Display Cases: Creativity, Arm-Waving & Ideas

Job title: Senior Properties Historian

Organisation: English Heritage

Usual base: Bristol

Currently working on: Stonehenge visitor centre

Find me at: @SueGreaney

Today in stats: 1 workshop/meeting (5.25hrs); 4 trains (3.5hrs);  2 tea runs (20mins); 1 colleague chat (45mins); 1 large chocolate muffin (5 mins); 1 very welcome beer (time tbc).

Today I’ve been up to our West Midlands office in central Birmingham, with my colleague and curator Sara Lunt, to meet with our exhibition designers Haley Sharpe Design.  We’re all currently working flat-out on our permanent exhibition which will form part of the new Stonehenge visitor centre. We’re doing our display case layouts at the moment – thinking about how our archaeological finds will be mounted alongisde text, graphics and replicas.

On the train on the way up to Birmingham I spend some time reviewing and updating my ‘to do’ list – I have so much to do at the moment that lists are the only way I can keep up with the next most urgent thing. Also checking into my e-mails and Twitter. I saw a great tweet the other day, something along the lines of – you don’t choose your career anymore, you just choose what to answer e-mails about! Well my e-mails are mostly about archaeology even if that definition gets stretched a little. With a hefty dose of project management thrown in.

Not the type of building where you’d expect an archaeologist to spend the day… Photograph by Ell Brown via Flickr

Arriving at The Axis, where EH is based, I stop for a tea on the way. The meeting quickly gets underway. Case layouts is one of those tasks that needs a spatial mind – being able to imagine the 3D layouts of the cases from 2D plans and elevations. It’s also a bit like a jigsaw puzzle – well that object needs to sit alongside that text, but that story has to be on the same side as that group of other objects… We’ll be re-creating quite a number of archaeological contexts, so we talk through the details of these. Soon our meeting room table is covered.

These meetings are quite intense but very creative and exciting – lots of ideas and hand waving today. Tea run no.2 and a grabbed sandwich. Time flies by and I forget to take a photo for this post – sorry! We talk reconstructions and look at recent examples we like. More work to be done here. Sara has been up this week to view the final objects we’re getting on loan from the Stonehenge Riverside Project and we look at where these fit in.

We have to have a really good understanding of what stories we’re trying to get across. We’re been into the detail of the archaeology to such an extent that we now have to extract ourselves and think from the position of a visitor. Imagine you are a tourist from Europe, just arrived on a coach, with only a sketchy understanding of prehistory in your own country, let alone somewhere else entirely – what does this tiny bit of flint mean to them? We archaeologists can all get geekily excited about petit-tranchet derivatives, but really… it is the people of the prehistoric past who have to shine through our displays.

We finish in good time – feeling satisfied that we’re nearly there with this task! I take the chance to catch up with another colleague Beth Thomas, the Stonehenge World Heritage Site Co-ordinator who happens to be in the Birmingham office today. We talk about some upcoming meetings relating to projects happening in the World Heritage Site. She’s also just launched a newsletter Megalith for the WHS which looks good (spot my contribution).

On the train on the way home (after devouring a large chocolate muffin and some fruit) I write up the action points from our day for everyone to make sure they complete all their tasks. I also check details for Monday – I have a site visit at Stonehenge with a colleague, following by another meeting with our exhibition designers at our Salisbury office.  It’s all go. I feel like we might need one of those Olympic style countdown clocks…. in which case it is 473(ish) days to go until we open – gulp. You can find out more about our plans on the EH website. I check into Twitter and have a conversation about capes(!), and read some of the posts on this site, before finally reaching home to catch up with my other half and his day. Now I’m writing this with a welcome Friday beer. Cheers!

PS. Thanks to the wonderful organisers of Day of Archaeology 2012 for their sterling work (again) – see you in 2013!

A Slightly Less Archaeological Day Than Usual

Last weekend my left knee decided to stop working. So I had the day off today.  This means doing work for the course I am undertaking alongside my full-time job.

I work as the archaeology officer for Southwark Council. Other than staff in the Heritage team who work in the Borough’s museum, I am the only archaeologist at the Council. I work within the Development Management department (we no longer control development, we manage it!). I advise planning officers on whether proposals comply with the requirements of the Borough’s archaeology policy, wider heritage policies and the relevant paragraphs of the National Planning Policy Framework. I issue briefs for archaeological work, check WSIs, monitor site work, check reports, make recommendations for the discharge of archaeological conditions and manage much of the digital data for the department. Along side the archaeological work I also undertake some conservation work where an archaeological input is necessary or valuable or if it is a GIS heavy project.

I work in a team with conservation officers, urban design officers and a tree officer. As part of my employer’s commitment to staff training I am currently undertaking a postgraduate diploma in Historic Environment Conservation at the Ironbridge Institute. This is part of the Institute of Antiquity and Archaeology at Birmingham that is currently threatened with closure. Ironbridge is an immensely valuable training organisation that provides recognised degrees and qualifications that are organised in a way whereby those in full-time work can easily undertake the qualification with a minimal level of interference with their full-time jobs.

I have nearly finished by essay on concrete conservation (far more interesting than it sounds) and would urge anyone reading this to visit this web page for more information on the potential closure If you wish to support the effort to preserve the IAA please sign the petition

Penn Museum Archaeologist; Near East

I love being in the field, but this year I’m not excavating. My work is museum related for now, an important part of what we do. So, here’s my Day of Archaeology so far:

Got up around 6:30am and checked my email through my Blackberry. Found that our subcontract to the British Museum has gone through (much of what I do these days is done jointly with London and they are five hours ahead of me, so they have already begun work when I get up).

Got to the museum around 8:00am. I live nearby, which I like because I can walk to work. My computer is my secretary, so I checked on my ‘to do’ file. Yes, if I were more up-to-date I’d just use Google Calendar or some such, but I like having individual files for each day on my hard drive. I looked through the previous day making sure the most pressing things got done, deleting those items and assigning most pressing for today. I had a committee meeting for the Ur Project yesterday; I have to write up the minutes today for distribution to others on the project, that gets the most pressing mark for the morning.


Brad Hafford in his cluttered office, 524 Museum


Our project is taking legacy data, excavation material from 1922-1934, and modernizing, that is, recording it all digitally and uniting it in one place — the interweb. The excavation was a very important one, that of the ancient city of Ur in southern Iraq and was conducted jointly by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Under laws of the day, artifacts collected were divided between the nascent state of Iraq with its newly founded National Museum and the two excavating institutions. Thus, half the artifacts are in Baghdad, the other half are split between Philadephia and London. But there is much more to an excavation than artifacts. There are also field notes, photographs, catalogues, letters, telegrams, receipts, drawings, watercolors, and so much more. We are digitizing and uniting all of this material. We want to create a site where anything and everything concerning Ur and its excavation can be accessed, researched, and gazed upon in wonder; all in open-source, freely accesible and linked data form.

Creating it takes time, patience, and money. It takes access to the artifacts and archives which are not solely spread among the three museums mentioned, but objects also secondarily sent to many smaller museums around the world, paricularly the Commonwealth at the time. There are Ur artifacts from our excavations as far afield as Australia and New Zealand. And many more in the UK: Almost 1000 artifacts are in the Birmingham Museum and Art Galleries. Not only that, but reconstructing the original numbering system for artifacts and photographs, and connecting that to the modern museum numbering systems, linking objects back to their original field records is not as easy as one might think. Our work is quite complicated. But also most worthwhile.

Museum cafe opens around 9am. Armed with coffee, and organized on my computer daily to-do list, I can face the rest of my day in confidence.

10:00am Eastern: Skype conference with British Museum colleagues. We’ve been trying now for some weeks to establish dates and room reservations for a project meeting near the end of the calendar year. Since this one needs to include funding agency, high-level museum administrators, principle investigators, other museum representatives, etc. it’s been difficult to mesh schedules. It’s also difficult to get space in the British Museum since it is in high demand.

Next we discussed the state of the merger of datasets between our two museums concerning Ur. It’s going slowly because we created our digital data from two sets of records divided by decades and the Atlantic. These records have to be meshed so that a unique identifier refers to each and every object. Then we have to get it all on a server so that both museums can access, update, and correct it. As I have probably already noted, re-unification is not easy. But we have great people on both sides of the pond working on it. Birmingham is on board and we’re starting the process of contacting the other institutions that have subsets of the Ur material. And of course we’re still trying to get the Iraq National Museum on board, but politics has gotten in the way for now.

More emails and arrangements have placed me at about the half-way point of my Day of Archaeology. More in part 2…

Promoting Professional Archaeology – My Day of Archaeology

It’s a lovely day (at the moment), and I am sitting in my garden office, looking at two monitors, and with two notebooks in front of me. Friday is usually my day for consolidating to-do lists, and sorting out a supplementary ‘when to-do’ list which wraps around meetings and travel plans for the next week.

A snapshot of my current list includes:

  •  proofreading The Archaeologist
  • setting up a IfA Practice Papers review
  • Conference 2013 business plan
  • write/ edit/ deliver eBulletin
  • review Communications and Recruitment strategy
  • project design for ‘A client toolkit; archaeology, development and planning in 2013’

Not a lot on there to do with the perceived job as a traditional archaeologist – but then, as is noticeable from other blogs, the life of an archaeologist in 2012 isn’t always (or often) one of fieldwork, investigation and discovery.

I work for the Institute of Archaeologists, a UK based professional institute for archaeologists anywhere in the world. We are a member organisation with a specific remit of setting standards for the study and care of the historic environment. The Institute is driven by a strategic vision (it’s on our website) and along with the very practical and administrative list if things to do, IfA’s big visionary targets are designed to have an impact: to raise the profile of archaeology and improve the status of archaeologists in society, to inspire excellence in professional practice, develop a stronger influence over policy affecting the historic environment, and to give archaeologists a credible, effective and efficient professional institute.

This year IfA are moving ever closer to making an application to become a Chartered Institute – for me it’s a really exciting prospect and an equally exciting time to be working for the professional body. I am passionate about archaeology (especially vikings in the North Atlantic, and longhouses in Cumbria!), and I come from a background of archaeological research, commercial post excavation management and teaching (mainly with postgraduates). What I have realised as my career has developed, is that I am also passionate about the profession of archaeology, and about the professional status of archaeologists. My job at IfA suits me. Not only do I get the opportunity to shout about how great and how important archaeology is, but I get to promote the need to do it properly, to work to professional standards and to encompass an ethical code of conduct to all archaeologists.

Today’s list may seem to be strictly administrative from some angles. From the one I’m working from, I can see how each ‘thing to do’ contributes to the overall vision and strategy which IfA has. The next issue of The Archaeologist (due out next month) reviews changes which our sector is facing, includes an interview with the Digventures team (who are trying out novel funding streams for archaeological digs), and summarises the current situation with jobs in British Archaeology. Setting up a review of current IfA Practice papers will ensure they are up-to-date, and that they cover the issues and techniques archaeologists want to know about. Every year the IfA conference includes three days of research, sector discussions, debates and training opportunities. The conference brings together 400 archaeologists who represent the full spectrum of the UK profession. In 2013 we will be descending on Birmingham – and sorting out the business plan is the first important step in making it happen. Every month we send out an eBulletin to all our members, providing an update on sector news, signposting to surveys, conferences and training, and letting members know what IfA staff and committees have been up to. The Communications and Recruitment Strategy is the tool that shapes my own job – essentially what should we be saying, to whom should be saying it? And using what means? The Recruitment strategy focuses on members – current and future. How do we be sure that our current membership is happy? How do we continue to recruit new members? Finally, the client toolkit is an idea I had when discussing how I could start to communicate the big messages to those non archaeologists who employ us, work alongside us and should benefit from the work we do. We need to make sure that everyone knows that archaeology is important, that it has a purpose and a role in society, and that archaeologists are professionals. It’s a challenge, but a worthwhile one.

So, back to today. Once this is complete, I can get back to responding to the mornings emails, then go and make myself a cuppa. It’s going to be a busy day.




DART sidetracked

Day Of Tweed

Day Of Tweed

Inevitably you get sidetracked…..

DART is burying temperature and soil moisture sensors at our test sites that take readings every hour or so. The data from these sensors will feed into soil and other models so we can get a better understanding of thermal emmisivity characteristics, soil-water percolation etc. and how this impacts on contrast identification and therefore the detection of archaeology. Most of these probes are bespoke units developed by the University of Birmingham. In order to test the veracity of these systems against an ‘off-the-shelf’ system we are collaborating with Van Walt Ltd to install their ‘off the shelf’ temperature and moisture arrays.

On Monday we will be installing the Van Walt sensors at our site in Cambridgeshire. Consequently I need to ensure that the last-minute logistics are sorted out and the programme of works is understood by all. Dr. Keith Wilkinson, our geoarchaeologist, set out the trench and borehole locations earlier today.

In addition we will be installing the Birmingham sensors in the same area in the week commencing 22nd August 2011. I have just booked the machine which will excavate and backfill the trench.

I also note that other people have put picture of themselves up. So….. here’s one of me. Today is a Tweed Friday and some stereotypes are worth maintaining! Unfortunately I have evolved in a way which precludes the growing of fancy facial furniture. I am therefore beard-free.