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The University of Cambridge's 800th Anniversary Digs

Aims

In 2009 the University of Cambridge 800th Anniversary Fund provided funding for two ‘Dig on your Doorstep’ events (hereafter referred to as UC800 Digs, for convenience). The aim was to bring the 800th Anniversary of the University alive to the general public in the Cambridge region by giving them the chance to hunt for new physical evidence from that period, for themselves, in their own communities.

Working in collaboration with other organisations including the Fen Edge Archaeology Group, the UC800 digs gave members of the public living around Cambridge the chance to carry out their own small archaeological excavations within two Cambridgeshire villages, Cottenham and Willingham. The aim was to dig for archaeological finds which would show how these rural communities developed before, during and after the foundation of the University of Cambridge. In this way, members of the public could get involved in, a very hands-on way, in digging with the university of today into the era of the university of the past.

Excavations

For further details of the two community test pit excavations, please see the links below.

Cottenham 2009 Community Dig

Willingham 2009 Community Dig

Achievement & Impact

  • More than 500 people got involved in the UC800 digs over two weekends in spring and autumn 2009 either by digging or helping out, while thousands more visited or heard about the digging from friends/family, listening to BBC Radio Cambridge or via internet feeds such as Naked Scientists and Twitter.
  • A huge amount of new archaeological evidence was gathered which has significantly advanced our understanding of how these villages developed in the past - from Anglo-Saxon origins through medieval expansion (the period of the University’s foundation was shown to be one of growth in both villages!) and later contraction to more recent growth and infilling. The discoveries that were made will also contribute to future academic research into the development of rural settlement.
  • Formal feedback received from participants was extremely good, with 85% rating it as excellent. Every single participant said they would recommend the activity to others!
  • Everyone involved was very impressed that the university had provided funds for them to have such a good experience, and delighted by how much they had enjoyed it. Some commented that it was the first time they’d ever felt they really benefited from having the University on their doorstep!
  • A very wide range of people got involved in the UC800 digging which involved individuals under 18 months to over 80 years, digging in gardens of council houses, Georgian rectories and everything in between. Participants enjoyed meeting and working with fellow residents they had never met before!

Legacy for the future

  • We hope that most participants will retain an interest in archaeology and local history and in getting involved in other University activities.
  • We hope there that those who’ve never got involved in anything to do with the University before will remember how much they can enjoy doing something new and get involved in more activities involving archaeology and/or the University of Cambridge in the future.
  • The wide demographic range of participants served to increase social cohesion within different parts of the village communities involved.
  • We hope that the success of the UC800 Digs will make it possible to get funding for similar events in the future, using the same model and the experience gained from doing this. There is already great enthusiasm for this locally: some participants have formed a working party to investigate possible sources of funding towards future similar events!
  • There is also a legacy in terms of understanding the heritage of these villages. Details of the finds recovered in the two weekend digs have been reported to the county Historic Environment Record (HER). Now that county archaeologists know what is there they will be able to protect them better. Village residents will benefit from knowing more about the history of their community, enabling them to appreciate its antiquity and its special history and thus value it more.