Graduated in 2011, spent a few years in commercial archaeology, mostly in London and the South-East, and now back studying for an MA at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL.

Day off Archaeology?

My third Day of Archaeology, and my first not on site and on twitter. Again, a lot has changed in a year: I left commercial archaeology in September to start my MA in Mediterranean Archaeology at UCL, and at present I am up to my eyebrows in work for my dissertation, looking at the relationships between inhumation and cremation practices all around the Mediterranean from the Late Bronze Age into the Iron Age. On Friday 11th itself, however, I awoke at Matfen Hall, Northumberland with a surprisingly un-sore head but an unsurprisingly unhappy liver after a wonderful family wedding the day before.

Most of my day actually consisted of travelling – back to Newcastle from Matfen, then back down to London from Newcastle – but I think that’s the only sense in which it felt like a day off. I had time in the morning sunshine to admire the extensive ridge and furrow field systems on the Matfen estate, and got some dissertation reading done on the train south in the afternoon.

The best part of my Day of Archaeology, and the part that really reinforced for me the idea that archaeology never leaves me alone, was the evening. Friends and colleagues I used to work with at Museum of London Archaeology gathered together at a pub in central London to reunite, catch-up, and find out the latest news and ideas from a huge site we had all worked on. Dubbed the “Pompeii of the North” by various media outlets at the time, and with an ongoing blog of its very own, the site has received a lot of attention for both the scale and preservation of the archaeology. Judging by some of the findings presented to us on Friday evening (sorry – no spoilers), all the hard work the post-excavation team have put in is really paying off and there is plenty more exciting news to come!

When I say “archaeology never leaves me alone”, I mean it in two ways. Firstly, the people you meet, the colleagues you work with, and the friends you make – the community of commercial archaeologists – as well as the sites you work on and the experiences you have with them is not something that I will ever lose, and I am very grateful for that. Secondly, while I have always felt a career-dichotomy between commercial archaeology and my academic archaeological interests that has led to my hopping from one back to other every few years, I would have to try extremely hard to cut one or the other out of my life completely. Both are important to me for their own reasons. I could not value the dissertation research I did on the train on Friday over the context sheets, plans and levels I did for some Roman stratigraphy over a year ago, nor vice versa. I could not pride myself in one more than the other, nor take more enjoyment from one of the processes, nor await the culmination of the work of each with unequal anticipation.

So I think the thing I am taking from Day of Archaeology 2014 is that, for me, there is no such thing as a day off archaeology. This is all I ever want to do, whether I’m stuck at the bottom of a really muddy hole somewhere, or stuck in a library with my nose in a book about somewhere else entirely. The choice between the two that I have felt forced to make isn’t really one at all; I will be happy and feel lucky to be in whichever archaeology I end up.

Rubble, rubble, toil and trouble…

My second “Day of Archaeology”, and a lot has happened in my archaeological life since last year. I have changed companies once (from Wessex Archaeology to Museum of London Archaeology), and internal positions within that company twice (from Archaeologist [general shovelbum], to Archaeologist in the Planning Team [doing desk-based assessments and writing HEAs], to Senior Archaeologist [everything from doing smaller site work alone, to supervising 15-20 staff on a full excavation, and producing the client reports at the end]). All these changes have brought new experiences and skills, and emphasised to me just how much archaeology is a profession in which you never stop learning.

So, in many ways, I feel I have travelled pretty far in my career this past year! I think, however, a comparison of this year’s post to last year’s may tell a slightly different story…

 

 

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And a few hours later…

 

And a few more hours later…

The archaeology on this site is predictable for several reasons. Its proximity to the City means that it has a very good chance of being recorded on the earliest historic maps of London. Its proximity to the City also means there has been a fair amount of development and therefore archaeological work carried out on sites nearby, presenting an overall picture of how this area was used in the past. The fact that most of this site has already been excavated, and this is now the final phase of archaeological investigation here, means that I know what has been found here over the last year and have a pretty firm idea of what to expect…

“What to expect” also includes the level of archaeological survival on the site. The current building here (now mostly demolished) was put up in the 50s. Heritage assets only started being protected by law with the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979, and that was limited to scheduled sites usually of national significance. It was PPG16 (Planning Policy Guidance 16 – Archaeology and Planning) which stepped in as the first legal line of defence for the archaeology and information threatened by any proposals to dig a big hole in the ground. PPG16 is younger than I am – it was only introduced in 1990. It’s not hard to imagine how much archaeology was lost to construction projects across the country before this.

The thing that strikes me most about this site, and others I have researched or worked on where there is substantial modern truncation, is how impossible it must have been to be working on a construction project and not notice the things you are tearing out of the ground. There are human remains on this site, and a skull is a pretty self-obvious thing: if you were digging up several you must at least have been scratching your own…

 

PPG16 may have touched the brakes on the bulldozers, but even after successive alterations and re-wording (Planning Policy Statement 5 – Planning for the Historic Environment in 2010, followed by the National Planning Policy Framework in 2012) the legislation is not watertight or without room for interpretation. As our understanding, definition and classification of heritage assets have changed, so too has the law. There are several things in PPS5 which are not in the NPPF – notably the responsibility to monitor the impact of planning and decisions on the historic environment – and where PPS5 contains the “presumption” in favour of conservation, the NPPF only states that a “great weight” is given towards it. The single word I dislike the most in the NPPF is “should”, e.g. “Local Planning Authorities… should require developers to record and advance understanding of…” heritage/archaeology. The word we need to see is “must”.

With the pressures on the construction industry to provide more housing (and affordable housing, at that – often simply unprofitable), sustainable development, and long-term employment, planning for the historic environment can be seen as a painful extra hoop to jump through. The one attitude you are guaranteed to face in commercial archaeology is that your work gets in the way of construction projects: it’s too expensive and takes too long. Of all the skilled workers you have working on a building site at any time, the archaeologists are the only people whose work is considered not to matter if it’s not done properly. Of course, if the building isn’t put up safely then lives are at risk. The difference is that the lives lost from bad planning and bad archaeological practice are past and not present – we will never again get the opportunity to see and learn about the people who used to live on the exact spot where we are about to.

It all boils down to time and money, the two things that developers have less and less of but which good archaeological practice requires an amount entirely specific to each individual project – the only time you can be accurate as to how much an excavation will cost or how long it will take to do properly is once you have shiny clean natural geology across the site and a comprehensive primary archive of single context records.

I will end my “Day of Archaeology” post with a few final thoughts on money and heritage protection, which were thrown up exactly one month ago and much discussed amongst the archaeologists of Twitter.

(Or perhaps, archaeology companies lower their costs to get the work, but then have to do that work only with the resources that they have available, regardless of the nature and extent of the archaeology that eventually turns out to be in the ground.)

This remains to be seen. Perhaps a few years down the line the “Day of Archaeology” resource might be instrumental to that aspect of PPS5 which the NPPF did not see fit to retain – the monitoring of the impact of planning and decisions on the historic environment – by monitoring the profession of archaeology which has grown around it.

 

A Shovelbum Story: Commercial Excavation in Deepest Darkest Kent…

Working on site all day gives you no chance to compile a minute-by-minute beautifully crafted blog post.

Thankfully, we have Twitter!

My life on Twitter began at around the same time my archaeological career did. I had promised myself that I would set up an account once I had handed in my BA dissertation and, co-incidentally, my first job in fieldwork started on the very day of that deadline. Usually I tweet every so often about what’s happening on site – if we get any good finds, if something unusual turns up, if I’m working on a particularly interesting/beautiful feature, or if  when we shovelbums develop fever-like symptoms (‘trench’ and ‘cabin’ varieties, depending on the weather) – but today, of course, was an exception. My aim was to document everything I was doing. Yes, even my breakfast!

 

6.30am

 

7.30am

 

7.45am

 

8am

The palaeochannel is FULL of Early Mesolithic flint. The main features in this area – predominantly ditches – were excavated and recorded a few weeks ago. It is thought that we may have a hand-axe production site, as several were found when the area was first opened by machine. Now we are using test pits into the palaeochannel to sample this material and see if we need to develop and implement a different excavation strategy for the whole area.

 

9.20am

The other test pits had produced nothing from the 3rd spit!

 

9.40am

 

10am

 

11.40am

 

12.10pm

 

1pm

 

1.40pm

Trench-fever kicking in…??

 

2.50pm

We finish early on a Friday – usually to maximise the time available to spend in the pub at the end of a long week…!

 

3.30pm

 

3.40pm

A ring ditch in Area 5 turned out to be two-in-one! There were 8 slots dug through it. That’s a lot of section drawings and context record sheets to amend… And that’s before you even get started on the matrix for the area…

 

5.30pm

 

I’d say today wasn’t entirely an average day in the field for this site, and for commercial archaeology in general. An average day in Kent would be whacking the fill out of a ditch/half-sectioning a whole load of postholes and recording it all (filling in forms, doing scale drawings of the feature, and photographing it). The fiddly nature of our excavation strategy for these test pits means your speed is limited – something which is usually a problem for a project that is developer-funded as there is always a schedule and a budget to stick to. But this Early Mesolithic stuff deserves the time we’re spending on it, and it just means my ‘Day of Archaeology’ submission describes one of those rare days when you never really put your trowel down!