Extremely interesting environmental remains in honour of Julie's birthday!

In a tribute to environmental archaeologists everywhere - especially our revered and esteemed site director Julie whose birthday it is today – we will in this diary entry attempt the impossible – to make sorting environmental residues sound interesting!

The late Janet Ambers once sent a copy of 'the Ambers ready letter for overworked archaeologists' to the dig at Pool in Sanday (a version of the cards that were issued to troops in the 1st World War, cross out the lines that don't apply e.g. 'I am well/slightly wounded/ in hospital; please send socks/soap/chocolate etc). I remember a couple of sections which went something along the lines of:

Wish you were here/ here instead of me/ Harrison Ford

Please send wine/whisky/Harrison Ford

(This was back in 1983 – Raiders of the Lost Ark had been a big hit & Mr Ford was a lot younger & better looking then –we also had a site van with a broken wing mirror with a photo of Harrison Ford taped on there in its place).

There was also a bit of an in-joke:

We have found F**k all/treasure/some extremely interesting environmental remains


Environmental archaeology being a bit of a poor relation to digging in the eyes of the average archaeology student, the environmental archaeologist was to us a poor benighted soul who stood around in the cold all day playing with a huge bubbling tank of muddy water-not most people's idea of fun. I did once make the mistake on a site in the Cambridgeshire fens of admitting I knew how to work a flotation tank (the environmentalist was off sick – pneumonia I think) and ended up stuck on the banks of the River Ouse for a fortnight in December.


Anyway for those of you fortunate enough never to have met a flotation tank, it's usually a big drum (oil drum or similar) full of water connected to a pump to make the water bubble up – kind of like a vertical jacuzzi. You whack the soil samples in a sieve, stick it in the top of the tank, the light stuff (known as the flot) such as carbonised barley etc floats and is skimmed off the top, carefully collected and dried; the soil washes off and the heavy stuff – the residue – stays in the sieve and is also collected and dried.


The environmental archaeologist ends up with lots of little sample pots of lovingly collected, usually carbonised, material and then some poor soul has to sort through all the residue by hand and collect anything archaeological that was too heavy to float. Sorting residues is the ideal job for first year students – someone has to do it and first years are still enthusiastic enough to get excited about it and do it well (the other approach is to chuck the lot in the bin and go down the pub … only joking Julie!!).


Here are some of this year's new undergraduates at the University of Bradford sorting residues from this season's dig at Swandro (they look awfully young to me but I've been assured that they are 1st years and not some unsuspecting school bairns who just happened to be passing and got shanghaied into a lab).


You do have to feel a bit sorry for the environmental archaeologists – their work is a vital part of the post-excavation process and subsequent publication, but no-one (apart from other environmental archaeologists) gets very excited about it. If you find a Roman coin on site, such as the little coin we found this summer, it gets all the media attention and close up pics, but spend all that time and effort recovering a few grains of burnt barley and no-one bats an eyelid – but if you think about it, which is the more remarkable survival: a Roman copper coin or 2,000-year-old cereal?

If you would like to know more about environmental archaeology then you can download Historic England's book on the subject for free

  • Follow us on Facebook
  • Follow us on Twitter
  • Visit our YouTube channel
  • Follow us on Instagram

Swandro - Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust 

Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation No: SC047002 

Patron: His Royal Highness The Prince Charles, the Duke of Rothesay

Registered office: Bayview Birsay Orkney KW17 2LR   email: info@swandro.co.uk