excavation at Hen Caerwys, perhaps the last. The vegetation has been strimmed down by Mike, the owner, enabling us to identify amongst the greenery, though only just, where we excavated last year – it’s quite remarkable how twelve months on, the vegetation has thoroughly recolonized the positions of our excavation trenches. A year ago we covered over three of these trenches with a layer of geotextile sheeting and then spread stone and soil over each, anticipating that we would be coming back to complete their examination in 2014 (see last year’s dig diary for fuller information).

Now what was dumped on the final day of the last season has to be removed. In Trench E, Will Davies’ team has cleared some of last year’s protective covering , but also extended the trench and removed the surface vegetation, to take in more of the rear of the medieval house platform than was exposed last year (at least we hope it is medieval!). In Trench F Caroline Pudney’s team has stripped some of the covering from the intersection of where the bank of the large enclosure met a linear boundary bank (?a field division) with a view to confirming beyond doubt that the enclosure was later and laid out over an earlier field.

And most importantly the site tent was set up – by an expert team of tent erectors, most of them ladies, who had experienced the practicalities of taking it down, in record time, last year. It has not been established whether a claim that almost all of the male members of the team made themselves scarce at this time by visiting other parts of the extensive site complex, is no more than an unsubstantiated rumour.

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Tuesday 24th June 2014

Trench H - Merlin barking orders (sorry!)

A solid day’s excavation with the weather fine, the enthusiasm high and Merlin the border collie expecting everyone to throw sticks for him, totally oblivious to the fact that the excavations at Hen Caerwys are not being run entirely for his benefit (as shown in our image of Trench H).

Will in Trench E has been cleaning up the northern, newly cleared, part of his platform. Collapsed stone of course, but both side walls of the house that stood on the platform are clearly visible and a few extremely large blocks of limestone hint at a partition or revetment wall across the interior, though they could be completely misleading in this respect. What is very evident is the depth of clean humic soil that has accumulated within the house, and removing this will be an important task in the very near future.

Work in Caroline’s Trench F was continued, despite the absence of Caroline herself, but in the very capable hands of one of our community excavators, Irene. The full width of the enclosure bank has now been revealed and the slabs forming a revetment wall at the front of the bank can now be seen to run for a greater length than was seen last year – not surprising perhaps as the natural ground slope falls away beyond the bank and holding the limestone rubble in place would have been an important requirement.

And finally to Trench H which we started last year but didn’t get very far with. Trench H is set across one of the lateral platforms lying along the contour which are an extremely unusual feature at Hen Caerwys for they are rarely encountered elsewhere. Here a small team led by Menna Bell of CPAT has cleared away last year’s protective cover to expose the rubble that formed the highest archaeological layer within the trench.

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Wednesday 25th June 2014

Caroline pondering 'enigmatic' Trench F

It has to be said that Trenches E and H have not seen a great deal of activity today. With Will away on Cadw business for part of the day, Trench E was effectively mothballed, although some clearance – of moss and ivy – was undertaken on a curious little stone structure that lies immediately above the platform. More on this tomorrow perhaps, assuming we have the time to continue with it. In Trench H much of the time was spent in planning, guiding a couple of community archaeologists through the intricacies of plotting stone rubble, and only at the end of the day did we start to remove that same surface rubble from the trench.

Caroline’s Trench F saw considerably more effort expended by her entirely male team. Virtually the entire width of the enclosure bank has been revealed in the wide trench, the revetment of limestone slabs has been exposed on both its faces, confirming that there is rubble running beneath it, in which a fragment of animal bone and a couple of teeth were incorporated, and more of the field bank running up to it has been uncovered, including the cutting that was put across it last year. But are we any closer to determining the sequence here? Probably not. As Caroline herself said: ‘it’s a bit enigmatic’, a comment backed up by our photo.

Finally, a bit of work was done on another curious feature set on the edge of the scheduled area, close to the lane. Thought initially to be a lime-kiln, some doubts have been expressed about this explanation. The director of CPAT, Paul Belford, an acknowledged industrial archaeology specialist spent the afternoon clearing vegetation and examining the feature, and at the end of the afternoon declared it was not a lime-kiln but more probably a mine shaft. This, however, still leaves unanswered the nature of a narrow walled channel adjacent to the shaft – it is something that we shall have to return to in the days to come.

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Thursday 26th June 2014

The serrated flint blade from Trench F. Photo © Cadw

The weather continues to be kind to us, our community excavators keep coming back for more, and progress has been very satisfactory.

In Trench F Caroline’s team have continued to expose the limestone rubble of the two banks, but a little more may be necessary in order to determine the exact dimensions of both. And amongst the soil towards the bottom of the rubble, our first prehistoric find of the season – a rather fine serrated blade, Bronze Age or perhaps earlier.

In Trench H, Menna has been teaching her team how to plan and take levels, though some were already competent in these respects. All this after the first layer of rubble had been removed to reveal, as you might expect, yet more rubble. But some of this lower-lying stone appears in the form of rather flat slabs, so there’s a possibility (but no more than that) that we could be seeing a laid floor surface.

Will has been pushing on with Trench E. More vegetation has been cleared around the platform, opening up the vista to the site. A section line has been positioned longitudinally down the long axis of the platform and its house, and the exposed rubble has been cleared away from one side of this, revealing the inner face of the building’s west wall, quite striking in appearance. Beneath the rubble is a much more orange-brown clayey layer with charcoal. We saw something similar last year in the more southerly part of the building so hopefully we are getting towards the deposits that are contemporary with the occupation of the settlement. Adjacent to the platform and on the open ground between it and its unexcavated neighbour we have placed a couple of test pits to test the deposits in what appears to be open ground. It is a busy day for Will – this evening he is giving a talk on the site to the local history society.

Trench E - Will and Brian demonstrate the subtleties of locating the house’s west wall

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Friday 27th June 2014

Will and Alison excavating the interior of the house in Trench E.

A bit damp today, and perhaps this is why some of our community volunteers decided to remain at home.

The main scene of activity was Trench E. The focus has been on the upper (northern) end of the house which was not examined at all last year. Will has laid out a longitudinal section running down the long axis. To the west of this the house was cleared of rubble down onto a clayey surface that could represent an occupation layer. Leaving a narrow baulk in place his team are now clearing the eastern side of the platform. The intention then is to remove the geotextile matting that was laid over the excavated areas at the end of last year and extend the longitudinal section down the spine of the building.

In addition we have opened several one-metre square test pits beyond the long sides of the platform, two to the west between this platform and its unexcavated neighbour, and one immediately to the east where there is clear ground not covered by a spoil heap. And the reason? Well, back in the 1960s it was close to the side of one of the platforms that the Flintshire Historical Society excavators encountered a rubbish deposit (a midden). Ever optimistic we are hopeful that we might do the same though as yet the omens are not particularly good. But there is a good working atmosphere in Trench E, enlivened today by a less than academic discussion about Game of Thrones.

Menna was left a solitary figure in Trench H, planning the limestone rubble that had previously been exposed. Even Merlin her dog found Trench E more conducive, perhaps because there there was a larger group of archaeologists, gullible enough to throw sticks for him. Like Trench E a narrow baulk has been left down the long axis of the trench, and she spent the last part of the day clearing rubble from one side of it.

In Caroline’s trench (F) it is limestone rubble and more limestone rubble. After the excitement of the serrated blade yesterday, today produced only fragments of bone. Another revetment slab for the enclosure bank has been revealed, and now sections are being cut in an attempt to clarify the sequence of banks here. It is a slow business but we still have another week to go.

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Saturday 28th June 2014

Are they post-holes?

Another day of drizzling rain and only a few volunteers. Not surprising then that we didn’t seem to accomplish a great deal, though overall having been on site for six days and thus about half of our projected last season at Hen Caerwys, we are reasonably satisfied with the progress made.

In trenches F and H, it’s been a case of removing yet more limestone rubble, exposing – yes you’ve guessed it – more rubble. But in Trench E we are pretty well below the rubble, and down onto a level of more stony soil that brings us closer to what was exposed in the excavation of the more southerly part of the platform in 2013 – though as yet we have not removed the geotextile covering from last year which will show how the surfaces link together. Shifting some particularly large blocks of limestone that had tumbled into the interior brought out the best in Will and Mike, the site owner, and it is to be hoped that there will not be any after-effects tomorrow.

Of the two test-pits to the west of the platform, one remains to be completed, as does the third test-pit to the east of it. We recorded the third test pit, seemingly fully excavated, this morning but it was only when we cam to photograph it later in the day that two near-circular soil-filled marks only a few centimetres apart were noted amongst the irregular pattern of small limestone rubble that littered the base of the test-pit. Mike was delegated to examine these but because of their restricted diameter and depth he was unable to reach the bottom of either. It is really tempting to view these as post-holes, but confirmation will only come from digging another text-pit immediately adjacent to the first in order to determine whether there are more holes. This is something for tomorrow or perhaps early next week.

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Sunday 29th June 2014

The team gather round to see where the 16th-century pottery was found

Perhaps it’s just the improvement in the weather, or perhaps we were always in line for some good archaeology: today has been excellent both in terms of questions to make us think (and hopefully to be answered in due course) and in terms of finds.

Menna has taken a couple of days off to move house, so no work on Trench H. Several of her (now) stalwart team moved across to Trench E to bolster Will’s investigation of his platformed house. Trench F continued to occupy Caroline ably assisted by Irene in the traditional daily practice of limestone rubble removal. It remains questionable as to when this will ever end, but the first find of the day was another prehistoric flint, this was a nice little scraper.

But back to Trench E where Will continued to remove rubble and soil in the interior of the house and was rewarded with the first fragments of 16th, or perhaps 15th-century pottery, initially from the collapsed stone that had fallen onto the platform and then embedded in the underlying silt which may represent an archaeological level. Meanwhile Neil, having in the morning completed the excavation of the second test-pit beyond the western side of the platform and demonstrated that the natural limestone in its base was entirely different from the supposedly natural material through which the two putative post-holes was cut in the test-pit less than two metres away, moved on to the unfinished test-pit to the east of the platform and promptly encountered a couple of large bones and another sherd of early pottery. And April and Mai were given the unenviable task of mattocking down outside the outside of the building to try and find its west face.

And finally Paul returned to continue his work on the curious structure that was initially thought to be a lime-kiln (for which see last Wednesday’s diary), but which he is now tentatively identifying as an ice-house. This though was around 2.00pm and he may have had further ideas since then, but the only way you’ll find out is by reading this dig diary over the next few days or perhaps by checking his regular tweets.

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Monday 30th June 2014

Trench E was again the scene of most activity today. On the northern half of the platform Will rapidly removed the baulk of collapsed stone in its matrix of soil so the levels across the entire width of the house could be viewed. Then it was a case of cleaning the exposed surface to identify potential floor levels. At the moment this has been only partially successful; against the face of the eastern house wall, slab-like limestone looks to be running under the wall footing suggesting that it acted as a bedding plate, in which case little of the floor surface seems to have survived. But further towards the centre of the building darker silt and irregular patterns of small stone suggest a zone of greater archaeological potential.

Trench E - exposing the area excavated in 2013

Outside the west side of the building, April and Mai persevered in their search for its outside face; all that has been exposed is loose rubble, and it is becoming rather evident that the builders having sunk their platform into the slope didn’t bother with the niceties of an external wall face that would never have been visible but roughly built their wall up against the slope they had created.

The final act of the day was to shovel off the soil that had held down the geotextile protective sheets over that part of the house examined in 2013, thus exposing virtually all of the building now under excavation (for which see photo left).

Our test pits around the house platform, and there are now four of them, continue to reveal rather different stratigraphy. We had I think rather anticipated that the natural subsoil would be fairly consistent across such a limited area of the site, but this appears not to be the case. Only one of these test pits has produced any artefacts, i.e. domestic rubbish, the one immediately to the east of the platform, and here we are constrained from further work by the placement of our spoil heaps – a familiar story on archaeological digs!

This diary entry would not be complete without a reference to Paul’s curious structure on the edge of the wood. Further clearance has revealed more walling and a well-built roofed channel which appears to have both ends closed off. The ice-house theory has not been abandoned but other, sometimes wilder suggestions have been circulating at Hen Caerwys. Paul hopes to return at the weekend to continue clearance – watch this space!

Nosy cow watching from the neighbouring field

I’m having a day off tomorrow to attend to domestic chores (e.g. mowing the lawn), so Caroline has agreed to step into the breach. She’ll be able to provide a first-hand report on progress in Trench F. And do come and visit us if you are able. We have not had too many human visitors, but we do have regular onlookers as this photo shows!

Bob Silvester

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Tuesday 1st July 2014

On this day in the year AD 70 the Roman General Titus and his forces set up battering rams to assault the walls of Jerusalem. This morning I stared at the swathe of limestone rubble before me and had a fleeting thought that a battering ram may be just the tool I’ve been looking for. The rubble in Trench F is not letting up. It is brutal. Or so I thought…

Trench F - the bank becomes a wall

Hen Caerwys is for most people, a mish-mash of limestone blocks set upon a limestone pavement. For some it offers up secrets of the past, but only if you’re looking in the right place, at the right time, from an appropriate angle and in an opportune light…if you squint and cock your head slightly at a jaunty angle. It is not an easy site to excavate. Today however, the main enclosure bank let us in on a secret it has been keeping for some time. The inner enclosure bank is not, in fact, a bank at all. On the contrary, it is (or, perhaps more accurately was), a wall, the collapse of which gives the appearance of a bank of stones, rising upwards from the inner edge to a crest at the top and then downwards on the other side, following the natural slope of the topography.

So why have we only just discovered that it is indeed a wall rather than a crudely constructed rubble bank? Traditionally the walls in this part of the limestone plateau are not constructed in regular courses nor are they built from dressed stone or bonded together with mortar. Instead they are of irregular coursing, dry-stone or earth bonded and thus when they collapse do not tend to leave any of the tell-tale signatures one would expect of a collapsed wall. Here on the south-eastern corner of the enclosure bank where it meets the linear bank running up from south to north, the lower two courses of the wall survive. This is likely due to the construction of the revetment, making the wall fall inwards and preventing total collapse.

We still have some work to do in order to clear up the tumble, establish the phasing of construction and really nail our understanding of it but, if first impressions are correct this wall measures some 4ft in width. That’s a hefty wall. Possible situated on top of a bank. Is this an earlier defended enclosure that we have before us?

Together with the flints from within the north-south linear bank this part of Hen Caerwys is beginning to look less medieval with every stroke of the trowel.

Will drawing Trench E

Meanwhile, Will has been drawing the remains of the platform house in Trench E and Menna has been grappling with a the lack of occupation layers between rubble building tumble and rubble house platform and Merlin the dog has worn himself out chasing ….but we will not be beaten by this rocky horror.

Caroline Pudney, Cadw

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Wednesday 2nd July 2014

Will discussing Trench E with Kate Roberts of Cadw

We’ve had a quiet couple of days recording Trench E having finally reached the same level of likely-looking occupation debris that we finished on last year in the lower part of the house. The surface of this dark clay layer has produced a range of animal bones, burnt flecks of clay, charcoal and at last a few sherds of stratified pottery, all seemingly of a similar late or early post medieval date to that described by Leach and Pennant Williams in the 1960s. There is presumably more dating and cultural evidence within this layer of dark earth but with only two full days of work left I’ve decided to call it a day for now as we really don’t have enough time to excavate or even sample it properly.

Whilst this is frustrating for all concerned it is vastly preferable to rushing and either damaging or failing to extract the maximum amount of information from the archaeology, which in our position would be unforgivable. We’ll spend the next couple of days checking a few outstanding details at the edges of the trench, drawing detailed plans and sections and sealing the trench from the elements, hopefully to return next year.

Janet, our friendly geologist from the Dyserth Field Club dropped by after lunch and provided us with some interesting insights into some of the rock cut features that we’ve been encountering in the various trenches, most notably that the possible post holes in test pits I and J may well be natural sub-glacial features, as may the more convincing looking pair within Trench E. Whilst this is a bit disappointing from our point of view, it’s good to get some specialist advice and resolve this, although I’m not sure all of the volunteers will be convinced.

More on Caroline and Menna’s progress with the rubble tomorrow.

Will Davies, Cadw

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Thursday 3rd July 2014

The following diary entries were written by pupils from Ysgol yr Esgob in Caerwys, who visited today.

Pupils from Ysgol yr Esgob

First, Jasmine's diary:

On Thursday 3rd of July 2014, year four, five and six went to the Archaeological Dig in Hen Caerwys. We worked alongside real archaeologists, who had been exploring this settlement for a number of years.

When we first arrived at Hen Caerwys, we met Caroline, she showed us around the trenches, and it was really intriguing! The first trench she showed us was believed to be from the Iron Age period. Most of the other trenches were either flat or platform houses. After we were showed around the trenches, we returned back to the tent and had lunch. During lunch time, we asked Bob Silvester our questions that we were dying to know! He answered them the best he could and I was really interested!

In the afternoon, we met Menna and Merlin – The Archaeologist Dog. Menna showed us the test pits that we could excavate. We got into groups. My group included the three Charlies in our class and me! Menna and Brian called us the Charlie Pit + Jasmine! That was REALLY funny!! In our test pit we found these items/stones:

• Lots and lots of Limestone!
• A tiny bit of charcoal
• Dirt (obviously!)

The limestone we found looked like a floor or maybe even a wall, but somehow it seemed to be connected to one of the other test pits, which was to the left of our pit! I was really fascinated by this, and it seemed Brian was too!

Someday I want to go back to the ‘Big Dig’ and see what the archaeologists have found!

What an AMAZING experience and we hope we can do it again soon!

Will Davies talking to staff and pupils from Ysgol yr Esgob

Now, Maisie's diary:

At Hen Caerwys we learnt lots of archaeological facts and terms. First we went around some of the excavations and tried to spot as many platform houses as we could, which was a bit difficult as they were all covered in grass. I managed to spot around 2 or 3 houses in the hill but it turned out there was 5 or 6 so I guess I missed a few of them! Next we saw some archaeologists excavating a platform house; they didn’t find much inside the house just some pottery and the bones of an animal. After that it was lunch time and we were all ravenous!

During lunch Mr Silvester came over to eat with us and at the same time he answered the questions we sent him through E-mail. The answers were fascinating but they are too long to recite.

After lunch we were led around by Menna, who was the owner of a dog named Merlin who helped with the digging and sniffing for things under ground. Menna assigned us, 3 to each test pit. However, 2 test pits had to be abandoned because we found a red ants nest in each! My test pit turned out fine but as 2 had to be abandoned she had to move the groups around again and Eli, Phoebe and I had nowhere to go.

Menna showed us how to use a dumpy level but we all wanted a go, so to decide who went first, she asked us a question to do with the site. Phoebe put her hand up just before Eli and I so she got to use the dumpy level. Eli got to write down the results whilst I held the measuring stick. After that Phoebe got to go back to the trench (lucky her) but Menna asked Eli and I to stay where we were, so we did.

It turned out that she wanted us to draw all the big chunks of limestone in test pit R, which was one of the test pits that had an ants nest in it. Once we had drawn the 2 big limestone rocks, she asked us to fill in 2 sheets but they were different, mine was about the rocks and Eli’s was about the soil in the test pit. I had to put the texture of the rocks, whether we were depositing from the test pit or not, the colour of the limestone and the description. The texture was solid, we were depositing, the colour of the rocks was light grey and the description was: Large, light grey rocks, still in the ground and unable to come out by force.

Just as we were doing that we realised the time it was almost 3 o’ clock! We had to go back to school but we still ended up late.

What a day!

Mrs. Clisham and Mrs. Hanna from Ysgol yr Esgob wish to thank all the team for their support in planning for this visit and for all the wonderful experiences that were provided on site. The CPAT website has provided us with a lot of information on the history of Caerwys itself. This is an extraordinary topic and the children are learning so much. Thank you Bob for all the information you provided during “question time”!

CPAT and Cadw would like to thank the staff and pupils from Ysgol yr Esgob for all their hard work and enthusiasm. Maybe some seeds have been sewn for future careers in archaeology. All of us here at CPAT passionately believe that engagement with young people is vital for the future of our profession. Not only might some of these children grow up to be archaeologists or historians, but also politicians, farmers, builders, and others for whom an interest and understanding about our heritage is incredibly important. We are so happy to hear that you enjoyed your day, and look forward to working with you again.

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Friday 4th July 2014

It's amazing that we made it this far without getting soaked!

The wettest day of the dig, not ideal when you’re trying to accomplish as much as possible before closing down the excavation for the season.

The decision has been taken, however, to postpone the completion of the platform excavation that is Trench E; there is too much still to do on it. Having said in an early diary entry that we viewed this as the last season at Hen Caerwys, we are now hoping to come back again next year. So rather than rushing the excavation, Will is now taking a more leisurely approach, planning what has been exposed and making sure the records are up to date.

The possibility of a return in 2015 has spilled over to Trench F as well. Here Caroline has completed almost all of the enclosure/field boundary intersection examination, but some of the basal layers of the enclosure bank within the trench have not been fully excavated, so this too will be left for next season, perhaps about 20% of the entire trench.

Menna is pushing on with Trench H. No occupation or activity level has been identified, and even the original floor level is not entirely clear, while an attempt to find the outer face of the building’s south wall has been hampered by tree roots.

Work on some of the various test pits has been illuminating in as much as two possible post-holes encountered in a test pit a few metres to the west of Trench E can now be seen to be solution hollows in the limestone as similar but rather more irregular hollows were uncovered in a new test pit immediately adjacent to the first. The local geologist certainly favoured a natural origin for these features when she visited the site, and this second test pit has completely vindicated her view. Another test pit was opened up beside the east wall of the house in Trench E and produced some fragments of bone, and one small piece of pottery suggesting that some rubbish had been discarded just outside the house, though not in sufficient quantity to claim a midden. And finally the small roughly rectangular feature lying above Trench E has resolved itself into a small quarry, the straight sides created in the natural limestone suggesting that regular blocks of stone had been levered out, presumably for the walls of the house.

Bob Silvester

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Saturday 5th July 2014

Sun-soaked Trench H

A sunny day for the end of the dig, with everyone in a cheerful mood, Will and Caroline both looking forward to going back south after two weeks away from home, and me, well I’m just content with not having to get up around 6am every morning to make the trip up from Welshpool.

Trench H has been recorded with sterling effort from both Menna and Alice; Trench F has also been recorded by Caroline and she was then able to move on to the test pits started by the primary school pupils from Caerwys on Thursday and then finished by Mai, Keith, Irene and others, and complete the recording of these. Trench E was covered in geotextile weighed down by stone and now awaits a covering of soil to be put in place by machine. The quarry was recorded, as were the test pits.

Paul drawing his 'curious feature'

This leaves only the curious feature at the western end of the site which might be an ice-house, or some other large circular pit cut down into the natural limestone. Paul did some further work on this and proved that the channel apparently leading into the pit has at least a metre of earth and stone in it. The jury is still out.

Hen Caerwys 2014 has been very successful. We’ve enjoyed ourselves and we hope that our community volunteers have as well. Without them we would have accomplished very little, so our thanks to them, and to finish off in time-honoured fashion a few images to round off the dig diary for 2014.
Bob Silvester

Trench E being covered with geotextile to protect it until next year

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