Notes from a small(ish) island #2: reflections

Reflecting on the experience of excavating on Holy Island, it struck me how much of my personal thoughts about the process revolved not about the archaeology as a physical resource or academic product, but the emotional side of excavation. The notion that archaeological site reports are far too dry, focusing solely on the objective record of the excavation (as far as that is ever possible) is not a new one – thinkers, such as Ian Hodder where commenting about this in the 1980s. But despite this, there have been very few attempts to actually try this out in practice. Even when excavators have been encouraged to be reflective and interpretative in their site records, this rarely makes it way through to final reports.
Surprisingly, despite the massive uptake in the use of social media (Twitter, FB as well as blogging), which ought to be ideal ways of capturing peoples’ immediate emotional and personal reaction to excavation, it rarely seems to be used in this way. Possibly so many of us have the importance of using social media as a shop-window for our projects drilled into us, using them as an extension of the media and PR process, that we are cautious about putting anything too personal. We might be happy to share excitement about the project or an important find, but we are perhaps too careful about expressing doubts or uncertainty or even owning up to mistakes. Social media can be harsh and unforgiving, so it is perhaps not surprising that we often try and carefully police how we use it. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising, that whilst on site on Holy Island, I was quite happy to tweet when we found our best finds, but less inclined to comment on the more personal moments on the project. Now I’m out of the field, back in the ‘real’ world, I thought it would be useful to perhaps reflect on some of these less tangible aspects of the excavation experience
As co-director and academic lead, one of the over-riding feelings I felt was the pressure to ‘find something’; in our case, the remains of the early medieval monastery. It’s an archaeological axiom that negative evidence is as important as positive evidence; the failure to identify clear early medieval remains in any of our trenches would not, technically, have been a failure. It would have allowed us to strike off certain areas in our quest for the Anglo-Saxon site and to focus on others. Indeed, as this year’s work was essentially a site evaluation, this was the precise purpose of the dig.
But we’re all human – it’s inevitable that we want to fulfil our quest straight away. In the case of any research dig, there is the underlying urge to uncover something to justify the expense and time spent on setting up the project. Given the particular configuration of our project, overwhelmingly supported by crowdfunding, that pressure magnifies. As part of the crowdfunding process, we have to spend a lot of time emphasising the excitement and potential of the site – we have to talk the site up in order to persuade people to invest in it. Crucially, that investment doesn’t just come in the welcome financial form; there is also an immense emotional investment in the project by our supporters that comes before their decision to put money into it. For some, their small investment just means they are following progress virtually via social media and the internet – they may be disappointed if we fail in our objectives, but it’s wouldn’t be a big disaster. But for those who contribute enough to come and dig, the personal investment is much more. As well as contributing directly to the dig, they will have taken time out of their lives and holiday allowances to be with use; they will have spent money on accommodation and travel. Whilst most, if not all, appreciate that archaeology has an element of luck and are hopefully coming into the project with their eyes open, it is very difficult not to feel the pressure to somehow repay their confidence and excitement in the whole exercise.
Obviously, we do a huge amount to try and avoid empty trenches – in our case, we were homing in on features picked up in our previous geophysical survey, so we had clearly identifiable targets. We’d also looked at other excavation results from both the island and similar sites elsewhere to get a sense of what we might find in practice. But, at the end of the day, there are two things we can’t control – the archaeology itself and the weather, and ultimately, luck plays a huge part.
I’d already experiences the vicissitudes of luck on my previous project at the Roman fort at Binchester, where we entirely unexpectedly stumbled across an incredibly well-preserved Roman building with walls 2m high. This was a wonderful find, but we can’t claim any real credit – we didn’t know it was going to be so well preserved, it was a happy accident. Indeed, in many ways, if we’d known how it was going to turn out, we would have approached the entire project in a very different way. Nonetheless, we ended up with a stunning site and lots of impressive finds.
An early medieval monastery is a very different beast to a Roman fort though in archaeological terms. Sites like Binchester are packed with easily visible floors and walls and are heavy on finds. Early medieval sites are usually far more ephemeral with very low levels of material culture. In many ways Binchester had spoiled me for archaeology – even though I knew academically that even well-preserved remains of Anglo-Saxon Lindisfarne would be far less impressive than the site at Binchester, it was hard not to feel a sense of disappointment during the initial topsoil strip.
Topsoil strips are the moment of truth- the point when all your investment, emotionally and in resources, finally confronts the raw friction of reality. It’s only when the turf is removed and the ploughsoil taken away that you finally confront what you hope will be your archaeological site. Perhaps inevitably, I want these to be ‘ta da!’ moments, when the cloth is whipped away to show you a perfect and immediately understandable site. As the digger bucket first went into the soil in Sanctuary Close, I felt physically sick, although there was the inevitable bravado and banter covering it up.
In practice, when both our trenches in Sanctuary Close were finally opened up, I felt rather underwhelmed. Despite the suggestions of our geophysical survey, there were no clear structural remains of the type I’d secretly hoped for, nor were there any immediately obvious finds. For the first couple of hours, I had this horrible feeling that we’d opened up onto natural. We’d got all the people and spent all the money for nothing! Again, whilst I knew intellectually that we still needed to give the trenches a good clean down and that our geophysical survey was unlikely to be completely wrong, the initial impact of a messy trench with no obvious archaeology is a scary one.
One of the things that actually calmed me down the most was that evening, when I got the opportunity to read an unpublished synthesis of Charles Thomas’s many interventions on Iona – a site as similar to Lindisfarne as it is possible to get, and with which Lindisfarne was deeply entwined historically. It was a relief to see that many of Charles Thomas’ interventions had failed to find anything of import, either hitting natural or clearly post-medieval features – if even CT could repeatedly not hit archaeology on an site that is packed with as much archaeology as Iona, then us letter mortals needn’t feel too bad if we missed paydirt with our first trenches.
But over the next day as we started to clean back the remaining top soil, cleaning and clarifying, things did slowly come into focus. Instead of the undifferentiated background noise of rubble and silt, things started to coalesce. No, there weren’t any obvious structural remains, but in Trench 2 we started to pick up bone, probably human, embedded in our rubble spread. It was clearly not natural – whatever our spread was (and we still aren’t sure) it was anthropogenic – it was archaeology! The same was true in Trench 1 were we soon found a small flagstone surface.
The next struggle I found was how to approach this material. Whilst in an ideal world, every site would be approached in more or less the same way, in practice there are lots of pragmatic decisions to be made, informed by resourcing and logistic issues (limited time; limited people), as well as by the nature of the archaeology itself. Early medieval structural remains can be very ephemeral and not easy to identify – I was terrified of accidentally knocking through important remains and missing them entirely. As a consequence we spent a long time ‘tickling’ the rubble spreads, cleaning and recleaning, hoping that we would see something emerging. Yet, we got nothing structural – we certainly found more disarticulated human bone and, fantastically, two fragments of Anglo-Saxon sculpture, but the rubble wasn’t resolving itself into anything. Finally, we decided to be a bit more vigorous with it; not mattocking through it with gay abandon, but certainly making a decision to be more vigorous with our trowelling and using the mattock in a targeted way. Suddenly, particularly in Trench 2, features started to appear, stone settings, possibly gullies began to emerge. We’d finally hit our stride. Ironically, we’d had exactly the same process at Binchester, where because we were so nervous of missing ephemeral sub-Roman occupaiton, we spent much of the first season cleaning and planning what I am now certain, were simply plough-sorted pebbles.
I think the beginning of every site, one goes through this ‘sizing up’ process – what’s the soil like? Does it respond to cleaning? Can you get straight sections (“section perfection”) and nice flat surfaces? How does it respond to too much rain – and not enough rain? Frustratingly, with our Sanctuary Close trenches, it was only in the last couple of days of our short season that I felt we were really starting to get the measure of the site. This is, of course, precisely the purpose of archaeological evaluation, you are trying to measure the survival of potential remains, qualitatively and quantitatively, nonetheless, it can be a trying and stressful process.
There are also other things one is trying to assess in the early stages of a project- not just the archaeology but also the people. I was working with a great team – some I knew quite well; others were new to me. At the same time as one is trying to get the measure of the archaeology, there is the need to get the measure of your colleagues. Wonderfully, we all got on really well (I think!) and rubbed along fantastically, but it always takes time, particularly when you are all on top of each other sharing a dig hosue, to suss out people’s natural rhythms, enthusiasms and strengths – who needed coffee before they could function in the morning and who could leap straight out of bed and be onto their laptop within minutes.
Perhaps the biggest pressure I felt with people was not from our team , but from the many visitors. Digging on such a high-profile site, with such a high-profile lead-in campaign and with trenches physically straddling one of the main footpaths on a busy tourist honeypot meant that we had lots of visitors. Many planned in advance, others turning up on spec- as well as a huge number of questions and comments from tourists and the island’s inhabitants. All needed to be dealt with – all needed to be taken seriously and engaged with an enthusiastic and courteous way. The islanders were our hosts, the visitors and tourists included current and potential future crowdfunders and future generations of archaeologists, whilst our academic visitors included possible referees for future grants applications, project partners, not to mention my in-coming Head of Department. Despite all the planning ahead, dealing with these interactions took far more of my time than I’d anticipated – it was certainly far more intensive than we’d every had at Binchester. It caught me unawares – I also found the constant interaction, alongside the communal nature of dig life, physically very tiring, far more than the excavation itself, which I ended up doing far less of than I’d hoped or planned .

Throughout the project there were lots of other challenges for myself and the project team – some obvious- dealing with the media, the weather and the tides – and others more unusual what do you do when your drone is being mobbed by oystercatchers? How do you cope with having a circus tent five metres from one of your trenches for a weekend? How do you get your gazebo out of a tree after a sudden squall? Yet, it’s these kinds of anecdotal observations and personal perspectives and memories that so rarely make it into the final site report. Hopefully this blog entry can at least stand in until the final monograph!

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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1 Comment

  1. David I could understand your feeling of disappointment in the trench but we know in the back of our minds early medevile is shadows in the shade of a fleeting bygone moment. I'd set my heart on being there with you all but not to be. I never did think this Monastic comunity of tempory structures, raised to the ground by Saga legend Ragnar Lothbruk could ever be found but the story stays with us. Looking for a post hole or two would be the best, burnt debris better but as more often than not a scattering of fragments hard to fathom on the best of days. This should not make us give us hope as its the process that matters as conclusions are mainly speculation. Reading your article I undetstood only too well the prerdicetment we face. Onward wr go to the next prodject with a stout heart and open mind. Cheers Richard BaskeyfieldBad dyslexic, tiny bit drunk but self taught archeaologist and History fanatic ☺


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