Last year I came across plans for an archaeological excavation on Lindisfarne, to find the remains of the original Anglo-Saxon monastery; a crowd funded project run by DigVentures.
I have been interested in archaeology for a long time – watching it on TV, reading about it and attending talks at Rugby Archaeological Society. I have always wanted to “have a go” but had accepted I was too inexperienced, too old and lacked the time to take on another new hobby.
But this was one of those unusual digs that was looking at the Anglo-Saxon period. I studied the website – there were various options. I could become a Digital Digger – In other words, I could sit at home and keep up to date with what happened, day by day with information; videos, some live, everything other than actually being there on the ground. I would also be listed in the report and I picked the option to receive a special team t-shirt.
I enjoyed the event, it became “my” excavation.
When, later, their (our) discovery of a rare Anglo-Saxon namestone was featured on the BBC TV series, Digging For Britain, I was hooked. When it was announced that the team would be returning to Lindisfarne, I wondered. Could I actually go? Could I take part in the dig? Again there were various options – the whole dig, a week, a weekend, a single day. I settled for a single day – if I made a fool of myself, it wouldn’t matter. I checked tide timetables (see below) and accommodation (at the Blue Bell Inn in Belford, where we had stayed on our visit last year.) and in a rush of enthusiasm, we booked – two people to dig on Sunday 23rd July 2017. This is about that day.
By the time we drove up to Northumbria on the Friday, we knew the weather was not going to be good. On Saturday we spent some time in Berwick. We got halfway round the walls before it started raining, so not quite a washout. Then early Sunday morning we headed for Holy Island. We had been asked to report at 9.00 am. The causeway was open by that time. We had to leave by 1.05 pm or stay until 7.30 pm. We had paid for our day, we would be there for the day. It stayed dry(ish) until we reached the car park.
When we got to the Site Hut (the village Reading Room) well before 9.00 we were already wet. We found a notice on the door saying work would not begin until 9.30. There were already people waiting, so we joined them. Gradually more arrived. Finally the room, it was not very big, was full of about 20 people and two dogs, all damp.
Someone eventually arrived who knew what was going on, and after some discussion, most people left for the dig site, leaving four newbies, us, another one day digger and someone who had met the organisers in the pub. We were given the introductory talk, filled in forms (including next of kin – how dangerous was this archaeology?), and had our photos taken (to distinguish us from the skeletons in the trench?). Finally, trowels in hand we were marched, through the village, to the actual excavation.
We stood in the rain for a talk on health and safety – keep away from the edges, don’t slip over etc. We were given a look at one of the two skeletons that have been found. Both have now been raised and will be on their way to Durham University for further study. Apart from these complete skeletons there were pieces of bone scattered all over the site. This was probably the monk’s cemetery and the upper level had been disturbed by later ploughing, or levelling for the Norman monastery, whose ruins loomed over our trench.
We were told to find a shovel and bucket – I found a shovel, but all the buckets were being used and at last we were led into the other half of the trench. We were shown where to dig and left to get on with it. I tried to find somewhere to kneel – there was a pile of rocks in the way, and there were no kneelers left either, but I had a plastic bag with me, so I used that, together with the gardening gloves we had been told to bring. Later I realised that I should have worn the gloves – they keep your hands comparatively clean. Have you ever tried to use a mobile phone to take photos with muddy hands? I’m surprised it still works!
So what was it like? Actually digging on an archaeological site? Well, imagine kneeling on a hard rough surface, bones and rocks sticking out of the ground all around. You are focused on the small patch of ground in front of you. You must scrape away the top centimetre of this soil. When you have scrapped enough soil, you shovel it up, twist round and dump it in the bucket behind you (oh, someone must have found one!). All this in the pouring rain. I seemed to be faced with a solid mass of sticky soil – a few feet away others seemed to have better soil, but mine stuck to the trowel, it had to be scraped off, onto the shovel, then into the bucket. What if I missed something important, or more worrying, what if I did find something? We only had about an hour of this before things were called off because of the weather, but I enjoyed every minute – apart from the rain running down my neck.
So did I find anything? My Better Half kneeling beside me (with the better soil, or was it just his technique?) found a lump of something shiny. It looked like glass to start with, but it caused some interest – it got listed as a small find. It was entered into the computer system there and then, numbered, and put in a small plastic bag of its own. There were a few problems writing the number on the bag in the rain, but it is now in the database (the find is registered to me, because only my name was in the system!) You can find the details here, number 54 “Black unidentifiable shiny object maybe production waste”. That is the wonderful thing about DigVenture digs – everything is recorded immediately and put online, for anyone to look at.
He also found a bone starting to appear in his area. What did I find? A stone, that turned out to be “just a stone” and was chucked in the bucket, and an earthworm, alive. I didn’t think I needed to report that.
There was a break at about 11 and I went up on the Hough to take some pictures, but the rain was coming down even heavier. By the time I got back, the dig had been abandoned for the day.
We all trooped back to the Site Hut. There was fiddle playing and birthday cake – we were not sure whose birthday it was, but we sang happy birthday and accepted a piece of cake – it was very good. There was a lot of waiting around and discussions as to who would go and who stay. If anyone wanted to leave the island, they had to go before the causeway flooded at 1.05. A lot of the “regulars” disappeared, but we were determined to stay. We were sent off to find some lunch, but we had a walk around the village – for some reason the rain had stopped!
When we returned, we were offered some work, washing finds. “Bone or stone?” we were asked. We picked bone, it sounded more interesting. So we were settled at the table with a washing up bowl of water, a pot of wooden skewers and toothpicks (for removing soil) and toothbrushes (for cleaning). We were given a finds tray (which gardeners would recognise as a seed tray) containing a mixture of soil and small pieces of bone. This kept us busy for hours (BH found a tooth – well what else are tooth brushes for?). I liked the pieces of skull – flat both sides and no awkward corners, but most of what we cleaned could have been anything. We enjoyed it so much, that when we had finished the box, we asked for more, but bigger. We did longer bits of bone and vertebrae etc. We hung on for a while past 5.00 when we were due to leave – just to finish that box. It was wet and messy, but surprisingly restful.
We helped to pack things away, but then had to say goodbye. There were over two hours to kill before we could leave, so we decided to return to our car to change out of our boots. We had planned to find somewhere for a drink, but the rain was too heavy – we couldn’t face any more. We had water and “emergency rations” in the car, so stayed there. I had my Kindle and read for a while (Edwin: High King of Britain by Edoardo Albert – I do like to coordinate my books with my activities!) plus a recording of Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lecture “Can These Bones Live?” which seems an appropriate way to end this post; writing and bones.
We made our way back to our hotel, in time for dinner. It had been an exhausting day, but one I shall never forget. Thank you DigVentures for having us.
Will I do it again? I’ll let you know when I’ve dried out!