Wild beasts and Charles II: amateur army digs for history in British parks and gardens

<span>Photograph: escapetheofficejob/Alamy</span>
Photograph: escapetheofficejob/Alamy

His boots deep in winter mud, Greenwich Park community archaeologist Andrew Mayfield runs through the finds from the latest of the park’s volunteer digs. “We’ve found a swallow brooch, loads of clay pipes and coins, the lens of a sextant and, strangely, a Sony mobile that was buried pretty deep,” he says.

Mayfield gestures at the volunteers, who range in age from 20s to 70-something, up to their waists in earthen trenches and armed with trowels and brushes.

“We’re having a final push to uncover Charles II’s steps today,” Mayfield continues. “Steve and Karen over there are brushing up a good-looking vertical [step] for the photos.”

The dig is part of a boom in community archaeology that is seeing everyone from children to retirees joining groups up and down the country excavating Britain’s history.

Hundreds of volunteers, including primary school children, last month unearthed a 1,400-year-old “possible temple” near Sutton Hoo in Suffolk as part of an project which began three years ago.

In Cardiff, schoolchildren were also involved in the excavation of bronze age Caerau hillfort in 2022, while further north, Newcastle University’s citizen science project, WallCap, is excavating and preserving Hadrian’s Wall with the help of locals.

The Operation Nightingale scheme, in association with Wessex Archaeology, offers ex-servicemen injured in conflict the chance to take part in excavations on Salisbury Plain, while recent years have seen the emergence of have-a-go archaeologists digging up their own gardens with trowels bought online.

Chloë Duckworth is the lead archaeologist on More4’s The Great British Dig: History in Your Back Garden and author of the accompanying book. She says that Britain’s historically densely populated lands make for rich pickings for amateurs, with back-garden archaeologists having turned up such treasures as Roman finds beneath children’s garden trampolines.

“Community archaeology, in particular, is great for wellbeing,” she said. “You’re doing something mindful, in the outdoors, with a team.”

The dig on the summit of the hill on which stands the Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park is part of a three-year, £12m lottery-funded park renovation that seeks to unearth the remains of a baroque water garden laid down by Charles II, dating from the 17th century, when the park was royal palace grounds.

It follows the community excavation of a second world war air-raid shelter to the east of the park, and 2021 and 2022 digs of a Saxon burial mound and the remains of Pond’s Magnetic Observatory, an enclosure built in 1817 to analyse Earth’s magnetic field.

The latest dig has uncovered trinkets that date from the park’s heyday as the setting for the bi-annual Greenwich fair. For more than a century from 1730 to 1857, 250,000 Londoners descended on the park at May Day and Whitsun to enjoy sweet wine and stout, don papier-mache comic noses and indulge in games such as “Kiss in the Ring” (in which a player can kiss any player he catches) and “tumbling”, which involved young women taken to the top and then dragged down Observatory hill and One Tree hill (then nicknamed “holiday hill”) in states of disarray.

The latter is recounted by Charles Dickens in his 1836 Sketches by Boz: “The principal amusement is to drag young ladies up the steep hill which leads to the Observatory, and then drag them down again, at the very top of their speed, greatly to the derangement of their curls and bonnet-caps, and much to the edification of lookers-on from below,” Dickens writes, in a passage that delineates fair sights and sounds including, “oysters as large as cheese-plates”, the “bellowings of speaking-trumpets” and “occasional roars from the wild beast shows”.

Greenwich historian Horatio Blood points out that pensioners from the Napoleonic wars made a brisk living renting out their telescopes at the fairs, in part for the purpose of peeping up tumbling women’s skirts.

Greenwich fair was banned in 1857, in part, Blood points out, because of the number of broken bones and head injuries sustained by the tumbling revellers.

Park regular and local Sarah Costley, 47, likes the fact that the dig has shed new light on Victorian Londoners. “In this day and age it seems a crazy thing to do to go out to the park and effectively flash people,” she says. “Were young ladies tumbling out of wild abandonment of propriety, or were they being pressured? Were they reckless, or were they led astray by their male peers? It’s eye-opening.”

At the top of the dig, volunteer James Wisher, 22, a recent archaeology graduate, says he found remnants of a drinking jug, bone stems from smoking pipes and Victorian coins lower down, though finds at the top layer were minimal thanks to the clay layers that were dumped by later Victorians onto Charles II’s subsiding parterres.

“I like to work out when the coins date from, from the changing faces of the monarchs,” he says.

Finds such as these also help to date the layers the volunteers dig through, from the top layers of shingle to the compacted ochre and terracotta clays of earlier periods. The swallow brooch, an early find, was a forget-me-not traditionally gifted by Victorian naval men to their sweethearts.

The growth in community digs such as this, which in Greenwich’s case has attracted overseas tourist volunteers as well as locals, coincides with the arrival of archaeology tours including the Vindolanda Charitable Trust’s digs of Roman Britain – its Hadrian’s Wall digs are fully booked for 2024 – and commercial outfit DigVentures, which leads group digs at sites including Lindisfarne in Northumberland, Weoley castle in the West Midlands and Sudeley castle in Gloucestershire.

However, the rise in community digs has led to warnings from bodies including Historic England that storage space will soon run out, as finds increase at the same time as financially strained museums are closing their archives.

The assumption of traditional archaeology is that “only white men are agents, economically and otherwise”, says feminist archaeologist Lucia Nixon, discussing the growing diversity in the archaeology corps that’s also seeing the emergence of advocacy groups such as Women in Archaeology and the Society of Black Archaeologists.

“It makes sense,” she adds, “that digs populated by young people, women and people of colour will see finds through fresh eyes.”