What is it about the Dickens Square project that has made it such a draw? It’s undoubtedly the singular set of circumstances of the project. The origins of the existing mosque were in a tiny shop basement in Newington Crescent. Then in about 1990 they acquired the current site at Dickens Square and with a 10 year planning permission built a small mosque in the area that has recently been excavated. This mosque had access for men only and got crowded during prayers as it only held up to 400 people. The new Baitul Al Aziz Islamic Cultural Centre received planning permission in 2006 and was built in front of the old mosque and on a skew to the Harper Road frontage so that it directly faced east towards Mecca. It holds around 2500 people and also provides facilities for women. It is now a multi cultural mosque, as Muslim men and women from different ethnicity come to pray and send their children for study. Such is its popularity that an extension building over the site of the original mosque has been much needed for quite some time as during Friday prayers mats are laid down outside the mosque in order to accommodate worshippers.
Archaeological excavations can be expensive for developers and for the mosque this is a particular problem as its income is derived solely from donations by the congregation. Gary Brown gave this problem some careful thought and after discussions with Dr Chris Constable, [Senior Archaeology Officer, LB Southwark] a practical solution was arrived at whereby some members of the mosque’s community were included within PCA’s professional archaeological team. Amongst the many considerations taken into account was the likelihood that the size and archaeological potential of the site was not likely to be such as to overwhelm such a mixed team and would rather facilitate training. The benefits of this approach were perceived to be many and varied: using volunteer labour from the mosque would assist in offsetting some of the costs to the congregation; the project would foster community archaeology and demonstrate how outreach can have a meaningful impact on a community; the archaeological profession is overwhelmingly white and middle class and this would provide an opportunity for a group of young Muslim men to gain an insight into commercial archaeology, the local history of the area and to assist their own Muslim community. As most of the group were currently unemployed it would also provide work experience and add to their CV’s.
Arrangements were made for eight Muslim volunteers [from the mosque and elsewhere] to attend an intensive training session at PCA’s Brockley offices. This training covered a range of aspects: Health and Safety, archaeological practice and recording, use of surveying equipment, sorting and classification of objects, environmental processing and site photography. This provided the volunteers with a basic understanding of archaeological purpose and practice. For their part, the volunteers found the training interesting and stimulating [as comments in their blog interviews showed] and as a result were more confident about putting the theory into practice on the site.
From the outset, the trustees and members of the Baitul Aziz Islamic Centre expressed their fervent wish to engage with their neighbours and the local community at large. They very much wanted to break down any barriers and to show that the mosque was a place of learning and worship with a welcome for everyone. To this end, a number of outreach efforts were agreed, for instance, information boards were provided around the site and PCA set up a blog dedicated to the project which has given regular updates of progress (https://preconstruct.wordpress.com), interviews with the volunteers etc. Also, at the initial discussions with the trustees it was agreed to have an open day just before the end of the excavations to set out the results and to provide an opportunity for visitors to have a guided tour of the mosque.
The blog was set up by Reiss Copeland [the PCA Twitter ~ https://twitter.com/SE42PD ~ and Facebook ~ https://www.facebook.com/pages/Pre-Construct-Archaeology-Ltd-PCA/669247616418678 ~ sites were also used to publicise the project] has proved a success with over 1500 ‘visits’ from a variety of countries ie USA, Canada, South Africa, Australia, Mauritius, Belgium, Ireland etc and has resulted in mosque volunteers being interviewed live for a Bangladeshi radio station and interest from a Belgium TV company. The blog will be maintained for some time yet and will feature short videos taken with PCA’s recently purchased camcorder by Streph Duckering with technical assistance from Paul Wootton [http://www.graphicnet.co.uk].
The volunteers have been on site for nine weeks and according to their comments on the blog have enjoyed and value the experience. Neil Hawkins, Senior Archaeologist directing the excavations has been impressed with their attitude and commitment, as he said on the blog.
“I didn’t know how the volunteers would respond to the work, or what their level of interest would be in what we were doing. I’ve actually found them to be very good. I saw them at the office in the early stages when they were doing the training course and many of them were clearly interested and were asking the right kind of questions about what we were doing, how we do it and why we do it and, equally, since we’ve been here on site they have been very into it, very interested and, in general, have just got on well with the work.”
Some have been so enthused that they would like to continue participating on an amateur basis, or to try and extend their experience and gain paid employment at some future time. To that end, Gary has written to all archaeological contracting organisations working in Greater London, recommending the volunteers and requesting that they be considered for other projects.
The Open Day was a success with a selection of impressive objects from the site in display cases and a poster display which were much viewed and appreciated and stimulated a great deal of comments/questions. As well as a numerous members of the mosque congregation [who had came to Friday prayers ~ Reiss who assist with the displays was invited to pray due largely to his distinctive beard!], quite a number of people who live locally also came to the Open Day and were very complimentary about the display and appreciated the welcome that they received by members of the mosque, the opportunity to see inside and the refreshments that were provided. SE1 and the South London Press sent reporters/photographers and intend to cover the event this week. Ahmed Uddin, ‘the client’, wrote: “Thank you John and Gary for all your efforts and I would just like to thank you so much on behalf of the mosque and the wider community.
Amongst other positive messages received was the following:
“PCA have worked really hard on this one. As the mosque is entirely dependent upon donations they put a call around other mosques in London for anyone with an interest in archaeology to help on the site to keep the cost down. PCA have provided training to the volunteers and some of them, when I have visited the site, have really taken to archaeology. So as a project it has provided access to many ‘hard to reach groups’. PCA are calling in favours all over the place to keep the post-ex costs down and have worked hard to set it up. I think we have been negotiating the archaeological work for this project for over two years.”
Dr Chris Constable MIFA PG Dip, Senior Archæology Officer
So, all in all, it has been a positive experience for the mosque, the volunteers, the visitors to the Open Day and PCA. Key aspects of such a community archaeology project are providing training and choosing suitable sites: given its location, on the the Dickens Square site there was not likely to be complex stratigraphy or have a great many features; it was a relatively small site and not under onerous time constraints; and, most importantly, it was not likely to be hazardous to first time volunteers who hadn’t worked on such sites before. In the event, there was more than enough archaeology to engage and retain the interest of the volunteers; in summary, four Roman inhumations [some with grave goods] and a cremation urn; a thick deposit of ‘Dark Earth’ which was dug in spits and using a metal detector; three mid-18th century burials of whole cattle [most likely infected with the rinderpest disease] and two late 18th century wells, one of which contained a goodly number and variety of household goods!
John Maloney, Marketing & PR manager