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.

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Proper Archaeologist

Bright eyed and bushy tailed we turned up to what was for the most of us our first excavation, bags full and hands at the ready to dig. Drastically the smiles faded as we arrived at the site to imminent rain and the chill of a heavy wind, it was not long however until the trenches revealed themselves from behind a corner and the excited buzz grew. Seeing the trench and finally getting stuck into what has felt like a marathon year of lectures on excavation theory was truly thrilling; I finally felt like a ‘proper archaeologist’. I could go home head high and tell all those who had asked me since my first day whether I had been on a dig, that I finally had. Although the dig had not been something I had particularly looked forward to, actually being on a site that held so much information about the past and being the first people to uncover it is a feeling I don’t think will ever go away.

The hard work kicked in as we finished the work the digger had already started, this was a tremendous team effort with jokes and high spirits rife. Turning our attention to the emerging features we looked expectantly from our trowels to the supervisor with the hope of being let loose on them; much to my disappointment the process of ‘cleaning the context’ was broached, and so began the slog of cleaning 1mm of topsoil by hand from a 60m trench. Moreover my disappointment was quashed as I unearthed my first piece of flint; it felt like I had struck gold. After my supervisor told me it may date to 1000-3000BC my excitement could not have been greater as I felt the connection between myself and the human being millenia before me who had deposited it there for me to find. We were like primary school pupils running with their latest drawing to their teacher to show it off, we were instead however running manically across a trench with broken pieces of bone to a supervisor who had seen this a thousand times; still we beamed with our finds. Throughout the following days we continued to clean and more features began to emerge, we identified a possible foundation wall (which with both love and frustration, later took me a day and half to clean between the stones), a possible cremation site and a ditch filled with animal remains. Hearing what was happening in the other trenches I was both relieved and jealous, as my friend had to dig her trench from scratch; my three blisters from digging half a day could not compare to her two solid days of digging. However as possible human remains were uncovered my interest had to be satisfied and I wandered over. Aside from the initial daunting shudder that runs through your body when you first see human remains the after effect of the possibilities this could open was mesmerising.

This image consists of two finds trays filled with an assortment of artefacts. The majority are animal bone and pottery with some interesting looking stones mixed in.
Finds from wall and ditch day three (Photo: Emily Pearson)
Trench six on day one with students at different stages of cleaning the context with trowels.
Cleaning the context day one (Photo: Emily Pearson)
In focus is my hand with a piece of flint in it dating from 1000-3000BC. In the background is a finds tray with various pieces of flint and animal bone.
Flint 1000-3000BC (Photo: Emily Pearson)

As my time at the site drew to an end I remarked at my relief to be leaving the site and heading to a museum to which my friend replied “oh you’re so a heritage student”, which I take no shame in. Although I enjoyed my time on site and would relish at the opportunity to return and see how the work progressed, I always found myself thinking about the next stage: what this meant, how were the finds going to be incorporated into an established museum and what this meant for the community, thus yes I am “so heritage”. I fell into this degree switching at the last minute from another course I loved because I couldn’t see myself doing the alternative as a job. However when I changed and imagined my studies and future, as cheesy as it sounds everything fell into place. The National Trust properties I had visited hundreds of times as a child and teenager became the place I wanted to spend all my time and this was the only thing I had ever felt passionate about. The thought of the stories these places held and me screaming them  at anyone who would listen showed me that after a little refinement of screaming to conserving this is what I wanted to study.