Archaeo-archivists* unite!

*Archaeolivists? Archivaeologists? Neologise your own preferred term here.

I am one of four trained archaeologists currently working in the University of Glasgow Archive Services: two as researchers and two who also trained as proper archivists. I would be put out at not being the quirky, cool odd one out if I didn’t like my colleagues so much. In fact, the longer I work here, the more interdisciplinary intersections I see, from archaeologist colleagues visiting the archives to do research, to archivist colleagues who do archaeology.

Digging in the archives

For the Day of Archaeology 2015, I want to celebrate some of the particularly archaeological highlights that I have (sometimes literally) stumbled upon in the archival collections at the University of Glasgow.

I particularly like the oversize scrapbook of the Glasgow Archaeological Society. The correspondence and minutes of the society date back to 1866, but items in the scrapbook date to the 17th century.

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Noted antiquarian Charles Whitelaw’s drawing of a sword found at Cathcart, Glasgow, in the scrapbook of the Glasgow Archaeological Society, (University of Glasgow Archives Reference: DC066/14/1).

The University Archive includes a collection of posters for past events, including lectures like A.O. Curle’s 1922 talk on Traprain Law. Curle was not just the excavator of some amazing sites, but also served as Secretary of the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland (1908-13), and the Director of the National Museum of Antiquities (1913-9)  – what would become today’s National Museum of Scotland – among other posts.

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Another highlight is the papers of Leslie Alcock, formerly Professor of Archaeology at the University of Glasgow and Honorary Keeper of the Archaeological and Anthropological Collections of the University’s Hunterian Museum. Alcock specialised in Early Historic Britain and the University Archives hold records on some of his excavations.

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Reports from Alcock’s excavations of Dundurn, Perthshire, Scotland

It goes together like beer and archaeology

In addition to the various records of the day-to-day business of the University, as well as papers of past students and staff, the University of Glasgow Archives is home to the important business collections. My personal favourite is the Scottish Brewing Archive.

It is handy for finds research, like this bottle, uncovered by the Strathearn Environs and Royal Forteviot (SERF) Project, the University of Glasgow’s annual field school in Perthshire, Scotland.

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WB Thomson Superior Waters Codd bottle

Thanks to the Scottish Brewing Archive (Newsletter No. 7, 1986), I learned that WB Thomson and other brewers struggled during the difficult economic conditions of the First World War: the company was liquidated and ceased to exist early in 1915, with its aerated water and bottling interests being bought out by Perth-based John Craik & Co. Suddenly a seemingly mundane artefact could be linked more widely to dramatic socio-economic events.

Perhaps the promise of discovery is what makes archaeologists and archivists such kindred spirits. In autumn of last year a student cataloguing project unearthed previously unseen photos of St Kilda, much to the delight of archaeologists at the University of Glasgow and the National Trust for Scotland. The photographs were snapped by Thomas Patterson, the first Gardiner Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Glasgow, while on holiday in the 1920s. The photos offer a glimpse of life on the island of Hirta before it was evacuated in 1930.

St Kilda

DC431/8/14 The St Kilda Post Office, photograph found in the personal papers of Thomas Patterson, the first Gardiner Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Glasgow.

Thus, the University of Glasgow archives are a vibrant source of research for a number of archaeological projects, from ground-breaking (excuse the pun) research into the history of Glasgow’s allotments, to the Heritage Lottery Funded project Digging In, which will recreate First World War trenches in Glasgow’s Pollok Park.

OTC trench Bowman notebook

Using a wealth of archival material like this photograph from the collection of the University of Glasgow Officers Training Corps (DC099/5) and the notebooks of AA Bowman (DC077), Digging In will compare how troops were prepared for trench warfare at home with data gathered by the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology on excavations of trenches on the Western Front to create a dynamic learning environment in the heart of Glasgow.

So for this year’s Day of Archaeology, I am enjoying being an archaeologist in the archives – discovering the past … just with less dirt.


Jen Novotny is an archaeologist employed as a Research Assistant in History who is based in the Archives at the University of Glasgow. She works on Glasgow University’s Great War, a WWI centenary project. Follow the project on Twitter @GlasgowUniWW1 and keep up to date on research via the project blog.

First World War Friday

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I am a research assistant at the University of Glasgow. Like all archaeologists, I’m an individual of many talents: I have degrees in archaeology, I’m based in the University Archives, and I’m technically a staff member in the Department of History.

I am the project officer for Glasgow University’s Great War, a research project led by well-known fellow archaeologist Tony Pollard that looks at the experiences of the university community during the First World War. The project is part of the university’s WWI centenary commemorations. I specialise in conflict archaeology and I’ve excavated on the Western Front, so the Great War Project is a good fit for me.

On a normal day I mostly do research, with a bit of admin thrown in (though there is the occasional day when that balance is reversed). Today I’m looking at material from Capt JAC Macewen RAMC, son of the famous Glasgow surgeon Sir William Macewen. I’m particularly interested in the younger Macewen’s letters home to his parents. Letters to his mother are cheerful:

I have written to Mary regarding Sydney coming to France. Of course he is in danger, but, at the same time, I would not be despondent. Of our total casualties, a big percentage are sickness of one kind or other – often slight gassing & a very large percentage of wounds are really not serious. …[T]hings are not as bad as they look. So try to cheer up generally.

I am surprised to learn that Capt Macewen was put in charge of treating German POWs. I’m particularly keen to pass along this info to another archaeologist at the University of Glasgow, Iain Banks, who is researching European POW camps. Capt Macewen wrote to his father describing the medical cases he saw:

I see all cases, including fractures, head injuries (I have operated on 4 of these today) & abdomens…. …[T]he Germans are much tougher than we are & survive the most appalling injuries. One man I did today has half of his face blown away & a large hernia cerebri of his frontal lobe – so that I see very much worse cases than the others do. Truly the suffering in this war is not all on one side.

One of the letters even includes seashells from Paris Plage sent home in May 1918.

macewen seashells

Wandering around the repository is always an adventure. I don’t have the honed knowledge of the collections like my archivist colleagues, so my trips to the shelves to pull material are usually more meandering, sometimes resulting in dead ends (I haven’t set off the alarm by going through a fire door in MONTHS). Exploring the stacks in this haphazard way is occasionally fruitful, discovering something I didn’t know I was looking for. Sometimes I come up empty-handed. Even if I do, the journey is always interesting.

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Wandering past a shelf, I spotted an over-size album of the Glasgow Archaeological Society. It’s full of photos, clippings, notes and drawings like this sketch of Rough Castle Roman Fort.

plan of rough castle

There are plenty of artefacts kicking about, too. I spotted a few from the Scottish Brewing Archive.

brewing archive

I also meandered past the (very large!) glass slide collection of Sir John Harvard Biles.

Biles slides

That’s my Day of Archaeology. Until next year, you can keep up-to-date on Glasgow University’s Great War Project by following us on Twitter and checking out our newly-launched blog.