14 JunEnd of the Community Excavation

Oxford-Wessex archaeologist Vix Hughes describes her experiences supervising volunteers on the East Kent Access Road community excavation:

It’s over!

Perhaps not the sanest way to start a description of the East Kent Access Road Community Dig, but it is indeed over. For myself it was a month long experience of running a commercial excavation while being outnumbered, aided and assisted by extremely keen volunteer archaeologists.

I am hugely relieved that everyone made it out alive. Considering that at least 15 mins at the start of each day was spent instructing all volunteers about the possible hazards such as ‘falling over’ and ‘sharp things’ and do remember to drink plenty, and in the event of an emergency the exits are at the front, middle and rear of the plane… oh, sorry, wrong induction. I do, though, now appreciate the ability to repeat a health and safety briefing and smile at the same time. No, in our month there was no need to stretcher anyone off and as my volunteers went from 8 to 80 in years I was impressed. I also had no need to issue any Mr Happy or Mr Bump plasters.

My slightly authoritarian approach to health and safety aside, I think I can say that the overwhelming majority of volunteers thoroughly enjoyed themselves whether they came for only a day or in one case every day! I’d never envisaged my chosen career to be a good excuse for someone to not do DIY, to play hooky from work, or in one case, a corporate bonding excercise?!

The first day was a little daunting as there was suddenly a group of eager looking faces all with absolutely no idea of what doing archaeology entailed… Hmm.  I wasn’t sure that we ‘professionals’ would be able to instruct our volunteers, even if we do it all the time at work. None of us are trained teachers. Would we be able to remember what it was to learn archaeology? Well, I can say that all our volunteers did grasp what to do, instructions were followed, performances were checked, guidance and feedback were given and all in all it panned out fine. Better than fine: remarkable even.

We started out nice and easy with trowelling… okay so actually it’s not so easy and, yes, it does make your wrists and hands ache, but then any physical activity that’s new needs some time for adjustment. It was a group activity and I have to say that I never envisaged that our volunteers would be so friendly and approachable, let alone form such good friendships between both volunteers themselves and staff archaeologists. Throughout our month we met such amazing people with fabulous tales and life experiences to share. It did indeed become a ‘Community’ dig.

At the end of the three gruelling days of trowelling cleaning the round barrow we took the site photos and although the volunteers couldn’t come outside the area fenced off for the Community Excavation (because of Health and Safety!1), we took their cameras for them. I shall always remember using all manner of digital cameras and being impressed and then getting to Cheryl’s – no less impressive for being a disposable one; but I did have to step back quite far to get everything in!

We did like to scare our volunteers occasionally… Some thought they would simply be pushing wheelbarrows for the ‘professionals’, or making the tea, but oh no. Depending on what stages of the archaeological process people reached, they were guided through it; taking photographs; drawing sections and plans to scale; writing context sheets describing the various soils and the ditch shapes; and we also spent time on finds recognition. Pottery everyone could spot, that was easy, but flint? Well, we had a lot of flint and a lot of brilliant explanations, mostly from our Nick Taylor, on ‘how to tell if it’s worked or natural’. A true test of archaeological ability, given that the site was strewn with naturally occurring flint! Flint was one of those sharp things I warned everyone about daily.

There were also quiet moments when I could get everyone together to try valiantly to explain just why we use three cameras and the basics of archaeological photography, or even worse, to explain the essential principal of stratigraphy by analogy to a jam sandwich. I may have failed somewhat but just to remind all of you volunteers… the stuff at the bottom of the ditch should be earlier (older) than the stuff at the top, honestly! Our levelling to record heights above sea level was also a laugh, the secret being that Alex had to check with Gary what was added to what before starting out! It’s easy to forget when we have snazzy GPSs to do the same thing for the majority of the time, but I suspected that the inner working of Global Positioning Systems might be a bit ambitious for the volunteers – certainly so for some archaeologists! The thing that made me smile the most was seeing John our septuagenarian volunteer drawing a section on the special weatherproof graph paper, which is in metric…and of course for him imperial measuring comes more naturally! The best, most rewarding moments were when I’d catch someone doing a task absolutely correctly on their own after being shown what to do.

I’ve been truly impressed by our volunteers’ willingness to tackle whatever we gave them; straightforward trowelling; small scale digging with trowels and hand shovels; mattocks (‘not to be swung over your head please’); shovelling; wheelbarrowing; recording; finds processing… not one person said they didn’t want to, or it was too hard. Nor was there ever any moments of ‘archaeological envy’ – nobody threw their toys out of the pram and demanded to be digging someone else’s part of the site. It is a harsh lesson for any archaeologist to learn that not everyone gets the wonderful features or amazing finds. Our heritage comes in all shapes and sizes, and all is equally important and deserves the same equal treatment and consideration. And being part of the team that achieves it is what matters, not really who found what. What we can say is that everyone excavated or washed genuine archaeology. Being on a chalk ridge used predominantly for the monumental burial of important Bronze Age people, some of it was 4000 years old!

I think that helps to explain why, although ‘breaks will be at 11am and 1pm, for half an hour each’, the kettles were often nearly cold by the time everyone got to the huts, so keen were they carry on or to see what everyone else was finding or doing.

Throughout the month we had numerous visits from all sorts of interested groups who’d taken up the opportunities to come and see the site and finds. Nearly 300 people came on organised visits and they ranged from young to old and were from all walks of life. All were welcomed. They have all borne witness to our activities and provided the final pages in the story of the site. For that’s one of the main jobs an archaeologist has to do, to tell the story of the people who were there in the past from the evidence which survives. Hopefully with more work to do in the labs and by the specialists this will be possible, although patience is required (another trait for our volunteers to discover).

I would like to take this opportunity to thank, on behalf of the volunteers of who we had nearly 100 over the 4 weeks, my lovely staff. They were; Hannah Baxter, Paul Clarke, Gary Evans, Artur Fedorowicz, Alex Latham, Roberta Marziani, Rowan McAlley, and Nick Taylor. They were all excellent teachers, generous with the time and experiences that they freely shared. All of them remained cheerful throughout. It has not been easy to ask so much of them but they were brilliant.

I’d also like to thank the volunteers, far too many to name all except for a small crowd of familiar faces which gave us constant help in a sea of ever changing people. So to Gavin Fox, Cheryl Cox, Les Moorman, Denise Hood and John Jarvis we thank you. To all the others, and indeed I know all your names, I commend your archaeological spirit and long may your interest which we have hopefully nursed, continue. You are as much the archaeologists of Kent as we are. Thank you.

Vix Hughes, June 2010

10 JunVolunteer Experiences – Denise Hood – Week 3

Volunteer Denise Hood continues with her experiences excavating on the East Kent Access Road during her third and final week:

Back again for my third and final week. I’ve been trying to peer over the piles of soil that are neatly piled up by the side of the road as I drive to work but not seeing anything. Still, there were the Open Days to attend, they were brilliant. I borrowed a couple of children from my friend to allow full participation in pot making, identifying finds and trowelling for hidden finds as well as grinding wheat and peering down holes in the ground. The kids enjoyed it too!

By Thursday I was really keen to get back and see the team and find out what had been happening (constant website and blog checks did not help!) but imagine what it was like on the afternoon when driving home and I could see mechanical diggers on the site with the fully excavated barrow and henge – a few texts to my spy in the camp revealed that it was being covered in. I felt sick, but at least it had been recorded in detail and we had all had a chance to see it.

Monday, Bank Holiday, site closed, sat twiddling my thumbs, roll on Tuesday when it was back to the Holiday Inn to meet up with the pals, Cheryl, Gavin, Les, Brian and his daughter and John. We were all a bit quiet as this is our final week and there was an undercurrent of sadness that no one wanted to mention. The difference in a week was amazing, the ring barrow now had lots of excavated trenches around it showing its size and depth as well as variations in the sides, loads of worked flints had been found in at least two of the trenches and further up the site, on another area which had been cleaned previously, trenches had appeared so after a look around to see the changes and say hi to the guys it was back to work with Cheryl and Paul in the big barrow taking measurements and drawing diagrams to show differing fill levels and position of stones, flints etc. That took up most of a day and a half and in the rain too – fortunately we were prepared but the thought of a hot bath was a sustaining thought.

Then it was down to the other end to extend a trench that had been started and was to be extended, the original trench had turned out two really lovely flints and a piece of Roman pot so there was hope of finding more. Cheryl pound a small piece of pot and some more worked flint but it was back to the mattock, shovel and barrow for me. Next day Gavin, Paul and I got to work carefully taking away more of the trench. Both of the guys were finding lots of pot, three large finds bags, the most that had been found on the site to date, how good was that! It appeared to be a mix of Bronze Age and early Roman. Still more digging to do and then I saw it, a tiny dark smear in the ground – could it be? Down with the mattock and grab a trowel, carefully now, take it slowly, no rush. I started to clean around this little mark and there it was, my first find, a little piece of pot size of my thumb nail, thick and black with little white fleck of flint that had been incorporated to stop it shattering when it was being fired. In the great scheme of things it may seem pretty insignificant but I couldn’t have been happier if you had given me the crown jewels. This must be the lucky trench because there was more and more, some with lines forming patterns on the surface and that was the end of a perfect day, it was time to down tools and go home ruminate over it all.

What will we find tomorrow, the last day for us volunteers, who knows. No matter what it can’t beat my little bits of pot. Or can it?

Denise Hood, EKAR Volunteer, June 2010

08 JunVolunteer Experiences – Denise Hood – Week 2

Volunteer Denise Hood continues with her experiences excavating on the East Kent Access Road:

Week 2 began with a few aches from the previous week’s toil, but here I was, just as eager to get going as before. After free coffee and pastries in the Holiday Inn catching up with my digging pals Cheryl, Les and Gavin, we walked over to the site.

Briefings over and new volunteers welcomed, it was time for a new challenge. I was set to work helping Artur, the archaeologist I had worked with the previous week, to excavate a trench in the area that we had cleaned on the first three days.

The whole of the Bronze Age barrow had been marked off with string held taut by nails so we could clearly identify the sections. This was going to be a challenge from last weeks toil as we would use mattocks, shovels and a wheel barrow to begin with, the trowels and brushes would come in to play later!

Artur had started the proceedings by breaking up the surface and then I was let loose with the mattock. This was where I came into my own, we quickly got into a rhythm; one mattocking and shovelling spoil into the barrow, the other would empty the barrow. Then get in the trench and it all starts over again. This continued for two and a half days by the end of which we had reached the bottom of the ring ditch and the sides were cleaned, this trench was now approximately two metres long, a metre wide, and over a metre deep. Lisa, a fellow volunteer came to help too and that made the work easier and we began to trowel the sides and brush the surrounding area to prepare them for recording. The weather was amazing throughout all of this, very hot and sunny with just the slightest hint of a breeze. Sunscreen and ice cream were definitely the only way to get through the days!

Vix, the Project Officer, in her quest to ensure we were not getting bored arranged for us to do a bit of surveying. Back to the feelings of day one – apprehension and nervousness, surely this was all too technical for us volunteers? But no, there we were with all this stuff, measuring poles, tapes and dumpy levels. We were shown how to set up and use the equipment by Vix and Alex and after a few practice runs we were taking the measurements which would provide vital information about the barrow we were working on.

During the week I had been watching all and sundry finding beautiful pieces of worked flint, pieces of pot – both Bronze Age and Roman, animal teeth, horses jaw bones, oyster shells and even a Roman nail. But me? Nothing. But I was undeterred, just to see this stuff coming to light was incredible.

We ended the week washing the finds from our site in the portacabin we have our breaks in. Bones, pot and flints carefully cleaned in water with a toothbrush, shells were gently brushed and cleaned with a wooden skewer to remove all traces of soil and placed in trays with their identification bags alongside. The perfect end to a brilliant week.

I have to go back to work for a week now and am none too happy about it, but needs must. I’m not sure how I will be able to concentrate when back in my dark office after two weeks in the fresh air doing extraordinary things, I will let you know when I get back. Bye for now.

Denise Hood, EKAR Volunteer, May 2010

02 JunVolunteer Experiences – Denise Hood

Volunteer Denise Hood shared experiences excavating on the East Kent Access Road:

You will not be able to imagine the feeling of excitement and apprehension I felt on the first day of my two weeks volunteer work on the dig.

I had no idea what to expect and if it had been my job to make tea for everyone that would have been fine. What a relief to meet the other helpers and as some of them had already been on site I was reassured that I would be fine.

After being briefed on site safety and collecting my tools I followed the others out onto the site of a Bronze Age barrow. The task ahead was to ‘clean’ it for pre-excavation pictures – not as easy as you think; it took three days with 20 people on their hands and knees carefully trowelling a layer of surface soil from the feature. I can honestly say that my wrists have never been used to such work and knees were glad of any chance to straighten up! It might sound like purgatory but the sense of fun and excitement as well as enthusiasm for this job made it fly by.

The archaeologists working alongside were amazing, making it all feel like true team members as well as telling us so much about the work that they do and the local archaeology. Amazing to see what lies beneath your feet and to be shown how to recognise some of it too.

On Thursday we were split into smaller groups and I was tasked to excavate a small oval feature with a sherd of pottery on the surface layer of soil. This meant more careful cleaning and removal of spoil (the dirt you’ve cleaned off) before careful photography, then measurements are taken and then the digging begins! Although only about a foot long and 18 inches across this little hole went down approximately 3 feet – I ended up removing spoil whilst lying on my stomach with my right arm down the hole! Not easy, especially when you’re not use to it. Once the bottom was reached, it was back out with cameras and measuring tapes then diagrams and descriptions, all have to be recorded for posterity – all very important as this will all soon be covered by the new road. I must add that all of this work was done with the help of one of the team members – he was so informative and ensured that I know exactly what I was doing and why. A huge ‘thank you’ to him. It seems that the feature was the foundation for a post (a ‘posthole’) and was unusual on this site as no others have been found, what a privilege to have been given this opportunity. Who knows what week 2 will bring?..

Denise Hood, EKAR Volunteer, May 2010