Public invited to dig deep for Dirty Weekends as Time Team star leads crowdfunded project

By Ben Miller | 04 March 2014

Could these be the world's first crowdfunded archaeological finds? A Time Team star hopes to lead the public across a 14th century abbey this summer

A photo of a group of people standing around an archaeological dig within ruins of an abbey
Leiston Abbey in Suffolk could be the home of crowdfunded Dirty Weekends© DigVentures
Last year, crowdfunded and helped by mud-digging volunteers at Leiston Abbey, a public investigation led by former Time Team archaeologist Raksha Dave uncovered unexpected discoveries on former monastic grounds.

Working within an area managed by a music school, a series of parch marks exposed by the hot, dry summer conditions led to a lost range of buildings east of the largely unexplored 14th century remains.

“We were going in fresh to an unexcavated site, which for an archaeologist is kind of unbelievable,” admits Lisa Westcott Wilkins, of the Digventures team whose taster sessions – including the cheekily dubbed Dirty Weekends – have since been named as one of Lonely Planet’s top getaways on a weekend.

“It’s a Scheduled Ancient Monument – many of those do get investigated, but this had been in private ownership for quite some time.

“We felt we were going to be finding the earliest stages of the monastic settlement and maybe a manor house that had been there prior to the abbey, but what we actually ended up finding was evidence of Bronze Age occupation on the site.

“Most monasteries would have certain types of outbuildings that you would expect, but in the case of Leiston it’s never really been comprehensively investigated, so no-one knew quite what was there.

“These were buildings to the east with no upstanding ruins.

“For us that was pretty much the most amazing thing. Forget hundreds of years, we’re talking thousands.”

An aerial photographer had the neat idea of flying kites over them, resulting in spectacular photos from the sky. Now Dave, who these days is the group’s Field School Manager, is back, with the general public invited to join her and the Site Dog, Fergus.

“A lot of people really like that because they feel safe with her and they’re used to seeing her face,” says Wilkins.

“And she’s funny. There were seven million people who used to watch Time Team every weekend – Channel 4 would be going nuts to get those kind of figures now.

“It’s difficult and exciting. We really believe that there’s not much point in doing what we do unless you can involve the public because otherwise it’s just happening behind hoardings or in advance of roadworks or whatever.

“Most of what we do is scientific but it’s also very unique among scientists. You can actually have citizen science and participation.”

They want to entice a wider variety of artefact finders if they can raise £18,000 by the end of May to ensure this summer's programme goes ahead.

“Our business is built completely around public participation. We’d love it if there were more kinds of groups who were interested in coming along," says Wilkins.

“At the moment we have a lot of individuals but we do keep making groups aware that we are set up to take however many people at once."

What can they expect? “If the weather is anything like last year they will be in a trench.

“You’re not going to walk away from a day or two days as a fully-fledged archaeologist, but you can learn how to do it and be a part of the atmosphere rather than having to commit to a whole week where you’re not sure whether you’re going to like it or if the weather’s going to suck or whatever.

"Even if you just come for a day, by 11 you’ll be in a trench.”

This is the third crowdfunded excavation at Leiston – “it starts at ten quid – as far as we know, we are the only people who crowdfund archaeology in the world,” reckons Wilkins – with all the money going directly to the archaeological effort. Their cause is to develop the site for the school.

“They’re lovely guys, they’re musicians, so it’s like trying to herd cats, you know?” says Wilkins.

“They have a very popular special educational needs programme which has really taken off for them.

“They need to expand their facilities because these are re-purposed buildings, they’re quite old and they don’t have the right kind of facilities for the kids. We’re trying to help them take stock of what they’ve got.

“They have this resource which is this amazingly beautiful and quite rare site in an area of social and economic deprivation, and they don’t have a lot of community resources.

"At the moment there’s no visitor centre, no café could be a place where lots of different kinds of groups could meet – kids’ groups, mothers’ groups, family groups.

“Through this work, what we hope to do is provide a real focus for the local area so that people can use the site.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of people sitting around a muddy archaeological trench with a box in the foreground
Rewards for backers range from behind-the-scenes videos to an exclusive group dig, Ace Venturer© DigVentures
A photo of a group of people looking at the muddy part of an archaeological trench
120 helpers from 13 countries took part in the two-week dig in 2013© DigVentures
A photo of a group of people working around a dug hole within an archaeological trench
The site is managed by the Pro Corda music school© DigVentures
A photo of a large brown archaeological trench with grassland and people standing around
Leiston Abbey's remains are overseen by English Heritage© DigVentures
A photo of a sign pointing towards an archaeological dig dug into grassland
This summer's dig hopes to reveal trenches dug during the 1980s© DigVentures
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Latest comment: >Make a comment
With the unsuitable and disappointing cut in this remarkable programme "Time Team", I welcome any chance to get involved in something that will educate us in historical sites and finds. Perhaps this will be a success and spread round the country so that more of us can get involved. Perhaps it will persuade the powers that be to resurrect the series.
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