Race against time in the shadows of the past

9th August 1996 at 01:00
The scene is calm, but strangely dramatic. Sharp bursts of sun grope their way between candy-puff clouds casting blocks of light and shade across the rolling hills of the southern uplands.

Perched on the brow of a hill, amid the saplings of a commercial plantation, a huddle of children examine the earth in quiet contemplation. Theirs is a search for the shadows of the past, their peaceful actions belying the race against time with which they are entwined.

The area is prolific in Stone and Iron Age sites, but as such it will not remain. What is, in archaeological terms at least, one of the few unspoilt expanses has witnessed the steady encroachment of commercial forestry over thousands of acres of land rich in visible sites dating back 3,000 years or more. While the trees spread their carpet of green, below ground their roots shatter the stone and pottery which provide invaluable keys to the past.

This sense of encroachment has long been a bugbear for Tam Ward of Biggar Museum in Lanarkshire, who has helped set up a network of archaeology clubs to salvage what remains. An electrician to trade and lifelong enthusiast, "delusions of grandeur" helped him break into archaeology 10 years ago.

The Biggar group, which claims to have been the first "real" club in Scotland for young enthusiasts, has been operating for five years. The group, aged between six and 14, meet at the museum once a week to work in the archives and make models of dwellings and replica tools and pottery.

Everyone takes part in "field-walking" expeditions and archaeological digs. "The area is so prolific in sites and objects that, almost without exception, you will find something on a dig," Mr Ward said. "It is important that the children get a chance to find things."

And find things they do. During one memorable walk across Biggar Common in 1992, the group unearthed evidence of a Stone Age settlement. Their initial discovery of flint tools and pottery which date back 5,900 years led to a series of excavations and the rare find of the remains of a timber framed house. "The Biggar area is outstanding for this type of site," Mr Ward said. "We have even found a stone circle sandwiched between the M74 and A74 at Crawfordjohn.

"Scotland would have been densely populated from 5,000 years ago, but everything has been wiped away by mines and agriculture. We have to look in upland areas where sheep and grouse have protected sites by preventing trees from growing. We are now losing so much on an annual basis that we have to stop the rot and get the local population interested in their own heritage."

The Biggar group has achieved this aim, at least in part. "For a small town of 2,000 inhabitants, an average weekly intake of 20 children for the club is not bad," Mr Ward argues. But, he concedes, "the only way to assess things is to see how the children develop". Two members, including the sole survivor from the original group, aim to study archaeology at university. Their work has also generated considerable enthusiasm among local schools which make regular use of the group's teaching collections and the numerous excavated sites in the area.

The group's success has, more recently, led Mr Ward to look beyond Clydesdale. Over the past few years he has been instrumental in setting up other clubs in Scotland and in developing a network of 10 clubs. The Council for Scottish Archaeology in Edinburgh publishes a quarterly newsletter and each issue follows a prehistoric theme, with a competition and information on books and fieldwork opportunities.

Over the summer months fieldwork has concentrated on Melbourne farm, outside Biggar, where evidence of a neolithic settlement has been found amid the saplings of a Christmas tree plantation. Eager to provide a context to the evidence, professionals, enthusiasts and club members have been searching in specially dug trenches for keys to the past. One such trench has been preserved solely for members of the network to allow young enthusiasts from less prolific areas the chance of making a find.

"Through the network we plan to involve the children in everything we do and to strengthen the experience on offer to them through co-operation with researchers and shared resources," Mr Ward said.

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