fieldwork

My Month as an Archaeologist

My first time as a real life archaeologist was even better than I imagined and it’s all thanks to the Northern Mongolia Archaeological Project, short for NMAP. Run by Dr Julia Clark from the American Centre for Mongolian Studies and Dr Bayarsaikhan Jamsranjav from the National Museum of Mongolia this field school offered a once in a lifetime opportunity to investigate nomadic pastoralism at the site of Soyo in the Darkhad region in Northern Mongolia. The team was comprised of a variety of nations; Mongolians, Australians, Americans, Scottish, British, French, and Swedish. Though all originating from different cultures, languages, and education, we all spoke the common language of archaeology and excitement!

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The back side of Soyo mountain.

The trip gave me experiences in a variety of areas, but some of the archaeological that first come to my mind are working with Ian Moffat (Flinders University), and Dave Putnam (University of Maine at Presque Isle). Ian was on the team in order to construct an image of the whole site using GPR (http://www.dayofarchaeology.com/archaeological-geophysics-in-northern-mongolia/). As a student of Ian’s we were given the task of walking up and down the sloping hills of Soyo, more often than not scattered with boulders ranging from the size of a hand to the size of a tent! Strapped onto our back was the radar which every 2cm would send pulses down into the ground to a depth of roughly 4m before bouncing back up. As we moved forward the screen depicted the data we had just collected, and it was fascinating being able to see what was beneath our feet and what it would mean later on for the site. Apart from GPR we were able to fly a kite with a camera attached to it up in the air to capture an aerial image of the site. What I definitely learnt from trying to fly a kite multiple times, was that all one needs is a storm and a kite goes right up! Learning about GPR, and learning how to work the technology associated with it was fascinating and a preview into what I see as the way of archaeology.

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Ben Turcea and Evan Holt digging one of the test pits.

Working with Dave will always be remembered as the time I baptised my Marshalltown trowel. We dug six test pits in total and every test pit provided a different stratigraphic image of the landscape. Two of our test pits reached a depth over 140cm, with one of them even hitting permafrost which was an exciting discovery! Dave, along with Ian were able to describe each of the different layers we were viewing and bring them to life. Reading about stratigraphic layers from a textbook will never be the same let me tell you that! What I found extremely interesting were that the glacial boulders we encountered were at different depths at each test pit and units. Additionally I was able to help dig out the deeper test pits while upside down which just shows I’m fit for the role of an archaeologist!

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Evan Holt and Adam Nelson giving me a helping hand.

This trip will be one of the most memorable excavations in my lifetime and I would recommend it to anyone! My only recommendation is that when you’re offered goat, take as much of it as you can because you’ll want seconds!

Thoughts from a corner of Sweden: If the UK leaves Europe, where does that leave me ? (and the many other archaeologists in the same sinking boat)

This year my Day of Archaeology posting comes from Sweden…..At the moment I am working on the site of Nya Lödöse, the old town area of Gothenburg. I am told it is the largest urban excavation ever to have been undertaken in western Sweden. My interest is in the early post-medieval houses and workshops of the town, but we are also excavating the church and its associated cemetery. As with every urban excavation, anywhere in the world, we are under pressure both in terms of time and resources…. but there are many joys. The scale and survival of the buildings is brilliant, the cemetery is producing all kinds of interesting anatomical and spatial data.

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Nya Lödöse excavations 2016

I continue to follow the progress of the Intrasis dedicated archaeological GIS, but this time in the nation that developed the system….I am sure all my colleagues back at Historic England would love to see the latest version of Intrasis being used on a really intensive excavation…and to see demonstrated the facilities where onsite inputting of GIS data linked to an external remote database is possible.

We finish this phase of the project at the end of August….but there is another part of the cemetery and town to be excavated in 2017….

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Three members of the team

But enough of the good news… there are bad times a coming and coming up fast. Anyone who has read any of my previous Day of Archaeology posts, will note that over the years, I have taken full advantage of my rights as an EU citizen to travel and work in quite a few different EU and EEA countries. Unfortunately, future opportunities of this type are likely to limited for us Brits. I don’t intend to say anything about the motives or mind set of the 52% of British voters who decided the UK should quit the EU. Those folk will one day have to justify their decision to someone mightier than any of us and may indeed feel real regret as they descend into the ninth circle of Hell, sweating through the flames of the Inferno and overcome by the stench of the raw sewage within which they hopefully will stew for all Eternity….

No, what I would like to say is something about how the decision of the UK to leave the EU will affect archaeology and archaeologists across the whole continent.

we are stuffed

In the first instance those of us Brits that work in other EU countries will have our wings clipped by the Brexit vote. Hopefully some arrangement will be reached where we can still work within the EU/EEA area, but I imagine that extra layers of bureaucracy will be placed upon us. As someone who worked in Europe before freedom of movement, I can recall the hours spent waiting at various airports, police stations and the like getting documents and permissions verified; on occasions having to attend medicals to ensure that I wasn’t bringing the Black Death back to one of its source nations and often having to take out separate (and often expensive) private health and liability insurances. Let alone the difficulties of opening bank accounts, transferring funds from work nation back to the UK etc etc.

Secondly, the situation will become equally difficult for the large number of EU nationals currently working in UK archaeology. EU citizens do not at present require visas to work in the UK, but that is likely to change following Brexit. Archaeology is not a ‘protected profession’ when it comes to granting work visas and non-Brit archaeologists wanting to work in the UK will find they are subject to the most restrictive forms of visa. The worst of this is the requirement for the post to provide a minimum salary level, currently £35,000 pa, before a work visa is granted. Only a very few UK archaeologists currently earn that amount and it seems unlikely that a massive wage increase will be instigated to retain non-UK workers

Thirdly, there is the question of research funding, collaboration projects and the status EU archaeology students in the UK and UK students in other EU countries. I anticipate a minefield of funding options, none of which will be less expensive than current levels and surely will result in less choice, less research and less collaborations. My personal grief will be compounded if employment with European research institutes and/or universities becomes difficult if not impossible as a result of Brexit…..It is already being predicted that the Erasmus student exchange programme will be severely curtailed for UK students travelling abroad and UK universities hosting EU students.

So here’s the rub. I think that the opportunities for British archaeologists to work in many different European corners and for EU nationals to come and do the same in the UK has contributed to a wider and more comprehensive understanding of our discipline. Archaeology across the EU benefits from the UK being an active participant. We equally learn from out interaction with colleagues from across the continent. I believe that there are cultural and social advantages in exploring the commonality of our continents history/prehistory.

Postscript: If anyone knows of a nation out there willing to offer asylum to the large number of UK archaeologists who are proud to rise above petty nationalism and declare ourselves ‘European’, please get in touch….

Rainy day

Day of Archaeology 2015 begins slowly. Yesterday we spent all day in the sunshine, completing the site plan of a curious series of irregular pits, packed with burnt grain, charcoal and heat-shattered stones. These are evidently medieval, on the grounds that a single medieval pottery sherd was found in the mix! Explaining why the pits are where they are and what exactly was going on may prove more difficult. We have bulk samples for study and charcoal to radiocarbon date. This will take time to unpick.

No outdoor activity today whatsoever. Its raining steadily. So a day in front of computers it will be. We have several assessments to undertake for single, on-farm, wind turbines. We also have a trip to plan for next week, up to Shropshire, to dig some evaluation trenches on anomalies picked up by a geophysical survey on the proposed site of a small solar farm.

2015, like 2014, is largely about renewable energy projects. Now the British government seems determined to roll back the progress made by the renewable sector. This bizarre development may well impact upon the archaeology sector, as many firms undertake work associated with renewable energy developments. This comes on top of the threat to take brownfield sites out of the planning system in England. Even here in West Wales we sense that the cold winds of austerity are starting to blow through the world of the archaeologist. So Day of Archaeology 2015 comes at a time when the future for our sector is somewhat clouded by uncertainty. But we plod on…

A day of archaeology and a ‘holiday’ by the graveside…

Hello! My name is Katherine and I am a PhD student in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Manchester. This is my first year contributing a post for the Day of Archaeology as, unlike last year in which I was stuck in the library shackled to a desk*, I actually have some fun stuff to write about!

My research project examines the practice of mortuary archaeology in the UK (confusingly, this is not the study of mortuaries, as I am often asked, but the archaeological investigation of past beliefs and practices surrounding death and burial instead!) and whether it has a wider role to play in contemporary society – one which goes beyond furthering our knowledge of the past. In particular, however, I am interested in the impact of ‘digging up the dead’ on archaeology practitioners. As such, I am exploring the effect of professional training on attitudes towards human remains, whether achieving a level of professionalism and expertise means subjugating emotional connections to the past and what bearing professionally-held conceptions of human remains have upon the construction of archaeological knowledge and the narratives that are produced for public consumption.

A ‘humerus’ picture in the unit’s warehouse…

To this end, much of the second year of my PhD has been spent interviewing lots of folk about their opinions on these matters and I am now spending the summer conducting ethnographic fieldwork with various organisations, including commercial archaeology units, field schools and museums. This involves observing and participating in daily life at each of my host sites, where I am exploring the assumptions and practices that underpin the process of mortuary archaeology and looking anew at the overlooked, the taken-for-granted and that which is considered routine.

On this most hallowed Day of Archaeology, I am currently ensconced in a very picturesque city in the north of England, where I have spent the past two weeks mithering the staff of a commercial archaeology unit (the deliberate vagueness here is an attempt to preserve anonymity!). The unit has very kindly allowed me to use their excavation of a medieval burial ground (which lurks underneath a car park, naturally) as a case study for my thesis and staff have agreed to be watched, photographed, sketched, interviewed and asked a whole bunch of silly questions.

However, what with being in such a beautiful city, the glorious weather and the break from reading and writing, I confess that I do feel a little like I’m on holiday and I am probably having entirely too much of a good time (I am definitely eating waaaaaay too much cake – archaeology is powered by sugar!). That said, I do go home at the end of each day covered in dirt and aching from head to toe, as I am digging alongside collecting my own data. For someone who spends an unhealthy amount of time in front of a computer screen, it has been a joy to re-discover my muscles and the great big ball of fire in the sky!

Today, amongst other things, I will be finishing up the paperwork for the burial I excavated yesterday. As it’s a Friday, however, we will down tools for the day a little earlier and there is talk of heading to the pub (this is where the best research takes place, honestly!) for a well-earned drink…or two – it is so hot today that I am actually hallucinating a nice cold pint! I will then throw myself on a train back to Manchester (I’m participating in tomorrow’s Festival of Archaeology at the Manchester Museum) and spend the journey typing up my field notes from the day and answering emails.

I have a couple more weeks left here and then I am off to my next site, but I will be sad to leave. The archaeologists here have made me feel incredibly welcome and allowed me access into their ‘secret’ world. It has been a real privilege to work alongside them and an even greater honour to excavate the remains of the dead which, shockingly, is actually my first time. As a result, this has provided me with a whole wealth of additional material based on my own personal reflections and feelings. The challenge is how I am going to analyse and write all of this up…but that will, perhaps, be the topic of next year’s post!

*I’m not really complaining, I do actually love my PhD!

Indianahannah and the Desk Based Adventure

Name:  Hannah Smith

What do you do?
Currently I’m working on the Historic Land-use Assessment project. HLA is a joint project between RCAHMS and Historic Scotland. It is an analysis of the present landscape, recording the visible traces of past land-use across Scotland, and presenting it as a digital map. My day is spent in front of a computer, working with digital sources in a GIS. This suits me well, I was always a bit of a fair weather archaeologist!

How did you get here?
I studied Archaeology at Glasgow University, and then went on to complete a Masters in Professional Archaeology there as well. As a student, I volunteered as a placement supervisor on the Hungate site in York with York Archaeological Trust. Working with YAT gave me the best crash course in field archaeology I could have asked for. Although I think the biggest thing I took away was that I preferred to work indoors!!

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Dangerously close to that murky water!

I began volunteering as soon as I could, as I knew it would be difficult to find a job in archaeology. I volunteered with Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust after I graduated, helping their HER officer, and with various research projects. I was then really lucky to get an HLF workplace learning bursary in Information Management at RCAHMS in 2011.

What’s your background?
I’ve worked in various posts at RCAHMS since 2011. After completing my bursary in Information Management, I began working with the HLA project, before moving on to a data management role with Project Adair, and then working as Data and Standards officer within the Data and Recording section.

HLA mapping in progess

HLA mapping in progess

Favourite part of your job? 
I’ve enjoyed working on many different projects and in different sections at RCAHMS. It’s allowed me to gain a better understanding of all of the work undertaken by staff here. Also helping to produce our Day of Archaeology posts with staff is always a highlight.

Top tips for aspiring archaeologists?
Volunteer as much as you can.

Say yes. Even when you’re in a job, say yes to everything that comes your way.

Keep at it. Jobs are often few and far between, but you’ll be surprised at the range of archaeology jobs out there and the ways you can enter this field as a career.

Wish I hadn't said yes here, too many midges!

Wish I hadn’t said yes here, too many midges!

 

The day begins…

Another year, another Day of Archaeology!

It may seem odd to begin a Day of Archaeology talking about accounts… but we are in the process of signing off the 2013-14 accounts so this is uppermost on my mind at the moment. After yesterday’s meeting with the auditors my first task today is to prepare the financial parts of the Trustees’ papers for the Board Meeting next Friday. It will be quite a busy Board meeting as there is a lot to discuss about the various changes I am making at the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust – all very positive news, but a lot of it!

This year is the last year that my administrator Jenny will be with us; she will retire later this year and just at the moment we are recruiting for her replacement. Applications for the job – advertised here – close at the end of the day on Monday, so there is still time to apply. Since I am the line manager of this post, and we have no HR department (just me!), then this has been another time-consuming process… it is always a fascinating one though.

Most of the team are out of the office today on various fieldwork projects. We have just finished two substantial Cadw-funded community archaeology projects and so the building is full of the detritus from those! I am immensely proud of Viviana, Sophie and Richard for their work at Buckley. This was quite a new departure for the Trust, with over 350 schoolchildren involved in an excavation of a post-medieval pottery site over a period of three weeks.

Pupils from Elfed School at Buckley with CPAT staff and members of the Buckley Society. Pupils from Elfed School, along with CPAT staff and members of the Buckley Society. 10535739_260455044150244_8390290249251283690_o

At the same time we also ran the fourth field season at Hen Caerwys, where the oldest and most experienced member of the team – Bob – was joined by our newest and youngest recruit, Menna. It is really rewarding to see experience and knowledge being handed on in a very practical way to the next generation. I was lucky enough to come out from behind my desk last weekend and spend a bit of time wielding a mattock on site at Hen Caerwys.

Mennas dog Merlin helps with the surveying of her trench at Hen Caerwys last week.

Some more Cadw-funded fieldwork will be done later in the summer, and Richard is out for the next two weeks doing geophysics in advance of those. At the moment Nigel is organising everyone’s very busy schedule over the next month or so for various contracts ranging from watching briefs to large evaluation projects – with churches, quarries, medieval villages and prehistoric ring-ditches among the targets.

Meanwhile, on the curatorial side, Mark and Wendy continue to monitor planning applications and, where necessary, issue briefs for work. This year has seen a gradual upturn in the number of applications being received, which suggests that the economic recovery may be cautiously approaching mid-Wales. Finally, Jeff has taken a break from his usual HER duties this week to help Viviana with the first schools placement week. Today the six local pupils will carry on with a variety of field- and office-based activities. Yesterday they were outside my office on the back steps cleaning pottery in the sunshine – great to hear their enthusiasm and interest as a refreshing counterpoint to the tedium of the accounts.

Later this morning I have to go over to my old stomping ground at Ironbridge to give a lecture on the origins of metallurgy to students on the Building Conservation course there. Sadly this is the last time that this course will run in its current form. I am very much looking forward to seeing my recently-honoured former colleague Harriet Devlin MBE!

All in all a typically busy start to a typically busy day in the life of the Director of a Welsh archaeological trust!

 

The Business of Archaeology

Michelle Touton

While surveying, you sometimes find unexpected things–like blueberries! Yum.

I’m a project manager at a contract archaeology company, which means I have to be both an archaeologist and a businesswoman.  Anathema to purists, maybe, but in the United States most archaeology is done commercially, as part of an industry called Cultural Resource Management (CRM), and businesses need people doing business-y things to keep them running.  In CRM, developers hire archaeologists and architectural historians to help them deal with cultural resources that will be affected by their development project, in much the same way as they hire environmental scientists, traffic engineers, and architects.  We work for the developer, but our first duty is to the resources.

For me, the 2012 Day of Archaeology was pretty typical.  My primary task for the day, as it has been for the last month or so, is to continue editing a site report.  The archaeologist who wrote the report works mostly on prehistoric sites, but this report is about a historic site.  Since it’s her first historic-period report, we’re taking our time with it to teach her how to do it right.  Historic-period artifacts require completely different analysis knowledge than prehistoric artifacts (e.g., learning to recognize mold seams on bottles or differentiate fabric types in ceramics, vs. categorizing edge flaking in stone tools), which takes time to learn.  You also have more lines of evidence (in the form of historical maps and records) that you need to bring in to your analysis.  Work on the report has been slow-going because I often am too busy with other things to get a chance to work on it.

The Day Begins

My first task upon getting to the office–after brewing a pot of tea, of course–is to check in with our people in the field.  Today we have two field projects going on, both of which are in the monitoring stage.  “Monitoring” means that an archaeologist watches the construction crew as they dig, in order to spot any emerging resources (artifacts/sites/etc.) before they’re damaged or destroyed.  Monitoring is usually done after we’ve already done testing and evaluation of anything we know is on site, and is largely a failsafe to protect things we didn’t know were there.

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How a Research Project Happens (My Perspective)

I depart Friday (June 29th) to begin my dissertation fieldwork in northeastern Botswana – at last! I will be running my own archaeological fieldwork project for the first time and it has been a long road to prepare for this. From deciding where I want to work, what I want to work on, to formulating actual research questions, to applying for funding, it often seems like I’ve done nothing for the past several years but work towards this goal. I was thrilled to receive a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation to support my project, and I thought that securing funding was the last major step in the process. Boy was I wrong! Even though I wrote extensively in my funding proposal about how I would get the project done, the last several months has been all about finalizing those logistics – how will I get around in Botswana? Who will join my crew and how will I hire them? What will we eat? How in the world will I get all the necessary excavation equipment overseas? Eight years into my graduate program, and I am still working out how research “gets done.”

I still wouldn’t have the answer to many of these questions if it weren’t for the many colleagues, faculty and friends whom I’ve had the wonderful luck to meet and know over the course of my graduate career. The best decision I made about my PhD work was simply to go to Botswana in 2008, at the point when I decided to look into switching from European to African archaeology. I didn’t know a soul on the African continent, I was alone, and I didn’t have a clue as to how to proceed towards finding a dissertation topic, but I went anyway. If I hadn’t, I would not have ever been able to develop a successful research plan. I didn’t go completely unarmed, however – my dissertation advisor has worked in Botswana for decades and he gave me a starting point for whom to contact, as well as a name to drop.

I didn’t fly home in 2008 with a well-developed project, only some ideas, a sense of how things got done on the ground there, and several people I could now contact for advice and ideas. This, however, is actually a pretty good start, because it was the start of a network. I’d initially been terrified and clueless as to how to “network”, but I tried it anyway – I just kept talking to people. Showing up at museums and conferences, listening to presentations, sending emails, asking questions. Persistence pays off in this regard: it gets less scary, and eventually people start remembering who you are (especially if you make some presentations of your own). I’ve continued to build this network since then. Every conference I go to, every paper I read, every journal I browse, I meet ideas and people, and I learn how they got it done. Most of all, I’ve been learning that there is no formula for “getting it done” – there are a myriad of opportunities, coincidences, and partnerships that can lead to a fieldwork project. There is no perfect research, only decisions made to take one fork in the road or another. There is no perfect researcher either, only people willing to take responsibility for those decisions and see them through, to make sense out of what often appears to be a chaos of dirt, rocks, numbers, messy paperwork and a grumpy crew.

So I guess this post isn’t so much about archaeology per se, as it is about how to be an archaeologist (or at least my perspective on the subject). Maybe next year, when I am living in the lab trying to sort through all the artifacts from this year’s inaugural field season, I can write more about prehistory itself. I am pretty sure, however, that every archaeologist goes through some form of what I’ve described here, and hence it’s worth mentioning.

If you’re interested to read more about what my project actually entails, I invite you to visit my Petridish website at http://www.petridish.org/projects/prehistoric-kalahari-desert-settlements. It’s a fund-raising website, but don’t feel like you need to contribute. I’ve got a description of what I’ll be doing in Botswana and I will keep updating the site as long as they let me. (I also like to get the word out about Petridish because it’s a great way to connect science projects with interested members of the public!)

Feel free to email me at daggetta (at) msu (dot) edu if you’ve got questions about what I do or want more resources on archaeology! I will, as I mentioned, actually be in the field and therefore will not have regular access to internet for the next several months, but I will do my best.

Thanks for reading!

– Adrianne

writing about fieldwork not as fun as fieldwork

Today I’m writing about fieldwork in 3 (or is it 4) different ways. I’m finishing the report of an excavation; I’m chasing modelling software to explore some results from a field experiment; I’m responding to a set of papers about fieldwork; and I’m writing this blog. But I would prefer to be doing fieldwork. While most of my time (indeed most of any archaeologist’s time) is at a desk rather than in the field, fieldwork remains the heart of archaeology.

This is partly because fieldwork generates new data. But this alone cannot explain it, because there’s plenty of existing data which can be used in new ways, not to mention the existing data which has yet to be used in any meaningful way at all.  Fieldwork *feels* like archaeology. There is a sense that direct discovery is more interesting that intellectual unearthing. More fun to say you found something new than you understood something new.

Even when we are in the field we need to translate, explain why the thing we’ve found is interesting.  Even beautiful objects and ancient monuments are interesting for the things they tell us more than for what they are.

But the field has two things my desk doesn’t. Firstly, a team. Writing can feel lonely when you remember the feeling of teamwork that the field brings. Secondly, focus. While there are lots of different tasks while in the field, they usually relate to the same project. In the office the conflicting demands of different types of project are always there.

So the day looks like this.  Come in and write ‘to do’ list. 17 items, 4 of which are writing.  The rest are largely management tasks. I had hoped to do the excavation report in the morning, then the modelling, then the discussion piece.

But the management tasks blossom in the morning so the excavation report squashes into the afternoon.

The software for the modelling is tantalisingly nearly functioning when I finish lunch. It’s a simple question I want to ask: ‘Is the acoustic ‘soundscape’ of Silbury larger because of the existence of the hill? Put another way, if you take the hill away does sound travel as far? Sadly, I can’t run the model today after all. The software still won’t function despite the best efforts of our IT support.

Well, it leaves the rest of the day free for writing and editing.  I want to say something redemptive about writing. A sense of perspective, seeing the larger patterns. I’m sure that it is true, but sat in the middle of choosing photographs and writing captions I can’t help longing for the next time I’m in the field.