Not Writing but Digging

Do one thing and do it well, they say. Well, my profile says ‘author and archaeologist’ so I’m hedging my bets. The manuscript of my new thriller Blackshirt Masquerade is with Level Best’s editors in the USA, and although I have a rough first draft of the sequel, I’m not intending doing more work on it until I’ve seen editorial comments on book one. My art biography A Brush With Life is also now with the editorial team at Lutterworth. At some point soon the production process for both books will be in full swing so it was opportune to take a break from writing in August.

My friends and I have been excavating on the island of Alderney most summers since 2008, chiefly on the site known as the Nunnery. We do not know whether in fact it was ever a Nunnery but our team has proved what has been long suspected that it was originally a Roman fort. Indeed, it is the best-preserved small fort in Britain and the best surviving example of the type known as a ‘signal station’ (probably erroneously).

It had been the intention to launch a new charity Dig Alderney in 2019 and embark on an ambitious plan to survey and investigate a site on Longis Common that has an extensive Roman settlement built on top of a high-status Iron Age Burial ground. Covid got in the way, and indeed continues to get in the way so after bumping the plan to this year we have had to bump it again. What we did reckon was that we could mount a small excavation to answer some of the nagging questions that remain about the Nunnery’s history. Opportunity had arisen to investigate new areas following a clean-up of overgrown parts of the site to put it on show to the public. We put together a plan which utilised only a small team of experienced Alderney and Guernsey diggers who could be called into action at short notice. On August the first we decided the covid situation was stable enough for us to push the button and for the dig to go ahead.

Getting back to Alderney, reuniting with old friends and getting back to excavating after so much time in semi-idle lockdown was fantastic. The weather played its part too and having allowed for two rainy days in our schedule we only lost an hour to rain. As planned, we exposed the 2.75m thick walls of the Roman tower, disappointed that the interior had been completely cleared out by German engineers during the 1940-45 occupation. The confirmation of how neatly they had slotted a personnel bunker inside the Roman tower did however excite international media including Mail Online and Mirror Online. Facebook posts and shares, tweets, retweets and a dozen online articles demonstrated the potential for Dig Alderney to enhance the profile of the island. Pieces are also expected in BBC History Revealed magazine and Military History Matters.

It was satisfying to read feint lines on a 1739 map as the ruins of a probable Tudor building, then to find walls of that building exactly where predicted. Less satisfying was to find at least one if not two more drains, which are so plentiful on that site they get in the way of the archaeology. One frustration of the site is the succession of Roman/Medieval/Tudor/Napoleonic/German buildings chops it up into narrow areas that are awkward to dig. The most exciting discovery of the summer was the Roman courtyard that we’d been looking for since 2009 and this year we finally found it in three places.

I enjoyed the island’s usual hospitality in the restaurants that had space in the summer of the staycation, and gluten free fish and chips beside Braye Harbour. Several of us swam at Longis Bay in the shadow of the Nunnery, and I also fitted in a swim at Saye Beach and a 12-mile round-island walk on my final day.

So now I’m back home and back to writing. Initially this means writing up the excavation of four trenches and the objects found in them. Next year this will be turned into a paper for the Alderney Society Bulletin but for the moment I’m producing a heavyweight archive describing layers and structures in as much detail as we could record. I have perhaps another week to go, then while I await my editors’ reactions on my manuscripts I can plan next year’s excavations.

Thanks to David Nash for the photographs. Links for further reading below:

Dig Alderney Facebook Page

BBC, initial piece

BBC follow up

War History Online

Art News

Heritage Daily

Smithsonian Org

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