a day in the life

From mountains to sea…and everything in between: Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service

It is our great pleasure to welcome you on the Day of Archaeology 2014 to the Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service.

Situated in the North East of Scotland, we are a small team (just the three of us!) with responsibility for a large geographic area – not only do we act as the regional archaeology service for Aberdeenshire Council, but also for Angus and Moray Councils, which is equivalent to 10,733km2!

Aberdeenshire, Angus and Moray Council areas in North East Scotland ©ACAS

Map showing location of Aberdeenshire, Angus and Moray Council areas in North East Scotland ©ACAS

Protection, Management and Promotion

For any given area roughly 95% of the historic environment is not protected by national designations, and it is down to Services like ourselves at local government level in the UK to protect it.

The team’s remit is to protect, manage and promote the historic environment of Aberdeenshire, Angus & Moray. A big part of this is maintaining a Historic Environment Record (HER) for each of these areas, an ever-growing database of sites and monuments of archaeological and historical interest hosted on our website.

There are currently almost 32,000 sites recorded in the HER, ranging from Lower Paleolithic auroch horns through Early Medieval Pictish stones to World War II defences. That’s almost 12,000 years of history!

The HER acts as the hub for our primary work within the Councils. We use it as the basis for assessing the potential impact of planning applications, forestry, utility and other consultations on the historic environment. The resulting archaeological mitigation work from these consultations then feeds back into the HER, broadening our (and therefore everyone’s) knowledge and understanding of the historic environment here in the North East, and helping to inform future decisions.

We will provide the best Protection, Management and Promotion of the Historic Environment of Aberdeenshire for the benefit of all ©ACAS

Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service Team Motto ©ACAS


A Day in the Life of an Illustrator

First off I should say that I always find it quite uneasy calling myself an Illustrator. To me illustrator conjurs up images of amazing artefact and reconstruction drawings; I am not one of those, I deal with plans, sections, maps using CAD, GIS and Adobe Illustrator, as well as carrying out graphic design and web design.

Today I have three main tasks to deal with:

1. Carry out edits to the illustrations for a site that AOC excavated a while ago, and is now ready to be published.
2. Finish designing a pair of interpretation boards that will eventually be placed by a Neolithic cairn.
3. Produce some maps using GIS for our York office so that they have them ready for carrying out a heritage assessment

On top of this I normally have lots of small tasks given to me over the course of a working day. These can be to place a news item on our website and then tweet a link to all of our followers, to design & produce a trenching plan for evaluations, to edit/enhance photographs, to PDF documents ready to be sent to clients (my machine is one of the few capable of producing PDFs) and so on.

7:15 I’m in the office, cup of tea made as the computer boots up and logs in. Straight away there’s an email asking me to produce some plates for an HBR report. A small job that will only take 10-15 minutes. Time to load up InDesign and make some plates!

A day in the life of a HERO (Historic Environment Records Officer).

The day is nearly over, but it’s better late than never!

I got into the office about 9.30 this morning, made myself a cup of coffee as my computer took it’s usual ten minutes to turn on, and starting putting together a list of Industrial Heritage sites for each District within the County.  I sent these to a colleague who is organising a conference on Industrial Heritage, and I need him to select which sites he would like me to create a map for in the conference booklet. Having been on holiday last week, I still had to catch up with emails and respond to people.

I spent most of the morning working on a project to develop Local Lists, which involves working with District Councils and Local Groups, and is funded by English Heritage. One of the local history societies I am working with needed some information on archaeological sites in their local area. Most local lists focus only on historic buildings, but one of the aims of my project is to encourage people to appreciate the historic environment in their local area as a whole, this includes archaeological sites, monuments and even landscapes. Local Lists are exciting, because they allow local communities to decide what parts of their local heritage are important to them. While the list doesn’t provide any statutory protection, it will offer these sites some protection via planning, and what I think is most important, it will promote local heritage. Using the HER database and GIS mapping, I was able to recommend a crop mark complex of ring-ditches, which are likely  to date to the Bronze Age, based on excavation results of a nearby field. The excavation had also produced a number of late Iron Age and Roman finds. It’s always interesting to look at the modern Ordnance Survey maps and compare them to the 1st Edition maps, and you can easily get distracted from what you were mean to be doing!

At twelve o’clock, as per usual, the IT network crashed while some mysterious back-up took place and my map project crashed. I made another cup of coffee and chatted to some colleagues about how the impeding government cuts and impact of Big Society could potentially mean that we a. may loose no desks and b. may loose our library in order to save space. I decide that I can live with both these things, if the alternative means loosing my job. Before lunch I start reading the Draft National Planning Policy Framework, which outlines some of the most major reforms to the Planning system in a generation. It will take me a while to read it properly and form my thoughts to respond to the consultation.

After lunch, I begin to put together a scheme of work for a post-grad who will be volunteering with me next week. I then spend the rest of the afternoon writing up case studies carried out for the Local List project to date, as English Heritage need to include them in the guidance document on local lists; I probably can’t say any more about it at this stage.

All-in-all, today has been relatively calm and not terribly exciting, but sometimes that’s what you want on a Friday. Next week will no doubt be the total opposite, as I will be furiously trying to complete a my thematic survey of windmills, which covered the entire county. Unfortunately, all the fun work of surveying is over, and I will have to start making some recommendations for how to best manage and conserve the windmills and sites of windmills. I’m finishing the day with yet another cup of coffee, and writing a long ‘to-do’ list for things I need to achieve on Monday.

A day in the life of a zooarchaeologist – playing with bones at the Natural History Museum

This week I have been at the Natural History Museum in London collecting data for my PhD project.

My project is looking at the size and shape change of the Aurochs across Europe over time. The Aurochs was the ancestor of domestic cattle, it appeared during the Middle Pleistocene and went extinct in Poland in 1627AD. In Britain they went extinct during the Bronze Age. This animal was quite commonly hunted by humans until domestication took place. The Aurochs was very similar to our modern day cattle, but larger. Some of the males were massive – often over 2 metres tall. Below you can see a couple of pictures of what they look like. You can imagine the amount of meat that you would get from one of these if you successfully hunted it, and you can see the size of the bones that I’m dealing with! My data collection consists of visiting Aurochs assemblages and taking measurements from the postcranial (limb bones) and teeth, as well as from the skulls.

Me with an Aurochs at the Zoology Museum in Cambridge


The data collection part of my work has taken me to various places across Europe. So far I have visited Portugal, Denmark and Poland, and later this year I will also visit Italy and France. This summer I am concentrating on the British material. This will take me to a number of museums, including the Natural History Museum in London and the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.

This blog post will talk about what I have been up to over the whole week, because then this gives you a sense of the different material I have been working on.

I had visited the NHM very briefly before so I knew pretty much what to expect, however you never know what you might find in hiding away there, so I was pretty excited about my visit. At the start of the week I was booked in to look at material held by the Mammal Group, then later on in the week I visited the Palaeontology Department too. The general rule is that the Palaeontology Department deals with anything up to the end of the Pleistocene, and then the Mammal Group keeps material from the Holocene (the Mesolithic onwards), with a few exceptions.

An Aurochs displayed at the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen

When you first arrive at the NHM you have to go through a number of security checks and they issue you with a security pass so that you can get ‘behind the scenes’ so to speak. I arrived at the Fleet theatre entrance on Exhibition road with a lot of stuff – I had all of my equipment, and other stuff to keep me going for the week. The security guard wanted to search all of my bags and was especially intrigued by the metal implements that I had with me. These included two pairs of callipers. One smaller pair for taking smaller measurements, and a larger pair curved callipers which I had brought in order to take measurements from massive skulls. In the end he seemed satisfied that I wasn’t going to try and kill anyone with them and let me go through.

Next I met up Roberto Portela from the mammal group who organised my security pass. Only then was I allowed loose on the bones. In the mammal group you aren’t allowed to take any bags or food down to the stores, you have to take everything you need down in a plastic box, so this always takes a little while to sort out. Then we went down to the basement. I was given a desk in the centre of the mammal collections surrounded by tall cupboards full of bones, and glass cases with articulated skeletons. There was no one else down there and it might have been a bit scary if it wasn’t for the fact that I was thoroughly distracted by the bones.

In the mammal group I was primarily interested in material from the site of Star Carr, a Mesolithic site in Yorkshire. A lot of aurochs were excavated from here, along with a large amount of Red Deer, and other wild animals. I was given access to the appropriate cupboards and then it was up to me to have a rummage through to see what I could find. Often it takes longer to find good bones to record than to actually record and measure them. Every museum (or even museum department) has a different system and many museums do not have an electronic database so you have to check things manually. This can be annoying, but also exciting because you could always randomly come across things that you weren’t expecting.

I managed to track down all of the material I needed and by the end of the day I had made a good start on it. On Tuesday I was able to get going a lot earlier because I didn’t have to deal with so much security and working was much faster once I had got into a rhythm.

The way that zooarchaeologists record bones can differ depending on their project. Some people try to identify every piece of bone if they can, but this can be very time consuming, especially if you have a very large number of bones. One way of getting round this is to decide on specific parts of bones that you will record. Because primarily I am interested in measurements, my protocol focuses on the parts of bones that will be able to provide me with that information. For example the distal end (the bottom end) of long bones, because these provide very useful information. I record all of my bones in an access database which, along with excel, I will later use to do my statistical analysis.

By the end of Tuesday I had finished recording most of the aurochs bones from Star Carr and a few other sites with less material. These included Thatcham, and East Ham. On Wednesday morning I only needed to come back to measure 3 skulls – these were in great condition, and absolutely massive. This may have something to do with the fact that they were much older than a lot of the bones I have been looking at – they were from the Pleistocene.

By Wednesday afternoon I was finished in the Mammal Group so I phoned Andy Currant in the Palaeontology Department and went over there to see what stuff they had. I spent the remainder of Wednesday afternoon and the whole of Thursday there.

The Palaeontology department had material from a site called Ilford in Essex. This material has been dated to the late middle Pleistocene so is much older than the Star Carr stuff, and much bigger! Surprisingly, considering it’s age, this material was also in much better condition than that from Star Carr, with many complete bones. Complete bones take longer than partial bones to record because there are more measurements to be taken so it actually took me a fair while to record all of the bones. There were a number of skulls found at Ilford, some with complete horncores. These were neatly packed into a cupboard but were extremely heavy and difficult to get out. We spent a long time figuring out what was the best way of moving them.

After I had recorded all of the bones from Ilford I had a hunt around to see if there was any other material that could be useful. The staff in the Palaeontology department were extremely helpful, and provided me with a list of potential sites, and cupboard numbers. Still, I had to hunt through quite a few cupboards and drawers before I eventually found another assemblage that would be useful. The material was from a site called Grays Thurrock. This stuff was less complete than that from Ilford, but there were an awful lot of teeth, which took a while to record.

Finally at 4pm on Thursday I finished with all of the material in the Palaeontology Department, and treated myself to some tea and cake in the museum cafe (I recommend the lemon drizzle – a real treat!).


So that brings us to the end of your whirlwind tour of my time at the Natural History Museum. If you have been inspired by zooarchaeology and want to find out more about the kinds of things that we do, then go here to the webpage of my research group: http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/archaeology/research/zooarchaeology/


I would like to thank the NHM Mammal Group, especially Roberto Portela, and the Palaeontology Department, especially Andy Currant and Spyridoula Pappa for their help with access to the collections and their general enthusiasm during my week at the Natural History Museum.