Some of you will have seen shots of my time spent on the island of Alderney during July. It was probably the tenth time I’d been there to lead an excavation at the Nunnery, but time shifts and this year brought new experiences and new surprises.
The Nunnery itself has been reconfigured as a Field Centre, operating under the eagle eye of the Bird Observatory Warden (okay, that was a bad pun). We hope that bird-watchers and ringers will stay there in migration season, and heritage/natural history buffs in the high summer. I was the first resident of the almost-finished hostel, all on my own for the first night, up in the attic watching the sun rise over France when the oystercatchers and seagulls awoke me at 5am. It was of course mid-heatwave so there was no question of closing the windows. For a week I had no radio, no TV, no internet and not even a live phone signal; which was blissful when it wasn’t infuriatingly inconvenient.
Week one, I was progressively joined by more colleagues and we started Trench 16 just inside the Nunnery gates. The sun reflected back off the Roman and Revolutionary-era stonework as we battled a giant fuscia then dug downwards to uncover the mystery of the Roman gate. There was a hint that it had been narrower than the modern one, and so it proved – by 800mm or so. It had no fancy quoins like the 18th century gate though – just an ordinary corner.
In the back of the trench was another section of the mystery building we’d seen in 2016, lurking just beneath the surface but cut through by the 1793 ‘coal store’ foundations. Loads of what looked like 18th century pantiles had to be shifted to have a look at the foot of the Roman wall – whether they came off the mystery building when it was destroyed I don’t know. Down in the same hole though were glazed ridge tiles peculiar to French churches. Maybe there was a ‘Nunnery’ at the Nunnery once, after all.
After I left for a break, things shifted gear. My colleague Phil de Jersey opened up two trenches in the field opposite, hoping to find more of the Iron Age burial ground we spotted last year. I was going to lead a group of school students to investigate a set of walls we’d also seen to check if they were Roman. As luck had it, Phil and Tanya found the Roman buildings first. Buried under a metre of windblown sand the walls still stood chest- high and in one trench was an impressive stone pavement.
For Trench C, I chose a location indicated by a local dowser as being a likely junction of walling and my students quickly found it – again not far under the surface. Four walls met awkwardly, including one where a huge 85cm square slab made up the first course. As ever we were operating on a shoestring but help came from many quarters when we needed it, from landowners allowing the dig in the first place to that welcome excavator to fill the holes in at the end.
Some historic maps marked that area as ‘The Old Town’, although nothing remains above ground today. Since Victorian times there had been reports of odd Roman finds out on Longis common – a coin here, a skull there, ‘huge walls’ in imprecise locations. Now we had proof that all these disparate finds were linked. Some 100 metres separated Phil’s trench from mine – and once the other evidence is added in we have a picture of an entire Roman settlement buried under the sand-dunes of Longis. Several people used the phrase ‘Pompeii of the Channel Islands’ and I was the one who ended up being quoted using it. Apt in that we could have well-preserved Roman houses, streets and courtyards just beneath our feet; less apropropriate as the Roman town was probably long-abandoned before it was buried beneath a massive ‘sand blow’.
Alderney now has a unique and extensive site bigger than anything we have seen in the Channel Islands or adjacent French coasts. The benign sand preserves bone, pottery and the metal objects we need to date and interpret the site. The Common is not threatened by a new motorway or multistory car-park so is a perfect research site. And the views are great – eat your heart out Time Team!
It was my first dig where the sun shone every day for 3 weeks and the rain held off until 30 mins after we closed the site that final Friday. We swam most days in the wide bay at Longis, Alderney’s natural harbour; probably the reason the Roman fort and settlement were put there in the first place. The sun went down glowing on 4th century stonework, black rabbits emerged from their burrows on the Common and we rinsed off the sands of time before picking one of Alderney’s pubs or bistros for dinner. A site tour and great media coverage sent a buzz through the island, capped by a final lecture. So we ended on a massive high, exhilarated by what our small team had found.
To find out more about the Nunnery and Longis Common digs, follow the facebook page ‘Alderney Nunnery’. We’ll be working on the finds and reviewing the evidence during the winter, and with luck will return again next year.