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.
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.