Archaeologists and volunteers unearth history

Monday 1 August

For two weeks in June a garden in the north-west corner of the Precincts became a hive of activity, with archaeologists, volunteers and school groups digging down into the earth to see what it would reveal about the history of the site.

About 130 volunteers were involved in the dig, washing and recording finds, metal detecting and of course digging. Most came for two or three days, but some student volunteers stayed for the whole 12 days. They were supervised on behalf of the Cathedral by Access Cambridge Archaeology (ACA) and Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU), both part of Cambridge University.

Alison Dickens, Manager of ACA, explains why community archaeology is such a great way to engage people with a place and its history: “It’s hands on, it’s outdoors, you have to work with other people and it very much brings people together …. But the fantastic side product is that we are getting meaningful archaeology too.”

Jackie Hall, the Cathedral Archaeologist, agrees. “Archaeologists will be referring back to this dig for many years to come,” she said. “Over the last weekend we discovered a deep, waterlogged deposit at the far north end of the site which was probably outside the burh wall. Immediately above it was a layer containing stone and some mortar matching the description of the burh wall mortar given by Don Mackreth in his 1981 excavation. This is potentially very significant in furthering our understanding of the 10th century abbey and town.”

A fragment of medieval glass found during the digOther strategically placed trenches revealed fragments of both Roman and medieval material amongst other debris used in the 1820s to fill in the large pond on the site, and parts of the pond boundary were found on the northern and eastern sides. The trenches on the southern side revealed mainly garden archaeology with late 19th century walls and an astonishing dump from the Deanery kitchen containing enormous quantities of pottery, including many intact creamery jugs and milk bottles (c. 1900) and butchered bone.

Creamery jugs and milk bottles found during the digEvery day the archaeologists offered short guided tours for visitors, and during Heritage Festival weekend an estimated 880 visitors came to have a look.

The thousands of objects found will now go back to the Cambridge Archaeological Unit to be sorted and catalogued, then tested and reviewed by specialists who will write a report giving detail about the finds. Eventually the items will be returned to Peterborough and become part of the archaeology archive at the Museum. Some pieces may become part of the display in the new Visitor and Learning Centre in the Precincts.

The dig is one part of the much larger "Letting it Speak for Itself" project at the Cathedral, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund to improve physical and intellectual access to its history.


Colin Walker, a retired design engineer, first got involved in archaeology in Peterborough in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. “Archaeology is great because you meet people from all walks of life with a common interest … What I find really refreshing is that there are a lot of people [here] who have never been involved in archaeology who are now realising how much history Peterborough has, from the Roman times and Neolithic, and they want to get involved.”

Peter Fogelburg, archaeology studentPeter Fogelburg, an archaeology student from Sweden on an exchange at the University of York, helped throughout the dig. The handful of archaeology student volunteers were given extra responsibility and more input from the professional team. “I have learnt things here. I studied the Viking and medieval periods but this is my first time digging on a medieval site … This dig is very different from trench to trench which is weird! It’s my first volunteer dig too. Everyone is so interested and the volunteers are absolutely great!””

Rachel Hancock, archaeology volunteerRachael Hancock from Peterborough, an Open University History student, was keen to experience a dig before her next module on Archaeology. “So many digs you have to pay to join, or there were criteria that I didn’t meet, so it was great that this one just said ‘come along’! It’s been really fun and I’ve learnt about how archaeology works. It’s more about figuring out which layer something comes from, and what that can tell you, than digging for treasure and finding a nice shiny item.”


Blog: Click here to read the daily blog written during the Cathedral's archaeology dig

Historical background: Click here to read the historical background to the dig

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