Teotihucan archeology discoveries to go on display in 2015
“Sid was super chuffed when he found the fossil, running into the house covered in mud and smiling. Now he wants to start a museum in our garage but I think the plan is to collect more and then give them to a natural history museum, with his name next to it to show when and where he found it.”
We might never discover anything quite as incredible as a Palaeozoic fossil but thousands of Britons have turned to amateur archaeology as the perfect pandemic pastime.
In fact, it may now even rival baking banana bread as the nation’s favourite activity.
Amateur archaeology has lots of unexpected benefits. It combines healthy physical exercise with the gratification of touching a piece of history and the possible frisson of discovering something extremely rare and valuable.
An 800-year-old medieval palace was discovered during inspection of a house foundation
As we have broken the soil with gusto in our back gardens, the breathtaking finds have come pouring out of the ground.
In the year to December, the British Museum reports, amateur archaeologists unearthed an eye-watering 47,000 objects, a haul hailed by Culture Minister Caroline Dinenage as “brilliant”.
Here are just a few examples of the wondrous items disinterred by amateur archaeologists over the last year. A 13th century lead-alloy seal matrix of the Bishop of St Andrews was discovered at Dursley, Gloucestershire, while another copper-alloy seal matrix from AD 1200-1350 was found by someone as they relocated a shrub in Whaplode, Lincolnshire.
At the same time, a copper-alloy Roman furniture fitting of the god Oceanus, dating from AD 43-200, was unearthed in Old Basing, Hampshire; eight fragments of Roman grey ware pottery were discovered in Wymeswold in Leicestershire; a Neolithic arrowhead was excavated in Chithurst, Sussex; and a post-medieval snake-shaped belt hook was found in Herefordshire. A few astounding coin hoards have also come to light.
Charles Pole was unaware he was sitting on buried treasure
Fifty solid gold South African coins, minted during the apartheid era, somehow ended up in a back garden in Milton Keynes.
Meanwhile, a silver groat from the time of Henry VI was dug up in a garden in Southampton, and someone in the New Forest struck gold while weeding, uncovering 63 16th century gold coins and one silver coin depicting Edward IV and Henry VIII.
Carrying the initials of several of Henry VIII’s wives, including Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, the coins, experts reckon, were probably buried by a “cunning priest”.
In the 16th century, the coins were worth £24. Now they are priceless.
Topping all this, however, is the news that an 81-year-old former banker called Charles Pole unearthed an 800-year-old palace in his back garden in Somerset. For years, he was unwittingly sitting on buried treasure.
Six-year-old Sid found a 488 million-year-old horn coral in his back garden
Our newfound love for archaeology is mirrored in the explosion of TV programmes on the subject, including Digging Up Britain’s Past on History 2 and River Hunters on History.
It is also reflected in the recent announcement that Time Team, the granddaddy of all TV archaeology shows, is coming back. Having completed a successful crowd-funding campaign, it will broadcast two new episodes on its YouTube channel later this year.
So why have we been so drawn to archaeology during the pandemic? Part of its appeal is sheer escapism. When the present is so depressing, more and more of us are discovering the pleasure of diving into a more reassuring past.
Archaeologist Gary Bankhead, one of the experts on River Hunters, says: “It’s been very grim for the past year, hasn’t it? But with archaeology, you can focus on something completely different. You can immerse yourself in another world, whether it’s the Roman period or the late medieval era. That offers real escapism.”
That is one of the reasons why, he continues: “There has been this tidal wave of interest in archaeology. It’s never been so prominent. It has clearly captured so many people’s imagination.”
There is indeed evidence that archaeology is a therapeutic pastime. It is soothing to lose ourselves in the past.
Alex Langlands, senior lecturer in history and heritage at Swansea University and co-presenter of Digging Up Britain’s Past, explains: “Psychologists have demonstrated the positive benefits of nostalgia. Reminiscing is actually good for people. It brings social cohesion.”
Another element that has prompted people to start digging up their own back gardens is the fact that it is quite possible they will come across something of genuine historical interest.
We are very fortunate to live in a country with such a treasure trove of archaeological gems buried just inches below the surface. Our history is right beneath our feet.
“History is everywhere,” says Gary. “We have at least two and a half thousand years of small objects being lost, hidden or deliberately thrown away, but they’re still there, just under your flower bed or that layer of soil in a ploughed field, or in the river that runs through your village. They are there just waiting to be discovered.”
Archaeology is a hobby that can clearly become addictive. Alex says it is easy to become hooked on the thrill of uncovering the history on our doorstep. “Once you’re in a trench and you’re scratching around, you’re plunged into the past trying to work out what happened. Once you dip your toe in that world, it’s like a bug. The joy of discovery takes over.”
A 13th century lead bishop’s seal was discovered at Gloucestershire
His co-presenter, archaeologist Raksha Dave, agrees. “People have been stuck at home during the pandemic, and they have been bored. So they’ve been thinking, ‘If I dig a little trench in my back garden, I might be able to find out something about the history of my house.’
“It’s never-ending. There are millions of stories that you can find in objects.”
Another attraction of archaeology at the moment is that it is a very low-risk lockdown activity.
When you are outside digging, says Gary, “You’re thinking, ‘I’m not bothering anybody, I’m not breathing anyone else’s air.’ A lot of people have cottoned on to the fact that it’s a very safe hobby to do in the pandemic.”
As everything else has been put on hold, people have also relished the opportunity to further their knowledge of their local area.
A Roman copper furniture fitting was unearthed at Old Basing
Raksha, who has also worked on Time Team, recounts her own experience. “All of a sudden, we haven’t been able to go anywhere. So we want to find this deeper connection to where we live.
“During lockdown, I really wanted to know more about my area of south-east London. We have a wood opposite our house which has the remnants of old buildings. I discovered that they were these amazing Victorian mansions, and one of them was owned by Lionel Logue, the speech therapist from The King’s Speech.”
Archaeology is also a stimulating activity because it puts us in touch with the past lives of ordinary people rather than kings and queens. In Raksha’s view, “Archaeology is not just about the victors or the champions. It’s about normal, everyday people and how they lived. How did they cook, how did they go to the toilet?”
In addition, archaeology reveals the many similarities between then and now. “I recently did a documentary about The Great Plague of 1665,” Raksha continues, “and viewers were fascinated to see how people 400 years ago went through the same experience as us and what the parallels were to life today.
“People find it quite comforting. Even though this awful thing is happening, there is light at the end of the tunnel, people are resilient and they do come out of it. Even though over the centuries the social constructs have changed, human behaviour hasn’t.”
Above all, archaeology promises the pure delight of an unexpected discovery.
Raksha says: “You can be in an ordinary place and you find something extraordinary. You could be digging in somebody’s back garden, and you suddenly unearth a Roman villa nobody knew was there. Those eureka moments are very special.”
Let’s leave the final word to Vish. “I’ve gone from being annoyed at Sid digging up my garden to being very proud of him for the discovery he’s made. I do hope it can inspire people to go out and look for fossils themselves.”
So what are you waiting for? Grab a shovel, get out there and start digging. Your history is in your own backyard.
- Digging Up Britain’s Past is on Mondays at 8pm on Sky History 2, and River Hunters is on Mondays at 9pm on Sky History