From the beginning, the Dig York Stadium project was set up to showcase the benefits of keeping archaeology open and inclusive. The community excavation put together by York Archaeological Trust and City of York Council revealed just how deeply the people of York care about their heritage and what a fantastic cultural and educational resource archaeology can be.
With the excavation report nearing completion, now seems like a good time to explore what the community volunteers who actually carried out the investigation thought about the project. To this end, we asked our volunteers to share a few thoughts on their favourite moments of the dig and what the project meant to them. Over to you folks!
“The first thing to say is how much I was struck by the position and orientation of the marching camp. With one corner situated, with perfect alignment, right in front of the old stadium grandstand it looked just like half of an American baseball diamond. What an incredible coincidence that the stadium should be built just there! Perhaps some old Roman god was having a laugh!
The digging was hard going in the baked clay, but at least most of the time there were good distinct edges to work to, with the dark grey/black ditch infill standing out well amongst the natural orange clay. Novice diggers must have thought archaeology was easy if the features show up like this all the time – at least until they started to try to dig it!
Community excavations are always good fun, largely because the people who get involved are always so keen, but also because of the absence of tight time constraints that are imposed upon most excavations. Most people involved with archaeology seem to love what they do, even in that sort of pressure situation, so to be able to be relaxed when you are doing it makes it an even more enjoyable experience.”
For many volunteers, this was their first ever excavation. Despite the clay, Joy thoroughly enjoyed her time.
“I joined the Dig York Stadium Team for the last week of the dig with a mixture of happy anticipation and slight worry about whether I would still be standing after a week’s physical activity! It had rained heavily at the weekend so I was not surprised to find that the existing trenches needed bailing out and that the heavy yellow clay subsoil was a sticky squelchy consistency underfoot.
The health and safety session for us ‘newbie’s’ was thorough and we were given an explanation of the history of the site and the work done so far. Without further ado we donned our hard helmets and high viz jackets and were allocated our jobs. My task, with Lisa and Roger, was to dig the terminal section of the ditch, which took us the best part of two days. There is no denying that it was tough, especially as the clay began to dry out in the warm weather and turn to concrete. However, we found the edge of the ditch and were able to follow it right down to the ankle breaker at the bottom. Over the next couple of days we were shown how to record our trench. It involved GPS, careful measuring, drawing, and description. This was a real learning curve for me, so there was a huge sense of achievement when we finished.
Metal detectorists were surveying the whole site and the final day and a half was spent investigating their ‘blips’ in the ground. I teamed up with Stuart who showed me how the metal detector worked. Amongst others things we found a George II coin – very exciting but not Roman! Working with like minded people all day was a pleasure, everyone had a real interest in archaeology and history. We all had stories to tell about our experiences and I learned a lot. The site archaeologists were supportive and informative and we were made to feel that our contribution was valuable. The highlight of the week was finding the coin and also finding, what may turn out to be, part of a Roman brooch.
Yes, I did make it to the end of the week, fitter and with a healthy glow after spending five days in the fresh air! Would I do it again? Without doubt. Archaeology is not as glamorous as people may think but it is so fascinating.”
While many of our volunteers joined us from in and around York, a large proportion of the team were Huntington born and bred. It was wonderful to get so many local people involved!
“I was raised in Huntington and had recently attended running sessions
at the stadium so I was intrigued by an opportunity to see what was
below the surface! Day 1 was washed out in the afternoon but Arran rescued the day by giving us an impromptu talk taking us on a virtual dig through York’s history and archaeological techniques.
The following day I was set to work in a corner trench trying to
establish the parameters of the defensive ditch and ankle breaker. My
favorite moment was unearthing a piece of pottery considered to be
Roman in origin and one of only two sherds to be found during my week
on site. Having never attended a dig I was surprised just how hands on the
experience was, even being trusted to operate a £20k GPS data recorder
at one point. Arran, Jane and Maddy provided patient advice and an
insight into the archaeological profession.
I was very impressed with the painstaking techniques used to record
the site and just how much hard work is required, especially when
excavating through York’s clay! I enjoyed the week so much I applied to spend a couple of days on YAT’s Archaeology Live! dig.”
One of the main benefits of community archaeology is having a diverse group of people working together. As a result of this, the excavation saw the forging of new friendships and the addition to the team of an interesting range of skills, from metal detecting to aerial photography. One such individual was Huntington native and keen amateur photographer David Dodwell.
Growing up, David was fascinated by history, local history in particular. As his teachers preferred to cover the campaigns of Napoleon, David went on to work in engineering and maintenance, but he never lost his interest in the past. Over the years, he experimented with kite photography, and his first successful image was of farmland now occupied by the Monks Cross retail park. The excavation of Huntington Camp 1 by YAT in 2003 spurred David to take a deeper look into the history of his hometown.
“From the information on the internet I found out that York had many Roman temporary camps around the outskirts, two at Clifton Moor had been well documented, and that two at Huntington had been seen on some early RAF aerial photographs, and that Ryedale Stadium had been built over the top of one without anyone noticing it was there. This revitalised my interest in history – local history.
I became fascinated with old maps, old postcards but especially aerial photographs. Occasionally questions would pop into my head, which I had to answer, such as – why is Mill Hill called Mill Hill? Obviously because there once was a windmill, but where did it actually stand? What did it look like? There are a row of house known as “Brewery Cottages” where was the brewery?, Tanners Yard, was there a tannery? Why is New Lane called “new”? What was there before? I really enjoyed working out how these things fitted into the landscape and slowly over the years I’ve noticed how things have changed even since I took my first photographs.”
“At ground level you would never notice the crop marks in the fields of the Roman Fort near the Ryedale Stadium. It was most enlightening and to take pictures from the air at different times of the year and to see the outline of the long filled in ditches as the grass grew, or to see the Medieval ridge and furrow marks evenly spaced as buttercups grew tall in the moisture rich silt as the clay baked hard in early dry summers. Old hedgerows and field boundaries stand out in winter as the fields become water logged. By being able to see these things first hand, in detail and to record how they change over time has been for me a rewarding hobby.
When Dig York Stadium community project was announced, I wasted no time in looking back through my collection of aerial images and decided to email a copy of the Roman Camp crop marks off to Arran at York Archaeological Trust, just for his interest really. I knew the professionals already knew a lot about the site from their previous work on the nearby Camp 2 but did not expect their reaction to my photographs. I realised then that they could be useful to show to other people who didn’t have my local knowledge, as they say “a picture paints a thousand words”
I was excited to be offered a chance to take some more pictures on site with my kite as the dig progressed and asked if I could also practice some pole photography. This involves the use of my camera at the top of an extremely long fishing pole. At 12 metres high, I still class this as aerial photography as it gives an unusual perspective, but can be used on days when the kite can’t be flown and shows greater detail.
It was terrifically enjoyable and perfect flying weather on the first day as the layers of the old Stadium pitch was dug away, Arran was visibly worried that the novice community diggers might not see what his keen archaeologists eye could see beneath the old pitch, but from my vantage point a hundred foot up it was unmistakable, the ditch outline, ridge and furrow marks, modern drainage could plainly be seen by all. As the dig progressed the winds fell too light to fly but this gave me opportunity to experiment and refine my pole photography techniques. As a keen amateur photographer the community dig has given me huge satisfaction to be able to showcase some of my pictures and to experiment with new techniques.”
“Working closely with professional archaeologists has been a real eye opener for me and has helped me understand the finer detail of this local history event. It certainly has answered a lot of my question. The YAT should be really proud of there achievement, everything was well organised, and there helpful explanations and attention to detail was first class, everyone felt included and as well as been very informative it was fun too. Its was really good to see school children enjoying their time and I sure they have a better understanding and certainly enjoyed their history lesson much more than I ever did. It was great to spend time with other like minded people and has been a great opportunity for all involved.
In the future I hope to extend the use and scope of my low level aerial photography on other archaeology sites of interest and hopefully make some discoveries I can share with anyone who wishes to look at my photographs.”
Many volunteers took part in every stage of the Dig York Stadium project, from geophysics to archive research.York acupuncturist Manda shares her thoughts:
“I was very fortunate to be involved in three areas of Dig York Stadium: a day surveying the stadium with the Geophysics team,a day researching historical documents in the City library and a week excavating the stadium itself.All areas were fascinating, it was an amazing experience meeting like minded community volunteers, particularly at the stadium armed with mattocks,trowels and enthusiasm.The great joy for me was to help excavate part of the Roman ‘ankle breaker’ ditch and actually stand in the footsteps where a Roman legionnaire had previously dug, it’s a very surreal experience but one I feel very privileged to have experienced. It makes me smile every time I think about it! Equally, it was the expert guidance of Jane, Arran, Maddy and Ian that brought the Roman history of the site to life as it emerged. I learned so many new skills from them, all of which I can hopefully take forward to future digs.There was always a real buzz of excitement about the dig when anybody found a potential artefact to be verified which was great fun.I really hope that the shared experience of the Community Stadium Dig and its resounding success will act as a springboard for future excavations of our wonderful city landscape for many years to come!”Amanda Silcock
For much of the team, the hard labour of excavating the tough clay ditch fills will be a lasting memory, thankfully a rewarding one! Here are Catherine and Judy’s favourite moments from the dig.
“Catherine and Judy are next door neighbours from Helmsley who have been volunteering on digs together since the first Boltby Scar Hillfort season of 2009; curiously, these digs have all tended to involve ditches – Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Medieval – so it was very good to be able to add a Roman one to the collection, particularly one boasting a feature as “interesting” as the possible clavicula gate in “Maddy’s difficult section”, the trench where everyone said “Hmmm” an awful lot.”
“The dig was also special for other reasons. Catherine has been fascinated by the Romans since childhood, so being able to dig an actual Roman site was quite literally a dream come true. As for Judy, at long last (their previous sites were not noted for plenteous small finds either) she found a piece of pot – and a rather important piece of pot at that, since being prehistoric it pushed back the dating of the enigmatic linear feature near one of the gates. They both thoroughly enjoyed their days at the dig – and if ever you need some painstaking trowel work done on a ditch, you know where to go.”Catherine Thorne and Judy Bradfield
“Since moving across the Pennines, I have been looking for opportunities to dig in Yorkshire. I have several years experience of community digging at Poulton, near Chester which is a fantastic multiphase site. I jumped at the chance of helping with the York Stadium dig. To me, it is important to work on digs that are run by proper, competent archaeologists who are happy to share their skills with non-experts.
The York Stadium dig was perfect (apart from the heavy clay!) – great supervisors, friendly volunteers, good organisation and a chance to do some serious archaeology. Thanks to everyone who organised this great opportunity.”Tonnie Richmond
The mix of ages, backgrounds, levels of experience within the team was the highlight of the dig for many participants.
“I did enjoy the people and the very different levels of experience. One guy was a very experienced volunteer, having been digging for years – most impressive. I also enjoyed the ‘glass chat’ we had one afternoon when it was raining.
I don’t know how you deal with such a wide variety of expectations and experience, and I thought your managed it all very well! Thanks!”
For others, it was the chance to learn new skills.
“What was particularly valuable for me, apart from the conviviality of the group, was the opportunity to do some hands on excavation in the context of an interesting Roman military site with many puzzles and unanswered questions. To see the structure of the fort’s defences emerge was very satisfying. The mixture of the practical, the stratigraphy demonstration (on the one wet afternoon we had) , the earlier Resistivity and Magnetometer work and the final section drawing as well as the background research and historical narrative for the Roman occupation of this part of York made the whole exercise a very memorable one for me.”
“I found the dig at York Stadium not only extremely hard work with the solid clay geology but immensely interesting as I have never dug on a Roman fort before. I enjoyed working with the team of professionals and volunteers as there was an interesting mix of people and the professional staff were always willing to listen, help and advise.
A little disappointed not to have found any artefacts, as this is a ‘first’ – my luck ran out. Compensation could be had by being able to dig and identify the ankle-breaker in all its pristine glory. Thanks for the opportunity.”
“I thought it was a very well run project, with the YAT team taking people with a large range of skills and experience and making sure that they felt welcome, did something which interested them and that they learnt something new. I have never excavated on (that much) clay before and that was a whole new experience – including using a spade to clean up a section before photographing! It was interesting to see the section of roman ditch come to life, to think about all the different layers and to then draw it up.
Always good to find something – which we did on the last day digging the metal detector hotspots and, of course, the fellow diggers and leaders in sunshine (and biscuits) helped.”
While most people joined the project purely for the enjoyment, York University student Jeffer took part as a placement and used the experience to learn about the logistics of running an excavation.
“It was my great pleasure to be able to participate in the Dig York Stadium Project. This experience was particularly important to me, as a field archaeology student at the University of York, because I could put theory into practice under the guidance of a professional and friendly team of site supervisors. The site management knowledge as well as excavation and on-site recording skills that I acquired from taking part in this project will be very useful to my professional development.
I also enjoyed every moment of working with the volunteers, who demonstrated their enthusiasm for archaeology. I will never forget the post-holes which I discovered and recorded.
May I take this opportunity to express my heartfelt thanks to Ian, Jane, Arran, Maddy, excavation team-mates and friends for making my fieldwork experience so fruitful and delightful!”
For Ian, Jane, Maddy, Jon, Jayne and Arran, the York Archaeological Trust team who supervised the project, the real highlight was our team of volunteers. It was a genuine pleasure to work with such a delightfully diverse and passionate group of archaeologists.
As mentioned at the beginning of this post, the excavation report will soon be completed and we look forward to sharing the finished article with everyone who’s taken part or followed the project from afar. Watch this space!