Digging Diaries – ICE AGE ISLAND PROJECT (Jersey)

During the period of the 5th-19th July I had the opportunity to fly over to Jersey and take part in the excavations at Les Varines, as part of the Ice Age Island Project. Alongside this, I was tasked with recording a Dig Diary for the BBC4 programme Digging for Britain. The site itself is Upper Palaeolithic, dated to around 45KYA – 60KYA, and one of its main aims is to document the flow of knapped flint debotage, discarded blades, and the odd core within very slowly moving, and confusingly stratified sediments. The project also has wider aims of understanding the lives of Upper Palaeolithic hunter gatherers on Jersey, at a time when much colder temperatures made the environment startlingly different. There is no flint on Jersey, so finding these people’s tools tells us a lot about their activities across what is now the English Channel.

With trowel in hand, I made my way over and met up with the team, an international group comprised of many different universities and levels of experience. After the ritual flailing of tent poles, our group convened with the directors and supervisors of the dig. We were told all about the site, its age and what we were looking for, as well as the connections with Jersey Heritage. This really brought home how the excitement of a modern dig is projected to a wider audience, with its own vibrant social media presence, including the Ice Age Island twitter page, complete with its own hashtag. (#IceAgeIsland, if you’re interested.)

As an undergraduate studying Archaeology and Anthropology, I needed to balance excavation as well as the filming. I wanted to dig for as much as possible and learn as much as possible, but I also really didn’t want to miss out on exciting discoveries on the opposite end of the trench that might be interesting to film. The Dig Diary needed a daily update on the progress of the dig, with the director, Ed Blinkhorn, guiding the camera around the site and the deepening test pits. I also needed to film excavation itself and the general surroundings.

During my time on site, I learnt a lot about filming people, letting someone know you are filming them instead of having them turn round, startled and confused, was important to learn early on. When you are documenting an excavation, it becomes clear how many techniques are employed and why- we had geological trenches open up, boreholes were dug, and 3D Photogrammetry employed, with photos taken from a drone. It was very interesting to see how tried and tested techniques, as well as modern ones, are combined in order to tell the tale of the site.

However, what also happened was that the stories inevitably revealed themselves as the excavation continued, and it was important to keep my camera close. For example, halfway through our group’s time at Les Varines, two coursemates, Sarah and Robin, were at the top of the trench, digging down, spit after spit, in a test pit that was slowly turning from archaeological to geological. After reaching a depth of more than a metre and a half, temperatures rising to the 30s, and ever-stranger trench game questions floating out of the hole (“Which hat would you rather be, a fedora or a fez?” “Good question”…) they were finally rewarded with flint. Filming that sense of relief and a cheer or two was probably the best footage I managed to capture, and its spontaneity only enhanced the excitement felt. This I feel is the greatest benefit of filming archaeology- because by documenting a dig one reveals both the story that the archaeology tells us through excavation, as well as the lives of the individual archaeologists themselves- at least for two weeks!

Sam Hoppen

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