It has been an absolutely stand-out year for archaeological discoveries: an Egyptian tomb containing dozens of cat mummies; ancient DNA research showing that early Britons had dark skin and blue eyes; a Pictish coppersmith’s greasy handprints; a medieval skeleton buried in his thigh-high boots, plus the long, hot summer which revealed hundreds of new sites around the UK.
But it’s not just academic and commercial archaeologists making all the discoveries. All over the country, crowdfunded and community excavations are making discoveries of their own. From a sprawling Bronze Age village on the edge of Bodmin Moor, to one of the most iconic coal pits in Cumbria, DigVentures has been helping people to investigate the incredible history on their doorstep and together we’ve made some fantastically significant discoveries. Here are some of the best.
This delicate brooch is a beautiful little find, made even more poignant when considering it was found with the burial of an infant at a recently discovered site near Driffield in East Yorkshire. Made from copper alloy, the penannular brooch is around 2,000 years old, dating to 100 BC – 100 AD. The pin is intact, and made of copper alloy wire, pointed at one end, and flattened at the other end where it is loosely secured to the frame of the brooch by being wound around it. The brooch may have been used to fasten the baby’s shroud. This year’s excavations by DigVentures’ crowdfunders have also revealed the site to be one of the earliest Roman settlements to be discovered in the region so far.
These lovely near-complete vessels were all found in one pit during excavations at Earth Trust near the Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire. They included six large pots, all of which are storage vessels or cooking pots. The pit itself was found near to remains of an Iron Age house, a bit like a pantry, which the site’s ancient residents would have used to keep the food naturally refrigerated and cool. The pots were carefully cleaned by friends of the Earth Trust, which helped to reveal the decorations.
This may just look like a lump of mud, but it’s actually something really rather wonderful – it’s a fragment of painted daub from one of the Iron Age roundhouses excavated at Earth Trust, near Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire, and it gives us a rare glimpse of what the walls of an Iron Age house would have looked like. Impressed within it is the shape of the wattle sails – or stakes – that would have formed the walls. On the surface, faint traces of possible limewash are a remarkable piece of surviving evidence that might even help us visualise how the occupants decorated the house and kept it looking fresh!
We 👏 just 👏 found 👏 half 👏 a 👏 carved 👏 stone 👏 and 👏 guess 👏 what 👏 it 👏 fits 👏 back 👏 together 👏 with 👏 one 👏we 👏 found 👏 last👏 year 👏
— DigVentures (@TheDigVenturers) 12 September 2018
What’s better than finding one Anglo Saxon sculpture? Finding half! Lindisfarne is one of the most iconic Anglo-Saxon sites in English history, famous for being the first site in the British Isles to be attacked by Vikings. During this year’s excavation, DigVentures’ crowdfunders unearthed the other half of an Anglo-Saxon sculpture that had been found several years ago. As soon as the two pieces were reunited, it became instantly possible to see the whole design – three crosses in the Irish style, which suggests they may have been made during the very early days of the monastery, while it was still under Irish influence.
The three-year search for some of the original buildings from the Anglo-Saxon monastery that may have sheltered monks around the time of the Viking raids may finally have come up trumps. These ovens had the potential to reveal what kinds of things St Cuthbert and his peers were up to. A bakery? A smithy? After throwing all sorts of high tech analysis at it, you can imagine the surprise when, at the bottom, the excavation team found a skeleton. After an initial ‘whaaaaaaat???’ moment, we quickly realised that the skeleton had not in fact been placed in the oven. Instead, all the clues pointed to the grave having been dug long after the oven had gone out of use and forgotten about – the skeleton had ended up being buried in a grave that was dug into what had once been an oven quite by chance… a marvellous example of the forensic power of archaeological field methods to unpick events with incredible accuracy.
For nearly 1,000 years, Sudeley Castle has been home to some of England’s most famous monarchs, but it’s really the Tudors who made it their own. In 1592 Elizabeth I famously attended an epic three-day party celebrating the defeat of the Spanish Armada, which has gone down as one of the longest in royal history. Archaeologists have long since wondered where this epic party was held. By digging a small test pit close to the castle, an excavation team made up of DigVentures archaeologists and a small, but passionate group of Tudor history-lovers, located a compacted platform very similar to other temporary structures found in association with Elizabeth’s annual progresses around the country… a discovery that’s perfect for further exploration!
Archaeological finds don’t need to be old to be important. In Workington, local residents have been helping to investigate an impressive engine house from one of Cumbria’s most iconic coal pits, which they hope will eventually be turned into a memorial for all the miners and their families who helped build the region’s wealth. Many of those involved had parents or grandparents who had worked in the mine, and this spanner became a real talking point. A staple of any trusty toolbox, it was recovered from the back yard of one of the miners’ cottages that were demolished in the 1970s. It may not be 100s of years old, but it’s a wonderfully tangible piece of history and a bit more research into the local archives could even identify the original owner!
When two Cornish farmers decided to clear an overgrown field, they realised that what they’d actually done is reveal a Bronze or Iron Age village on the edge of Bodmin Moor – it had just been hidden by brambles all these years! The local community rallied round, and got an excavation underway. The site has now become crucial to understanding how and when the Cornish uplands were occupied in the Bronze and Iron Age periods and, during this year’s excavations, we helped the local community unearth more details about life in this ancient village. This unusual decorate spindle whorl would once have been used by one of the residents to turn wool or other fibres into yarn. It’s a really tangible item, but what’s so special is the decoration – a rare feature for objects of a similar age in Cornwall. This little personal detail gives us a glimpse of the individual who may have used it.
Julia Domna, the Syrian wife of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, was a powerful woman, famous for accompanying her husband on military campaigns, granting her the title mother of the camp. Getting a glimpse of her face on this silver coin (a denaris dating to AD 193-196) in the middle of East Yorkshire was a really striking moment, and a reminder of how interconnected past societies have always been.
Princess Aebbe was another powerful woman whose story has long been overlooked. This seems particularly unfair, given that her brother Oswald is recognised as the King who famously founded Lindisfarne and began the process of Christianising Britain’s east coast. But could he have done it without his sister’s help? At the time, she was widely celebrated for establishing a base at Coldingham – a political move that meant she essentially became responsible for holding together the northernmost part of her family’s kingdom. Later written out of history, the exact location of her monastery was lost. But this year, it looks like it may have been found! Members of the local community teamed up with DigVentures, and together our excavation revealed a huge ditch that may have been the vallum (outer perimeter)… which you can see in episode 3 of Digging For Britain!
Toys are often overlooked in the archaeological record, but this wonderful collection of 20th century toys is a great reminder that children leave their mark too. They were found during excavations at the biggest Shaker settlement in America, when American Veterans Archaeological Recovery, National Geographic, Atlas Obscura and DigVentures joined together to investigate a set of ruins believed to be the building from which many Shaker edicts originated. These toys remind us that life is not all about work… and that children also make up an important part of the archaeological record!
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