Axminster archaeology student digs deep into history

PUBLISHED: 07:00 26 August 2019 | UPDATED: 09:02 28 August 2019

James Windsor with an Edward III gold half noble, a Roman umbornate broach and an Axminster volunteer button from the 1790s.

James Windsor with an Edward III gold half noble, a Roman umbornate broach and an Axminster volunteer button from the 1790s.


James Windsor, from Axminster, is an archaeology student, and here he writes about an excavation he worked on and his passion for the subject

Jame Windsor's finds include an Edward III Gold Half Noble, a Roman Umbornate Broach and an Axminster Volunteer Button from the 1790's. Ref edr 31 19TI 9447. Picture: Terry IfeJame Windsor's finds include an Edward III Gold Half Noble, a Roman Umbornate Broach and an Axminster Volunteer Button from the 1790's. Ref edr 31 19TI 9447. Picture: Terry Ife

After a seven-hour drive from Axminster, I finally arrived at my destination for the month of July - a field!

I am a student at Cardiff University studying archaeology and recently excavated part of a Roman town.

The period in history that inspired me the most to pursue archaeology as a career is the Roman Period, and so I was excavating a site of Roman occupation which was founded around the time of the Claudian invasion in 43AD; and prospered on as a site of trade and occupation until the fall of the Empire.

The site I was digging at is called Durobrivae, and is located near Peterborough. This site is most famously known for being the site where the Water Newton treasure was found, a hoard of Roman Christian silver which is now in the British Museum.

James with his metal detector.James with his metal detector.

From the site, the main aim of the dig was to assess how the archaeology has been preserved. This includes the depth of any structures which had avoided plough damage, the quality and preservation associated with the structures and any potential artefacts, as well as assessing how much damage rabbits had done over the years to the potential archaeology!

We were digging at Durobrivae for a month, giving us a short period of time to try and discover as much as we could about the site. The importance of the dig was very high, as the last archaeologists to dig here did so in the 1820s! And so we were very keen to update and record the site with a modern perspective.

The typical day is structured in order to recover as much potential archaeology as we can in a limited amount of time, doing so in a careful manner in order to avoid any destruction of history.

The week runs as a Sunday to Friday work week, having Saturdays off. We started bright and early at 8.45am, a time I didn't know existed being a student! From here we worked until 5pm each day, having two short breaks and a longer lunch break to keep us refreshed due to the digging process.

Jame Windsor with his metal detector. Ref edr 31 19TI 9434. Picture: Terry IfeJame Windsor with his metal detector. Ref edr 31 19TI 9434. Picture: Terry Ife

At the end of each day, we head back to the campsite for just over an hour; giving us enough time to wash away all of the layers of dirt we each accumulated over the day!

From here we then went to a local trucker's cafe which provided huge portions of food, which we all needed after a long day of digging to refuel.

After this we then spent our evenings talking about the day, sitting back with a few drinks and getting to know one another. This was such an amazing experience to meet new, like-minded people, as we had all been in the same year in Cardiff but hadn't really spoken.

From this I have gained a great new bunch of friends, who all share the desire to discover the lost past.

James with his metal detector.James with his metal detector.

Evening entertainment included rounders, egg catching competitions and of course, being archeologists, a wheel barrow race! All of this was great to be a part of as all the people there from site supervisors to every student on the dig made it thoroughly enjoyable for me.

The day is quite physically demanding as all of the history is hidden deep in the Cambridgeshire soil.

With a selection of mattocks and spades each trench had to be deturfed carefully and in the allocation we had been given by Historic England.

Then each 'spit' had to be carefully removed to dig deeper in to the silt-based soils which were very hard to dig. Luckily for me, I was allocated a trench with two fellow Cardiff students from the second year.

James's metal-detecting finds.James's metal-detecting finds.

Katie and Izzy made all of the hard work seem easy, as they kept the spirits high at all times, through sweltering heat and rain!

Being like a personal jukebox, they burst in to songs many times a day, and I'll admit I couldn't resist joining in at times! By the need of the dig, our rendition of Hakuna Matata from The Lion King even had harmonies, maybe we are interested in the wrong profession!

However based on the reviews from our peers, we will stick to archaeology... Their many jokes, smiles and hard work in the trench made the whole experience fantastic and the history we discovered was a bonus!

The first trench we dug was over the Roman Mansio. The Mansio is similar to a modern day hotel, and would have housed passing merchants and travellers within this busy town.

James Windsor with his metal detector. Ref edr 31 19TI 9414. Picture: Terry IfeJames Windsor with his metal detector. Ref edr 31 19TI 9414. Picture: Terry Ife

The trench contained a varied selection of ceramics, hypocaust flooring (underfloor heating), animal bones and building material. Ploughing over hundreds of years had mixed all of this together and left for us to discover.

When this spoil was removed, we found large stones across a large majority of the trench, which would have been the remains of sub-flooring to increase the height over the 400 years this town was in use.

There was, however, no solid wall in the trench, and where it should have been, a large void took its place. Known as a 'robber trench', later Anglo Saxon and Medieval locals took the good stones to build there own houses and churches. Many of the building material from Durobrivae can be seen in the walls of the local church.

Over the whole site, the trenches provided a valuable insight in to the history of the Roman Town.

Continuity was seen in the vast amounts of pottery, building material, animal bone and the odd coin - all of which are associated with the daily life of a Roman across all of the trenches.

The main reason I have a passion for archaeology is through my hobby of metal detecting. There is nothing I love more than walking across open fields with my Dad and Grandad, in search of something historically important that could help to improve the history of the local area.

My dad and grandad have been a huge influence in my desire to learn more about the local hidden histories as they have always supported me by improving my knowledge and understanding of what is still buried beneath our feet. My dad does sometimes get jealous mind when Grandad and I discover a better find than he does, which is most of the time!

Spending time with them both has provided some of the best moments of my life and I couldn't think of anyone better to spend these moments with.

It is this passion for Roman archaeology, as their structural advancements and technology allowed a great range of metallic and ceramic finds to be produced, that led me to do research in to possible undiscovered Roman sites in the Devon/Dorset areas.

After studying old maps for any old water springs, buildings or trackways in order to discover any areas of potential previous human occupation; in 2014 we finally found a site of Iron Age and Roman occupation.

On a typical Roman site, you would expect to find copper alloy coins and brooches, pins made from bone or bronze and anything associated with day to day life for a Roman. These finds are common across most British Roman sites.

It is one of the most rewarding feelings ever when I unearth something of personal interest which a Roman used to own.

One of my favourite finds is a Roman nail cleaner found on the Roman site I discovered near Dorchester.

Despite its small size and very little financial value - for me it is all about the historical value of the finds. The fact that this small bronze artefact was last used by a Roman around 2,000 years ago to clean their nails is what metal detecting is all about, as the history can now be viewed and appreciated by many new people.

In order to allow the local communities to appreciate the local finds I have discovered, I have done talks at Axminster, Chard and Sampford Peverel history societies in which I identify and explain about important local finds to the area which I have unearthed.

I must thank my mum for washing endless clothes of mine that are covered in dirt, I really do like getting deep into the history!

A find that I have unearthed metal detecting that means the most to me is a silver hammered penny of Edward I. This coin was struck in the 14th century in London, and was used in everyday spending in Medieval Britain. Despite being a fairly common find, this was my first hammered coin I unearthed almost eight years ago, and will always be a memory I share with my Dad.

A good friend of mine, Linda James, has always supported my love for metal detecting and history as she always drives me to fields where we detect for hours together, and always have a great time of it! Deservedly so, due to her kindness towards me, the detecting gods recently rewarded her with a beautiful gold half-sovereign coin of Edward VI.

In regards to the value of finds, that is always mentioned and queried in the world of metal detecting, the historical value is the most important aspect to me. I have worked closely with local history societies and museums to correctly record anything historically important I have found, and currently have finds on display at Dorset museum.

In short, anything that the British Museum deems historically valuable or important under the Treasure Act is to be professionally recorded and sometimes bought by local museums.

The money from this is then split fairly between the finder and landowner.

Many people view metal detectorists as 'treasure hunters' or in some cases 'history destroyers'. In some cases, a few people may not comply to the correct rules of metal detecting by means of permission to detect the land or finds recording - but like in everything there are very few people like this.

Finally I must thank my Nan for driving me all the way to Durobrivae for the dig, and her ongoing support for me to achieve and strive to do my best in my desire to become and archaeologist.

To me, it is all about the history.

To read more features from East Devon Resident, click here.

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