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Victory for digging

News analysis - Archaeology: Archaeologists had to persuade project managers on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link to reschedule work near Folkestone after they stumbled unexpectedly on an Anglo-Saxon burial ground. Nina Lovelace reports.

In early 1999 Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) archaeology manager Mark Turner found himself in a difficult position. One of his archaeology teams on Contract 440 at Saltwood, near Folkestone in Kent, had stumbled unexpectedly on evidence of an AngloSaxon dwelling - just as the four months programmed for the dig had run out.

Balfour Beatty's £75M contract 440 involves building 16km of the CTRL from the Channel Tunnel Terminal at Cheriton to Ashford. Turner, who works for CTRL project manager Rail Link Engineering (RLE), was well aware of the project's tight construction time scales.

But there was a chance that the find could prove important.

Turner wanted time to investigate - but had to get agreement from his colleagues at RLE and Balfour Beatty. 'I lost a few nights sleep over it, ' he says.

At an emergency meeting Turner was relieved to see the whole team agree to investigate the find. The decision led to the recovery of an impressive array of Anglo-Saxon artefacts, dating from 600AD. Last week they were put on show in Lincoln for the public to see for the first time. But as Turner explains, the results of the dig were largely due to careful management which enabled RLE and Balfour Beatty to stretch the original dig to over two years.

The tale began when Canterbury Archaeological Trust had dug a series of trial pits for RLE along the CTRL route and before Balfour Beatty took possession of the site. The team initially discovered little of surprise - mainly prehistoric relics like those previously dug up during construction of the M20 which runs close by. But just before Balfour Beatty took over the site the archaeologists made an exciting discovery.

'We found the remains of a Saxon sunken featured building, ' says Turner. 'We weren't expecting to find AngloSaxon artefacts there at all.'

To give Turner time to investigate, RLE and Balfour Beatty agreed to carry out some programme juggling. This began with the decision to topsoil strip the site a year early and shunt back some preliminary works.

This allowed Turner's team to excavate a larger site, following the line of the route. Excavations revealed that the Saxon dwelling was close to a series of Saxon graves. Human remains were discovered, together with some potentially valuable artefacts.

RLE and Balfour Beatty were immediately prompted to increase security around the site. A laser beam system was set up to keep unwelcome visitors at bay, and all staff were given swipe cards to get into the site.

Turner realised the work was beginning to take on exciting but worrisome proportions - the archaeological programme had been stretched but time was still no luxury - and Canterbury Archaeological Trust had too few staff. As a result, he decided to bring in another archaeology team, Wessex Archaeology, to help. Wessex continued the dig further along the CTRL alignment, stretching the original 200m long excavation site to nearly 1km.

Canterbury focused on unearthing the first cemetery, and then stumbled on another, reports Turner. Iron and Bronze Age graves and artefacts were also in evidence, together with some Roman cremations. Meanwhile, work was hindered by the sandy soil in which the artefacts were buried. Often as soon an artefact was uncovered, the spoil began to slip back into the excavation. Some mornings small digs had all but disappeared.

Meanwhile Wessex Archaeology had discovered yet another series of graves towards the far east of the excavation, close to some ventilation shafts for the Victorian rail tunnel on the London to Folkestone line. Railtrack feared large scale archaeological excavation work above the line would affect tunnel stability, and work could only progress slowly as engineers monitored the effect on the tunnel.

But the team's efforts paid off as more and more artefacts were revealed. Canterbury found a bronze Byzantine bowl in one particularly rich grave and a gold and silver disc brooch, set with garnets and blue glass, was uncovered in a woman's grave.

A full set of weapons was unearthed, plus occasional human remains. Most graves were empty because the acidic soil had corroded or dissolved artefacts and bones. Usually all that remained in a Saxon grave was a scattering of teeth.

Artefacts from the Saltwood dig can now be viewed at Lincoln County Council's Heritage Service Conservation Department.

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