The Great British Dig: history in your back garden

Review by CH.

Those of us who enjoy relaxing of an evening with an episode or two of an archaeological TV show have been spoiled in recent years, with such tempting offerings as Digging for Britain, Digging Up Britain’s Past, not to mention the return of Time Team – and, of course, The Great British Dig.

The success of this latter programme has sparked a tie-in book by onscreen expert Dr Chloë Duckworth, lecturer in Archaeology at Newcastle University, and it is a joy to read. Beautifully presented and crammed with colour photos, the book begins with a whistle-stop tour of British history from the first arrival of modern humans, and then dives into a detailed account of each episode of the first and second series. Dr Duckworth’s brightly conversational prose zips along, offering behind-the-scenes insights and dashes of humour as she summarises the excavations and the significance of their findings.

Featured sites span the length and breadth of England – as well as a single Scottish dig on the Antonine Wall – and delve beneath back gardens, beer gardens, car parks, and occasionally more open land such as a South Shields promontory preserving First World War practice trenches. Although the domestic setting of many of the digs might make them seem small-scale, the stories they have to tell are big, and often powerfully poignant. From Roman remains near Hadrian’s Wall to a Norman castle in a Liverpool suburb, a Shropshire workhouse, and a 19th-century prison in Wiltshire – and not forgetting a lost priory in Nottinghamshire, whose monks suffered a hideous traitors’ death for opposing the Dissolution of the Monasteries – these are vivid snapshots of British history, tangibly presented through material evidence.

Special sections offer more detail on topics like how Roman glass was made, what your skeleton can reveal about you, and the meanings behind street names – and budding archaeologists will be particularly delighted by the ID guides covering different pottery types, coins, animal bones, and more, as well as practical advice on laying out a trench, digging legally and safely, and excavation and recording techniques. If your viewing habits have inspired you to explore what lies beneath your own back garden, this book is a great starting point.

The Great British Dig: history in your back garden, Chloë Duckworth, Bloomsbury, £25, ISBN 978-1844866267