Archaeology just might be The New Black. Or The New Rock 'n Roll, what with Richard III and all that. Last week we kicked off our new artists' residency with the archaeologists of Cambridge Archaeological Unit, spending 3 wintery days as volunteers on a dig. The team are tasked with scouring the farmland in North West Cambridge that is earmarked for a vast new University development, whilst we (Nina and I) are tasked with saying or showing (eventually) something meaningful about that. The finds to date here are Roman, possibly Bronze Age and Iron Age, but more of them later, and this phase stops when this season's crops are sown this spring, so time is of the essence.
Until now my experience of archaeology was limited to dusty field-trips when at the British School of Rome in the 90's - erudite scholars took us to some Very Important Sites which generally underwhelmed us artists. Tangles of brambles and piles of indistinct rock reminded us of Piranesi etchings but we failed to grasp the experts' anticipation of what lay (possibly) beneath. We were polite though - we always had a good lunch in a local trattoria (they seem to like their food, archaeologists) and enjoyed these rather eccentric pilgrimages. Stories of their wildly orgiastic research digs on Italian islands (complete with excellent mobile catering) occasionally filtered back to us, we were ironically incarcerated in the rather stiff boarding school atmosphere of our corridors of studios. Many artists and curators I know cite a teenage archaeological experience as their creative epiphany (one also involved - post-dig - their first experience of Class A drugs, but that's another story) so I'm keen to find out firsthand what's so hot about this thing called archaeology.
Anyhow, here under the milk-white sky, on the outskirts of Cambridge, at first glance the scenario reminds me of building sites I have (unfortunately) known: White vans, site huts, portaloos, high vis jackets, shovels, buckets, barrows, boots, sandwiches, lunchtime banter. And mud, my God, the mud. The sticky Cambridge clay coats everything it makes contact with and then everything those things make contact with. A week on I'm still finding it everywhere, and as I write this from Scotland, I've probably dispersed the Cambridge soil seed bank farther than it was ever dreamt possible in the prehistoric time we were digging up.
The similarity between this encampment and those of the building trade does end there though. I didn't spot any grimy calendars showing whatever the archaeological equivalent of a brand new power tool held by a grinning topless girl, is. (If you've never seen these bizarre promotional items, I recommend you seek them out). There are women on site, albeit heavily disguised - but we discuss hats, lipsalve and other girlie things. Nor does work proceed along to a deafening soundtrack of shit local radio. Unless some of the archaeologists at the edges of the site are discreetly feeding that through their iPods, but I doubt it. It's probably Wagner they're listening to, or Mumford & Sons, or maybe Squarepusher.
The archaeologists themselves are muffled in layers upon layers of muddy clothing, genderless and ageless from afar, like Arctic explorers. On closer inspection they have none of the physical characteristics of builders either: they have fine hands and quick eyes, they must be able both to dig for long periods of time as well as delicately unearth the sought-after treasures. Our small volunteer group are distinguished by our brand new high vis vests (filthy by day 2) and of course (at least in Nina and I's case) by our evident lack of experience, though we know well how to handle a garden trowel. Nina has brought her own, I evidently stopped reading the email before I came to that bit and have to borrow Hayley's - it's like a delicate half size bricklayers trowel. One day, when the ground has frozen overnight, we're allowed to hack in with a mattock initially, it's a cathartic process though not without risks, as I mashed up the bone that was the sole find in that morning's hole. Shame on me.
Dotted across the moonscape of the site, topsoil and subsoil piled high, puddles everywhere, are very distant single figures, occasionally a barrow and bucket by their side - it reminds me of a Jeff Wall photograph. At the designated teabreaks and lunchbreaks the figures slowly migrate back to the site huts. At one point I go into the main lunch hut when full, it's like opening the door to a cargo hold of stowaways - a damp, warm fug of food and bodies and gossip.
The flat fields lying between the distant motorway and the shabbily genteel back gardens of Cambridge, show (to the naked eye) clearly defined dark zones all around, and these depict likely digging spots for finds. (Apparently archaeologists, like film-makers, cherish the dusk 'magic hour' for its revealing light quality). I'm reassured by the simplicity of this, and a later tour of the previous excavations introduces everything from a WW2 'practice trench' to cremated human remains and wells. A smart visitor from the Developer's office accompanies us on this tour, gamely traipsing around though clearly horrified by the mud, and making the sympathetic noises people use with puppies and kittens, when words like 'skeleton' and 'grave' come up. Grasping what's hot about archaeology is clearly challenging without a trowel and a few hours digging, as I am to find out.
An esoteric code of numbered sandwich bags flapping on nails in the ground seems to make perfect sense to our team leaders and we are set to the task of excavating post holes which are suspected to be evidence of long-gone Roman building. I'm amazed how quickly the time goes by, and I realise I'm easily mesmerised by soil and stone, I could dig and move it forever even if I never found anything, like a toddler in the back garden. Nina - a few metres from me - raises the alarm quickly and begins holding up large, black pottery shards, enough to establish that they may in fact be one large pot. We fleetingly wonder if the team planted them there to encourage us, like an Easter Egg Hunt, but if so they certainly kept up the pretence well: the finds are bagged up and then the tricky bit of paper recording starts: Paper-based records are still the lingua franca on site, the archaeologists tell us other higher-tech means have tried and failed and that it's all quickly digitised off site anyhow. By the very next day, Nina's pot is dated to the early Iron Age. We're both thrilled and experience one of those rather cliched 'time travel' epiphanies that the people on Time Team used to go on about.
After digging for a while, Hayley encourages me to 'clean up that hole a bit, Karen'. That seems bordering on the insane ('Hayley, it's a hole in some mud. It will never, ever be clean' was what I was really thinking) but soon I notice the professional finish of her and Toby's holes. Who would dream that the walls of a professionally-wrought hole could be so admirable? 'Trench envy' is common on digs, but for me it was as much about the walls as the finds.
One site hut contains mainly office stuff and studious young archaeologists (in fact they are mainly young here, are all the older ones in offices?), heads down, drawing on large boards with real pencils. Impressive - I haven't seen this done since art school in the early 90's. There is also a Very Important Folder of paper and these are the find sheets, and we need to learn to do one. Toby and Hayley are very patient with us, Nina is quickly giggling as she reads my mind - she knows this is the kind of thing I find very trying. I endeavour to keep up but as usual I'm easily distracted from the numbers, I just hope to God no future academic has to rely on my notes. The system - at first - seems Byzantine. There is some to-ing and fro-ing of digits on different sheets, and I'm still not sure how the 'Slot Number' is arrived at, but you soon realise that these very brainy folk have worked it out to minimise error and where they do occur, to enable it at least to be found. Later I try to do a find sheet alone and after a few minutes leafing, numbers becoming ever more confusing, I have to interrupt one of the silent drawing people for help. Their trance is ruined but they indulge me, probably thinking 'For God's sake, all this for a smashed bone from some Iron Age barbecue'. Or maybe archaeologists never think such things, after all, wasn't Richard III just a bone in the ground once?
The walk back to base camp (the Unit office, where the finds go nightly) takes us past a Site of Special Scientific Interest that Toby says is full of coprolite - its sounds like the name of a Victorian medical elexir but Wikipedia says it's 'a fossilized feces'. I can't remember why this ancient shit is important (now there's a title in the making!), but it seems they are not allowed to dig there. We also pass what is to be soon our Artists' House - a former farmhouse (though more 1970's than 1870's) that looks rather far from being inhabitable still. It'll be good when it's done - we can then clump 'home' muddily for a hot bath. A blonde longhaired woman walking her matching dog chats to us about the dig, we encourage her to the March Open Day on site - it's been planned as a Roman Street Party apparently, though I sense some unease amongst the team about quite how to pull this off with conditions as they are. Sadly Nina and I can't be there to offer any artistic diversion, and we're quite good at that so it's a bit of a shame.
Back at the office - part storage facility - corridors towering with finds boxes, part garden shed - another team has cleaned and laid out some of the best site finds. The delicacy of these objects I find very moving: I recall the acres of gleaned earth, the huge mechanical diggers, the soil mountains, the heavy shovels pitted against these slithers of ancient metal and clay; the boorish builders who will soon be on site. There are brooches, pottery, an exquisite bone needle that looks days old, a bit of an elegant javelin found in a well (one of very few arms found so far - they were a peaceful lot here). A fellow volunteer lends me a magnifying glass to study the coins with, it's magical to see their fine detail. The team are so casual with much of their expertise - I suppose like many specialists are - that it feels faintly embarrasing to show our enthusiasm and awe at the aura these ancient things possess. I guess it's all in a day's work for them. I'm also quickly aware of how much more interested I am by these objects, found in the very soil I've been toiling in, than had I encountered them cleaned up and labelled in a dusty museum case. It really matters when you intimately know their origin, and their aura perhaps (for me anyhow) derives from the liminal space between their 'loss' thousands of years ago and their rediscovery now by these means by these people....