Trenches, Training and Television: the importance of community engagement to the success of the Rutland Villa Project

The story of the magnificent discovery of the Trojan War mosaic and the Rutland Roman Villa captured the world’s attention when its discovery was finally announced to the public in late 2021.  We were incredibly proud that the media attention shone a very positive light on the archaeology of Rutland, and in turn the collaborative nature of the work that had ensured the projects successful result. 

This year, on returning to the Rutland Villa site to learn more, we were very keen to build on what we had started in all aspects of the project.  The plan was to involve as many people as we could from the local archaeological community, whilst still working largely undercover, to protect the identity of the site which was designated a Scheduled Monument in November 2021. 

A core team of professional archaeologists was assembled from University of Leicester, comprising staff from ULAS and the School of Archaeology and Ancient History, and specialists from Historic England.  This Summers work was on a larger scale than before, however, and it was clear that to get such an undertaking right, we would need a lot more assistance.

School of Archaeology & Ancient History Undergraduate Fieldschool 

The work began with a two trench excavation focussing on a large aisled building that had been identified through the geophysical survey.  As soon as the topsoil was cleared off the top of the archaeology by a mechanical digger it became clear that there was some serious archaeology to investigate – not only was there a complex of walls and rubble quickly emerging, but it was also very well-preserved.   

A busy trench as the team begins moving rubble from the aisled building at the start of the undergraduate fieldschool. Image © ULAS.

Once the trenches had been cleared it was the turn of our First Year archaeology students to take over – they spent the first two weeks of a very long, hot summer by clearing away the rubble and making sense of the tangle of walls to help understand the building.  This was heavy, tiring work, but they all did a fantastic job and stuck to the task well.  During the fortnight they were on site they were taken through many aspects of archaeological excavation and recording; learning how (and when!) to use different hand tools, how to draw and photograph archaeological deposits, and how to identify different categories of finds.

Later in the excavation we welcomed Second Year students to some of the other trenches that were opened and all were taken through the same training which will hopefully be a useful starting point on their career as professional archaeologists – what an amazing place to learn those skills! 

Community Volunteers

A virtually complete Roman bowl emerges from the soil in the corner of a room in the aisled building. Image © ULAS

Leicestershire and Rutland are very lucky to have a large and active community of volunteer archaeologists, the Leicestershire Fieldworkers, who the project team have very close links to. The Fieldworkers are continuously engaged in their own fieldwork projects and have a wealth of experience, and we were keen to involve them in the excavation as much as possible to help boost their skills and get them experience of a unique project like this one.  This developed into a great success story of the project as those who were able to attend brought so much knowledge and enthusiasm with them, they were fantastic to work with and learning was certainly exchanged in both directions!

Over 100 fieldworkers from all over Leicestershire and Rutland, were involved in the excavation and they each made a great contribution.  Engaging with such numbers of participants helped address one of the key aims of the project – to widen participation in archaeology through training and collaboration in all the different aspects of the project. As well as those interested in digging, we also had a regular volunteer ‘Finds Squad’ group who did an amazing job of washing, drying, marking and bagging much of the large and varied collection of finds that were recovered (did anyone mention tiles?!).

Excavation volunteers are taught how to plan archaeological deposits to scale. Image © ULAS
A lot of the finds washing was carried out on site. Here, volunteers from the Rutland Local History and Record Society and CBA Dig It! competition winners work their way through the many fragments. Image © ULAS

Young Archaeologists Club and CBA Dig It! Winners 

The Leicester team also has close ties with the local branch of the Young Archaeologists Club (YAC) and it was a great pleasure to have them visit the excavation this year.  A good turnout had a site tour, took part in some excavation, and helped with the many finds whilst going home safe in the knowledge that they had been some of the few people to have seen these remains for nearly 2,000 years!

Members of the Leicestershire branch of the Young Archaeologists’ Club taking part in the excavation. Image © LYAC

We were also really pleased to work with the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) to welcome three of their Dig It! competition winners to the excavation.  The three winners were YAC members from different parts of the country, and they joined us with their families for a day of hands-on archaeology.  They were a joy to work with and got involved in the excavation of a Roman layer where they found lots of pottery and animal bones. Later they worked with the project Finds Officer who helped them wash their finds and explain what they had discovered.  It was also really fortuitous that their visit coincided with the Digging for Britain team being on site and they were able to meet the presenter, Prof Alice Roberts, as an added bonus to their time with us.  

We were proud to be one of the host projects for the CBA’s ‘Dig It!’ competition this year. The three lucky winners took part on the excavation for the day and were thrilled to meet Prof. Alice Roberts, who was on site filming for the new series of Digging for Britain. Image © ULAS

Carrying on the story with Digging for Britain and beyond 

Documenting the development of this archaeological story as it unfolds is as important to the project team as presenting the end result, and we will continue to provide regular updates as the post-excavation work progresses.  

Work on the next stages will begin in earnest next year, but before then there will be a focus on the excavations in the new series of the television archaeology programme Digging for Britain airing on BBC2 early in 2023.

Jim Irvine, the finder of the site, and Joe Peters of ULAS being interviewed for Digging for Britain. Image © ULAS

Keep watching ULAS and HE social media for posts on how the post excavation work is progressing so that you can enjoy exploring the secrets of this fantastic site with us.

Find out more about the Rutland Roman Villa via Historic England’s project website here.

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