I have been working as a Conservation Assistant at the WSHC for nearly a year, and a large part of my role involves administration and financial processing. However, one of the more interesting and slightly unusual aspects of the job is the hands-on work I get to do as part of the Conservation and Museums Advisory Service here at the centre, and I have recently undertaken training to use the x-ray machine which we have in the lab. This is a complex process which requires stringent processes, records and maintenance checks to ensure the machine is used safely and functioning correctly. Regular use of the equipment is key to building experience and a ‘feel’ for the items being investigated and how to get the strongest images.
How it works
Inside the x-ray machine is an x-ray tube. A heated filament called a cathode sits inside the tube and accelerates high energy electrons at a metal target anode, usually made of tungsten, as the electrons strike the anode they interact with the atoms. In this process, which is called Bremsstrahlung (braking radiation), the electrons lose much of their energy and a photon x-ray is produced. X-rays are electromagnetic radiation of a short wavelength and high frequency invisible to the human eye, but possible to record on photosensitive film, known as x-radiographs.
The object to be x-rayed is placed on top of a cassette which holds the photosensitive film. On exposure the x-rays will penetrate through the object leaving the image captured on the film. The x-rays are partially absorbed, “attenuated”, by the denser materials such as bone or metal and pass more easily through soft material such as soil or skin. Therefore, the strength of the x-ray (KV) and the length of time the object is exposed for is adjusted for the type of material, size and condition of the item.
The photographic films then require a wet, chemical process similar to that used for black and white photographic film with a developer solution to reveal the image, followed by a fixer to secure the image and a wash to remove all chemical residues. This process takes around an hour and half and must be carried out in the dark room, with only red light, which can be a little disorientating at first!
Digital or computed x-radiography is well established and allows greater speed in reviewing and manipulating images. CMAS are actively working to move to digital, so watch this space!
How X-radiographs are used in conservation
X-radiography produces images on a 1:1 scale which allow the conservators to investigate the structure, manufacture or identity of an object. Small dark bubbles can indicate casting processes, the distinctive herringbone structure of pattern welding or wave formations of damascening are often clearly visible in x-rays, even when the surface of a blade is severely deformed.
Moreover, x-rays pass more easily through deteriorated materials and voids, these areas will appear darker grey or black compared to the brighter white of more stable areas. This can show up pitting, cracks and breaks assisting in the accurate assessment of the condition of items and their longer-term conservation requirements.
X-radiography is a non-destructive way of retrieving and revealing information and so it is commonly used in the primary stages of investigation.
Archaeological works on the areas for new housing that are part of the Army Basing Project have been going on for some time now. Two of the areas are for new housing at Bulford and Tidworth. All of the areas both inside and outside the camps have revealed interesting archaeological remains, from periods from the Prehistoric to World War 2. I thought I’d talk about the Saxon cemetery finds from two of the sites for this blog. Both of the sites were excavated by Wessex Archaeology. Due to the subject matter, there are photographs of human skeletons in this blog article.
The site for service family accommodation at Bulford had been evaluated by geophysical survey and trenched evaluation early on. When one of the trenches revealed nearly 17 possible grave cuts, we knew that we had a previously unknown cemetery. The graves in that trench were mostly aligned east-west and were laid out rather than crouched, so we knew that they were likely to be Christian, or at least from the period when Christianity was starting to have an influence. One of the graves was sampled at that point and a radio-carbon date told us that this was a mid-Saxon burial, around about the time when people were starting to convert to Christianity in this part of England. As the cemetery was in an area where houses were planned, it was agreed that the whole cemetery would be excavated. We expected there to be around 50-70 burials. However, when the area was stripped, as part of a bigger area, it became clear that there were a few more than that (just over 160 in the end)!
This picture shows the cemetery after the topsoil has been stripped off. It was taken from a drone. In amongst lots of other features are the regularly laid out groups of graves. Typically, we ended up with far more than we thought originally, as the evaluation trenches had sat neatly between some of the rows! The excavation has finished and so now all the post-excavation work is ongoing. We’ll know more about the dates of the burials, the people themselves and how they were related to each other after that is finished.
Not long after the Bulford cemetery was started, work on a small area of excavation at a site in Tidworth started. This was a planning permission that was much older, so the evaluation had been done more than 10 years ago. Based on the results of that work, we were expecting some Roman-British remains (which we did find). However, more of a surprise was that we started to find burials that looked a lot like the ones at Bulford. The excavation area was extended and revealed (eventually) just under 60 burials. Initial radio-carbon dates suggested that these were also mid-Saxon in date. The burial methods were similar to Bulford (although the cemetery was not so carefully laid out) and there were also similar items buried with some of them.
If you have ever spent time looking at the history of your town or village, or even used a map to go for a country walk you may have come across intriguing or unusual field names. But had you ever thought about what these names might tell you about the history of the field and its use over the centuries?
Field names can provide a link between the modern population and its predecessors; a bridge between history and place.
Field names are often made up of two separate words, for example, North Field, a different structure to most place names. To find out the meaning of a name, it is often necessary to try and find its earliest use. Field names can sometimes be traced back to Saxon times!
Names can draw their influence from the agricultural background of the site, its size and location, the lie of the land, its soil, crops, livestock, wild animals and plants, buildings, land ownership amongst many other things.
Sometimes the modern name can be unfamiliar; Catsbrain (which is found several times in Wiltshire – at Broad Chalke, Idmiston, Chisledon and Somerford for example) refers to the kind of soil on the site (rough clay mixed with stones). The reason for the name is obscure, older forms being Catesbragan (13th century), Cattesbrain (16th century), and Catesbruyne furlong (17th century).
Sometimes there are no early forms of the name, particularly if it’s more of a nickname; Fill Tubs, Butter Leaze, Helps Well. Often these kinds of nicknames are uncomplimentary: Bad Mead, Beggar Hay, Breakheart, Hunger Hill, Little Profit… presumably referring to poor agricultural value. Remote fields are often known by names of far-flung places such as Botany Bay, Jericho, and New Zealand. They can also be ironic - very small fields named Hundred Acres (for example at All Cannings, Urchfont and Whiteparish), and others like The City, or Little London (at Oaksey) etc.
Some surprising facts emerged when I compiled a forthcoming talk at the History Centre on early education in Wiltshire. Although most Saxons were illiterate the most educated of all Saxon kings, Alfred (who had many Wiltshire associations), translated Latin books into English and from the latter years of his reign vernacular education for both laymen and clergy greatly increased. Teaching was in English until the Norman Conquest after which only Latin was used until at least 1300. During this time Oxford became a great educational centre in Western Europe but in 1238 there was a migration of students from Oxford to Salisbury and Northampton; Salisbury was an active centre of the liberal arts and theology well into the 14th century and De Vaux College (1262 – 1542) was a university college without a university.
Most educated men were trilingual – in Latin, French and English – but learning was only for the favoured few. Boys started school aged 7 and went to university at 14; children were regarded as imperfect adults and from the age of 7 were treated as adults at work, play, and by the law – as late as 1708 a 7 year old was hanged in King’s Lynn and they could also be married. Nunneries educated their own novices and many also boarded and educated other children, including small boys, in the search for additional income. For some centuries rural education was in the hands of the parish clerk while the priest had occasional gatherings of children in the church porch for religious instruction, while from 1529 boys were to be taught the alphabet, reading, singing or grammar. ABC schools had lay teachers and taught reading and spelling from a horn book or primer to girls as well as boys.
Over the last thirty years gravel has been commercially extracted from the North East of Wiltshire in the Upper Thames Valley, close to the border with Gloucestershire. This has always been a landscape rich with natural resources and has been exploited by human communities since time began. The gravel extraction has clearly changed the appearance of the landscape with the subsequent creation of lakes, many of which now make up the Cotswold Water Park.
The scale of this gravel extraction and the planning requirement for the developer to fund archaeological excavation has led to an unprecedented opportunity for archaeologists to investigate and record vast area of landscape settled and used by past communities. In the last 10 years three projects in particular have had amazing findings and over 100 hectares of land has been archaeologically investigated.