Notes from a small(ish) Island #1

 After three days on Holy Island I’ve finally found a chance to sit down and pull my thoughts together. I’ll write about the academic content of the project at a later date, but I want to explore the more personal side of things first. Being involved in a new project is an exciting but nerve-wracking experience. The new work on Lindisfarne has the added challenge of working with new partners and a new team. Although we’ve only finished our first proper day’s excavation today (Monday), most of us have been on the island since Saturday afternoon. I’ve known Brendon and Lisa from DigVentures for a while, but I’ve not previously met the rest of the team; there’s new names to learn (and forget) and with any new group of people, there is always that cautious process of getting to know individuals and tentatively working out the social and personal dynamics. Happily, everyone seems to get on well, but with a big group in a small dig house, the scope for tensions revolve as much around getting the washing up done and taking muddy boots off, as the practicalities of the archaeology.

The first day, Sunday, was mainly taken up with getting everything set up – the dig ‘incident’ room was made ready, we got some training on the new GPS, and I gave everyone an overview of the island’s history and archaeology. There is also the important process of getting to know the island- where does the best coffee? [Pilgrim’s Coffee House] What’s the best beer in the Crown and Anchor? [Secret Kingdom] What on earth is ‘broon fish’? [battered smoked haddock!] Anyone who has ever been involved in a running a dig will also be familiar with the almost obsessive checking of weather forecasts and looking fretfully at cloud cover. Visibility during my walking tour of the island was so poor, we couldn’t even seen the mainland, let alone the Farne Islands or Bamburgh Castle.
On Monday, we finally began the topsoil strip. Watching the JCB slowly take off the topsoil and the bucket reveal the first site of underlying layers there is always a sense that this is the moment of truth. Truthfully, I always veer between wild optimism and complete pessimism. Particularly in a crowd-funded research excavation, one can’t help feel the pressure of expectation from the dig team and the other supporters of the project. It’s hard not to feel a little disappointed when the strip fails to reveal perfectly preserved, clearly early medieval structural remains, even though you know this was never going to happen.
Happily though, there are ‘things’ to be seen; there are confused patches of rubble, spreads of shell and clusters of stone hinting at walls or floors. We don’t yet know their date or function, but there is a sense of relief that we do have something and the volunteers willhave something to excavate over the next fortnight.
Today, finally we started with the main dig team, mainly comprising our crowd-funders, but also a handful of Durham students. Again, there are new names to get to grips with and new dynamics to work out. Some have dug before, some have never been on an archaeological site in their lives. Once we get them in the trench, we start to see their different approaches. Some people are nervous and tentative, worried they’ll damage the archaeology. Others can’t wait to get properly stuck in and move spoil on a large scale. We need to chivvy the slow one and reign in the enthusiasts. Slowly, but surely, the surfaces start to get cleaned and finds made. Some pottery is clearly 19thcentury, but some looks earlier, perhaps medieval; there are bits of animal bone, and excitingly a couple of human teeth. There is enough coming up to keep people enthusiastic and engaged during the long afternoon.
One of the distinctive aspects of this project that is already making itself apparent is the public engagement. One of the main footpaths across the island is straddled by two of our trenches. There is a large footfall, with almost all the passers-by stopping, even if only briefly, to look over our fences. Some just stare and move on, others leap in with questions- what are you looking for? Why are you digging here in particular? How long are you here for? Most are visitors, but we’ve lots of interest and support from the islanders too. As the day goes on, we really start to appreciate the challenge of talking and engaging with all the people interested in our work, whilst also keeping an eye on volunteers and the archaeology itself.

Tomorrow, we’re back in the trenches, the project will start to get into its rhythm. Workers will know where to go, who to speak to when they are stuck – the dig will start to hum.

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1

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