Festival of British Archaeology: Silchester Dig proves a hit for families

By Rachel Hayward | 03 August 2009
Showing a girl with Roman decorations painted on her face

(Left) Rania enjoys Silchester Dig's activities for children as part of the Festival of British Archaeology. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

Festival of British Archaeology 2009 feature: Rachel Hayward discovers how the Silchester open days are proving a big hit with families who are able to see archaeology in action and try their hand at some fieldwork too.

Showing archaeologists at work on an excavation

Archaeologists hard at work on the Silchester dig. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

As part of the Festival of British Archaeology running from July 18 - August 2 2009 2009, my sons Joseph and Benjamin and I had a grand day out recently with the Museum of London and the Thames Explorer Trust on their Family Foreshore visit. We were able to discover rich pickings of Tudor and Victorian artefacts dotted along the banks of the River Thames.

But I'd never visited an archaeological site before to watch excavation in action and I was very curious about what archaeologists would be like and how families could be involved in such a specialised activity.

To my shame, I did not know about Silchester before I went along on this weekend. For those of you who haven't yet been, Silchester near Reading is a large, Roman town complete with wall and amphitheatre.

Showing a grandfather and grandson enjoying Roman colouring activities

Four-year-old Samuel and his grandfather try out the children's activities. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

The excavation, the Insula IX Town Life project, is run by the University of Reading and is a research and training excavation of just part of the Silchester town site.

Showing a tour group being taken round the Silchester excavation site

Professor Mike Fulford guides a group of visitors around the Silchester excavation site. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

The purpose of the excavation is to trace the site's development from its origins before the Roman Conquest to its abandonment in the fifth century A.D.

Showing a father and his son and daughter enjoying activities as part of the open day at Silchester

Eight-year-old Jade and her four-year-old brother, Nathan and their dad do some fieldwork to chart archaeological finds. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

As we arrive and don our wellies and waterproofs, the dark, storm clouds gather ominously above but the archaeologists' enthusiasm for welcoming families and other vsitors to Silchester is not diminished.

Showing a girl involved in a make and do activity

Rania, who is seven years old, gets creative. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

I am very impressed by the preparation that has gone into the open day and the way that such a variety of activities both outside and under canvas are laid on for the public, particularly for younger visitors.

A huge band of student archaeologists lead creative 'make and do' activities, show the kids around the excavation site in special kids' tours and introduce them to cleaning and identifying artefacts.

Showing a young boy colouring a picture of Roman ladies

Christopher (nearly two) colours in a Roman lady. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

There are also interactive activities that kids can just get on with themselves, including a Dig Sandpit and a typical example of fieldwork where the kids can record information just like a real-life archaeologist would.

Showing students dressed as Roman soldiers and talking to children

Two Roman soldiers interact with children during the Silchester open day. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

The Roman soldiers are a definite hit. Kids follow them around the site and bombard them with questions. There's even a fight demonstration by the soldiers during the open day to show families a taste of Roman life - and death.

Showing a boy sat on the ground involved in an archaeological grid activity

Nathan poses with his fieldwork. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

It is obvious that the archaeologists enjoy the open days and the chance to interact with the public. For greater effect, they even like to theme these days too. It's not just re-enactors who get to have all the costume fun.

Traditionally, they dress up as Romans or Celts. However, one team working on part of the site that contains garden soil have gone one further with a lovely in- joke by choosing to be Women's Institute ladies for the day. An excuse to have tea and cakes on site I wonder?

Having the archaeologists dressed up in costume adds to the entertainment value of watching them at work on the excavation. It's a spectacle that provides an engaging educational element to the proceedings and my sons are intrigued by the archaeologists' outfits and want to find out more.

Showing a teenager in cricket whites cleaning finds

James, the youngest volunteer on the Silchester excavation cleans some finds. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

"What’s that boy doing in cricket whites?" my cricketing-mad son Joseph asks and points to the youngest excavation team member, James who looks like he should have be playing at Lord's rather than digging on the site.

James is happy to explain that his outfit is a nod to the Victorians who had excavated at Silchester and we are then shown some wonderful photographic records of their finds.

At 16 years old, James is the youngest archaeologist working on the Silchester excavation. This is his second year. James came along in 2008 as part of his Year 10 work experience and liked it so much, he now plans to study Archaeology at university. "I came to archaeology via dinosaurs and the Romans," he quips.

Showing a man peering into a well on an excavation site

John Brown peers down a Roman well that is undergoing excavation. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

John Brown, the Site Assistant, takes me on site and shows me a Roman well currently being excavated. John is an amateur archaeologist and became involved in archaeology when he retired.

"I used to love watching Time Team on the television and my wife suggested I have a go for myself. She loves the seven weeks when I’m away at Silchester," chuckles John. "I run a dig at a Roman villa near where we live and we have retired people who make up the team there. They even bring along their grandchildren."

Showing a female archaeologist dressed as a member of the WI and posing alongside a young visitor to the site

Sarah Lucas in her WI outft poses with Benjamin. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

Sarah Lucas, the Site Supervisor, poses in her WI outfit with Benjamin aged 7, "On our first open day two weeks ago, over 1,000 people came along. It's great having the public here because they get a chance to engage with their heritage."

Like many other members of the team, Sarah is not a full-time archaeologist, "I work for Oxford Archaeology as a senior illustrator but I did start out as a field archaeologist. I take unpaid leave from my job for Silchester but I absolutely love it."

Sarah is leading the team of archaeologists working on the garden soils part of the excavation. Near the excavation site, the archaeologists have grown some of the plants they have found traces of during their dig.

My younger son Benjamin asks if there is building going on because of the proliferation of planks on the site. Sarah smiles and replies, "The planks are on the site, so that the archaeologists walk on them rather than the soil. It seems funny that we try and keep the soil as clean as possible but it's all about not spoiling our work!"

Showing the Professor of Archaeology Mike Fulford standing with a female archaeologist who is dressed as a lady from the WI

Professor Mike Fulford, from the University of Reading Archaeology Department chats with a member of his amazing team. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

Professor Mike Fulford from the University of Reading Archaeology Department, leads the Silchester project. "This is our 13th summer and we're now going down beyond the Romans and unearthing Iron Age artefacts." he says, clearly proud of his team's efforts.

100 people, including volunteers, are involved in the dig. 40 core staff make up the number of paid archaeologists.

As part of Heritage Lottery funding in 2003, links were made with local schools and colleges and students came along to experience archaeology for themselves. "And they keep coming back!" Professor Fulford exclaims, delighted by this sign of success at Silchester. "We give volunteers fantastic training which helps to explain why we're so popular."

Giving up his lunch break to speak to me, Professor Fulford adds, "It's wonderful seeing so many people here today and introducing them to the mysteries of archaeology."

At this, Professor Fulford politely makes his excuses and then disappears off to give another tour of the site to the visitors.

Showing a smiling mother holding her young son in her arms

Massaouda holds her son, Sami. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

Messaouda has brought along her seven year old daughter, Rania and her 18 month old son, Sami. "It's very good for kids here," she says approvingly and adds that it's the first time they've been to an excavation site. "We live in Reading and my daughter who is in Year 3 at school has done a Roman project. Being here is better because you learn more."

Showing a Roman bowl found in one of the well excavations on the Silchester site

A Roman mixing bowl with the owner's name on it. It was discovered in the well. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

The University of Reading have been working at Silchester for over a decade and their finds from this year's dig were on display at the open day.

Showing a female student with an artefact in her hand

Archaeology student Cara, holds a bone awl which would have been used for sewing and working leather. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

Cara, who is in her third year of studying Archaeology at Reading University, showed me some of the finds from this year's dig. "I like the finds: the handling and working with objects and seeing people's faces when they’ve discovered something special."

Showing student male and female archaeologists cleaning finds

Ben and Afra, student site volunteers, clean finds from the excavation. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

Ben and Afra are students who've come to work on the dig for the summer. "This'll help me get to university," says Ben who is hoping to study Marine Archaeology at Southampton.

At Oxford, reading classical archaeology and ancient history, Afra sums up the Silchester dig experience, "It’s one of the best places to learn archaeology."

Showing a female archaeologist dressed as a Roman lady and posing with a young male visitor to the Silchester site

Diana, a volunteer dressed as a Roman lady for the day, stands with Joseph. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

Amateur archaeologist Diana echoes the younger students' comments when she says, "I'm having the time of my life and have been coming here since 2002. I came to archaeology later in my life; first, I got married, had kids and only now I'm studying Archaeology at Bristol University. It's my first degree!"

Showing a stamp with the mark of Emperor Nero on it

A Roman stamp bearing the marks of Emperor Nero and it is thought he financed the building of the town Basilica. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

Silchester was originally called Calleva Atrebatum and its Celtic name means (the town in the) woods of the Atrebates. It was an Iron Age settlement before the Roman invasion.

Showing two boys posing next to the Silchester Roman town wall

Benjamin and Joseph strike a pose for the camera at the Silchester Roman wall. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

The site is of special significance because, unlike most large Roman towns in Britain, it was completely abandoned. The defensive walls still survive, in places more than four metres high. You can read a Guide to Silchester on the University of Reading’s Insula IX Town Life project website.

A pleasant, 10 minute walk from the excavation site there is the most incredible Roman amphitheatre.

Showing the remains of a Roman amphitheatre

The Roman amphitheatre used to hold up to 7,500 people and hosted gladiator and wild beast fights. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

Find out more about Silchester Insula IX's open days for the Festival of British Archaeology 2009 on the University of Reading's Silchester Project website. Please note that if you’d like to visit the Silchester Project, it is closed to the public on Fridays.

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