Q&A with Vicky Nash – on community archaeology

Why do you think Community Archaeology is important?

Community archaeology is important as it brings together a wide variety of people and allows them to experience and understand history in a way that a book or a television programme could never do. With regards to the Dig Greater Manchester Project, community archaeology has helped to raise awareness of the past at a local level and has encouraged local communities to access, explore and interpret their heritage building a sense of ownership and understanding.

As a result of our Radcliffe excavation a group of volunteers have come together and formed a heritage group. They are now researching the history of Radcliffe and are in process of producing an archaeological gazetteer mapping all of the potential heritage sites within Radcliffe. They are also supporting their local council in a funding application to undertake some further archaeological works within the area and to create a heritage park. This kind of a legacy is something which the Dig Greater Manchester Project is trying to encourage and without community archaeology this would not be possible.

What is your favourite part of an excavation?

For me the best part of an excavation is always the first few days when a site is still blank canvas. As an archaeologist you always have an idea of what you expect to find when you arrive on site but in those first few days of digging you are never sure and it is a nail biting time. Being able to watch the site evolve day by day has always fascinated me.

What has been your most exciting find?

I guess my most exciting find has to be an early Bronze Age, Amber necklace, which I found when I was volunteering at the Shaw Cairn excavations in Stockport, in 2006. When the first amber bead appeared I thought it was a seed, until I noticed it had a hole at either end. When several more beads appeared I remember having a massive panic and when the site supervisor came over the look on his face was priceless. Nobody ever expected to find actual treasure so it was a shock for all of us and something which I will never forget.

What do you hope to find this year?

This year the Dig Greater Manchester team will be excavating the remains of bleach works owners house and associated workers houses, two 18th century mansion houses, and possibly a late 18th century cavalry barracks. With such a wide variety of sites we hope to uncover some exciting finds that can tell us a little more about life in Greater Manchester during the 18th and 19th centuries.

What do you think are the main challenges for archaeologists in encouraging people who have never been involved in archaeology to volunteer?

Unfortunately, people still believe that archaeology is all about the digging and that you have to be young, fit and able to take part. Dig Greater Manchester is hoping to quash this belief by encouraging individuals and groups not normally associated with archaeology to get involved in not just the digging but also other archaeologically related activities such as, archaeological drawing and recording, finds analysis, historical building surveying, geophysical surveying, historical research etc.

This is not an easy task but we are seeing positive results and with every dig we do and we have encouraged a wide range of volunteers some of which include retired or unemployed individuals, adults with learning disabilities and also young offenders. So far the project has resulted in great personal benefits to many volunteer’s by giving them the opportunity to be included, valued and to gain satisfaction through occupation, as well as contributing to the success of the community archaeological digs.

What do you think the most exciting part of archaeology is for kids?

Kids always get most excited about the digging. When I have gone into schools to speak to children about our digs they are normally convinced that when they get on site they will be like Indiana Jones and uncover lots of treasure. In reality what they find is broken pottery. However when I tell them that the piece of pottery is 200 years old and that they are the first person to touch it since it was thrown away it suddenly becomes treasure and they get very excited.