Monday, February 23, 2009

The Big Dig, Leeds Castle

The scene: Darlene's Drift, a small partially defended medieval tourist attraction in Kent. A large tent has been erected near the aviary. Inside are hiding a handful of brave events staff from Leeds Castle, some archaeologists and a large Henry VIIIth look-a-like who for some reason is now pretending to be an archaeologist himself. Enter a blood stained sentry.
Sentry: The lookouts have just got back from the car park and they report...
Lt Darlene Chard: (Stanley Baker - for tis he) What do they report?
Sentry: They report - kids, Sir. Farsands of 'em.
Lt Darlene: Gad!
Sentry: Some of 'em armed wiv spades...
Lt Darlene: Do you know what this means?
Lt Helen Bromhead: (Michael Caine, for tis he) You're off somewhere, aren't you...
Lt Darlene: Caribbean Cruise here I come!
Lt Helen: Don't shoot till you see the whites of their eyes!
Rev Jean Beaton: (Jack Hawkins, for tis he) What if they keep their eyes shut?
Archaeologist Mike Farley: (Ulla Jacobson, for tis she) They might win.
You get the idea. It was such a brilliantly simple idea to get children interested in archaeology. You get a big marquee, you pop in some large sandpits, you fill them with sand and pop in various shards of Roman Pottery from a local dig and let the children excavate them. They then present their finds to local professional archaeologists who help them clean the items and then date them. Also on hand are some metal detector dudes who take the children and their parents out into the fields locally and show them how they make their discoveries. The response from the public was overwhelming. After a fairly placid start to the week on Saturday and Sunday, all hell broke loose on Monday and Tuesday. On the Tuesday we had nearly 3,200 people into the Castle and grounds. It truly was like a scene from Zulu. The children would clear out one of the sandpits and we'd go about re stocking it with pottery for them to find and they would be poised around us, clutching trowels to their sweaty palms, shoulders hunched over like vultures. As soon as we said go they'd leap in like Lions on a gazelle, sand flying in all directions.
It was great to be working back with Jean Beaton, Darlene Cavill, Lynn, Helen Budd and all the old familiar faces from so many other times at Leeds Castle. The archaeologists were from Kent and were headed up by Dr Paul Wilkinson, a lovely amiable chap and easy to talk to. The metal detectorists were nice as well, even if one or two were a little grumpy, but then so would you be spending half your time burying old coins and the other half digging them up for the children. Amanda and James came down and joined me on the second Saturday, and James now wants a metal detector for himself. He also took part in the falconry display show and once more showed his skill for a quick comic reply, even for a six year old. I'd asked Mark Brattle, the falconer, to pick James for the audience participation part of the show. He duly picked out James and did his usual questions, what's your name, how old are you, etc. He then asked James if he knew why he was in the display area. James replied "because you asked me", which duly brought the house down.
The biggest news of the week was when there was stirring from the detectorists that they had found something "big". One of them came down from scanning in the vineyard with a dirt covered jewelled ring in his hand. He reckoned it was "old", possibly Elizabethan. It was shown to all the other metal detectors who agreed it was old and interesting. So Paul Wilkinson had a look and reckoned it was old and interesting. So it was decided to spread the news of this amazing find and contact was made with the British Museum. They were very excited and dispatched someone immediately. A young lady arrived who studied the ring and was equally excited that it was old and interesting, and almost definitely Elizabethan. Everyone was really excited and proud of such a cool find. Everyone was slightly less excited and proud when it was pointed out by one of the groundsmen at the Castle that the ring was actually a reproduction for sale in the Castle shop for £1.80 and had probably been dropped in the vineyard by a customer a year or so back. Suddenly everyone agreed that we had never been fooled in the first place and no one ever thought it was really old.
It was a hectic but fun nine days and it was, as ever lovely to be back at Leeds Castle. I drove home on the Sunday evening and have had a lovely restful day today, getting over the rigours of the week just gone. Tomorrow I am in Coleford, Gloucestershire for a return to Coalway Junior again.

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