There is a huge interest in what lies under our feet in Britain from centuries past, and what better way is there for the Slow Traveller to really get to know a place than to take part in the discoveries themselves. Here we list sites where you can watch archaeologists at work, take part in the actual excavations, leaving you with not just a true and deeper understanding of the place, but with new skills as well.
The TV series Digging for Britain has rekindled the nation’s enthusiasm for what lies beneath our feet. Chance discoveries, often by famers, and the work of those metal detectors who scrupulously report their finds, lead to local and often national curiosity. HS2 – whatever we may think of the destruction and costs involved – is uncovering rich sources of buildings and artefacts and adding enormously to our knowledge.
In 2021 a massive Anglo-Saxon burial site was discovered in Northamptonshire, and nearby is a 4000 year old Bronze Age burial site. Work near to Stoke Mandeville led to the discovery of a Roman site underneath a Saxon tower which in turn was underneath a Norman church. The ongoing London Super Sewer project has led to the discovery of Iron Age coins and artefacts in Barn Elms on the Thames, an area previously believed to be only Roman in origin.
Although some sites are – rightly – protected during the early stages of discovery, often the archaeologists are keen to encourage interest and visitors are welcome. It is always worth contacting your local group of the Council of British Archaeology to find where and when to visit. Some sites hold Open Days which are advertised locally, and many archaeological organisations welcome volunteers to help.
Ness of Brodgar, Stromness, Orkneys
In 2002 a geophysical survey revealed the existence of Neolithic remains on the Ness of Brodgar, a narrow strip of land between the two significant sites of the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness.
Archaeological research over the past twenty years has uncovered a huge array of Neolithic structures including monumental buildings and prehistoric artwork. Yet excavations have still only examined a small proportion of the site: partly because of weather conditions digs can only take place between July and August.
The archaeologists are keen to welcome visitors to the site and there is a viewing platform to help them survey and understand what they see. If you are lucky, as we were, one of the directors will come to speak about the structure, the finds, the dating of them and what they tell us about this period of prehistory. There was a huge sense of awe and amazement amongst our group that we were looking at buildings dating back 5000 years. It is believed to be much more than a domestic settlement – the size, quality and architecture along with tiled roofs, decorated stone and artefacts suggest that the Ness had special significance for the Orkney islands and beyond.
Excavations resume in July 2023 and they have already announced their open days between 5th July and 16th August with free guided tours of the digs.
Find out more about visiting the dig and future volunteering opportunities at the Ness of Brodgar website >>
Vindolanda, Hadrian’s Wall
Vindolanda is regarded as one of Europe’s most exciting Roman digs: nine forts built on top of each other that garrisoned Roman soldiers during the period of the Roman occupation of Britain. It includes a bathhouse, tavern and shops all dating back to the third century. A 2017 discovery revealed a Roman cavalry barracks under the site complete with military and personal artefacts. Excavations take place every year so there is always plenty to see and the on-site museum has an extensive display of the objects found.
The Vindolanda Trust has been taking on excavation volunteers since 1970, with over 8000 people getting the chance of some hands-on archaeology. Participation requires a commitment of two consecutive weeks. Volunteers can be accepted for a maximum of two periods in the season, or 4 weeks. The two periods do not need to be consecutive.
The excavation places go on a first come, first served basis: it is recommended that you apply as soon as you can after the places go online. Places for the 2023 excavation season are now fully booked, places for the 2024 excavation season will go live in November 2023.
Find out more about visiting the site or joining their dig at the Vindolanda Trust website >>
Sutton Hoo, Suffolk
The National Trust, who run the Sutton Hoo site, are looking for archaeology volunteers to help with geophysical surveys (using non-destructive electronic techniques to detect archaeological features) and field walking. Sutton Hoo is one of the most remarkable sites in the country, home to the burial ship of King Raedwald, an Anglo-Saxon king of the 6th century.
The huge amount of astonishing finds are on display in the British Museum, where you can see the famous helmet and the other grave goods such as valuable jewellery, shields, spears, bucket, a purse filled with unpolished garnets, bowls, drinking horns and everyday goods from the King's burial and others in the nearby mounds.
The site itself is open to visitors who can explore the burial mounds and visit the museum, filled with replicas and displays about life in Anglo-Saxon East Anglia.
Find out more about becoming an archaeology volunteer at Sutton Hoo >>
Clarendon Palace, Salisbury
Just outside Salisbury in a field on the Clarendon Estate are the remains of Clarendon Palace, one of the most important and significant early medieval palaces.
It was here that the Assize of Clarendon was written into law by Henry II, leading to trial by jury. The palace is now little more than ruins, owned by English Heritage and guarded by some fearsome llamas. The site is free to visit and you can often see evidence of the latest archaeological digs. Before the lockdowns, it was possible to volunteer to join the digs for days or weeks at a time.
Keep an eye on the Friends of Clarendon Palace website to see when further opportunities arise.
Museum of London Archaeology, London
MOLA offer a range of volunteering opportunities, from becoming a FROG (Foreshore Recording and Observation Group) volunteer with the Thames Discovery Programme or recording archaeological sites along England's coastline with CITiZAN (Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeology Network) amongst other opportunities.
The CITiZAN project is one of the country's largest citizen science projects, working with a network of volunteers to survey and celebrate the fragile heritage of England’s coast and of the foreshores of its tidal estuaries. They welcome people of all knowledge levels, whether for short or long term volunteering so long as they are over 16.
Wallquest, Hadrian's Wall, Newcastle
Wallquest is a community archaeology project in the northeast that allows the general public to get their hands dirty, helping out with surveys and digs, or research into documents and finds.
The aim is to find out about the easternmost 30 miles of Hadrian’s Wall between South Shields and Hexham/Corbridge where the Wall is often invisible. Projects include finding Roman stones in local churches, finding the lost Roman road, or a missing Roman bridge.
Sign up to be a volunteer on the Visit England website >>
Resources to find archaeological digs
Digs Venture 2023 - For anyone wanting some archaeological experience in 2023, this is one of the best resources out there. Here they list date, times and places for their current digs, particularly welcoming children and young people. Digs this year include Moorsholm in Yorkshire, Glengarnock Castle in Ayrshire, Soulton in Shropshire, Caerfai in Pembrokeshire, Lindisfarne in Northumberland and Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire. They also run online courses for budding archaeologists young and old.
Current Archaeology - a guide to UK digs which you can search by date, time period, location, cost and covering digs you can do for a day, digs for children, all inclusive digs (ie for beginners and those with some mobility issues) and completely free digs.
Heritage and Archaeological Research Practices - Archaeology Field Schools for professionals and hobbyists
The Festival of Archaeology - An annual event which sees many archaeological sites open up to the public, there is often the chance to try your hand at archaeology
Council for British Archaeology - their events page is filled with digs, study sessions, skills days, talks and conferences for both professionals and amateurs.
The Association for Roman Archaeology - has a full calendar of digs, courses and volunteering opportunities for anyone interested in Roman archaeology. There are excavations going on across the country on a wide variety of sites, from villas to roads and rural settlements.
Interested in archaeology? Try this article on Archaeologists Houses you can Visit around the World >>