Breaking Rocks in the Hot Sun

Breaking Rocks in the Hot Sun

Where have you been?

Things may have looked quiet on the surface recently, but there’s been a lot going on at Past Participant Towers over the last month or so. There’s a lot of catching up to do.

The end of term seems to have signalled a real change.

We dig deep holes…

You may have noticed some odd pictures cropping up on Facebook and wondered what’s been going on. Well, it’s dead simple: I’ve been doing a stint as a professional archaeologist.

Archaeologist's trowel

Archaeologist’s trowel

I’ve been working in various heritage roles for so long now that it’s easy to forget that this is where I came from. I have two archaeology degrees, that’s five years of studying. However, I’ve not wielded a trowel in anger since 2003, so people I’ve known and worked with for a long time don’t realise that my background is in digging holes. That always comes as a surprise.

When people ask me what my background is I usually reply that I’m a reformed archaeologist. It’s always been a useful part of my skillset as a heritage educator. It gives me the ability to talk about a wide range of historic, prehistoric and environmental subjects with a sense of authority.

So, when the opportunity came up this summer to re-acquaint myself with a mattock, I jumped at the chance. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I really wasn’t sure whether I could still cut it after thirteen years out of the trenches. However, it was a chance to put my money where my mouth is, which is a challenge I can’t ignore.

…And fill ‘em up again.

So I donned my hard hat and flash vest and got ready to get dirty on an active construction site.

Three men in a pit

Three men in a pit

I’ve been re-familiarising myself with pits, fills, context sheets, plans and sections.

I’ve been enjoying working at the sharp-end of heritage as well as becoming the site expert in identifying ancient tree-throws (mostly by digging them).

I’ve even got to excavate my first skeleton in a very long time, albeit a lamb burial.

Lamb burial with trowel for scale

Trowel for scale

Some of it felt instantly familiar. Some of it far less so. It’s been over fifteen years since I last worked on a commercial site.

Working on a construction site has also helped me keep my engagement skills sharp. Many of the builders and digger drivers were really keen to know what we were up to. Often they’d drive their 9 tonne tippers right up to our pits to find out. Cheers for that.

It was a lot of fun to meet new people and enjoy the camaraderie that comes from a shared experience.

It was also pleasing to feel that I’ve still got it. Kind of.

And we never, ever, find a thing.

Working on a clean-stripped chalk site in the hottest weather of the summer has been…errr….challenging but rewarding. Hefting a mattock in 35 degrees of blazing sun with no shade was, I’ll admit, not a great deal of fun.

Desperately seeking shade

Desperately seeking shade

It’s has been good exercise and I reckon I’ve stored up enough Vitamin A to get through the winter.

But, I hear everyone ask, did you find anything?

Well….kind of. There was some cool stuff. There were several burials, there were things that may well have been Iron Age houses. There was even a Romano-British ditch.

There was also a lot of dross. By which I mean that, when you’re investigating things, a lot of the things you dig up turn out to be nothing much. Or, in my case, the boles of trees long gone.

That’s how I earned my nickname “The Tree Throw King” which was, I hope, meant affectionately.

I have also thoroughly enjoyed the experience of stopping off on my way home with me site kit on, hard hat & flash vest strapped to my back, covered in filth for a free cup of coffee in Waitrose. The looks I got were priceless.

The last days of summer

Sadly, all good things come to an end. It’s now time to refocus Past Participants on our core business. So I have, once again, hung up my trowel and returned to the office.

It’s going to be a busy and exciting few months. I’ll be keeping you up to date with the excitement as I get a chance.

Enjoy the photos.


Posted by Past Participants Andy in Uncategorised, 0 comments
Remembering Travis

Remembering Travis

Travis Who?

Travis were a band who were massive in Glasgow when I was living there in about 1999. They were everywhere for about two years (including a famous acoustic version of Britney Spears’ Baby One More Time which is well worth a watch), and then they dropped below everybody’s (including my) radar.

According to Wikipedia, they formed in 1990 in Lenzie (since made famous by the excellent Bags Fags and Mags, but I digress), they went through the obligatory “years in the wilderness” before making it big. They are also, if Wikipedia is to be believed, still going.

Yes, but why?

For those of who were not huge Travis fans, they had approximately two hits (to be fair they probably had more but I’ve forgotten).

The first was Driftwood, but that’s not why I remembered them.

Yesterday I was at the Gilbert White Field Study Centre again for a day of River Studies. Sadly, the weather forecast was “a little damp” to say the least. From the moment we left the centre to the moment we get back at the end of the day it rained solidly. It was never properly hammering it down, but it never stopped, not for a moment.

There was even a lovely moment when I realised that we were above the cloud base when on top of the hanger. It was great.

Fortunately, we’d come prepared: I was carrying a bag of spare waterproofs, spare gloves and hand warmers. Everyone had a great time splashing around in the mud.

It is, however, becoming something of a recurring theme at the moment. Getting rained on. Getting properly rained on, all day.

Which is why I found myself recalling Travis’ other big hit.

In lieu of something more insightful to say, I present you with a slice of classic Travis. It’ll all make sense. I promise.


Why does it always rain on me?

Fortunately, I’ve managed to dry everything out, ready for my next outing.


Posted by Past Participants Andy in Session reports, Uncategorised, 0 comments
Coring back to my roots. Literally

Coring back to my roots. Literally

This week I got to take a walk back in time, to a time when coring was a part of my life. It was as though no time had passed.

For the last couple of months I’ve been doing some delivery at Gilbert White’s House Field Studies Centre. I’ve mostly been delivering their river studies session: a primary school day learning about river processes by studying, measuring, observing and paddling in a small river. I’m really enjoying working outdoors at the moment, though I reserve the right to change my mind in October.

This week was a little different. This week I was asked to design & deliver a “Rocks and Soils” day, for year 3 pupils. No pressure. My first port of call was the National Curriculum that states that children will learn that: “soils are made from rocks and organic matter.” Which was not a whole lot of help.

So, to the drawing-board batman.

At the drawing-board

For those of you who have only known me in my Royal Marines guise, it may come as a surprise that my background is in earth sciences (specifically a degree in Archaeology & Geology as well as a masters in Geoarchaeology), so it wasn’t a total trip into the dark. It was more a voyage to that corner of the loft where you put the things you think you’ll never need again but keep just in case, hoping that it hasn’t got water damaged over the last [cough] 17 years. I’ve done a lot of this stuff for real so I did know what I was doing and I definitely know one end of a corer from another, it was just longer ago than I’d like to admit.

Geological map of the Weald

Geological map of the Weald

I’m not going to go through the whole session design process but, to cut a long story altogether, the site sits near the boundary of the Upper Greensand and the Cretaceous Chalk. What we were going to do was investigate the difference between the two rocks and then see if we could find the boundary by looking at the soils that form on them.

My colleague took care of the rock collecting and testing, all I needed to do was to lead a group of 7 year olds on a soil survey. Soil surveying means coring, coring means letting children use these:

Screw auger: perfectly safe for children to use

Screw auger: perfectly safe for children to use

In addition to this, the short lead-time in the prep meant that I was basing the entire session on the results I expected from looking at the geological maps. This was real science, I had no idea what we were actually going to find.

This was going to be fun.

Real science, right there

As it turned out, everything went swimmingly well. The children managed to do some coring without incident or accident, they managed to actually identify soils using actual field identification techniques, they even managed to use a (heavily simplified version of) a Munsell soil chart to identify colour. They enjoyed it too, I was really pleased.

However, what really pleased me was that we actually found exactly what I was hoping to find. The soils on the chalk were grey and clayey whilst those on the sand were…well, sandy. We even managed to find the silty river deposits near the aforementioned stream. I was really chuffed: I’d backed myself and my knowledge and it had worked out.

I was over the moon when I saw the looks on children’s and the adult’s faces. They realised they’d done some real science, not a mock-up, not a set-up but something where they were answering a real question with an unknown answer. It was brilliant.

Over and above all that, I’d managed to find the box in the loft marked “field skills” and discovered that everything in it was still in working order. I could still do this, I could recognise different soils, I could carry out a survey, I could construct a transect and identify boundaries. I could still talk rocks and soils based on knowledge rather than extensive preparation.

I’d gone back to my roots and found I could still do field science, even if it was for seven-year olds. It was a comforting experience that I could back up my claims to a breadth of skill and knowledge.

When I say I can design and deliver sessions on a broad array of subjects, I really mean it.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Session reports, Uncategorised, 0 comments