Digging up St Albans’ past to preserve it for the future

DUSTY archaeologists recently invaded St Albans and, armed with diggers and delicate brushes, they have been spending the past few weeks unearthing ancient secrets that lie beneath the city’s soil.

Eager to discover some treasure myself, I headed down to the site just outside Westminster Lodge for a closer look.

Wessex Archaeology was in charge of the dig and fieldwork director Jon Martin heads a modest team of two archaeologists, Ben and Mark.

Excavating the proposed site and checking for ancient remains is a vital part of any development process and, funded by the St Albans district council, it is up to Jon and his team to photograph, draw and record everything they discover.

When I visited the site, the archaeologists had already been there for two weeks and the site was dotted with what looked like giant, dusty potholes.

Jon, who has been in the trade for over 10 years, told me that the solitary keyhole-shaped one was probably a Roman corn-dryer (or kiln), an indication perhaps that Westminster Lodge was once a buzzing area of industry.

I counted six plastic bags jam-packed with bits of Roman tile and Jon, who guessed that an excavation of almost any St Albans garden would reveal Roman artefacts, surprised me with his top fact of the day: did you know that our very own Abbey was built from Roman stone?

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Apparently, our lazy medieval ancestors preferred to recycle Roman materials, rather than source their own.

A very tanned Mark, who loves digging his way around the country, had spent over a week excavating the (possible) corn-dryer, and his job was to plan it and record any interesting finds before the diggers filled it in with soil a couple of weeks later.

Meanwhile, 23-year-old Ben was also nearby, and he was using a total station (a tripod-esque piece of equipment used in modern surveying) to pinpoint the precise shape and location of the hole.

Ben, who had to take 50 readings for just one hole, was momentarily disrupted by an intrigued bystander, who wanted to know if he had found any treasure.

“The public usually show interest in what we do,” Jon said. “We’ve actually been really well received in St Albans to be honest – it’s nice that people are so interested in where they live, especially because St Albans is a goldmine for unearthed history.”

But despite finding a Roman corn-dryer, medieval pits and countless shards of Roman pottery and part of a large Roman brick wall during a dig last winter, nothing the archaeologists have discovered so far would stop further development on the Westminster Lodge site.

Although that may come as a relief to the council and developers alike, Jon explained that the aim of the game was not to discover something incredible; instead, his job was to record our city’s rich heritage, so it never lies forgotten again.