Dig Deep: Discovering History In Your Garden with Dr Chloë Duckworth

If you are keen on history or maybe enjoy spending a weekend scouring fields for treasure with your metal detector, then you’ll absolutely love our chat with archaeological star Dr Chloë Duckworth. Eagle eyed viewers may recognise her as the on-screen expert for Channel 4’s programme The Great British Dig.

We persuaded the treasure trove expert to take a tea break on her latest dig and to chat about her latest discoveries. Find out why it’s so important to bring archaeology to people, most memorable finds, her new book and more… as My Weekly digs deep with Dr Chloë Duckworth!

In the Channel 4 show you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty. For anyone who hasn’t seen the show can you tell them what it’s about?

The show is about local communities across Britain, and the hidden secrets beneath all of our feet. We approach it like detectives: first we investigate an area that we think might be hiding some interesting archaeology, then we visit it and knock on people’s doors to ask whether we can dig in their back gardens and find out what lies beneath.

Why is it so important to make archaeology relatable? To uncover history under someone’s hydrangeas? Or to find something literally under your doorstep?

Archaeology is about all of us. People sometimes say that history was written by the victors, and it tends to deal with the great and powerful, whereas archaeology gives us a real connection to the lives of ordinary people in the past. The smallest thing, such as a fingerprint on a fragment of pottery, can link you to somebody who lived their life hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

What’s the most memorable find you’ve discovered in someone’s garden?

Hm… well, Tash found a mini Furby toy once! But the one that sticks in my mind was the fragment of a Mesolithic stone tool. This thing is thousands upon thousands of years old – it was made when Britain was still heavily forested, and before people were leading settled lives and farming.

What emotions do people go through when they unearth secrets under their grass?

All kinds of emotions! Sometimes it’s awe and wonder at finding something ancient, and sometimes a powerful sense of nostalgia when we find more familiar objects.

One of my personal favourite finds from the show was a wavelength knob from an old radio. Holding it transported me to my childhood, when I would sit in my room tuning the radio to different stations. Since then I was inspired to buy an old radio in a marketplace – I love it!

Tell us about your book which links to the TV series

The book is packed with behind-the-scenes detail that you don’t see on screen, and it also has a bunch of practical features that you can follow to learn how to research your local area, identify archaeological finds, and even put a small trench in your own back garden.

Do you have a favourite find or location?

I can’t possibly choose from them – every community and dig has its own feel, I think. That said, I do have a soft spot for our dig in Falkirk, Scotland. We were working in the garden of a Girl Guide Hut, looking for evidence for a fort on the Antonine Wall, built when the Romans tried to conquer Scotland.

We couldn’t find any evidence for the Romans where we were digging, so I had a chat with our digital archaeology expert Marcus Abbott, and we started to think the wall might run along a different route. So I put in a tiny 1 x 1 m trench and dug straight down until – bingo! We found the Romans and moved the Antonine Wall.

It’s the 1900th anniversary of the building of Hadrian’s Wall and people are coming together to celebrate our local history. How important do you think this is not to just mark history but to also bond communities?

I think it’s fundamental, and for me, that’s what is so wonderful about our show. Community is so important, and the past has this incredible ability to bring people together from all walks of life. Wherever you live, there will be some history, some archaeology… and it belongs to you, as the people who live there. At Newcastle University, we have a wonderful project called WallCAP, which invites people living along the line of Hadrian’s Wall to be involved with digging, recording and conserving the wall.

Recently, social media has been full of finds of Lego and 1980’s toys which have washed up on the coast of Cornwall. What items from modern times do you think will perplex archaeologists of the future?

There’s a bit of a joke in archaeology that if we don’t know what an object was for, we say it was ‘ritual’, which could cover pretty much anything! I’m not sure what might confuse archaeologists in the future, but I wonder what they will make of our society that relies so heavily on single-use items – will they judge us for creating so much waste?

What top tips can you give our readers?

There are lots of tips in my book as well as a step-by-step guide to opening a small test pit in your garden, so I hope that anybody who wants to do a bit of digging for themselves will find it useful. You absolutely must do things legally and safely, so check that your land isn’t on the scheduled monuments list or otherwise protected, and also check out the UK’s treasure laws to see what kinds of find you would need to report. You can find out these things with a quick internet search.

Can you recommend any groups where our readers can share their finds?

I absolutely recommend looking to see whether there is a community archaeology group in your area. There is an interactive map that you can use to do this on the BAJR website.  If you have kids or grandkids, get them involved in the Young Archaeologists’ Club – there are currently over 70 branches throughout the UK. You can also support the Council for British Archaeology, which does fantastic work to bring archaeology to everybody in the UK.

The Great British Dig: History in Your Back Garden by Dr Chloë Duckworth, Conway, HB and e-Book,  £25.00. Out now.

Have you unearthed anything in your garden? What treasures have you discovered? Share your finds with us on our social media channels like our Facebook page or email us at: allaboutyou@dcthomson.co.uk .

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Claire Gill