Welcome to my blog. I am not a very regular blogger, but I try to keep this site updated with news and information. If there's none of the above I may just share my random ruminations.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Being an Archaeologist for the Day at Plumpton Roman Villa

In June, my husband and I travelled from Gloucestershire to East Sussex, to stay with my sister and her partner.  It’s always a joy to spend time with them, but on this occasion “Fun” was not the only reason we made the trip.  I am currently writing a book that has an archaeological theme.  It as yet has no title, but the elevator pitch is ‘Educating Rita meets Time Team’! 
An impression of  Plumpton Roman Villa in its heyday

My sister, Jan, has been on many archaeological courses and, through the Sussex School of Archaeology, is in touch with what’s going on in her locality. I wanted to get a hands-on feel for the practicalities of field archaeology, so I’d asked her if she knew of any upcoming digs which invited interested amateurs to join in.  

Stock image of the site when the turf was first removed.
Jan identified a day-long introductory course called ‘Excavation Techniques for Beginners’ sited at the Plumpton Roman Villa Excavations. It sounded perfect and we both signed up for it.

No longer in the first flush of youth, I am now rather stiff and creaky. As the day approached, I began to worry. Jan kept stressing that working on a dig is very hard. “Knackering” is the precise term she used.  I was also a bit anxious about the weather.  This is England after all. The prospect of trying to dig heavy, wet earth, bundled up in rain clothes, was not appealing.  Nor was the idea of its opposite - getting scorched.  I also assumed there’d be little prospect of actually finding anything. Surely they wouldn’t set a bunch of amateurs loose on an area that was likely to give up many - if any - treasures?  I imagined myself wet, muddy, exhausted and in pain, scrabbling waist deep in a barren trench.  

I planned on wearing cargo pants (to give me lots of roomy pockets for my notebook, camera and pen etc.), and a shirt over a light-weight, long-sleeved Tee shirt. Optimistically, I added a brimmed hat to the ensemble.  If it was sunny I could strip off a layer without the danger of getting burnt, and I could protect my head.  But if the worst came to the worst and it was wet, I included a light-weight hooded water-proof.  All eventualities covered, we set off.  Fortunately it was the sunhat I needed.

The whole area of the site is quite large. A corner of it, now covered in tarpaulins, was thoroughly excavated last year but, over the great majority of the site, only the surface turf had been removed. Clearly visible were the changes in colour and texture which indicated the location of old walls.
There were about ten of us and, after an overview of the project and a demonstration of the techniques we were to employ (including the use of the mattock), we were divided into pairs and a strip was allocated, well away from the 2014 excavations, or the patterns on the surface of the site which marked the outline of the original structure. 

Each two-man team was required to stand a metre or so in from the perimeter and we were told to work slowly back towards the edge, keeping in line with the other teams.  One of the pair had the mattock, swinging it gently in backward strokes - just taking off the surface of the earth to a depth of around three or four centimetres - and the partner’s task was to collect the loosened earth and examine it. Anything that looked interesting was to be put to one side in a tray, and in due course shown to the team leader, Annalie Seaman MA, and the rest tipped into a bucket, which had to be regularly emptied onto the already impressive spoil heap built up from the scalping of the turf and the 2014 excavations.

My strip

 I chose to wield the mattock first, and my sister was the collector and identifier - then we planned to change places, in order to use a different set of muscles.  As I’ve already said, I had low expectations of finding anything at all, other than soil, stones, more soil and worms, but, from the dislodged material of my very first mattock stroke, Jan picked out a rim section of a pot. And we weren’t the only ones to unearth objects of interest. All along the line, artefacts were being found - there were fragments of shell, shards of pottery, tiles and a terracotta material, which looked like bits of brick.

After a picnic lunch, we were given kneeling mats and archaeological trowels (like a small plasterer's
trowel) and we went back to the line where we’d originally commenced the mattocking. Side by side, the pairs worked backwards again, but this time gently scraping, and then brushing, another layer of earth from the surface.  And the finds kept coming for me and my sister.  
None of the fragments were larger than the palm of my hand, but most were far smaller. By the end of the day we had penetrated the surface by no more than six to eight centimetres, so it was evident there was far more still to be found in this area of the site.

When it was time to go home, I had to walk away from my own strip, leaving a tile with a ridge along one edge (round 10 cms), as well as various bits of brick, protruding tantalisingly from the ground.   
I am convinced that the productivity (if I can put it like that) of the area we were working on, came as a surprise to Annalie.  She theorised, given the roof tiles and Roman ‘brick’ we were finding , that the villa had toppled towards our corner of the site. From the way she talked, I guessed it was a scenario previously unsuspected.  
And while we were there, the ‘official’ metal detectorist working on the spoil heap even found a Roman silver coin.

Silver Roman coin found by the official metal detectorist
Many of life’s big events fall short of my expectations.  I am a writer after all, and I doubtless build them up, imagining everything bigger, brighter, more glittery and exciting than they could possibly be in real life.  I felt for two of our number for whom the archaeological excavation beginners experience had clearly been underwhelming.  Not only did this pair of young teenage girls appear to be incapable of following Annalie’s instructions, one of them expressed the hope that she would find a skull, and the other thought she’d be allowed to take her finds home.   For much of the time after lunch they skived off, lying gloomily in the sun, and tapping into their hand-held devices. 

But for me, being a real archaeologist for the day greatly exceeded my expectations. It was informative, rewarding and thrilling.   The sun shone and my own ‘old bones’ stood up very well to the exigencies I put them through.  I even ended up with a certificate!


Jane Risdon said...

How wonderful. I would love to have a go at this. I am a Time Team fanatic and love anything do to with history/archaeology and this would just be magic. Like you I think I might creak and find bending and getting up difficult, but it was obviously OK for you. I'd love to spend a day researching my writing, but I don't think there are courses on how to murder someone and get away with it! I expect your book is going to be fascinating. Much success :)

Gilli Allan said...

Thanks Jan. I really do appreciate you taking the trouble to read the post, and comment. Good luck on finding a course on murder, btw! Although I suspect there may be courses on forensics for the layman.
I've always been fascinated by archaeology. Possibly inspired by the childish dream of unearthing a treasure chest or a crock of gold. I even won the form 4 prize (I was eleven) for my project on archaeology. And if you scroll back through my blog to June 2013 (or go direct), there's a post about my family connection to the discovery of the Mildenhall treasure.