By Lesley Hays
After taking early retirement from my job as Credit Manager with Chevron and Texaco, I followed one of my hobbies and became an archaeologist. Not only getting involved in the practical side on excavations, but also completing a degree in Classical studies and Archaeology.
This hobby has now become a major part of my life and I am closely involved with local societies; taking part in, mainly, rescue archaeological excavations where a site may have been designated for building or development and any history or archaeology has to be examined before the site and information are lost, perhaps for ever. Whether professional or volunteer, most experienced archaeologists will say that our “treasure” is the knowledge that we uncover which helps us to define our past and possibly colour our future.
Archaeology should not be confused either with metal detecting or treasure hunting. Some metal detectorists work closely with us on site as part of our team, but unfortunately there are other less scrupulous folk in the world who think nothing of using a metal detector without the landowners consent and in some cases have dug on the site of a National Monument in the search for their own monetary gain wrecking the history and site for everyone else. These people are known as Night Hawks. I hasten to say that not all metal detectorists are treasure hunting Night Hawks, many use their detectors responsibly with the full agreement of the landowner and correctly report their finds to the local Portable Artefacts Officer..
Those who have watched Time Team on Television will be familiar with some of the archaeological terminology and the scenes one might find on an archaeological site. What cannot be sensed on television is the smell.
Last year in the UK it was particularly wet and muddy. Many sites are situated a mile or so from a road, so walking there carrying a back pack is a dampening process even when wearing appropriate clothing. Standing on a muddy site is indescribably uncomfortable, the mud sticks to ones boots making walking difficult; and the smell of rotting vegetation needs to be smelt in person and the accompanying midges and other biting insects need to be felt. A few weeks of this can give a new insight into what the trenches in the first world war must have been like. They mention the mud, but not the stench or discomfort which were suffered by the soldiers for years. So far this hobby is not sounding very glamorous is it? Wet, muddy, smelly and insect ridden with mosquitos and midges.
On a sunny day there is nothing to compare to sitting with colleagues enjoying a break and chatting about the days events and finds, often in beautiful surroundings with a background of simple birdsong. On training digs where students or novices are on site seeing the look on their faces when they discover their first find; be it a piece of worked flint, roman pottery, or other artefact is sublime. Being able to pass on skills and knowledge to a new generation is also what gives one a buzz; but perhaps the biggest buzz of all is knowing that the artefact one has just discovered was last handled by someone maybe hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Hold a piece of worked flint in the knowledge that it probably predates the Roman period. Some Roman pottery has makers marks on it so its manufactory can be pinpointed giving knowledge about trade patterns. If very lucky, the piece of pot may have a fingerprint embedded in it from the manufacturing process all those years ago. Put ones finger where someone put theirs thousands of years ago and that gives one a connection to the past and ones forbears that cannot be obtained from books or television.
This year I also joined an excavation team at the Villa Oplontis in Pompeii which was great fun and I plan on joining the team next year (if they will have me).
Maybe this will whet the appetite of others and encourage them to get wet and muddy or baked and sweaty in the interests of history and knowledge…