Roadtrips and Research – The Undergraduate’s Tale

I’m Rena Maguire. I’m almost an archaeologist, as I’m a third year undergraduate in QUB Belfast. My day of archaeology started at 6am. Not usual for an undergraduate, but I like to get a head-start on things by getting out for a few miles cycle on the bike to clear the cobwebs away and keep fit. That’s after coffee and giving morning kissies to my nutty hamsters Mo, Flo and Tim. They’re my surrogate dogs, and I daren’t ignore them! Today I’ve got a meeting with my supervisor, Dr Dirk Brandherm, with regards to research for my dissertation. He’s the metal expert par excellence. This is the start of my third year in QUB Belfast, doing my Archaeology degree, and this summer is all about research and breaking some new ground on my chosen topic.

Archaeology isn’t all research – it can be pretty strenuous on excavations, and I’m off on excavation in July, to Flag Fen, Cambridgeshire. It’ll be my first Bronze Age site, which I’m incredibly excited by. I clocked up a fair few excavations last year – Dunluce was my field school in June 2011, then I was off to an island off the coast of Norway, excavating a Hanseatic kontor, or trading post. This was followed by an Early Christian rath at Ballyaghagan. It seems that whatever digs I’ve been on there’s been television cameras there, so even if you haven’t seen my face, my backside has been on most UK TV stations! I love the constant challenges each landscape throws up, so am very thrilled at getting wetland experience at Flag Fen. It’s also one of the eras I’m interested in specialising in. Win/ win situation!

I came into academia from working in the entertainments industry, as a mature student, and I love the work. I really couldn’t imagine doing anything else now. Last week I was in Armagh, handling 2200 year old horse harness and drawing it as part of my dissertation. This week I was down in the beautiful National Museum of Ireland, in Dublin, cross-referencing data going back as far as the 1830s. The archives are heaven, the staff incredibly helpful in every way – I love the old fashioned courtesy and grace which exists in this profession.

If you’re a book lover, you’d also love the poring through glorious sepia coloured envelopes, smelling sweetly as only old paper in archives can, with fabulously drawn and recorded artefacts. There is an elegance to this kind of research – I get lost in thought among them very easily. To date I’ve found a lot of information which hasn’t been in the public domain, which hopefully will read well after its added to my thesis!

I walk over to university in the rain, and get soaked, but I’m pretty happy. I miss Queens when I’m not there regularly, miss the fun, the people and the stimulus. If you aren’t familiar with Queens University Belfast, let me tell you what a really terrific place it is to study archaeology. It was always my first choice as a university, not just because I live here but because it has produced so many great archaeologists. It may be a centre of excellence, but it’s got a great sense of belonging and community.

I’ve been compiling a listing of the horse harness pieces of the Irish Iron Age which I’m doing my dissertation on, and having to devise a methodology for its presentation. This has been a most difficult things for me, as I’m very much the kind of person who goes into a situation and makes up a methodology depending on the circumstances of that moment. My supervisor keeps me on my toes and won’t let me away with being as sloppy as my past employment would accept. Order and quantifiable scientific analysis make for good archaeology – things I need to learn!

The thing I love about archaeology is that no two days are ever the same. Today, I’m presenting the results of the past two weeks of intense research work. In a couple of weeks time, I’ll be in workboots and vizi-vest, on a fenland in East Anglia. I’ll alternate between computer skills, artwork, hauling spoil buckets about, calculating carbon 14 rates of decay, sorting artefacts out – or like today, learning from Dirk how metal repairs were carried out in the Iron Age depending on the substance the actual artefact is made of. I’m going to see if I can purloin the loan of a piece of harness to get it X-rayed, and analyse how the pieces were actually made. You work hard as a QUB Undergrad ( well, you do if you want to do this thing right). I wont tell lies and say it’s an easy course to do, but the lecturers work ten times harder to pull everything good out of you, and make you into a consummate professional.

I would like to go into the academic side of archaeology, but I also love the digging – you have no idea what’s waiting in the soil. It’s like Christmas – with added mud! At Dunluce last year, on the very last day of the dig, I found a rapier, which had been buried under a ruined building from the 1641 Rebellion . God knows what its story is, but that element of humanity and pathos is just one reason why I’m in love with all the processes of this job.

So, after I finished exasperating my supervisor about my lack of forethought on categorising artefacts ( filing is not my strong point!), and I resolve to do better next time, I head to a chip shop to grab some lunch. They’re playing a song that somehow always seems to pop up every time there’s some good archaeology about to go down – Nicki Minaj’s Superbass. The song makes me think of all last summers early starts, dressing by the first light of dawn to arrive at excavations; it makes me think of plane rides, and coach rides, and smiling to myself as the sun rises on ancient landscapes, not knowing what the day is going to bring. ‘My heart goes boom-da-boom da boom like super bass’…. yes, actually,it does, when I think of the honour of working with the history of humanity, and learning how to recreate it all again in the present day This work makes me a very happy girl indeed. I’m still only learning, but I know I want to take this to PhD and excel at what I’m interested in .We get to do the best job on the planet, in my opinion, so I’m more than happy to make every day a day of archaeology!

Day of Archaeology as a PhD student

Hi.  I’m a part time PhD student researching thirteenth-century manorial buildings using medieval documents.  I’m studying at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland.

I spent most of Friday analysing information from manorial accounts for three manors in the south east of England.  Medieval documents are not the usual focus of an archaeological PhD, but I am interested in the information about buildings that they contain.  These accounts have lots of information about what the buildings were roofed with, what the walls were made of and the different types of buildings on the manor.  There is also interesting entries, like the mole catcher, who is employed to catch moles in the lord’s pasture, or the castrating of pigs.  Some times specific historical events are recorded, like the great storm of 1361-2.  The only problem is that the accounts are in medieval Latin, which I had no knowledge of until last September.  I’ve had to learn medieval palaeography to be able to decipher the hand writing and translate the Latin.

The most interesting outcome of my analysis was that there appears to be an increase in spending on the maintenance of buildings at the end of the 1330s.  Some of the manors spent more money on repairing the buildings and others rebuild some of their buildings.  I’m yet to understand why this change occurs and so far I have only identified it in four manors, but it is a pattern that I will look out for as I investigate more manors across England.  My goal is to advance our limited knowledge of what medieval manorial buildings looked like and what they were built from, as well as how much maintenance they required.

On Friday evening, I headed up to Northern Ireland’s north coast to visit a site that I have been excavating with the National Trust.  The site is the eighteenth-century palace of the Earl Bishop, Frederick Hervey [Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol].  This has been the third year of the project and we have now uncovered many structures in the two domestick yards to the rear of the house that have been hidden since the Second World War.  There have been loads of finds of ceramic, glass, bone and iron; we needed large plastic storage boxes for the finds, instead of the usual finds bags.  We are already planning to return next year to investigate further areas of the palace.  I’ve enjoyed the chance to do some practical archaeology, it makes a change from reading medieval documents.  While I was up this weekend, filming was taking place for the next season of ‘Game of Thrones’.

I also spent a bit of time working on stuff for the Ulster Archaeological Society Newsletter.  As Assistant Editor, I have to write up notes from the Society’s lectures and field-trips, as well as contributing other notes.  This is a great way to keep informed of what is going on in Irish archaeology – Twitter and Facebook is a great help in doing this.