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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!

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!