DOZENS of people returned to Winchester for a reunion of diggers who helped pioneer urban archaeology.

They took part in groundbreaking digs across the city centre between 1961-71, led by Prof Martin Biddle, that changed the way towns are studied. In total some 2,000 young people took part.

They returned from the USA, the Netherlands and all parts of the UK.

Their contribution was to make possible the unearthing of the lost history of Roman Winchester, of King Alfred’s new city of the ninth century, and of Norman Winchester, with its cathedral and palaces.

A reception was given by the mayor, Jane Rutter, on Friday in Abbey House together with a welcoming talk by Prof Biddle.

The digs set the pattern for so many other towns and cities throughout the UK and beyond.

Prof Biddle is now director of Winchester Excavations Committee who organised the reunion.

The weekend included guided walks through the city’s Saxon streets, a visit to the City Museum, the Winchester Excavations Committee’s (Hampshire Cultural Trust) Finds Store and dinner in the Wessex Hotel which was built on the first site to be excavated and where there was an exhibition of memorabilia and artefacts from the excavations to further stir memories. There was also an extra opportunity to visit the Winchester Archaeology and Local History Group (WARG) current excavations Open Day at Warnford.

Despite the intervening years, all the returning diggers found the energy to re-visit the main sites where they had worked.

Many recalled staying in dilapidated buildings including an old school and even in the old Bendicks chocolate factory.

Everyone spoke of their enjoyment as they saw the result of their work as they visited Castle Yard, Cathedral Green and Wolvesey Palace.

Imagination had to come into full play though, when they visited the Brook Street site, now a car park. The mayor and her escort also joined the afternoon walk from Cathedral Green to Wolvesey Palace.

All expressed happy memories of meticulous excavations, finding skeletons, cleaning bones and innumerable oyster shells, washing pottery, trundling barrows and learning all the skills of the often arduous work of archaeology under the supervision of Martin Biddle and his team over half a century ago.

But one person mystified was Janet Frankcom who could not find the well she excavated near the cathedral.

Prof Biddle said: “We were young then, we are all still young at heart now and could recognise the sites where we dug (and usually each other!) and recall the finds we made. What a wonderful weekend to bring us together again after 50 years on two days of blue skies, sun and memory.”