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The Nightingale Project, Alex Sotheran

Before the talk by Alex Sotheran on Wednesday 6th February, TillVAS Members and Friends took a few moments to remember Tom Turnbull of Branxton and Gerald Tait Coldstream, both highly regarded members who sadly passed away recently.

Alex began by explaining that he was part of the Defence Infrastructure Organisation who play a vital role supporting the many different aspects of the M.O.D., including the repair and maintenance of the training grounds, buildings and environment and more recently the rehabilitation of injured servicemen by introducing them to archaeology.

The training grounds which cover many thousands of acres, are scattered throughout the UK and contain a wealth of archaeology, from the prehistoric to more recent times and the remit of the four archaeologists currently employed is to maintain the historic environment and support those who work and visit.

Among the main sites in the UK are Portsmouth, Catterick, Fort George, Otterburn and Salisbury Plain and as they were established many years ago, have not been affected by modern agriculture or urbanisation. Working mainly in the north of England, Alex has first-hand knowledge of the Warcop area near Catterick, Otterburn, Kirkcudbright and Spadeadam, and it is not unusual to find cup and ring stones, hillforts, medieval ridge and furrow and a deserted medieval village quite close to military installations. In the Warcop area are the remains of the Skeldale Mines, which were severely damaged in the floods of 2008.

These have now been conserved using the veterans from Operation Nightingale with interpretation boards for the public. During the work a stone carved with a Pictish dragon was found in a stream and also in the area a Viking house and prehistoric hut circle. Accidents can happen and the Military has been warned off the Deserted Medieval Village and Kings Fish Ponds!!

Spadeadam in Cumbria is unusual as although only fifty years old it is now a scheduled monument. There are many sheilings; the sites of medieval summer grazings in the vicinity; but is also the home of Blue Streak, the first intercontinental missile.

In Kirkcudbright where the film “Wickerman” was made, are cup & ring stones, medieval ridge and furrow and a hillfort at Doon Hill which incorporates a hidden tank firing platform from the 1950’s - now scheduled, as well as the remains of medieval churches and manor house with accompanying ridge and furrow.

Otterburn is the largest training camp in the north where 1917 WW1 trenches were excavated in 2006, again using the veterans, which uncovered the wooden duck boards and post holes which supported the breastworks. WW2 Observation posts still remain, with a mock-up Afghan village, which looks from a distance not unlike the Roman marching camps found along Dere Street, and in a remote corner, the shrine to Coccidius, a Roman War God, close by a spring in a landscape almost unchanged since Roman times.

The huge white balls of Fylingdale Early Warning System were once a familiar sight and we were shown images of their construction. These have now been replaced by more sophisticated equipment, but the cost of scheduling the originals was prohibitive. On the same stretch of moorland not far away, are ancient stone crosses!

St.Kilda is an R.A.F. Radar Tracking Station and is also part of the D.I.O. Overseen by the National Trust for Scotland, Alex worked there recently with GUARD from Glasgow University, when old accommodation blocks were demolished prior to rebuilding, and it was the first opportunity for any excavation on the island. Deserted in the 1930’s after the population became unsupportable, any interference with the ethnology of the island is forbidden and the remains of the village, the cleets for storage, the St. Kilda Wren and St. Kilda Field Mouse are unique to the island.

As previously explained, Operation Nightingale supports servicemen injured in battle, often by IED in Afghanistan. Many of them have worked on Barrow Clump on Salisbury Plain at a Saxon burial mound damaged by badgers. One completely novice digger unearthed a Saxon skeleton complete with sword, spear and shield boss, items now in the British Museum – I wish!

Barry Buddon near Dundee, is a WW1 trench complex similar to that at Otterburn, excavated by a team of Operation Nightingale volunteers and professionals from Wessex Archaeology and thought to be possibly a model of the Hindenburg Line. This was a unique site for the veterans as a quantity of spent shells dated to 1911 were found. Obviously from WW2, mess plates dated 1940/1943 were found, together with an army shovel and the “Barry Buddon Hoard” of rusty food tins!

Breaking Ground Heritage is part of Operation Nightingale and a group of volunteers has recently worked at the WW1 battlefield at Bullecourt on the Hindenburg Line; a disaster for the Australian Imperial Force; excavating the remains of a tank destroyed in the battle. At Alex’ request, in lieu of any expenses, a donation was made to Breaking Ground Heritage.

TillVAS will next meet on Wednesday 6th March, 7.30 pm in Crookham Village Hall, when Dr. Chris Fowler will speak on “Bronze Age Burials in NE England and SE Scotland”. All welcome. Members Free, visitors £4.


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