Digging up the Past

Have you ever watched Time-team and thought ‘I’d like a go at that!’

Last year the Liskeard Poetry Group were invited – as poets – to attend an archaeological dig near St. Neot – with a view to writing poetry inspired by what we saw. So a few of us, mostly at different times and on different days, headed down the narrow (and very narrow) lanes to the site. I wrote three poems inspired by this event and which, with the poems from others, were published in a booklet.

It was expected that they would be digging in a bronze-age enclosure – as acquired archaeological wisdom said that by the iron-age these sites, on the high moorland, were abandoned.
By the time I attended – they knew they were working on what was an iron-age site.
None of this is important to today’s blog – except to say Archaeology is always turning up evidence that turns the ‘perceived’ way of the history around.
AND – whilst observing and drinking in the atmosphere – I thought ‘I’d like to do this!’

So, when I noticed that the dig at the nearby Calstock Roman fort was inviting community support in the terms of people prepared to spend anything from a week to four weeks, sitting on the ground and carefully scraping it away to reveal … whatever there was to be found.
I signed up for a week! And was accepted!

A little about this dig – to set the scene.

Twelve years ago no-one knew there was a Roman Fort in Calstock. The archaeological team from Exeter University were working on information relating to the medieval silver mines on the opposite bank of the Tamar at Bere Ferrers, when they went looking up on this hill, near the Parish Church, for the smelting works and the administrative buildings recorded in documents from the late thirteenth century. They did a geophysical survey in pasture below the churchyard – and were amazed to find a large Roman Fort!
Until then the Roman presence in Cornwall was thought to consist only of two forts one at Restomel on the Fowey and the other at Nanstallon on the Camel – guarding important river crossing points on both rivers. Both of these – though almost opposite each other on the narrower part of the peninsula – are a long, long way from Calstock, Which is just on the Cornwall side of the River Tamar … about at its highest navigable point – and a possible crossing point.

I loved the description of what you needed to bring/wear/ for the dig. Wet weather coat / trousers / stout boots / sun hat / sun-lotion  – lunch and a chair. i.e. Be equipped for anything the British summer can throw at you! Oh! And make sure you are up-to-date on your tetanus injections!

Day one – Monday: The forecast as recently as a week ago had been for a dry week. Monday dawned damp and threatening rain. I was glad had dug out two sets of wet-weather coats and trousers (one set as a back-up pair) hiking boots and water-proof gardening gloves over the weekend. 

The gaggle of newbies was introduced to the archaeologists working there – so we knew who was who, and who were other amateurs. Already the volunteers who were working more than one week were out on the ground, looking very professional and at home.

We were then given an overview of what this dig was trying to accomplish – and in this case, it was to gather all and any information from this section of land that was just outside the West wall of the Roman fort – and that was due to become the extension to the Calstock churchyard which it abutted on to.

The whole site had had the general swathe of top-soil removed and heaped around the edges. However, there was still some to remove until the, potentially, Roman remains would be found.

Quite quickly we were set in a line to begin clearing back down to the ‘grey’ – to the change in soil colour, in one un-worked corner of the site.

Our tools: Bucket, kneeling mat, small trowel, brush and shovel – and lots of elbow grease. It was my theory that we were to to work on shifting lots of ‘unimportant’ soil so that by the time we were given something else to work on, that might matter, our arms would be aching and we’d go slower  😉 (the kneeling mat supplied was the green one in this picture – I’d also brought the gardening one with ‘arms’ with me. Very useful for getting up off of your knees again!)

A hole of our own to dig in.

However – before we knew it, we were each given an area to dig ourselves. Though most of these were not thought to be something that might bear a lot of interest, as they though most were in a line of a ditch and bank created to border a field at some time, and then left to collapse or pushed down and ploughed over.

The first step was marked out by the archaeologists – who also marked it on a plan and gave it a number. We were then told to work our way down in layers, removing the infill – scraping, checking, putting the spoil in buckets and tipping the spoil way up on the heaps at the sides.

Lunchtime came, pleasant chatter in the tent-like shelter – then back to work … the dark clouds gathered … and from a few heavy drops as warning … we were soon running for shelter from a torrential downpour.

Huddling under the shelter we waited – with the archaeologists nipping out to assess the situation whenever it eased little bit

Eventually they said – that as all the holes were full of water – we’d have to call it a day and resume tomorrow. [photo shows post holes, excavated the previous week – water logged]

Tuesday.  Straight back into the work. I was amazed how much the ground had absorbed and dried up. The soil in the infill, however, was now sticky and would not brush. The whole morning went by, scraping, always watching every scrape, pushing the earth onto the shovel with the trowel, watching as it went, then last glance as I was tipping it into the bucket – repeat … empty the bucket… repeat all.

[photo shows various sections taken out along the line of the ditch and bank]
By the end of the day my knees knew what I’d been up to. As did my back. But I had essentially finished, the hole was scraped down to the dug-out bedrock from side to side, and vertically at each end of my section. Photographs were taken… and it was time to pack up for the day.

Wednesday. I was introduced to how to draw and measure the section that had been taken out.

The line was place taut and straight with the top of the soil. On this was hung a level, and the nails holding the line adjusted until it showed it was level.

Then came ‘the taking of the measurement above sea-level’. This was done using a theodolite which had already been zeroed on a peg set in at the edge of the site. With one person supporting the measuring pole, keeping it vertical by means of a bubble in a ring-sight – and the other sighting on it using the binocular sights – and within those the centre cross of three – the number was read off. Once it had been assured the theodolite had not been moved since it was set up – the person carrying the measuring pole moved to ‘balance’ the pole on the string line above the soil at the site of the hole. Readings taken – and some mathematical jiggery-pokery – and they could pinpoint the height above sea level of the top of my section of the digging. From this line I then had to write down the measurements to the top of the soil – at 10 cm distances. Then repeat the exercise – this time measuring the bottom of the hole at each point – or sometimes more frequently, if the line was a steep decline or incline.

This made a profile of the face of the infill. If there had been stones, or anything of note (except roots) these would have been sketched in.

The whole process was then repeated for the other side of the section cut. All these were cross-referenced by the section number and the sheet numbers and anything else that would mean they could link together photographs, drawings, and the plans.

This took almost all day!

Shortly before the end of the day, however, I was sent to help on a different part of the site – where a similar trench was being cleaned out – there I joined two other volunteers, one very experienced, the other, a newbie, like me – until the end of the day.


The other newbie, Judy, and I started on the same section in the morning, but we soon reached a point where we went off to find an archaeologist to tell us what to do – as it was obvious that the section we were working on was about to join a different feature coming in from the side.

We were then set to create a ‘relationship trench’ which would show any relationship between the two, or three, features. A ‘feature’ just meant something that showed as darker earth in the grey-slatey natural soil.

There was the original trench we were working on – which looked like it continued past these other features. Then there was a narrow, slightly curved, shallow trench coming in at almost right-angles from the side and, just before it met our wider trench, a just over semi-circular patch abutting it which they called ‘the pit’ though it was only about the size of a tea-plate. We were to cut half-way through this, across the narrow trench to the mid-point, then take a sharp right-angle and go down the length of the narrow trench and right across the full width of the wide trench.

The archaeologist scraped back the surface to see the edges of the feature before putting in the nails and strings – stopped – picked up a piece of black stone the size of my little finger-nail, rubbed it – and said – ‘Hmm, worked flint!’ And it was, a micro-lith – tiny knapped edge and all! Well, that was guaranteed to make sure we looked carefully at every scraping!

The rest of the day Judy and I worked on these sections, and left it hoping it wouldn’t rain too much and fill our work with mud – as it was in the lower part of the site.


I couldn’t believe it was Friday already. If I hadn’t already been booked up with lots of other jobs to get done I would have gladly worked on – and apparently – I would have been welcome to do so – even though not booked in. Note this for next year!

Our relationship trench was in fairly good order in the morning – in fact it was harder to work as the ground had dried out – but easier to brush – as it wasn’t so claggy.

All the Photographs had to be taken, and listed in the book – the direction, the faces, the section numbers. An Archaeology student came and fixed the lines straight and level – as in photo above. Then the measurements, above sea –level and from the lines had to be done. Though this went quicker with two of us doing it. The drawing was slightly different as we had to show what was actually two faces at right angles to each other – in one continuous line – with a dotted line and a symbol to show where it took a right-hand turn. (drawing below)

The quality and colour of the soil in the ‘pit’ was different from the narrow trench it abutted. The narrow trench did not quite break through into the wider trench – there being a small rise as a lip between them.

There was a very narrow darker line travelling diagonally across the area ending at the tiny ‘pit’. I longed to investigate it … but our time was almost at an end.

I looked round the site at what else was being found and what else was going on. Big questions about the unusual diggings near the Roman road into the West gate of the fort were in the air … exciting possibilities … and the possibility of finding out more as the top edge of yet another one was found in an extension to the original dig site area.

Lovely bits of pottery, Samian ware – with evidence of repair, native black-ware, jug handles, bits of amphorae … two whet stones – one probably Roman from one pit – the other iron-age from a different pit.

Photo above shows items from a waste pit – including 3 pieces of samian ware.
You can see other pictures and information on their FB page  https://www.facebook.com/UnderstandingLandscapes/

Was it a good experience – Yes

Would I do it again – Yes!

Looking forward to seeing how much time I can be free for when they announce the 2020 dig now!

Have you ever joined an archaeological dig?

Did watching Time-Team make you want to join one?

Do share – you know I love to hear from you 🙂

ps If you are reading this on email and would like to comment just click onto the title and it will take you to the actual blog – so you can comment there
If it is the first time you have written a comment don’t worry if it doesn’t appear immediately, your first comment has to be verified (to keep the spam-bots out) and I do this personally – so I am sure to see your comment – thanks for reading – Ann

Remember – reviews of books are a great way to say ‘thank you’ to an author if you like what they write,
  Thank You


Leave a Comment

Enjoyed this blog? Please share :)