Digging at #Lindisfarne – a beginners guide

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.

Causeway to Lindisfarne, but where is the island?

Pilgrim’s route back to the mainland.

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.

Site Hut in Lindisfarne village

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.

Approaching the excavation.

Health and Safety talk – basically, watch where you put your feet!

One of the two skeletons already found. The other is under the plastic sheet!

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!

Trenches of the four “beginners” Mine at the top with plastic bag and red trowel. “Bone” below next trowel.

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.

 

Heavy rain – discussion  on whether to abandon excavation!

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.

Washing Finds in the Reading Room.

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.

Rain through car windscreen.

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!

Description – Embellishment or Info-Dump?

How much description do you add to your story?

Do you go into lyrical descriptions of the world surrounding your characters: that fantastic sunset, every detail of that market scene, the name of every bird that sings in the forest as your hero passes on his horse, or every blow in the battle and every drop of blood that falls?

Or is it  ‘Just the facts, ma’am’?

I have been catching up on some reading. I have read two books, both long, both include a lot of description, but with very different results. Both are set in the Anglo-Saxon period.

The first is “Under Lynden Church” by Lindsay Jacob. I am not sure where I first noticed it, but it was £2.64 on Kindle and looked interesting.

It is partly set in modern times. An archaeologist finds a grave, deep below a village church, not far from Cambridge. It is connected, in a way not immediately apparent, to events in the ninth century. It is the time of the Danish invasion, but King Alfred is barely mentioned. This is East Anglia. King Edmund (later St Edmund) is dead. The last of the Wuffingas fights against the Danes, as well as the neighbouring King of Mercia.

Most of the action is set in Ely and the fens, as is some of my book. It had all the signs of being interesting. None of the characters appear to be real people but that is what writers of historical fiction do (all fiction for that matter). They take a situation that might have happened and work it into a story. Nothing wrong with that. This story was good, I wanted to enjoy it, but…

It was hard going, I seemed to be reading it very slowly – it was on my Kindle and the percentage counter never seemed to move. That was when I realised it was 545 pages. I struggled on. There is a lot of description of people struggling through the fens – I felt I was with them every step of the way. I soon wondered if I should give up, but a book has to be exceptionally bad for me to give up. I would go halfway then decide whether to finish it. At that point I was interested enough to carry on and eventually finished it.

I was disappointed, because it could have been so much better. The author had found a good plot, she had obviously done a lot of research, but it was if she had then decided that was it and published everything, in the rough order of the plot, dropping in the “modern” part of the story at random. With a good editor it would have been half the length and a decent read.

For example, the archaeologist meets someone in a pub and there are several pages of the man’s family history, from birth, through school, various jobs, his relationship with his wife, her affair with another man and how they now enjoy sitting at home watching television. It’s not even revealed by conversation and is completely unnecessary.

On the other hand, characters are neglected, ignored for long periods of time, then reappear. Sometimes they have changed, with no explanation of why. Others remain the same throughout, never evolving from their first appearance to the end. I remember a scene of people returning from a battle. A woman is upset, her lover has died. It stopped me in my tracks – her lover? I scrolled back a couple of pages (yes, just a couple) She had arrived at the camp. They must have met because he was there, but there was no mention of a meeting, much less becoming lovers. Why waste page after interminable page of tramping through mud and then throw away such character development. If you want to keep reading, want to find out what happens to the characters, you need to know them.

The characters were too alike. The men were all weak, downtrodden, miserable – apart from the nasty bullies. The women were all heroic – the main character (Emma?) leads the army. Is she the woman in the coffin? Perhaps not, because there are other woman just as worthy. I lost track of all the coffins and burials at the end.Was it the end, I wasn’t sure, and by that time I just didn’t care.

After that, I had to read something else. as you need a glass of water after a large, slightly dry sandwich, all bread and little filling.

Recently I was in the local library. I went there to do some local history research, looking up someone in a directory. To get to the local studies area you have to pass lots of books (they still have a few despite the effort nowadays to fill libraries with computer screens!). I saw a couple of interesting books and checked them out.

This was how I used to read – go to the library – take out as many books as I could – read them – return them – take out more. I sometimes wonder how many books I’ve read over the years, whole series when I found one and liked it. Attracted by a title, not many had attractive covers when I was young, not in the adult section anyway.

The book I took this time was one I had seen mentioned, a review in the paper? A blog or website? Somewhere I had noticed it. This was another Anglo-Saxon book, but set much earlier, in the seventh century, in Northumbria. A popular time and place. The book was “Hild” by Nicola Griffith. It was also long, 640 pages in the Kindle version and costing £6.99. The library book was 625 words and of course, free.

Hild is the story of St Hilda of Whitby. Her early life, from the age of three to… I’m not sure of a her age at the end, late teens? Long before she became a nun and abbess.

Hild was the niece of King Edwin. Her mother brings her up as a seer, she becomes adviser to the king, but it is a precarious position. What will happen to her if she fails to tell him what will happen? There is nothing supernatural about this. An intelligent girl, she trains herself to watch everything and everyone. She roams the countryside, watching the animals, learning about plants, witnessing the weather. As part of the court she watches people, what they think, how they react, how to behave and how to influence them.

The royal court moves regularly. She learns about the different places and watches as they change. Over the years religion changes. Paulinus comes to the north with King Edwin’s new wife. He is determined to convert the pagans to Christianity – his brand of Christianity. He hates the Celtic monks and tries to destroy them. All the time Hild watches, judging, is this new religion good or bad? How will it affect the Kingdom?

Apart from politics, Hild works with the other royal women, in the weaving shed and dairy. With her mother and the queen she helps to set up trading links, both within the north but further afield.

She grows tall, she trains as a warrior, she carries a seax. People fear her because they do not understand her. Her fear is losing the people she loves. She fights to protect them – sometimes violently.

There is much description, but nowhere is it superfluous. The reader stands at Hild’s shoulder, learning with her. The places and countryside, the details of everyday life, what women do, and men. I learned so much of life at that time. I think I will have to buy a copy, just for reference.

But as well as useful, the descriptions are beautiful, like poetry. It was a long book, but I didn’t want it to end.

So, two books. One has taught me how not to write, the other an inspiration to aspire to.

Better get writing again.

Preview – Kin of Cain

Matthew Harffy has written three books in the The Bernicia Chronicles series. They are about Beobrand a young thegn in 7th century Northumbria. You can  read my review of the second in the series, The Cross and the Curse here. The fourth instalment will be published later this year.

kin-of-cainKin of Cain is a novella (86 pages), to be published on 1st March. It is a gobbet of flesh tossed by the author to keep his readers quiet. I had already ordered it, but was offered a ARC for review. It is a prequel to the main series, set several years earlier. Beobrand’s elder brother Octa, is new to the household of King Edwin and desperate to prove himself.

As usual with this author, it is straight into the action. A cheerful winter’s night in the mead hall is interrupted by a scream. It is a simple tale, one of the oldest. An invincible monster roams the land. The king sends his best warriors to destroy it. Octa is pleased to be chosen as one of them, he soon changes his mind. The trail takes them through a mysterious, mist covered marsh, to towering cliffs and thundering seas. Will they catch the monster? Is it an animal, or something else. Can it be killed? Who will die and who survive?

The only fault, for me, is the use of the term “slaughter-dew”, an Old English  kenning. It suggests a bath oil for shield maidens. But with so much blood spilt, another word is definitely needed. It sprinkles on the ground, it drips from torn flesh and smears the blades of weapons.

I loved the twist at the end, where connections are made and loose ends tied.

This is a great book, to be consumed on a winter’s evening in your favourite chair, perhaps with a glass of red. A distraction from the never-ending news of pontificating politicians.

Better still, huddle close to the hearth in your lord’s hall. Sip your mead as the scop recites this song of heroes.

But beware. What is that screaming, out in the winter darkness?

Researching Ango-Saxons in Northumbria – Part 2

The second full day was more holiday than research trip. A long drive round the area in which I demonstrated my map reading skills.

We visited Cragside, a National Trust property. I won’t say too much about it. This is an Anglo-Saxon blog and Cragside is (very) Victorian. It was built by industrialist Lord Armstrong and was the first house to be lit by electricity. If you are interested in hydraulics, bridges and large Victorian paintings of dead animals, it is worth a visit.

Cragside and bridge

Cragside and bridge

On the way back, we stopped at Warkworth Castle which belongs to English Heritage. There was a “Fighting Knights” event on, so this magnificent medieval castle was packed with children. We arrived as the fighting finished, so it soon quietened down. I was attracted to the swords (wrong era I know, but a sword is still better than Victorian lampshades.) and had a chat with the knights. Turned out they had travelled up from Warwick and Kenilworth – practically next door.

P1160858+

Warkworth Castle, entrance

Warkworth Castle, Bailey

Warkworth Castle, after the battle.

Another long day, but I was looking forward to tomorrow.

On my list of places to visit was Yeavering, or Ad Gefrin as it was known. This was the site of King Edwin’s Palace in the 7th Century. Yes, I know there is nothing to see nowadays, but I wanted to use the location in my book.

I had sold it to my husband as an interesting location for a walk and again we found a route online. It included another section of St Cuthbert’s Way (see my last post). We like to have a theme to a holiday!

The route started in the village of Kirknewton, climbed Yeavering Bell and returned via the Ad Gefrin site. Although I was looking forward to it, I was bit apprehensive. I am not the fittest of walkers and the hill, topped by a hillfort, was high. I looked at the map and found a short cut back “just in case.”

I am glad to say that I didn’t need it. The ascent was gradual, the weather was beautiful and the views were stupendous. In fact the worse bit was coming down, straight down what seemed the steepest slope.

Looking back at Kirknewton. The first stretch was a gentle uphill farm track.

Looking back at Kirknewton. The first stretch was a gentle uphill farm track.

"Go through the gate, and bear right to reach a waymarked post beside the track." Not even reached the short cut yet!

“Go through the gate, and bear right to reach a waymarked post beside the track.” Not even reached the short cut yet!

"Do you think it's that peak straight ahead?"

“Do you think it’s that peak straight ahead?”

Yeavering Bell mean s "Goat Hill". Must be the right place. That's the wall of the hillfort ahead, nearly there!

Yeavering Bell means “Goat Hill”. Must be the right place. And that’s the wall of the hillfort ahead, nearly there!

Reached the top! Looking south along the Cheviots

Reached the top! Looking south along the Cheviots.

View North. Not far to Scotland.

View North. Can you see the Scottish border?

Ad Gefrin can't be seen from the summit. View from a few yards down.

Ad Gefrin can’t be seen from the summit. This view is from a few yards down.

And here is a close up if you can't pick it out.

And here is a close up if you can’t pick it out.

The way down. Just follow the signs

The way down. Just follow the signs – is that one in the distance?

As I mentioned in my last post, for the purposes of my research I wanted bad weather. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it as much though.

I did try to imagine it. When we walked though a small stream, we discussed whether it would be frozen when Byrhtnoth came this way, or just a bit of ice along the edges. Would it be snowing or raining? Perhaps a bit of sleet? Well, it helped to pass the time.
You will have to read the book to find out what happens – but first I’ve got to write it. One thing I do know – Byrhtnoth would have made it up a bit quicker than me!

We reached the bottom of the hill at last, legs quivering, and visited the site of Ad Gefrin. As expected, there was nothing to see but a grassy field and a lot of sheep. I tried to imagine the great mead hall and the “theatre”. The place in the river Glen where Paulinus spent 36 days baptising new converts to Christianity.

Site of King Edwin's palace at Ad Gefrin. Explanation board needed!

Site of King Edwin’s palace at Ad Gefrin. Explanation board needed!

Yes, but… That was in the seventh century. The palace was burnt down not long after and the site abandoned. It will be three hundred years later that Byrhtnoth visits. It would probably look much like it does today. Would there even be any memory of it? Something to think about.

We finished the day with a cream tea in Wooler in a cafe called “ramblers” – very appropriate.

The next morning we had to leave. Would you believe that the weather was grey and misty? All the way down the A1 and M1 we never saw the sun, plenty of fog and rain. If only it had arrived a few days earlier – or perhaps not.

On my Kindle during this trip I was reading (not that I had much time to read, but I have finished it since) The King of the North by Max Adams. It added greatly to the trip and I learned a lot.

This weekend I am of to the Historical Novel Society conference in Oxford.
Say hello if you see me, and you might appear in next week’s post.

Goat gate to Ad Gefrin, looking back to Yeavering Bell

Goat gate to Ad Gefrin, looking back to Yeavering Bell