Mattocks and Misery

The prospect of physically being involved in archaeological excavation proved to be the source of much concern on my part. Indeed, one major cause of anticipation was the unpleasant weather every archaeologist seems to reference when discussing excavations in Britain. I can withstand rain and sleet as much as the next man, but this usually entails a short walk down the street, and certainly not spending the better part of the day kneeling in a ditch.

To my obvious ‘delight’, the road to Malton wound its way under a titanic rain cloud- and with it, the prospect of cold and misery. Finally on site, my first experience of field excavation consisted of me standing in a field being battered by relentless rain, whilst I attempted to hear a man in an anorak pointing the way to a pair of portaloos. He then pointed to a series of Roman earthworks. One would expect this to be more interesting than the portaloos, but when you’re surrounded by friends laughing at the miserable look on your face, interest is not something that comes easily.

Mr Steve Roskams then appeared, who looked frustratingly optimistic. After a rough overview of the site, he then instructed us to join our specified groups. Fortunately, nobody appeared too more excited than me, and after attempting to sign a very soggy sheet of paper (probably originally a risk assessment), we made our way to the trench.

I was genuinely delighted to find that the initial work we would be undertaking would be basic manual labour. This was something I could get fully on board with, as I could not perceive any possible mistake I could make which would jeopardise the dig (other than mattocking somebody’s toes off, which I managed to avoid). The first task involved working in pairs; with one person using a mattock to create a nice straight edge to the trench, whilst the other shovelled away the spoil. Fortunately, my partner preferred the shovel whilst I favoured the mattock, so I was able to work away merrily until the sun at last appeared, and with it I realised that I was actually enjoying the experience.

Annoyingly, my friends from earlier were working in a group adjacent to mine, and found amusement in me wielding my tool. I had the last laugh when we stepped back and looked at my clean vertical trench wall, leading on to the absolute pig’s ear they’d made in comparison (At least, that is what I told myself). In their defence, they seemed to spend most of their time screaming with joy as they uncovered what seemed to be actually interesting finds. This reminded me of the purpose of me being in this situation, and I endeavoured to be more observant when working on the opposite side of the trench. This new approach proved quite fruitful, as I uncovered what was deemed to be a fragment of worked flint. I enthusiastically threw this find into the tray of modern pottery sherds, and continued my affair with my mattock.

Of course, any complaints I verbalised were consistently met with the same response- “Stop whining, you’re only doing this for a few days”. This was entirely true, as with me being on the Archaeology and Heritage course, my interests centre around the preservation of history, rather than simply its discovery.

Whilst it may be exciting to be the first person to hold something in thousands of years, I find it impossible to ignore the thousands of years still to come after such a brief moment in an object’s history. Whilst mattocking, I considered the fate of my flint in this regard. If everyone were to simply toss their flints into a plastic tray with no concern of what is to happen to them next, the whole process of trying to discover and understand our heritage would be useless. Much consideration has to be made when deciding the appropriate way of dealing with the flint; How important is it? How should it be preserved? How should it be presented? What can we gain from it? These are questions which are seldom considered, yet are vitally important.

Knowing my luck, my piece of flint probably ended up gravelling the site supervisor’s driveway.