August 2017: Project Pilgrim vs Time Team

Project Pilgrim vs Time Team

It’s been a while since I’ve written about archaeology but with two separate teams on board (Border Archaeology outside and Urban Archaeology inside) that isn’t because there’s been nothing to write about.

With a construction project like this, one of the things I find myself explaining to interested parties more than almost anything else is that the nature and extent of the archaeology is wholly dependent on the nature and extent of the construction.  Yes, we’ve been uncovering interesting layers of history along the way, but that’s not because we’ve set out to find them in order to prove or disprove a theory - it’s because we have to ensure that anything which happens as part of the construction work (primarily excavations and foundations) doesn’t destroy any previously hidden archaeology.

Which is pretty much the point at which I start to lose people.  I can sometimes even see the disbelief as they ask themselves how we're ever going to find out anything interesting if our archaeological ambitions start and finish with three 90cm deep holes for the new Close signposts?  Or the removal of one step in the north ambulatory to fit our new lift?  When I go on to explain that our designs have been deliberately tailored to avoid any known below ground archaeology, the disappointment really sets in.

I must admit that I’m sympathetic to that point of view.  For anyone not closely involved in Project Pilgrim, the archaeological element is definitely the most interesting.  Despite hoping not to find anything at all, we’ve nevertheless been sharing as much information as we can.  As well as regular tweets from @projectpilgrim1, web updates from Border Archaeology and Facebook and Instagram posts from Urban Archaeology, there have been free, lunchtime briefings about what we’ve found.  One of our planning conditions required that we explained what we might uncover via on-site Interpretation Panels.  And this month, our Visits Office had a tour booking with a special request to know all about the archaeology discovered as part of Pilgrim.

This has been another of those moments when my straightforward and factual answers have left me feeling more than a little Scrooge-like.  I’m definitely not the only one whose archaeological expectations were shaped by telly archaeology such as Time Team where finds are uncovered, cleaned and researched to allow tidy conclusions with helpful images of "Before" in neat 60 minute episodes.  Compared to that, discovering that the process of actual archaeology includes such things as “queuing” for a slot in whichever specialist lab is most appropriate before writing things up years later in the driest of language and the most tentative of conclusions, is really rather unsatisfactory. 

And so I’ve recently found myself answering the enthusiastic and detailed questions from guides who volunteered to lead the special archaeology tour by saying that we can’t show any of the actual finds (they’re off being “processed”); and we can’t confirm anything about the burial near to the west end of the cathedral (it’s being “processed” too); and we can’t share any of the written conclusions (they’re nowhere near ready to be published and our budget won’t really stretch to making a song and dance about things). 

Yet, the Time Team analogy isn’t wholly inappropriate. As with any construction project, sticking to programme is one of the three key challenges: it’s complicated and usually expensive if you don't.  So if you find an unexpected wall foundation where you’re hoping to put a heating pipe, or some medieval tiles and steps where you’re planning to put the steelwork for a new glass lobby, you only have a limited amount of time to uncover, record and either remove or redesign before the impact on programme starts to become an issue. 

With the amount of work going on inside and outside the cathedral and given the age and history of the place it would be extremely surprising if we’d found nothing at all.  What’s proving particularly challenging at the moment is the fact that we’ve uncovered several potentially significant finds, in a number of different locations, at exactly the point at which we’re causing most disruption to daily cathedral life!

Even though nothing we’ve uncovered so far is a showstopper, everything needs working through by our very capable design team - and as is the way with this type of archaeology, we will continue to know what our finds mean for the construction side of things for quite some time before we know what they might actually mean more generally.

The challenge for Pilgrim this month then isn’t finding photos for the twitter feed - it’s working out what the captions might be!


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