Digging Binchester

3 mins read


Former CA Editor Lisa Westcott spent an inspiring week in the trenches, brushing up on her digging skills and meeting volunteers.

Last summer, I decided to go undercover as a volunteer on an excavation.  It had been quite awhile since I had been out digging, and I felt shockingly out of practice: it was time to refresh my skills, as well as meet some new people.  Plus, who wants to be stuck in the office all summer, knowing that there’s so much great archaeology going on around the country?

Luckily, a good friend of mine was, at the time, the Durham Country Assistant County Archaeologist and had a new dig going at Binchester, so I jumped at the chance and headed up for a week in July. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was the Editor of CA, because I hoped to meet subscribers and have the opportunity to hear their honest, untempered opinions about both the magazine and the state of archaeology in general.

My first day at Binchester was sunny and gorgeous, and so it remained for most of the week. As I walked up from the parking lot, I could already see walls and other features in the trench. The area under excavation was immediately adjacent to the remains of the fort, and thus felt very much like an extension of the fascinating work that has already been done there over the years.

One of the Site Directors, Jamie Armstrong, walked me around the site, pointing out what had been excavated, what was scheduled to be completed by the end of the week and the research objectives for the season as well as for the five-year project. I was impressed by the amount of time he spent with me and how much instruction, education and encouragement I received in that initial conversation. I remember thinking that I hoped the standard was similarly high on every project that we recommend in our annual Digs guide! The staff (Dr David Mason, David Petts, Janice Adams, Matt Claydon and Jamie) were energetic, engaged, very friendly and quite professional, while the volunteers (a mix of students and members of the Durham and Northumberland Archaeological and Architectural Society and Northern Archaeological Group) formed a widely varied group in terms of knowledge and experience, and were industriously involved with every aspect of the site work.

Lucky me!

As it was the last week of a nine-week season and the site had been blitzed by incredibly  hard-working students from Stanford University, there was only a small amount of digging still to be done, plus the inevitable cleaning back, planning, photography and filling out of context sheets. I was assigned to take down a small strip of baulk (about  3ft long and 8 inches deep). In the first 20 minutes of digging, I found a nearly perfect pennanular ring. Work stopped and everyone came over to admire it; there was lots of good-humoured joking about beginner’s luck. I returned to work and about 10 minutes later found one half of a jet ring, still showing the flattened area at the top that would have held a seal or stone. Work stopped again, followed by more admiring and more joking; however, I felt a bit guilty because the fellow who had been digging that area the day before had only turned up nails and bits of bone, and he had stopped for the day just a few inches short of where I found these goodies. Ah well, that’s the luck of the draw, and exactly what keeps us all so hooked on digging — you never know when it’s your turn.

My plans to remain anonymous were foiled almost immediately after these discoveries, with the arrival of Durham Country Archaeologist David Mason, whom I had met recently at Piercebridge. He seemed amused by the fact that I kept turning up on sites in his patch! Even with my cover blown, I was able to chat freely with the rest of the volunteers during elevensies and lunch. As the week progressed, I discovered that many of them are as skilled, educated, and knowledgeable as any professional archaeologist; some were students, some retired, and some work at full-time jobs and had taken annual leave to pursue their hobby. It was inspiring to see this kind of commitment to archaeology; it is these people, and this kind of interest, that I have in mind every month when I am putting the magazine together. A few of them were CA subscribers — one had been with us since Issue #1 — and by just chatting with them, I concluded archaeology is not only alive, but thriving. If anything needs to be done, it is simply to ensure the lines of communication are kept open, to keep projects like this accessible and to find the money to encourage more. Finally, we need to feed back yet more information to the public about the progress made all over the country every summer. It’s a tall order, but one that I think Current Archaeology is uniquely positioned to fill.