Iron Age Warriors : Archaeology at East Chisenbury by the soldiers of The 1st Battalion, The Rifles

1Rifles excavating East Chisenbury ‘Midden’ : HeritageDaily

The abiding public image of the current conflict in Afghanistan is the repatriation parades for fallen soldiers through the village of Royal Wootton Bassett in the country of Wiltshire.  However further to the south of the county a project has been developed to deal with the hidden casualties of the conflict.

It is perhaps not widely appreciated that the founding fathers of much of modern archaeology were senior figures within the British army including Lt-General Pitt Rivers, Brigadier Mortimer Wheeler,  Col TE Lawrence, and O.G.S Crawford to name but a few. Meanwhile, many of those who grew the discipline in the post-War world of university expansion and Rescue Archaeology learnt many of their skills in uniform. With the inherent skills of the infantryman; an appreciation of landscape, topography and deposits in the ground as their lives depend upon it, it is less of a leap of faith to think that archaeology might be a discipline perfect for soldiers.

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A project, codenamed ‘Operation Nightingale’ was developed to utilise both the technical and social aspects of field archaeology to help in the rehabilitation and skill development of soldiers injured in the conflict in Afghanistan.  There is a close correlation between the skills required by the modern soldier and those of the professional archaeologist. These skills include surveying, geophysics (for ordnance recovery or revealing cultural heritage sites), scrutiny of the ground (for improvised explosive devices or artefacts), site and team management, mapping, navigation and the physical ability to cope with hard manual work in often inclement weather conditions.

Rifleman Subeg Singh (21) : HeritageDaily

The project derived from a conversation between Richard Osgood, Senior Historic Advisor within the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) of the Ministry of Defence and Sergeant Diarmaid Walshe of 1st Battalion, The Rifles.  Sergeant Walshe, who is responsible for the medical care and treatment of the soldiers, including injured personal returned from operations overseas, identified a growing need for some form of occupational therapy and rehabilitation.  As an archaeologist himself he recognised that archaeology had many elements that could help address some of the complex needs of these soldiers and addressing the ailments that they were exhibiting.

Sgt Walshe said “These soldiers have all endured a lot during operational tours.  Due to complex nature of the injuries both physical and mental that are been experienced in Afghanistan, the army is always looking at new and innovative ways to promote recovery. There is duty of care to those injured overseas in the service of the nation, in what has been termed the ‘military covenant’ and it is important to find projects that can help restore fitness, confidence and self-esteem to the wounded.  Additionally it allows soldiers to fulfil their part; giving something of value back both at a local and national level and so fulfilling their part of the ‘civilian convent’.

The two discussed whether archaeology might indeed be of benefit for these wounded men and how one would go about organising a project to accomplish this goal.  “The role of the Historic Environment Team within DIO is to support the armed forces, this seemed a perfect opportunity to achieve this whilst at the same time demonstrating the MOD commitment to the good stewardship of it historic estate.

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As a military activity, the project needed an operational name. In a nod to one of the most famous figures in British military medicine Operation Nightingale was born!

The first task was to identify a site that would be suitable for 25 battle-injured soldiers to be trained in archaeological field techniques.  The location identified was a windswept man-made hill in the centre of the Army’s training estate on Salisbury Plain – East Chisenbury Midden. This in an area described by Herman Melville in ‘Moby Dick’ as being one of the two most desolate places on the planet!  Another task was to identify key partners from the heritage sector, ensuring that they could and would assist in the project, volunteering their time and expertise.

 You talk o’ better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all:

We’ll wait for extra rations if you treat us rational.

Don’t mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face

The Widow’s Uniform is not the soldier-man’s disgrace.

For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”

But it’s “Saviour of his country,” when the guns begins to shoot;

Yes, it’s Tommy this an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;

But Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool – you bet that Tommy sees!

Rudyard Kipling, ‘Tommy’


The Site

The East Chisenbury ‘midden’ is effectively an artificial hill, covering several hectares and probably formed over under 100 years at the transition between the Bronze and Iron Ages at c700BC.

Although William Cunnington, Sir Richard Colt-Hoare and OGS Crawford made certain notes on the area, the first real confirmation of the importance of East Chisenbury Midden was courtesy of Squadron Leaders N.N.E. Bray and Tom Walls whilst they were based at Upavon during the Second World War (McOmish et al, 2010, 38-9). They undertook limited excavations confirming the constructed nature of the hill top. Unfortunately, time passed and their records were all but forgotten. Following their rediscovery, Mrs Nell Duffie of the Bulford Conservation Group mentioned the midden’s significance to the Royal Commission of Historic Monuments who were starting their investigation of the Field Monuments of the Salisbury Plain Training Area (later published as McOmish, et al, 2002).

Corporal Steven Winterton : HeritageDaily

This group then undertook fieldwork, including trial excavation from May 1992 to August 1993 with the results being published in 2010 (McOmish, et al, 2010). The midden is composed largely of animal bone, burnt flint, and many, many shards of pottery.

McOmish (ibid) found evidence for chalk surfaces and postholes within the midden, as well as for structured deposits. The evidence points to it being the site of major social and ceremonial events including feasting. This interpretation led to the Riflemen suggesting that this site was an ancestor to the Glastonbury festival. With the importance of this site being clear, the Senior Historic Advisor to the then Defence Estates (now Defence Infrastructure Organisation), requested that Wessex Archaeology carry out a further auger survey to establish the full extent of the midden and also to facilitate the site being surrounded by a fence.

This fence was to serve a number of purposes – firstly to exclude military vehicles which could damage the site when crossing it in the wet, secondly to enable the site to be grazed and thus to reduce the threat of scrub cover, and lastly to enable the exclusion of badgers, whose setts are causing significant damage to the remains, from the site. This fence is now in place and this augments the exiting protection afforded by the palisades and signs surrounding the monument. In addition, the site has now been decreed an Important and Fragile Site ensuring it is marked on all military training maps given to soldiers and designated as a restricted area.

Currently, badgers are still truncating elements of the midden, which is known from coring to be over 2.7m in depth. Pottery, animal bone and burnt flint is visible in spoil ejected from sett entrances. The fieldwork was designed to quantify the material, to examine whether there was any spatial patterning to the artefactual assemblage, as well as to provide a baseline against which the level of disturbance and the numbers of sett entrances can be monitored.

Prior to the fieldwork, the men visited Butser Ancient Farm. This was intended to help the soldiers better visualise later Prehistory and give them context and to help with their understanding and identification of artefacts. Under the guidance and watchful eye of Butser’s David Freeman the men were given the opportunity to see the living conditions presented in the reconstructed roundhouses, to see both genuine and replica artefacts and the experience the complexities of everyday craft from the Iron Age, including pottery making, spinning and bone working. Both the visit and the activities helped with on-site identification but also created a healthy respect for Iron Age craftspeople.

In the week preceding the excavation, Phil Harding of Wessex Archaeology and Time Team fame carried out a one-day flint knapping workshop. The star pupil was beyond doubt Rifleman Singh who produced a vast number of flint arrow heads and knife blades to a very high standard. The work also gave the soldiers an idea of how to identify worked flint; platforms, bulbs and ripples of percussion, retouches and all!

To prepare the ground for initial excavation endeavours, 3 soldiers (Rifelemen Dike, Ascott and Dennant) from 1 Rifles were attached to 135 Geographic Squadron Royal Engineers which provides the Army with its survey capability and mapping.  Under their expert guidance these young soldiers completed both an earthwork survey and a 3-D topographic investigation of the midden.

Soldiers excavating at Operation Nightingale : HeritageDaily

It should, perhaps, not be a surprise that soldiers proved adept at surveying and adapted well to this task; Sir Mortimer Wheeler used former military men for this fieldwork on several of his excavations: “We Stood, Huntly Gordon and I, upon a densely wooded hill-top in Normandy with an aged artillery ‘director’ (War Office disposals, £3) between us.

It was August 1938, and we had known each other for several years. In vacations we would forgather, and he with this familiar instrument of World War I would survey for me whatever archaeological site was my peaceful battlefield for the moment.

The more entangled and impossible the scene, the more sturdily and resourcefully would Huntly tackle his task. On this occasion he allowed himself to murmur that ‘anyway it wasn’t as bad as Passchendaele’. Then he characteristically got on with the job.” (Wheeler in Gordon, 1967, ix). In conjunction with this survey David Norcott of Wessex Archaeology showed Corporal Steve Winterton how to evaluate the depth of the midden deposit through an auger survey of the site which complemented the earlier RCHME work.


Once permission to work near the badger setts had been secured from Natural England work began. The Riflemen, worked under the supervision of a number of professional archaeologists including Martin Brown and Phil Abramson of the Historic Environment team of DIO, as well as volunteers James Spry, Andy Brockman, Andrew Richardson, Michelle Johnson, Kirsty Nichol and Markus Milligan. , The large mounds of soil thrown out of the badger setts were carefully and methodically excavated Each find was individually plotted and the sections of the excavated mounds were drawn. This was carried out by three soldiers, Rfn Kelly, Rfn Joice and Craftsman ???? who received training in the necessary drafting skills.

Samples were taken from the excavations and were then floated by Rifleman Robinson under the guidance of Ruth Pelling, Senior Archaeobotanist at English Heritage.  In addition, the large quantity of animal bone recovered was examined and quantified with the assistance of Polly Baker, Senior Zooarchaeologist also at English Heritage.

The main challenge rising from the site was the sheer quantity of the finds.  Soon two men Riflemen Darker and Smith took on the onerous responsibility of overseeing the finds processing, establishing themselves in one of army tents on the site.  The large amount of pottery presented logistical issues in terms of cleaning, recording and storage on site. It is  to the immense credit of the two soldiers that they overcame this challenge and ensured that much of  the processing was done to a high standard during the fieldwork phase!

Soldiers learning landscape surveying : HeritageDaily

Initial analysis of the finds strongly suggest spatial pattering or zoning across the site with some areas exhibiting a high density of bone, others pottery, and one particular area producing a loom weight and a dozen spindle whorls, including examples of both completed and half-finished items in chalk and baked clay. A particularly interesting item found by the eagle eye of Lance Corporal Ian Chappell was a piece of worked bone which seems to have been a decorative item or fitting. Two similar objects were subsequently found nearby. Although these pieces are of a different pattern they are close enough in design to have fulfilled a similar function.

One particualrly fine tool was uncovered by Rifleman Liam Barnett who uncovered a bone awl with clearly worked holes for a suspension thong at the top of the item.  The shank of the bone was smooth and polished from intensive use and spoke across the millennia to the soldiers as they passed it round, feeling where an unknown craftsperson had held the same tool so many years before.

The large pottery assemblage, numbering close to 4000 sherds, showed a wide variety of fabrics, forms and decorations.  The vast majority of the assemblage was made up of decorated coarsewares and short- and long-necked furrowed bowls, corresponding with the findings of English Heritage in their previous examination of the site ((McOmish et al, 2010). Some of the fine wares had white inlay decoration, others exhibited geometric patterns and swirls, all, exquisitely fashioned. They are a far cry from those vessels made by inexperienced soldiers at Butser, which was freely acknowledged! That moment of touching the fingerprint decorations made by potters in the Early Iron Age and being the first person to do that in 3000 years gave a real thrill of excitement to the soldiers, a thrill familiar to most of us involved in archaeology, where the artefacts provide that direct link to the people of the past.

Wessex Archaeology conducts workshops with 1Rifles : HeritageDaily

All took pride in their discoveries, and a real ownership of their areas of excavation, none more so than Rifleman Joce’s discovery of a small amount of Iron slag which implies some form of Iron working on the site, an important discovery given the site’s existence during the Bronze to Iron Age transition

The fieldwork took place within the Army field exercise format with troops, as well a tools and equipment for site recording and finds processing, deployed in the field using all-terrain vehicles, living in tents and supported by a field kitchen and Army chefs, This was partly due to the isolated nature of the site but also because of the therapeutic value in having the soldiers living and working together in a familiar environment, even if the nature of the exercise was unusual!

The chefs were an integral part of the team providing the catering facilities and producing high quality food including 3 hot meals a day and constant with hot drinks. Such logistical support would be the envy of most civilian site directors but the food was an essential part of the project, ensuring the injured Riflemen were physically, as well as mentally sustained.

Of course, the excellent catering also helped to alleviate the effects of the severe inclement weather with gusting wind and driving rain that are a far cry from the heat of the Afghan summer. Of course, the catering also enabled the soldiers to emulate their forebears who were feasting at this location some 2700 years ago.

The Future

For this project, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, this is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end, but it is perhaps the end of the beginning.

Since the initial excavation phase of the project ended, a number of work placements for the battle-injured soldiers have been secured from a gathering consensus of heritage groups including Wessex Archaeology, Canterbury Archaeology Trust, English Heritage and, of course, the Ministry of Defence archaeologists. While these placements are taking place the pot-washing and finds processing continues apace at Beachley Barracks and skills gained on placement will inform and support the study. Ultimately, the Riflemen will also have a major hand in the final publication and their results are already informing the MOD’s management of the site.

Key conclusions from our experiences on Operation Nightingale are that soldiers can make excellent archaeologists! More importantly, they have gained a new sense of worth and purpose and some have discovered a lifelong interest, at the same time discovering skills they have which are transferable to other professions and which will help them when they leave the Army. In the current climate archaeologists are sometimes asked, or ask themselves what archaeology is for. Now we can suggest that your questioner ask one of 25 injured soldiers from 1 Rifles who we are sure would be able to provide a very positive answer.

Rifleman Darker, a young 18 year old rifleman (the youngest solider within the battalion) who returned from operations with a hand injury said:

“When I was first informed that I had to go on an archaeological dig, I thought it was a really strange idea and did not want to go.  However after an hour of starting the dig I found something not only did I enjoy but I found that I was good at especially processing the finds.  I left school at 14 and never was good at the academic side.  Since I started on this project I have become the finds processing officer and am being put on a course to identify and conserve finds.  I am also doing the presentations to explain to civilians and soldiers on how good archaeology is and what we have been doing.”

Corporal Steven Winterton (32) who was serious injured in a enemy contact in Afghanistan in 2009 has, over the past couple of months, become a key fixture of the project said:

“this project has given me a real sense of achievement and purpose as I’m going to be medically discharged from the forces.  The project has now opened a new career path within archaeology and, with the skills that I have been taught within the forces, I can now transfer them into archaeology.  I left school at 15 with little or no qualifications but because of my experience of my time digging, I now plan to go to University to study archaeology.

Rifleman Robinson (22) who is suffering from issues connected with a previous tour of Afghanistan said:

“I came on the first archaeology dig not knowing what to expect but when I got into the digging and finding and touching things that nobody else had touched in thousands of years really interested me and suddenly I have become very intrigued in archaeology.  Ii also think it is great for all of the guys who have been injured mentally and physically in the armed forces because it gives a sense of purpose it also helps as a rehabilitation programme in a way that guys can interact with other people that have been injured. As a rifleman I think it’s a great project that is budding and growing on each dig we do”

Rifleman Barnett (22) who was injured in a close contact encounter with the Talban said:

“I was invited on the first archaeological dig and I was intrigued to try something new, I didn’t know what to expect I had no idea that we would find as much as we did. Finding all the different artefacts was exciting especially when clearing the dirt of the face to reveal the different markings and patterns it was cool knowing that this was made all those years ago. 

When I was invited to the second dig I was quite up for it and when I heard we were going to a mock farm from those times was even better news. It was cool to see things in a mock not just in books you can get a real feel for what it must have been like and also you can get hands on what the tools they used and what they really looked like and it made it easier to indentify when out on sight like for example when i found a bone covered in mud but then as I cleaned it, it was revealed to be an awl that may have been used to pierce leather and it also had holes where it could have been hung from the neck, that was quite exciting.

The digs have been a good way to get injured soldiers out of camp especially if they can’t really do much in camp and it’s a good way to take minds off things and onto more positive thoughts. I think it’s a great idea that should be employed by all units that have injured soldiers back from tour. I am privileged to have been able to experience this project. 

Rifleman Subeg Singh (21) who is suffering severe hearing injury after being caught in the close proximity blast of an IED said:

this has been a great experience following my return from Afghanistan. It’s been brilliant to work on the project and find fascinating items such as fragments of pottery dating back some 2,700 years

Rifleman James Dennant a sniper with 1 Rifles who is currently recovering from serious shrapnel injuries believes that this project has helped him in his recovery: 

I’m looking at my future career options and would like to use this experience to develop new skills which would help – whether I stay in the Army or not. I’m a firm believer in personal development and following a career path that interests you”.

LCpl Ian Chappell currently recovering from damaged to his hearing after being injured was surprised with how much he engaged with the project and is looking forward to the next stage:

“To be honest I was very  sceptical about coming on the dig, but I thought it was better than doing guard.  However after about 10 minutes I really got into it and it is something I would like to get more involved in”.

With our Thanks

Spear and Jackson, Archtools LTD, Waitrose, MOD, Mortimer, Wessex Archaeology, English Heritage, Buster Ancient Farm, Canterbury Archaeology Trust, and the officers and soldiers of 1st Battalion The Rifles alongside others of the British Armed Forces that assisted:

Riflemen Adekanye, Barnett, Bennet, Birnie, Comb, Darker, Decoucy, Dennant, Dunn, Holderness, Joce, Maclean, Marsh, Matthews, Pallett, Palmer, Perry, Robinson, Singh, Smith, Swart, and Watt. Lance Corporals Cain, Chappell, Hicks, and Ridgeway. Corporal Winterton, Sergeants Battersbee and Vospher. Staff Sergeant Armstrong, WO2s Fry Smith and Sargent, Pte Matthews. Major Price and Commodore Buxton


Gordon, H. 1967.The Unreturning Army: A Field gunner in Flanders 1917-18. J.M.Dent & Sons, London

McOmish, D., Field, D., and Brown, G. 2002. The Field Archaeology of the Salisbury Plain Training Area. English Heritage, London.

McOmish, D., Field, D., and Brown, G. 2010. The Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Midden Site at East Chisenbury. Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, 103, 35-101.

By Diarmaid Walshe, Martin Brown and the men of 1st Battalion, The Rifles.

HeritageDaily would like to thank Diarmaid Walshe, Martin Brown and the brave men and woman of 1Rifles for allowing HeritageDaily to attend such a monumental and historical project… You are all heroes! “Swift and Bold”


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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 8,000 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

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