Emma Watts-Plumpkin recalls her fieldwork experiences, from rooky through to old hand.
When you have never been on a dig before, it can be quite a daunting prospect. My first excavation was in my initial year at the University of Bristol, and began with an obligatory health and safety briefing — a video straight out of the early 1990s — and it certainly did not give any indication of what to expect.
The mini-bus journey to Berkeley had created a stir of nervous excitement, but this was something that very quickly disappeared — the whole of the first morning was spent clearing chest-high stinging nettles from the field in the sweltering heat, and by lunchtime most people were exhausted, irritable, and stung. Everyone’s mood picked up when the real digging began, accompanied by lots of whispers of ‘am I doing this right…?!’ to your nearest neighbour as everyone was finally let loose on the soil. But after a few weeks, even the most nervous were trowelling like pros!
Things that seemed odd to start with, like seeing a pile of boots abandoned in a shop doorway on lunch breaks, soon became the norm, along with seeing muddy archaeologists traipsing round a supermarket in hi-vi jackets and socks, carrying armfuls of ice lollies.
A change in weather later in the week meant that everyone was sent running for cover in a series of torrential downpours, and you quickly learn that the weather can play a big part in your digging experience, particularly if you are not prepared for it. At Berkeley we had everything from torrential rain to scorching heat — even a small tornado at one point, which luckily didn’t touch the ground — and you soon learn to pack for everything. Those who laughed at my factor 50 sun cream were unashamedly plastering it on by the end of the week (some looking considerably redder than others!).
The heat, although exhausting to start with, soon became welcome when it lead to a series of impromptu ice-lolly breaks, and these moments of camaraderie, alongside the excitement of uncovering something spectacular, are ones that really stay with you. The standard Friday lunchtime reward of cream-laden scones at the village tearooms was always a favourite, but by the end, you even find yourself taking pride in ordinary tasks: honing the flick of your shovel to get the soil falling flawlessly in the wheelbarrow, achieving section perfection, or your group’s excellent mattock—shovel—wheelbarrow production line.
The third year of excavation saw TV cameras on site, filming for the BBC series Digging for Britain, something that lead to mass panic and excitement, and the need to perfect the art of ‘looking normal’ while digging.
The various heated debates between the supervisors during this time about what different features may or may not be makes you realise that archaeology is nowhere near as clear cut as is it generally made out to be, and there can be several explanations for the same thing – what was at first a charnel pit may well be a civil war ditch an hour later!
Spending three years on the same site was very rewarding: seeing the trenches get wider and deeper, and marvelling at the archaeology revealed under the place you were eating your lunch the year before. The last day on site was one of mixed emotions — having been through thick and thin with these trenches it felt like the end of an era, and it was definitely sad to be leaving a place to which everyone had become so attached, and where we made such good friends.
Since leaving university, my love for archaeology hasn’t abated.