'Join Marilyn in the drain," instructs the site supervisor when I pitch up at Vindolanda, a partially excavated Roman fort near Hadrian's Wall. "First dig, then scrape. You don't want to miss anything."
No, indeed, not on my first encounter with the world of archaeology. So it's into the drain to shovel and sift, activities that had never fired my imagination until I learnt that volunteers can sign up for an annual dig at Vindolanda.
"Want to excavate at one of the top Roman archaeological sites in Britain?" reads the website headline. With visions of unearthing Roman treasure, I head to north-east England with waterproof jacket and boots in my luggage.
The annual dig, which takes place during the northern European spring and summer, has been under way for several weeks when I arrive.
"Spoil heaps" of discarded dirt and rubble are mounting around the muddy diggers, most of whom have signed on for two weeks. The ratio of digging to archaeological discoveries appears to be heavily weighted towards rubble.
"You can dig for days without finding more than a few dog bones," says my cheerful drain mate, Marilyn. "It can be like looking for a needle in a haystack."
But the prospect of finding the needle clearly has her hooked. This is her fifth consecutive year in Vindolanda. She enrols each November, when online applications open. Places fill quickly.
Vindolanda was already a bustling fort with a military and civilian population when construction of Hadrian's Wall began in AD122 along the Roman Empire's northern frontier. The original turf-and-timber fort was erected near the centre of the frontier to police the movements of tribes and to help regulate commerce between Roman Britain and its barbarian neighbours. Vindolanda played a pivotal role and, during the next three centuries, was replaced with increasingly larger and more solid structures.
By the 5th century, however, the collapse of Rome's western empire brought its long hold on Britain to an end. Vindolanda fell into ruin. It was not until the middle of the 20th century that the story began to unfold of the people who lived here soon after the time of Christ.
"You start out looking for fragments of lives gone by but when you begin piecing them together, the people of Roman Britain come alive," says the deputy director of excavations, Justin Blake. He has dropped by the drain to see whether my digging and scratching has yielded more than a mound of rubble. It hasn't. So by way of encouragement he explains in his lilting Northumberland brogue that he came here as a reluctant teenage volunteer needing to keep fit for the school rugby team. And on the first day, he dug up a bronze coin dated AD200.
Thinking about the person who lost it all those centuries ago made the hairs on his arms stand on end. He ditched plans to become an air force pilot and enrolled for a degree in archaeology at Durham University. For the past 13 years he has been working full time at Vindolanda, immersed in dirt and the cast of characters who lived far from home on Britain's wild, northern frontier.
The most remarkable insights into the community of Vindolanda came 30 years before Blake's archaeological debut. Excavations in the 1970s unearthed letters written by commanding officers, their wives, soldiers, merchants and slaves. Known as the Vindolanda tablets, the letters were perfectly preserved, postcard-sized slivers of wood with ink writing, dating from the time of the earliest settlement (AD97-AD103). With spelling mistakes and occasional slang, they depict life on the edge of the Roman world, revealing the well-oiled machinery of the Roman army and much about civilian life on Britain's northern frontier. Most evocative of the letters is a famous birthday party invitation from Claudia Severa, the wife of a commanding officer, to her friend, Sulpicia Lepidina. It's the earliest female handwriting to survive in western Europe and is held in the British Museum, along with several other tablets.
Such discoveries are exceedingly rare. But just days before I arrive, volunteers unearth the most exciting treasure since the tablets: a carved shrine dating from the 3rd century.
"A rare find," confirms the visibly moved Andrew Birley, the director of excavations at Vindolanda and the son of archaeologist Robin Birley, who discovered the famous tablets. Birley senior became the first chairman of the Vindolanda Charitable Trust and its formation in the 1970s enabled volunteers to help uncover the Roman fort buried for centuries beneath the green hills of north-east England.
The 30 volunteers on my dig take turns to remove the remaining earth around the base of the newly discovered shrine. We range in age from 17 to 77. At lunch we swap stories. A descendant of 19th-century English Romantic painter John Constable, Alice Constable, has dug up a piece of pottery decorated with a bird and dog. Peter, from Bristol, has found a piece of blue Roman glass. His wife, Joyce, has volunteered for the more routine task of washing centuries of dirt off all uncovered items deemed too important to throw away.
Kevin, a Glaswegian jazz musician with a passion for Roman history, looks wistful as he hands over his most coveted find: a small phallic figure. The discovery encourages him to sign on for another two weeks.
By lunch time I have no more to show for a morning in a drain than a chip of pottery. So I return to the drain. Another drain mate, Danny Rolet, pauses from her labour to inspect a small, unusually shaped rock that I hope will turn out to be something significant. A student of classics, Rolet has been on several digs. Typically, novices like me are set to work with experienced people like her. Declaring the item to be unadulterated rock, she explains that a fool's gold experience is not uncommon at archaeological digs.
My confidence is boosted when another half-hour of digging unearths a Roman nail. It's the most inspiring nail I have ever seen.
A couple of hours later, I nearly toss out a shovel of dirt that contains a small spot of greenish soil. I sift it, just in case, and a round hard shape emerges. Birley inspects the item and pronounces it "quite a find": a Roman coin dating, he estimates, from the 3rd century.
I hold the little coin, not much bigger than my thumbnail, and feel emotional. In 1700 years I am only the second person to touch it. What was the person like who lost the coin? Would he or she have cursed the loss? For a moment, past and present merge.
The estimated age of the coin corresponds with the current excavations of 3rd-century buildings at Vindolanda. It must have washed down the drain we've been digging in. The original fort lies several more metres under the ground, which means the story of Vindolanda will continue to be unearthed by archaeologists. Like me.
* Susan Buckland travelled courtesy of Visit Britain.
- The Age