Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 15, 2010

Digging History

I was smitten with envy when my brother-in-law, the Carlsbad Microbiologist, posted photos on his Facebook page of a paleontology dig he worked on in college, excavating the skeleton of a giant ground sloth. Man, as much as I’ve always wanted to be a Dinosaur Digger, that would be about as cool as it could get. What prompted him to post those long-ago photos was that, years after his college days, he had a chance to see the assembled skeleton of “his” sloth on display in a museum. Very cool.

Then, I then remembered that I once was on a dig, too. It was archeology, not paleontology. I was only there for one day, and I didn’t get to wrestle giant fossil bones up out of primordial muck, but it was interesting. I had not given a thought to that long-ago day for many years. Once Mark reminded of it, I poked around on the Web. After a few blind alleys, I found that, like Mark’s sloth, my archaeological site is also now “on display.”

In the summer of 1971, I was near the end of several weeks of traveling around Britain and Europe (I’m still not certain that the former is included in the latter: it depends upon whom you ask). I was in East Anglia, north of London, staying with my great-uncle Fred (a veteran of Dunkirk!), and waiting for my traveling buddy to catch up with me from a side-trip before we headed down to London and home. Fred and his wife, Masie, lived in a village named Icklingham. The nearest big town you’ll find on a map is Bury St. Edmunds: look north of London, east of Cambridge. One evening I learned in the village pub — The Red Lion — that there was a big scientific excavation under way on the outskirts of Icklingham. The next day, after Fred and Maisie headed off to work, I hiked out east of town, then down a country lane and found the place (click on photos to enlarge them, although they’re a bit fuzzy).

A wide, relatively level portion of a large meadow had been cleared of its top foot or two of grass and soil, and a couple dozen people were digging trenches, wheeling dirt, sifting dirt, and, in classic excavation practice, scraping the ground a quarter of an inch at a time, looking for artifacts. There was a typical field canopy covering a work and seating area, and a couple of tents.

I found someone to answer some questions — everyone was very pleasant — and learned that this was an Anglo Saxon village, from around 400 – 600 A.D. They had found the outlines of structures that were combinations of excavated pits and above-ground post-and-beam construction, and that’s what you see, in part, below:

He was nonchalant about my enthusiasm for what they were doing here. He didn’t think it was particularly Significant, since there were already many Anglo Saxon sites in Britain, but here was an opportunity here to excavate a village that hadn’t been overbuilt or plowed-over, so they were giving it a look. I think he was just demonstrating a kind of archaeological cool, tempered by the necessary pragmatism that his discipline demanded, but, clearly, this was the real deal, excavation-wise. Scientists! Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.

Then, he asked me if I wanted to help. Why, yes, I said. As in “YES!” So, I was given a trowel and a spot to wield it in, with instructions to just slowly scrape away a bit of dirt at a time. If I found anything, I was to leave it in place and notify someone.

I suspect I was given a spot where they needed to dig some dirt away and I could do no major harm. I’m sure they didn’t want to give a novice anything potentially dangerous like a shovel. At the very least, they probably figured, I might move a couple of cubic feet of earth that one of the skilled volunteers wouldn’t have to dig, and, at best, maybe I’d luck out and turn something up.

I scraped happily away, just looking around at everyone doing SCIENCE! There were the customary grid lines stretched out over part of the site for measuring, and there was a tower of scaffolding in the middle of the site from which they could make measurements and photos (accounting for the overhead shots you see here, since they let me climb up to shoot my own photos).

At that time, there was still a lot that the researchers didn’t know about this village, since they weren’t yet certain they had found its outer perimeter, didn’t know what lay further under the Anglo Saxon-era dwellings (the site’s been occupied a long time according the the current Web site), and so forth. Now it appears that the village housed something like 60 people, and that they made some of the implements and artifacts found there, but also had pilfered others from abandoned Roman settlements, since this was the genuine Dark Ages, right after the fall of Rome, and there were abandoned Roman sites as nearby as Icklingham.

The crew included college students about my own age and older workers from the graduate student corps and a couple of faculty and museum people. It was a fairly happy crowd, though, frankly, not all that talkative. They generously invited me to have lunch with them (which meant, of course, that they retained my free labor into the afternoon, too). After lunch, I took my little trowel back to my scraping area and scraped some more.

I never found anything, but I’ve spent enough time bent over walking through creek beds looking for fossils to know that the fieldwork biz is more about looking than finding, whatever it is that you’re hunting.

Since I had to make the walk of a couple of miles back to Icklingham to get to Fred and Maisie’s at a reasonable hour for dinner, I knocked off before all the regulars did. The site supervisor kindly gave me a little sherd of pottery that was an “orphan” — not historically significant and found in loose debris instead of in situ — as a souvenir.

And I walked back along the road to Icklingham.

Until Mark and his sloth recalled this whole episode for me, I had never thought to look for any reference to the place because, of course, it didn’t have a place-name associated with it that one could search for at the time I was there. I did, though, have a clear memory of its location on the road, and, since I have a fair grasp of geography, I opened up Google Earth to that area of England and scanned around. I found it. Not only is site there: it’s been reconstructed and operates as a demonstration of the ancient history of native Britain. It’s now the West Stow Anglo Saxon Village. (Perhaps my (2) English readers will want to take a weekend jaunt over there to see it … once the snow clears.)

To view the site in Google Earth, paste these coordinates into the “fly to” field:

52 18 38.60 N 0 38 07.85 E

There are photos there, as well as on the sites listed below, of how the place looks almost 40 years after my visit to the excavation, complete with reconstructed dwellings. The same coordinates should work in Google Maps, and I should be able to paste a map view in here, but that skill is escaping me just now.

At the time, I was just another English Major. Two years later, I was studying the language spoken by the people who lived in that ancient settlement — or a version of it, at least — 1600 years ago. (“Stow,” by the way, is a commonly-occurring word in Anglo Saxon that means “place” or “home.”) I do regret that I didn’t write down any names of the people I met at the excavation, and I’m not certain that I can still lay my hands on that little sherd of pottery, but I am pleased to know that the work the researchers did has taken on a form that can help educate us now about those of us back then. I hope that a few of those young diggers went on to make their careers a success based on their work at West Stow, and that they reaped more reward than sore backs and sunburn for their days digging in a field in East Anglia. Thanks for the lunch, gang!

You find some amazing things from the world at ground-level, traveling on foot. As it happens, on my way back to the village, I put my camera on a fencepost, set the timer, and took my own photo as I walked along a country lane in East Anglia. There I am, 20 years old. What is ahead of me?

To visit the official Web site of the West Stow Anglo Saxon Village, CLICK HERE

And for a site that actually has mo’ better historical information, CLICK HERE.

(Bury St. Edmunds, the principal local city, is referred to in the region simply as “Bury.” That means that you have the Bury Antiquarian Society and the Bury This and the Bury That. Be sure to notice on the second site that you can join the “Bury Young Archeaologists.” Funny on so many levels, I can’t begin to list them!)

© 2012 Brad Nixon

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