My (Holi)day of Archaeology

Cumbrian holiday cottage (converted barn with re-used stones from Hadrian's wall)

Cumbrian holiday cottage (converted barn with re-used stones from Hadrian’s wall)

I have just returned from a week’s holiday in northern Cumbria, having missed most of the torrential rain and flash floods that marked the end of the heat-wave in Britain. The noisiest parts of our holiday (excepting the massive thunder storm on Tuesday evening) were the sheep baaing outside the cottage windows in the depth of the surprisingly bright night. So what does an archaeologist do on holiday?

Now it’s a tradition on our family holidays to pick a cottage somewhere in deepest rural Britain from where we can spend a week exploring the landscape and archaeology of the area. Tea shops and wine feature heavily in this exploration. This year’s cottage was in the hamlet of Banks overlooking the valley of the River Irthing and lay next to the line of Hadrian’s Wall. We thus had a fun week scouting up and down the wall exploring Roman fort sites, medieval castles, and the odd parish church and standing cross.

The 26th July was also my youngest son’s birthday. Chris wanted to go to a castle we hadn’t seen before (we have holidayed in the North East a lot – wonderful skies, rolling moors, empty spaces) – so we drove east into the North Tyne Valley to visit Prudhoe Castle. My son Richard (not with us but resident in London) wanted hundreds of photos of the barbican (beside the mill pond), the gatehouse with its chapel above, and the bailey with its ruined 12th century square keep – there was also a c. 1800 Georgian house separating the keep from most of the bailey (home of the Percy’s local steward). Prudhow sits on the southern side of the valley commanding it both to the west and east – and was never captured by the Scots in the medieval period. Then back west, calling in at the Roman town of Corbridge, where we realised we had overlooked lunch, but had to let Alex finish her game of hunt for the lost eight Roman soldiers (models of sticks). Then we finished off with a visit to Chesters Roman fort, where sandwiches were found and eaten and more photos were taken, of the bath house and bridge abutment. In the evening Chris want a BBQ – fine with me as long as he organised the cooking – which indeed he did, after a trip to the Co-op in Brampton to get bread rolls and cake (can’t have a birthday without cake).

It was in the middle of this busman’s holiday that the third international Day of Archaeology occurred (26th July). The event is organized by a voluntary committee of archaeologists based in the United Kingdom, United States of America and Spain, with over 300 participants last year. The Day of Archaeology website (www.dayofarchaoelogy.com) demonstrates the wide variety of work undertaken day-to-day across the globe, and helps to raise public awareness of the relevance and importance of archaeology to the modern world (politicians of all sorts in all countries please note). This is done through diaries, photos, audio, and films from the field to the laboratory, from the classroom to the site hut, with volunteer and professional.

Perhaps not a typical day of archaeology, at least for me, but certainly a memorable one. Whether my children will end up loving or hating archaeology remains to be seen but we certainly came across hundreds of people and dozens of families during the week seeking inspiration from northern England’s Roman and medieval past.

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