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
I’m 28 years old. I got involved in the project because a friend mentioned it to me: I don’t go this mosque, I go to one in Lewisham. The brother said that there was going to be some archaeology going on and I was interested and had some time on my hands and so I decided to get involved. I’ve done the training and found it very interesting. And even out on site I’ve enjoyed it. It was an opportunity to do something different and I like to be varied and to be able turn my hand to different things and I suppose it’s a good thing to have on your CV, something that’s certainly a bit different. I’m a personal trainer but I’m very interested in history and find it fascinating. I think that there is so much that we can learn from history, mistakes that were made in the past, and stop us from repeating them again.
The training seemed all rather familiar, maybe because I’ve worked on construction sites before, some of the health and safety and some of the more general historical things from my own knowledge, from things I’ve been researching recently. And, also, things that I learnt in school such as about the Babylonians and Egyptians. I’m interested in ancient civilisations and cultures, right the way back to what some consider as the mother of civilisation, Babylon. And it relates to today’s times – that is what fascinates me the most.
The site has been interesting and we’ve uncovered more than I thought we would. We had some interesting finds and the burials. As a Muslim there’s an issue to do with digging up graves. Archaeology is a more respectful way to be dealing with them because if there were construction workers on the site the burials probably won’t be noticed and the remains would end up in a dump somewhere. Archaeologists dig carefully and show respect. I don’t get involved in digging around the bones I’m happy to leave that to the professional archaeologists. But I still found it very interesting though. As a Muslim we’re taught that every soul shall taste death so it’s a reminder of what’s to come, our mortality.
I knew one brother who left due to the graves. But the other brothers hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting him before we started the training. We’ve all got on very well because of Islam which in many ways is thicker than blood. We’ve got a close brotherhood and it should be like this throughout the whole world. Unfortunately, it’s not the case but God willing, Insha’Allah, things will change. This is what it’s like to be a Muslim, we have a strong brotherhood. We’re taught to greet each other and just simple things like smiling at your brother is considered a charity in Islam, shaking hands and saying As-salam alaykum, Peace upon you. Generally, that seems to be something that is being forgotten but Islam brings us back to that.
I’m very interested in many aspects of life: in training, in helping people to get fit and healthy but I’ve always had an interest in history in particular, and genealogy is very interesting to me. I’m a man who likes to find out facts, facts that aren’t always told to us – I like to get to the bottom of things. There’s a lot of dogmas today, it’s a time where there is so much information given to us and we’re kept so busy that we can’t always check this information. If it’s repeated four, five, six, seven times, a lot of us will just take that information as truth and that’s very dangerous. Was it Adolf Hitler who said that if a [big enough] lie is repeated enough times it will be believed? We find so many lies repeated through the media. Before you know it they’ve been taken as the truth. No one really bothers to get to the bottom of things, even a lot of the reporters. They hear the official stories and put them into their own words but don’t tend to question the authorities. It’s more the bloggers that do but then they don’t get the publicity. Even at the highest levels of these newspaper companies they are not independently run and there so many interesting things out there which can change ideas, can change perceptions or even change people’s behaviour and the world but they’re not interested in that, they like to just show us the more mundane and trivial things. A lot of times we know from history that governments have used the media to get laws put in place, that they’ll place a story that is connected to the laws they want to implement.
Archaeology is about finding out and lots of people I’ve spoken to have said that they were interested in it: interested is the word so many people use where archaeology is concerned.
The first image is an aerial view showing a Roman ditch (top ~ the dark soil is infill) along which two Roman graves are aligned (the rectangles on the right) with two 18th brick wells (to their left).
The second image is a close up of one of the graves showing the remains of the timber coffin and the human skeleton contained within.
For more pictures please click Gallery
My name is Assad Sharif, I’m 19 years old.
To be honest I didn’t think at first that the project involved archaeology, I was thinking in terms of construction work and that I was doing it just for the mosque. When I came to the site I didn’t really know a lot about archaeology: I didn’t really know about stuff like Roman pottery and bones. I’d never had any experience before of an archaeological site and no great interest in archaeology other than the sort the general public might have. I did the training at PCA’s offices and I found that interesting and really helpful. Even things like asbestos which we were told about, how it was dangerous if you breathed it in and you could get ill. Then Neil and Alice started teaching me about different types of pottery and tobacco pipes and I found that very interesting. I didn’t think that archaeology would be like this: in training it sounded hard but once I was out on site it didn’t seem that hard. It’s not so difficult; it was useful to have that training beforehand as a preparation, including the Health & Safety and all that.
We started off we was just digging 5cm at a time and when we found the first small piece of bone I was going to pull it out of the ground but Neil said no leave it where it was until we could see more. And then I came back the next day and we continued digging and then we started to see two cattle and we found a well next to them. That well didn’t have anything in it but the other one further away had a lot of pottery. We found lots of blue pottery, we found glass, we found tobacco pipes I was impressed with the length of the pipes and everyone found them in bits and pieces but I found the longest one and four long ones in all. I knew they were made of clay because of the training. Also we found little ink and perfume bottles and bottles we were told were for alcohol. And we also found medicine bottles and jars and little cups and mugs, one of which had a message on it which something about going to school and they used the old type of English, like Shakespeare English, but I didn’t quite get it. They used the well for just putting all this stuff in, like rubbish. We were told that the cattle were buried because they were diseased. I’d heard that people used to get animals to fight, two dogs against a bear. Also, I think that we found dog bones and rat bones in the well. I also heard that the well can be dangerous to be in if you’re digging deeper than 1m without support to the sides.
From the 18th-22nd November our 8 volunteers proceeded to have an intense training week where they covered a wide range of areas. Here we have our volunteers with our pottery specialist Berni Seddon.
For more pictures Click on Gallery