Monday, 21 July 2014

On the Dig

This morning my hubby took me over to the local archaeological dig where he has been volunteering for the past couple of weeks. This is the first year since the dig began, that he has been able to go full time, because previously, work had a habit of getting in the way! (Actually these days I don’t see him for dust on a daily basis, so not much change from when he was working!!)

This is the site of a Roman, and earlier Bronze Age settlement. It was discovered several years ago by my hubby’s friend who introduced him to metal detecting – this gentleman discovered a large number of Roman coins which he took to the university, where interest was sparked, and an archaeological team was appointed to open an official dig. The team consists of qualified archaeologists and students, and a number of volunteers from the local area. This particular excavation has revealed the first evidence that the Romans settled west of Exeter, so it is an important find.

Here are a couple of general views of the site.

01 Gen View

02 Gen View

Running across the site is the Roman road which has been unearthed. If you look carefully on the left of the road, just to the right of the little row of stones, you can see a wheel rut in the road. The road is cambered, and there are several potholes that have been filled with different types of stone – obviously the Romans had the same problem with potholes that we do today!

03 Roman Road

Beyond the road, a series of stakes and tapes plot the further path of the road, as revealed by the geo-phys.

Technology in action:

04 Technology


05 Equipment

Removing dust with a large brush.

06 Brushing - Large Brush

Sieving. This is the job my hubby was on for a few days last week – yesterday he was glad to be back on the main site, clearing with a brush. I told him that in order for the professional archaeologists to do their job, they depend on minions like himself – the blue-collar workers who do the donkey work, boring as it may be!

07 Sieving

I noticed that the sievers were wisely standing up-wind of their sieves – there was a light breeze today and it was very hot and dry, and the sieving generated a lot of dust which was blowing about.

Clearing with a fine brush.

08 Brushing - Fine Brush

Today they uncovered part of a brooch, and a flattened section of a bracelet with some decoration on it, both probably made of bronze. I was shown a section of quern stone – the Romans used two discs of stone with a hole drilled through the middle through which a spindle would have passed, and through which grain would have been poured. On the upper stone, near the edge, another hole would have accommodated a stick which would be used as a handle to turn the upper stone on the lower, and the result of the grinding would work its way to the edges of the stones and be collected. This piece of stone that I was shown looked very unremarkable to my untrained eye – no doubt I’d have rejected it as simply a bit of old rock, but the archaeologist pointed out the smooth curved outer edge which was sufficient to identify it.

I find it amazing that they are able to recognise what is a genuine find, and distinguish it from the surrounding worthless rubble, but as my hubby pointed out, when the Bank of England trains its tellers in the recognition of counterfeit notes, they do not give them counterfeits to handle, but the real thing, and then, when they encounter a counterfeit, they are so familiar with the real thing that the forgery is instantly recognisable. In the same way, the archaeologists become so familiar with the feel of pottery, metallic objects, bone, and so on, that they can identify a genuine find almost immediately, even if it looks quite unremarkable.

I was impressed by the organisation and quiet industry at the site. Everybody knew what they were supposed to be doing, and they were all applying themselves with great concentration to their own particular job of the moment. Each time something was turned up, the exact location was marked and the find was bagged, and a special laser record was made so that the finds could all be plotted on the computer in 3-D. You can see the bags and tags fixed to the ground in the first two photos. The archaeologist explained to me that archaeology is a destructive process because the site is not left intact when they have finished. I had not thought about it like this before.

This is an extensive site, and ground radar has indicated that it extends across many fields. Hopefully the funding will continue, and the dig will be opened up each summer for the foreseeable future. My hubby is thrilled to have the opportunity to volunteer, and to be part of such an exciting venture so close to home, and now that he has retired, he can immerse himself fully in the experience.

It is exciting to think of the Romans living so close to us, living their ordinary daily lives and leaving things for us to find many hundreds of years later. I always feel a great sense of excitement when I handle something that has been dug up – my hubby brings home all sorts of interesting finds from his metal detecting jaunts – spindle whorls, shoe buckles, coins – and I think of the last person to handle the object before it was lost and buried, and what sort of lives they would have led; what their beliefs were, their style of dress, their food, etc. etc. Handling these objects centuries later gives one a real sense of connection with our ancient past, and the human beings who lived such different lives from our own, in our local area, but sharing the same emotions, joys, doubts and fears which are the common lot of humanity. They breathed the same air, saw the same moon and stars, were warmed by the same sun, and lived through the same seasons. It makes one feel grounded in one’s own environment, having a sense of our ancestors going back through the centuries, and provides a sense of belonging and continuity.


  1. How very awesome for your husband to be able to help out at the dig, and how cool you got to go check it out!

  2. Fascinating blog post - what a wonderful opportunity for your husband to be able to help out here. I love anything to do with archaeology - it's so interesting like you say, the knowledge that Romans were walking where you walk now and living where you live.


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