Written by Amy Potts
BSc (Hons) Archaeology
Five weeks, 55 first years, 15 second and third years and a field in Dorset. The plot for a romantic comedy? Not quite. It was the setting and cast for Bournemouth University’s annual training excavation, The Big Dig. Every year all the first years studying Archaeology, Anthropology and Forensic Science spend five weeks out in the field learning the ropes.
This year the goals were clear: find the native Iron Age tribe and see how the Roman invasion affected them. After seven years’ worth of excavations, a burial cemetery and a Roman villa later, fingers were really crossed for this year to be a success.
The first week passed as first weeks do, cleaning back the two large trenches (40m by 30m) with a hand trowel. There is a reason they take everyone! Already features were showing clearly.
Trench B – the main Iron Age roundhouse, ancillary houses and associated pits and working hollows (Thanks Sue Crane for the photo!)
The two trenches had been positioned with goals in mind: two round house shaped anomalies on the geophysics plot. And straight away finds were coming up. The first years were working hard on both trenches, with potential round houses appearing all over the place and a large number of pits.
As a second year I was acting as a supervisor rather than a digger, helping to run the environmental station. At the environmental station we sort out samples to send off to the relevant experts who will tell us more about the environment of our site in the past.
As the weeks rolled steadily by (with some lovely weather to boot) the site ticked over nicely. The pits grew to enormous sizes (1.95 m in one) and some incredible finds appeared, including three pigs (leading to increasingly bad jokes from the supervisors about the three little pigs…).
Pig burial being excavated at the base of an Iron Age pit
The environmental station, after a rocky start (pun intended!) and trouble with water, also started to move smoothly. In an attempt to help relieve the boredom of sorting rocks (that is the essence of dry sorting) a competition was also in full swing: who could find the most snails? By week two and going into week three the leaders were in the 30s and creeping ever higher (with competition heated between some).
Taking advantage of a smooth running station I leapt at the chance to get into a pit of my own (daydreams of articulated pigs and horses dancing before my eyes). Getting a pit of my own was thrilling, and pulling up pieces of pot and teeth even more so. And then, to my excitement, a piece of bone. And a big piece. Was it the beginnings of a horse, or a cow? Would I have a fully articulated skeleton to excavate (my first ever)? With excitement I cleared away the soil to find the most common problem an archaeologist could ever have… it was sticking out of the section face. I was broken hearted, and so ploughed on, leaving my noble prize sticking out of the wall for all eternity.
The weeks drew to a close, and tired and broken we wished only for smooth running. The dig was hard work, and running a station as a supervisor even more so. And yet it was never dull.
Eventually (invoking Ancient Egyptian gods in the hopes of sun), the dig finished. The samples were done. Our pits dug. And we could finally start our well-deserved holidays. But not before one piece of business was finished – the awards ceremony. With the prize for the most snails hugged closely to my chest (a Gary snail soft toy) I announced the winner in Dylan’s bar- with a total count of 57 snails.
A hard five weeks to be sure, but I have said it many times: as hard as it is being an archaeologist and out in the field, there is nowhere else I would rather be. It is the best place on Earth, so long as you don’t forget to put on the sunblock.
Three sacrificed pigs at the bottom of an Iron Age storage pit
By Amy Potts
Features – marks in the ground which might be something archaeological/archaeological splurges which are excavated into
Cleaning back – using a hand trowel to clean away any loss soil on the top of the trench to show up features
Geophysics plot – image of anomalies under the ground- magnetic or other depending on the machine you use
Anomalies – something that isn’t normal- and possibly archaeological
Articulated – all together (like your skeleton is now)
Section face – when you dig a feature you might draw up a section (a fake line) and only dig out half. This is so you can see the change of soil in the section face as you dig down and acts as sampling