Over the last few weeks I’ve managed to escape from the office and get back to the best part of the job, the site work. I love being outside, it’s the reason that I choose to do this job, unfortunately it’s also the reason that I’ll probably never climb any higher up the career ladder, as the higher you get, the less contact with the dirt you have. My position at the moment is perfect – the best of both worlds – I get to run the sites on the ground, dig the archaeology, organise my dig team and control the excavation on site. I work in the same conditions as those working for me and it’s great. But I also get to do some of the office work. In general I write up my own site, sure someone else looks at the finds, but I get to take their analysis and use it to inform my report on what we found. From the moment the machine bucket takes off that first strip of topsoil to the time that my report is sent out (and occasionally until the site is archived) I’m involved. The story of the site is mine to tell.
The two sites I’ve worked on this month have very different stories. Now I’m employed by a commercial archaeology unit, which means that until sites are published I actually can’t tell you anything about where I’ve been working and I can’t give too much detail about the site in case it can be tracked down, but I can talk about what I’ve been up to.
My first site was what we call a “Watching Brief” job. These are the kind of jobs that I (and most other archaeologists) have a bit of a love/hate relationship with. They can be very awkward. A watching brief is a program of archaeological observation that forms the final part of our interest in a site. Before we get to the watching brief there have usually been a few other phases of work (with some exceptions). The first thing is generally a Desk-Based Assessment, or background research into the history of the area. Following this, if there appears to be a potential for archaeological features to exist the County Council will usually request an archaeological evaluation – Trenches. We sample the field in a series of 30 meter slots and see if there is anything there. If we have a good amount of archaeology then somewhere down the line we can expect an open excavation. If there is not much archaeology, or it is considered to be of limited significance (Medieval ridge and furrow agriculture for instance, or a Victorian pond) then we do the watching brief.
This essentially means that we go along to the site and watch the developers as they undertake, ground reduction, limited stripping, excavation of drainage channels and/or foundations. We have a ‘window’ to look in whilst the development is happening. If we find anything we photograph and record it as best we can and the development carries on. The one that I have just done was a little different as we were stripping a largish area in preparation for a site compound, and we knew that a parish boundary crossed the site as it was picked up in an earlier evaluation (point to note, it is not always the same archaeological company that takes on a site from site background research to publication). We found several prehistoric ditches (or ditches containing prehistoric pottery – the ditches themselves could be of a different date, pottery moves in the ground, but that’s another post for another day). This indicates a use of the landscape by peoples in the past and ditches are essentially two things, boundary markers for territories, or field demarcations. What does that mean? A territory boundary would function like a parish boundary but leave a clearer mark on the landscape, a visual ‘This is mine and that is yours’ line. A field enclosure tells us that agriculture was happening, so we are looking at the period following domestication of crops and animals and human settlement. It’s pretty exciting.
The second site I worked on also followed an evaluation as a final phase of work, but rather than being a watching brief this was a controlled excavation. The difference being that I, rather than the developer, had control over how we undertook the work. The previously excavated trench found a pit containing something like 50 sherds of Roman pottery associated with glass working, so my job was to open a larger area around the pit and find out if there was anything else associated with glass production and Roman occupation. There were two of us on site to deal with this one as we were expecting some activity. But, we found nothing… so much nothing (well a modern sewer pipe, but that’s not exciting). We did find the outline of the old trench, but weirdly couldn’t find the remains of the pit that kick started the whole excavation. Sometimes I feel the archaeology is laughing at me.
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.