Do All Roads Lead to Rome?

This time the blog focuses on 4 days spent in and around a trench in North Yorkshire – searching for evidence of a Roman road.

During my sabbatical I’m packing in different things. In June 2016, Mrs M and I volunteered to support an archaeological dig near Towton. In 1461 the area was the scene of Britain’s bloodiest battle. Chilling to think 20,000 people were killed in the picturesque fields around us. Many digs have focused on the battle but we looked further back. Could we uncover evidence of a Roman road beneath or near to the Old London Road, prior to resurfacing work on the modern track?

The excavation was organised by Towton Parish Council, supported by the UK Heritage Lottery Fund. It was led by professional archaeologists from the University of York. Tim Sutherland (a leading expert on Towton) was Project Director and Rachel Wood our Project Supervisor. The rest of the team were local volunteers organised by Parish Councillor, Graham Webb, plus a few PhD students and two enthusiastic historical event re-enactors.

Arriving on Day 1 Rachel gave us a heath and safety brief and intro to the dig. Some of the volunteers had experience, whilst others, like us, were first timers, inspired by an interest in local history. Rachel was great – ensuring everyone had useful things to do and enjoyed themselves at the same time. The work started quickly. An area had been fenced off and a trench marked up. Sadly there was no digger in sight, just a row of spades and pick-like mattocks. We were soon all hard at work, taking up turf, top soil and stones from the surface. It wasn’t long before we discovered another surface beneath the current track. This was clearly a road (pic below).

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Was it Roman? Unfortunately it was not far beneath the surface and there was no sign of Roman activity. Still it was great to find something so quickly and we likely discovered the main road from several hundred years ago. Much of the afternoon of Day 1 and a lot of Day 2 saw troweling activity, clearing the soil from around the uncovered road surface and searching for finds. A small number of items were selected and bagged for future inspection. The trench was then professionally measured and photographed.

On Day 3 it was time to go deeper and wider. The deeper part was to dig a strip in the trench to see if there was an older road surface, ditch and/or other features beneath our feet. The wider aspect was to begin a geophysical survey adjacent to the site for evidence of what was around us. Members of the team also sieved through the spoil taken from the trench, finding for example a fascinating small spherical object, too light for a standard musket round but worthy of follow up expert analysis.

We went home tired but happy on Day 3, ready for the final push. The weather had been tremendous and the area we were in, surrounded by swaying barley fields and woodland, was beautiful. However, that evening the heavens opened and thunder, lightening and heavy rain was all around. When we returned on Day 4, areas of the trench were a quagmire with standing water in some parts. Thankfully a quick bailing operation, sunshine and a breeze dried things out very well.

Work on a much deeper strip began in earnest, with plaudits to Richard, Tim, Rachel and Fergus for their hard-working spells in the hole. More and more clay soil was removed and barrowed away but if the Romans were down there they were still in hiding. There were, though, a number of very interesting features which in combination with the geophys results may yet highlight something quite unexpected.

The second half of Day 4 saw the final part of the geophysical survey, clean up, troweling, edging and brushing clean of the whole trench and deeper strip. We posed for a group photograph and Tim gave a great talk explaining what we had found – not a Roman road but we had uncovered a later road and the geophysics may yet find out more. We tidied up the site and left for home, leaving Tim to complete the detailed final site survey and measurements, with the trench to be filled in the following day.

Overall this was a great experience. Hard work at times and I give tribute to some of the others here – heroes of the spade and mattock. Personally I particularly enjoyed troweling and the geophysics, talking to the many visitors to the site, lunch at the Rockingham Arms and the general camaraderie. I also stopped a number of times, looked around and thought of the people who had passed by over the centuries and millennia. We didn’t find a Roman road but we all learned and experienced a great deal. I think the Roman road is there, somewhere near to where we were and one day it will be uncovered and it probably leads to Tadcaster.

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Mid Sabbatical Blues?

The last few weeks have brought home to me the fact that I am now more than half way through my sabbatical. The end is in sight so am I starting to feel the blues?

The honest answer is no. It has been great to pack so many things in – and there is a lot more I want to do too in the remaining time.

My debut novel has been written, reviewed, edited and is on its way to a set of literary agents. I await their response and have already started work on the sequel.

A few weeks ago I completed one of my “about time you did this” items – attending my first cricket Test Match – England v Sri Lanka at Headingley in Leeds. The weather held out and it was really good fun with good cricket and a great atmosphere in the ground. On a musical note I went home to Wales last week to see the Manic Street Preachers play in Swansea City’s Liberty Stadium and they were great. Two events I’ll remember for a long time.

Lots of fun but it is important not to totally forget about work during your time away… You need to keep up to date and maintain contact with people – remind them you’re still around and importantly when you’re coming back.

Recently I was asked to support a major IBM education event for client facing technical leaders across Europe. This was held in Lisbon in Portugal at the end of May. I took time out of my sabbatical to co-create and lead one of the main sessions. It was hard work guiding 400 people from many different countries through a set of highly interactive and challenging exercises using Innovation, IBM Design Thinking and other techniques but fun and interesting too – and I did get to see a bit of this great city.

I met a many colleagues and friends and made some new ones – and had a number of initial conversations around specific job roles to return into. This will be something I will be focusing on more during the second half of my sabbatical.

In the meantime I will also be walking, spending time in the garden, attending a few more music, comedy and sporting events, celebrating my 25th wedding anniversary with the long-suffering Mrs M, hopefully making strong progress on the second novel and definitely continuing to work with academia, particularly the great team at the University of Leeds.

So it’s a busy few months ahead… and the only blues should be of the musical variety…