It has been a busy year or two for UK archaeology. Huge infrastructure projects, great discoveries and generally good press.
Although, it’s not all good news. It may have gone quiet again but the government’s proposed new ‘white paper’ for housing and development is still lurking in the background with its somewhat worrying statements which make it unclear how archaeology will fit into the future of development (although my MP’s response to a letter I sent him was fairly positive where archaeology and heritage are concerned). There has also been a squeeze on archaeology courses, the A-level qualification is long gone and last year the archaeology departments of the University of Sheffield and the Chester University fought (and lost in the case of Sheffield) difficult battles against closure – this despite Sheffield’s being one of the best in the world. On the other hand, there are huge infrastructure projects, which require a phenomenal number of archaeologists to undertake excavation and preservation of heritage by record prior to construction actually beginning. As such there is a national shortage of archaeologists.
One solution to this issue is to train new field archaeologists on the job. There has been resistance to this idea in the past. Most current archaeologists (both field and lab) have degrees, a large number have Master’s degrees and some have PhD’s before arriving as commercial field archaeologists. It’s not always the case, I’ve worked previously with a field archaeologist who had no qualifications whatsoever and learned everything about archaeology ‘on the job’. He wasn’t always the easiest to get on with, but damn, he knew stuff. I recall vividly phoning him at one point during a tough watching brief to ask what the hell I should do, because I knew he’d know the answer. As such, I’ve always been of the opinion that field archaeology, both theory and technique is something that is perhaps best learned on the job. That’s not to suggest in any way that an archaeology degree is pointless, just that it doesn’t always prepare us for the reality of commercial archaeology in the field and maybe some of us should think about being less snobby about it.
I know I was lucky, I managed to do seasonal work on a university excavation every summer for six years before I got my first job in commercial archaeology (stupidly whilst I was still writing up my MA dissertation). Like my book character Suze, I was there at 15/16 spending every moment of those summers, (when I wasn’t working at Argos night shifts and weekends) learning how to do things. But even this didn’t prepare me for commercial archaeology. It needs to be done fast – none of this two weeks in the same ditch slot with a trowel stuff, and mattocks are tough to get to grips with when you’re 5ft dead, and built like a tiny ballerina. I learned more in my first year as a commercial archaeologist through trial and error and cocking things up, than I did on my uni sites (and I’m still learning every day how to do things better). Which is why I think structured learning on the job is a great way forwards, and if my recently graduated group of trainees are anything to go by then training on the job can and will produce skilled archaeologists who really understand how the field aspect of commercial archaeology works, in a much shorter space of time.
But the training was intensive! Oh, so intensive. Normally I’d be running a site but for three months (March-June 2020) I was working exclusively as a fieldwork trainer with new to sector trainees with zero archaeological background. We started with 10 fantastically enthusiastic trainees, five were assigned to myself and five to another trainer, although on the same site. And oh man, although only eight completed the course and stayed with us, they have blown us away with what they’ve achieved! The five that I was working with came from diverse backgrounds – one previously worked for television, one in costume design, one was an actress (she’s met Tom Cruise!), one was previously a geologist and one used to fit air conditioning units.
We were together for an intensive 12 weeks, working on a massive site, choc full of archaeology. It was (and still is) a phenomenal site and they are so lucky to have had such a start to their careers – I recall my first commercial site as a fairly barren evaluation in Stowmarket, but this one covered almost everything; several periods all overlapping, burials (both human and animal), structural remains, evidence of industry. Roman coins – hell, I was a supervisor before I found my first coin. I’d been working commercially for four years before I was able to excavate my first skeleton – one of my trainees was excavating a skeleton (under very careful supervision and with assistance) at the start of his second week! We were also trialling a new form of recording – all digital, which means that I was learning too and actually found myself at the point where they had to show me what to do. It was an absolute dream of a site to use for training.
We had a few issues with the tools to begin with, as I said above mattocks are unwieldy if you’re small or simply not used to manual labour, which is why I keep a tool box full of a random assortment of digging implements, it’s not the size of your tool that’s important, it’s what you do with it! (yeah, know what I just said – take your mind out of the gutter!). Sure, we want everyone to be able to wield mattocks and shovels with the skill of a master zombie slayer, (Spovels* are better though), but until someone has built up the strength to use the big tools proficiently, the smaller ones are an excellent way to build confidence, and maintain a good work pace, meaning that people don’t feel like they’re falling behind or failing. A factor which is important for morale and keeping everyone invested in what we are doing.
Alongside field work we were also undertaking some really intensive classroom sessions. Each of these was a day long and endeavoured to explain everything from taking photos and drawing sections, to the differences between how we excavate rural sites and urban sites and all the types of post-excavation reporting that can be produced. The classroom sessions were the worst for me, I can impart wisdom and crack wise on site, and I’m more than happy to tell anyone the mistakes that I’ve learned from, or demonstrate the best shovel technique but give me a powerpoint to present and no matter how well I know the material I will suddenly find that I have less bones than a jellyfish and fewer brain cells than a senile goldfish. There were only five of them for goodness sake and by the time I did our first on site classroom session I knew them all well enough, but it didn’t stop me from nearly fainting twice and stammering my way through.
To be honest I wanted to write this blog to explain how I’d taught my trainees to excavate and record, how we’d worked through things and gradually built up their techniques. However, if I’m brutally honest with myself, I’m not so sure I did anything more than talk about archaeology and complain that I was hungry – (I was on break at 10:30 rather than the usual 10 and apparently that half hour with me pacing around site was like being circled by a hungry shark!).
However, all joking aside, my group of trainees worked really hard, listened to everything I and others on the site said and I know for an absolute fact that they were far better equipped, and understood far more about how commercial archaeology works than I did three months into my career. It could be that I worked at the wrong places perhaps, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt lost for the first few months or even years of their career. Other site staff who looked at the workbooks that we were using remarked that they would love to actually sit down and go through it, or sit in on the classroom sessions and revisit the basics. It is certainly worth it, heck, some of the things in their workbooks I didn’t know, especially where urban archaeology is concerned. (I’ve been in the job 14 years and I can count on one hand the number of urban sites I’ve done).
After the 3 month intensive session my little group was deemed worthy to be left to their own devices without a trainer constantly watching over their shoulder. For the next three months they were on their own, except for the site supervisors and sporadic visits from myself and the head of the training programme. By the time I went back our group of trainee staff were well integrated into the field team, checking records, logging finds, and actively participating in discussions with supervisors about the interpretation of not just their features, but whole areas of the site. Of the eight who still remain with us from that original group, most are now starting to ask how to progress their career, what they need to do to become supervisors or move into a specialisation in pottery or a specific period. It is so satisfying to see such enthusiasm to take what they have learned and build it into a career. I know some of them are hoping to be able to work with new trainee groups themselves eventually.
This experience has reinforced my opinion that we can train good archaeologists on the job. Perhaps I was lucky with this group, they’d all had previous careers and know how the world works. Maybe it would have been different had they all been sixteen, who knows, but I think anyone with a genuine interest in archaeology will excel, and I look forward to taking everything that I’ve learned from the newest members of our site team and passing it on to others. With luck this will be a positive step towards making archaeology as a career more diverse, inclusive and accessible, which can ultimately only make it better.
On a slightly more personal note I would like to thank my company MOLA for giving me the chance to be a field trainer and letting me spend 3 months of the year sharing my own enthusiasm for my job, my experiences, my skills, my random stories with our new archaeologists, to whom I should also extend thanks. They all worked really hard and I wish them a long and enjoyable career, may our paths cross again.
There are currently no vacancies available on either our trainee or graduate courses, but keep checking back for more information here: https://www.mola.org.uk/about-us/work-us/early-careers
*spovel – the unholy offspring of a spade and a shovel, flat like a spade, curved like a shovel, my weapon of choice, perfect for everything.
Your first winter in commercial archaeology is usually the worst and those who survive it will more than likely continue in their archaeological careers for many years to come. There is however a knack to getting through it.
Whilst the UK doesn’t have the coldest winter’s per-se it does have some pretty wet, nasty and downright miserable ones. It’s also worth remembering that January and February tend to be much worse than November and December with January often bringing snow and heavy rain and wind. So, for those who find themselves struggling with the reasonably mild temperatures on the run up to Christmas, unfortunately it is only going to get worse before it gets better. But remember, everyone on site is cold, some may be colder than others – we all run differently. Personally, I have terrible circulation and lose feeling in my fingers as soon as the temperature drops below 5 degrees, I often can’t feel a thing (or answer my phone properly) between the end of October and the middle of March. So far my fingers haven’t fallen off and this will be my fifteenth winter in the field.
So, as a commercial field archaeologist how do you survive the winter? Here are my top tips:
Ultimately we all have to find what works for us and yes we are all going to be cold for a significant portion of the day – especially the poor person stood watching the machine strip the field, (snot icicles are the worst) Just remember not to warm up too fast, increase your exposure to heat gradually, your joints, muscles and blood vessels will thank you for it. And remember if you really are cold and shivering, don’t keep it to yourself – tell someone, the average temperatures in the UK mean it’s unlikely that you’ll get frostbite or be hypothermic, but we all have different circulation and different tolerances for high and low temperatures. Don’t suffer and put yourself at risk, there may be a different task that could be done.
If you have any better tips, or there’s something I’ve not covered, please add it in the comments. I’m always hunting for advice on staying warm!
I’ll admit I was both rather excited and a bit unsure about the Green Knight movie when I saw the first trailers. The legend of Gawain and the Green Knight is one of my favourites of the Arthurian cannon, in fact Gawain is one of my favourite knights of the round table, which is why two of his legends ended up in my own novel ‘The Mystery of St. Arondight’s’. However, reviews of the film were good and I do rather like Dev Patel as an actor. Unfortunately, with work commitments, an ongoing pandemic and no open local cinema I missed the film’s initial shot on the big screen (it appears that some cinemas are currently showing it, though not many). Trawling for something to watch on Saturday night though, I spotted that it was now available to watch on Amazon Prime.
A little background first for those who do not know the story of the Green Knight, this is a tale of the honour of Gawain, a story in the Arthurian mythology to highlight the qualities of this, the best and most loyal of Arthur’s knights. At least that is the case in the anonymous poem Gawain and the Green Knight and its subsequent inclusion in the Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory in the 15th century. It is possible that the story has much older roots and relates to old Welsh tales, however, there is no time to go into all that now as I want to concentrate on the film.
I was initially very curious as to how a two hour film (run time 2hr 10) would be made of a story that can be summarised in a few lines, so for the sake of argument I’ll do it here. Arthur and his knights are at court for Christmas, the Green Knight bursts in and issues a challenge, ‘a blow for a blow,’ meaning a knight can strike him today and meet him in the green chapel a year hence for the return strike. All seems well, Gawain gets up and thinking to outsmart the Green Knight lops his head off. End of the story you might think, but the jolly Green Knight picks up his head and demands Gawain meet him in one year so that he can return the strike. One year passes at Camelot and Gawain heads off to seek out the Green Knight, stopping at a castle along the way where he enjoys the company of a hunter and his wife. As long as Gawain stays with the hunter they agree to a gift exchange, the hunter will give Gawain anything he kills in the forest that day if Gawain gives the hunter in return anything that came to him in the castle. Unfortunately for Gawain, the lady of the castle tries to seduce him, and he rebuffs her, although allows her to kiss him, then of course having to pass these kisses on to the hunter when he returns, as per the deal. On the final day the lady gives Gawain an enchanted sash, claiming that whilst he is wearing it he will not be harmed. As our hero reckons the Green Knight will chop his head off he accepts this and fails to give it to the hunter when he returns. Then Gawain heads off to the Green Knight to complete his challenge. Gawain flinches at the first swing of the Green Knight’s axe and the Green Knight chastises him for it saying that this attempt does not count as he never flinched when Gawain struck him. Gawain does not flinch the second time but the Green Knight holds back his swing, this makes Gawain angry and he demands that the knight play the game properly, which he does, leaving a cut on Gawain’s neck and revealing himself to be the hunter (cursed to appear as the Green Knight and issue this challenge. The cut that Gawain received is because he hid the enchanted sash, however he is declared the most honourable knight of the realm, (which may say more about the rest of Arthur’s knights than it does about Gawain). He returns to Camelot triumphant, but wears the sash always to remind him of his failure and to always behave with honesty and honour.
So, a relatively short and simple story to turn into a long film. ‘The Green Knight’ keeps the bones of the original story, and actually sticks much closer to the original text than previous films, such as ‘Sword of the Valliant’ (1984) did. Of course the film makes some alterations and additions to the story (as has every storyteller through the ages), but this is a good retelling of the traditional Green Knight legend. Our hero is not yet a knight, this is the tale about how he became a knight. He is flawed, a far cry from Malory’s shining medieval knight in armour Gawain, but this is what makes the character interesting, (also I learned within minutes of the film starting that I may have been pronouncing Gawain wrong all my life, I tend towards Ga-Wayne, whereas the film calls him Ger-win). We also see a different portrayal of King Arthur, he is barely present within the story (he doesn’t need to be) but he is old, wise and clearly troubled by his history. Merlin too lurks on the sidelines, never referred to by name but obvious in his actions. There are witches and magic too, the film does not ignore the magic of the Arthurian legends it embraces it. This world is one where magic and humanity live side by side in a grubby early medieval style world, full of sweeping open landscapes and dense woodlands.
The tale unfolds much as the legend usually does with Christmas eve at Camelot – although Gawain has to be dragged from the bed of a harlot first (not something Malory’s Gawain, that gleaming scion of propriety, would be caught doing), but a realistic enough portrayal of a young man with nothing better to do and a way of showing us that this Gawain is a bit of a deadbeat. The Green Knight himself is beautifully done, part man, part tree; he appears as if kin to the tree folk of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (indeed Tolkein himself wrote a version of the Green Knight myth and his LOTR characters draw a lot from the Arthurian cycles).
The film is well shot with gorgeous panning scenes and soft lighting, although a large portion of it takes place in darkened scenes where subtle gestures and symbolism was not always easy to see on the small screen. There are also several characters and plots through the film that are never clearly defined and can be interpreted in many ways. For example, the fox that travels with Gawain for a time could be a magic guide from his mother (a witch), or a manifestation of Gawain’s fears as he faces his destiny. Alternately it could be a spirit guide like Homer’s chili space Coyote in The Simpsons. I feel a second watch of the film will bring the reasoning for the fox and a few other elements to light a little more. Gawain’s fear of destiny and the results of his potential choices are shown several times throughout the film too, which lead to some non-linear sequences that may throw off viewers who are not paying attention.
I feel that the film may have missed a trick with another legend of Gawain that could have fitted well into the story. Gawain and the lady Ragnell is another of the more famous Arthurian tales. A hideous lady comes to court looking for a husband, an unmarried Gawain accepts her hand as per his honour and they are married that afternoon. He later discovers her to be cursed, she will be ugly for 12 hours and beautiful for 12 hours and Gawain must choose which 12 hours is which. Feeling unequal to this task Gawain hands the decision to the lady, lifting the curse.
I think there are changes that could have been made to this tale that would have fitted into the film with the characters who were already there. The lady need not have transformed from ugly to beauty as both characteristics are in the eye of the beholder but, the tale could have been moulded to fit the character of the harlot woman who seemed to play a large role in our hero’s life only to be shunned later in the film. Though on second thought, perhaps this legend was there all along but with a little more subtly as Alicia Vikander brilliantly plays both the harlot girl and the wife of the hunter, or perhaps I’m reading more into her duel role than is really there.
The film is perhaps definitely more of a work of art than an easily watchable piece of entertainment but for those who appreciate good cinematography, lighting effects and complex story, it will be an interesting diversion for an evening. Similar in style and pacing to the 2015 version of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender. For those who know their Arthurian mythology it should be possible to notice the scattered messages and fragments of Arthuriana throughout. However if action is more to your taste, then another fairly recent film ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,’ may be the more entertaining film (you can read my review of that film here) and Monty Python’s Holy Grail is always worth going back to for the sheer slapstick silliness and eminently quotable dialogue (there are often conversations about coconuts and the speed velocity of swallows on site – usually when debating the requirement of a hard hat in an open field with no operational machinery). Or if reading your mythology is preferable there are many versions of the Green Knight Story, The original anonymous poem, the chapter in Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, For younger readers Roger Lancelyn Green’s version of the Arthurian tales has an excellent retelling, and I will of course recommend my own retelling of the Green Knight story in ‘The Mystery of St. Arondight’s’ where Gawain takes on the role of the Green Knight with the feckless teenager Jerry Llewellyn in Gawain’s traditional role, trying desperately to prove his honour and not lose his head.
I think the film deserves a second watch in order to really appreciate some of the subtler elements and perhaps to make sense of those bits that on first viewing I found myself a little confused by. I actually only realised this morning that I had wholly missed the character of Morgan Le Fay when she was right in front of my eyes.
I was entertained and curious throughout and would rate the film a 7/10
The full trailer can be found here.
In looking at aerial photography and archaeology there is one question that we should ask ourselves and that is why? What exactly is the purpose in viewing a site from the air? The simple answer is that it allows us to take a new perspective, to see the site as a whole, something which can be difficult or near impossible on the ground. It can also help us to discover new sites. A great example of a known site which can be better viewed and understood from the air is Stonehenge. Another great example of perspective change on a known site is the Nazca lines, which whilst to varying degrees visible on the ground are viewed much better from the air.
Aerial photography as a means of observing archaeological sites has been appreciated since the 1850s, although the first recorded aerial shots for archaeological recording did not occur until the early 1900s when an aerial survey of the Roman port of Ostia was undertaken. These earliest aerial photos were taken from tethered balloon, box kites or scaffold towers, in the UK it was not until the extensive aerial survey undertaken in the 1940s by the RAF that planes were used. Most of the photos taken by the RAF are available to view as part of the National Monuments Record, however most, if not all of these shots were taken vertically (straight down) which is not always the best angle for the identification of archaeological remains. In fact, in the final years of WWII most intelligence units had at least one archaeologist on board to interpret aerial photos (who says archaeological training isn’t useful – we can do almost anything!).
There are three ways in which an archaeological site can be observed through aerial photography, as Shadows, crop/parch marks and as soil marks.
Visible or known sites show up best as shadow sites and can look pretty spectacular. As the sites are already known about and sometimes have standing remains they are easy to locate for aerial survey and so photographs can be planned accordingly. Sites are best photographed at either the start or the end of the day when the sun is low and shadows are long, causing minor variations in the ground to cast long shadows highlighting details like walls and ditches. Sites that show up well as shadow sites can also be well photographed in the winter after heavy frost or light snowfall where differential melting patterns can be observed in a similar way.
Crop and/or parch marks are best seen at certain times of year. Crop marks are reliant on the growing season and can sometimes only be visible for a day or two as the crop ripens and so very careful planning is needed to obtain the aerial photographs. Crops will grow well over ditches and deep pits and are likely to be greener for longer due to moisture retention in the deeper features, over walls the crop will be shorter and may be yellow or ripe much earlier. The type of crop overlying the archaeological remains is also an important factor, cereal crops tend to highlight these changes best while crops such as beans may not show any variation in growth at all.
Parch marks occur over long hot summers for similar reasons. Grass overlying walls has less soil beneath it and will dry out and turn yellow much faster than grass overlying a ditch which retains moisture. New archaeological sites are often recorded in periods of drought when swathes of green across an otherwise yellow and dry field indicate the location of old ditches.
The down side to crop and parch marks is that modern drains and geological features such as gaults can also show up in this way.
Soil marks appear after ploughing, when the turnover of the soil reveals a contrast between the topsoil and underlying soils and anything else below. Ditches cut through a chalky geology can show up this way as can old walls, like Roman villa foundations lying just below the topsoil. Unfortunately, however, sites that show up in this way though are being eroded and a series of successive aerial photos can show how bad the erosion is.
How to take aerial photos
Aerial photos, like all field work should be planned and systematic to ensure the best outcome. It is important to include fixed reference points in the photographs to aid with interpretation and location of features on the ground. In general archaeological shots tend to be taken at oblique angles, which may distort the image in terms of mapping, but makes the remains easier to see and interpret. Vertical shots though have their uses and are better for direct mapping of sites. Successive aerial photography sessions can also be used to monitor a site over time and English Heritage has a large bank of photos which capture changes at Stonehenge and other sites.
The rise of cheap, remote control aerial vehicles with high resolution cameras – drones, has reduced the cost of aerial photography massively – no need to hire a helicopter or hope the RAF come by. As a result a number of active excavation sites now also use drones to capture overviews of complete sites and to document the excavation process. Drones can be used to great extent to either capture details of the site in complex areas, such as intercutting ditch systems, or to obtain a complete footprint of a structure, or to stitch together a large number of photos to create and orthomosaic of an entire site for publication purposes.
Remote Sensing, Lidar and Space Archaeology
New technology allows us a greater field of view in aerial photography – When I was studying, drones were a figment of the imagination, Lidar didn’t really exist, and satellites did not produce good enough photos. These new(ish) methods of aerial survey really deserve a complete blog post to themselves (which means I need to go and do some research!), but I’ll try and give a brief overview here. If anyone knows better how these new techniques work please comment and share your expertise and experience!
Using photos taken by Satellites (Remote sensing) is not a completely new phenomenon although the quality of the photos has greatly improved. In 1938 Nasa worked with archaeologists to map Mayan settlements in the Yucatan using photos taken from orbiting satellites. In more recent history Space Archaeologist Sarah Parcak has been undertaking a detailed study of Egypt and to date has located 17 additional pyramids, documented a number of new settlement sites and tentatively mapped the city of Tanis (Where Indiana Jones finds the Ark in Raiders). The mapping of the city is truly amazing, although I think it came as a bit of a blow to the French team who had been carefully uncovering it for 10 years or so. However, now they can use her mapping to target their excavations and better answer archaeological questions.
Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging or Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging) is a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure variable distances to earth. Basically, 3D laser scanning. It can be used to produce high resolution topographical maps for a whole range of purposes including archaeology. Due to its ability to map features under tree canopy and features almost indistinguishable from the ground, it has been used to great effect. In 2016 a total of 17 elevated roads were recorded during a survey of Mayan sites in Guatemala. Further use of Lidar has led to discovery and mapping of a number of Mayan settlements that were previously unknown.
Aerial surveys have changed a lot in the past 20 years and as technology continues to improve and we continue to discover new sites the aerial perspective will remain important to the archaeological process. But I’m personally not going to be hanging up my trowel just yet.
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.