Jessica Rippengal, Department of Archaeology, gets her hands dirtyUniversity of Cambridge

It seems that Newnham College has been hiding several skeletons in its back gardens, providing a group of Sixth Formers with the perfect opportunity to get a rare taste of a hands-on archaeological dig.

While digging at Newnham, the group of 20 girls from schools in Peterborough, London and Birmingham uncovered evidence that the college was once the site of a significant Roman settlement, as well as the location of a farmhouse from the 16th or 17th century.

The dig was organised as part of an access programme, funded by Newnham and the Higher Education Field Academy, to offer Sixth Formers the chance to sample Cambridge College life, as well as affording them the chance to take part in an actual archaeological excavation.

Such opportunities are becoming increasingly uncommon. Professor Mary Beard noted in her blog for The Times Online that, “as archaeology has become more and more professionalised there is very little space for those not already ‘trained’ to participate ‘in the field’”.

This excavation, therefore, offered students with an excellent prospect, the chance to carry out a proper archaeological dig under the supervision of Cambridge archaeologists Dr Carenza Lewis and Dr Catherine Hills.

The grounds of Newnham have long been suspected of harbouring historical secrets. In the 1930s Cambridge’s first female professor Dorothy Garrod excavated part of the grounds and discovered several sets of remains which she believed to be Anglo-Saxon.

Garrod’s excavation was prompted by the discovery of a skull workman uncovered while digging air raid shelters at Newnham, and her fellow Newnhamites undertook the project armed only with dessert spoons and a toothbrush.

Attempting to emulate Garrod’s excavation (although presumably with better equipment) and expecting to find further evidence of an Anglo-Saxon presence at Newnham, the group of girls took to the dirt hoping to discover something worthy of note.

They certainly succeeded, uncovering large amounts of Roman pottery and a previously undiscovered farmhouse from the 16th or 17th century.

The sheer scale of discoveries convinced Dr Hills and Dr Lewis that Newnham had once been home to a sizable Roman settlement, while the added discovery of the farmhouse was described by Dr Hills as “a complete surprise”. Amidst the cold and rain the experience was, according to Mary Beard a “baptism of fire into archaeology” for the eager Sixth Formers.

Dr Hills’ interest in the project was first engaged by finding an article published in a student newspaper in 1939, which reported that Garrod and her team had found Anglo-Saxon remains.

Dr Hills said: “The suggestion of Anglo-Saxon burials in Newnham interested me as that is my own research area. I’ve tried to find out where they were in the grounds but so far I’ve been unable to locate them.”

The remains thought to be Anglo-Saxon by Garrod’s team in the late 1930s were not rediscovered during the present excavation and their exact location is still a mystery.

In fact the dig failed to uncover any evidence to support Garrod’s theory that the remains were Anglo-Saxon in origin, as no artefacts from that period were found; however there is little doubt that the discoveries from the Roman and Tudor periods more than make up for this disappointment.