A couple of weeks after the planning case officer visited I received a phone call from the planning department. It transpired that after a routine consultation, the county council archaeology officer was insisting on an archaeological dig before our new extension could be approved.
This was unusual for a small development, and would normally be imposed in the form of a condition subsequent to approval. Apparently they had good reason to believe a medieval kiln might be located somewhere beneath the garden. (I rather doubted this because most of the ground around the house where the extension was due to be built appeared to have been backfilled.)
I was acutely aware that if the archaeological question couldn’t be swiftly resolved, our planning application would have to be withdrawn and resubmitted once excavations were concluded — setting the whole project back by a couple of months. Time was of the essence.
Preparing for an Archaeological Dig
Keen to press ahead, I decided to get the initial exploratory excavations out of the way as quickly as possible. We needed to excavate two fairly shallow pits (2m by 1m by 0.6m deep) and have them professionally monitored, with any finds carefully bagged and recorded with a detailed report submitted.
I picked one company from a list of local archaeologists provided by the council. We agreed an hourly fee plus travel and ‘desk time’ to compile a report. Crucially it was possible to get the job booked at short notice, just a week later.
To save money I would hire and operate the mini digger myself. I was planning on hiring one anyway to clear the new parking area and put in some gate posts, so it made sense to kill multiple birds with a single shot.
There was just one problem: I was a total stranger to the world of mini diggers, other than harbouring a boyish desire to drive a JCB. The machine was, however, delivered a day in advance to allow sufficient time to get to grips with the controls, having negotiated a bargain price of £230 for a week’s hire, including a set of four buckets (some supplied toothless as stipulated by the archaeologists so any finds wouldn’t get mashed by sharp metal teeth).
Anyone familiar with the world of plant hire won’t be entirely surprised to hear that the digger arrived without even the most basic instructions. Fortunately, I’d taken the precaution of printing out some online guides too, so after a couple of hours lunging alarmingly around the garden, much to the consternation of resident cats, chickens and curious neighbours, I began to grasp the basics.
The Day of the Archaeological Dig
Come the day of the archaeological dig, the archaeologist arrived punctually at 8am. The county council archaeologist had provided a plan marked with the pit locations, corresponding to the outer corners of the proposed foundation trenches, and despite periodic bouts of ungainly lurching and pitching I succeeded in plunging the bucket earthwards and hitting the marked target zone.
The eagle-eyed archaeologist scrutinised each scoop, periodically jumping into the pit, armed with a small hand trowel, before emerging triumphantly grasping a tiny fragment.
Just as I was getting into my stride there was a sudden loud ‘clang’. The bucket had struck a large expanse of dark fabric enclosing something hard — a substantial Anglo-Saxon hoard perhaps? The archaeologist dated the textile to approximately 2000AD — part of a rubble-filled soakaway encasing a truck load of stones constructed to disperse surface water.
In sum, the proceeds of our morning’s work comprised a couple of old handmade clay roof tiles plus a fistful of unglazed pottery fragments. Although possibly medieval or, at a push, Roman, these were not considered significant. There were certainly no clues to the whereabouts of any long lost kiln. I breathed a deep sigh of relief.
Each pit took about 90 minutes to excavate, plus another hour or so to make notes and to label finds in plastic sandwich bags. The total outlay including digger hire cost around £600. I got off lightly.
Following the county council officer’s visit that same afternoon to inspect the trial pits and peruse the bagged specimens, we got the official all-clear to backfill the pits. With our planning application now back on target we could once again focus on the project at hand. Two weeks later a letter arrived from the council containing the magic word ‘approved’.