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Exciting finds at Mother Grundy's Parlour

Andrea is an MA Museum & Artefact Studies student at Durham University and forms part of the 2016 excavation team.  This is the first of her on-site reports -

Archaeology is usually pretty slow work-- the process to get an excavation started involves stringing out your trench, taking levels above sea height, and deciding on where you're going to put your sections and trench faces (from which side you work). That doesn't even include actually moving all that soil! 

Luckily for us, it's only Day 3 and we've made very exciting progress. The team's goal was to find the trench of previous excavations run by Leslie Armstrong in the early 20th century so we can then look outside of where he dug, in untouched soil. After stringing out our trenches and removing about 30 centimetres of soil, we've found the edge of where he put what's called backfill: all of the soil you remove from your trenches after you've taken out all of the artefacts. We needed to play a bit of a guessing game because his records aren't very clear about where he started and stopped-- he wasn't very big on drawings or plans so it's very lucky we've found it as quickly as we have, we could have spent days searching for his stopping point.

Although we made a lot of jokes about not even getting to have our own excavation and only getting a secondhand one, going back through what Armstrong left was actually very worthwhile. In the 19th and 20th centuries, archaeologists weren't very concerned about smaller, broken, or incomplete artefacts; they really only cared about the big exciting pieces. They also didn't know as much as we do now about making Palaeolithic tools, so we've found quite a few pieces that they either didn't spot or didn't think were worthwhile. 

We've found a few pieces of broken flint, which seem quite small and unimpressive but are really quite remarkable because they let us know that the people who stayed in Mother Grundy's Parlour were also making flint tools here; similarly, we've found a broken piece of chert, which lets us know that people may have used the cave during the late Upper Palaeolithic or Mesolithic as well. 

A piece of red ochre has also turned up. Red ochre is very exciting to archaeologists because it's what people in the Palaeolithic used to draw on cave walls, and possibly themselves to spice up their look! It looks a bit like a small lump of clay so it can be tricky to spot, but it leaves a really distinctive red smear whenever you press it against anything. Sadly, if people were making drawings using the red ochre in Mother Grundy's Parlour, they've been washed away since so we can't say for sure.

The most exciting find is a very beautiful Neanderthal chopper: a piece of quartzite that they grabbed from the lake (which would still be a stream back then) and broke pieces off of to make a nice sharp edge on one side. They could use this for a few things, but most likely for chopping up their dinner-- which is why we call them choppers! Armstrong wouldn't have known what these were while he was excavating as they didn't know as much about Neanderthals back then, so to him it would have looked like just a broken rock. 

We've also found a few of Armstrong's old excavation pins that he would have used to mark the edges of his trenches. We're now studying the archaeology of the archaeologists! 

An amazing thing turned up today, Day 3, is a hyena tooth. It's not a bone you would find meat on so we can't say whether it was left at the cave after someone had a bit of hyena steak for dinner or whether a hyena happened to die at the cave, but it still helps to fill in the picture of Palaeolithic life at the cave.  

We'll be at the cave until 16 July every weekday with tours running on 9 July, but school groups and individuals are more than welcome to stop by, have a chat, and see what progress we've made. Digging is hard work, so we're always happy to have a quick break!

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