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A volunteer’s experience at the Anglo-Saxon Cemetery dig.

First impressions – what an enormous site! Two huge trenches and two more very long thin trenches. The purpose of the dig was to investigate an unrecorded Anglo-Saxon site – from around AD 500 -750 – discovered the previous year by detectorists. I’d volunteered on digs before, mostly on Roman structures at Hadrian’s Wall. This seemed a really ambitious project for a two-week dig. There was plenty of work ahead.

I was booked in to dig in week 2 but answered the call for volunteers to help clear the site after the digger and before the excavation on the first Monday. We were briefed by the dig director Professor Duncan Sayer, from the University of Central Lancashire and Dr Lisa Brundle, the Finds Liaison Officer from Lincolnshire County Council. Lisa also runs the Portable Antiquities Scheme in the county and it was the involvement of LAG volunteers with this scheme that prompted the invitation for us to be able to dig as volunteers.

The students from UCLAN started excavating in the lower soft, soily trenches while the LAG volunteers (Dave, Mary, Bob and me) started clearing the upper trench, which was full of limestone. It was hard work dragging spades across the rocky subsoil but already it was obvious there was a lot to find. The metal detectorists (the group who had originally identified this site as being of interest) ran out of flags to pinpoint metal signals and resorted to using bamboo canes. There were strong signals and visible cuts - areas where archaeological deposits had been removed to create a ditch or pit. But, we had to tidy the trench up first. By the end of the day we had cleared less than half the trench but there were two cremation urns and bone fragments visible.

After a very wet day 2, I was back again on day 3 to carry on the preparation of

the rocky trench. This time we (Dave, Andy, Andrew, Kealy, Bob and me) set about removing the remaining topsoil from the trench to identify inhumations, cremations and plough cuts. By lunchtime the site was sufficiently clear for us to start excavating a grave cut, supervised by archaeologist Dr Adam Daubney. In the middle was a flag planted by a detectorist, and it was a great temptation to begin there. However, the aim was not to “squirrel” down individual areas, but gradually lower the overall level with trowels and find the edges of any features. There was clearly a layer of larger stones surrounded by some vertical stones. We cleaned them up and found the edges, waited while it was photographed, listened to the detectorists speculating… and then it was time to go home. I wouldn’t be back until the following week! I have to say my thoughts were with those excavating. What would be found under the stones? What did that strong signal indicate? Who was under there?

On Monday I quickly sought out the student who had excavated “my” grave. They had found a female skeleton, with brooches, a pot positioned close to her head and latch lifters. Suddenly it felt very real. This was a woman of some consequence. The latch lifters were a symbol that she controlled access to her home. She had status and was recognised as such by her family and friends. The talk we had during the induction made sense. These were real people and they deserved respect.

Andrew and I began excavating some shards of pot that were visible after the digger had cleared the topsoil. As we cleared the area a small grave appeared and during tea break, Duncan, the dig director from UCLAN, had a little scrape and discovered traces of the rest of the pot.

We carried on, delicately excavating the rest of the pot, which had probably been tilted and dragged by plough some time in the intervening 1500 years but had miraculously remained intact. We lifted it and lowered it into a bubble-wrapped lined cardboard box to be processed by a specialist in a laboratory.

Alongside this grave was another larger grave cut containing a skeleton, with a knife blade clutched to the chest. Were they connected? These individuals could contribute ancient DNA evidence to the university’s on-going research exploring ancestral connections. Ultimately, they might provide vital clues in understanding the migration of Anglo-Saxon people in the early Middle Ages. It was exciting to play even a small part in that process.

My next digging day was Thursday, by then the finds had been amazing. It was great to see the archaeology community coming together with more qualified volunteers turning up to excavate. It was fascinating to see a grave excavated painstakingly by a professional. The unhurried descent through the layers to reveal a skeleton with grave goods perfectly preserved and gradually revealed was amazing. I had a lovely day digging with Nicky Grayson, a Project Officer from the Lincoln Archaeology Team. Conversation flowed - from archaeology, to travel, from barn conversions to little homes, from yoga and to politics - but the finds didn’t. We uncovered nothing apart from a lot of stones. Duncan said it was positive outcome because we had possibly identified the boundary of the cemetery.

On my final day I joined Richard and Tim, also from Lincolnshire County Council,

normally found in an office, to excavate another grave. Already a brooch and a femur had been found. I knew it was my lucky day to dig with Richard as he has a reputation for good finds. Tempting though it was, I did not rub his nose with muddy fingers for good luck and did what I was told. Slowly, carefully, we lowered the level in the trench to reveal a skeleton, probably female, on her side, with two annular brooches, two wrist clasps, a belt buckle, beads and as I scraped away with what looked like a dentist’s tools, a chain around the neck.

L-R: The chain around the neck, one of the annular brooches and the beads recovered.

Apparently, the chain is unusual. I was very excited as you can imagine. We uncovered it, lying prone, hanging over the edge of the trench with just a cocktail stick but it seemed to be attached to some fabric, so at that point we stopped, leaving it to the experts. It was late and time to go home.

Lasting impressions – what a moving experience and what a connection I felt to

those people from 1500 years ago. What a delight it was to spend time with professionals, students and amateurs, who are so enthusiastic and knowledgeable. How I can’t wait to read what has been learnt from all our efforts. Oh and how much my muscles ached afterwards. A workout indeed for both mind and body!

Want to learn more about the about Professor Duncan Sayer's research on Anglo Saxon cemeteries? You can watch his recent lecture at The York Festival of Ideas - Ancient DNA and the Anglo-Saxon Migration: Community and burial practice AD 450-750 - by following this link

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