Borders man’s adventures in the archaeology trade

Dr. John Dent.
Dr. John Dent.

NOT every archaeologist could tell stories of Libyan soldiers trying to arrest them, flying with a Second World War ace pilot for work or being involved in one of the most significant Iron Age digs in Europe.

Dr John Dent has retired after spending more than 21 years in local government in the Borders, starting as the region’s first archaeological officer and latterly being Scottish Borders Council’s principal officer for access and the countryside

“The Borders is a wonderful place to work and visit and being able to open up the Borders and its culture and background to people has been one of the most rewarding things about working here. It’s been a lot of fun.”

John Dent grew up in York: “It’s probably why I became an archaeologist,” he says

A degree at the University of Wales was followed by research, a masters and a doctorate at Sheffield, when he spent some of the 14 years “on and off” at Wetwang Slack, in the Yorkshire chalk wolds, the largest Iron Age cemetery in Europe containing some 450 burials and three remains of Iron Age chariots.

He is back now working with Bradford University on the dig: “It is of international importance. The university is looking at bones and teeth [from the dig] to work out what they were eating and whether they were native to the area.”

The university is also encouraging him to write a book about the dig.

“The first discoveries were made in the early 19th century and there are so many characters and interesting facts about it”, he revealed.

It was nothing like Time Team when he was there, he says. “It was string and sealing wax, there were no mobile phones, no home computers – you were writing stuff in longhand and getting a proof back two weeks later – and there was no Health and Safety at Work Act then: working on the edge of a quarry had some quite interesting aspects to it.”

They did aerial photography to try to get a better idea of what was round the site and one of the regular pilots was Ginger Lacey, a top Royal Air Force fighter pilot in the Second World War

“We had a couple of narrow squeaks. We had to land in a field of corn one time when an engine packed in.”

Another time they narrowly avoided a mid-air crash with another plane

Lacey had conceded to Dr Dent that “Yes, possibly it was a bit close,” but back on the ground Dr Dent overheard him report to the RAF: “You could read the fueling instructions from where I was sitting!”

Dr Dent added: “It was with great sorrow that I heard of his death on my way north to the interview with the then Borders Regional Council.”

Dr Dent was a field officer at Humberside County Council for 14 years before his move to the Borders to become the region’s first archaeologist.

It was not national policy, let alone local, to have a developer pay for archaeological work on any building or quarry they wanted to develop but Dr Dent pushed to get that started in the region.

He says the heritage interpretation programme, for which he co-wrote five books on the region’s heritage and provide interpretation of different historic sites, was “particularly rewarding”.

One example was building an Iron Age house in Glentress. “It was hugely interesting for me as a project, having excavated 50-60 Iron Age houses, to have the chance to rebuild one.” But it was burnt down last year.

“People liked the books and another thing I enjoyed about them was that I was able to use many of my own illustrations and aerial photographs,” he said.

Other proud moments included working with Tweed Forum on the seven-year, £9million Tweed Heritage project which brought us the Muckle Mou’d Meg sculpture at Thornielee, and the restoration of Dryhope Tower and Cessford Castle, among others.

“That was really good. It was a very impressive block of work,” Dr Dent said.

He played a significant role in developing walkways in the Borders – the St Cuthberts Way, the John Buchan Way, the Borders Abbeys Way and many local paths.

The Libyan adventure happened in his post-student days when he worked at Benghazi. He was on a beach on the site of a Roman town which had all but disappeared about 1,500 years before but the remains of which were still being washed out by the sea.

“We were collecting coins, these green discs showing up in the sand, and the next thing we had our hands up and some Libyan soldiers were pointing automatic rifles at us... It was some sort of restricted zone.”

Married to Ann, a former teacher, with a son, George, a fund manager in Edinburgh, Dr Dent hopes to spend more time on his hobbies of drawing and painting, undertake consultancy work, do more archaeological work and fit in lots more travel,