Volunteer Profiles 2011

Bianca Carpeneti

I spent a couple weeks on-site, chatting with my fellow excavators and interviewing local volunteers. It was particularly enlightening to spend time with them during our tea and lunch breaks—during which they shared everything from teacakes to insights on British politics. They are an enthusiastic and committed group, some just getting started and some with years of experience wielding a trowel, interrogating and interpreting the archaeological record as they uncover it. They found Binchester on their own or were recruited to help on the project, through membership of amateur archaeology and historic societies. This network is quite extensive and intensive, reaching out to and rallying a sizeable force. Many of these volunteers have worked on projects together over the years, and as such have shared histories. They are a delightful group to get to know, and are quite willing to share their stories and insights from Binchester and the North of England.

NB: Each profile includes at the end its “coordinates,” which identify the subject, location, and time of the interview. Trench 2 is in the civilian settlement (vicus) outside the eastern gate of the fort walls. Trench 1 is within the fort walls, in roughly the northeast corner of the fort. See interim site reports for maps.

1. Barbara, working in Trench 2 (T2), has been helping at Binchester for three years. She got involved through All Together Archaeology after she retired. Since starting, she has convinced her husband to join in, too. She grew up and now lives nearby in Bishop Aukland. As one of the “original visitors,” she came to Binchester with her class when she was a schoolgirl. She remembered exploring the hypocaust beneath the bathhouse with a torch (that’s a flashlight, for you non-Brits), going through the trapdoor in the field, down the stepladder into the “dark hole” to look around. Back then, she didn’t find it all that interesting, but her outlook changed when she was older, watching TV shows on archaeology and reading up on it. Since starting at Binchester, she’s also volunteered at Vindolanda, West Gate, and High Fosse.

BIN Barbara T2 Tuesday, 7.26.11, 14:47; Trench 2 (NW corner); Tascam file .0077, 1:28-2:09.

2. Margaret, also T2, talked about how it feels to find things and why it’s meaningful to her. The other jobs—planning and shooting in levels—are tedious for her; she wants to be working down in the dirt so she can feel like she’s contributing. The feel of satisfaction from a find keeps her going through the other jobs. One thing she reflected on at length was the fact that as she excavates, she likes the opportunity to appreciate the ingenuity of past societies, and see the reminders that people many thousands of years ago weren’t as “thick” as modern people might think. We also discussed finding objects and “making sense of them.” Hearing her describe her attitude towards excavating reminded me of the chats I’ve had with Chris Witmore and Joseph Zehner (both Texas Tech) concerning the philosophical grounds for various interpretations and the drawbacks inherent to an interpretation predicated on human exclusivity. Specifically, I found myself wondering: does the viewpoint Margaret articulated allow a found object to have significance only when it has been unearthed and “[made] sense of”? Subsequently, does the answer here make any difference to how an excavation happens in a practical sense? I can’t really see a major shift in the way Margaret (or any other similarly-motivated excavator/volunteer) goes about the process, just because we acknowledge or affirm the position that objects have significance outside of being “found” and placed within a human context. Moreover, so often I hear people talk about the “historic person behind the artifact” and how that thought is the most powerful thing about pulling something out of the ground. Volunteers and excavators often reference the “story of the owner” and how that thought intrigues them. To me, this seems like the right impulse—ie: going for the humanizing stories that make history accessible—and in keeping with discussions with Michael Shanks and Chris Lowman (both Stanford) concerning the REVS project. It would seem, though, that approach/attitude doesn’t leave much room for anything but human exclusivity. So, how do we fulfill our responsibility to rich interpretation, but still encourage volunteers’ curiosity to cultivate an enthusiastic corps of excavators?

BIN Margaret T2 Tuesday, 7.26.11, 15:02; Trench 2 (eastern end of the road); Tascam file .0078, 1:43-2:20.

3. Susan, T2, has been involved at Binchester from the start. She volunteers with her husband and their 36-year-old son (I spoke with both of them later). When I asked if she was comfortable chatting and being recorded, she laughed and said she’d been recorded and interviewed loads of times for her work on boards and other organizations. It struck me that her outlook on digging wasn’t quite as idealistic or romantic as you sometimes find in the field—it seemed for her to be more along the lines of a worthy job that she needed to get on with. As she put it, “Well, this is it: somebody dropped something nearly 2,000 years ago, and you’re picking it up now. You wonder if it’ll ever happen to us, don’t you?” Susan works with the amateur archaeology group, Northern Archaeology Group, that’s been excavating at the nearby Lodge Farm. As a recent volunteer, she’s still learning from Archaeological Services at Binchester, and she takes these skills with her to Lodge Farm. I’m interested in the way the Lodge Farm project works, from the organization and set-up, through excavation and then documentation and/or publishing. Susan mentioned that the group worked with the support of David Mason, County Archaeologist, noting that his involvement is “getting [them] some credibility.” She noted that Mason, “appreciates [and] encourages” their efforts, which she found heartening given the sometimes delicate rapport between professionals and amateurs in the field. This sort of collaboration and cooperation is just the type of thing that Binchester likes to see encouraged.

BIN Susan T2 Tuesday, 7.26.11, 15:14; Trench 2 (midway along the track); Tascam file .0079, 8:20-8:42.

4. Jackie, T2, was working in the corner closest to the West Gate. She had been digging for a while and was eager to chat. She first started excavating at Sedgefield, after seeing Time Team filming an episode of their TV program across the street from her home. Though always been intrigued by archaeology, she “never would’ve done anything about it if [Time Team] hadn’t have been there.” She’s now a member of the Architectural and Archaeological Society of County Durham (often referred to as “Arch. and Arch.”), which connects and mobilizes enthusiasts and volunteers. She described herself as one of those people who “live[s] in hope of finding ‘something important’, to the point that she’s ‘hooked.’” Archaeology, and the process of encountering history, it is alluring—it brings people back even after days and weeks of no finds.

BIN Jackie T2 Tuesday, 7.26.11, 15:40; Trench 2 (near West Gate); Tascam file .0080, 4:08-4:28.

5. Terry, John, and Phil—excavating together in T1—were working in the corner building, pulling out the most recent layer of rubble. They’d come down to a living surface, though a tumble of stones still remained along the wall nearest the rampart. Over the last couple weeks, I’ve chatted the most with Terry—he’s always friendly and happy to share suggestions for typical Northeastern things I need to try (Stotties, peas pudding, and custard crèmes are all on that list!). The three of them told me about the context they were working in, but we soon moved on to how they got involved in archaeology in the Northeast, their work with the amateur archaeology group, and the region in general. I was especially interested in the second item—I’ve never heard of amateur archaeologists carrying on an excavation—and curious how they organized and managed the work. While it is not their profession and as such they are considered amateurs, they are quite professional and bring a great deal of experience to the project. Given that they do this work for fun, I thought it was quite fantastic.

BIN Terry, John, & Phil T1 Tuesday, 7.26.11, 16.00; Trench 1 (SE corner); Tascam file .0081, 3:20-3:59.

6. Another enthusiastic and expert volunteer is Morris, Susan’s husband. He first started digging 36 years ago at Southshields, up in Newcastle. He eagerly shared his love of books and history, almost seemed a bit reluctant when I asked about his tacit knowledge gained through years of working on excavations. But after so much time, he’s clearly very keen and learned quite a bit; he’s one of the folks spearheading the Northern Archaeology Group’s excavation at Lodge Farm. Having established and experienced volunteers really adds to the experience at Binchester—their involvement diversifies the project profile and they know how to get on with things on-site.

Morris also exemplifies the highly social nature of an excavation like Binchester. He joked that the reason he started excavating all those years ago was that his wife was pregnant with their son and he needed to “get out of the way” and so decided to go off and dig for 2 weeks. He laughed and then pointed to a man working not far away and said, “there’s my son, himself!” So, 36 years later, Morris is still digging, and he’s since introduced his wife and son to the field, too. Once a year, they come out and dig together again. Thus, sites like Binchester have become a very important part of volunteers’ life. It’s not just a site where history is (re)encountered/created, but where social and personal relationships are negotiated. From even a short time on site, it is easy to see that the excavation is a highly social setting—Binchester is building and providing the infrastructure for these encounters.

BIN Morris T2 Wednesday, 7.27.11, 14:43; Trench 2 (along the ditch); Tascam file .0082, 10:11-10:36.

7. Mick, metal detectorist working on T2 spoil heap, volunteered his time to chat about working at Binchester. (He was particularly charitable and patient with me, as I was having trouble following his accent!) Though reserved, he shared his excitement about the possibility of a major find from Binchester and added that he was looking to earn his next diploma from his metal detectors’ club. When I asked, he explained that the club gives out a monthly diploma in recognition of the best find—Mick’s already earned four diplomas this year! We chatted a bit about the regional relationship between archaeologists and metal detectorists, which he seemed to feel was improving bit by bit. One thing he noted, which I hadn’t considered, was that he likes helping out with excavation, not only by finding coins in the spoil heap but also by sharing tips with new volunteers on how to better spot small finds in the soil—specifically, by keeping an eye out for large clumps of earth and breaking those up to check for coins and the like. During another interview, one volunteer told me how he had increased his small finds by following Mick’s tip.

BIN Mick spoil heap T2 Wednesday, 7.27.11, 15:13; Spoil heap (T2); Tascam file .0083, 2:06-2:23.

8. Daniel, T2, working on the building towards the western end of the trench. Morris and Susan are his parents. He’s been digging for 10 years and recently got his BA in Archaeology. He’s more interested in Central America, but he’s working on building experience. Given his dad’s interest in archaeology—which included an extensive home library of history books, yearly excursions to sites, and regular contact with the world of archaeology—he’s not surprised he gravitated towards the field. When I asked about why he digs, he hesitated but then suggested he was motivated by the process of finding the human presence of Romans in Britain. Presence: this is a recurring theme. When we dig a context, we’re looking for evidence or presence of someone exterior to us. Many of the volunteers I spoke with indicated that it is a deeply personal experience for them, one that they internalize almost to the point that the presence of a historical Individual (or group of individuals) is secondary to the excavator’s own self-discovery.

BIN Daniel T2 Friday, 7.29.11, 10:48; Trench 2 (structure towards the Western end); Tascam file .0086, 7:49-8:08.

9. Mike, T2, working in context 5247, nicknamed the “über pit” and located in the NE corner of the trench. Originally, Michael had planned to work 2 weeks of his vacation, but then worked out a deal with his work to take nights and weekend shifts in order to spend another couple weeks and Binchester. He was enthusiastic about the project and opportunity it afforded—I hardly had to ask any questions at all to get him to share what he was working or reflecting on during his time on-site. For him, a big part of the project’s attraction was the social aspect—meeting new people, especially the students, and the rewards of those interactions. He also identified digging as a form of therapy for him. Integral to that therapeutic effect is the arc of discovery: having a stone appear, following its emergence, watching it lead to something larger or resolve itself into a discrete find or feature. As I understood him, the attraction was a contained challenged with a discrete and identifiable solution, which I can readily see as a satisfying form of ‘therapy.’ Tied into that process, too, is the prospect of encountering what he sees to be a more genuine snapshot of the Romans, as opposed to the traditional “shiny, new, meticulously lined-up” city associated with the Romans.

His enthusiasm for the “unfiltered” view of Roman history is not unprecedented, many people express the same desire, myself included. As a museum person, I often wonder about the level of interpretation and filtering to which material and information is subject.

BIN Mike T2 Friday, 7.29.11, 11:43; Trench 2 (“Über pit”); Tascam file .0087, 6:11-7:07 (spliced).

10. Steve, T2, on the edge of the “über pit.” He can see his house from the trenches, which puts the excavation essentially in his backyard. He’s grown up in the area (Escomb!) and always been keen on the region’s history. Besides being significant sites for the Roman period, Steve finds these sites (particularly Binchester) important because they’re his “own,” local sites. (For comparison, he’s been to Ephesus, but it’s a site in Turkey, which means it doesn’t resonate much with him.) Part of this connection derives from a lifetime of exposure to them and the personal stories associated. He shared one concerning his friends “finding” (he hinted they might have been treasure hunting) a skull from nearby Binchester. It was a humorous story that made him laugh aloud during the telling, and I got the impression it’s not the only such story or memory he has. Incidentally, he also collects coins. He doesn’t study them, he handles them and “just enjoys” them. The value he derives from the coins does not come from the monetary value, it comes from the memories associated with them. This is very much in keeping with common, prevailing motivations for collecting: sentimental value and personal associations with strong connection to early memories. Not surprisingly, these reasons often also bring volunteers to Binchester.

BIN Steve T2 Friday, 7.29.11, 12:00; Trench 2 (“Über pit”); Tascam file .0088, 1:52-9:30 (spliced).

11. Les, T2, along the street surface towards the West Gate. Les worked for 40-odd years as a plumbing and heating engineer and recently retired. But after a lifetime of working, he was “bored to tears” and so he sent off for a distance course from Leicester in Archaeology and Ancient History. He mentioned Time Team programs (a recurring theme, I’ve found!) as what got him interested initially. He’s from Sunderland (ca. 30 miles away), and near his home is a site called Copt Hill featuring round barrow structures. As a member of the Friends of Copt Hill, he’ll be helping with the excavation there later this year, if they get the funding to go ahead. Through contacts there, he heard about Binchester and contacted David Mason, etc. His work this summer will go towards his BA program from Leicester.

BIN Les T2 Friday, 7.29.11, 12:48; Trench 2 (near West Gate); Tascam file .0089, 0:43-3:06 (spliced).

12. Joan, T1, chatted with me about her first week digging at Binchester. She came with her granddaughter, who’s 16. The two had been digging together for most of the week, but—somewhat to her disappointment—split up on the last day. She’d heard about Binchester through a talk at the WI (the Women’s Institute) she belongs to, the volunteer program interested her. The WI is not restricted to historical discussions—it’s covers all manner of topics, from hat making to history—so her interest in Binchester comes from a more general, wide-ranging interest, rather than a deep-seated fascination with archaeology. She’s grown up in the area and lived nearby all her life. She’d visited Binchester 8 or 9 years ago, before the current excavations, seen the Bath House, but she didn’t realize the extent of the site. She loves visiting castles and museums, reading every bit of information and literature included by the exhibit designers. She had some endearing stories about visiting museums with family and friends and how the various dynamics that emerge from those social interactions affect the visitor experience.

BIN Joan T1 Friday, 7.29.11, 13:15; Trench 1 (large building block); Tascam file .0090, 1:10-2:34 (spliced).

13. Mike, T1. He admitted that he was more interested in pre-historic sites than Roman ones, but since he’s grown up surrounded by this history (either Roman sites or material in museums), he’s interested in it, all the same. Encountering historic records going back 2,000 years makes him wonder: “what am I going to build that lasts 20 years, let alone 200 or 2,000 years?” His reflections on Binchester then turned to his own personal spirituality, which was unanticipated, but not entirely unprecedented. Some of my other chats with volunteers seemed to circle around the cathartic nature of excavating—maybe it’s simply because the careful and deliberate nature of troweling allows a great deal of time to muse on personal quandaries and Big Ideas. Eventually, we ended up chatting about interpretation and presentation of (material) culture in museums and at historic sites. He was particularly interested in “putting people [into] the picture.”

BIN Mike T1 Friday, 7.29.11, 15:20; Trench 1 (stone and cobbled surfaces); Tascam file .0092, 2:50-4:09.

14. John, T1, context 443, SE corner of T1 in the corner building. It was just at the end of the day and we were running into a time crunch. It was John’s last day and he was eager to finish the job so as not to leave it half done. (I get a similar feeling, except I’m more proprietary about the contexts or features I’m digging—John’s instinct was much less selfish than mine!) We got chatting about the movement between trenches—trench sociality, as it were—which I’ve wondered about. People don’t tend to move back and forth on a regular basis; they get to like a section and tend to stick with it. Sometimes, it’s the dynamics between the supervisors, for some it’s the frequency of small finds—there seems to have been a migration from T1 to T2 motivated by the high frequency of coins found in T2. For his part, John liked the idea of sticking in one place because it let him get a better sense of what’s happening in an area. I think there’s an important balance to strike between grasping the Big Picture while retaining the rich detail of any given context. It’s not easy to do, and it’s what Peter does so well.

BIN John T1 Friday, 7.29.11, 16:00; Trench 1 (SE corner); Tascam file .0093, 6:40-8:23 (spliced).

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