The Great British Dig: History in Your Back Garden

Review by Eugenia Ellanskaya.

When it comes to interpreting archaeological sites, invisible ink comes to mind as a common medium that has been used to paint the elusive picture of our past. Eye-opening discoveries often come from those slight variations in soil colour and texture that demand subtle observation and patience. Indeed, much of what Chloë Duckworth encounters in The Great British Dig requires a pair of eagle eyes, tenacity, and imagination.

Duckworth’s new book, based on the UK television series of the same name, is an offscreen guide to the sites, methods, and discoveries covered by the programme. Whether you have watched the original or not, this book acts as a great reminder of why many of us fall for archaeology in the first place: the anticipation and thrill of great finds, which might amount to nothing more than a pottery rim that – through informed speculation – can be reconstructed into a fully formed ancient vessel; the discovery of dramatic turns of events long gone; or even the humbling realisation that we are, in fact, not that different from our predecessors. Such is the case with some Roman glass discussed in the book: an incredibly modern-looking artefact that could easily be dismissed. The chapters are filled with such artefactual insights, as well as clues to look out for in order to interpret such objects and heaps of anecdotes that help bring it all to life.

From a prehistoric Bronze Age site in East Staffordshire to an English Civil War site in Norfolk’s King’s Lynn, the book covers every dig from the first two seasons of the show. Nearly all case studies come complete with handy identification guides that will help you to determine your own finds (if you are in Britain); the so-called ‘Practicals’ invite you to get your hands dirty in your own project.

Well-known recent discoveries like Richard III’s remains help bring the book back to present archaeological work. It also illustrates the potential of burial sites for reconstructing, in intricate detail, a deceased’s way of life. But, as with many burial sites and finds, much of what is found there is more telling of the sentiments and mindsets of those who lived on.

The Great British Dig is an accessible and engaging introductory handbook which shows that intriguing traces of history are to be found, sometimes literally, a garden path away from our doorstep. For the seasoned archaeologist, this book is equally appealing as a collection of case studies that convey that competitive spirit of a dig. Much like browsing through your old field notes, it makes a nostalgic read during the off-season. It is a no-nonsense guide that is bound to get you thinking like an archaeologist and make you want to dive into some muddy detective work in no time.

The Great British Dig: History in Your Back Garden, Chloë Duckworth, Conway, Hardback, £25, ISBN 978-1844866267.