01 JunVolunteer Experiences – Gavin Fox continues

Volunteer Gavin Fox continues with his experiences excavating on the East Kent Access Road:

The days slipped by, faster than I would have believed, but then, as the saying goes, time flies when you’re having fun. And fun we were definitely having. Why digging a great big hole in the middle of a field is fun, does, I agree, take a little bit of explaining, and I am not sure I can.

Firstly I’d broken the golden rule. ‘Never volunteer for anything.’ Several of my friends had pointed this error out to me. They were also totally gob smacked that I was giving my time for free. But then I am a time millionaire. I think the thrill, because that’s what it is, is that I am touching history. The flint tools I have found were last touched, probably by their maker, around four thousand years ago.

Just think about that for a moment. Prehistoric. Pretty much everything I know about history happened during, and after the Roman invasion. This stuff was made around two thousand years before that. So that’s from me to Julius Caesar, that’s just the half way point, then on into the past for another two thousand years.

We were excavating a field, about a mile from where I was born. Where people had lived and died all those years ago. What sort of people? I don’t know. What I did know was, that this was an awful place to have lived, on this exposed ridge. So they must have lived further down the hill, towards where the current village of Minster is today. They might have been Bronze Age people, or earlier, but they weren’t stupid. What they were was skilled toolmakers. Some of the blades I had found, would put my Stanley knife to shame. One of the professional archaeologists suggested that the barrows, and henge’s we had uncovered might be aligned with Orion’s Belt, they wouldn’t have called it Orion, but they could recognize the constellations, and used them. So not stupid, just primitive, just doing the best they could to live, eat, keep warm, and look out for their families. Same as us then.

I’d been asked to dig part of the ring around the barrow we had cleaned on our first week. Luckily I didn’t have to use a trowel. Not this time. This time I was handed a heavy mattock, and a shovel. I went to work. This was heavy work, shame we couldn’t have done this the week before, when I could have done with warming up. Luckily I wasn’t alone. Keith, one of the other volunteers, worked, or sweated alongside me. I swung the mattock, he shovelled, then we swapped over, through the morning, and on into the afternoon. The next day I was on my own. Keith not being a time millionaire had gone back to work. I carried on, Alex gave me a hand, and so occasionally did Nick, a powerhouse of a bloke, who looked more like a rugby player than an archaeologist, but somewhat of an expert on the subject of flints. Lucky that.

Eventually we reached the bottom, solid chalk, I’d dug to a depth of 1.2m, no deeper of course, that would be strictly against the rules. Now where was that tape measure? The original trench, dug all those thousands of years ago with antlers and the bones from a cows shoulder blade (or scapula), could now be seen, even by me. The sides of the ditch showed the layers of soil which had then refilled the ditch over the millennia, the soil washed in by rain, then some more substantial infill, and finally, the top layer, from when the mound was smoothed out when the field was ploughed, level.

When I had volunteered I had expected just to labour, push a wheelbarrow maybe. Not a bit of it. We were doing the same work as the professionals, and that included recording what we found. Photos, scale drawings, sheets, and sheets of written descriptions of what we dug. It took me back to the maths classes of my youth. I wasn’t very good at it then, now I just couldn’t see the smallest of the grid squares!

Now it was time for a break. Vix, the site’s boss had brought us all an ice cream. I could get used to this!

Gavin Fox, EKAR Volunteer, May 2010

25 MayVolunteer Experiences

Volunteer Gavin Fox shares his experiences excavating on the East Kent Access Road:

It was cold, although the sky was blue. The north wind was bitter, I was wrapped in two fleece jackets, a woolly jumper, and a rugby shirt. A fleece hat kept my bonce warm. I knelt on all fours on the stony ground. Kneeling next to me was Alex, a twenty something archaeologist with a degree from Reading University, she held the flint I had handed her, hoping it was a “find.” She shook her head, “no mate.”

I was at home when I saw a link on the BBC news site, which took me to the Oxford-Wessex Archaeology website. Volunteers wanted. I volunteered, sent in application forms, and was accepted. Whoopee. I told my wife, her eyes glazed over, “that’s nice dear.”

It was like the first day at school, exacerbated by the letter of acceptance which also listed what to bring, and what was strictly not allowed. So leaving my iPod at home, I reported for duty on the Monday morning, having met my fellow volunteers in the nearby hotel, over coffee. Vix, the archaeologist in charge of our section of the dig, area 23, gave us the outline of the weeks work, and the all important safety briefing. Then armed with a bucket, containing a pointing trowel, a brush, and a shovel we made our way out to the dig. It was a round barrow, a burial mound from the early Bronze Age, or earlier. The top soil had been removed. We had to “clean” the area, with our trowels, removing another fifteen centimetre’s or so of earth. With a small pointing trowel! In total there were twenty of us, but just eight volunteers. That first day we were all eager little beavers, the volunteers that is, and went at our task with a will. I worked all day, and found nothing, well I found quite a few things, but none that passed the Alex test.

The next day I woke early, my muscles ached, but pulled on my steel toe cap boots, and headed for the dig. It was even colder than the day before. As lunch approached we were almost halfway across the barrow. We were taking it a little easier. Alex shook her head as I presented yet another piece of flint. We progressed, slowly but surely. Millimetre, by millimetre, on hands and knees.

Wednesday, a little warmer, we resumed cleaning the barrow. It was a painfully slow process, but we kept at it. After mid morning coffee I handed Alex a small piece of flint. She nodded, and smiled, “that’s a nice specimen, better bag it.” At last I’d managed to find something. A small Early Bronze Age tool. Yes! During the next half hour I found five more. This was a good morning, it was warmer, I was working at a pace at which I could continue all day.

Later that afternoon we finished the clean, and stood around the perimeter for a group photo. I was covered in chalk dust, and was filthy dirty when I arrived home to my wife later that afternoon, a happy but knackered volunteer digger. Still with the rest of the week, and all of the following to come.

Bring it on.