There’s no such thing as a typical day in archaeology really. I suppose the closest you might get to typical one is on a long running open area site where you turn up every day at 8am, dig all day, and head home at 4. But even these are changeable. The following account details a day on a large open area site that I was running a while back in Oxfordshire, and was originally published in July 2020 on the Festival of Archaeology website, however, it is currently unavailable there as the site undergoes changes ready for this year’s Festival, so I have updated it a bit and put it here for everyone to read.
I’ve been running a large sites like this for several years now and each one throws us its own unique problems and presents us with differing types of archaeology and levels of preservation. Typically, large scale excavations like this are referred to as strip, map and sample, and usually follow on from geophysical survey and archaeological trial trenching, so we know roughly what we might be expecting when we strip a whole field ahead of construction development. We finished the machine stripping last week, so, now that the excavator and two massive dump trucks are off site, I can give my full attention to the archaeology that we have exposed. My team have already been working away on it, each member having been assigned their own 10-meter grid square to work through.
The day starts with admin, we have a daily briefing, a daily covid reminder/briefing (hopefully one day we can stop the covid briefings) and I detail a daily assessment of the condition of the site, today everything is fine but a few weeks ago we had a breech in the fence that needed reporting and fixing. If I have new members of staff on site this morning briefing is usually when I’ll give the inductions, so morning admin can keep me busy for ages and it can be past 9am before I even set foot on site.
As the Lead Archaeologist, my job on these large-scale sites doesn’t involve a lot of digging. I act as more of a co-ordinator - ensuring that the site runs smoothly, the features get dug and the paperwork is done. Don’t get me wrong through, if I see the chance to dig a pit I’ll be in there with both hands! But not today. Today we have our burial licence so we can remove the skeleton that surprised us a few weeks ago. I hate it when they do that, one of the team was working in a ring ditch and a pair of legs jumped out at him. Well they didn’t literally jump, but none of us were expecting them to be there. With no licence we covered everything up (covered the exposed remains with plastic and backfilled the slot) and temporarily abandoned the slot. Today’s task is to get the remains fully exposed, recorded and lifted without exposing them to public view (fortunately we have a panelled gazebo as we are working alongside a public footpath). It would be nice if we could leave the unfortunate chap where he’s been resting for so long, however, as the site is about to be bulldozed and a substantial number of houses built, I’m sure our mysterious Iron Age fellow would prefer us to carefully lift him out, making sure that we have all of him (and the pottery fragment in his mouth, and white pebble clutched in his hand), rather than end up in bits on a spoil heap crushed and pounded by a bulldozer that didn’t notice him. He’ll be well looked after although it may be a while before he gets to rest in the ground again.
Elsewhere another member of the team has discovered a coin - only one so far, so it’s not technically treasure just yet! But it is exciting, I’ve not had many Iron Age coins come through my hands and this is a nice one. Another two team members are digging slots through the same ditch, competing to see who can do it faster. I’ll keep an eye on that, make sure neither of them overdo it, a little competition is fine but not if it breaks people or upsets the archaeology. I point out the excess stores of water we have and make sure they keep up their fluid intake. Another team member has a near complete pot – this is an interesting day! Like with our skeleton, we want to document how the pot is exposed and see if we can lift it today. We pinch some bandages from the first aid kit to wrap it in the hope of being able to lift it as a complete item, but no such luck. It is too fragile and reluctantly it is packed, in pieces, into finds bags and labelled.
My afternoons are also often given over to admin on sites like this. Archaeology generates a lot of paperwork and it’s my job to ensure that all the records are in order. After all, once the site is done, the records are the only evidence for what was here. Archaeology by its very nature is a destructive science and our records are all that remain of what was once here. It is these records that I will use to write up the report and a big site like this can take a year or more to write up. Each record not only has the context number, but the location of the feature on site, the contexts that it is related to, the section drawing number, and photograph numbers all of which have to be fully checked and cross referenced. Mistakes are best caught now whilst on site, when the team can amend their own records or we can discuss any changes or questions whilst looking at the feature in question. It can be done later with photos and sections but it is so much easier to catch mistakes or changes in interpretation in the field.
If I’m not record checking I’m most likely to be found updating the site plan, our visual record of the site detailing the relationships between features and the key evidence in interpreting the site as a landscape. It’s a lot to deal with and the days can fly by, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The last thing I do before calling a half for the day, is check in with everyone on site and what they are currently working on, ensuring that we have a plan for tomorrow and that I know what is going on should anyone be off sick or reassigned to another site without finishing their current task. It’s a chance to update everyone on key finds and features for the day too. And tomorrow, we’ll be back on site to do it all again. Who knows what the archaeology will surprise us with next time.
*Update: - it surprised us all right, two more skeletons, and the parallel ditches that we thought were the flanking ditches to an Iron Age / Roman trackway turned out to have very different dates, one full of late Iron Age material the other medieval. We are currently working on the theory that whilst both may have been open as a trackway in the late Iron Age, at some point the western one was filled in, whilst the eastern one remained in use until eventually being backfilled in the medieval period.
I know I’m late to the party, but this week I finally got around to watching Netflix’s “The Dig”, a fictionalised retelling of the discovery of the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial in Suffolk. Honestly, I enjoyed it, it wasn’t Indiana Jones (few things are) nor was it “The Body” or “Altamira” (both of which star Antonio Banderas and are a good look at the real politics in the case of Altamira, and theological politics (the Body) behind archaeological finds), but it was a fair romp as period dramas go, with a sprinkle of historical accuracy here and some creative licencing there. Entertaining.
*Spoilers below* read at your own risk if you’ve not seen it
Now, I’m not going to sit here and go through what’s wrong with it, plenty of folks have done that and I’m sure everyone is bored of hearing that the photographer is an invented character and was really two women, Edith Pretty was older and Peggy’s marriage, whilst it did break up, did not break during the excavations, nor for a while after. And of course, let’s not forget the historically inaccurate trowels (seriously, do we have nothing better to do than pick holes in things!). No, ignore all that stuff, it’s artistic freedom and fine for storytelling. What I want to talk about is what The Dig did right in terms of real archaeological practice.
Firstly, it has to be said, I loved Basil’s (Ralph Fiennes) reference to not being paid enough in one of the early scenes – this is one of the most commonly heard complaints from archaeologists at every level, even in 2021. It’s a well-known fact that archaeologists do the job for love, not for money. Those who were doing it for the money tend to grow a modicum of common sense and move on. The rest of us continue to gripe about it, but continue doing what we love, because we love it, and I liked that obvious passion from the character of Basil Brown. He complained about the pay, (though agreed to do it for £2 a week), but you could see the dedication to exploring the site, learning what was there and following the discovery through. Which leads me to another thing that I noticed which rang true to life, the display of possessiveness over his site when the museum tried to muscle in. Most archaeologists do become fiercely possessive of their site, even if it’s an evaluation in someone’s back garden where the only thing they’re likely to find is a bit of old drain. Why? Because we love the job, we are invested in the site, and if you hand it over to someone else then obviously they are going to discover the cool, awesome thing that was lurking just in the next bit that you were going to look at. Plus, when you spend time on the site, you get to know it, you have a feel for how it fits together. In excavating a site, whoever is running it is usually looking at the bigger picture, pulling the story of the site together, and it’s really hard to pass on your work to someone when you’ve put so much into it, (also most of us will agree that writing up someone else’s site is a nightmare because half the information is in their head!). So, I very much liked this relatable trait.
I cheered when Mrs Pretty (Carey Mulligan) had the shepherd’s hut brought over for him to use as a tea hut too! Basil had site welfare facilities! Forgive my enthusiasm, but believe me, it’s more than some archaeologists get, even today. I’ve worked sites where I’ve had no welfare but the back of a van for weeks (thankfully this is becoming much less common and whilst working for my current employer I have always had decent welfare).
I liked the character of Basil, he referred to himself as an excavator rather than an archaeologist, but he clearly knew what he was doing (the site would not have been nearly so spectacular had he not). I think I drove my other-half nuts pointing out the use of a string line to keep the section neat (something I still have to yell at some of my team about). I liked also that he made the point of telling Mrs Pretty that she shouldn’t be in the trench alone as it was unsafe – a point proved to be true when the thing collapsed on Basil moments later. We see photographs of so many antiquarian sections that are just immense and wholly devoid of any kind of health and safety, they look amazing but wow were they dangerous! We used to work to a rule of thumb that anything over 1.20m needed stepping or shoring, but now it is much more dependent on the geology and site conditions. Basil also mentioned the involvement of the Coroner in the event that they found human remains, this is still true. We require a burial licence to be in place before we can touch anything even vaguely suspected of being human remains. If we expect to encounter remains than it will be applied for and acquired before excavation starts, but when burials surprise us it can take a long while to obtain coroners (Ministry of Justice) permission to disturb them.
I do want to point out one very poor bit of archaeological practice that was shown in The Dig. Smoking in the trench. I’ll give old Basil Brown a pass, as radiocarbon dating was not a thing in the 1930s. But if you smoke in my trench now, expect to be very quickly kicked off site. Cigarette and pipe smoke contaminate the ground which in turn affects any radiocarbon samples that we may submit, making dating evidence unreliable.
There are things that I wish had been a little clearer in the film though. For instance, the excavation technique itself. Yes, I was happy to see the boards in place with archaeologists sprawled along them keeping their weight off the ground, but it would have been nice to have a little more description about how the outline of the boat was preserved. The wood was gone, the ground conditions at Sutton Hoo are such that organic remains (including wood and bone) will simply not survive the sandy consistency of the ground as it is too acidic. As such, the shape of the wooden boat was only visible in changes in the colour and texture of the ground and the presence of the iron rivets, and this would have been easy to miss as the boat was not physically there. What Basil did was find the ghost in the soil, it’s tough to do. When looking at settlement sites we usually extract the colour changes as they indicate the fill(s) within a feature like a ditch or pit, but to show the Sutton Hoo ship in all its glory, those excavating it had to be very careful not to remove the dark stains which were the only remaining evidence of the long rotted away timbers. It is truly remarkable, and I would have loved to see the excavation technique explained a little more.
I think it would also have gone some way towards explaining why getting the tarpaulin down when it was raining was so important. In that sandy geology heavy rain could have washed away the outline of the ship like waves on a beach. I did wonder though why they didn’t pull the tarp over it every night, it would have saved poor Ralph Fiennes rushing out into the rain without a coat, to fumble around in the dark, trying not to get great clomping boot marks all over the thing whilst he struggled to get it covered up. I suppose we all make mistakes, one of my team once managed to leave the whole file of site records in a trench for the weekend, we found it floating around on Monday morning, fortunately it was salvageable and we lost nothing.
There have also been a fair few complaints about the lack of treasures in The Dig. I can only assume that this is because people were hoping to see the famous helmet, because I was gleefully jumping up and down pointing things out to my other-half (who just wanted to peacefully watch the film). But the shoulder clasps were shown clearly, the golden purse lid, the red and gold sword pyramids and the wonderful golden belt buckle (The British Museum has this but for some reason it’s not on display with the rest), there was treasure aplenty!
The problem with the helmet was that when it was found, it didn’t particularly look like a helmet. In Basil’s excavation it was basically 100 fragments of corroded metal. I like to think that it’s what Peggy (Lilly James) accidentally put her foot in as that would also be true to real archaeology, so many of us have found that near complete pot (or even bodies) by putting a foot, or a mattock into it. There is a distinctive ‘pop’ sound that all archaeologists accept with the same sinking feeling as they know they just broke something hollow and probably complete. But back to the helmet, Basil’s 100 pieces were corroded and incomplete, the rest of the helmet (in 1000 or so pieces) was not found until the site was re-excavated in the 1960-70s and even then no one knew it was a helmet until the conservation team at the museum began piecing it together around 1975.
Although all the finds (except the golden buckle) are on display at the British Museum, I fully recommend a visit to the Sutton Hoo site. Most of the mounds are gone or barely visible, although one has been reconstructed, but the little museum contains a well done replica of what the burial may have looked like, along with photos of the excavation(s) and a reconstructed sand mummy, (later excavations did find human remains, but like the remains at Pompeii they were shadows only and required special techniques to excavate).
So, ultimately what did I think? I enjoyed it. At the end of the day it was entertainment and if some stuff wasn’t totally accurate so what, accuracy was not its primary purpose, (although cutting two real women out of the story for the supposed ‘eye candy’ male photographer is not ideal, I can see why it was done). Hopefully what the film achieved was to highlight one of the greatest archaeological finds in Britain and get people talking about archaeology at a time where budget funding is being cut for university courses and new government planning for housing development contains potential threats to the heritage sector. We may not have the gold of ancient Egypt, the standing remains of Rome of the mythological allure of Turkey’s (probable) site of Troy, but we do have some spectacular archaeological remains in this country, of which the Sutton Hoo ship burial is just one example.
The Dig is currently streaming on Netflix and stars Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown and Carey Mulligan as Mrs Pretty, all picture credits to Netflix unless otherwise stated and you can read more about the real excavations here: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo/features/digging-the-dirt-the-true-story-behind-the-dig
Warning: This post includes descriptions and images of excavated human remains from archaeological sites.
The world is full of mystery. It seems a strange thing to say in this day and age, where information is at our fingertips 24/7 and we can turn our home heating on from the office, but it’s true. Mysteries prevail and this is where stories thrive, where conspiracy theories are hatched and where the imagination can stretch its wings and fill in the blanks. It is these blank spaces, these gaps in our knowledge, that make history so fascinating and so well suited to fictionalisation.
Even for events within our collective living memory we are able to create mysteries and conspiracies; recently we marked the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, yet many choose to believe that it never happened, citing a lack of stars in photographs and a rippled flag as evidence of fakery. Such theories are easily debunked; the stars are present but the image is focussed on the astronauts not the background and in the low light the stars are simply not bright enough to be seen, as for the flag, well the fabric was moved as they stuck it in the ground and as space is a vacuum it remains rippled. However, conspiracy theories and alternate histories abound - just look at the many strange conspiracy theories popping up about vaccines and Donald Trump. If this is the state we find ourselves in with televised and well documented events within living memory, just imagine how much scope for imaginative adaptation there is when we go further back in time? Especially if we are only looking at the little physical evidence that remains.
As a professional archaeologist, it is my job to put forward the most rational explanation for what I see in the ground, to explain my evidence and not embellish more than our knowledge of a culture will allow. Although there are some cases where what I see in the ground is just plain weird. For instance, I dug a site a few years ago (currently unpublished) where we found several wells, all of which contained a horse skull. Not only that but roughly in the centre of the site was a complete horse burial accompanied by three small dogs (or cats - I’m still waiting on a full analysis). All were of broadly similar date and likely to be contemporary. So, what was going on here? Perhaps some kind of ritual cult to the Goddess Epona, which demanded the removal of horses’ heads? (horses being sacred to Epona). Or perhaps the heads were used to close the well when it ran dry, although if they all ran dry at the same time that seems like a waste of horses. A different theory; could it have been a raid, with raiders killing the horses and throwing their heads in the wells to contaminate drinking water? This is plausible, but does not explain the complete burial with dogs, so we end up back at the loose and somewhat undesirable interpretation of ritual activity, or at a stretch, a horse stud where a favoured stallion was buried and the heads in the wells were … I honestly have no idea.
The facts are simply that there was a complete horse burial and several horses’ heads in wells, all of a similar deposition date, the story of the site is whatever fiction based on fact I chose to make it until someone challenges it with a better theory. Though I imagine the story of a raid on a wealthy horse stud, where the attackers decapitate horses and stuff their heads into the wells as some form of punishment to the landowner, would make a dramatic scene in a gritty historical drama. Especially if we were to set some surrounding structures on fire and frame the whole event on a dark stormy night in the sleet and wind. But such flights of fancy do not belong in the archaeological report.
A second example; several years ago, a colleague and I were excavating a prehistoric watering hole on a quarry site. This was exciting as the clay layer towards the base had created a condition in which organic remains had been preserved, meaning we could see the wood wattle-work of the steps that allowed access to the water. A little further down, we found something else. Buried facedown was a human skull, the lower mandible was missing but otherwise the skull was complete. When we lifted it, very carefully, we discovered something else, a strip of leather covering the eyes and below the leather two white stones within the eye sockets. As we lifted it, it also began to rain. – These are the facts as they stood on the day.
Now, from an archaeologically interpretive point of view, our skull is most likely one of two things. Either a revered ancestor whose skull, having been kept by family or tribal group, was placed lovingly in the watering hole as it ceased to function as a watering hole. Or, a very naughty fellow who had been executed and hurled into the watering hole. Both are plausible scenarios within the established facts that we know about our prehistoric cultures, so how can we narrow our factual interpretation and give a reason for the skull to be in the watering hole?
The fact that the leather blindfold survived and the flesh did not, would suggest that the blindfold was placed on a skull rather than a flesh covered head. This, coupled with the missing mandible and the fact that we know, or assume, an ancestor cult involved the living interacting with the dead, (whether entering a tomb or bringing the remains to a feast or event), indicated that our best interpretation here would be that the individual was an ancestor rather than a criminal, and was perhaps lovingly placed in the watering hole when the group moved on, or when the hole ran dry – for cultural reasons that we could debate all day. Essentially this leads us to the fiction of facts as my archaeological report listed this skull as a likely revered ancestor from which we can further extrapolate ritual or settlement activity on the site.
As a writer of fiction however, this skull and its discovery lends the writer a thousand ideas. Lifting the skull caused it to rain: could it be that we had, in our ignorance, stumbled across a buried rain god? Was the skull cursed? (I tell you it did feel like it was – every time we had to move him it rained, although I guess that’s not so uncommon in the UK), was he an offering to the rain god? Was he a sacrifice? An outsider? Was he planted in the ground to claim ownership of the land? Is he evidence for a battle between two local groups and an instance of biological warfare in the ancient world (the contamination of the enemies drinking water) – the stories we can imaginatively attach to a single artefact are endless. From the simple fact of a skull in a watering hole I can create a vast amount of fiction yet retain the original fact.
History, paradoxically then, is not set in stone. Certainly, we cannot physically change it, everything has already happened and cannot be changed. What can be changed is our understanding. History evolves as we discover more evidence that either supports or disproves theories. Look at Pompeii for example; it has long been established that Vesuvius erupted and destroyed the city in August, Pliny tells us so and he was there, he should know. However, the archaeological evidence for an October eruption grows stronger every year as new artefacts are discovered and new analytical techniques are used to interpret. The historic event remains the same, the eruption happened, yet the established August date now begins to seem inaccurate or fictitious. Did Pliny forget that it had been October and not August when he wrote his account, is the August date a typo made by later copyists? Was it August to Pliny and October to us as our Gregorian calendar and the Julian calendar are out of sync? Pliny’s messed up date could be a story in itself.
We will never, I think, fully understand history, as we will never understand the true motives that drove people to act as they did, and no matter how hard we try not to, we will always project our own thoughts and concepts back. In order to interpret an excavation site we have to give it a story, so my horses’ heads therefore must indicate a society with a vested interest in horses and likely wealthy enough that they can afford to offer up horses’ heads and one complete horse as sacrificial objects. My human head in a watering hole is a lovingly placed ancestor whose time for burial had finally come as the watering hole dried up and the social group moved on. Both interpretations are my own, using the facts to inform a history, but this is just one version of the story and beyond the hard facts lies a blank page ready for an alternate, yet equally plausible story to be told.
When I don't have my professional hard-hat on I like indulging in the speculative fiction side of archaeology - you can check out archaeological adventure novels by clicking on the image below!
2020 has been an interesting year. Some of us have worked through lockdown, some have been furloughed and stuck at home, and some have been up to other things. This last week I’ve spent time in a strange place. A high security facility, where I had my personal phone, my work phone and my work camera taken away and locked up for the whole day, and I was not allowed out of sight of a handler. Yes folks, it turns out even high security, top secret places need an occasional archaeologist. Now I can’t say that I was working at [REDACTED] because that would be against the rules and I’d get in a whole heap of trouble, but I don’t have an NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement) so I can talk about it to an extent. So, let’s pretend I was doing the archaeology for a Bond villain’s lair, because that would be cool and let’s face it, that underground volcano / Alpine lodge / space shuttle launch site probably needed planning permission and therefore an archaeology survey too!
Who knows what archaeological treasures are hidden below top secret sites! Image credit: Fair use, Wikipedia
I was actually really excited about this job. It’s not very often I get to go to high security places and put holes in the ground. There is something very strange about logging all your details and being background searched before going to a place that is both disconcerting and exciting. Anyhow I must have checked out because they allowed me a two-day window to go look at some holes in the ground.
Doing the background research on some of these places is pretty tough too. You know that it was built at some point because it exists and has done for years, because everyone knows about it but none of the OS maps show it. The place still looks like open fields well into the late 20th century (although it seems to be on current OS maps and Google Maps), so working out its modern history is tricky. There was however a potential for prehistoric activity, possible Bronze Age burials, and Iron Age occupation, in fact there’s a big Iron Age(ish) earthwork that runs right into the place. And the Romans were certainly doing things not too far away. So, I had a fairly reasonable shot at perhaps seeing some archaeology, well except for all that pesky 20th century activity that’s not on the maps. Particularly those unrecorded 20th century gas pipes and electricity cables that go to those buildings that never existed according to the maps. Then there’s the concrete footings for the invisible buildings themselves – lots of concrete.
I couldn’t take my regular site camera on to the site so I had to settle for dictating the shots to someone who was cleared to use a camera and hoping that they would show what I wanted. Although there is always the chance that the photos won’t clear the security and I may never see them. Apparently if there is anything in the background, person, part of a building, the images will be destroyed, or at the very least will never leave the site. Makes me wonder a little bit about what would happen if one my holes turned up something of national importance. Would it have to be hushed up due to the super secure nature of the site, or could it be published? It is known that a prehistoric earthwork enters the site, but what if there is a whole Bronze Age settlement there? Will my report be available in an archive or will the whole thing be redacted for secrecy? In this case I suspect my report will be the usual grey literature report so unpublished anyway.
The thing with reports is that before they get archived the client always gets to look over them, so if there is sensitive information in the report it will be redacted – covered in those secretive black lines, or I’ll be asked to do a rewrite avoiding certain words or descriptions. Ultimately, despite the sensitive and secure nature of the site it is actually just like any other watching brief and will end up in a dusty file somewhere only seeing the light of day if more work takes place in the area or someone does a PhD that happens to include a reference to this work.
On paper this probably doesn’t sound that exciting, but it was certainly an experience. I’ve never worked on another site where I’ve been allowed so little freedom, or been subject to so many security checks. Hell, I wasn’t even allowed to go to the toilet on my own! They did a sweep over my car again when I left to make sure I wasn’t smuggling stuff out. I’m interested to see how many of the site photos I get back, all in all I think it’s a good job they let me keep the pen and paper, at least I could draw sketches of the stratigraphy, I suspect I may need them.
Did I find any archaeology? No. I guess the whole volcano lair thing had dug it all out way back when those maps still showed the place as a big open field. Unfortunate really, it would have been fun to go back.
Way back in the murky past of 2002 I was in the aftermath of my exams and we had just won the fight to continue the already rare Archaeology AS (half-A level) course all the way through to a complete A level qualification. To celebrate, our archaeology lecturer had a great idea. We would build a roundhouse. A typical Iron Age (c.500BC-332BC) dwelling made of wooden posts, wattle and daub walls and a thatched roof. So, for 2 days a week we were traipsed from our college campus in Marple, to the Iron Age Hillfort just up the hill at Mellor, (a site that I also happened to be working on as a volunteer archaeologist – my first ever dig!) It was fun, it was exciting, it was subject to planning permission….
Our roundhouse was to be 1/3 size of a real one, the worry was that we may not have the time to complete construction of a full one. Logs, willow and hazel rods arrived and spades were issued. The first task was marking out, digging holes for the posts and chopping the wood. I have no idea whose idea it was to let teenage boys loose with an axe, but it seemed to work (barring one bloody finger incident). The posts were shaped to points in order to make pushing them into the ground easier and we packed dirt and stones back in around the posts to hold them in place.
To do the roof we cheated a bit, Greater Manchester is not known for its reed beds and thatch cultivation, a real roundhouse up here is likely to have had a turf roof. But we were after new skills and a professional Thatcher from Norfolk came up to show us how to make the roof. First, like with the walls we needed sturdy logs to create a cone shape. Then it was back to the hazel and willow rods to create the horizontal bars that would be the framework for the thatch. The thatch was split into sheaves and our friendly pro showed us how to sew the thatch onto the roof with a huge wooden needle, and how to bash it into shape with, what looked like a giant wooden spaghetti spoon. He got us started and we did the rest, until we got to the top where it was a bit more complicated. More willow was prodded between the thatch to create ventilation and the thatch was brought to a point. No oculus style hole in the roof for us, they have the unfortunate side effect of creating a wind funnel and dragging any hearth fire up into the thatch and burning down the roundhouse. Not that we were allowed to have a fire in there anyway, at a 1/3 size, even lighting a match in there would probably have burned it down.
Once the roof was done we got a first-hand experience of why ring ditches exist around round houses. Going up to the site after and during a rain storm showed just how effective the thatch was, at keeping the inside bone dry sure, but also at flooding the surrounding ground. So, we dug a ring ditch, no one wants rotten foundations to their roundhouse.
So, the walls were built, the roof was on the drainage ditch was dug, with spare logs laft over to create a little bridge to the doorway. There’s no archaeological evidence for these that we know of, most excavated ring ditches tend to terminate and leave a space for the entranceway, but ours kept flooding so we dug the ditch over the entrance and gave it a bridge. Then dug an offshoot into the woodland and the side of the hill when it still flooded!
Drainage sorted out it was time for the real fun stuff. Daubing the walls! Though there were some caveats, being the modern age and all, and health and safety being what it was, we were not allowed to use animal manure to make our daub, (but we could play with sharp axes and stand 7ft in the air on flimsy willow rods). So, the daub was unhistorically accurate clay and chopped up bits of thatch, which we smeared unenthusiastically on the walls and watched it crack and plop into the ditch. It was not at all sticky. What to do? DIRT FIGHT! Well, we were teenagers.
Anyhow the roundhouse got splattered as we lobbed dirt at each other and this was the solution. Lob the makeshift daub at the wattlework. In this way the clay, chopped thatch and grass mix actually worked its way in between the willow and hazel rods creating something sticky within the wall that we could build on. So, several days were spent hurling soggy wet clay at the walls. One enterprising student came up with an experiment one day. Her family cat had been to the groomers, and being a rather fluffy animal, our friend was now in possession of a full carrier bag of cat fur to add to the daub mix. It worked really well, we used the clay and cat fur mix to daub around the doorway and for years this remained the smoothest and best-looking bit of all the daubing. So, there you go, tip for the apocalypse and building your stick house, cat fur is a good bonding agent if you want a smooth finish.
Overall, we spent 6 weeks doing this, 12 days in total, which for students wholly unskilled in the art of roundhouse creation, is not bad at all. Imagine how fast these things could have gone up when being built by people who actually knew what they were doing?
To celebrate on our final day we built a fire and boiled up a stew in a replica Iron Age cooking pot, which was very welcome on a wet and miserable day! We also cooked authentic Iron Age, Linda McCartney Veggie Sausages on a fire (apparently you can’t undercook them!). We were sat enjoying our Iron Age feast complete with authentic Iron Age bread when some official looking fellow came up to ‘assess the building for council tax’!
Some of us always intended to sleep over in the house, especially during excavation season but I don’t think anyone ever successfully managed it, the place was pretty draughty, though it was always dry and was certainly a favourite place for the dig team to skive off on wet excavation days.
The roundhouse is still there to this day, although the college no longer re-daub the walls and tidy it up like they used to. About 10 years ago or so I heard that the drip gully had been filled in due to health and safety concerns. The roof was collapsing a little the last time that I saw it but that must be several years ago now … perhaps I should head back for one last look before it falls in completely.
It was an unforgettable time and fuelled my passion for archaeology as well as allowing me to see what happens when you trust teenagers with sharp tools. – For anyone who has read my books, let me tell you, a lot of Jerry is based on several characters building that roundhouse. It was certainly some of the most fun I’ve had on site and I loved explaining how we did it to visitors on Mellor open days. I would love the chance to do something similar again does anyone know if channel 4 would be up for a new experimental archaeology show? Though I’m still not sure about being trusted with an axe!
S. M. Porter
Professional archaeologist and author, S. M. Porter loves history, adventure and digging in the mud. Her career is in ruins - just where she wanted it to be.