June 6th will forever be a date that holds great importance to me. And no, not because of D-Day (which in hindsight as someone who has spent her entire adult life bouncing around between different history and archaeology degrees this probably should be the case) but because I am an entirely flawed, selfish and narcissistic human being it is because June 6th, 2017 was the day of my very first excavation.
The site we were excavating was a school house used by local farmers that was believed to be in use from the late 19th century to early 20th. The day before I got to the site they had already found slate pencils and started work on another suspected structure a little bit further up – this one, where I spent my time digging, had everyone scratching their heads as to what it may have been. By the end of my second, and unfortunately, last day on site, we were starting to suspect it was a shed that had burnt down. Though there were rumours of it being an old outhouse – yes, archaeology really is glamorous.
To get to site a shuttle bus left my university campus as 7am. Bright and early. Well, not really bright as the sun wasn’t even up yet. Now, for me to get to campus before 7am meant waking up at 5.30am. A time that I had spent the past 26 years of my life denying existed – but I can now officially report that it does exist, in case anyone else out there is also skeptical. But I did it. I got out of bed and slipped on what I thought would be MORE than enough layers to keep me warm and snug and was out the door. I bypassed my usual café, prioritising being early over being caffeinated (my second mistake for the day, the first will be revealed shortly).
When I got to the site I quickly realised how over confident and under prepared I really was. We were getting a run down on potential risks and hazards. Namely red back spiders and hypothermia. I nodded along emphatically but not voluntarily. The reason I say not voluntarily is because I’m sure a lot of nodding was actually just a result of my shivering (This was the aforementioned first mistake, turns out thermals would’ve been a good idea). Lucky for me I looked quite pitiful so a lecturer gave me a spare jumper and gloves – sure, I still had little feeling in my toes but I was ready to get to work!
I was handed a trowel, a dustpan and a bucket and set upon excavating one of the squares divvied up on the grid plan. First we had to clear the top soil. This was easy! It’s loose and soft and just waiting to be scooped up. I felt like I was getting a good rhythm going – until we found roots. Pretty much half of my first square was littered in roots. Just when you think you’ve got a good cluster out you find another that was being concealed by some soil. I would say one square took us about 3 hours and that’s primarily because of the roots.
We would remove the top soil and dig down until we noticed the context changing. This meant, in our case, when the soil was changing to a harder and compact clay. Keeping track and ‘sticking’ to the same context is SUPER important for helping to place your finds (if you have any) so when you’re digging you need to be looking out for any changes in soil colour, texture etc; My first square didn’t provide any finds. I used some of the scooped up soil to run a pH test (it never strayed from 5/5.5) and then compared another sample with a mussel chart to get a description of the soil that was a bit more useful than ‘brown’ – also, you’d be surprised with how many ways there are to describe dirt, it’s just about it’s own language.
We sifted bucket loads of dirt that day. You would empty out your bucket on this giant square, metal sieve and just shake the life (or in some cases on site: sheet metal) out of it. Very good outlet for tension. But I was worried that I, a 5 ft 2 woman with the upper body strength of a new-born foal, would break it. I didn’t, it was fine. I just inhaled a lot of dirt. Wore a lot of it too.
And that was pretty much my first day:
Dig, dig, dig.
Curse at whatever deity put so many roots here.
Dig, dig, dig,
Test pH of soil and debate for a few minutes minutes whether it was a 5 or a 5.5.
Take out frustration from not finding anything out at the sieve.
Record everything possible (even if you don’t find any artefacts) and start again.
But I loved it. There’s something very relaxing about knowing exactly what you need to be doing and just getting on with it – especially in a beautiful country landscape. Maybe it’s a novelty that will wear off but even seeing soil changes was exciting to me because I wasn’t just writing another essay I was actually doing something.
My second day would yield many more finds but I went home on the 6th of June, 2017 knowing that I had finally gotten out there and done something. My arms ached from hacking at roots. My body was still thawing out from the last hour of recording and excavating in the rain. But I was content and eager to get back out in the field….