The Big Dig!


That’s an opening statement isn’t it? History has always fascinated me. The three people who encouraged, inspired and developed my interest in all things historical were my mum, grandma and my J3 (Year 5) teacher Mrs Allen at Primary School.
Over the years I have devoured books (fiction, faction and factual), articles, films and documentaries. As a member of the National Trust and English Heritage, I have visited stately homes, stone circles, ruined castles, abbeys and a range of other buildings in various states of repair. 
As for my favourite time in history well that would have to be the Plantagenet’s or Tudor’s. So much happened during those turbulent years and although not all of it was good, you certainly couldn’t say it was dull! In terms of historical figures, the one who has constantly intrigued me over the years is Eleanor of Aquitaine (mother of Richard the Lion Heart and King John). She was a strong, powerful and largely independent woman in a time when women were considered unimportant apart from providing heirs. So much so that even their names were often omitted from any kind of documents. Eleanor was both Queen of France and Queen of England, Regent in all but name while Richard was off fighting in Jerusalem and over all keeper of the peace for her son John. She lived until her 80’s during a time when 40 was considered old. What a remarkable woman!
So you can tell that history takes up quite a lot of my time. A holiday isn’t complete without some kind of day trip to a museum, historical site or place of interest. Despite this, there is one thing that I’ve always longed to do but never managed it – an Archaeological dig.

The Big Dig at Calderstones Park

I volunteer at The Reader Org which is a great organisation that encourages and promotes reading with and around the community. The organisation is based in the Victorian Mansion House in Calderstones Park which also happens to be home to some of the oldest human monuments in the country (they are older than Stonehenge). Although the stones are currently in a circle this was not the case originally. It is believed they would have been part of a chambered tomb. So imagine my excitement when I found out that a Big Dig was going to take place in the actual park itself. Teaming up with Liverpool Museum’s Archaeological team The Reader and Heritage Lottery Fund, the park would be the site for exploration during April/May 2015. I wasted no time in signing up.

The day of my first day on site arrived and dressed for all weathers and conditions I arrived at the Mansion House for our debrief. I was assigned to Trench 2 with our archaeologist Michael and the fun began. Trench 2 is located about 100 yards behind the Horses Gravestone in the park in an area not far from where an 18th Century Farm House is believed to have stood before the Mansion was built. 
The weather on day one was hit and miss. Ranging from sun to clouds to hail and then sun again. Despite this we managed to trowel back and find evidence of two ditches (the two darker lines on the photograph). These could mark where fences, walls or even flower beds had once been. 

The trowling and hoeing continued and although by the end of day 1, we hadn’t found any Viking cloak pins or Roman coins, we had found some 19th Century glazed pottery as well as part of a smoking pipe. 

The next day dawned and remained dry and mostly sunny all day. This time we were mattocking the top layer at the other end of the trench. If you are looking for a hobby that keeps you fit I would recommend it! We wanted to discover if the ditches continued further into the trench. 

The ditches seemed to stop but we were still finding bits of pottery. We even found some pretty late Victorian glass which prompted a real discussion about what it might be. Suggestions included a perfume bottle, a vase, a bottle used for keeping poisons in. Answers on a post card please…

We also found more of the clay pipe, this time with the mouthpiece. Pipes like these were made any time from the 1600’s to early 1900’s but as most of the pieces we found were Victorian, I would imagine this is too.

After lunch we started the process of planning the trench. This requires concentration and careful measuring. Every feature in the trench has to be recorded using specific codes and methods. By the end of the afternoon we had successfully planned Trench 2 ready for excavations the next day. Tomorrows team would make a record on the plan of anything they found in the excavation pits that would be dug in a couple of locations within the trench. But I would miss that…

And that was it, the end of my two days. How I wish I’d signed up for more! I had a great time. It was so interesting and I learnt so much about my local area and being on a dig. The archaeologists on site were fantastic! They gave us clear instructions and signs about what to look for and what to do. But best of all we were actively encouraged to really get involved, ask questions and share any local knowledge we may already have (some of the volunteers remembered the stones being moved to their current location in the Harthill Greenhouses).

If history is your thing, I really recommend doing an archaeological dig. It involves you in history at all levels. I never thought a 2×3 metre trench could tell me so much about the past. I learnt to look for colour and texture differences in the soil. I even learnt that the soil can sound different. Plus finding real objects that had been handled by someone from the past is a great feeling.

Luckily for me, the park is a ten minute walk so although I can’t be one of the dig team for another day, I will be going back to see what’s going on and of course, to see if they have found that elusive Roman coin!

For information about The Big Dig, Mansion Tours or the history of the stones I recommend getting in touch with Richard MacDonald at the Reader. He is a font of knowledge.

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