Don's Diary: Extreme archaeology

December 6, 2002

July: Oxford
It's that time of year again. The usual eve-of-battle doubts - three months of archaeological excavation about to begin. Will we survive? Early tomorrow we leave for Brittany.

8.30am: A spectacular promontory overlooking the estuary of the Léguer. The digging team has assembled, men from Commune have already cut the vegetation and the JCB driver is waiting to strip the topsoil. Le Yaudet is a long-lived settlement occupied from the Mesolithic to the present day. Casual discoveries have been made periodically but the serious excavations began with us in 1991. End of first day - great beginning but we are all shattered.

Already we are beginning to sort out the features that belong to each period: Iron Age hillfort; Roman civil settlement and later military occupation; the particularly interesting Dark Age settlement (when Britons from Cornwall fled to Brittany); and medieval village. Dig social life has kicked in. Must watch sleep deprivation - the excavation is getting quite deep.

End July
Fantastic result - the Dark Age monastic settlement has at last been sorted out. There are late Roman military buildings and a lot more besides.

August: Stockbridge
Another excavation, this time a Roman villa at Thruxton near Andover. Bad weather has delayed harvest, but at the last moment the compassionate farmer has cut the crop early and everything is ready - just.

End August
Great progress. Have identified where the Orpheus mosaic (now in the British Museum) was - the BM missed a bit in 1899.

September: Nájera, Spain
Third day of excavation on Cerro Molino, a Celtiberian hill town. Spectacular site above the lush green valley of the river Najerilla. All equipment has to be carried up each day - can't afford helicopters or donkeys. Fiesta in N jera this evening. A huge skeleton chases infants while a crocodile of little girls dances behind a twirling giant - great fun.

End September
Digging finished yesterday - tough work, but highly successful. "Extreme archaeology" one of the diggers lovingly called it. We discovered a long sequence of occupation covering 600 years, ending with a violent destruction - burning mud-brick buildings collapsing in on themselves. Could this have been the work of Pompey in the 70s BC? Beginning to pack up, but time to go to Aguillano, a mountain-edge village, to see yellow-skirted stilt-dancers twirl backwards down narrow cobbled streets.

October: Oxford
Back to the institute after three months of pretty exhausting fieldwork. But what rewards - masses of research data, lots of questions answered and new ones posed. New students arriving. Mustn't forget to start writing begging letters for next year's fieldwork.

Six weeks into a frantic term. All interim reports now complete and financial statements ready - overspent as usual. Six research applications to write by the end of the week. Just time to do it.

Barry Cunliffe is professor of European archaeology, University of Oxford.


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