Behind the scenes on an archaeological dig

Student Laura Jacklin shares her first experience of an archaeological dig.

Archaeology

I’m an archaeology and anthropology student, so for me, the last term of first year heralds the arrival of the department dig at a local castle. This means getting outdoors for two weeks to learn the practical archaeological skills we have read and heard about in lectures all year.

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On a sunny May morning we boarded a coach, ready to be driven into an unknown world of trowels and trenches. Unbeknown to me at the time, I arrived showing all the signs of being something of a novice. The perfectly pointed sharp-edged trowel, glinting in the early summer sunshine. The spanking new high-vis jacket with not a trace of dirt in sight.

We all lined up- tools in one hand and bucket in the other- and awaited our archaeological fate. Taking advice from the older years, my friends and I clustered together in hope of being given the same ground to dig for the next couple of weeks. That we were, and as we walked down the plank into the trench, we were directed to the far end- a medieval cesspit.

Taking the pit…

And so it began. Spirits were high as we scraped away at the dry red-brown ground and laughed at being at the edges of a medieval toilet, getting excited every time we uncovered a stone or piece of sheep bone. Digging was hard work, and after the first few days we had quickly settled into a routine of early nights and early mornings.

Another day and back to it. The air was fresh with a slight wind as we took our positions in the pit, ready for the hours of trowelling ahead but prepared for another day of no finds. Just days before, a third year digging metres away from us had uncovered what appeared to be a medieval bone gaming piece, spurring us on. Alas, the cesspit was yet to come up with the goods. After another few hours of trowelling away, a foreboding black cloud darkened the sky and appeared to settle above the site. We exchanged nervous smiles and worried glances as we emptied our buckets and continued to dig. And then the heavens opened.

Rain slashed down into the trench, quickly filling any pits we had uncovered and finding its way into miniscule gaps in the waterproof layers we had religiously clothed ourselves in that morning. The ground below rapidly transformed into a thick sticky sludge that sucked at our boots and cemented us into position. A suspicious smell rose up from where we were digging, and any fooling ourselves of not being stuck in someone’s centuries old toilet began to be washed away with the rain.

Trudging up the hill with the twelfth wheelbarrow full of dirt, fuelled by soggy sandwiches, any visions I had of uncovering hoards of gold and finding some ground-breaking ancient relic had long since disappeared. Halfway through the dig, and all I had to show for it was a permanent muddy tinge to everything I owned and a growing ability to decipher between different shades of soil.

Every cloud has a silver lining

But as the rain eased off and we emptied our area of any water that had gathered, morale picked up once again. Working through a torrential downpour- we had passed the first test of being true archaeologists! Slowly but surely over the next day, a small wall was uncovered nearby. We began to see through the mud, finding potsherds and bits of wall by the cesspit. Maybe not hoards of gold or ancient relics, but a slight glance into someone’s life in the distant past.

And so the end of the dig arrived. Two weeks of mud, rain and downright hard work. But with our trowels a little blunter, our boots a whole lot muddier, our friendships cemented more firmly and the history of the castle hopefully a little clearer, we all left with smiles on our faces, beginning to feel justified in calling ourselves real archaeologists!

Want to give archaeology a go?

Whether you want to help out on an archaeological dig or fancy something a little less hands-on such as an evening class, there are lots of exciting ways to get involved with archaeology. The study of past human activity through what has been left behind, at the heart of archaeology are people, and everyone can get involved!

For practical trowel-wielding work, the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) have a Community Archaeology Forum where you can find out how to get involved with local community projects. The CBA also have Young Archaeologists Club branches where children up to the age of 16 can take part.

The National Trust run archaeology working holidays where you can dig on an existing site and learn about how an excavation is undertaken.

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For those interested in studying archaeology, the CBA have a dedicated webpage for links to courses across the UK, for both formal and informal study.