“Digging War Horse” is a Heritage Lottery Funded project which uses archeology to explore the role of the horse and artillery during the Great War, and I recently fulfilled a personal ambition by taking part in an archeological excavation and getting my hands dirty. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid, and when the opportunity came along recently, I jumped at it. The location for the dig was near Larkhill, on Salisbury Plain, and for two weeks in September we were looking for evidence of the Horse Isolation Hospital near the Fargo plantation [below]. These are a selection of images from the dig…

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The dig was lead by notable archeologist Julian Richards [below], who coordinated the meticulous and systematic surveying, collection, and recording of finds.

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In order to undertake this huge and complex task, several groups of participants were involved – children from local schools [above]; personnel from the nearby military garrison [below]; injured servicemen from Operation Nightingale; technical support experts; experienced field archeologists, and other volunteers like myself.

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As a complete novice, the process of this excavation was fascinating. The area where we were focussing our efforts was an enormous field, that had been ploughed relentlessly over the last century. The first task was to map the area in a grid and transfer the plan on paper to the field itself using marker poles at 10 metre intervals.

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The gridded and mapped-out search area was then surveyed using geo-phys and Ground Penetrating Radar [below], the purpose of which is to locate potential man-made anomalies and structures beneath the surface.

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A painstaking search was then conducted to locate and collect finds on the surface, whereby you would be allocated a 10m x 10m square on the grid to ‘field-walk’ [below]. You literally walk, very slowly, up and down your square and place any finds into the respective evidence bag. Some interesting stuff finds its way to the surface over the many decades of ploughing and weather – bullet cases; coins; tunic buttons; the odd horseshoe; pieces of china / ceramics; and a lot of brick and drainage pipe fragments!

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As well as a thorough surface search, each square on the grid is then subjected to a deeper investigation by a team of metal detector enthusiasts [below]. Some great finds came up through the soil during this phase – period cap badges and buttons from British as well as New Zealand and Australian armed forces.

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A series of  “Test Pits” were plotted at strategic intervals on the grid, and then excavated [below].

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Most Test Pits were 1 metre x 1 metre in dimension, but several 2m x 2m pits were dug by the schoolchildren, who appeared to be enjoying the experience enormously [below].

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Larger trenches were excavated using serving military personnel and more experienced field volunteers [below].

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Two of the large excavated trenches uncovered the remains of a toilet cubicle block and an elaborate drainage system [below].

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Adjacent to the field where we were working is the Fargo Plantation. In amongst this heavily wooded area are some well-established Beech trees that bear the pen-knifed markings (known as “Arbour-Glyphs”) of its former Great War occupants [below].

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By the end of the two-week dig, we’d unearthed hundreds of finds and artefacts. Some of them revealing the construction materials used for the various buildings, and others that were either issued or personal belongings of the men and horses who were stationed at Larkhill during the First World War.

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During the two weeks of the Digging Warhorse excavation, we were blessed with amazing weather, with early morning mists burning off to reveal bright blue skies and warm Autumn sunshine. The view of Stonehenge from the site was incredible, and the vista evolved as the dig progressed – foregrounds became peppered with spoil heaps, echoing the shapes of the ancient barrows in the background [below].

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The dig was an amazing experience and one I’d highly recommend if you ever get the chance. I’d intended  to shoot many more photos than I actually did, but I found myself becoming more and more immersed in the process and ultimately prioritising digging over shooting photos! I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Richard Osgood and Julian Richards for allowing me this opportunity, and everyone that I had the pleasure to work with – a superb team from a multitude of backgrounds. Thank you all for your hospitality, camaraderie and guidance.

Images © Harvey Mills 2014

Photographed using: Nikon D3s, Nikon D2xs, and Fuji XPro1

Harvey Mills is an award-winning professional photographer, whose portfolio is as diverse as it is extensive. Although a Winchester photographer he works across the UK and beyond, undertaking a variety of commissions, projects and assignments.