Archaeologists working in UK

Juggling Community, Commercial & Research Archaeology

This year’s ‘Day of Archaeology’ saw me juggling the three strands of my working life: community, commercial and academic archaeology. I realise that I have been very lucky to be paid to do a job I really enjoy for more than 29 years, and perhaps even to make a small contribution to better understanding a little of our shared past. That, however, doesn’t make these kind of days any less hectic, nor stop me from longing for the simpler days of just doing field and project work.

The morning was occupied by a phone call from a client about a project involving oral histories and a popular publication. Then it was on to the last changes to a grant application that’s taken all year to put together, with no certainty of success. Finally, I escaped the archaeology office, in the basement (where else) of one of the buildings at the University of Salford, to visit our two community archaeology sites we have been running this week: the Ollershaw Lane Salt Works site and Halton Castle, both in Cheshire, UK. This of course meant braving the clogged and roadwork-strewn motorway system between Manchester and Northwich – not so much a Northern Powerhouse, more one long traffic queue.

We are excavating the Ollershaw Lane Salt Works site as part of the Saltscape landscape partnership project. Very few 19th century open-pan salt making sites have been excavated and like many examples in Cheshire this one was short-lived (50 years tops) and judging by the map evidence the layout changed from decade to decade. I’m always surprised how quickly documentary material is lost. It’s not just a particular problem of the paperless internet age. This was a works that ran for 50 years from the 1870s to the 1920s yet there are no business records nor photos left as far as we know. With just a few newspaper and directory mentions archaeology is our only way left of uncovering the site’s history and use. This lack of documentary evidence for the industrial period is always something that astonishes our volunteers, in this case even more so as the Lion Salt Woks, its buildings now a museum and its family business records intact mostly, lies opposite the site on the other side of the Trent and Mersey Canal. Our Saltscape volunteers, most of whom had never done archaeology before, have learnt over the last 12 months that the thrill of new discoveries is not just about how old a site is. The process of archaeological fieldwork has got them thinking and asking questions: why is this building here? How does it relate to the canal? What was its function? When was the canal arm filled? It doesn’t take long for the hidden archaeologist to emerge in each of them, with the help and training of our Salford University professional supervisors, Mandy and Sarah-Jayne.

Halton Castle lies a few kilometers north of the Ollershaw Lane site, perched atop a sandstone hill in Runcorn, overlooking the Mersey estuary. This is the second season of work so we already have a pool of experienced volunteers from the 2015 excavation. On this site we are working on behalf of the Norton Priory Museum Trust, who run the castle, exploring the activity within the outer bailey of the fortress. Last time we discovered, unexpectedly, two skeletons dating to the 16th or early 17th centuries. Bodies in castles, especially outside a chapel, are very rare and so we are back this season to discover more about their context. The volunteers are enthusiastic, old relationships have been renewed, fresh ones made, and despite the showery weather of the last two weeks they have all been excited by what they have uncovered. That does not include any more skeletons but it does encompass three mysterious rectangular rock-cut pits. There are also more rock-cut circular post-pits to add to those from 2015, perhaps suggesting the presence of a timber aisled building. For old and new volunteers alike the excitement of discovery is palpable, and for some there is still the astonishment of being able to learn archaeology as a discipline first hand. And I even got the chance to help out with barrowing away the spoil, much to the amusement, or was that amazement, of my professional team of Sarah and Kirsty who did all the hard work of setting up and running the site.

At the end of the day I stopped off at a motorway services on the way back home for a cup of tea (really must get round to writing that archaeology of tea drinking and the tea industry at some stage). It’s a chance for a swift review of my work emails and an opportunity to post some more ‘Day of Archaeology’ tweets. Yet why does this well-known brand of coffee shop insist on presenting me with a pot of boiling water with the teabag on the OUTSIDE on the saucer? Just one more mystery to add to my day of archaeology.

150th Birthday Research

Our museum, The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum, will be 150 years old in September. Originally known as the Albert Institute and later as Dundee Museum, the museum has been through a lot of changes over the years. One of the tasks we curators are undertaking is research into the archives to uncover stories about the museum and its objects. We are also finding out more about our predecessors and how our jobs have changed over the years. My current job title is ‘Curator of Early History’. I have also been known as ‘Heritage Officer’ in exactly the same post. Past staff have been known as keepers, assistant keepers and field archaeology officers. The museum used to have its own field archaeology unit and it looks like they had some interesting times, undertaking rescue excavations and getting called out to determine if some recently discovered bones were anything to worry about. Sadly, the field unit is no more and it is my job to look after the things they excavated, as well as the museum’s World Cultures and numismatics collections and also the collection of phrenology heads, the re-discovery of which in 1983 earned a mention in several newspapers.

Though our job titles have changed and sometimes there have been more of us or fewer of us (but never enough of us), our aims remain the same – to preserve the collections and to share them with as many people as possible. Let’s hope the museum has many more anniversaries to come.

Rare Books from the National Museum Wales Library

This post has been published on behalf of Kristine Chapman, Principal Librarian at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales. 

Although I am not an archaeologist, I often work closely with staff in the Archaeology Department here at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, as I am the Museum Librarian.

The Main Library at Amgueddfa Cymru

The Museum Library was created right after the founding of the Museum in 1907. There was a Librarian in place before there was a Museum building, that’s how important it was to the first curators!

Much of my work consists of making sure staff have access to the resources they need. Most of the books that make up the Archaeology Library reside in the Archaeology Department, which means they are closer to people who need them. The walls of the curator’s offices are lined with books, and they consult them on a daily basis.

Amgueddfa Cymru’s collections of British Archaeological Reports (BARs)

However, we also have a number of rare books that are kept in the Main Library, a room originally built in the 1920s. Whenever we have Open Days, we get out a few examples to show visitors. A recent favourite was Nenia Britannica: or, a sepulchral history of Great Britain; from the earliest period to its general conversion to Christianity (1793) by Rev. James Douglas (1753-1819). Its popularity is due to the stunning aquatint illustrations that depict discoveries at barrow excavations.

Title page from Nenia Britannica (left) and Plate from Nenia Britannica showing a human skeleton in a grave (right)

When it was first published, Nenia Britannica was not that well received, it was considered too scientific. Later it was recognised as significant, because of the way Douglas systematically illustrated and recorded the artefacts.

Another favourite is Itinerarium Curiousum, or, an account of the antiquitys and remarkable curiositys in nature or art: observ’d in travels thro’ Great Brittan (1724), by William Stukeley (1687 – 1765). Stukeley recorded and collected objects, during journeys around England. Those observations formed the basis of this book.

Title page and frontispiece from Itinerarium Curiousum

Although not as well-known as his later publication on Stonehenge, it is important to us because it was donated by George Boon, who was a member of our Archaeology Department from 1957-87, first as Assistant Keeper, and then as Keeper.

Recently we have been taking a closer look at Mona Antiqua Restaurata: an archaeological discourse on the antiquities, natural and historical, of the Isle of Anglesey, the antient seat of the British Druids (1723) by Henry Rowlands (1655–1723) because the Eisteddfod will be in Anglesey this summer.

Title page from Mona Antiqua Restaurata

The author lived on Anglesey, and spent much of his time investigating nearby stone circles, and Prehistoric remains. His investigations led him to conclude that Anglesey (Mona) was the ancient centre of Druidic worship, and did much to popularise interest in Druid culture.

Image of a Druid from Mona Antiqua Restaurata

Over time some of his conclusions were shown to be inaccurate, but his descriptions and drawings of the sites of ancient monuments still hold merit, and we are looking forward to showcasing his image of a Druid at the Eisteddfod.

You can learn more about the work we do in the Library on the Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales blog, or you can follow us (@Amgueddfa_Lib) on Twitter.


If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign? (Bless you, Albert Einstein)

My name is Dawn Cansfield and I’m a part-time PhD student at the University of Winchester, UK. My Day of Archaeology has been unglamorous but dry, spent at my desk in front of my computer, surrounded by piles of paper, writing.

My research is into burial practice in the early Neolithic period (c.4000-3300 BC) in south-east England, specifically looking at how people were treated when they were buried depending on their age or sex. Whereas a full-time PhD takes about three years to complete, a part-time one can take twice that and, indeed, I’ve been doing it for five years so far. It is a long haul and you have to really love your research subject to stick with it which, fortunately, I do!

My interest in past burial practice came about while on an Iron Age excavation where two infant skeletons were found beneath the eaves of a roundhouse. I was doing my Masters degree at the time (also part-time) and these burials formed the basis of my dissertation. For me there was something very poignant about trying to imagine the background story of these two little babies from a couple of thousand years ago, not far from where I live now. There are certain things you can try to find out about people in the past from the way they buried their dead and in prehistory, when no written records exist, and I find it particularly fascinating to try and piece together what their treatment of the dead says about how people were viewed in life.

Boxes of human remains in a fairly typical museum store

Tools of the trade (from top down): osteometric board, tape measure, sliding caliper, spreading caliper

I’m coming to the end of my PhD journey now, writing-up my thesis, which I plan to have finished by the end of the year. I am therefore spending quite a lot of time at my desk at the moment trying to make sense of it all. However, prior to this my research has involved many visits to museums to examine human skeletal remains to estimate their age and sex, and using written records, such as excavation reports, to identify details about such things as burial location, position, orientation, and objects buried with the dead (grave goods), followed by statistical analysis and interpretation.

All this has been a great experience for someone whose secondary education, back in the day, was something of a disaster. It turns out what I needed was to find ‘my’ subject and archaeology was it. There have been – and continue to be – some marvellous opportunities along the way, such as working on a grant-funded project to assess the human remains at Brighton Museum, which I wrote about last year, writing articles and papers, presenting conference papers and teaching on the MSc in Funerary Archaeology course. I’ve met and worked with some great people and learned a huge amount more about archaeology and heritage – and about myself. Now that there is light at the end of the PhD tunnel I’m looking forward to the next phase of my life in archaeology (although I’m secretly enjoying this writing-up bit too).

Human remains laid out for analysis



Cotswold Archaeology: A Day in the Life of a Heritage Outreach Co-ordinator

My name is Emily Taylor and I am both a Heritage Consultant and part of the outreach committee at Cotswold Archaeology. I thought it would be interesting to provide a short summary demonstrating how I balance my time between consultancy activities and outreach here.

As with most weeks, my programme is hectic, but I enjoy the fast pace and continuously changing character of commercial archaeology. What I love most, is then being able to share our work with the general public through publications, site visits, open days, presentations and social media campaigns etc. I am always exploring different ways to encourage people to get involved and new ways of promoting the work we undertake. I work closely with the project officers, fieldwork managers and so forth within the company to ensure outreach is at the forefront of our work.

A presentation on the Aldi investigations in Andover at Andover Museum

A typical day for me involves, after grabbing a cup of coffee, or possibly two, and responding to emails, organising events, producing publicity information and outreach material, and so forth. My job involves working closely with a range of audiences and their projects, including local societies, the planning sector and schools. It is a good thing I love to chat, even more so if it is about outreach and archaeology. Having only left academic a little less than two years ago, I also provide advice and guidance to those wishing to work within the sector, and spend time with work experience students explaining the glamourous life of commercial archaeology.

Handling artefacts at Hurstbourne Priors May Fair

I have recently been heavily involved with the Festival of Archaeology, and organised an event in partnership with Andover Museum. The event was well attended, and what we found interesting was chatting to those people who came along and digging for treasure with the kids.

A colleague explaining Saxon diet remains during the Festival of Archaeology

What I really enjoy most is putting time aside to developing accessible archaeology within the sector, and exploring new ways of removing barriers within both fieldwork and office environments. Today I have spent time exploring the ways of engaging different audiences with a potential community project in the south-west.

Balancing consultancy and outreach commitments can be tricky, but within the company I am supported by a strong team and it means I get to undertake a range of duties. Undertaking outreach duties allows me to play a part in contributing to our understanding of the past and raising public awareness for the sector.


It’s Not all About Work – Principal Heritage Consultant Duncan Coe on completing Trailwalker 2017

Being an archaeologist is not all about work, working for a company means there are lots of opportunities to do things together outside the work environment, some of them social and some of them more challenging.

Four teams from Cotswold Archaeology sighed up to undertake the Trailwalker challenge ( walking a 100km (60 mile) section of the South Downs from  near Petersfield to Brighton in under 30 hours.  The intention to raise money for The Gurkha Welfare Trust and Oxfam. Two of the teams were formed from staff at our Andover office, one from our Kemble office, and one from our Milton Keynes office. There were many hours of training and many discussions (and speculations) about how we might get on, but the reality hit home on the early evening of Friday 28th July when we arrived at the Queen Elizabeth Country Park to register. There was no going back now.

Our start time was set for 8am on Saturday 29th July and we set off under grey, but dry, skies. The heavy overnight rain had made the path a bit slippery and muddy in places, and we knew very quickly that things were going to be tough.

The South Downs is a great place for an archaeologist to go walking. There are plenty of archaeological sites to see and enjoy (one of the support crews manged to visit Bignor Roma Villa in a gap between checkpoints), but on this occasion we had to focus on the task in hand. The rain arrived as predicted at around 1pm, and although not heavy continued until late into the evening.

Our team from Andover were making good progress, getting to the 60km point in about 11 hours 30 minutes, but the fast progress was having an impact with one member of the team suffering from some bad blisters. Walking through the night at times in heavy rain was difficult, and the site and sounds of the checkpoints, with their welcome food and a chance to sit down for a few minutes, was always a pleasure.

We hit 90Km in under 24 hours, but unfortunately one member of our team was by now suffering with leg pains and had to withdraw. The final 10km, which included one quite steep hill, were slow and Brighton Racecourse seemed to take a long time to arrive, but in the end was in sight. We arrived at the finish line (100km) in 27 hours, tired, sore, but very proud.


The devil is in the diversity: July in Shropshire HER

As the wonderful Day of Archaeology project draws to a close, I am sure you will join me in thanking the organisers for highlighting the sheer variety of what archaeologists do, day in, day out. For a discipline that, I feel, is uniquely poised to explore, investigate and challenge the diversity of human beahviour in all its glory, it is, I hope, fitting that I am choosing the final Day of Archaeology post from Shropshire Historic Environment Record (HER) to celebrate some of the diversity of what we do, in recording the past of the largest inland county in England.

A bit of a grandiose mission statement for this post, but for the last 40 years, the HER has played a crucial role in ensuring that the diversity of heritage in the county is properly recorded, and forms a key resource for anyone interested in finding out further about sites, finds and buildings – from the Palaeolithic period to the 20th century.

It’s not just Castles and Hillforts

Shropshire Historic Environment Record holds nearly 40,000 records, collected over 40 years, of findspots, buildings, structures and landscapes of historic and archaeological interest. In fact, our mission statement, if you like, is to pull together information on all features which relate to the way humans have used, settled in and exploited the landscapes of Shropshire.

I always start by saying “It’s not just about castles and hillforts”, although these obviously feature in our work, and are something that the Marches border area is justifiably famed for.

The HER has recently been involved in work at two castle sites, in fact, funded by the Castle Studies Trust. This has involved using the latest digital technology to acquire detailed 3d models of these sites. This example, from Castle Pulverbatch, shows the power of this technology. By detailed analysis of this metrically accurate survey data, we will be able to investigate the earthworks of the motte and its two baileys – linking this with the results of recent geophysical survey which has been undertaken on this site.

Flying high: Aerial photography

Shropshire Council has been lucky, over the past decade to be directly involved in carrying out aerial survey, funded by Historic England. As detailed in a previous Day of Archaeology post this programme of survey continues to reveal many new archaeological sites (mainly showing as cropmarks or parchmarks) as well as adding significant detail to known cropmark sites, buildings, structures and landscapes right across the county. These vary widely in date, size and scale. In July we undertook 2 flights from Welshpool Airport, covering a wide area – the video below summarises one of these flights and features some of my snaps taken out the window!

Whilst up in the air, we recorded a variety of cropmark sites, including Iron Age farmsteads, the extensive parchmarks of the streets, insula and individual buildings of the Roman town of Wroxeter and also took the opportunity to photograph the iconic cooling towers of Ironbridge Power Station:

The iconic cooling towers of Ironbridge Power Station.

Ironbridge Power Station, formally known as Ironbridge B, was constructed in 1963-1968, as part of a programme of construction of 1000 MW coal-fired power stations. It was built to adapt to a narrow site, and its bank of four cooling towers, pigmented with red iron-oxide, were erected in an unusual, gently sweeping arc reflecting their position hemmed in to the south by the rising escarpment of Benthall Edge at the narrowing of the Ironbridge Gorge and to the north by the existing railway lines.

The station was decommissioned by 2015, and plans are currently being formulated for the future use of this site, which lies at one end of the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site.

The HER holds an extensive building recording of the site, undertaken in early 2017 by Ric Tyler,  available through the Grey Literature Library, which includes fascinating archival research into the development and operation of the site.

Thanks to help from our volunteers and work experience students we are making available as many aerial photographs as we can via our website, Discovering Shropshire’s History – why not explore our records?

Stop Lines: recording the remains of 20th century conflict

Like many other HERs, the centenary of the First World War has given us pause to reflect on the records we have of structures and sites which attest to the home front of military action during the 20th century.

Initially our work has focused on recording War Memorials across the county. In November 2016 we completed visits to all 163 freestanding war memorials in the county. You can read more about this on the Shropshire Remembers website.

Work has continued with Historic England on their War Memorials Listing Project. This has not only been dealing with new designations but also evaluating protection for existing designated War Memorials. Work in July included providing information on the Shropshire War Memorial in Quarry Park, the work of George Hubbard FSA FRIBA, of Hubbard and Moore, around a central figure by Allan Gairdner Wyon FRBS.

War Memorial, Quarry Park, Shrewsbury

Attention has now turned to ensuring we have adequate records for other sites that attest to 20th century conflict. These include airfields, prisoner of war camps and defence lines. Working carefully on Defence of Britain Survey data, work experience student Tom has been preparing records for entry into the HER, and carrying out virtual visits using Google StreetView. He identified that remains survive of anit-tank blocks, airfield buildings, battle headquarters, home guard headquarters and observation posts, pillboxes of many types – and much more.

We have also been making a concerted effort to ensure we have adequate records related to the Cold War. One of the most visible signs are Royal Observer Corps posts – 44 are now recorded in the HER.

Variety is the spice of life!

HER volunteers have been crucial to the varied thematic enhancement projects this year which have added to the records we hold. Whether this has been working on railway station architecture, non-confrmist chapels or dendrochronology dates for buildings or upland archaeology in South Shropshire – we continue to be impressed by their dedication and are extremely grateful for their support.

The variety of records we hold means that, as an HER officer, you always need to be prepared for a variety of questions – topics in my inbox recently have ranged from Neolithic and Bronze Age Shropshire to the date of Electricity Works in Market Drayton.

It certainly does help keep the day interesting!



Organising an Archaeology Conference

This is the first year where I have been late submitting my Day of Archaeology post, but better late than never? This is my 6th year taking part – looking over what I was doing over the past six years just shows how variable the day to day tasks of being an archaeologist can be, and this year is different yet again. I’ve been sorting out logistics for  an archaeology conference, specifically the 7th Developing International Geoarchaeology conference, which we are hosting at Newcastle University this September. So the job of an archaeologist can also include event management! This is an international conference that happens every two years, and is the only dedicated geoarchaeology conference. For those not familiar, geoarchaeology is the application of methods and approaches from geosciences to archaeological questions. Given that a vast majority of archaeology is buried in the ground, geoarchaeology is applicable to most archaeology projects, in helping to understand the processes by which our cultural materials came to be where they are, when archaeologists find them hundreds or even thousands of years after they were discarded by people in the past. This is a crucial part of archaeology; we are not just interested in the objects, but the context in which those objects are found. This context information is what helps us understand, for example, whether objects are in their original location (a primary deposit),  or whether the object has been moved and redeposited at a later date (secondary or tertiary deposit). The conference registrations closed last week, so I now have the final figures on the number of people attending, and have to confirm all the arrangements for catering and room bookings, as well as getting the conference packs sorted. With around 80 delegates that is a lot of bags to pack with various bits and bobs! With the help of the organising committee I am also making the final edits to the book of abstracts, and compiling information for delegates on the field trips and workshops. It’s going to be a great few days with geoarchaeologists from all around the world gathering together to discuss the latest research.

Perks of being a PAS volunteer

My career as an archaeologist has been somewhat intermittent: I currently work as an archaeologist only one day a week and purely for the love of it. I’m a volunteer with the Portable Antiquities Scheme, based at Liverpool museum with the Finds Liaison officer there, Vanessa Oakden. I’m the Thursday girl, and usually help out by digitally manipulating images of the finds (mainly bought in by metal detectorists) on photoshop, so they can be included on the PAS database. With over one million objects and counting, this is an eclectic, fascinating and ever expanding corpus of the ‘what on earth is it?’ and workaday; the lost and discarded; the plough trashed and serendipitously preserved, see

My Day of Archaeology was a special day – a training session with behind the scenes access- including tours and talks – at the British Museum. An early start in Chester, and three hours later I am trying to look nonchalant negotiating the London Underground, like I do this everyday, and am not a tourist: an impression I failed to sustain as I got a bit confused and failed to fast track myself through the excited queues outside the museum, with the result I was only just in time to find the meeting room, get my volunteer badge and a warm welcome off Claire, the resources officer, before the programme began. (more…)

From Raindogging to Becoming a “Real Boy”: A Day in the Life of a New Lecturer

The crest over the doorway at King’s Manor.

Six years ago for the first Day of Archaeology (which I posted to my own blog for reasons that have become obscured by time) I posted about selling off my worldly possessions to live out of my suitcase. It was a mildly maudlin post, rife with Tom Waits. As predicted, I “raindogged” for 2.5 years afterwards, working, writing on planes, trains, borrowed couches and archaeological projects with no permanent address. I ended up circumnavigating the globe before landing in York, at the ragged ends of travel.

After a series of increasingly convoluted and miscellaneous postdoc/associate lecturer escapades, I found myself suddenly A Lecturer. A Real Lecturer. It’s about as magical and unlikely as the scene in Pinocchio, where the wooden puppet becomes a Real Boy. There’s a lot to unpack there with gender, posthumanism and transfiguration, but let’s leave it for another time.

So, while I’d love to polish my tiara (academics get tiaras, right?) and call it good, I had a lot of work to do on my Day of Archaeology. When I posted on my blog about getting The Job, one of the comments I received was:

“Congratulations! The down side is that we’ll be seeing fewer posts on Digs in Exotic Places, and more on the Joys of Faculty Meetings.”

It is true, I spent the morning in a meeting, but it was an exciting meeting, if there can be such a thing, about grants funding research that I’ve been thrashing about since at least 2009, with avatars and chatbots. Now that I’m A Real Lecturer I can lead on these types of things, instead of glomming onto grants led by others.

Though I’d earmarked the day for research, I found myself having to finish up a bit of admin: the last touches on a short video promoting the Digital Heritage MSc and Archaeological Information Sciences MSc programs here at York, which I’ll be taking over in the Autumn. I’d love to have more students from North America, let me know if you’d like more information.

After I finished uploading the video, I finalized the design of an incredible illustration of a papercraft King’s Manor, created by Nick Ellwood. I really enjoyed collaborating with an artist on this work, which is in turn archaeological and whimsical.

I also spent some of the day finalizing teaching for both undergraduates and postgraduates, including this delightful roster of lectures for the upcoming Analysis & Visualisation course offered to our Masters students:

Perhaps it isn’t quite as exciting as Sunrise in Bangkok or The Recent Ancient Tradition of the Ogoh Ogoh or even spending your days with your head down a toilet, but I’m up for it. I won’t even act jealous when I hear about Katy drawing up a storm at Catal, or updates from Freya’s project in Egypt or any of the other amazing Day of Archaeology posts from the field. Nope.