dirt archaeologist

Life in A Day: the Silchester ‘Town Life’ project

We are 164 people in a field in Hampshire: all sizes, all ages, all backgrounds, all abilities. One aim: to document life in a trench and to live life outside of it! We will share a day of our university research and training excavation with you….tune in!




“My name is Amanda and I am a dirt archaeologist. I work as a Research Fellow for the Department of Archaeology at the University of Reading and I run the Silchester Field School (www.reading.ac.uk/silchester)  – a research and training excavation examining the origins, development and decline of one of Britain’s best known – and best preserved – Iron Age and Roman towns. We are peeling our piece of the town apart bit by bit (we began in 1997 and have just completed 100 weeks of seasonal excavation!) BUT we are also all about the training! This is a university undergraduate module and we teach everyone how to excavate, record and explain their own small area of the site. I have a staff of 40 and about 120 participants…Share our day! And mine!”






Edoardo (front right) and team: back left to right Henrik, Sarah, Owen; front left to right Keith, Edoardo

“Hello, I’m Edoardo Bedin, postgraduate student from Italy. I came here 3 summers ago (2011), due to my love for UK and my interest in British Roman archaeology. After digging here once I fell in love with this amazing project: Silchester Insula IX Town Life Project; therefore I came back last summer again (2012), and thanks to a several good coincidences I finally found out the courage to ask to the Field project’s director if I could apply for a position within the staff team…and she said yes! I cried for the first time after a very long time.

This summer (2013) I started my first official staff position which is also my first true archaeological job: I’m in charge of the main north-south Roman street of the town, which is in Latin Cardus Maximus. I’ve always been feeling lots of pressure because of the responsibility I have toward the project and the students I’m looking after (4 at the moment), and the language is also another great barrier which makes me struggle from time to time, but I’m holding the line…it’s worthy to hold the line as this is an unique experience for me, which I would have never had in Italy (my native country and also the country where I’ve studied for the past 6 years).

I need to go back to my area on site, but let me say two more things before I do:

1. Once you’ve joined this project you will always love it.

2. If Calleva was a woman I would have married her instantly.

Maybe one more thing, quite funny if you think that I’m Italian and I came from 1200 km away, like my anchestors did once in the mid first century A.D. We came here, we built the Roman street, and I excavated it completely, isn’t that hilarious? It seems that we do things and get rid of those things all on our own (obviously many other British students and non British students dug the street, yet it seems that there was this destiny already written: the Romans built the street and one of their heirs is excavating it).

I wish you all the best and if you have a day off, why don’t you come and visit us on site? and maybe me?”



KEITH (far left) and EDOARDO (2nd from right)

“Archaeology isn’t just for professionals and students who want to become professionals:  I am simply an interested party who likes history and thought digging would be a fun way to spend my summer.  I know there is a plethora of people like me who see the dig as a hobby, and have come back ye ar after year.  Personally, I hope that I too can continue to learn from and participate in more digs in future summers.”





“For the last four days, I have spent my time excavating and recording a pottery-lined hearth, at the Roman site of Calleva Atrebatum (modern day Silchester), and what I have particularly enjoyed about this feature is that it has really given me an insight into understanding the everyday thought processes of past societies, which for a first time archaeologist, has especially helped at putting the archaeological record into context.


The feature, as it is clear now, had two functions, firstly as a pit and then as a hearth, which has been indicated the change in material and finds as I excavated. The pit, which consists of a single primary fill currently provides very little information of its function (waste or storage), and analysis of the removed material will provide more information on this.


However, the material that is stratigraphically later, up until the top fill, provides clear evidence for the later change in function to a hearth, due to the nature of the material, which has also incidentally inferred at least two phases of use. The first fill indicates a clay-lined hearth, whether the burnt clay was intentionally deposited or has burnt in the hearth, it is unclear, but the layer of black fill containing charcoal above it, confirms its function as a hearth.

The top fill above the layer of black fill is where it can be inferred that there is a second phase to the hearth, due to the pieces of broken pottery that have been deposited as a lining. It is unsure as to whether this is for the purpose of repairing or strengthening it, however the amount of pottery that has been excavated is incredible, including two large pieces of pot rim, which suggest that the pot fill is from the same pot.

 Except for the vast amount of pottery, there have been very few other finds, except an amazing piece of a stone cooking vessel, which at first sent the finds team into a bit of confusion as it did look like a piece of clay at first, however not only is it a beautiful piece, but it does help to confirm the hearth as a domestic hearth.

Excavating the hearth, as small a feature as it is in the whole landscape of this Roman town, has been such a fun and interesting experience because it gave me an idea of how people used not only the landscape for domestic use, but also the material used to aide this process.”





“As a Canadian who studied classical archaeology I thought it would be difficult to get on-site experience after I graduated as Canada is not know for its wealth of Greco-Roman archaeology. But here at Silchester I’ve learned more more about practical excavation than I did during my undergraduate degree.

Over the course of a normal day we are exposed to centuries worth of archaeology, from Iron Age long houses to Roman baths and even a couple Victorian gin bottles. Between more delicate work like planning or excavating small features and heavy mattocking of  two thousand year old cultivation deposits we gain a broad range of experience.

Almost as important as the archaeology itself is the people we work with, some of the best excavators I’ve met in over six months of on-site experience. The connections we make here can last a lifetime. Through excavations like this you can learn about others all over the world.”


Hen –  Supervisor – South East Area

“I’ve worked at Silchester for 7 seasons now, working from volunteer through the ranks of staff, making some of my best friends in the process. Rain or shine I wouldn’t spend my summer holidays anywhere else.

I supervise the training and excavation of an area of the site. I work with students, volunteers and staff members to ensure that the archaeology is removed in the correct manner and that the students and volunteers leave the field school trained up with the necessary skills. I see my role as the person who draws all the small things together into a coherent picture for that part of site, ensuring that all the paperwork and matrices are correct. I also support and encourage the diggers in their personal and professional growth (I hope)!

 A typical day at Silchester starts with a very large strong cup of coffee with some of the other staff. At quarter to 9 students, volunteers and staff start to gather on the side of the trench to await the days directions. This part of the day always feels very hectic as I need to ensure every person has something to do and that this is building their experience and skillset up. Once I have everyone set to their particular roles, planning, sampling, excavating, recording, cleaning etc I generally spend the day to-oing and fro-ing my desk where I try and catch up on paperwork to the trench where I sometimes feel I am spinning in circles as all the diggers shout my name to ask my opinion on their features!  A typical day will finish with a quiet half an hour once all the diggers are off site to try and catch up with my paperwork before dinner (and drinks usually).

Some days can be quite challenging, when features seem complicated and it can feel like nothing is getting done, but other days there is so much progress made on site I can’t quite keep up.”




“My name is Jordyn Heimbigner and I am a student from the USA, working for 6 weeks in the field at Silchester! Silchester has been the ideal place to gain experience in archaeology for me. Each day I find myself both excavating and recording. As a result I witness a large part of the process rather than just one area, as I would have at my University’s field school back home. Planning the features prior to excavation adjusts my eyes and I have heard that many field schools don’t allow you to record, so I feel privileged with the responsibility to take part in recording. Additionally my supervisors have taught me to recognize the stratigraphic relationships among the features. Because the features here are not obvious structures built up, but were timber buildings, my eyes have required much adjustment to see the features, which is the exact adjustment my eyes needed for the experience I would like to have for my future career. Though I didn’t expect it to be this warm during my visit to the UK, it has been a wonderful experience here, and I will definitely be returning, if possible, next year.”

WILL: 1st year Archaeology undergraduate

“I have attended the excavations at Insula IX for the past two seasons. From both seasons I have gained a lot. Many new friends have been made living in a field together has been a bonding experience from which I have lifetime friends.

Many new skills have been gained and shall be gained in the next season. Archaeological skills are first and foremost and from my time at the project I have learnt to dig, record, analyse and interpret all of which shall contribute to my archaeological career. My team working skills have improved as this project requires us all to pull together as a team. The team are all supporting and willing to help making the project a place of learning and friendship. The team are all a credit to the project.

Overall I would say that my time involved with the Insula IX town life project has been a life enriching experience I will never forget.”




“During my time in Silchester I have learnt so much from digging and taking samples to planning a feature. I was really impressed as to how Archaeologists are able to interpret an archaeological feature only by looking  at the soil colour. During my four weeks at Silchester I enjoyed mostly planning and the talks provided by the University which were very informative. The excavation also allowed me to meet new people from different countries as well as make new friendships. In addition to that, everyone at the site was very friendly and ready to help which made my first excavation experience even better.”



LUNA (far left)

“I am a first year Archaeology student from Reading University and the Silchester escavation is my first ever digging experience . Being a part of this excavation also means I have to camp on the site for a month. Camping is challenging because of the lack of facilities, however it is also rewarding because it is social and I can get to know other people with the same interests. My average working day on site can consist of cleaning a context, planning a new context,or mattocking; we also take on sometimes other responsibilities on site such as: helping to clean finds,helping to process samples for the science department and giving talks to visitors. After two weeks working on site I have found Silchester to be a very rewarding experience and I hope to return next year.”


“I have been a volunteer at Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum) for 12 years. What compels me to return each year is watching history unfold year on year 500 years from the Romans to the Iron Age.

A typical day would consist of planning a feature eg. A floor or a pit the process could include taking soil samples such as XRF these are taken to look at elements in the soils such as metals etc.

After the samples are taken and recorded the feature is removed by troweling, collecting any objects such as ceramics bone etc as you trowel. These processes are repeating again and again to unravel the history of that particular part of the site.”





“My name is Matt Cano and I am a Trainee excavator employed at Silchester Roman Town. I have just completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Reading, and having worked on this site for 2  seasons as a student, I am now employed in a Trainee capacity. Here is an entry from my Dig Journal: I awoke this morning armed with powers yet unbeknown to me. I took control, as Natalie (supervisor) had a holiday and Flick (Assistant supervisor) was a Mortimer person so would arrive late. I assigned jobs for a good ten minutes before Flick got back. It was time to put a slot into the triangle of doom part of our area, as this has been just as complex as the eastern part of site. Me and Douglas did this, creating a rather paralellagram looking rectangular slot we went through a substantial chunk of orange gravel and came onto the underlying silt. As Flick then went to the office to work on the matrix I helped supervise for the whole day, between me and Hannah we managed to keep everybody ticking over well. Overall I think I did a good job giving good advice and sometimes being absolutely impotent, but it was an awesome experience and I felt like I was learning so much. Saturday evening was Heroes and Villains themed party night. So I put on my superman onesie and cape and had an awesome night.”




Today my main task was to set up and excavate a 0.5m x 4m slot, across what is thought to be a large Victorian trench. Excavated by using a mattock and trowel, the slot produced ceramic building material (CBM), pottery, nails and a copper brooch pin, to a depth of 100mm.

My other duties include helping and supervising others in the trench, mostly those in close proximity to myself. I am working within a 30m x 15m trench in Insula III, in the Roman town of Silchester. Each year the University of Reading excavates here for a season of 6 weeks. I began as a novice in 2010, and have returned every year since, currently under the title of ‘Experienced Excavator’. I enjoy myself thoroughly each time and hope to return next year.”




“Silchester has definitely provided me with the necessary skills needed to carry out any excavation anywhere in the world, for example, the concept and importance planning as well as section drawing. During my four weeks at the Roman site, I attended lots of lectures such about the different soil layers, Geoarchaeology and the Stratigraphic matrix which allowed me to think beyond what I see and to successfully link different contexts and situations with each other. Washing and sorting finds showed me what happens to them once they are found. The staff members were very friendly, supportive and looked after all my needs throughout.”




ROSS (left) and JOE


So, how to describe a ‘day in the life’ of the Visitors Cabin at Silchester? The short answer is that we never really have a typical day. The variety, of people and activities, is something I consider a real bonus of being on the Visitor team here. And just as there’s no such thing as a typical day, there really isn’t a typical visitor either. At Silchester we are visited by individuals, smaller and larger groups, families, clubs and societies and school groups. So far this year we have had visitors ranging from Silchester and Reading to Tasmania and Texas. Some visitors make a special trip to see us whilst others stumble upon the excavation quite accidentally. We have many first time visitors but also lots of returning visitors checking on our progress from previous years, and it’s always nice to see a familiar face.

There are some constants though. We are the face of the excavation, and as such have a dedicated Visitors Cabin, where our visitors can find more information, activity sheets for the children and a modest shop (a quick mention should be made here of our best-selling Roman Rubber Ducks!).



Every morning I open up the Cabin and set up for the day with the help of my brilliant Visitors team, Joe and Emily. I can then be found outside the Cabin, eating my chocolate croissant (a little bit of sugar in the morning goes a long way), checking my paperwork for what is happening that day and who is on Visitor Duty, and watching the trench slowly fill up with archaeologists before I open the gate.

When a visitor arrives they are greeted by either myself as Visitor Manager or by one of my team. They are given a brief introduction to the site and offered a site tour by one of our undergraduate students on Visitor Duty. Visitor Duty is a key component of the University’s undergraduate student assessments for their time at Silchester. From there we like to leave it up to the visitors and their guide to determine how long a tour they would like. They can see all areas of excavation, and are free to chat to any of our diggers, Finds or Science teams. Everyone is happy to talk about what they are doing – we’re a pretty friendly bunch! The visitors always seem to love the tours, and often remark on the enthusiasm and knowledge of the students who guide them.

On the Visitor team we are also responsible for providing and organising school visits during term time, special group visits, and our Open Days. Schools get a special programme that includes tours, a talk from our lovely Finds team, curriculum related activity sheets, the chance to plan and dig like an archaeologist in our special planning activity and mini excavation pit, and try out some Roman-related crafts. These visits are a particular favourite of mine, being a teacher and freelance education officer in ‘real life’, and you can’t beat the boisterous enthusiasm of between 30 and 81 children learning outside of the classroom!

Open Days are also a massive part of the Visitor team’s season. Our first Open Day this season was the 20th of July, and was a great success with over 700 visitors. We ran site tours by Mike and Amanda, and special children’s activities including the mini excavation pit, decorating a pot before smashing it and piecing it back together like an archaeologist, and the brilliant Story-time. The day resulted in lots of sales in the shop and donations, all of which helps to fund the excavation. Putting on an excavation like this every year is a massive undertaking so we are really grateful for anything people can afford to give. Our next Open Day is 3rd of August so do visit if you can!

A particular highlight for me this year was helping to arrange a lovely after-hours visit by a local Brownie pack. I really enjoyed seeing some of them get to make their Promise on our lovely peaceful site, and was especially proud to be presented with my very own ‘Night at the Museum’ badge!

So I hope you can see from this that in the Visitor Cabin no one day is ever the same, and we get a massive range of visitors to the site who all take away something different. At the end of every day I close the gate, and then my team and I pack up the Cabin once again until the next morning. After dinner I spend some time writing my student assessments for those on Duty that day, all the while reflecting on how lucky I am to spend the summer meeting all the wonderful and interesting people that visit us, at one of the most interesting archaeological sites and most beautiful parts of the country you can imagine.”


Cindy: Science MANAGER


SCIENCE@SILCHESTER: left to right Zoe, Nellie, Cindy and Patricia

I start of my day with a cup of coffee…I survive on coffee during the season, and I am lucky enough to have power in my cabin and a kettle, so it’s the first port of call. It’s either me or Tom who sticks it on, and we drink it while listening to the radio, before the madness of the day starts.

I start by bagging all of the dried heavy residue from flotation; emptying the trays ready for more sorted samples. When the students come along, we have a group discussion all about site formation processes and Science@Silchester…it’s a great way to get to know them and to try and remember all of their names, and teach them important aspects of archaeology and archaeological science. While I knatter away, the rest of my team are setting up and getting started on their tasks…flotation, sieving and sorting. We are a well-oiled machine at this point as we are in week 4 and everyone knows what they are doing. The day is then broken up by more coffee breaks, answering questions, sorting, and the occasional talk to members of the public, and the excitement of what my team may find in the samples…whether it be a seed or an iron age coin!

It’s a great atmosphere and I have a fantastic team, and it’s been an amazing season so far…but we have a few more weeks to go. I look forward to every day, to spend time with my team and I wonder what we will find!

Zoë:Science Placement


“I awaken in a tent in a field on an often-deflated mattress and stay in it until the heat turns it into an unbearable Sweat Lodge of which I must escape from. From there I have my morning tea and toast (2 slices if I’m lucky, brown bread if I am luckier) then prep my body with all the sun lotion in the world before heading off to the Science Hut. Myself and the others set about prepping all the various areas of science, such as setting up buckets and sieves or putting out samples for people to sit in the sun and sort. Depending on the week, I may start by sieving through floated samples or floating whilst students get told about site formation, else I will be sorting through last year’s samples. It is the best place to be on a hot day- hands in the flotation tank or holding a hose, and teaching the students can be nice, if not a tad bit repetitive! As much as finding things like brooch pins, iron age coins and silver sheets are amazing, my favourite things are finding perfect complete small animal bones- they are so pretty!

During lunch and tea break I relax with friends (of which I have made so many at Silchester, archaeologists are fun friends to have) then I will come back and switch back to the tasks in Science I have not done that day, if it is sorting it is nice to do something a bit less effort-inducing for the post-lunch period, though sorting can be awfully strenuous, especially if you have to pick out countless pieces of charcoal with a tweezer!

After site is over (sometimes early because us pale Brits can’t cope with this crazy heat), I eat a usually decent dinner, relax with friends and then either party (it is hard to imagine an archaeologist without a can of cider/beer in their hand), wander the Roman walls of the site and star gaze or engage in games of Frisbee or pub quizzes before returning to my now freezing cold tent to cover myself in about 10 sleeping bags and a boyfriend.

Being an environmental archaeologist might not be what one imagines of archaeologists working in a trench with trowels (I brought one with me, it is now an extra tent peg) but we find some darn brilliant things, and picking out a tiny, perfect seed from a heap of charcoal and knowing it, gives us some greater insight into what was eaten/grown/traded in those times is so rewarding.”

Nellie: Science Placement


Nellie (left), Zoe and Cindy

“As a budding archaeologist there is nothing that beats waking up in a hot, airless tent racing to get dressed before suffocating. Yes, it does sound odd but the life lived next to the open excavation area cannot be beaten. The interesting combination of food served alongside the lack of proper showers and cold drinks is outweighed by the vast amount of archaeology and social activity that Silchester has to offer. And there really is something for everyone.

Having been nervous about the idea of the science undertaken on site in my first year, it surprised me that it was one of the most enjoyable aspects of my time here. Thus, I sent off my application for a Science@Silchester placement and hey presto, here I am; and it hasn’t failed to disappoint. With the temperature reaching highs of 34 degrees Celsius the process of flotation and sieving in the shade with the added bonus of the use of a hose-pipe has been bliss. While many would argue that the process of breaking up bits of soil as mud to find gravel and organic remains sounds horrific-ly dull I can confirm that it is totally the opposite. The finding of several small finds has also been rather rewarding. The sorting side of things has certainly had its highs too with plenty of people to meet and old friends to catch up with. Indeed, the flotation tank seems to be gossip central. But nothing can beat the vast array of food and drink devoured in the science hut. Nicknamed cake Mecca in previous years, this year’s focus has turned to biscuits! A day is never complete without the fast sugar fixes gained at tea breaks.

Never knowing what is going to be found is a significant driving force in archaeology as a whole, whether in the trench or elsewhere and the environmental sector has certainly produced some remarkable finds this year. But it is the social side of the dig that also plays a huge part in keeping morale high as the half-way point in the season brings with it colds and tiredness. There really is never a dull moment in a field in the middle of nowhere when 150+ students are pooled together! Events such as quizzes and ultimate Frisbee in the nearby amphitheatre bring out the competitive nature of many, with Silchester’s very own beer festival and pirate night (I’m not sure who is more scared – the local children being charged by a group of sword brandishing archaeologists dressed as pirates, or the archaeologists being bombarded and hacked at by toddlers with plastic swords!) providing more relaxed entertainment!

Silchester would not be the same without the relaxed and friendly science team and despite not having picked up a trowel in weeks, time spent floating, sieving and sorting has been just as fun!”





“Each day in the finds cabin we receive the artefacts the archaeologists have found that day. We process the finds by washing, marking and sorting them ready for our specialists to inspect. This summer we have a number of interesting small finds, such as a Roman Seal Box and part of an inscription with the letters ‘BA’. These small finds can often tell us what activity occured in the town 2000 years ago. As Finds Trainees we also teach the students and volunteers that come to site in what they might find in the trench. In this way we can help ensure that they know what to look out for and how the record the finds accurately to build a better picture of the site.”

Back to:

AMANDA: Excavation Director

These are just a small selection of the people who make up the Silchester excavation ! So many people behind the scenes who help keep a research and training excavation like this running – from the man at the top, Professor Michael Fulford, to Jean our cook who makes 164 sandwiches a day, day in, day out to feed our hungry stomachs, to Jon my site manager who knows the recycling bins inside-out and who can recite the Reading-Mortimer train timetable in his sleep as he transports our daily commuters back and forth! I have 5 Supervisors, 5 Assistant Supervisors, a database manager – and my wonderful Jen who goes cross-eyed over the rotas she has to produce on a daily basis. Nick, my talented 2nd, keeps me on the straight and narrow archaeologically – and Dan who can level a plan with a glance, and is able to turn stratigraphic somersaults with ease. I cannot mention them all! But together we hope we are providing one of the most detailed and informative slices through a major Roman town – as well as learning the tricks of the archaeological trade to pass on to all those who come after us!

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Over and Out Team Silchester!