Don's diary: Give a don a bone

August 1, 2003

"Can you collect a skeleton from the cellar of a local house next to a recent murder scene," read the email from our city archaeologist.

"Police lost interest when the remains were discovered to be over 500 years old!"

Why me? Well, excavating remains is one of the key elements in forensic archaeology. But armchair Time Team is about my limit. Sure, I've identified pathogen DNA from ancient bones in the laboratory, but to actually dig? My role is supervisory, surely?

Despite it being the summer holiday, a week devoted to digging should be easy to avoid; there are sure to be award boards, recruitment meetings, teaching and learning symposia. But as my diary remains clear, I realise with nervous apprehension that I have time to do it. But where do I start?

If we make the site a "training dig", we could use students from local related courses and hire a professional archaeologist. Spend the day on the phone making arrangements.

Attend a site briefing to be told that this could be a medieval cemetery site with ten or more skeletons and we have only a week to recover them.

The owner is shocked that his basement conversion is fast becoming a site of archaeological interest.

Three students, a professional archaeologist and me in a dank cellar armed with buckets, hoes and pointing trowels. The briefing is short and direct; we need to lower the surface of the cellar floor by 20cm using only our trowels. I soon realise that this is going to be more backbreaking than the weekend gardening duties. Return home late, covered in grime, fully aware that 30 years of lab-based science is no preparation for the sheer discomfort of practical archaeology.

Arrive to see bones being unearthed everywhere. I happily identify femurs, scapulas, ribs, but they are clearly not articulated. The Victorian builders of the house seem to have scattered bones indiscriminately. It is impossible to identify clay-covered, fragmented hand and foot bones. The disappointment is quickly erased as we go deeper and find articulated skeletons at last. Methodically and carefully, we expose these medieval inhabitants of the city.

Word has got out. Students queue to dig, sieve spoil or simply stare - the experience is rare and they know it. We have identified a male adult, female adult, a juvenile and a virtually complete infant and neonate - rare and thought-provoking. The pace of the excavation slows; clearing soil gently, carefully sketching and recording.

Our archaeologist cajoles us to work accurately but faster. He knows all about commercial archaeology. We lift bones and package them for transport back to the lab.

Final day: the cellar has become familiar, even comfortable. We get a reprieve: the owner is happy to wait for his basement conversion, and a site meeting results in the decision to continue the dig next week. We stretch the funds by assigning the archaeologist a "watching brief" rather than a constant presence. The owner also contributes £250. But I must leave for my holiday.

Two weeks later
Return to find the skeleton count is 40 - vastly exceeding our original expectations. Back at the lab, post-excavation analyses are under way.

Ron Dixon is a principal lecturer in molecular biology at the University of Lincoln.

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