Snow Stopped Digging

Industrial archaeology in the snow at Worsley New Hall, January 2013

Industrial archaeology in the snow at Worsley New Hall January 2013

Industrial archaeology in the snow at Worsley New Hall Jan 13[/caption]There are many questions I, and the majority of professional archaeologists, are regularly asked by those members of the public brought up on TV archaeology, such as what is your most exciting find (not sure – could be a Roman coinhoard or a seventeenth century blast furnace); or have you ever found any gold or silver (yes, a tiny gold shoe tag). Less often asked is can we dig in all sorts of weather? Leaving aside the assumption that all archaeologists do is excavate (it’s at the core of what we do but there are many other techniques we use such as building survey or field walking) there is one type of weather that I personally fear and loathe on the forecast: rain.

Frost and snow are straightforward, for if the ground is as hard as iron then even a mattock is not going to be safe to use, and if the snow is blanketing the ground then you can’t see safely to walk, let alone work. In which case it’s time to retire to the site hut to fill in the context/photographic/finds sheets and have a cup of tea and a biscuit. Rain, though, creates uncertainty, depending upon how much and for how long it’s been precipitating. Health and safety in archaeology has never been more important, since most fieldwork is now done through the planning process on construction sites. The profession, rightly so, complies with the health and safety regulations common in the Built Environment sector. Therefore, the decision as to whether to dig or not to dig is surely straight forward: if it seems as though it might be unsafe for archaeologists to dig due to the adverse weather conditions then they don’t. So this morning, with three inches of snow covering the brick and rubble foundations of a nineteenth century country house, accessible only down a slope, it was clear we were not going to be doing any fieldwork due to the risk of slipping, tripping, or falling.

The grey area comes in assessing how much damage could be done to the archaeological deposits between the point at which it’s too unsafe for the archaeologist to work and the point at which the archaeology will be damaged by working in the rain. There are no convenient sets of guidelines to help here, rather it’s down to the type of archaeology being excavated, the ground conditions, and the skills of the workforce on site.

There were several times during the course of 2012 when we took our community volunteer diggers off sites, during the Dig Greater Manchester excavations, because the effects of the rain, usually from the day before but often during the day, were making the diggers too wet. The archaeology deposits (stone and brick walls and floors) were robust enough to withstand further work in the weather conditions. In contrast, even the lightest shower at our gravel and sand quarry site at Besthorpe, in the lower Trent Valley, meant that we had to hurry to the cabin or the site would end up looking like a sandpit. Designated walkways and protective tents can help to mitigate against this kind of problem, but what helps most is staff experienced in all kinds of weather conditions and in all sorts of archaeological deposits.

I’m rather hoping, therefore, with at least five community excavations to undertake and at least two large-scale developer-funded projects to deliver, that 2013 will prove to be average for rainfall, or even a little on the dry side in Manchester – and no jokes about the weather thank you.

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