There’s no such thing as a typical day in archaeology really. I suppose the closest you might get to typical one is on a long running open area site where you turn up every day at 8am, dig all day, and head home at 4. But even these are changeable. The following account details a day on a large open area site that I was running a while back in Oxfordshire, and was originally published in July 2020 on the Festival of Archaeology website, however, it is currently unavailable there as the site undergoes changes ready for this year’s Festival, so I have updated it a bit and put it here for everyone to read.
I’ve been running a large sites like this for several years now and each one throws us its own unique problems and presents us with differing types of archaeology and levels of preservation. Typically, large scale excavations like this are referred to as strip, map and sample, and usually follow on from geophysical survey and archaeological trial trenching, so we know roughly what we might be expecting when we strip a whole field ahead of construction development. We finished the machine stripping last week, so, now that the excavator and two massive dump trucks are off site, I can give my full attention to the archaeology that we have exposed. My team have already been working away on it, each member having been assigned their own 10-meter grid square to work through.
The day starts with admin, we have a daily briefing, a daily covid reminder/briefing (hopefully one day we can stop the covid briefings) and I detail a daily assessment of the condition of the site, today everything is fine but a few weeks ago we had a breech in the fence that needed reporting and fixing. If I have new members of staff on site this morning briefing is usually when I’ll give the inductions, so morning admin can keep me busy for ages and it can be past 9am before I even set foot on site.
As the Lead Archaeologist, my job on these large-scale sites doesn’t involve a lot of digging. I act as more of a co-ordinator - ensuring that the site runs smoothly, the features get dug and the paperwork is done. Don’t get me wrong through, if I see the chance to dig a pit I’ll be in there with both hands! But not today. Today we have our burial licence so we can remove the skeleton that surprised us a few weeks ago. I hate it when they do that, one of the team was working in a ring ditch and a pair of legs jumped out at him. Well they didn’t literally jump, but none of us were expecting them to be there. With no licence we covered everything up (covered the exposed remains with plastic and backfilled the slot) and temporarily abandoned the slot. Today’s task is to get the remains fully exposed, recorded and lifted without exposing them to public view (fortunately we have a panelled gazebo as we are working alongside a public footpath). It would be nice if we could leave the unfortunate chap where he’s been resting for so long, however, as the site is about to be bulldozed and a substantial number of houses built, I’m sure our mysterious Iron Age fellow would prefer us to carefully lift him out, making sure that we have all of him (and the pottery fragment in his mouth, and white pebble clutched in his hand), rather than end up in bits on a spoil heap crushed and pounded by a bulldozer that didn’t notice him. He’ll be well looked after although it may be a while before he gets to rest in the ground again.
Elsewhere another member of the team has discovered a coin - only one so far, so it’s not technically treasure just yet! But it is exciting, I’ve not had many Iron Age coins come through my hands and this is a nice one. Another two team members are digging slots through the same ditch, competing to see who can do it faster. I’ll keep an eye on that, make sure neither of them overdo it, a little competition is fine but not if it breaks people or upsets the archaeology. I point out the excess stores of water we have and make sure they keep up their fluid intake. Another team member has a near complete pot – this is an interesting day! Like with our skeleton, we want to document how the pot is exposed and see if we can lift it today. We pinch some bandages from the first aid kit to wrap it in the hope of being able to lift it as a complete item, but no such luck. It is too fragile and reluctantly it is packed, in pieces, into finds bags and labelled.
My afternoons are also often given over to admin on sites like this. Archaeology generates a lot of paperwork and it’s my job to ensure that all the records are in order. After all, once the site is done, the records are the only evidence for what was here. Archaeology by its very nature is a destructive science and our records are all that remain of what was once here. It is these records that I will use to write up the report and a big site like this can take a year or more to write up. Each record not only has the context number, but the location of the feature on site, the contexts that it is related to, the section drawing number, and photograph numbers all of which have to be fully checked and cross referenced. Mistakes are best caught now whilst on site, when the team can amend their own records or we can discuss any changes or questions whilst looking at the feature in question. It can be done later with photos and sections but it is so much easier to catch mistakes or changes in interpretation in the field.
If I’m not record checking I’m most likely to be found updating the site plan, our visual record of the site detailing the relationships between features and the key evidence in interpreting the site as a landscape. It’s a lot to deal with and the days can fly by, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The last thing I do before calling a half for the day, is check in with everyone on site and what they are currently working on, ensuring that we have a plan for tomorrow and that I know what is going on should anyone be off sick or reassigned to another site without finishing their current task. It’s a chance to update everyone on key finds and features for the day too. And tomorrow, we’ll be back on site to do it all again. Who knows what the archaeology will surprise us with next time.
*Update: - it surprised us all right, two more skeletons, and the parallel ditches that we thought were the flanking ditches to an Iron Age / Roman trackway turned out to have very different dates, one full of late Iron Age material the other medieval. We are currently working on the theory that whilst both may have been open as a trackway in the late Iron Age, at some point the western one was filled in, whilst the eastern one remained in use until eventually being backfilled in the medieval period.
S. M. Porter
Professional archaeologist and author, S. M. Porter loves history, adventure and digging in the mud. Her career is in ruins - just where she wanted it to be.