Clive joins the archaeologists in a trench in Chichester
PUBLISHED: 16:51 29 November 2010 | UPDATED: 16:33 20 February 2013
Challenge Clive! Keen to leave his mark on civilisation but worried about whether he has the right wellies, Clive joins the archaeologists in a trench in Chichester...
Keen to leave his mark on civilisation but worried about whether he has the right wellies, Clive joins the archaeologists in a trench in Chichester. Did he add to the fund of human knowledge?
Beattie was right: ologies are something special. Sensing that those of you lucky enough to be not yet middle-aged might already be baffled, let me explain. Beattie was a character played by Maureen Lipman who starred in a series of TV adverts on behalf of British Telecom BT, see? in the 1980s designed to encourage us to use the phone more.
She was a stereotypical Jewish grandmother receiving news of her grandson Anthonys poor exam results. But when she learns he passed sociology, she exclaims: An ology! He gets an ology and he says hes failed. You get an ology, youre a scientist!
Like Anthony, I have but one ology. In my case its biology O level, which really isnt enough in this scientific age. I have long felt the need to broaden my repertoire of ologies.
The limited time available in this series of necessarily brief excursions into previously unexplored areas precludes my venturing into anything too complicated such as, for example, gastroenterology. For entirely different reasons, I also disqualified myself from trying gynaecology.
Recognising that it might be prudent to avoid anything living leads me to the dead and the longer dead the better. Ah, archaeology! A usually reliable source informed me that there was a dig under way in Chichester that welcomed volunteers.
And so here I am just outside the citys imposing wall in the shadow of Chichester Cathedral on a bright sunny morning introducing myself to a real live archaeologist.
George Anelays proper title is Heritage Outreach Officer and he gives me a brief health and safety talk before handing me over to Ken, whose less exotic title is Trench Supervisor.
The trench is fairly long, pretty narrow and surprisingly deep. Along the bottom you can see walls, intriguing bumps, curious hollows.
An impressive bulge near the middle effectively splits the trench into two halves. Curiously, all the men are in one half and all the women in another. My heart sinks below the trench floor when Ken puts me with the women. Ive nothing against women, you understand, but what are we going to talk about all day, shopping?
My other major concern is Wellington boots. Mine are common or garden and in Chichester, I suspect, Hunters are de rigeur. But my fears are groundless: boots and companions are perfectly okay. Some have sort of prayer mats for kneeling. I dont and develop trench knee.
Geraldine, who will be working right alongside me, is a retired physics teacher. Although not an ology, physics is nevertheless hugely impressive as, indeed, is she.
Anxious not to be intimidated, I flaunt my tenuous grasp of aspects of chemistry and the conversation flows effortlessly. Two other delightful women make up our cheery and chatty four, Hazel and Sheila.
My first archaeological task is to straighten the walls at our end of the trench so that they are more or less perfectly vertical.
Relieved to be given a job I believe I can handle, I start gently removing the earth with a trowel as if smoothing plaster on a bathroom wall. As I do so, I learn a lot more both about the crumbly nature of Chichesters soil and the bigger picture of what we are about.
Sadly, we are primarily looking at structures and layouts rather than for gold and artefacts. The dig has uncovered a couple of ditches: one made by the Romans and the other by the Royalist defenders of Chichester at the time of the Civil War.
This is the one we are more interested in and the one I am standing in. I mistakenly imagine that the Royalists must have hidden in the trenches until the Parliamentarians were almost on top of them before jumping up, shouting God Save the King and frightening them away.
That isnt, however, what happened as the ditch, apparently, was merely an obstacle to impede the enemys progress. Geraldine warns me against advancing any theories of my own. Youre allowed to have a theory, she explains, but you have to keep it to yourself if you dont have a PhD.
Although drains and ditches are clearly some way from the glamorous end of the archaeological spectrum, there is nevertheless enough here to keep me amused at least for a few hours. However, learning that we are just smartening things up so that cameras can record what is here and that everything we carefully put into the buckets, lift out of the ditches and empty on to a heap will all be put back the following week is enough to make me want to throw in the trowel.
Instead of a trainee archaeologist shedding light on bygone ages, I now feel as if I am participating in some sort of work creation programme to occupy the unemployed.
My sagging morale is partially restored by the mid-morning tea break. I chat to my fellow volunteers and learn some of the secrets of archaeology. For example, that we are digging where we are because a geophysical survey using a magnetometer produced a map with lots of blobs on it.
To you and me a blob is a blob but to the keen eye of an archaeologist a blob indicates interesting activity.
Without exception, my fellow volunteers are cheery, interesting, intelligent, knowledgeable and enthusiastic people who evidently love what they are doing.
They recall other digs with passion and excitement and are evidently fascinated by the whole archaeological business. Mostly retired, they also enjoy the fresh air and each others stimulating company, which I can understand rather better than the point of digging a big hole only to fill it in again later.
Break over, Ken inspects my wall and, one modest bulge apart, seems reasonably content with my work and I graduate on to scraping the mud off the floor, the purpose of which, it seems, is to expose the line of the Civil War ditch. Although Ken points it out to me, I must confess the line is not nearly as obvious to me as it is to him but, encouraged by Geraldine, I trowel away as enthusiastically as I can.
All the removed mud is thoroughly sifted and finds are carefully cleaned and bagged. Numbers pinned on to parts of the trench show different areas so that what we archaeologists call the context is noted. Frankly, Im staggered at the painstaking care that is taken over what appear to the untrained eye to be scruffy bits of decaying junk.
There is no gold but plenty of broken bits of Roman pottery, animal bones and oyster, cockle and whelk shells. If I had a PhD, I would suggest that there must have been a medieval seafood stall in the vicinity.
Ology or not, Ive clearly learned a lot from my day digging into history.
YOU CAN DIG IN, TOO
Volunteers will be needed for the City Walls dig in 2010.
To register your interest please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Andy Howard, City Walls Project Officer, Chichester District Council, 1 East Pallant, Chichester PO19 1TY. Dates and further information will be sent to you in the spring.
If you are interested in digging on other sites, then the Council for British Archaeology has a very good website (www.britarch.ac.uk). The University of Sussex runs archaeology courses and training excavations and your library will have details of local archaeology societies.