I have always fancied a bit of archaeology but been afraid I couldn’t manage it on account of weak knees and a bad back. But, when I was first asked to join the Friends of Whitworth Park I was told ‘there would be a bit of light wheel-barrowing’. Then in the summer, Ken Shone asked me if I would like to join the Archaeological Dig ‘just to be around to explain to the Public what we are about’. It sounded a bit of a rest cure so I signed up.
The night before the dig was due to start I got an email from the group organising the dig – bring stout boots, preferably with steel toe caps, thick gloves, a kneeling mat, plenty of water … It sounded ominously serious and after a couple of weeks of sunny weather the weather forecast was very autumnal. New York was experiencing a hurricane. Mmm….
Monday arrived, cold and wet so it was with little enthusiasm that I made a packed lunch and put on wet weather gear. Arriving in the Park I was amazed to see about 20 very enthusiastic people – students and staff from the University- a couple of containers for use as storage and an office and several portaloos: nothing had been forgotten and it seemed there was no escaping. And it started to rain.
After a lecture about the aims of the dig, the social history of the park, health and safety and the need for records, the students started to dig. It was amazing to see their energy and the speed with which spades were dispensed, topsoil removed and carefully stacked for its return at the end of the 2 weeks. Carefully avoiding being given a spade I found I was stacking the turf. As with all exercise it looked easy at first but after 4 hours I had pain in muscles which I didn’t know existed!
Then, onto the layers underneath; there was no escape. Which of the 3 sites would I like to work on I was asked. I chose to scrape away at the topsoil in the area where the lake used to be – close to the old pavilion. Kneeling, bending down, scraping away, filling the bucket, then walking to the soil heap and back to the trench. And I was hooked! My knees were fine, my back was not a problem – just sore shoulders and hands where I held the scraper. And who worries about a torrential downpour when they are having fun?
What was a revelation was the professionalism and care taken of the site and its workers. During the second week school children joined the site and were given careful briefings and meticulously trained to scrape away at the topsoil carefully. When the remains of the hurricane arrived and the wind got bad, we had to wear hard hats (mine kept on falling off when I leant down) to protect us from the falling tree branches. The friendliness of everyone on the site made this ‘oldie’ feel part of the team and even that I -a complete novice- was doing something that mattered.
When the first pieces of clay pipe were unearthed together with bits of glass, a chamber pot, coins and a coronation medal dated 1902, I was as excited as if we had found a body in the bog or a hoard of Viking jewellery. In deeper layers we unearthed old culverts and drains, tried to find post holes of the pavilion, saw where the lake used to be and gradually had an insight into what it all must have been like when the Park was first built.
As I lay in my bath at the end of each day I imagined the band playing on the bandstand, children being pushed round the park on a Sunday afternoon or crowds of people massing for the start of a rally – anti nuclear, or against the gulf war. And I felt privileged to have been able to join with this fantastic group of people who made me feel so at home. I never had to use the excuse of the sore knees or bad back because I was having such a great time!