Amateur soldiers are searching British parks and gardens for historical artifacts related to wild animals and Charles II.
Andrew Mayfield, the community archaeologist for Greenwich Park, is currently knee-deep in winter mud as he examines the discoveries made during the park’s recent volunteer excavations. Among the findings are a swallow-shaped brooch, numerous clay pipes and coins, a sextant lens, and an unexpected item buried deep in the ground – a Sony mobile phone.
Mayfield motions towards the group of volunteers spanning multiple decades in age, waist-deep in soil trenches and equipped with trowels and brushes.
“Today, we are making a final effort to reveal the path taken by Charles II,” says Mayfield. “Steve and Karen are over there, preparing a visually appealing vertical step for the photographs.”
Community archaeology has experienced a recent surge in popularity, with people of all ages and backgrounds, including children and retired individuals, participating in excavations across Britain to uncover its rich history.
Last month, a group of volunteers, including young students from primary school, discovered a potential temple from 1,400 years ago near Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. This was part of a project that started three years ago.
In 2022, school students in Cardiff participated in the uncovering of the Caerau hillfort from the Bronze Age. To the north, Newcastle University’s WallCap project, which involves members of the community, is conducting excavations and preserving Hadrian’s Wall.
The Operation Nightingale scheme, in association with Wessex Archaeology, offers ex-servicemen injured in conflict the chance to take part in excavations on Salisbury Plain, while recent years have seen the emergence of have-a-go archaeologists digging up their own gardens with trowels bought online.
Chloë Duckworth is the main archaeologist for More4’s The Great British Dig: History in Your Back Garden and also wrote the accompanying book. According to her, the high population density in Britain’s past has made it a prime location for amateur archaeologists to discover valuable artifacts, such as Roman relics found under backyard trampolines.
She stated that community archaeology is especially beneficial for one’s wellbeing. Engaging in mindful activities outdoors with a team can have positive effects.
The excavation on the peak of the hill where the Royal Observatory is located in Greenwich Park is a component of a three-year, £12 million project funded by the lottery. This renovation aims to uncover the remnants of a baroque water garden built by Charles II in the 17th century, back when the park was used as palace grounds for the royal family.
In 2021 and 2022, the community will excavate a Saxon burial mound and the remains of Pond’s Magnetic Observatory, which was constructed in 1817 to study the Earth’s magnetic field. This follows a previous excavation of a World War II air-raid shelter located east of the park.
New findings from the recent excavation have revealed artifacts that date back to when the park was a popular venue for the bi-annual Greenwich fair. From 1730 to 1857, around 250,000 people from London would gather at the park during May Day and Whitsun to enjoy wine and beer, wear paper-mache clown noses, and participate in games like “Kiss in the Ring” (where a player can kiss any other player they catch) and “tumbling” (where young women were carried to the top of Observatory Hill and then rolled down One Tree Hill, also known as “holiday hill”, in a playful manner).
Charles Dickens retells the story in his 1836 book Sketches by Boz, where he describes the main activity as pulling young women up the steep hill to the Observatory and then racing down again, causing their hair and hats to become disheveled. This scene is enjoyed by onlookers below and includes attractions such as “oysters as big as plates”, the sounds of speaking-trumpets, and occasional roars from wild animal exhibitions.
According to Greenwich historian Horatio Blood, retired soldiers from the Napoleonic wars found a profitable business opportunity by renting out their telescopes at fairs. This was often used to spy on women’s skirts.
In 1857, the Greenwich fair was prohibited due to the high occurrence of fractures and head wounds suffered by the falling attendees.
Sarah Costley, a 47-year-old regular park-goer, appreciates the insights the excavation has provided on the lives of Victorian Londoners. She finds it absurd that in modern times, people would go to the park to expose themselves. She questions whether young women were intentionally behaving recklessly or if they were influenced by societal pressure or male companions. This newfound information is thought-provoking.
Volunteer James Wisher, 22, a recent graduate in archaeology, discovered a drinking jug, bone fragments from smoking pipes, and Victorian coins at the top of the excavation. However, due to the clay layers deposited by later Victorians on top of Charles II’s sinking parterres, there were few findings at the top layer.
“He says that he enjoys determining the dates of coins by observing the changing portraits of the monarchs.”
Finds such as these also help to date the layers the volunteers dig through, from the top layers of shingle to the compacted ochre and terracotta clays of earlier periods. The swallow brooch, an early find, was a forget-me-not traditionally gifted by Victorian naval men to their sweethearts.
The increase in community excavations, such as the one in Greenwich, has drawn the attention of both international tourists and local volunteers. This trend aligns with the introduction of archaeology tours, such as the Vindolanda Charitable Trust’s excavations of Roman Britain – their Hadrian’s Wall digs are already fully booked through 2024. Additionally, commercial organization DigVentures offers group excavations at various locations, including Lindisfarne in Northumberland, Weoley Castle in the West Midlands, and Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire.
The increase in excavations by community groups has resulted in concerns from organizations like Historic England regarding the limited storage capacity available. This is due to the growing number of discoveries, happening simultaneously with the closure of museum archives due to financial constraints.
Feminist archaeologist Lucia Nixon notes that traditional archaeology operates under the assumption that “only white men hold agency, both economically and in other aspects.” She discusses the increasing diversity in the field of archaeology, which is accompanied by the formation of advocacy organizations like Women in Archaeology and the Society of Black Archaeologists.
“It’s logical,” she includes, “that excavations occupied by youth, females, and individuals of diverse backgrounds will perceive discoveries with a new perspective.”