A career in ruins? (part 1)

I’ve reached the end of my current contract- a ten week stint, my first job since Christmas and I don’t really know where the next job is coming from. (Yay!)

The short term nature of some contracts and the uncertainties around finding and keeping a job may not be everyone’s favorite part of Archaeology; but this is where I am at the moment,  it gives a more balanced view and finally I hope to show some positives, like how we cope with it.

Indiana Jones wants

A Day of Archaeology at the Top of the World

The Day of Archaeology 2012 started the way every other day this week did, in the lab.  Unlike the past seven summers, the Nuvuk Archaeology Project is spending a good bit of the summer in the lab.  We have been digging at a furious pace over those summers, because Nuvuk, site of a village occupied from Thule times through contact and up until the 20th century, the associated cemetery, and, it turns out, an Ipiutak occupation 500 km north of any previously known,is eroding at an average rate of 6 meters per year, up from an average of just over 3 meters per year around 1950.  All that digging has resulted in quite a mountain of artifacts and faunal material.  The individuals recovered from the burials are analyzed and reburied in the Barrow cemetery, but the other items remain.

We don’t take a lot of weather days during the short summers, so lab work mostly happens on weekends during the school year.  The Nuvuk crew is mostly made up of local high school students, augmented by undergraduate and grad students in summer, and they have full school days and often sports commitments as well.  As a result, we haven’t been able to process (clean, mark, catalog) everything before the next field season begins.  I decided that we should use the remaining project funds to make sure that was done and done properly. Thus, lab work.

Our crew was fairly small today.  One person who started the summer with us got a more or less permanent job, and another was offered 4 years of summer internships in the field she hopes to go into after college, and a  third just got married on Tuesday!

Trace, Kyle and Coby hard at work in the lab, cataloging Nuvuk artifacts.

Trace showing everyone a really nice whalebone pick head he is about to catalog.

Victoria takes a turn at data entry. All those catalog sheets have to be entered into the existing catalog, created in the field when we record proveniences with the theodolite.

We also have a volunteer working in the lab.  Becca Connor is an intern with the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium.  She’s also interested in socio-natural systems, particularly the possible effects of environmental change on subsistence.  She’s in the process of pulling samples of faunal material from a midden at Pingusugruk, a bit down the coast from Barrow, that was excavated with very good provenience data for faunal material.  I’ve picked a couple of units that seem to contain faunal material from the top of the midden to the bottom and don’t seem to have anything usual happening, and she’s going to ID that with my help and see if any changes are apparent.  The house the midden was associated with was abandoned & reoccupied, so we’re hopeful.

Becca asking what to do with the Styrofoam peanuts that the bags of faunal material were packed in for shipping (it was excavated in the 1990s.)

The morning passed with bags being opened, their information checked against the catalog, and the contents being sorted and cataloged.  We are using archival paper labels that we adhere with an Arcyloid solution, so that happens as another step to reduce the exposure to acetone fumes.  We do it under an extractor, so only 1-2 people can work on it, and it has to happen on the bench Becca is using.  I don’t allow materials from more than one site on a bench at a time.  Less chance of confusion that way.

The afternoon was very different.  The final nalukataq (whaling feast) of the year was being held in Barrow, so we took the afternoon off so everyone could attend.  The 5 successful captains set up a windbreak on the nalukataq grounds, and anyone and everyone is welcome to come, get fed and take some home.  The way the Iñupiat see it, the captains & crews don’t catch the whales, the individual whales have chosen to give themselves to the individual captains, who are expected to take very good care of the whale and share as much as possible out of respect for the whale. Prayers of thanksgiving are said before every round of servings.

It starts with soup (usually with bread & such) around noon, then mikiaq (fermented meat, blubber, blood & so forth) around 3 PM.  It’s very tasty when made right, and no odder than moldy lumps of curdled milk with veins of mold running through it, AKA a nice ripe Stilton.  Around 6PM there is quaq (frozen whale meat) and frozen muktuk (whale skin with some blubber attached, which is both delicious and incredibly warming on a cold day).  There is almost always a sort of dried fruit stew, apples & oranges, and if the captains and/or their wives have been able to arrange it, often special treats like frozen fish or akutaq (AKA Eskimo ice cream).

I was a bit late because I got caught up in another issue, so I missed the first course, the goose soup.  I did get there in time for mikiaq, and got 2 rounds.  The first I had some of right there with the folks I was sitting with, and it was very tasty indeed.  Unfortunately, I forgot my camera & had to use my phone, so the pictures aren’t the best.

Tails and flippers set out at nalukataq for visitors to help themselves. Flags of some of the whaling captains who are hosting this nalukataq fly above the windbreak in the background.

The blanket is at the left, with kids on it between servings. Adults don’t go on it until the evening.

One thing I love about Nalukataqs is that there are always some little kids in pretty parkas playing in the sand & gravel between servings.  They just get into their own little worlds there amid all the people.

Little girl playing in the sand.

Girl playing in the gravel next to the blanket, which is on the ground at the moment.

With five crews hosting (and therefore 5 whales to share), there was a mountain of meat and muktuk.  Crews bring it from the ice cellars just before it is served.  Most of them brought in trucks, and one crew actually got a front end loader and stacked the boxes of whale in the bucket to bring them over.

Meat and muktuk being brought from the ice cellars.

Then it was shared with everyone…  There were people from other villages, at least as far away as the Kotzebue region, and people who live in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and they will take their whale home and share it even farther.

That isn’t all of the whale.  Similar amounts will be shared by these captains at the Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts, they will share on special occasions.  Of course, crew members and those who helped tow and butcher the whale already got shares when the whale was taken, and they will be sharing that throughout the year too.

Going to Nalukataq may not sound like archaeology, but whaling has been the organizing focus of this culture since before most of the sites I work on were formed.  I really don’t see how one can expect to interpret these sites without a pretty good understanding of what whaling actually entails.

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!

What is in the Post?

One of the delights of specialist post-ex work is that you never know quite what the next delivery from the postman or courier will bring. Today’s delivery was of 15 crates of iron-working residue (almost quarter of a tonne!) from a medieval site in Ireland.

A quick look (its a bit like Christmas…!) shows a beautifully-preserved assemblage of slag and large fragments of tuyères (the ceramic ‘nozzle’ carrying the blast from the bellows into the blacksmith’s hearth).


A day with the UCL Institute of Archaeology Library: 29th July 2011

Books, books, books. Journals, conference proceedings, technical reports,  e-resources. And lots more.

Institute of Archaeology Library

Institute of Archaeology Library

You might wonder why a library wants to contribute to the Day of Archaeology and what our relevancy might be. But libraries, especially specialist libraries like the UCL Institute of Archaeology, are vital for archaeological research and have been part of archaeology since the beginning – the Society of Antiquaries Library was founded in 1751!  Researchers – students, academic staff, commercial researchers and even interested members of the general public – come to libraries to  find the factual information and the theoretical frameworks that drive and structure their work. It’s also here that the final published results of excavations and fieldwork – site reports – end up!

So if you want to find out a little bit more about what we do and what our customers use our facilities to research, read on!

 Our day…

My day starts at 8.30 a.m. I have an hour before the library opens and I usually take this time to open up, sort out the ‘reshelving’ (books used in the library or returned during the previous day) and have a look round for any problems, potential areas of work or to get ideas about how to improve our working space and collections. Ian, one of our shelvers, has been working on periodicals (journals) ‘weeding’ and created some extra space for both the periodicals and the

Egyptology shelves

Egyptology shelves

Edwards Egyptology Library.  I work through the Egyptology collection, assessing where we need to shift the books to leave space for growth – I estimate we have space for 3-5 years’ growth overall that can be distributed amongst the shelves. Most humanities and social sciences research libraries have space problems and we’re no exception. Because so many of our books and journals are used for research as well as teaching, we can’t send older material to Stores, as it needs to be on the shelves for researchers to consult. We’re trying to make space where possible by sending journals that are also available electronically to Stores – ‘weeding them’. Electronic access means that we can still provide access to key resources, but we don’t have to have them physically on the shelves.

Yu-ju Lin and Paul Majewski, two of our library assistants, arrive and the library opens at 9.30 a.m. Paul starts work on the virtual exhibitions page we’re building to accompany a Friends of the Petrie Museum exhibition that will be opening in the library in September.

Yu-Ju Lin

Yu-Ju and the missing book

Yu-ju goes out to look for missing books. In a library with over 70,000 books and 800 periodical sets (I’ve no idea how many actual individual volumes of these we have!) books can easily become mislaid. So shelf tidying and looking for books reported missing to us each week is a vital part of our work. It’s a good day – she finds an important missing book needed by the Ancient History department straight away.

I look through my emails and answer any enquiries. These can be from our current students and staff about their library records and our collections, but also from other researchers asking about our archive material (which is held by UCL Special Collections), staff and students from other universities asking about using our collections or from members of the public who just want answers to archaeological questions. There aren’t too many today, so I start working through our Accessions List (the list of new books that have arrived in the library that month) highlighting some for our Ancient World/Archaeology blog. Once I’ve done this, I continue some on-going work with free online journals. I have a long list of free electronic resources from AWOL (Ancient World Online) that I’m working through looking for digital duplicates of our paper resources. Where possible, we try to always provide digital access to resources – students and staff can get to the 24/7 and pressure on our paper copies – both in terms of use and preservation (general state of repair) – is lessened.

Ricky Estwick

Ricky Estwick

Ricky Estwick comes with our delivery of mail from elsewhere in UCL Library Services. Although we’re a library in our own right, we’re also part of UCL Library Services and our work flows and patterns fit in to the larger structure of the organisation. We don’t for example, do our own cataloguing. This is done in a central cataloguing unit to ensure standardisation across UCL’s library collections and so our material is in line with global information standards. Ricky brings books and periodicals that have arrived for us from different libraries, as well as materials from cataloguing, acquisitions and Stores.

Scott Stetkiewicz comes to the Issue Desk to ask about obtaining materials from Scottish excavations for his MSc dissertation on slag analysis. We have a look through the resources available in the library and online through English Heritage, the Archaeological Data Service and Heritage Gateway.

Stuart Brookes comes in to borrow books for his project ‘landscapes of governance: assembly sites in England, 5th – 11th centuries’.  (more…)

A Highland view from Edinburgh

Like a number of other archaeologists, I haven’t been working within archaeology for a some months now. I was fortunate that following finishing my degree studies, I was working continuously – in some form or another – right up until Christmas last year. Since then I’ve been seeking gainful employment outside the archaeological world always with the hope of getting back into it. Jobs have been applied for, interviews taken, rejections accepted… Still, I’m a determined individual and accept that while it may take some time, I will be employed within archaeology again. I believe that with enough time, effort and blind faith, my determination will pay off. Though it may worth asking me in a year’s time if I still see this the same way…

So, this ‘day in the life of’ will be slightly different as I’m not – strictly speaking – an archaeologist, merely someone who wishes to be one (again). I live in Edinburgh, Scotland and in many respects it is a fantastic place to be situated as an archaeologist. There is an abundance of commercial units, government agencies and fantastic museums all of which provide great opportunities and resources for interested parties of all kinds – whether students, professionals or others. Indeed, it’s these ‘others’ that I’m interested in as an archaeologist. I see archaeology as a discipline breaking down into 3 basic (and, yes, exceptionally generalised) categories: academic, commercial and public. Now, I don’t really agree that there should be a separate branch of archaeology called ‘public’. I think that all archaeology should be public. This is an attitude that not everyone agrees with and an attitude that is very difficult to fulfil within the commercial and academic sectors. Happily, however, the importance of public archaeology is increasingly being realised and evermore funding and resources being given towards it. For anyone reading not immediately familiar with what ‘public archaeology’ means, it is a democratic approach to studying our past: ensuring the transparency, accessibility and opening up of archaeology to everyone. Community involvement and support is absolutely critical to this.

My own interest stemmed partly from what I was learning at university and my frustrations with hitting a brick wall of grey literature at seemingly every turn, and partly the fieldwork I undertook as part of my degree studies. I consciously chose sites that were varied, working with a wide variety of individuals and an equally as wide variety of subject matters. While I didn’t realise it at the time, my interests were drawn towards projects where there was a degree of community involvement and within cultural landscapes with which I identified (silly me thinking it’d be just the archaeology drawing me to a place!). These landscapes are the Scottish Highlands, or more specifically the Gaidhealtachd – the Gaelic-speaking Highlands. As a native Gaelic-speaker myself and having been brought up in the Highlands perhaps somewhat inevitably a significant part of my fieldwork experience has been in this area.


Day of Archaeology – Preparations and Travelling

Firstly I think before I launch into what I’m doing on the 29th July I think I should give a brief explanation as to how I arrived at doing what I’ll be doing on that day.

I’m a under grad currently studying Bio-Archaeology and on placement with Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust in Wales until Christmas, normally doing things like updating the records and using GIS.

Friday 29th I’ll be joining my placement supervisor as we head to Wrexham to set up the Trust’s stand at what I hear is THE event in Wales, The National Eisteddfod of Wales, which this year is in Wrexham and starts on the 30th July. We’ll be taking most the leaflets and a small amount of the equipment needed over the week long event and setting it all up ready for the mayhem to begin on Saturday.

So it’s not I’m afraid a very exciting day just travelling and laying out leaflets, if anything does happen or plans change I’ll put up another post but for now that’s about it.