Week 5 – Museum of London – LAARC – Digging for victory!

We're going on a our first dig!
We’re going on our first dig!

Week 5 of my LAARCVIP – London Archaeologcial Archive and Research Centre Volunteer Inclusion Project at the Museum of London and we are off site on a dig! This is technically a break week for the project but we have the option to go on a real live dig – wow!

To be honest I think most of us would have paid up to spend a few hours on our hands and knees in the dirt digging up history. After weeks spent in an archive handling finds, here we were at the ‘coal face’, ‘the frontier’, ‘the edge of discovery’. Who knew what rare and undiscovered treasures we might find. Now was my chance, my Lara Croft moment!

The dig itself was at Syon Park in West London, the home of the Duke of Northumberland. We were excavating near the old Roman road and hoping to find traces of a Roman roadside settlement. Also the site of ‘The Battle of Brentford’ in 1642 we could possibly find some evidence of this Civil War skirmish. A veritable feast of history at our fingertips.

All the way there (a bus and two trains, a very intrepid trek across London that Ms Croft would have been proud of), in my head I had the words from Michael Rosen’s “I’m going on a bear hunt”. If you are not familiar with it I recommend you check out the author version on Youtube, it may help you bring to life the slightly changed lyrics I had circling my brain.

“We’re going on our first dig!”
“We’re going to catch a big one!”
“What a beautiful day!”
“We’re not scared”

“Uh-oh. Grass!”
“Long wavy grass.”
“We can’t go over it.”
“We can’t go under it.”

“Oh no!”
“We’ve got to dig it up!”

So in this fevered state I stumbled across a fellow volunteer looking for the dig site and eventually we found our destination. We would be working together with the Tuesday team of volunteers for the first time, and I was looking forward to meeting these other faceless colleagues who had been mirroring our work and sharing our experiences. One thing we certainly all shared was enthusiasm so after a brief introduction to the site and the afternoon’s activities we were raring to go.

We're off on our first dig!
We’re off on our first dig!

I am not sure what I was expecting but the site itself was fairly small, We got to pick a square and get stuck in….

Dig site - potential gold mine
Dig site – potential gold mine

What treasures did I discover? What rare jewels were uncovered?…..
Well, the first thing I learnt is I need a bit more training! Honestly it is not as easy as it looks. A nice pictorial example below shows you how I was hampered by poor technique.

A professional example of good practice
A professional example of good practice
Hole in the ground
Hole in the ground

Who knew it would be so difficult? You can tell I am coming up with excuses for my rather paltry discoveries. But at the end of the day what did I discover?

A worm and a lot of stones.

Finds tray of dirt and stones (very old dirt and very old stones)
Finds tray of dirt and stones (very old dirt and very old stones)

Admittedly we were only digging for an hour, so what can you really expect to find in that time? I went and checked a colleagues tray. I’ve decided in this game it is all about luck, and the luck was over with my friend as her tray was much more exciting.

Lucky Lucky finds tray (not mine)
Lucky Lucky finds tray (not mine)

I rushed back to my own ditch and dug feverishly but before my aching knees could protest any further our time was up. We could easily have spent the whole day and the next digging but it was time to relinquish the tools and give up on my hopes of a star find.

But the best bit of the day in a way, was the next twenty minutes. We all started comparing trays, sharing finds, admittedly with a few jealous looks here and there, but generally with great interest and good humour. What had been a fairly solitary first part of the day in many respects, isolated in your square, became more communal and engaging.

We were off to wash our finds to see the true worth of our discoveries. I have learnt that LAARC need to run a stone recognition day as part of their project because 90% of my finds when clear of dirt were nothing more than stones. But don’t feel too sorry for me, I did find a little bit of glass and my personal find of the day a Medieval cup handle.

I actually found something - hurrah
I actually found something – hurrah

I was praying for it to be Roman but a little bit of green glaze denied me bragging rights as that type of glaze came much later.

We all had our own personal favourites, a bit of clay pipe, a piece of Anglo-Saxon shelly ware, a Roman peg tile.

Washed and cleaned discoveries
Washed and cleaned discoveries
Roman peg tile
Roman peg tile

After washing the finds we got to try out a bit of object recognition. Did I have a bit of bone? No. Did I have a bit of shell? No. Did I have much at all? No. It was a bit like a depressing game of “Here’s what you could of won!”

This is what real archaeology looks like (not stones)[/
This is what real archaeology looks like (not stones)
In truth the whole experience was as exciting and fascinating as you could hope for. Okay there was no amazing find for me, but what I came away with is a real appreciation of the work done by the Bromley and West Kent Archaeological Group together with the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit at the Warbank, Keston site.

We have been working on their finds for 4 weeks. I look with fresh eyes at the things they found, what it must have been like to discover a piece of Samian ware, a Roman Key, a belt buckle. The time and effort and work and sore knees involved. I think back to my last Week 4 post on my aversion to bones, I laugh to think I would have prayed for a bit of thigh bone today!

I come back again to that Roman bell from Week 3, when that was discovered, so small, so easily missed and full of dirt. The full joy of the object not even revealed till cleaned, then the realisation it still makes a beautiful sound. I just can’t wait to look again at their discoveries and appreciate them all over again.

So, I bring myself back to Week 5 – my first dig. Find of the day goes to the lovely piece of pot below, with colours as vivid and bright as the day it was made.

Gorgeous piece of pot (not jealous at all)
Gorgeous piece of pot (not jealous at all)

Discovery of the day – Who knew I still had a pair of Dr. Martens in my wardrobe, first time I have seen them in a good 10 years.

Archaeologists love sturdy boots
Archaeologists love sturdy boots

Finally, realisation of the day, I am never going to look at a trowel in the same way ever again.

Shiny tools of discovery
Shiny tools of discovery

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