Time Team Series 20. My Second Episode: Day 2: Nothing is Ever as Simple as it Seems

The Machine Gun Corps was founded in 1915 as a response to Germany’s overwhelming superiority in machine guns and the way they were used. Put succinctly, the enemy were light years ahead of us, and it was something that was to cost thousands of lives. The high-ups in the government and the Army realised that training was all important and our huge county house park camp was built as a direct response to the new emergency.

The maps of 1915 and 1916 show that there was a general trend across the site, with early elements, built in 1915 towards the west, and later parts to the east. We don’t know how many months separated these two areas, but I don’t think it was long – and most probably less than a full year. But it now seems that the slightly later stuff, built probably in mid 1916, was significantly better constructed. It also seems likely it was better preserved by the forces of wind, weather and erosion that determine the extent to which ancient deposits survive deep in the ground. So based on yesterday’s geofizz results, I decided to switch our resources towards these better preserved areas. And by the middle of Day 2, it seemed  a wise decision. Then just before lunch I saw the results of our excavations there. And they weren’t very encouraging. All we’d found was a ditch, which I reckoned was probably medieval and nothing whatsoever to do with the camp. It was back to the drawing board.

After lunch one of the trenches we’d opened the previous day started to produce interesting evidence for the foundations of a barracks hut, but that was in the area where preservation was meant to be poor… It was all very difficult. Even in Phil’s trench we couldn’t produce direct structural evidence for one of the largest huts on the camp. Everything on site, it would seem, was built above ground – which of course makes plenty of sense if you’re building in cheap, untreated  timber, which rots when wet. In archaeological terms we were confronted with the equivalent of a small town constructed above the ground. And you can’t excavate thin air. So what do you do? The answer is you use subtle hints to prove where buildings originally stood: things like pathways and doorways, and roads that took sudden right-angled bends; drainage pipes and water pipes – together they can form coherent patterns. But it was proving one hell of a challenge.

I think we’re beginning to make sense of it all, but I still wonder where we’d be if we didn’t have good military plans, made by professional surveyors, using the famous Ordnance Survey twenty-five inch maps as a base. Having said that, we’re adding a wealth of detail about the way ordinary soldiers lived-out their six-week stay in the camp. For many of those young men, their short residence at our camp would have been among their last weeks on this earth.

Tomorrow we’ve got to find where the machine guns ranges were located. And this will be quite a challenge. And now I’m completely knackered. It has been a hard and very challenging day. Time for a quick bite, then bed and sweet oblivion… Night night.

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