On manoeuvres with Operation Nightingale
Escaping all-too-briefly from our office, the Current Archaeology Editorial Team has just returned from a two-day visit to the Operation Nightingale excavation in Wales. We got sunburned, we got our hands dirty – and best of all, we got to see some brilliant Roman archaeology and a pioneering project in action.
Operation Nightingale is an initiative to help rehabilitate injured soldiers recently returned from Afghanistan by getting them involved in archaeological investigations. Directed by Sgt Diarmaid Walshe of 1Rifles and MOD archaeologist Martin Brown, and supported by Leicester University students and Bredon Hill Archaeology, the current dig included soldiers from units based across the UK and in Germany.
The excavation is taking place on a hill overlooking the Roman settlement at Caerwent (see CA 226 and 174). Apart from some limited – and characteristically poorly-recorded – antiquarian activity in the 1880s there had been little previous investigation of the site, but recent geophysics suggest that a huge building – perhaps as much as 100m long – once stood there. Sure enough, one of the first trenches to be opened revealed the corner of a substantial stone wall.
Precisely what purpose the building served is as yet uncertain but given its isolated position, clearly visible from Caerwent, it may have been a prestigious villa (albeit one with a rather eccentric layout) or a shrine site. But whatever its function, this was a high-status structure. All the pottery coming out of the ground comprised prestigious imported wares, while plentiful loose tesserae finds and red, white, and blue painted wall plaster suggest that this was a colourfully-decorated building.
Having previously been down to see Operation Nightingale at Chisenbury Midden (see CA 265), we were intrigued to learn how much crossover there is between the skills of our profession and those of soldiering, particularly in surveying and recording a site. It was fascinating to speak to the soldiers about how they ‘read’ a landscape – though while Matt and I were looking at earthworks to understand what might lie beneath, our military companions were noting features that could be useful in a combat situation. And although we were really fortunate with the weather, you can’t fault a soldier’s ability to work outside in adverse conditions. While sharing a (generously stodgy) lunch with the team, we were told about their previous work on the site when snow was filling in trenches as fast as it could be trowelled back. I think we picked the right week to visit!
Many thanks to Operation Nightingale for putting us up (and supplementing our makeshift bin bag sleeping bags with cosy army kit!) and feeding us, and to the soldiers for their patience and good humour – particularly my trenchmates in ‘Team Pow-duck’. It was really inspiring to see what a positive impact the project is having on participants’ morale. As Martin Brown told us:
‘Some of the men have told me that during this project they have had their first decent night’s sleep in years. If we can give them a good time and make them realise that things are not so bad – and if we can get some great archaeology out of it too, as we are seeing here – then that’s great.’
When we left there were still plenty of questions about this enigmatic site to be answered, but we will be following the ongoing work with great interest. Watch out for the full story in a future issue of CA.
Text by Carly Hilts