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Excavation Diary: Bricks, Bats and Barbecue

After a week, the excavation is settling into its routine. People are getting to know each other, the areas are looking more like archaeological trenches and the pattern of daily life is established. From time to time someone, usually a visitor to the site, ‘volunteers’ to give a short talk to the group that is relevant to the work on the site. Today we had a talk from Peter Hoare about the history of brickmaking in Barnham and the pit which was dug for clay to make bricks from the 18th to the early 20th century. After lunch work resumed on site and by the end of the day, and the first week, the site is looking tidy and the artefacts are beginning to appear. The evening’s entertainment began with a game of rounders and continued with a barbecue enjoyed by all as the mid-summer sun dipped below the horizon.

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Excavation Diary: 50 Shades of Clay

Tuesday was our first full day on site and a buzz of excitement filled the air, with eager faces and an intrigue to learn. We started by fully uncovering Area III, the largest and deepest trench on the site, and prepared for this season’s excavation by cleaning what has been buried for over a year, battling creepy crawlies and the warm weather.

Area I at Barnham, previously excavated during the 1990s

Once this was completed, I and a team led by Claire and Anne-Lyse began work on Area I. This area had been excavated previously in the 1990s and again last year, but the hillside had partially collapsed revealing more of the Palaeolithic deposits. We secured the unstable edge and removed the backfill from previous excavations, neatened out the sections and began trowelling off the topsoil, eager to find the palaeosol and any potential finds. This was surprisingly strenuous and time-consuming, but we supported each other through chatter, banter and occasional jokes about rocks.

We continued on Wednesday, after sponging out the rainfall from the stormy night, but we were getting desperate to reach the palaeosol as our wrists were strained and concentration was wavering. Our morale was boosted by the occasional flint flake and burnt flint find. After working through what felt like 50 shades of clay – brown, reddish brown, black, and so on – we finally hit it and a mixture of elation and relief was mutually felt; I have never been so happy to see another layer of sediment! However, this excitement was cut short as the heavens opened and we had to pack up quickly before the site got too slippery. We covered the site to protect our work and headed home early for a well-deserved shower and a sit down.

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Excavation Diary: Tea Duty at Barnham

Written by Sarah, a volunteer at the 2019 Barnham excavation.

Tea breaks are integral to field work at Barnham. In the mornings, team members shrug off yesterday’s aching muscle memory, cleaning up debris that has accumulated in the trenches overnight and picking up where we left off the day before. Morning tea break offers a circle of cushioned chairs beneath a sweeping sky of swirling grey and white clouds. Beside us, a rolling field of grass spreads out towards a horizon of tall trees. The grass veils tractors and equipment that remind us we are gracious guests trying to make sense of an ancient landscape on modern farmland.

The tea area in the Barnham site hut

As we are divided into different areas to work, first tea is the first opportunity to check in on everyone’s progress and exchange stories. Here we discuss small moments of interest, where things have not quite gone as planned, or someone has found something interesting. By afternoon, the team has broken into the prime vigour of progress for the day, and everyone has worked up a proper appetite. Lunch (with tea) is a welcome halfway mark to the day’s work. By afternoon, aches, pains, setbacks, and tedium begin to take their toll – broken by moments of surprise and laughter (or a bit of sarcasm). Afternoon tea is a final pause before the last push to meet goals, piece together the day’s big-picture puzzles about the site, and wrap up work.

The tea breaks lift morale and facilitates social health on site. Tea duty is therefore an important responsibility that rotates through each team member. Today was my day to make tea for the team. Being Mormon myself (a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), I don’t drink tea. Nevertheless, I was happy and excited to help. I was amused (and so were the kind staff members and fellow students checking on me) as, at first, I kept repeating my questions about the difference between the hot water “teapots” and the steeping kettles. Not to mention I spilled quite a bit of hot water and tea while preparing for morning break, trying to figure out how to pour out of typical teapot spots into kettles and mugs. It was immensely satisfying to serve my wonderful team members and help host these essential gatherings that punctuate our work day. And, according to my new friends, I made a mean cup of tea!

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Excavation Diary: Barnham Arrivals

It’s the first day of the excavation, a day for getting to know each other and the site, sorting out the equipment, tool shed and office and beginning to prepare the excavation areas for the work ahead. This year’s team sees a nice mix of old and new faces; students studying at Leiden University, UCL, and Durham, Brighton, Liverpool and Reading universities will be working alongside staff and volunteers from the British Museum, Natural History Museum and Queen Mary University of London.

Some of the Barnham 2019 on the first day of the excavation

Following a site induction, most of the team got to work recovering Area III from the ravages of winter, bailing out water, removing leaf litter and lifting the plastic sheeting that has protected the area since last year’s excavation. This job has been done well, so tomorrow we should be able to begin excavating. Meanwhile, our digger driver Dave and his brother Colin are extending Area I by removing the backfill to reveal in-situ sediments to the east of the old excavation area. This may take a couple of days, but once it is complete a team will begin to excavate the ancient soil horizon along the southern margin of the site that we hope will preserve evidence of human activity.

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Excavation Diary: Barnham Preparations

Today saw the start of the 2019 field season with delivery of machinery, tools and equipment and other essentials to the site. The site hut, office and tool store will soon be ready for the start of the dig next week. Clearance of areas for this year’s work got underway, though conditions on site are rather muddy after several days of heavy rain.

This year we hope to continue the extensive excavation, sampling and sieving of the sediments in Area III, reassess Area V and also have another look at a small part of Area I to explore further the evidence of burning that has been found in Area VI. We look forward to getting things underway next week.