Our Most Exciting Archaeological Discoveries of 2020

From Roman kitchen utensils, to the possible remains of an ancient smithy’s workshop, we’ve made some truly groundbreaking archaeological discoveries this year. But we also discovered something even more important…

We can probably all agree that it’s been a very long year. And throughout it all, our team of archaeologists has continued to make and share some of the very best archaeological discoveries. When we were able to dig, we introduced loads of Safe Dig policies so that our community could safely join us on our excavations. And when lockdown meant we couldn’t, we took archaeology online instead; we organised DigNation Festival: Big Dig Energy, hosted a Virtual Fieldschool, and ran Virtual Tours and live broadcasts from our Finds Room. As a result, nearly 11,000 people from 90 different countries did archaeology with us online this year. Your enthusiasm to continue learning kept us going and, based on what you’ve told us, we know that we’ve kept you going too! So, without further ado, here’s a selection of DigVentures archaeology highlights from 2020.

1. Two Roman bone combs

Earth Trust (Oxfordshire) Back in January, before the pandemic hit, we were investigating the ruins of an Iron Age village, and a later Roman villa, downhill from the famous hillfort known as Wittenham Clumps. Alongside the buildings, our team unearthed part of a Roman cemetery, where we found two almost perfectly preserved Roman haircombs, dating to the 2nd-4th century. They were each found placed slightly to the left and rear of a skull, so could have been placed in the individual’s hair when they were buried.

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2. A set of Roman kitchen utensils… including a strainer!

Earth Trust (Oxfordshire) As the dig continued, our team started investigating the area inside the Roman villa building. Among the remains, a wonderfully personal collection of kitchen utensils, including spoons, knives, pottery, and even a strainer! It has felt like walking into a bustling Roman kitchen, and we can only dream of the delicious meals that may once have been made here…

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3. The bottom of the drawbridge pit at one of England’s biggest castles

Pontefract Castle (Yorkshire) In July, our team headed to Pontefract Castle to find out what was at the bottom of their medieval drawbridge pit. The final depth of the drawbridge pit was 6.5 metres (that’s over 21 feet), and along the way we unearthed loads of evidence about life at the castle that had accumulated below the drawbridge over the last 500 years, including 873 sherds of pottery (the oldest dates between AD 1100-1300), a coin from the Spanish Netherlands (dates between 1506 – 1712), and a turned bone pin of similar date (possibly a ‘parchment pricker‘, used for scoring parchment), thousands of animal bones (red deer, swan, hare, lapwing and carp), and a pierced jetton decorated with a sailing ship and four fleur-de-lis. But our absolute favourite discovery down in the deep dark depths  was a series of 22 different masons’ marks – symbols that were etched into blocks that were used to build the gatehouse by the very masons who made them between AD 1300 – 1450. They’re a uniquely personal connection with the castle’s medieval workforce!

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4. One of the earliest Roman settlements north of the Humber

Driffield (East Yorkshire) Two thousand years ago, the Romans marched north and crossed the Humber, establishing a military base at York in AD 71. Within a few decades, there were Roman settlements spreading all over the place. But what happened in the intervening years, just after the forts had been built, but before any of the major towns had sprung up? In August, the DigVentures community came out to help us investigate the rare remains of one of these very early first century settlements. Together, we unearthed buildings, floors, and pottery and we’ll be returning in 2021 to see what else we can find.

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5. An early medieval burial with a fatal head injury on Lindisfarne

Lindisfarne (Northumberland) Lindisfarne is probably most famous as the place where Vikings raided an early medieval monastery in AD 793. In September, our community came out to help us to trace the remains of this raided monastery. Our excavation area includes part of a cemetery that was used during the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries, and one of the individuals uncovered this year appears to have received a fatal blow to the back of the head. Of course, it’s natural for people to ask whether this person might have been injured during a raid, but we’re still waiting for more analysis to be done. Is it definitely an injury? What kind of implement might have caused it? And when did it happen? A combination of radiocarbon dating and further examination by an osteologist may help us find the answer…

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6. The rare remains of an early medieval smithy’s workshop, still in the ground

Lindisfarne (Northumberland) As well as being raided by Vikings, the early medieval monastery on Lindisfarne was also famous for the wealth that attracted them; we know the monastery’s workshops would have produced all manner of beautiful metal artefacts, like altarpieces, booking bindings, and reliquaries. One of our most exciting discoveries is what looks like the very rare remains of a smithy’s workshop; shallow depressions filled with burned material, pieces of slag, and copper-alloy droplets, all surrounded by what look like traces of a building or lean-to structure.

So is this where a smithy made some of Lindisfarne’s famous metal artefacts? Again, we need further evidence before we can say for sure, but if it it, the implications are enormous, and we can’t wait to continue our investigations in 2021.

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7. Six early medieval coins

Lindisfarne (Northumberland) Adding significant weight to the idea that we might have found an early medieval coppersmith’s workshop is the discovery of six early medieval coins right next to it. All six date to the mid ninth century, including several minted in the time of Aelthred II of Northumbria,  exactly when the Viking raids were intensifying. From this, we can assume not only that life continued on Lindisfarne after the Viking raids, but that the monastery and settlement here were still thriving centres for trade. What’s more, excavations at Bamburgh Castle just across the water from Lindisfarne also found 77 early medieval coins next to their metalworking area.

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8. A curious polished jet bead

Discover Brightwater (Sedgefield, County Durham) In October, we headed out to Sedgefield to investigate the remains of a Roman settlement. Our community joined us for the first two weeks before lockdown, and in that time made some fascinating discoveries, including this rather lovely polished jet bead. At first glance, the nature of the ket suggests it was sourced from Eastern Europe, rather than Whitby, which gives us possible evidence of links with places outside of Roman Empire. Either way, it likely shows evidence of long distance trade. It all adds to our emerging theory that the settlement was in fact once a Roman market town…

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9. Two Roman jars (and an upside down Iron Age dish)

Discover Brightwater (County Durham) Our community also discovered two intact Roman jars. Each appears to have been intentially buried within a separate pit, and alongside the larger one we also found a coin dating the reign of Emperor Trajan (AD 98-117). Nearby, in another small pit, we found a shallow dish, buried bottom-up. Intriguingly, the bottom is decorated with a very unusual star shaped decoration. In the Finds Room, we broadcast a live ‘microexcavation’ so that our community could watch and ask questions as we took our first look inside.

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10. A well-used quern-stone

Discover Brightwater (Sedgefield, County Durham) Quern stones have been used throughout the ages to grind all manner of materials – from grains, to dyes. As well as pottery, we also found several broken rotary quernstones, and this nearly complete saddle quernstone. They were all found tightly backed into a series of postholes which appear to form part of the same structure. We don’t yet know whether the structure was a home, or a shop, or a workshop, but whoever built it used the fragments of broken old querns and river cobbles to help tightly pack in the posts that they erected to hold it up.

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11. But that’s not all… We also brought together archaeologists from 25 different countries

Online (EVERYWHERE!) Over lockdown, we organised DigNation Festival: Big Dig Energy, a free, two-day online festival that brought together archaeologists from Albania, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Ethiopia, Finland, India, Italy, Jordan, Mali, Mexico, Norway, Oman, Turkmenistan… and more! Every single one of them shared their latest discoveries directly with viewers at home, so that people could hear about the past straight from the people uncovering it. Together, we learned about everything from the earliest human fossils in Europe and the millions of ancient artefacts revealed by forest fire in Canada, to Iron Age burials in India and breakthrough discoveries in Mali.

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12. And taught 11,000 people from 90 different countries how to do archaeology with us this year!

DigVentures (EVERYWHERE!) Over the summer, we also opened our Virtual Fieldschool for free so that people all over the world could learn how to do archaeology, and explore the heritage in their own backyard and neghbourhoods together. From South Africa to Saint Lucia, archaeology enthusiasts started sharing what they could see from doing map regression, sites they spotted using LIDAR data, old toys they dug up in their back yard test pit, and even tips on how to create your own indoor test pit when it’s not possible to dig in your area. We had frontline workers telling us how they looked forward to escaping with archaeology in the evenings, isolated individuals saying it kept them going, and people who’d always wanted to learn more about archaeology but never had the time. We know it’s been a tough year, but frankly we’re still buzzing from how many people grabbed the chance to do archaeology and their delight in learning with us together! Now, let’s see what we can all do together in 2021…

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Written by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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