Fort Cumberland

A Career in Ruins?

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!)

I generally work in commercial archaeology and work does flux. For the uninitiated when an area is up for development for building houses/offices or roads/rail there’s an assessment of its archaeological potential. My line of work comes in towards the end of a complex process:

Say Company A wants to build some new houses the go to unit 1 for an initial assessment of what might be there, this may lead to them asking unit 2 how much trial digging (if any), passing the trial digging onto unit 3, passing coming up with the report for this to unit 4. Assessment of costs for open areas may be passed to unit 5. The open area excavation may go to unit 6 and the report write up to unit 6 or something like that. (You won’t always get so many changes of unit but with so many units trying to undercut each other for the money it can.)

So, when it’s been decided that the best way to explore and document what’s there is to dig. This can be either trial pit/trenches or larger scale open area excavations (a large area is stripped by a digger). This is naturally developer led so no new development = no jobs.

There are of course research projects but once again funding and therefore work is limited. My current project was research into the archaeological potential of Wiltshire. Apparently there’s been very little development in this county and so English Heritage decided to take a look. I’ve been advised that I shouldn’t actually blog/ Facebook/ Tweet about the project as English Heritage has a carefully crafted public image. But I’ve seen other blogs on here about it (even from my supervisor!) and have taken this a guide as what is allowable.


This was part of the National Archaeological Identification Survey (NAIS) and one of the aims was to see how reliable aerial and geophysical survey can be. The results will be published in time but it raises the question as to if we’re trying to use passive methods more and more as 1. We might not get research funds to actually look at it. 2. Developers may never go into these areas (or if they do there will be limits on what we can do).

As for the day I was sieving and sorting through samples- apparently a thankless task according to one person who passed by (for the record we were thanked by the environmental and finds supervisor).


We went on a tour of the newly trimmed Fort Cumberland…


And the new luxury staff toilets.


And on that delightful note I hope that you all had a good day.


High Angle Fire

Panoramic view of the Mark I HAF gun carriage emplacement. Photo by Hugh Corley.

Panoramic view of the Mark I HAF gun carriage emplacement. Photo by Hugh Corley.

Warning – this contains a lot about big guns and concrete.

A small part of my job with English Heritage is running occasional tours of Fort Cumberland in Portsmouth, the remarkable coastal fortification where our team is based. Up until 1974 it was occupied by the Royal Marines, and traces of their occupation and work remain everywhere around us. I’ve been here so long that I’ve absorbed some knowledge of the Fort, its history and development. Hence my role as a part-time guide.

We will shortly be running a tour for the Palmerston Forts Society, and in September we will be hosting Heritage Open Days, so in preparation for these events we thought we should add interest to the tours by clearing the long-abandoned High Angle Fire battery. This is a small battery located outside the main body of the Fort; the gun pits had become almost entirely engulfed by bramble growth, to the extent that nearly all of their details were hidden. This would be the first chance that we’ve ever had to see them properly exposed. The overgrown emplacement for the Mark I HAF gun carriage

We know a lot about the battery thanks to the work of David Moore, an historian who runs the excellent Victorian Forts and Artillery website. He has uncovered the history of the battery, showing that it was built from 1890 to 1894, using older 9-inch rifled muzzle-loading guns (from the 1860s) on special high angle mountings. The theory was that shells fired from such guns could plunge onto the relatively lightly-armoured decks of attacking ships, which would have to anchor to bombard the Portsmouth Naval Dockyard effectively. A small number of trial carriages were built to test the idea, and two of these, the Mark I and Mark II, were then installed in the purpose-built concrete emplacements at Fort Cumberland. Only one of each carriage was ever made, so our emplacements are unique, and the differences in carriage designs is reflected in the differences between the two emplacements. An example of the Mark IV carriage, which was used in a small number of batteries, can be seen on the Victorian Forts and Artillery website.
Rapid advances in the design of naval ships and artillery during this period meant that the battery was obsolete by 1905, and disarmed by 1907.

Access to the battery was by means of a tunnel built under the counterscarp defences of the Fort. Built into the side of the tunnel were the magazines for powder and shells, and there was also storage space for the larger pieces of cannon maintenance and cleaning equipment. The entrance to the HAF battery from the counterscarp wall of the Fort

The eastern emplacement for the Mark 1 carriage retains one of the two derricks used to lift shells to the top of the emplacement, and rails for the trolley which was used to move the shells to the muzzle of the gun. The racer and pivot on which the gun sat had been removed as part of the construction of a later building. The top of the emplacement for the Mark I HAF gun carriage.

The western Mark II emplacement is simpler, as the shell-loading mechanism was built on to the carriage. Emplacement for the Mark II HAF gun carriage.

In the Mark II emplacement, the pivot and racer on which the gun sat survive, partially concealed by the floor and foundations of a later structure. Racer and pivot for Mark II HAF gun carriage

Common to both emplacements are recesses for storing the fuses used to fire the guns, and dial recesses, where information on direction, elevation and charge were displayed, having been transmitted by wire from a Fire Control point on the ramparts of the Fort. There was also a bunker-like telephone shelter built into the concrete wall between the emplacements, along with cartridge recesses, where small quantities of gunpowder could be safely stored close to the guns. Cartridge recess and traces of rifle rack

Behind the guns was a brick building with a reinforced concrete roof, marked on the drawings as the artillery group store. The building is derelict but survives reasonably well. Artillery Group Store

There is plenty of evidence for later activity on the site; at some point after the removal of the guns, structures have been built into both emplacements, and other buildings were added to what had become, by the 1970s, a works compound for the Property Services Agency which maintained government and military buildings in the Portsmouth area. This continued into the 1980s, after which the site of the battery was locked and abandoned, although it is now home to birds, lizards and a large family of foxes.

By clearing a very small proportion of the rampant vegetation we have shown that the remains of the battery are relatively well-preserved, and their significance is enhanced by the documentary information provided by David Moore. We were lucky to have David visit us yesterday when I was giving a tour of the battery to my colleagues based at the Fort, and he was able to answer all the difficult questions that would have stumped me.

I’ve enjoyed showing colleagues around the last day or so, and look forward to showing this battery to visitors on Heritage Open Days. We can ensure that it is included in the new condition survey that is due to be carried out later this year. In the meantime, back to the day job and the overdue book chapters that really aren’t writing themselves.

Writing About Bones

Although we are zooarchaeologists, not a single archaeological animal bone has passed across our desks this week! Instead we’ve been working on sector support projects. Today we have been working on the Animal Bones and Archaeology Guidelines. This is one of the English Heritage guidelines for best practice in archaeological science, which we will be publishing in 2013. The Guidelines will provide advice about how to ensure that due consideration is given to the information potential, recovery and analysis of animal bones from archaeological projects, from the start of a project to final archiving of animal bones, and publication. It covers general project management, field and laboratory procedures (sampling, assessment, analysis and archiving of animal bones), and general methodological (for example, taxonomic identification or biometry) and specialist taxonomic sections (eg. small mammals and amphibians, bird bones, fish). The specialist sections have been written by colleagues working in a range of universities, and archaeological units, along with some sections we’ve written ourselves. They have all now mostly been submitted and we are beavering away on management and procedural sections. We are planning on holding a preliminary review of the Guidelines at the next PZG (Professional Zooarchaeology Group) meeting planned for Saturday, July 14th, so working hard to get it all pulled together in time!

English Heritage Environmental Archaeology Guidelines Cover

The ‘Animal Bones and Archaeology’ guidelines will be part of the series of English Heritage guidelines for archaeological science.

For us the PZG is one of the highlights of our role within zooarchaeology. It’s an interest group, which we’ve helped coordinate from its inception about seven years ago. It now has about 80 members, all animal bone specialists working in the commercial, academic and public sectors (have a look here if you’d like further information on the group). We meet twice a year to study a particular topic, often taught by members themselves, with anywhere from around 15 to 25 members attending. The meetings consist of seminars and practical hands-on work, short presentations of particular case studies, of work recently completed or in progress by members (employer agreement permitting!), and we also hold a mini taxonomic workshop, during which we review the identification criteria for distinct taxa and run blind tests, just to keep us on our toes!

Photograph of three shetland rams

Shetland rams at Lerwick Market, photographed by Sebastian Payne

We are hosting the forthcoming PZG, so another of today’s tasks was administration and planning for the meeting. Its taxonomic workshop will focus on distinguishing sheep and goats’ bones and teeth – they are more similar than you might think! Over the years, focused studies have identified several criteria, which can tell them apart, so today we have been compiling worksheets which draw together relevant references that we’ll use at the workshop to test out the criteria on some our reference skeletons. In the afternoon of the meeting we’re planning a visit to the Iron Age farm at Butser, where Peter Reynolds originally set up different experiments in Iron Age husbandry.  We’ll have a tour of the structures and activities, and in the evening Butser is also holding the Lughnasa festival.  Who says you can’t combine work and play!

Objects, Advice, and a Bit of Thinking…

A day in my life as an archaeologist and finds specialist for English Heritage

As one of the small team of archaeologists within the Intervention and Analysis Division of English Heritage, based at Fort Cumberland, Portsmouth, and working 80% of full time due to the three young herberts who more than fill a million percent of the rest of time, my days are always full, and rarely the same. Technology, determination and flexible bosses enable me to cram a fair amount into a week.

My day starts at around 5am with a reading of emails, then the next couple of hours are given over to lunchboxes, breakfasts, hens, cats, dogs, hamsters, after a smidge of yoga before the madness starts. Throughout this time I also tend to listen to the radio or the reading or the violin practice, while catching up on my Twitter feed (@Nicola_Hembrey), which is great for archaeological news (and a little bit of gossip!). Once the school runs are done I dash to the office, and I’m usually sitting at my desk with a fennel and ginger tea by 9.15am. I have a super view out over Hayling Island, and on a clear day I can hear, Table 2, your lunch is ready, from the pub over the stretch of water! I’ve been at the Fort for thirteen years and I love working within such a diverse, committed and interesting group of colleagues, although the annual ten months of horizontal rain can be a something of a trial.

Fabulous office! Sharp eyes will note the obligatory boxes of finds and X-Rays. Sadly the shelves and stacks of books, and the lovely view, are out of shot…

Yesterday I was – unusually – able to give myself over to an almost entire day of concentrating on one thing; the middle poster above is taken from the site I project manage, the Roman settlement opposite Silbury Hill, which we evaluated in the late summer of 2010, and for which the report is almost complete, hence a day of reading all the specialist contributions, and polishing up my own! I have written the artefacts report, and together with my colleague Vicky Crosby, who led the excavations, I’m working on the overview. I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking and reading in recent weeks about any ritual aspect to the site. We hope to submit the report to the local journal, the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine,  in good time before the end of August deadline. The project team have been brilliant in getting this to publication so quickly – in archaeological terms at least! – while under considerable pressure and uncertainty from our recent round of restructuring.

Today, though, I don’t have the luxury of getting back to the Later Silbury report, as I have to finish off the list that I’ve been mentally carting around all week, to avoid next week spiralling away before I’m even out of this one. The illustrations need a final check. My mountain of library books needs renewing.  I’ve been asked to write a caption for a photograph for a colleague’s memorial event leaflet. I have to write the final section of my performance review. Timelog doesn’t complete itself. I desperately need to catch up on reading the Assessment Report for a project which I have been asked project manage following the redundancy of another colleague, a process which has been difficult for all of us, and the effects of which will be felt for a long while. I whizz down to our stash of outreach material, to find a few objects to donate to a project that wants to bury artefacts at sea for 25 years. I also reply to someone who is working on the update of the professional side of the EH website, after spending an hour writing comments on the pieces of text that he has sent me.

Current reading, mostly concerned with the theorising of artefacts. Books strapped up in the old-fashioned way make me very happy…

Last year I was able to write up the small assemblage of finds that came from our work as part of the Silbury Hill Conservation Project, and I was also lucky enough to revisit the finds from previous interventions in the area. The Monograph text is currently with our publications team. One of the most interesting objects was an unusual copper-alloy bracelet which came from the base of a Roman ditch, but was of Later Bronze Age or Earlier Iron Age date. This sent me off on a long thought process about the significance of heirloom artefacts – those old objects that are important to people because of their association with another person, or an idea, or a particular time in their life. It made me wonder whether getting to grips with this idea from a present perspective could illuminate our thinking about the importance of old objects in the past; something nigh-on impossible to get to grips with within the archaeological record. This led to the beginnings of a project that I’m hoping to get off the ground with a few colleagues; a public survey, with a large social media element, in which people can post details of their object, and from which we can analyse the data later. I made a phone call, to see if there had been any response yet to our proposal; nothing so far. Hopefully it will happen. Keep your eyes peeled for Objects Of My Affection.

Finally while in the office I had a quick look over my website. I’m secretary and web editor for the Roman Finds Group, a forum for all those with an interest in the subject (do check us out online; we’re really very good). I added the details of our forthcoming meeting at the British Museum in April 2013, in which attendees can visit the Pompeii exhibition as part of the very reasonable conference fee (sorry, ad over now!). I’m lucky that EH gives me a small amount of time in which I can sit on this committee.

I leave in time for the return school run, and spend the next couple of hours listening to stories of everyone’s day and making supper, while keeping my emails (and Twitter!) open from the iPad in the kitchen. It’s the best way to stay on top of things.

I then spend a while re-reading comments that I wrote earlier in the week, on a finds report within a site publication which we have funded through our grants programme, National Heritage Protection Commissions. The report had been a long time coming, but turned out to be really well researched, well thought out and well written. I can easily see it becoming a ‘go-to’ text for finds reports when it’s published. If I have the space within my deadlines I like to write my comments and then leave them a day or so before sending, just to make sure that I haven’t missed anything.

Working from home, commenting on a lengthy finds report. I don’t normally print out this much paper! Note the extremely hi-tech phone…

Finally, I respond to an email from the Activity Lead of the Ploughzone Activity Team, which has recently been formed as part of the National Heritage Protection Plan. He needs all team members to comment on a proposal. Almost all of our communication is by email to keep costs down, as we come from EH offices all over the country. I add it to my mental list for next week, and mark the email unread, to remind myself.

Later I’ll do some more reading, and thinking, if I don’t fall asleep first.

So, there it is, a typical day in the life of this (lucky) archaeologist. I seem to have got all the way to the end of this post without including a picture of either an object, or myself, which is probably something of an oversight (particularly the former!). Here’s a happy picture of me (at front, red shoes) with the gorgeous site team at Later Silbury, instead.


Nicola Hembrey, Archaeologist (Artefact Analysis), English Heritage  @Nicola_Hembrey

29 vi 2012

Communicating Archaeology

I was reminded by the blustery wet south-easterly tail wind on my cycle to work this morning that summer has yet to arrive to this part of the world. However, as an Archaeological Information Systems Manager for English Heritage based down in Fort Cumberland, Portsmouth, I’m mostly office based so the weather is only an issue when I venture out to get a cup of coffee.

It has finally become apparent to me that communication is one of my main focuses. I am always asked what period or location I specialise in, the truth is I don’t take this approach to archaeology. My passion is for archaeology and archaeologists, how we communicate with each other and how we communicate with the public (who’s support we depend to continue doing what we do).

So back to my day…

After arriving in my office and making a cup of coffee I turned my attention to finalising a paper I’ve been writing called ‘Can you hack (the) communication?’ I gave a presentation on this at CAA in Southampton ( (it’s a computers and archaeology conference) back in March. This paper looks at how we as archaeologists capture digital information in the field and particular my perspective on the experience of implementing a digital recording system for archaeological excavation called Intrasis to our teams. We’ve used the system now on our last few projects.

Simple location plan with trenches to south of road and Silbury Hill to the north

This is a screenshot of a map of the excavations of the Roman Settlement across the road from Silbury Hill.

As main ringleader of social media at the fort, I started receiving my colleagues’ posts for Day of Archaeology by mid-morning. That I know of two others are participating, one from our zooarchaeologists and another from @nicola_hembrey, our finds archaeologists.

Through out the day, like most days I’m keeping an eye on my Twitter feed for good content and information @hscorley. I also am keeping an eye on the @EHArchaeology twitter account which I am primary curator. This account has been active for about 3 years now and I’m amazed how popular it has become.

Looking at Twitter today, it is of course, abuzz with Day of Archaeology content. Particular praise is due to London Archaeological Archive & Research Centre (LAARC)  for the LAARC Lottery. If only I had thought if it myself. You pick a number for a shelf, they then go and find what’s on that shelf and blog about it. I like this for several reasons, not only is it interactive and raises awareness about their archive but it also means no one has to think to hard about what to write about, it’s all there just waiting to written about.

As my day wraps up I’m going to prepare to face the elements again, the wind does not appear to have shifted and despite a bit of sunlight earlier it looks like it might rain.

Hugh Corley


Prehistory by phone and e-mail

Hello! I’m Sue Greaney, and I work for English Heritage as a Senior Properties Historian. A historian, I hear you gasp? I thought this was a place for archaeologists? Fear not, I am an archaeologist – my job title isn’t particularly accurate as its archaeology and prehistory that are my specialist subjects!

Today is an office day in Swindon. Not huge amounts of digging in my life, unfortunately, unless you count digging in archives, libraries and my own computer filing system. My day also doesn’t have any meetings or scheduled site visits in it, so that is a bonus – I’ll be catching up on quite a few different pieces of work, so you’ll get an idea of the wide range of things I do.

Me at my desk.

The major project that I’m currently working on is the new visitor centre that we are planning for Stonehenge. I’m the archaeologist advising on the content of the new exhibition and the new interpretation for our thousands of visitors. It’s a really important project and most days I have to pinch myself that I get to work on it. I work closely with a small project team dedicated to the interpretation, learning and outreach elements of the project.

First thing I uploaded photographs from a field visit to Kilmartin Glen in Argyll, Scotland last week and put them on our SharePoint site. Not a usual port of call as by its very nature working for English Heritage usually involves England! But Kilmartin House Museum is renowned as a prehistoric museum, and the landscape has been fully interpreted and designed for visitors to explore. It even has two podcasts. We went to see the new European funded interpretation scheme in the area, to meet the museum curator. It’s not a dissimilar approach to the one we’ll be taking at Stonehenge– we want to equip people in our visitor centre to understand Stonehenge, but also the various monuments and features they’ll see in the landscape, and also encourage them to get out and explore the rest of the World Heritage Site.

Some of the new interpretation at Kilmartin Glen

A series of phone calls followed. Talked to an interpretation colleague about the reconstructed Neolithic houses that we’re planning for the external gallery at the visitor centre, arrangements for a site visit to Stonehenge next week and our temporary exhibition programme. Talked to a scientist colleague of mine down at Fort Cumberland about some externally commissioned research. Talked to a visitor operations colleague at Stonehenge about the Neolithic houses. You wouldn’t believe what a busy summer they’re having! Couple of e-mails sent to Stonehenge team members and archives staff at our National Monuments Record.

Tea break. Right, onto some proper work. The rest of the morning was spent doing some research that will support the contents of our display cases in the visitor centre exhibition. This involved writing up a paper for discussion at a meeting next week, using our own internal (and rather wonderful) webGIS, the Pastscape website (we have our own internal databases behind this, but Pastscape works so well I use it a lot) and the fantastic Wiltshire Heritage Museum collections database. I can’t tell you much about what’s actually going into the cases, as it wouldn’t be a surprise when you all come and see the new visitor centre when it opens in 2013! Suffice to say that I spent the rest of the morning and a few hours after lunch looking at lovely prehistoric objects and reading antiquarian and 20th century archaeology accounts of their discoveries.

After sending off this and another paper to the Stonehenge interpretation officer and curator, I sent confirmation to a freelance researcher that we were taking him on for a small piece of synthesis/writing work.

Ok, time to clear some of my e-mail inbox. I’ve been so busy this week that several things have been neglected for quite a few days. First, I arranged a meeting date with colleagues in September to review the next stages of the Stonehenge scanning project. Next, I responded to a query from the curator at Salisbury Museum about where the late Paul Ashbee’s archive is residing. I downloaded some mapping tiles that I need to create a map which will go on an interpretation panel at Kingston Russell Stone Circle, one of our small free properties down in Dorset. When I’m not thinking about Stonehenge I usually pick up a few interpretation projects at our free properties.

Kingston Russell stone circle, Dorset

And then the most important e-mail of the day – anyone up for the pub? Well, it is a Friday! Cue random exchange of e-mails from my friends at work.

Next I respond to request from BBC Learning for an EH expert on Vikings. Not sure if we have one of those! And reply with photographs to a colleague of mine in York who is working on the EH Coastal Risk Assessment and wanted some information about cliff erosion near one of our guardianship properties at Halangy Down on the Isles of Scilly. This is somewhere I did some research and interpretation a couple of years ago.

Me at Halangy Porth beach, Isles of Scilly, a few years ago

Well, there ends the Day of Archaeology. Now to add the blog post! Let’s do this again next year.

Learning New Skills

I’m learning XML (eXtensive Mark-up Language) today as part of Oxford’s Digital Humanities Summer School.  The skills I’m learning will allow me to share the data from our databases with different databases developed by different organizations.  By sharing our data with others it will be possible to do new types of research which will hopefully lead to new discoveries.

Archaeology creates an incredible amount of data.  I manage databases that allow a variety of different types of archaeologists to see this data and update it with the results of their work.

I’m the Archaeological Information Systems Manager for the Archaeological Project, Science and Archives Teams for English Heritage based at Fort Cumberland in Portsmouth, UK and that was my day.