Unearthed... a hidden past all around us

The next two weeks celebrate the biggest archeology festival in the world. Catherine Scott went along to a dig.

School children from Marton Cum Grafton CofE Primary School take part in archaeological dig on the site of the old school in Marton Cum Grafton

In a muddy trench in a pretty North Yorkshire village, a group of children are getting up close and personal with the past.

“I can really imagine the children who used to attend the school hundreds of years ago, what they used to wear, what lessons they did and how hard it must have been,” says 11-year-old Annabel Hartley, who has just spent the best part of a week unearthing the remains of the original one-room thatched school house at Marton cum Grafton believed to date back to 1750.

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It is an unusual project which has seen 
all 90 pupils of the current primary school, some as young as four, taking 
part in the archeological dig in the 
middle of the picturesque North Yorkshire village.

Working quietly and painstakingly to unearth the treasures, which have not seen the light of day since the school and four neighbouring cottages collapsed and were buried in the mid-1800s when the new school on Reas Lane was built, it’s what you call hands on history.

The project is the brainchild of local resident Tony Hunt and the village history group who are literally, unearthing the village’s past and have been coming up with some stunning results which have also captured the attention of members of the BBC’s Time Team.

“I went on my first archeological dig when I was about four,” says Tony who lives adjacent to where the school dig is taking place. He was hooked and went on to study archeology at Bradford University. However a career in sales beckoned, but when he sold his business recently he decided to rekindle his love of the past and got involved in the Marton cum Grafton group.

By searching through old records, maps and photographs, members have been trying to piece together the village’s past and have been successful in locating what they think is the site of the original Saxon settlement to the south of the current village. Aerial photographs seem to support their theory and two village community digs have already taken place and some interesting finds discovered.

“A full investigation has been carried out with Bradford University geophysics team, famous for their work with Time Team, over the winter and we will be carrying out some further digs this summer,” explains Tony.

“There is no other subject where you can give kids a trowel and within 10 minutes they have got something in their hands no one has touched before. It really brings history to life for them.”

The old maps also revealed the site of the original school house which was confirmed when a villager discovered part of the original foundation stone in his field. What remains of the stone is now in the wall of Ivy House, close to the original site, with a blue plaque explaining its provenance.

“We know it was quite a shabby building,” says Peter Sutton, another member of the village history group. “It was only one room with a thatched roof, the foundation stone seems to have been the best part of it.”

Although no photographs remain of the original one-room schoolhouse a map dating back to the early 1800s clearly states Parochial School and so they had a pretty good idea where to dig.

It is also believed there were four cottages adjacent to the school house and what the children were finding in one of two trenches dug on Marton Green seems to support that.

“They have discovered a lot of pottery which suggests a domestic property,” says Paul Boothroyd from South Leeds Archeology Society which were assisting with the dig. “We do quite a few archeological digs with children, but they are normally on school premises and we normally have very little idea what we are going to find. This dig is slightly unusual as the children are involved in excavating a site where we know the old school was.”

And it definitely seemed to have captured the children’s imagination. Gone was any thought of computer games as one child, carefully using trowel and brush, unearthed a small solid tube.

She handed it to one of the experts from South Leeds Archeology Society to be told that it was part of a Victorian slate stylus, proof that they had indeed discovered the site of a the original school.

Other finds included clay pipes, old coins, a clay marble and inkwells. Once discovered, the position is marked and the artefact cleaned and bagged. All the finds are to go on display in the village church.

“We celebrated our 150th anniversary last year and the children visited the museum at Beamish,” explains Marton cum Grafton head teacher, Marie-Louise Thirlaway. “It is great that they are now unearthing objects that they saw in a museum here in the village. It really brings the past alive for them.”

But being involved in such a project has more relevance than just history.

“They are really learning to work in teams, to listen and to take care in what they are doing,” says Mrs Thirlaway. “They are really having to concentrate hard for long periods of time.”

It is hope that the success of digs like Marton involving members of the community and all ages will be replicated across the country.

Today sees the launch of the 23rd annual Festival of Archaeology. Running until July 28, it is the world’s biggest celebration of archaeology, which aims to get families and members of the community involved in the field.

The festival is organised by York-based educational charity, the Council for British Archaeology, which this year launches with a clear message: in order to make the most of the UK’s unique and rich archaeological landscape, it is crucial to raise greater awareness of the general public’s role in archaeological discovery.

“In the current climate, it is more important than ever that members of the public understand how they can play a vital role in archaeology.

“The CBA was founded in 1944 with the mission of protecting heritage through community activism in a post-war era. Many things have changed since then – and the threats our heritage faces are different – but our mission remains the same,” says Dr Mike Heyworth MBE, CBA director. “Archaeology is key to understanding who we are as humans, where we have come from and where we might be going. Traces of that history are all around us, dating back almost 800,000 years to the first signs of early humans in the UK. But if that evidence is not properly looked out for, or its significance is not understood by the public, we risk losing it forever.”

TV presenter, historian and festival patron, Michael Wood comments: “History, they say, is the biggest leisure participation activity in the UK. I am struck everywhere by the huge energy and enthusiasm, deep knowledge and high level of skills – and the staggering amount of fresh insight and new knowledge. The Festival of Archaeology celebrates that passion and Britain’s riches. It gets people out of their armchairs, into the open, and experiencing history hands on through archaeology. What better way to understand the past and our relation to it?”

Free events across region for Festival

As part of the Festival of Archeology there are around 80 free activities taking place in Yorkshire.

In Leeds, there are a number of events at the Thackray Medical Museum and on July 27 there will be a day of free family friendly activities celebrating the heritage of St John the Evangelist, the oldest church in Leeds, including a guided tour of the stunning 17th-century interior.

In Wakefield, on July 17, at the Grade I listed Chantry Chapel – one of only three surviving medieval bridge chapels in the UK – guests are invited along for an illustrated talk at 7pm.

Youngsters can join the 2013 community dig with Archaeology North Duffield in North Yorkshire from July 20 to 25. This year’s event will re-visit the site where last year’s project found a ditch and either ring-ditch or hut-circle of Iron Age date.

An open day at Southburn Archaeological Museum, East Yorkshire on July 21 will feature a reconstruction of an Iron Age Chariot from the Wetwang Chariot Burial made for the BBC television series Meet The Ancestors and on loan courtesy of the British Museum.

Conisborough Castle in South Yorkshire will be turning the clock back to the medieval ages with a weekend on family activities today and tomorrow.

For further information on the Festival of Archaeology and a list of all events taking place across Yorkshire go to www.archaeologyfestival.org.uk