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.
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.
I know I’m late to the party, but this week I finally got around to watching Netflix’s “The Dig”, a fictionalised retelling of the discovery of the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial in Suffolk. Honestly, I enjoyed it, it wasn’t Indiana Jones (few things are) nor was it “The Body” or “Altamira” (both of which star Antonio Banderas and are a good look at the real politics in the case of Altamira, and theological politics (the Body) behind archaeological finds), but it was a fair romp as period dramas go, with a sprinkle of historical accuracy here and some creative licencing there. Entertaining.
*Spoilers below* read at your own risk if you’ve not seen it
Now, I’m not going to sit here and go through what’s wrong with it, plenty of folks have done that and I’m sure everyone is bored of hearing that the photographer is an invented character and was really two women, Edith Pretty was older and Peggy’s marriage, whilst it did break up, did not break during the excavations, nor for a while after. And of course, let’s not forget the historically inaccurate trowels (seriously, do we have nothing better to do than pick holes in things!). No, ignore all that stuff, it’s artistic freedom and fine for storytelling. What I want to talk about is what The Dig did right in terms of real archaeological practice.
Firstly, it has to be said, I loved Basil’s (Ralph Fiennes) reference to not being paid enough in one of the early scenes – this is one of the most commonly heard complaints from archaeologists at every level, even in 2021. It’s a well-known fact that archaeologists do the job for love, not for money. Those who were doing it for the money tend to grow a modicum of common sense and move on. The rest of us continue to gripe about it, but continue doing what we love, because we love it, and I liked that obvious passion from the character of Basil Brown. He complained about the pay, (though agreed to do it for £2 a week), but you could see the dedication to exploring the site, learning what was there and following the discovery through. Which leads me to another thing that I noticed which rang true to life, the display of possessiveness over his site when the museum tried to muscle in. Most archaeologists do become fiercely possessive of their site, even if it’s an evaluation in someone’s back garden where the only thing they’re likely to find is a bit of old drain. Why? Because we love the job, we are invested in the site, and if you hand it over to someone else then obviously they are going to discover the cool, awesome thing that was lurking just in the next bit that you were going to look at. Plus, when you spend time on the site, you get to know it, you have a feel for how it fits together. In excavating a site, whoever is running it is usually looking at the bigger picture, pulling the story of the site together, and it’s really hard to pass on your work to someone when you’ve put so much into it, (also most of us will agree that writing up someone else’s site is a nightmare because half the information is in their head!). So, I very much liked this relatable trait.
I cheered when Mrs Pretty (Carey Mulligan) had the shepherd’s hut brought over for him to use as a tea hut too! Basil had site welfare facilities! Forgive my enthusiasm, but believe me, it’s more than some archaeologists get, even today. I’ve worked sites where I’ve had no welfare but the back of a van for weeks (thankfully this is becoming much less common and whilst working for my current employer I have always had decent welfare).
I liked the character of Basil, he referred to himself as an excavator rather than an archaeologist, but he clearly knew what he was doing (the site would not have been nearly so spectacular had he not). I think I drove my other-half nuts pointing out the use of a string line to keep the section neat (something I still have to yell at some of my team about). I liked also that he made the point of telling Mrs Pretty that she shouldn’t be in the trench alone as it was unsafe – a point proved to be true when the thing collapsed on Basil moments later. We see photographs of so many antiquarian sections that are just immense and wholly devoid of any kind of health and safety, they look amazing but wow were they dangerous! We used to work to a rule of thumb that anything over 1.20m needed stepping or shoring, but now it is much more dependent on the geology and site conditions. Basil also mentioned the involvement of the Coroner in the event that they found human remains, this is still true. We require a burial licence to be in place before we can touch anything even vaguely suspected of being human remains. If we expect to encounter remains than it will be applied for and acquired before excavation starts, but when burials surprise us it can take a long while to obtain coroners (Ministry of Justice) permission to disturb them.
I do want to point out one very poor bit of archaeological practice that was shown in The Dig. Smoking in the trench. I’ll give old Basil Brown a pass, as radiocarbon dating was not a thing in the 1930s. But if you smoke in my trench now, expect to be very quickly kicked off site. Cigarette and pipe smoke contaminate the ground which in turn affects any radiocarbon samples that we may submit, making dating evidence unreliable.
There are things that I wish had been a little clearer in the film though. For instance, the excavation technique itself. Yes, I was happy to see the boards in place with archaeologists sprawled along them keeping their weight off the ground, but it would have been nice to have a little more description about how the outline of the boat was preserved. The wood was gone, the ground conditions at Sutton Hoo are such that organic remains (including wood and bone) will simply not survive the sandy consistency of the ground as it is too acidic. As such, the shape of the wooden boat was only visible in changes in the colour and texture of the ground and the presence of the iron rivets, and this would have been easy to miss as the boat was not physically there. What Basil did was find the ghost in the soil, it’s tough to do. When looking at settlement sites we usually extract the colour changes as they indicate the fill(s) within a feature like a ditch or pit, but to show the Sutton Hoo ship in all its glory, those excavating it had to be very careful not to remove the dark stains which were the only remaining evidence of the long rotted away timbers. It is truly remarkable, and I would have loved to see the excavation technique explained a little more.
I think it would also have gone some way towards explaining why getting the tarpaulin down when it was raining was so important. In that sandy geology heavy rain could have washed away the outline of the ship like waves on a beach. I did wonder though why they didn’t pull the tarp over it every night, it would have saved poor Ralph Fiennes rushing out into the rain without a coat, to fumble around in the dark, trying not to get great clomping boot marks all over the thing whilst he struggled to get it covered up. I suppose we all make mistakes, one of my team once managed to leave the whole file of site records in a trench for the weekend, we found it floating around on Monday morning, fortunately it was salvageable and we lost nothing.
There have also been a fair few complaints about the lack of treasures in The Dig. I can only assume that this is because people were hoping to see the famous helmet, because I was gleefully jumping up and down pointing things out to my other-half (who just wanted to peacefully watch the film). But the shoulder clasps were shown clearly, the golden purse lid, the red and gold sword pyramids and the wonderful golden belt buckle (The British Museum has this but for some reason it’s not on display with the rest), there was treasure aplenty!
The problem with the helmet was that when it was found, it didn’t particularly look like a helmet. In Basil’s excavation it was basically 100 fragments of corroded metal. I like to think that it’s what Peggy (Lilly James) accidentally put her foot in as that would also be true to real archaeology, so many of us have found that near complete pot (or even bodies) by putting a foot, or a mattock into it. There is a distinctive ‘pop’ sound that all archaeologists accept with the same sinking feeling as they know they just broke something hollow and probably complete. But back to the helmet, Basil’s 100 pieces were corroded and incomplete, the rest of the helmet (in 1000 or so pieces) was not found until the site was re-excavated in the 1960-70s and even then no one knew it was a helmet until the conservation team at the museum began piecing it together around 1975.
Although all the finds (except the golden buckle) are on display at the British Museum, I fully recommend a visit to the Sutton Hoo site. Most of the mounds are gone or barely visible, although one has been reconstructed, but the little museum contains a well done replica of what the burial may have looked like, along with photos of the excavation(s) and a reconstructed sand mummy, (later excavations did find human remains, but like the remains at Pompeii they were shadows only and required special techniques to excavate).
So, ultimately what did I think? I enjoyed it. At the end of the day it was entertainment and if some stuff wasn’t totally accurate so what, accuracy was not its primary purpose, (although cutting two real women out of the story for the supposed ‘eye candy’ male photographer is not ideal, I can see why it was done). Hopefully what the film achieved was to highlight one of the greatest archaeological finds in Britain and get people talking about archaeology at a time where budget funding is being cut for university courses and new government planning for housing development contains potential threats to the heritage sector. We may not have the gold of ancient Egypt, the standing remains of Rome of the mythological allure of Turkey’s (probable) site of Troy, but we do have some spectacular archaeological remains in this country, of which the Sutton Hoo ship burial is just one example.
The Dig is currently streaming on Netflix and stars Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown and Carey Mulligan as Mrs Pretty, all picture credits to Netflix unless otherwise stated and you can read more about the real excavations here: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo/features/digging-the-dirt-the-true-story-behind-the-dig
Warning: This post includes descriptions and images of excavated human remains from archaeological sites.
The world is full of mystery. It seems a strange thing to say in this day and age, where information is at our fingertips 24/7 and we can turn our home heating on from the office, but it’s true. Mysteries prevail and this is where stories thrive, where conspiracy theories are hatched and where the imagination can stretch its wings and fill in the blanks. It is these blank spaces, these gaps in our knowledge, that make history so fascinating and so well suited to fictionalisation.
Even for events within our collective living memory we are able to create mysteries and conspiracies; recently we marked the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, yet many choose to believe that it never happened, citing a lack of stars in photographs and a rippled flag as evidence of fakery. Such theories are easily debunked; the stars are present but the image is focussed on the astronauts not the background and in the low light the stars are simply not bright enough to be seen, as for the flag, well the fabric was moved as they stuck it in the ground and as space is a vacuum it remains rippled. However, conspiracy theories and alternate histories abound - just look at the many strange conspiracy theories popping up about vaccines and Donald Trump. If this is the state we find ourselves in with televised and well documented events within living memory, just imagine how much scope for imaginative adaptation there is when we go further back in time? Especially if we are only looking at the little physical evidence that remains.
As a professional archaeologist, it is my job to put forward the most rational explanation for what I see in the ground, to explain my evidence and not embellish more than our knowledge of a culture will allow. Although there are some cases where what I see in the ground is just plain weird. For instance, I dug a site a few years ago (currently unpublished) where we found several wells, all of which contained a horse skull. Not only that but roughly in the centre of the site was a complete horse burial accompanied by three small dogs (or cats - I’m still waiting on a full analysis). All were of broadly similar date and likely to be contemporary. So, what was going on here? Perhaps some kind of ritual cult to the Goddess Epona, which demanded the removal of horses’ heads? (horses being sacred to Epona). Or perhaps the heads were used to close the well when it ran dry, although if they all ran dry at the same time that seems like a waste of horses. A different theory; could it have been a raid, with raiders killing the horses and throwing their heads in the wells to contaminate drinking water? This is plausible, but does not explain the complete burial with dogs, so we end up back at the loose and somewhat undesirable interpretation of ritual activity, or at a stretch, a horse stud where a favoured stallion was buried and the heads in the wells were … I honestly have no idea.
The facts are simply that there was a complete horse burial and several horses’ heads in wells, all of a similar deposition date, the story of the site is whatever fiction based on fact I chose to make it until someone challenges it with a better theory. Though I imagine the story of a raid on a wealthy horse stud, where the attackers decapitate horses and stuff their heads into the wells as some form of punishment to the landowner, would make a dramatic scene in a gritty historical drama. Especially if we were to set some surrounding structures on fire and frame the whole event on a dark stormy night in the sleet and wind. But such flights of fancy do not belong in the archaeological report.
A second example; several years ago, a colleague and I were excavating a prehistoric watering hole on a quarry site. This was exciting as the clay layer towards the base had created a condition in which organic remains had been preserved, meaning we could see the wood wattle-work of the steps that allowed access to the water. A little further down, we found something else. Buried facedown was a human skull, the lower mandible was missing but otherwise the skull was complete. When we lifted it, very carefully, we discovered something else, a strip of leather covering the eyes and below the leather two white stones within the eye sockets. As we lifted it, it also began to rain. – These are the facts as they stood on the day.
Now, from an archaeologically interpretive point of view, our skull is most likely one of two things. Either a revered ancestor whose skull, having been kept by family or tribal group, was placed lovingly in the watering hole as it ceased to function as a watering hole. Or, a very naughty fellow who had been executed and hurled into the watering hole. Both are plausible scenarios within the established facts that we know about our prehistoric cultures, so how can we narrow our factual interpretation and give a reason for the skull to be in the watering hole?
The fact that the leather blindfold survived and the flesh did not, would suggest that the blindfold was placed on a skull rather than a flesh covered head. This, coupled with the missing mandible and the fact that we know, or assume, an ancestor cult involved the living interacting with the dead, (whether entering a tomb or bringing the remains to a feast or event), indicated that our best interpretation here would be that the individual was an ancestor rather than a criminal, and was perhaps lovingly placed in the watering hole when the group moved on, or when the hole ran dry – for cultural reasons that we could debate all day. Essentially this leads us to the fiction of facts as my archaeological report listed this skull as a likely revered ancestor from which we can further extrapolate ritual or settlement activity on the site.
As a writer of fiction however, this skull and its discovery lends the writer a thousand ideas. Lifting the skull caused it to rain: could it be that we had, in our ignorance, stumbled across a buried rain god? Was the skull cursed? (I tell you it did feel like it was – every time we had to move him it rained, although I guess that’s not so uncommon in the UK), was he an offering to the rain god? Was he a sacrifice? An outsider? Was he planted in the ground to claim ownership of the land? Is he evidence for a battle between two local groups and an instance of biological warfare in the ancient world (the contamination of the enemies drinking water) – the stories we can imaginatively attach to a single artefact are endless. From the simple fact of a skull in a watering hole I can create a vast amount of fiction yet retain the original fact.
History, paradoxically then, is not set in stone. Certainly, we cannot physically change it, everything has already happened and cannot be changed. What can be changed is our understanding. History evolves as we discover more evidence that either supports or disproves theories. Look at Pompeii for example; it has long been established that Vesuvius erupted and destroyed the city in August, Pliny tells us so and he was there, he should know. However, the archaeological evidence for an October eruption grows stronger every year as new artefacts are discovered and new analytical techniques are used to interpret. The historic event remains the same, the eruption happened, yet the established August date now begins to seem inaccurate or fictitious. Did Pliny forget that it had been October and not August when he wrote his account, is the August date a typo made by later copyists? Was it August to Pliny and October to us as our Gregorian calendar and the Julian calendar are out of sync? Pliny’s messed up date could be a story in itself.
We will never, I think, fully understand history, as we will never understand the true motives that drove people to act as they did, and no matter how hard we try not to, we will always project our own thoughts and concepts back. In order to interpret an excavation site we have to give it a story, so my horses’ heads therefore must indicate a society with a vested interest in horses and likely wealthy enough that they can afford to offer up horses’ heads and one complete horse as sacrificial objects. My human head in a watering hole is a lovingly placed ancestor whose time for burial had finally come as the watering hole dried up and the social group moved on. Both interpretations are my own, using the facts to inform a history, but this is just one version of the story and beyond the hard facts lies a blank page ready for an alternate, yet equally plausible story to be told.
When I don't have my professional hard-hat on I like indulging in the speculative fiction side of archaeology - you can check out archaeological adventure novels by clicking on the image below!
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.