‘Welcome to the house of fun’

Written by Ian Blair

The dynamics of any archaeological excavation is largely driven by the personalities of the individuals who participated. This was amply illustrated on a small DUA site at 61 Queen Street in the City of London (QUN85), supervised by Mark Burch

between October 1985-January 1986. By this point in the DUA’s evolution, most of the archaeologists had known one another for many years, and were now part of a close-knit family, who not only worked together, but played together.

Queen Street Excavation QUN85 Archaeology Today article published in 1987Early stages of the excavation at 61 Queen Street, with burials from the graveyard of St Martin Vintry being defined. Staff from left to right: Mike Inzani, Val Horsman, Mark Burch, Gina Porter, and Damian Goodburn.

The excavation at Queen Street was in the basement of a now vacant building, with our office on the ground floor above. The small team of archaeologists included Gina Porter, Peter Cardiff, Val Horsman, Damian Goodburn, Mike Inzani, and me. The archaeological sequence included the substantial walls and integral piers of a Roman masonry building, and burials from the graveyard of the medieval church of St Martin Vintry (see Archaeology Today article below).

Archaeology apart, the site will always be etched in my memory for the variety of gambling and sporting endeavours that we managed to pursue during our breaks from the trenches, far more than any other contemporary DUA site I can remember.

When we moved into the building, we found a table tennis table in the basement (minus a net), which we brought upstairs and set up in one of the myriad of empty rooms. Having bought a net, balls, and a couple of bats, the games began. The only problem was that because the building was essentially a construction site in waiting, the carpet tiles on the floor were now covered in a thick layer of dust, so after a frantic twenty-minute game of ping-pong, the air was a miasma of chocking dust, that was difficult to see through. News of the existence of the table quickly got around, and John Maloney (who may have been the project manager) became a regular visitor for a lunchtime game. I remember John being a class above the rest of us despite the adverse playing conditions, and a bit of a ringer to be honest.

Most of our extracurricular activities were either conducted or dreamt up in our office along the corridor, where a dartboard hung on the wall: darts being a constant in our pub gatherings in that period, when most City pubs had at least one board. Peter Cardiff and I played backgammon throughout the excavation, with £10.00 staked on the eventual result, the winner being the first to record a hundred games in their favour. I know that only a game or two separated us after several months, when the narrowest of victories was claimed near to the end of the site.

To further while away the time, we started a sweepstake based on the probability of any member of the DUA not working on the site visiting, with odds set dependant on the likelihood of that individual turning up unannounced: so, Brian Hobley would have been a rank 100-1 outsider! The critical thing was that for it to work it had to remain a secret, and you weren’t allowed to invite or coerce someone to site who you had placed a bet on. Days and often weeks would pass before a winner was made, always to large amounts of merriment among the site staff as the bemused visitor wondered what on earth was happening.

Another sweepstake, and my all-time favourite game of chance was dubbed ‘Lightbulb Roulette’. The lighting in our office was provided by twelve spotlights in the ceiling, but there was one bulb which no longer worked. It was the job of the person making tea each morning, to move the dud bulb to a position of their choosing, with the archaeologists subsequently making a bet on which bulb it was going to be, prior to the ceremonial flicking on of the light switch at tea break to see if anyone had won. We all staked £1.00 a game, and if no one guessed correctly in any given week, the money was carried over as a ‘Rollover’ and a new round of cash added to the float each Monday. Hard to credit that all this enterprise came a full nine years before the first draw was made on the National Lottery in November 1994!

Gaming enterprises apart, another memorable event during the Queen Street excavation, was Peter Cardiff announcing his engagement, with a notice appearing in the Times Newspaper on 10th December 1985. To celebrate the occasion, at the end of the excavation we held an impromptu champagne party in the basement. As each successive Magnum of champagne was emptied, and there were a considerable number imbibed, the bottles were ceremonially smashed against the concrete in the west end of the trench, creating a fitting ‘closure’ deposit to the excavation. In keeping with an engagement announced in the Times Newspaper, there was a subsequent much posher reception held at ‘Boodle's Gentlemen's Club’ in St James's Street off Piccadilly, where the archaeologists attending had to either wear a suit or sport a false beard (dependant on gender) to gain entry.

The bearded fraternity of the DUA on their way to Peter Cardiff’s receptionThe bearded fraternity of the DUA on their way to Peter Cardiff’s reception at ‘Boodle's Gentlemen's Club’, armed in case they met with any resistance to entry at the front door.

 

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