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Historical meets archaeological

We bring you a guest post today from historian Rob Hebblethwaite, who came to Sedgeford as a brand-new archaeologist in 2016. He liked it so much he wrote the following piece about his time on SHARP's Basic Excavation and Recording Techniques (BERT) course for a recent Centre of East Anglian Studies (CEAS) newsletter.

CEAS is a department of the University of East Anglia with the aim of bringing together scholarship on the history and archaeology of the whole of East Anglia, including the fenland areas of Lincolnshire, Essex and Cambridgeshire. You can read more about CEAS here.

Since his adventure at SHARP, Rob has completed his MA in Medieval History, gaining firsts for his essays and producing a prize-winning dissertation on 'The Good, the Bad, and the Rotten: How the Living Dealt with the Dead in the Middle Ages'. He ascribes some of the inspiration for his interest in mortuary studies to his experience at SHARP.

You will agree that Rob had a particularly amazing experience! Though we can't guarantee that everyone who does BERT will find an ancient coin, we do know that everyone who comes to SHARP - BERTs and all - will have a great time. Find out more about our BERT courses here.

Over to Rob...

BERTs on Trench 22, 2016

Since I was a little boy, I've had a fascination with the past. When I was growing up, quality time was often spent with my father going around museums, reading books about myths and legends, or watching Time Team - a love that has been further realised and tempered through the fires of undergraduate and master's level historical study.

Thus, when I was lucky enough to be selected to receive a week of CEAS-funded archaeological experience at the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project's 2016 season - SHARP 2016 for short - it was something of a dream come true.

I was to be enrolled on the Basic Excavation and Recording Techniques course, earning the affectionate title of a BERT. The course, being open to anyone and everyone, had attracted all sorts: my company was made up of sixth-formers considering archaeology at degree level, a PhD student from UEA, a property letting agent turned aspiring fiction writer, a mature archaeology student looking to further hone his craft, a retired GP who earned the nickname 'Ditch Doctor', and a fellow who drove underwater reconnaissance vehicles called 'Moonfish' for a living.

Nothing quite encapsulates the phrase 'learning on the job' than the first week of the course. On day one my fellow BERTs and I were on-trench, trowels and hoes in hand, preparing the site we would be working on for the next few days. The theory was knitted seamlessly into the practice, and the team of kind, patient and boundlessly knowledgeable volunteers - many of whom had come from across the world to partake in SHARP 2016 - were more than happy to lend a hand, shovel, or mattock wherever they were needed.

Watching a complex Anglo-Saxon world emerge from centuries-untouched dirt at the bottom of a Norfolk field is an experience I will never forget. What began as an unassuming stretch of agriculturally-scarred earth at the bottom of a large East Anglian field was, over a period of a few weeks, transformed into a map of the past. Ditches that charted where walls stood appeared; the ghosts of houses and out-buildings began to stretch away across the Norfolk hillside, whilst just beyond the rise, a collection of great ovens were slowly recovered from beneath the dirt of ages.

Gradually, as we worked, an intricate window into the lives of the middle Anglo-Saxons began to emerge. Great heaps of medieval rubbish were found: bones split to recover marrow; oyster shells no doubt from The Wash discarded in colossal quantities, their insides something of a staple in the local diet, it seems; horn-cores cast away once their exteriors had been stripped for drinking vessels or lampshades; even the near-intact skeleton of a dog was uncovered - a beloved pet, perhaps? With every movement of the trowel upon the Norfolk earth, more was learned about the Anglo-Saxons who once lived at Sedgeford - and just what finds did those trowels reveal.

It appears some archaeological deity was smiling down upon myself and the BERTs of SHARP 2016 week three. Every day one of us found something, be it a Roman bead, a lead ingot, or a ninth-century Anglo-Saxon key made of iron to name but a few. The unprecedented luck of our little party of newbies left more experienced jaws hanging in shock, much to the glee of my fellow BERTs and I. My own small find, however, caused something of a disturbance amongst the archaeologists present.

It was a damp Wednesday morning. Up on Trench 22 in the rain-streaked early morning of a late-July day, the BERTs and a host of volunteers had just been visited by Professor Carenza Lewis, who had the previous evening delivered a seminar discussing her research into the Black Death. She took some pictures, chatted with us all about what we were doing, where we were from, and so on, before leaving and taking the last faint glimmer of good weather with her. Left on our knees in the ever-intensifying drizzle of the early morning, and having not eaten enough porridge, my morale - like that of a few of my BERT colleagues - was starting to dip.

When my supervisor, Phil, appeared at my shoulder and asked me to assist him with something, I agreed. Damp, demoralised, and rather hungry, I decided I could use the break from slaving over my own little patch of dirt. With one last scrape of my trowel through the earth beneath me, I was about to leave when, quite suddenly, a small circular shape about the size of a thumbnail leapt out of the loose dirt pulled up by my trowel. Wide-eyed and at a loss for words, I picked it up.

"That's a coin, that is," Phil said from behind me.

It was.

I found myself looking at the side-profile of a face, ringed with Latin letters that had been lost to the world for almost a millennium. I could see the groove of an eye peering through the dirt, a curve of eyebrow above it, and an ear behind which was tucked carefully-rendered hair, immortalised in the metal of the coin. A pointed chin gave way to an unadorned neck, and the shoulders were clad in immaculately detailed clothes, including a brooch from which the crease of a cloak was just visible at the edge of the obverse. The figure's head, though, was adorned with an unmistakable circlet about the brow. Beneath the damp mud partially obscuring the figure's features, the flash of silver was unmistakable.

Once I had regained control of my shock and surprise, bagged up my treasure, and managed to stop swearing in sheer disbelief, I near-ran down to the small finds hut, cradling my precious silver charge. Little did I know then that I had in my hand a near-perfect condition, incredibly rare, eleventh-century silver penny of Harthacnut, third child of King Cnut the Great - his first by Queen Emma of Normandy - and himself king of England from 1040-1042, minted in Exeter by the moneyer Thegnwine.

Silver penny of Harthacnut: AD1040-1042 (Image: copyright SHARP)

I could not believe my luck. The excitement that buzzed through the camp when the news spread that the BERTs had another small find was intoxicating. "Won't find another thing like that for a decade," one of the veterans conceded before shaking my hand. Little was he to know, a few days later my BERT colleague Mark was to find a mint-condition Neolithic arrowhead some twelve feet away from where I had found my silver penny of Harthacnut.

I came away from my time at SHARP 2016 having found another passion and having learned to look at the past in a whole new way. From the lowliest undergraduates to the most esteemed professors, many overlook the synthesis between historical writing and archaeology, which I believe to be utterly crucial to a proper understanding of history. The time I spent there will never be forgotten, nor will the wonderful people I was lucky enough to meet. The Boneyard campsite - so named because it sits atop an ancient cemetery - bursts with passion and love, and when one arrives at SHARP, one walks into a family. The folk there are united by a common cause: the pursuit of the past and the love of discovery, and from the moment one arrives on site they are infected with the thirst to venture aeons back in history. As a historian, I can attest that the search for truth has never been so exciting; it is an experience every historian should undertake, even if only once.

Rob, his fellow BERTs and his treasure - muddy but happy (Photo: Phil Hill)

Thanks are very much in order, to the CEAS for funding my little adventure through the Anglo-Saxon period, to Dr Tom Licence who first notified me of the opportunity to dig at Sedgeford and who asked me to produce this, and, of course, to all those at SHARP who made the experience utterly unforgettable.

Many thanks to Rob and Dr Tom Licence for permission to reproduce this article.

Photos by Rob Hebblethwaite except where indicated otherwise


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