Beyond the Castle

This is our view from the Beyond the Castle Archaeological Dig Site in Lancaster, England, led by archaeologist Jason Wood. I’m one of the volunteers than came to help with this exciting dig. Based on some geographical tests, recorded history, and nearby discoveries, they suspect the remains of a Roman Fort, dating back to the 4th c. and even possibly to the 1st c., lay beneath the earth waiting to be rediscovered, and they were right! 

The image above is the Lancaster Priory Church, which sits just uphill from Lancaster Castle. It’s crenelations are visible to the right of the Priory’s tower.

This is my first archaeological dig, and I’m hooked. It’s amazing. exciting. fascinating. It reminds me how much I adored physical anthropology when I briefly went back to school about 15 yrs ago. It has inspired me to look into coursework and other archaeological digs, because I could really get into this with my love of history, especially British history.

Monday was my first day, and I dug from about 11am until 5pm. I brought everyone rhubarb blueberry muffins made from rhubarb fresh from the garden and eggs fresh from the chickens I’m sitting. I learned how to properly uncover the earth to reveal what’s underneath. I didn’t find anything of note, but I met some really interesting people, including two girls, one from Canada and other other from Napa (50 miles from my home in CA), who are in a two-year Medieval Studies graduate program between a university in Iceland and one in Norway. They’re doing what I wanted to do 25yrs ago. I loved hearing about their lives and adventures.

Still, I’m doing some cool things now, too, so I’m not too terribly envious. Their story and studies (FREE education in Iceland, Norway, Germany, and several other countries) inspired me to look into an consider going back to school. I don’t think I have the mental stamina or energy for it anymore, but it’s fun to consider. It’s gratifying that I have the opportunity and the option to do such a thing if I want.

A local resident came by to see what was going on, and I got to talking with him. He’s a hobbyist and often goes out with a metal detector to find remnants of history himself. I held some of his finds in my hands, including a Roman coin depicting Hadrian (of Hadrian’s Wall). The most impressive thing (to me) that he has found is a Henry VI coin! Pure silver! WOW!

Another volunteer found a Victorian perfume bottle while gardening in her backyard. England is steeped in amazing history. I’ve gone mudlarking on the Thames in London and have found things from the 18th and 19th century. Around every corner is another building that’s older than my entire country.

I adore it here. I belong here.

… and now I’m uncovering a Roman wall. Although I’ve written a lot about realizing my dreams over this past year, this goes beyond anything I’ve dreamed. Plus it will make an interesting addition to my WIP memoir A Life of Beauty. I’m in awe of this magnificent country, of these experiences. I’m so fortunate.

Jason explained to all the volunteers that the Romans built walls into the hillside by creating tiers instead of leveling the entire area. The dig has uncovered parts of the outer and inner wall, as well as a Roman road. Through subtle changes in soil color, a trained eye can create a story around the find.

Among the things found so far were several Roman coins, a Medieval clasp adorned with celtic knotwork, and remnants of Roman pottery. These smaller finds help Jason date the site and formulate the story around the evidence. With each new find, his hypothesis evolves closer to the truth.

This (above) was an unexpected but very exciting find. While looking for the edges of the Roman Fort wall, some volunteers uncovered this drainage system, which hasn’t been officially dated yet, but Jason thinks it’s Medieval built on the remains of a Roman one that went under the wall. It’s at the lowest point of the site, so it makes sense to drain it there.

Yesterday (31 May), this was my treasured find: a Roman nail. It’s being cleaned today, so I’ll get a better picture tomorrow. I dug from 9 until 1pm, at which time I had to go home to nurse my middle-aged shoulder and the frustrating tendonitis therein because I really wanted to be there at 6am this morning for the BBC coverage without being in too much pain. This repetitive motion injury from 20yrs of mousing/computing forced me to give up the cello. I want to be careful so as not to irritate it too much or I won’t be able to do anything, including type, for weeks.

The BBC came to film our dig at 5am this morning (1 June) for their show BBC Breakfast. They shot several live segments between then and 8am. Although our complete airtime was around 10 minutes, most of that isn’t available online. There is one short segment on the BBC iPlayer, but you either have to be in the UK to watch it or have VPN to make it think you’re in the UK.

They also posted this tweet with another short segment. I’m the one digging and wearing black hat in this video. About 3 feet behind me is where I found an unexpected but important find.

While waiting for the BBC to go live again, I found this bullet!. An expert said it was a 9mm, likely from WWII (not yet properly dated), and it was still live. It’s a complete bullet, not just a shell. He also said that it was from an officer’s revolver, as only officers were issued revolvers. They had to account for every bullet, so this officer would’ve been in trouble for losing this one.

VIDEO: This is the BBC Breakfast segment when Holly mentions the bullet. You see me in the black hat right in front of Jason. I found the bullet about a foot behind where I’m sitting.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this find is that I found it in a part of the dig that had been abandoned. There was a pit found that was thought to be a tree hole or garbage pit, so the dig was moved elsewhere to continue uncovering the Roman road and fort walls, as well as the Roman / Medieval (yet undetermined which or perhaps both) drain.

After I found the bullet, Jason (pictured below) revised his hypothesis to think it might’ve been used in the war, so he kept digging in the pit.

He uncovered a well!! It has not yet been properly dated, but the masonry walls (below) appear to be at least Medieval and possibly Roman! He said he’s shocked at how much we’ve uncovered in 10 days, and that this preliminary research dig will likely go on for years to fully explore the site.

(Update 6/5/16: Jason is sure the well is Roman, and perhaps even older than the walls! Source.)

Thankfully, I’ll be back in my beloved Lancaster next Spring, so hopefully I can join in this dig again at that time.

Now I must ice my shoulder so I can dig (and type) some more tomorrow.

Although this is my first archaeological dig, it most certainly won’t be my last. I’ve definitely been bit by the archaeology bug.

Press coverage:


8 Comments Add yours

  1. roofbreaker says:

    Wow that looks fun. I am gonna have to volunteer for something cool like that.

    1. I highly recommend it. It’s brilliant.

  2. This is incredible!!! I can’t wait to hear more! 🙂

    1. It’s been quite the experience!

  3. Patrick Perry says:

    “Mudlarking!” I’m going to start using this term when I have to crawl under houses, or some other dirty chore.

    If you think about it, ask some of the volunteers if they’ve done much with DNA testing of human remains, or of their own DNA. My yDNA (paternal) is E1b1b1c1a.

    1. I learned about Mudlarking during research for one of my novels.

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