Do as the Romans do

31st August 2007 at 01:00
During the summer holidays, many teachers relax on a beach and perhaps visit some ancient ruins. Few people choose to excavate them. Biddy Passmore speaks to one woman who is doing just that

Lots of Mandy Patterson's friends and colleagues think she's odd. Why, they wonder, does she spend her summer holidays grubbing about in an English trench when she could be sitting in the foreign sun?

But, for the past three years, the 25-year-old history teacher from Tyneside has been happy digging away in the ancient city of York, with nothing more dramatic to show for it than some antlers and a few shards of green-glazed pottery. Oh, and backache and a touch of sunburn. "I'm not much of a one for sitting in the sun," she says cheerfully. "I'd rather be active and doing something." She wears her hard hat and steel-tipped boots and wields her trowel with pride.

For her, excitement comes with the knowledge that, one metre down, she has reached the 17th century and is already hitting the property boundaries of a medieval street. Viking remains should lie beneath that. But she's always hoping to get down to something Roman.

Mandy has been fascinated by ancient objects ever since she went as a child to the Roman fort Segudunum, near her home in Wallsend. Even though she studied and teaches history, she has had few opportunities to indulge her fascination. "History at university (Sunderland) was mostly modern," she says. And, as we all know, secondary history tends to be about Hitler and co, while the Romans are confined to project work in primary schools. She did, however, manage to cover the Aztecs while she was teaching in her last post at Stanley School of Technology in Durham.

What she needed to find was a dig that welcomed novices a training dig. Exploring the website of the York Archaeological Trust, she found its Archaeology Live! programme, one of the largest and most popular training digs in the country. It accommodates up to 25 trainees a week, from July to September.

First she spent a week as a trainee in the St Mary's Abbey precinct, two years ago. That experience persuaded her to go back, for two weeks' excavating behind St Saviour's Church, last year. This summer, she has been at work on Archaeology Live!'s part of the Hungate site, a five-year excavation and the single biggest in York in the past 25 years. The Hungate was a slum area in the late 19th and early 20th century (one of the earliest finds has been a communal toilet block) before it was cleared and then turned to light industrial use. Now it has been cleared again and, once the excavation is complete, will become a new urban neighbourhood.

After two weeks as a trainee on the site, Mandy has become a "placement," archaeology's version of a teaching assistant, responsible for jobs such as pushing the wheelbarrow, fetching the tools and sorting the paperwork. In all, she will have spent four weeks on site this year, before rushing back to start the term in a new teaching post at Consett Community Sports College in County Durham.

How is she doing? Toby Kendall, director of Archaeology Live!, says what she may lack in archaeological experience she more than makes up for in personality. "She's real, honest and open and contributes greatly to the atmosphere," he says. "She's an important part of the team. Some people are shy and like to take a step back but she's always out there, dancing first."

Talking of dancing, that's what Mandy was doing the night before The TES called. "We arranged to meet everybody for a salsa night," she explains. It's all part of the social life that, on top of the historical interest, is the great draw of an archaeological excavation.

"What I really enjoy is meeting new people from all over the world," she says. The 25 current trainees range from a 17-year-old from the United States to two venerable Britons of nearly 80. In between are young and young-ish people from Australia, Ecuador, Japan and New Zealand. She has met "the odd teacher" during the past three summers but finds that a passion for the underground past can seize people in any walk of life.

Has she ever been abroad to one of the famous sites of ancient European civilisation? No, she says, she never learnt Latin or Greek and her only trip to Greece has been a "girls' holiday" to Kos. But if she could choose, where would she go? "Pompeii," she says. "Pompeii's the best."

For the present, Hungate is fine. She's hoping to set up an archaeology club at her new school in Consett and to take some of the pupils to York to show them the mysteries that lie hidden below


Details of Dig Hungate can be found on the website of the York Archaeological Trust ( It offers a range of training opportunities, for anyone from the general public to archaeology students.

Details of Archaeology Live! can be found by clicking on "get involved". "We don't expect trainees to have any previous experience; you're paying to be part of our very intensive course," says Peter Connelly, project director for Hungate excavations.

Fees range from pound;125 to pound;175 a week, depending on the number of weeks, and accommodation is pound;75 a week extra. "You need a keen interest in archaeology and you should be aware that hard physical labour can be involved."

Peter suggests that anyone thinking of taking part in an excavation should consult the comprehensive website of the Council for British Archaeology ( or the website of the magazine Current Archaeology (, which produces a handbook.

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