What lies beneath... the buried stories of our past

Television has made archaeology ‘sexy’ and there seems to be more interest in it than ever before. Sheena Hastings reports.

IT took just one day in the school holidays for archaeology to grab Mike Heyworth and keep him for life.

As a 14-year-old boy in Hampshire, he heard how much fun a friend was having helping on a dig nearby. Young Michael dragged his mate along to the excavation of an Iron Age hill fort.

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“My friend left and never went back. I found it all gripping and the people interesting, fun and welcoming, so I stayed as long as I could and knew pretty much straight away that this was my thing,” says Mike, who’s been an archaeologist for 30 years – although his life these days is spent talking and writing about his passion rather than getting dirt under his nails.

Once he’d got the bug, supportive teachers encouraged his interest in all things historical by letting him take time off school to help with a “rescue dig” that needed to be done quickly because gas pipelines being laid during a new development were about to go through an ancient site containing a Roman chalk drying oven.

“You preserve what you can, measuring and recording everything you find,” says Mike. “You only get one chance, and if you don’t do it the knowledge is lost forever.”

A first degree in Archaeology and Pre-History at Sheffield University followed, then a Masters and Doctorate at Bradford, where he became specialised in scientific methods and early glass. This set him on course for a job with English Heritage, doing research into ancient technologies such as iron and copper alloy works.

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Today Mike Heyworth is the boss of the Council for British Archaeology, an educational charity working to involve people in archaeology and promote the appreciation and care of the historic environment. It was set up after the last war to champion archaeology when many redevelopments were going on following wide-scale damage from bombs. Its headquarters are, fittingly, in York, and Heyworth has worked there in various capacities since 1990.

In the three decades since he became enamoured of the footprints the past leaves all around us, Mike says public understanding of the subject has improved exponentially.

“Of course places like Stonehenge and stories like that of the Staffordshire Hoard (the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork ever found anywhere in the world – 3,500 items unearthed in a field near Lichfield in 2009) will always grab the headlines. “But I think people appreciate more now that archaeology is also very much about the ‘mundane’, the ordinary details from the past that are hugely valuable.”

Another change has been that archaeological considerations have become much more embedded in the planning process – with much of the spade work (sorry) for this overhaul happening thanks to the excavation of The Rose Theatre on London’s Southbank, which was threatened by plans to build an office block.

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As a result of a long campaign, the law was changed so that archaeological material has to be taken into account in all planning development proposals and the developer has to pay for archaeological work necessary in advance of development. They may still develop the site, but at least the knowledge has been preserved.

Greater awareness of all things archaeological has been driven by TV series like the highly popular Time Team, says Mike.

“Those shows regularly attract audiences of two or three million. People really like to feel connected to the past - it’s part of their own psyche and humanity, part of knowing where they came from and about the place they live in.”

Despite the millions of tourists from elsewhere in the UK and abroad who visit York each year, Mike says the highest proportion of visitors to the city’s glorious ancient sites are locals. “Children come in school groups, then enjoy it, then they come back with their family. You get sucked into it. And one of the things I love about archaeology that everyone realises after a while is that it’s all around you – and not just in things that are many hundreds or thousands of years old.

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“It’s about the recent past as well as the distant past. You just have to open your eyes and look. Once you do that it all becomes enjoyable and meaningful to your life.

“Castleford is not perceived by locals as having a strong archaeological connection, but it had an early Roman fort built in the early 70s AD. Some might have a classical view of antiquity but archaeology is about continuity and lots of influences being felt over millennia. We talk as though the multicultural society is a recent phenomenon, but look back into history and you find that we’re a mix of influences that came into this country over many hundreds of years.”

The CBA organises a nationwide festival of archaeology each year, whose hundreds of activities attracts increasing numbers of people – some of them members of the fast-growing number of local archaeology groups.

These groups, such as the one at Boston Spa near Wetherby, bring in experts to teach them how to carry out their own excavations. Bodies such as York Archaeological Trust also run training workshops, so that enthusiasts understand methods that include washing the finds, recording data, the use of aerial photography and analysis of information.

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“You wouldn’t let an amateur have a go at brain surgery, so experts lend their skills to teaching amateurs to do things to a high standard. Amateurs, including metal detectorists, have made very important finds, but they can get fixated on an individual item, and to us what’s more important is the cloth or piece of pot that was lying next to it, which they might not even notice and leave behind.”

A large part of Mike’s job is as an advocate for archaeology in Westminster, and he chairs the All-Party Archaeology Group, which helps to raise awareness of issues among MPs and peers. This is, he says, more important than ever at a time when spending cuts mean job losses in such crucial jobs as local authority archaeology services which maintain the historic environmental record which developers must consult before making building proposals. The number of people working in archaeology professionally has dropped by 20 per cent from around 7,000 three years ago owing to funding cuts.

Across the first week of this year’s Festival of Archaeology (from Monday, July 16), Mike Heyworth can be seen in a prime time ITV show called Britain’s Secret Treasures, as one of the panel of experts choosing the UK’s 50 most important archaeological sites/finds of the last 20 years. He’s sworn to secrecy for now, but yes, Yorkshire features at various points. He’s excited that ITV has chosen to give the programmes a peak-time slot of 8pm.

“It will take archaeology to new and different audiences and explores the human angles of the subject. It’s fantastic PR for archaeology, which is one of the ‘-ologies’ that anyone can get involved in very easily.”

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Get ready for a Festival of Archaeology on your doorstep across Yorkshire

The British Festival of Archaeology is the biggest UK-wide event focusing on archaeology, with more than 190,000 people taking part countrywide in 2011. The 750 events this year range from behind the scenes tours, guided walks, special exhibitions, excavations and workshops to re-enactments, finds identification days and drama. Budding archaeologists can take part in practical sessions and drop-ins, try their hand at activities using real human remains from the archaeology collections at Leeds Museum Discovery Centre. There’ll be archery on at the Moors National Park Centre, Whitby, dressing up as a noble at Clifford’s Tower, York and concocting of Roman medicines at the Thackray Medical Museum. Go to Hawes and find out how archaeologists interpret finds; make your own flint tools in Skipton; delve deep into the history of Malham Tarn; trace paths at the once-magnificent 18th century Gisborough Priory garden and watch its venerable trees being dated. With almost 100 events around Yorkshire everyone will have the chance to explore history on their doorstep, see archaeology in action and dig deeper into the past.

“It’s a real celebration of our incredible history here in Yorkshire, and you don’t have to be an archaeologist to join in,” says Mike Heyworth

The 22nd Festival runs from July 14 to 29. Information: www.archaeologyfestival.org.uk/whatson