My day started at 7am, but I drove to the dig site shortly after 9am. I was absolutely exhausted and barely functioning on a basic level, but once onsite I’d be okay to a degree.
Why was I so exhausted? I have medical conditions which make my life challenging on a daily basis. Some people tell me I’m NOT disabled, but as my abilities have been severely restricted since I developed these conditions five years ago (including costing me my job at the time), I beg to differ. A nasty head cold triggered a balance disorder and associated symptoms including chronic fatigue syndrome, tinnitus, hyperacusis (sensitivity to certain tones and pitches of sound), anxiety and depression. Fortunately here in Sheffield we have an incredible Audiovestibular Department at one of the hospitals, staffed by very attentive and compassionate people. Not everyone suffering from a balance disorder is that fortunate. There is no “cure”, but a programme of specialised exercises set and monitored by a physiotherapist to retrain the brain into interpreting the signals for your balance correctly. Essentially, you’re being re-taught how to stand and walk and sometimes it can take years as pushing yourself too hard does more harm than good.
The hardest element of my condition is that I look normal and people judge me accordingly. I visibly lose my balance occasionally, but what people don’t see is me concentrating as hard as I possibly can to remain upright and avoid walking into people and objects. Due to the balance system no longer being automatic, my brain has to therefore think about walking and standing, so every task (physical and mental) uses up those limited energy resources very quickly. The problem doesn’t end there either – you may feel okay after a good night’s sleep. People with chronic fatigue syndrome don’t. After five years I now know that if I exert myself mentally or physically one day, I need to rest completely for a week in order to recover properly. That means doing absolutely nothing; no housework, no visiting friends or family, no going food shopping, no attending medical appointments, no studying. I don’t have a social life per se, as it’s too tiring. I visit friends and family at their homes. Chronic fatigue is cumulative, and those energy levels return VERY slowly.
Anyway, bored you enough with the background, so back to the Day of Archaeology:
I’m 41 years old and study the BA in Archaeological Studies part-time at the University of Sheffield as a mature student. I have just completed year 3 of 6, and for the second year running I volunteered my services to Sally Rodgers, Community Heritage Officer at Heeley City Farm, for the community dig during the Festival of British Archaeology.
Last year I assisted in the Finds Room with cataloguing finds. That was my very first time on a dig, and due to my disabilities I’d requested to be used where I could best contribute. This year I accepted the role of Finds Officer, partly for the opportunity to become more involved and to learn more, but also as being on a summer dig is a requirement for a module I’m taking next academic year.
The dig started on Saturday 16th July and had been taking place every day. What were we excavating? Victorian terraced houses. Boring, you might think. The local community would disagree with you there! The site of the farm was once residential housing built during the latter part of the 19th Century and we want to know about the structures and the people who once lived there during the houses’ entire history.
The Finds Room already had approximately 20 finds trays awaiting sorting and recording, but let’s start at the beginning:
Three trenches were opened onsite and the Trench Supervisors; Ken Dash, Jane Woodcock and Joe Page, would come to me and request a context number and recording sheet. Archaeology is a precise discipline. When recording finds and structures the context in a three dimensional space is essential in mapping the distribution of those finds. Without the context the finds are meaningless and have to be recorded as un-stratified. Every time a Trench Supervisor discovered a new layer of different material (different soil layers, rubble layers etc) or if they extended their trench I would assign them a new context number made up of the site code, trench code and a unique reference number. This layer in the trench would be labelled and all finds discovered in that context would be labelled accordingly. I also provided the Trench Supervisors with additional finds trays with relevant context tags where required (which was happening more and more frequently in Trench C!). Heaven help anyone who touched my recording sheets – including the Site Director – as I’d threaten to bite them!
The trays would come into the Finds Room where I would sort through them in turn, separating them into materials such as metal, wood, bone, plastic, glass, ceramic etc. Each pile would then be placed into a finds bag labelled with the context reference (as detailed above) but additionally a unique three digit finds number would also be allocated and recorded on the Finds Register. The Finds Register records the finds number, site and trench codes, context number, number of items in the bag, weight, and a brief description of the contents such as clear glass, or bone fragments etc. The bags were then set aside for later processing.
Pretty simple you’d think, but my responsibilities also included greeting members of the public who wished to be on the dig. My duties involved ensuring they were properly attired (suitable footwear and clothing), that adults were aware of the age restrictions for children, ensuring all participants had completed the relevant documentation including photography permission forms, and introducing them to Sally, Dr Roger Doonan (the Site Director and one of my lecturers) as well as Jane, Ken or Joe out at the trenches.
Engaging with visitors is essential on a community dig, and in the Finds Room Sally had created display boards of information, maps and photographs of the farm site throughout history. This encouraged visitors to ask questions and make observations, particularly the older generations who recalled living in the properties before they were demolished for a doomed relief road during the 1970’s. I would ensure these people were introduced to Sally so she had the opportunity to record their stories for future use and interpretation of the site.
Due to the number of interesting finds, I created a special tray and once those finds had been suitably recorded I placed them there for visitors to look at. This included two Police Community Support Officers and a Police Officer! Of particular interest was the button stamped GR for George Rex, made by a company called Firmin & Sons Limited (which was stamped on the reverse). They started manufacturing buttons for the military and then the Police in 1677 and are still in business today! As part of a research project in conjunction with Heeley Historical Society and the Hawley Collection at Kelham Island Museum, we had information from the Trade Directories and Census Returns for the addresses we were excavating, and we knew a Policeman resided in one of the properties as a lodger at one stage. Did HE lose the button? It was very exciting!
The day was much of a sameness with trays coming in, trays being processed, context numbers being issued, participants and visitors being greeted. The huge excitement was all of us standing around Roger’s vehicle during the morning whilst we listened to Rony Robinson on BBC Radio Sheffield. He’d been out at the site previously to interview Roger and participants regarding the dig and interesting finds. Sally was talking to Rony live by phone and we found some of the comments really funny, such as the “Knicker Hoard of Heeley”. A collection of lady’s underwear had been discovered earlier on in the dig, and this had produced much hilarity amongst the volunteer staff. You don’t have to be mad to work here – but it helps!
As the personal belongings of all participants and staff were kept in the Finds Room, I was also responsible for ensuring the security of the room. Unless another member of staff was present I would secure it if needing to go elsewhere on the farm site such as the cafe (which is excellent!) or the toilets.
The dig day ended at 4pm, but certain tasks needed to be completed before we could leave. I would ensure the large table where I worked was tidy, that all finds trays were processed in the order they came in, and that all paperwork was in the correct folder. All staff would close the shutters, ensure all tools and display boards had been brought inside and we’d signed out before the room was secured and the shutters brought down. My day ended at 4:25pm before I headed home to collapse with my cats.
Usually Rachel Walker-Higgins, a friend of mine, had been assisting me in the Finds Room, but she was poorly that day, and I would like to thank her particularly as without her help I would never have coped with the demands of the role. I would also like to thank Roger for his patience and confidence in my abilities to be Finds Officer despite my limitations; Sally for the incredible opportunity she gave me and her undying confidence that I could achieve what was required; Giovanna Fregni for her support and advice which proved exceptionally valuable; Rach, Jane and Ken for repeatedly badgering me into taking breaks to rest and eat properly; but most of all I want to thank all of them for making me take days off when my exhaustion was severe despite my sense of duty, and their compassion and understanding regarding my disabilities. They helped me feel like I have a value, that my disabilities haven’t made me worthless, and that I still have something to contribute to society and the world around me. An exceptional experience and one which will look amazing on my archaeology resume. I’m still recovering now!