On doctor’s orders, I have been a desk-bound archaeologist for a number of weeks now, and therefore I’ve been more ‘inside and warm’ rather than ‘out and about’. I can hardly believe it, but I am actually under doctor’s orders not to do any strenuous exercise (including digging) until I am cured of my glass jaw-it is (don’t worry everyone, I’m being a bit dramatic! I’ve just got some dreaded dental issues…).
It’s quite frustrating for a field archaeologist to be told you can’t dig. It’s like being shown a jar of enticing sweets and being told if you eat them they’ll give you the worst stomachache of your life.
And thus, I have spent most of this year inside, which actually is probably for the best considering the cold weather! January and February just rolled by in a haze of same-same office work until one happy day, I realised that our first ‘Dirty Weekend’ was just round the corner…
The excitement of being able to go out and see some archaeology was a joy in itself. Realising that we would be reunited with some of our Venturers from Flag Fen, as well as the delightful prospect of meeting new VentureFROGs (BEST NAME EVER), was the icing on the cake. The 15th of February, as far as I was concerned, couldn’t come sooner.
I have worked on the Thames for many years, mainly on its waterfronts as well as doing a bit of foreshore archaeology. For the Dirty Weekend, DigVentures had the good sense to partner up with the Thames Discovery Programme (TDP), the doyens of foreshore archaeology. Most of their work consists of patrolling the Thames and monitoring the archaeology that is consistently eroding out of its banks.
They are also top-notch educators, and have a tremendously successful (and extremely organized) group of volunteers, the FROGs (Foreshore, Recording and Observation Group) to be their eyes and ears when they are not around. The Thames foreshore is a huge expanse and
monitoring its archaeology is almost a 24/7 task. The TDP could not accomplish this by themselves, so the FROG’s time and enthusiasm are invaluable for this important work.
Rotherhithe was our site of choice for the Dirty Weekend, situated on the gravelly shores of Chambers Wharf on the south (or Saaf, if your from that part of town!) bank of the Thames. Foreshore archaeology is determined by the tide, and we had to use the low tide window in order to safely access the archaeology. This means that we had a small window of about three hours to clean and record whatever archaeology the tide has revealed.
I love the smell of the foreshore. It’s a very earthy,
organic, salty smell that hits me right in the nostrils. It reminds me of the organic waterfront deposits most common in London: smelly equals good archaeology! These deposits make for an anaerobic preservation environment, and the lack of oxygen aids in the preservation of artefacts, especially easily degradable organic materials such as wood and leather.
Through the dramatic work of the tides and other riverine disturbances (such as big boat wakes, affectionately known as tsunamis) sites are uncovered and long, slippery, wet, gleaming timbers appear out of the murky waters. I love this bit the most. The change is instant; as the water recedes, dramatic landscapes littered with jetties, deposits, walkways and strange timbers appear. It’s a London that is rarely seen, normally hidden way from the busy humdrum of the city, and has a life of its own.
Working on the foreshore is a unique experience, and it attracts unique people. The jumble of sites – for example 18th century material sitting next to prehistoric forests – attracts people with all sorts of different interests, and the strange juxtaposition makes it one of the most unique archaeological places in the world.
The work we set out to accomplish during the Dirty Weekend was mainly concentrated on a gridiron made out of several pieces of timber. Gridirons are semi-permanent structures used to settle ships in dock on planks, so that it can either be repaired or broken down for salvage. The TDP haven’t managed to observe and record this part of the foreshore for four years, so in addition to teach our VenutreFROGS new skills, we were also contributing to the TDP’s programme of work.
I don’t think I’ll ever tire of watching people really get stuck in digging; it’s the highlight of being part of Dig Ventures, being around the enthusiasm of people who want to learn how to dig. In fact I had to wrench our team away from the archaeology due to the incoming tide, and let them down gently by
telling them that that was it for the day (yes people, the site will be completely underwater for 24 hours…). I must admit I was a little bit jealous and wanted to get digging myself (big sighs), but instead I accepted my fate and adopted the supervisory pose: I pointed A LOT!
The rest of the weekend was just as enjoyable, with finds handling sessions, lectures and talks. There’s nothing better than sitting in a pub with a pint, rosy-cheeked after a day spent digging, listening to other people’s digging tales about what they have found or enjoyed the most. The best part of all was at the end of the weekend, when our group had finished their training and were given their official FROG certificates. All of our Venturers are now official FROGs as well as being part of the DV family, enabling them to do as much or as little as they like on the Thames foreshore. That’s right people, we have now spawned a new archaeological breed: welcome to the dawn of the VentureFROGs….CROAK!!
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