Happy Volunteering A personal view

Paula, Heritage Eastbourne volunteer

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December 25th 2011 was a strange day for my family – not Christmas celebrations but sadness.  Our mum passed away unexpectedly that day.  She’d battled Dementia but could not recover from a broken hip as a result of a fall.   I’d left my much loved employment at a local veterinary practice to have more time with her so was thankful for that, but as the New Year approached I felt somewhat lost.

My elderly neighbour always cut out articles from his local newspaper that he thought would be of interest to my husband or me.   It was a weekly event to hear him call out from over his fence and for us to accept his newspaper cuttings. 

This is where (here comes the cliché) my whole life changed.

Growing up I’d always loved David Attenborough programmes and Time Team, studied A levels in Biology and Geology, and enjoyed fossil hunting.   Mum struggled to get my twin sister and I through our last year of school, as our Dad had died of a heart attack the year before and money was tight.  So off I went into the land of employment and all thoughts of further education flew out of the window.

So… back to the plot. One of the neighbour’s newspaper cuttings was an article appealing for volunteers.

There was a picture of a friendly looking chap from Eastbourne Heritage Service (as it was named then). He was interested in finding people from the local community to participate in something called the Eastbourne Ancestors project – “A story of life from the bones of the past”. 

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The aim of the project was to revisit a collection of over 150 skeletons from a Saxon cemetery that had been discovered during building works in St Anne’s Road, Eastbourne many years before.

Interest sparking, I saw that there was an open day being held at Eastbourne Town Hall and I wondered if I had the courage to go and find out more…

Guess what? I braved it – and the rest is HISTORY! (groan – sorry for that!).

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Beachy Head Woman in the Eastbourne Ancestors Exhibition

There’s not enough time and space on this blog for me to cover all that this amazing project achieved. Do take a look on the Heritage Eastbourne website and search ‘Eastbourne Ancestors’ if you would like to know more.    

So what did volunteering do for me?

Introduced me to a group of people who I would never have met without joining the project. The volunteers came from all walks of life and were of different ages, but we were united in our interest in archaeology and local history.   The time spent at the Town Hall became a place where we could discuss anything archaeological and sometimes also have a good ol’ natter about life in general.  Very therapeutic!

Gave me the chance to learn. The doors opened on all sorts of opportunities.  Fieldwork training, conservation workshops, and hands on experience of how to care for, examine and record individual skeletons (with guidance from our osteo-archaeologist)

Travel Volunteer days out to Fishbourne Roman Palace, Museum of London, The Novium Museum are just a few examples.  I couldn’t choose a favourite – all were incredible in their own way. I particularly liked seeing an internal dissection of a sea urchin in The Hunterian Museum (Royal College of Surgeons) – fascinating given my interest in fossil Echinoids.  

Socialising Once a month lunches (that continue to this day), guiding at the Eastbourne Ancestors exhibition and meeting the visitors, helping at special events organised by Heritage Eastbourne.   A favourite event was a Saxon weekend in Gildredge Park where re-enactors set up camp.  The Eastbourne Ancestors project team had a display of finds from the excavations and volunteers had a chance to talk to the local community about our own experiences.

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Acting (Sort of!)  I remember a very blowy, rainy day when a few of us assembled, dressed in Anglo –Saxon clothing, to film a piece that was to be screened in the Eastbourne Ancestors exhibition.  The concept I thought was beautiful – to stand solemnly as a group and try create an atmosphere of reverence and respect.  The footage would then be projected, with accompanying distant birdsong, in the final room of the exhibition, where the remains of an individual called Beachy Head Woman were displayed.  If I was at the exhibition early before the public arrived, I used to stand there and enjoy the tranquillity of that space.

Special memories
Holding a skull in my hand and gently removing soil. Cleaning a jaw bone that showed damage caused by an abscess – it made me wince when I first saw it and then I smiled to think that I was ‘connecting’ to a Saxon person who must have been wincing at the time they were alive and experiencing the abscess too.

Searching painstakingly through a bag of soil from a grave with a paint brush and seeing the glint of a gold thread that still shone so brightly after hundreds of years.

Also finding Amber beads in the soil – a double delight for me.  Amber is fossilised tree resin and is valued by palaeontologists for the ancient creatures that may be found within it (cue Jurassic Park theme tune).  The beads in this instance may have been evidence of trading, for example Amber from the Baltic area, and also showed Saxons were creating jewellery. I became quite hypnotised by soil searches – just the promise of what could be discovered held me spellbound.

I remember once I stayed so late at the Town Hall I went to leave and the main doors were shut.  I’d actually decided in my head I wouldn’t panic if I had to stay overnight as there were biscuits and coffee in the volunteer room.  Luckily there was a side entrance still open so I escaped!

Unforgettable moment
Finding Saxon ear bones in a soil sample.  The hammer, anvil and stirrup from long ago Biology lessons were suddenly real and in front of me.  To be able to hold these tiny bones in the palm of my hand and think about what sounds they once heard was incredible.

Last few thoughts
I haven’t touched on all the wonderful projects I been lucky enough to be part of over the last few years, so many and so diverse I’d never stop writing.

I hope this blog helps anyone who is hesitant to take the first step into volunteering (of any kind) to risk it, because you truly never know what amazing opportunities will arise.

I spoke to many visitors about volunteering and I often heard them say they couldn’t do anything as they ‘weren’t clever enough’ or ‘haven’t got the time’.  My reply was always that I’m not an academic, I never went to University, I hated history at school and my only ‘qualification’ was I liked watching Time Team.

Go for it! You won’t regret it.

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Contact Heritage Eastbourne localhistory@lewes-eastbourne.gov.uk for more information on volunteering.

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