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November 2017

Posted by admin on November 3, 2017

This month's blog is brought to us by Jonathan. He writes about how archaeology has changed over the years and how he became involved in the Teffont Archaeology Project, as well as offering a unique insight into the project's future potential. 

1971. An optimistic schoolboy is on his first dig with his local archaeological society, in one of the rural parts of Lancashire. He is camping in a field next to the site; the sun shines each day (even if meteorological records don’t bear this out). He has a shiny sharp new 5” pointing trowel. There’s a decent pub in the nearby village and the other diggers are good company. The County Archaeologist is running the excavation and is clearly a person of gravitas and influence. The schoolboy is thinking about whether to apply to read ancient history and archaeology at university, although the career prospects are not particularly clear.  He’s having the time of his life …. 

2017. An optimistic bus-pass holder is on a dig in South Wiltshire. It’s his third season on this particular project. In 2015 he camped in a field near the site for the first time in years and realised that there comes a point in life when getting into and out of a sleeping bag in a tiny tent in the dark requires a degree of athleticism he scarcely possesses any longer; moreover, the sun no longer shines every day. He has a blunt trowel a couple of inches long. There’s a decent pub in the nearby village and the other diggers are good company. He now knows that being a County Archaeologist does not necessarily bring either gravitas or influence. He’s thinking about whether to apply to do a PhD, now that his career prospects are no longer an issue, but hasn’t finally settled on a topic as there are so many interesting questions to pursue. He’s having the time of his life ….

I had always thought that archaeology might be a suitable activity to pursue once I retired. Like the veteran MP Tony Benn, who said that leaving the House of Commons would enable him to spend more time doing politics, being a County Archaeologist meant that I hadn't excavated anything other than the top of a desk for many years. It was curiosity about the past that had drawn me into archaeology and for years I had had no opportunity to undertake fieldwork or research. Thus in May 2014 I found myself working for what was still English Heritage, in a field at the edge of Salisbury Plain with a magnificent view over the Vale of Pewsey. This was what my imagination told me that archaeology used to be like - the song of the skylark overhead as a counterpoint to the chink of trowel on chalk, even if punctuated by the thud of heavy artillery from the adjacent army firing ranges. Admittedly, almost the last time I had drawn a site plan was whilst Jim Callaghan was Prime Minister ( if you don’t remember him, the very last bill of his Government was in fact the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act) and the last time I‘d had to use a mattock and shovel for more than a day was longer ago than I care to admit, so it was a relief that I could still manage to move dirt from A to B steadily if not necessarily speedily. It was good to confirm what I had instinctively known for years - that archaeology is as enjoyable a way as any of exercising body and intellect simultaneously.

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Jonathan taking site photos in Iran in the 1970s

One thing leads to another, and the site director David Roberts asked me whether I’d be interested in digging at Teffont, and participating in the field school. This seemed too good an opportunity to miss; not least because Teffont was clearly an established project with a series of well-defined research goals. So I was initiated into the lore and traditions of Teffont - and enjoyed myself amongst the trees in the Upper Holt so much that I returned in 2015 and 2017. 

Since I first put my trowel in the ground the context and practice of archaeology have changed almost beyond recognition. The integration of archaeology into the planning system, the increased recognition that the historic environment is a finite entity that requires thoughtful stewardship, the introduction of new technology and scientific applications, the adoption (and rejection) of various theoretical stances, the enormous volume of data recovered, the accessibility of information via the internet, and the development of professional standards and best practice have all played crucial roles in developing the discipline. Essentially though, archaeology is still a collective enterprise, driven by curiosity. Teffont reminds me why I took up archaeology in the first place - because it’s fascinating and enjoyable. The special quality of Teffont is its mix of contributors; students, professionals, amateurs, and a very welcoming local community. Equally important is the nature of the archaeology. A range of questions pose themselves. Why is the stone used for the buildings in the Upper Holt locally sourced whilst the stone used for contemporary structures in the Glebe comes from a much wider area? How does activity at the monumental well relate to whatever is going on in the sacred grove at the top of the hill? What is special about this part of southwest Wiltshire that it should have such a range of religious sites; is this a particular stronghold for a late pagan revival? Does the character of Teffont arise from its apparent position on a boundary, whether between Durotriges and Belgae, or subsequently between Britons and Saxons? It’s clear that Teffont still has much to tell us. I’m looking forward to the next season of fieldwork.

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Jonathan and colleagues excavating in the Glebe this summer

2037. There’s this old bloke in the back of the new hover-hut (air-conditioned, with self-contained solar power supply capable of transporting the entire team and equipment from Home Farm to The Glebe in under 12 seconds) who keeps banging on about the old days. Lived in a tent, apparently, and claims the sun shone every day and that there was a decent pub in every village. He has an utterly useless pointing trowel worn down to the size and shape of a teaspoon. His knees aren’t up to much these days. but he’s delighted with the hover-hut galley, which means that he can finally make a fresh brew of tea on site. He reckons this is the zenith of his career, so he’s having the time of his life …