Between Monday 10 and Friday 31 July, The Restoration Trust was one of the participating community groups in an archaeological study of Warham Camp in North Norfolk. The project was led by members of the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts.

The intention of the dig was to establish exactly when the Iron Age circular hill ‘fort’ near Wells-next-the-Sea dated from and, if possible, determine what its function had been.

The Restoration Trust had been partners with the Sainsbury Institute’s dig at Arminghall Henge near Norwich in 2022. The Warham venture was a wider ranging project, incorporating local schools, the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, visiting Japanese academics and exchange students from the Maldives. The Restoration Trust’s Robert Fairclough participated in the Warham excavation for the whole of its three-week run. Presented below is his day-by-day record of this landmark community project.

Tuesday 11 July
Warham Camp is in the middle of nowhere and the procedure of archaeology is very different from Arminghall last year. There, we were based just outside Norwich, everything was on site, and a mechanical digger scraped back the layers of earth to the level where the archaeologists could get to work. We were right by a river so there was a lot to do and see.

At Warham – on open, flat land under the most panoramic skies I’ve ever seen – test pits are being carefully dug by hand, down to the chalk in the soil, from which fragments of Iron Age and Roman artefacts are painstakingly removed.

Interesting people I met today:

Shaba Rasheed, Fathimath Sandhath, Mariyam Hamsha and Shinji Nakomora – students from the Maldives (two architects and one linguist) and Japan (a doctorate in archaeology). I’m sharing digs with them, in the most fabulous, converted school in Bodham. Even though they’re all in their twenties, we got on straight away. I was astonished to learn that the Maldives doesn’t have archaeologists.

Tony Quickenden is a fascinating man, roughly my age.

He likes The Stranglers, and we got talking because I saw he was wearing a Black and White badge (their third LP). He’s into archaeology and teaching kids about the reconstruction drawing of historical sites, which he’s going to be teaching here. For a living, under Seax Designs, he makes accurate miniatures of soldiers from various historical periods. Amazing.

Sarah Booton, an enthusiastic service user, has finally achieved her ambition to become a nurse. Archaeology is something she does to maintain her wellbeing.

By the end of three weeks, the aim is to have opened and investigated 26 test pits.

Wednesday 12 July

Eight test pits were opened today. So far, we’ve discovered metalwork and Roman pottery. And I’ve fallen in love with the ‘big skies’ here. Looking up, I imagine this is what standing in the middle of a prairie in America must be like.

In the morning, I spent nearly an hour figuring out how to use the digital camera supplied to us by the BBC TV show, Digging for Britain. The intention behind this is to make a digital video diary of our progress. After some quietly controlled stress, I worked out that I’d been plugging the microphone lead into the A/V socket.

A guy from the homeless charity St Martins – ‘More than a home for the homeless’ – did a very good sketch which I photographed. It’s a shame he didn’t finish it. I later saw him enthusiastically sifting through some earth, so ‘culture therapy’ was obviously doing him the world of good.

Some burnt flint was discovered in test pit 1. Apparently, that’s quite rare.

Thursday 13 July

Two primary schools turned up today, and it was heart-warming and inspiring to see how enthusiastic the children were. Doctor Natasha ‘Nat’ Harlow, a freelance archaeologist and one of the volunteers, has a natural, winning way of coaxing stories out of them in-spired by the history of the site.

I did some test filming with Anne Haour, the professor looking after the Maldivians, which went OK, but recording Andy’s talking head pieces was problematic – even slight gusts of wind pick up on the soundtrack. We’ll try again tomorrow. I recorded lots of other scenes which should provide good background sequences, even if it was a bit ‘wobbly cam.’ The Restoration Trust’s Ian Brownlie, present onsite throughout the dig to initiate art projects, provided me with a tripod which I’ll try and set up tomorrow. 

Shinji is still not well and spent another day in his room. A bit worrying.

Friday 14 July

The day began with selfies in the garden with Shaba, ‘Sau’ (Mariyam) and Fathimath. We’re getting to know each other now. They’re bright, positive and, above all, funny.

Shinji was confined to his room again as he had to take a Covid test, but fortunately it came up negative. He’ll be joining us on Monday.

Today involved recording talking head interviews with Andy (again, because of the wind), the Maldives students, Mark Knight (winner of the Archaeologist of the Year award in 2017), the Cambridge Unit academic in charge of the site, who’s very articulate and informative (and another fan of punk rock. He told me a great story about meeting Joe Strummer on a train in the West country), Tony Q talking about his art classes with “The Youth”, and the teacher Mike Pittaccio. He gave a riveting monologue on how therapeutic archaeology was for his high school students.

Following on from that, Ian Brownlie suggested that modern life is toxic, largely because of all the stuff that’s pushed at us through social media. Youngsters are particularly susceptible, but it’s not just them that are victim to such conditions as ‘FOMO’ (Fear Of Missing Out). I speak from experience.

However, engaged on this dig, Mike’s students were learning healthy, ‘soft’ skills like teamwork, commitment, responsibility and a sense of community, all of which prospective employers are looking for. His talk was quite an eye-opener. As he said, there wasn’t “a single mobile phone in sight” while his pupils worked. It was the same at lunchtime – they all sat together and talked.

It started pouring with rain at lunchtime, which meant bringing out the pot washing, the traditional standby of archaeological sites during bad weather.

It’s been a good first four days. When I arrived on Tuesday, I thought I was going to be bored out of my skull for the next three weeks. But once you immerse yourself in the culture of the experience, get to know people and tune into what the various groups involved in the dig are trying to achieve, the time does fly.

Excitingly, archaeologists in the next field (not part of our project) have unearthed an ancient causeway which may be how goods and livestock were delivered to Warham Camp. Hopefully we’ll be able to have a look at the site, as Andy’s trying to arrange an “exchange” of personnel.

Monday 17 July

On Sunday I chaperoned my roomies around Wells-Next-the-Sea. It was a lovely, sunny day, during which we continued to get to know each other. Sadly, I wasn’t able to help them in their quest to locate a roast dinner.

Today, though, was a day of fits and starts. One minute bright sunshine, the next black skies, thunder and lighting. One minute walking around in a T-shirt, the next struggling into a waterproof and trying to keep the camera equipment dry.

Tuesday 18 July

A day of visits. Laura Drysdale, Director of the Restoration Trust, arrived with Nadia Greenwood, the daughter of my friend Bel, who turned up later herself with her dog Mimi. When the dig is over, Bel and myself are going to be working on a project about food banks.

There was also a presentation by the Japanese company Tasuk, who make archaeological tools. Their presence was all part of the exchange program that Simon Kaner, head of the Sainsbury Institute, has arranged with Japan.

He invited me to dinner with the Maldives students and Shinji. I was quite taken aback but agreed to go.

Andy Hutcheson, his wife Natasha and the Tasuk people were also there. The Feathers pub in Holt was the venue. Posh, stylish and the food was monumentally good – I had steak and ale pie and so did everybody else, except Professor Kazuaki Yoshimura, who went for fish pie. (I had arrived back at our digs in the afternoon to find him quietly working at the table in the living room, which was a bit of a surprise).

Simon proved to have a flattering knowledge of my work and the Archaeology for Wellbeing at Arminghall Henge: Later Prehistoric Norfolk Project book that I wrote and designed, and The Restoration Trust published. I did a little talk about myself, and Andy said I was being too modest, praising my photography and drawing. It gradually dawned on me that these people really rate what I do, which is, frankly… a real boost.

An unexpectedly good, life-affirming night.

Wednesday 19 July

Big news – the production team of Digging for Britain have been in touch with Andy and are thinking about sending a film crew down next week. Tomorrow, the show’s production assistant will visit to have a chat with him about it (I was so excited I forgot to make a note of her name). Again, I was rather humbled – but secretly delighted – that Andy wanted me in the meeting. A party from The Restoration Trust visited today, led by Darren France, one of the facilitators. They all had a good time and were all firmly committed to digging their own test pit. I made sure we had plenty of footage of them, as we’re keen to push the community aspect of the project to the BBC.

I had a discussion with Tony Q about doing an exhibition of all the art and photography the dig is generating. I got a bit carried away, suggesting it should be staged in the Sainsbury Institute itself. We’ll talk to Andy about it tomorrow.

It’s the Maldivians’ last day tomorrow, and I suggested Andy get them a card which everyone could sign. I think that’ll be a nice memento. I’ll miss them.

Thursday 20 July
Probably the busiest day so far on site today. Throughout, I was scurrying around, getting people to sign the leaving card. The Digging for Britain’s PA wrong-footed us by turning up earlier than expected, going straight into a tour of the site with Andy. I played catch-up, tracking her down to give her a copy of the Arminghall book before she went on her busy way. Myself and Ian staged an ‘art moment’ today with Nadia, who threw a load of paper butterflies into the air which we photographed ‘in flight’. This related to the presence of the rare Chalkhill Blue butterflies that are mating in the roped off areas of the Warham Camp site. Some of the pictures were quite beautiful.

The Restoration Trust were back again today, this time with Louise Fowden, her baby “T.J.”, my friend Phil Wells and his dog, Princess. T.J. is such a character: he’s only ten months old but is very relaxed for his age. I took some great pictures of him coolly wearing black shades (I’m sure he’ll grow up to be a rock star).

The Maldives students finished digging their pit and posed for photographs next to it.

After a fruitful art session with Tony, we said goodbye to Shaba, Fathimath and Sau with the presentation of their leaving card, complemented by a selection of Ian’s paper butterflies. That evening, I told them that working and socialising with them had been a pleasure.

Ian’s an associate artist of the Sainsburys Centre, so Andy suggested we talked to him about the exhibition (with all the onsite activity, he was a bit busy today).

Friday 21 July
There’s some doubt as to whether Digging for Britain will be able to come after all, as the Holkham estate might not be able to arrange their permissions to film in time. However, in television this sort of situation can change on a daily basis.
There was another Restoration Trust party here today and Chris Smith, a talented artist in the group, produced a rather wonderful watercolour painting of the fort.

Monday 24 July
The Restoration Trust were back today, and a lot of excitement centred around trench 24, the deepest excavation on the site, dug next to the river. The soil is a lot more malleable there, to the point where water leaks into the bottom of the trench. My resulting photos and artwork were pretty dramatic.

Phil and I found a butterfly and photographed it, though sadly it wasn’t one of the fabled Chalkhill Blues – this one turned out to be a Red Admiral.

We finally had confirmation that Digging for Britan are sending a film crew down tomorrow, together with the programme’s presenter, Professor Alice Roberts. People are trying to be cool about it, but I can tell everyone’s excited.

Tuesday 25 July
DIGGING FOR BRITAIN’ DAY 1: Alice is very striking, sporting punky camouflage trousers, a brown leather jacket and pink hair (I didn’t know what to expect, but it turns out she’s a bit of a ‘rock’ archaeologist, if you’ll forgive the awful pun). Alice was accompanied by two cameramen, a sound recordist and the production assistant we’d met before, so their set-up is clearly very lean and cost conscious.

They filmed the introduction to their Warham feature on one of the fort’s ramparts, but it took a while because military jets kept overflying the site and drowning out the sound. I did a sketch of the film crew, then hoisted my camera to take some photographs. As I did so, Alice saw me and immediately went into a relaxed, nonchalant pose. She’s engagingly professional.
As far as the Digging for Britain team were concerned, the centrepiece of their feature was Mark’s team excavating and then bailing out trench 24. It took a lot of setting up – rather impressively, the sequence included a line of volunteers passing buckets to each other to be emptied – but it was worth it. No matter what the subject, television always wants a bit of spectacle.

The Restoration Trust were on site again. Austin Knowles, a participant who lives in Wells-By-the-Sea, found a strange stone that looked like a skull. He has serious social anxiety, but he comes alive when he’s digging and sieving.

In the afternoon, Alice and her team did a tour of the test pits. She interviewed Doctor Matthew Brudenell from the Cambridge unit, who demonstrated how a magnet can attract iron filings from the earth in a spoil heap. Bolaji Owoseni, a Nigerian archaeology student who’s recently graduated from the UEA, hit it off with Alice and they filmed quite a long piece together. She clearly has an eye for interview subjects who’ll come across well on screen.

Bolaji is staying at the school. She’s very bubbly and laughs a lot. Simon took her and Shinji out for dinner this evening. I was asked along, but I was so tired I went to bed early.

Wednesday 26 July
DIGGING FOR BRITAIN’ DAY 2: Alice’s team had to leave by lunchtime, so they didn’t hang about, filming on the main site and going methodically from test pit to test pit. A fifth member of their team arrived in the morning, in charge of a rather heavy looking drone which filmed aerial views of Alice walking around the landscape. To the delight of myself, Darren and Sophie Couling – The Restoration Trust’s Heritage Linkworker – Alice was genuinely interested in our wellbeing work and interviewed Phil on camera. He was delighted, as was Austin, who was similarly afforded an interview (and still buzzing from the photo he had taken with Alice yesterday).

He was given a further treat when the friendly metal detectorist Tony Payne, who’s been on site as long as I have, Iet him use his detector. This was quite emotional for Austin, as he used to go metal detecting with his uncle, who’s now passed on.

Alice and co. kept to their schedule, and with a cheery “Don’t discover anything else” she was gone. Alice is one of those people who can engage with anyone and make them feel at ease. She gained lots of new admirers during her visit, me included. Before she left, Sophie told me she was a “big fan” of how my drawings were developing. I wasn’t expecting that.

Thursday 27 July
Tony P was delighted to discover that he’s got a new job. When he started the dig, he wasn’t working and was convalescing following a serious illness. Tony P’s come out the other side revitalised and ready to return to work. Over the moon, he treated us to a breakfast selection of vegetarian pies and scotch eggs from the café he goes to every morning.

Throughout these three weeks, 24 of the planned 26 test pits were excavated, which isn’t bad going. Everyone’s pleased with what we’ve done – even if we failed to discover what the ‘fort’ was actually for – but, with the end in sight tomorrow, I can see how tired some people are. In August, Andy and Natasha are off to Scotland for a long holiday. I don’t blame them.

Friday 28 July
When we got to the site this morning, Tony Q was a bit stressed, because people who’d said they were going to his final reconstruction art class of the dig had changed their minds, mainly because so much stuff needed taking down and packing. Alarmingly, the toilets disappeared early on.

I was slightly taken aback that Shinji left early, driven to Norwich railway station by Simon Kaner. The lad is making the most of his visit to the UK by visiting Stonehenge. After an unfortunate start, Shinji certainly came out of his shell, becoming one of the most hard-working people on the site. He’s also the last of the Bodham posse, so I felt a twinge of nostalgia when he went.
Like last year, volunteer Mary Croft made a cake in the shape of the ancient landscape we’d been working on, although this year there was a bit of an accident. When Simon picked it up for a photo opportunity, it slid off its plate onto the ground. Some quick confectionery archaeology by Mary saved the day and, to be fair, in its new shape the cake looked as if it’d had industrious archaeologists crawling all over it for weeks.

After the art class, there was lunch and a quiet, respectful parting of the ways. I left feeling slightly sad but fully recharged, both spiritually and creatively. In fact, I’m living proof that The Restoration Trust’s culture therapy works.

Photographs © Robert Fairclough, Darren France and Phil Wells 2023.
Drawings © Robert Fairclough 2023.