I'm a medieval archaeologist, currently lecturing at the University of York, with specialism in the archaeology of objects, craft, and food. I am trained in geology, zooarchaeology, and artefact studies, and am particularly interested in the relationship between the various regions of Britain and Scandinavia before, during, and after the Viking Age. I tend to be characterised by TV as 'the everyday-life guy'. Before starting up at York, I worked for the Portable Antiquities Scheme, as Finds Liaison Officer for Northamptonshire, a role that involved working closely with local communities, amateur archaeologists, and metal detectorists in order to preserve by record the vast numbers of chance finds recovered by members of the public. One of my key interests is the integration of archaeological science and social theory, and in recent years I have worked closely with colleagues in York's BioArCh facility, in order to apply new biomolecular techniques to the study of Viking-Age artefacts. I am increasingly working in media, most recently recording two series of documentaries in support of the History Channel's popular 'Vikings' drama.

Castles, community, and John Clare

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Today has been divided between multiple tasks on two different projects. I’ve already talked about my viking food culture project here, but my other job relates to a community archaeology project I’ve been involved in with my colleague (and wife) Aleks McClain.

For the last few years, we have been assisting the local community of the village of Helpston in west Cambridgeshire as they investigate the history and archaeology of their area. Helpston is most famous as the birthplace of John Clare, a 19th-century agricultural labourer, who went in to become arguably England’s greatest rural poet. However, on the edge of Helpston village lies Torpel Manor Field: an enigmatic series of earthworks that has been little explored. The site is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and as the remains of an Anglo-Norman ringwork, represents one of the first fortifications constructed in the area following the Norman Conquest. However, it is clear that the site is a more complicated, multi-phase phenomenon than this.

The site is stewarded by the Langdyke Countryside Trust, who have successfully won Heritage Lottery Funding to care for the site as both a heritage monument and  a wildlife preserve. We have been working the the Trust, leading to the foundation of the Helpston History and Archaeological Group, assisting them in topographic and geophysical survey across the site, and in providing information for display in their newly constructed on-site Interpretation Centre. The group have also undertaken fieldwalking and testpitting at a number of sites across the village, as well as engaging in extensive documentary and archive research.

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Earthwork and magnetometry survey at Torpel Manor Field.  Note the mound in the south of the earthwork survey, the complex of perimeter ditches and banks, and a number of outlying structures and building platforms to the north. Geophysics has demonstrated that many of these earthworks conceal the remains of walls and robbing trenches, as well as identifying a number of previously unsuspected features. 

As a result of all this work, a number of gaps in the village’s history are starting to be filled in, so that Helpston is no longer thought of solely as the home of John Clare, and a narrative can now be written that extends from later prehistory, via the Norman Conquest, through to the present day.  There will be numerous academic outputs from this work, but right now we are working on the production of a popular-interest book that explores the biography of Torpel’s landscape.  We hope to self-publish this within the year, and this afternoon was a busy and productive editorial meeting involving myself and Aleks.

IMG_0695Hard at work on the Torpel Story….

I’m not going to give away our findings here, but keep your eye out for further updates later in the year.

Check out our project here (we have a new website in development, to be linked from the same site).

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Cooking with Vikings

maude fire  At the Hearth with Helga (Maude Hirst)

I’m a Viking-Age archaeologist, interested in the everyday lives of people in early-medieval England, Scotland, and Scandinavia, which I try to understand through looking at their artefacts. I am most well-known for my work on what might seem an odd choice of artefact: Viking hair combs (I’ve already written elsewhere about why these are important, so I won’t bore you with that again here). I’m also interested in metalwork, particularly what we can say from the evidence recovered by metal detectorists (this builds on my previous life as a Finds Liaison Officer with the Portable Antiquities Scheme; if you don’t know about the PAS, do check it out). But most recently, I have started up a project that uses scientific analysis of pottery to learn about how people stored, prepared, cooked, and ate food in different parts of Viking-Age England.

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