Battlefield Archaeology

A day of archaeology, in the life of an early career academic.

photo 4

There is a method to the madness, and structure in the stratigraphy of notebooks!

Hello! I’m Dr. Ryan McNutt, a University Teacher (adjunct professor to American readers) in Archaeology at the University of Glasgow. Today I’m going to talk a bit about a typical day in my work as an early career archaeologist within academia, and also tell you a bit about how I got here.

Anthropologizing Abroad—Or, an American in Glasgow

Like many archaeologists, and in fact, like many of my colleagues at Glasgow, I’ve had a varied journey to reach the desk I’m sat in front of today. My undergraduate was a B.Sc in Anthropology from Middle Tennessee State University, where the majority of my interest was in the prehistory and protohistory of the Mississippian civilizations of the American Southeast. Even within that, I was always interested in conflict within and between groups, and the archaeological and anthropological investigations of the effect of conflict on human behavior, and indeed, on the landscape.


Castalian Springs Field School 2006. My last field school prior to graduating.

After a few years doing commercial archaeology in the United States, this interest in conflict, coupled with my desire to return to postgraduate study, saw me pack up and move across the Atlantic to Glasgow to pursue an Mlitt, and latterly a PhD, focused on conflict and battlefield archaeology with Glasgow’s own (and the only one in the world!) Centre for Battlefield Archaeology.  My postgraduate study through the Centre was phenomenal, opening doors and providing some amazing opportunities for fieldwork in France, Poland, and on some of the most historically significant battlefields in Scotland, as well as participating in TV documentaries.


Working Hard or Hardly Working? That is the question.

“Fully employed unemployed is a common problem, and it would be good to have a post about your work.”

Reply to my message from Matt Law when I asked about writing about my situation.

A bit about me

First a little about myself. This post is not supposed to be my curriculum vitae, it just shows all kinds of jobs and occupations an archaeologist must be ready to take in order to have some income.

I graduated from University of Turku, Finland in 2012 from archaeology and in 2014 from folkloristics. My MA-thesis in archaeology was about the Swedish-Russo War of 1741-1743 and conflict archaeological theory. After this I did another Master of Arts degree, because the folkloristics in Turku started it’s own archive studies line. In my second thesis I studied triangulation between folkloristics and archaeology. I studied as an example regular stones in inhumations, using folk archives to find explanations for the stones.

After two Master of Arts degrees I find myself most of the time unemployed. I graduated from folkloristics in May 2014, and I’ve had several short employments after that. Luckily I worked during my studies and paid my membership fees to Museum trade union, so after I graduated I was entitled to daily benefits – after two months of bureaucracy.

The work for archaeologists is scattered and most archaeologists in the profession face unemployment sometimes. Many times. During winter the ground is frozen, so that puts a halt to excavations. Last year (2014) I spent a total of 10 weeks as a digger after my graduation in May. I also wrote articles and held lectures at community colleges (Kansalaisopisto). I’ve tried to get funding to do independent research, but with no success. Year 2015 mostly repeats last year.

Here are a few photos of my fully-employed days in 2014:


Excavations in Harjavalta at the end of Summer 2014. Heavy rain and an improvised tent.

During the excavations in 2014 in Harjavalta the road to construction site and excavations was blocked with gravel and stones during the weekends to prevent thefts. One Friday the workers forgot that the archaeologists were still working.

During the excavations in 2014 in Harjavalta the road to construction site and excavations was blocked with gravel and stones during the weekends to prevent thefts. One Friday the construction site workers forgot that the archaeologists were still working.

Never try to disrupt the movements of archaeologists equipped with shovels. Archaeologists breaking free in Harjavalta during excavations 2014.

Never try to disrupt the movements of archaeologists equipped with shovels. Archaeologists breaking free in Harjavalta during excavations 2014.

Year 2015 for archaeologist

Like I wrote, year 2015 seems to repeat last year. I worked as a digger in Museovirasto (NBA, National Board of Antiquities) most of April. We circled around Pirkanmaa (Tampere region) and for an archaeologist specialized in conflict archaeology these trips were wonderful, although the excavation sites were “normal digs”. Most sites were located near battlefields of the Finnish Civil War (1918), and I spotted several bullet or shrapnel holes in buildings nearby. I was fascinated with shrapnel tears in the attic of an old house. The master of the house gave me a few pieces of shrapnel as a memento, which were picked from the floor of the attic.

A shrapnel's spilnetrs tore the floor of this attic in Messukylä, Tampere during the Cibil War of 1918.

Shrapnel splinters tore the floor of this attic in Messukylä, Tampere during the Civil War of 1918. I was thrilled to see these!

The shrapnel tears, soon 100 years old, compared to my hand.

The shrapnel tears, soon 100 years old, compared to my hand.

Shrapnel splinters from the battle of Messukylä, 1918.

Shrapnel splinters from the battle of Messukylä, 1918.

It’s moments and discoveries like these that make this profession worth the effort.

Sometimes archaeology is full of sh*t. Especially when you have to dig in a horse pasture. Two horses and one pony were observing kneenly, as two brave diggers crossed the fence and started looking for signs of iron age.

Sometimes archaeology is full of sh*t. Especially when you have to dig in a horse pasture. Two horses and one pony were observing keenly, as two brave diggers crossed the fence and started looking for signs of iron age. Sastamala, Finland in April 2015.

Before this one month job I wrote articles to local news paper Turun Sanomat about the foreign volunteers in Winter War (1939 – 1940). The fee for these writings is small but every little bit helps in my situation. I also had lectures in community colleges. One was about the conflict archaeology of Late Iron Age Finland with title “Lännen pitkä miekka iskee idän sapeliin? Nuoremman rautakauden konfliktiarkeologiaa” (The long sword of west strikes the eastern scimitar? Conflict archaeology of Late Iron Age). I also held five lectures in other college about the history of guerrilla warfare, the radio intelligence in Finland before and during WWII (things I learned during making this lecture made the movie Imitation Game look rather ridiculous, by the way), War of Åland (Crimean war in Finland 1854 – 1855), the Lapland War (1944 – 45, Finns against Germans in Northern Finland) and Foreign volunteers in Finnish wars of 1939 – 1944.

Jobs like these keep me interested in things – with a deadline. It’s important to have a set date, before which I have to read all the books necessary and produce a popular representation of the subject. These jobs are also an outstanding alternative to full-time alcoholism.

As a new profession I was a guide in four days trip to Carelian Isthmus (in Russia) in the beginning of May. We visited battlefields of WWII and I provided the speaks and representations. The preparations to visit Russia were thorough. I made very large maps with cardboards, contact paper and glue, which worked fine. Usually the guides just give A4-sized maps full of sings and arrows, which are incomprehensible.

Dragon's teeth, tank obstacles in Siiranmäki, Carelian Isthmus.

Dragon’s teeth, tank obstacles in Siiranmäki, Carelian Isthmus.

This new profession was fulfilling. Sites were amazing and the trip to Russia was mostly without difficulties. Some roads were in horrible condition, but we got by. Timing was good, since the sites were clear of vegetation and we got to witness the Victory Day Celebration in Viborg.

Currently: what I’m looking for in 24th of July 2015

The trouble with being a tour guide is the same as with being a professional field archaeologist: you have to move to different sites all the time and employment time is short. I’d like to get employed in Turku, but the chances for that are poor. Second chance is to go to longer excavations to some other part of Finland. Currently the private companies do most of these kind of excavations, and so far I haven’t been contacted. Usually one, two, three month excavations are rare and my only chance to get to those is in the beginning of Summer or Fall, when students are back at university. The economical situation doesn’t help.

There is a program to employ people under the age of 30. However, the program ran out of money a month ago and since I haven’t been on daily benefits for 300 days, I can’t get this support.

This week I managed to get one actual job done. During the year 2012 I interviewed war veterans and collected lot’s of material, and made a web site for the museum which employed me. Yesterday I finished the student version of these sites after many difficulties. Today I’ll do the finishing touches to the site. Designing pages like these is difficult for many reasons: I have little IT-training, the software I’m using is simple – for better or worse – and it’s hard to decide the visual design because I’m partly color blind.

Then there are the funds I’m trying to get from different associations or trusts to write books or to do research. The first notice will come next month, after which I hopefully can once again turn into full-time researcher. For a few months.

And there’s the free stuff: reviews to professional magazines, articles with which I try to score “academic points” in case I begin doctoral studies, helping other researchers by email and of course helping other small scale field studies for which I get payed in free accommodations, travels, food and beer. I suppose stuff like this keeps archaeology running – the free work and the beer.

Waterloo Uncovered

Day 4

Day 4 of our two week dig on the site of the Battle of Waterloo and we’ve turned our attention to an area that is referred to as the sunken way, a ditch that runs East to West past the North of Hougoumont Farm and found five musket balls. Now we know from Private Matthew Clay’s memoirs that he slept here the night before the battle and he writes of having to discharge his fire arm of ammunition in order to clear the barrel. This find matches Clay’s accounts nicely and it is potentially very exciting that we can link first hand accounts to the archaeology.

Matthew Clay

Mathew Clay

Also in the sunken way was an artillery shell fired from the French Howitzer. It was fired from the south west and looks like it hit the farm, fragmented and this piece landed in the ditch. Exciting stuff!

The sunken way

The sunken way

Accessible archaeology

The great thing about an archaeological dig is the wealth of jobs that people can get involved in. We were visited yesterday by professional artist Beth Collar, and both she and Dougie, a veteran Grenadier who also has a talent for drawing, went around the site to capture the spirit of the dig. This project has shown that there are enough different jobs and skills for anyone to get involved.  It’s been particularly good to see that some of the veterans who worked in reconnaissance while serving have excelled in drawing site records. Its great to show them that they have transferable skills for when they leave the armed forces.

Pocket knife

Day 4 also produced another exciting find: a pocket knife which is similar in style to the one found by Dominique Bosquet that accompanied the skeleton now on display in the brand new museum next to the Lion Mount. This knife is being analysed and results will be released as soon as we know more.

The team are getting into a stride now and as we head into the end of our first week a number of veterans who came out and had never tried archaeology before have remarked how much they have learned and how much they have enjoyed this experience so far. Being around other service personnel, the banter and above all learning about something they are passionate about has got them fired up to do more.


If you would like to help support this project so that more veterans can get involved and more of the battle can be understood you can donate to the project. More details can be found here, and more details about the wider project can be found on the project website.

Dominique Bosquet,Lead archaeologist for Waterloo Uncovered and from SPW

Dominique Bosquet,Lead archaeologist for Waterloo Uncovered and from SPW

Finding the American Revolution in New York State

New York State was the location of many violent battles and skirmishes during the American Revolution.  Campaigns, such as the British invasion of New York City and Long Island (1776), the Burgoyne Campaign (1777), and the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign (1779) scorched New York’s landscape.  Raids and skirmishes also divided communities pitting Loyalists against American friends and families.  The British and American’s call for Native American groups, such as the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee), to choose a side led to a civil war within the Iroquois Confederacy.  The impact of the conflict was felt immediately in the loss of homes and lives; these impacts lasted well beyond the end of the war.

The Public Archaeology Facility has conducted studies of Revolutionary War battles associated with both the Burgoyne and Sullivan-Clinton Campaigns.  These studies have helped to remap these battlefields by determining the boundaries’ of battlefields and identify landscape features associated with the battles.  The ultimate goal of this research is to better comprehend the experience of those involved in the American Revolution in New York State.  We hope that our research can be used to preserve these battlefields and provide the public with an understanding of the conflict.

Our studies begin with extensive research of historic documents.  To identify the location of the battlefield and its landscape features we review the writings or oral histories of a battle’s combatants.  Journals, official reports, letters, and veteran pension applications can all provide valuable information for us.  Although sometimes mentioned incidentally in these documents, references to landscape features, such as roads, villages, mountains, and rivers, provide us with valuable information on where battle related actions took place.  In a way, combatants tell us where they were during the battle and how they used the battlefield’s landscape.

Loyalist John Butler

Letter by Loyalist John Butler

We map this historic data using a Geographic Information System or GIS allowing us to perform various analyses and comparisons of data.  We overlay historic maps and accounts of the battle onto present day maps to determine where the battle occurred and what remains of the battlefield.  We refine the locations of battlefield features using viewshed and range of fire analyses.  This information is used to conduct a military terrain analysis of the battlefield.  We can identify how combatants used a portion of the battlefield- a path to advance or retreat, a place to seek cover or concealment, an observation post, an obstacle that restricted advance, or a post to defend or take.  Taken together, these pieces of the landscape provide us with the battlefield’s boundaries and multi-scale view of how the battle unfolded.

Range of Fire

Range of Fire Analysis

With a GIS map to guide us, we perform a systematic inventory or survey of battlefield features.  The identification of musket and rifle balls and personal belongings of soldiers tells us that the battlefield’s landscape and the material remains of the battle are still intact.  We can also use the locations of these material remains to better determine troop positions and movements.



Archaeologist Conducting Systematic Survey

Rifle balls

Fired and Unfired Rifle Balls and Buckshot

The historical background and the results of archaeological investigation provide a basis for preserving the battlefield.  Working with local groups and descendent communities, we can present the history of the battle to the public with presentations, signage, or digital media.  This information can also help to advise agencies and developers on how best to avoid impacts to the battlefield so that the history of the American Revolution can be seen by future generations.