Historic Scotland

My Day as a Collections Care Assistant

Name: Alison Clark

What do you do?

Collections Care Assistant is my job title. It’s a catch all phrase including aspects of collections management and preservation (i.e. making sure items are stored correctly, liaising with conservation colleagues about items which may need some extra care, returning items to the archive after members of the public have had a look at them and a bit of location control to make sure nothing gets lost amongst the millions of items we hold). That’s what I’ve been up to so far and I only started in June so it’s been a busy few weeks!

How did you get here?

With a lot of luck I was in the previous round of the Skills for the Future Trainees (2013-14). When my training contract finished I had already applied for an internal position with Historic Scotland in the Publications and Interpretation department. In addition to this I was offered a job with the National Collection of Aerial Photography via a temping agency so when the Collections Care Assistant post was advertised internally I was eligible to apply. For me this has worked out perfectly. I enjoy a very varied working week and I also get to experience a number of different areas within the wider heritage sector. Although I am not an archaeologist I do work with archaeological material very frequently, be it site drawings, excavation reports or as research material for publications.

Favourite part of your job?

After seeing the questions for these posts I have been pondering my answer for a while. Favourite part of the job…hmm…there a lot of different aspects I really enjoy within the work itself. Firstly every day is challenging and I appreciate the chance to give my brain a good work out with such interesting and diverse material. I’m constantly learning a lot about different periods in history, correct conservation methods and the different roles within the organisation. However, I’d have to say my favourite part of my job is all of the possibilities contained in the archive and the staff who work here. I love the fact that we are all working together to preserve other people’s life work so that the current and future generations can enjoy them, be inspired by them and also go on to do great things themselves.

What are you working on today?

Today I am catching up on a lot of filing. I was off with the flu so there’s quite a lot to catch up on…

What did university not teach you?

Somewhat unusually, I am not a graduate. I’d say it is unusual as most of the people I have encountered in the heritage world have a great deal of impressive qualifications. I have highers and some University study to my name but that’s it. I think work experience is incredibly valuable and an important thing to do before you decide what to study. For me leaving University when I did was the best decision I could have possibly made. I don’t think I’d be working for the Commission now if I had completed my degree. I wouldn’t be so passionate about my work and I wouldn’t be able to manage my time and responsibilities as adeptly as I do. University is great for some, but for others time away from education to decide what you enjoy and also discover what you are good at is the best option.

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!!


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!


Philip Robertson (Historic Scotland) – Argyll and Bute

Philip Robertson, Historic Scotland

Philip Robertson, Historic Scotland

Argyll and Bute ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

Argyll and Bute ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

I’m Philip Robertson. I work in the Scheduling, Marine and Battlefields team within Historic Scotland, and am responsible for operational management of the Scheduling programme, and leadership of Historic Scotland’s work in protecting and managing marine archaeological heritage, in particular through designation of Historic Marine Protected Areas.

As befits the interests of a maritime archaeologist, I have chosen a shipwreck!  The wreck of what we believe was a small oared warship belonging to the Marquis of Argyll, the Swan, was lost at the S entrance to the Sound of Mull during an attack on Duart Castle by Cromwellian forces in September 1653.

The Swan was discovered by a Royal Navy diver around 1979, who brought it to the attention of the University of St Andrews. The site is a particular favourite of mine as I took part in the investigations of the wreck which took place between 1991 and 2003, led by Dr Colin Martin.   The excavations revealed the well-preserved structure of a wooden vessel, including the collapsed stern, comprising the bottom part of the rudder, sternpost and associated components detached from the keel; the lower hull, comprising frames, inner and outer planking, and mast-step; and the less well-preserved remains of the collapsed bow.

The team also discovered a wide range of artefacts, including carved decorative features from the ship, rigging, small arms and one small cannon with carriage, silver coinage, ceramics, navigational equipment, galley remains, personal effects, the bones of one human being, as well as plant, animal and fish remains.

Wooden carved cherub in situ at the wreck off Duart Point, by the Archaeological Diving Unit (ADU) Copyright RCAHMS (SC1127028)

Wooden carved cherub in situ at the wreck off Duart Point, by the Archaeological Diving Unit (ADU) Copyright RCAHMS (SC1127028)

Today, divers are welcome to visit this site and see guns and anchors on the seabed, but the remaining sections of the hull are protected under sandbags and sediment that are helping to stabilise the environment around the wreck.  As the site is legally protected, visitors must not disturb the wreck or remove artefacts without permission. Educational tours are organised through the nearby Lochaline Dive Centre, but if you’re not a diver, you can still enjoy a visit to Duart Castle where you will find an exhibition about the wreck. There is also an interpretation panel on the promontory next to the site.

What interests me most about the Swan is that it shows that Scotland’s underwater heritage can be just as rich and significant as our heritage on land. With the aid of scuba equipment and the traditional skills of the archaeologist, underwater archaeology can contribute just as much to our knowledge of the past as the very best archaeological investigations on land.

The online record for the Swan held at RCAHMS, was recently upgraded as part of a partnership between RCAHMS and Historic Scotland, aimed to enhance and promote information on the marine historic environment. More information about Project Adair can be found on the RCAHMS website including the full project reports.

General Plan of the Duart Point wreck site at the close of the 2003 excavations, By Drs Colin and Paula Martin. © RCAHMS

General Plan of the Duart Point wreck site at the close of the 2003 excavations, By Drs Colin and Paula Martin. Copyright RCAHMS (DP151172)

This is what I’ve chosen for Day of Archaeology, but why not tell us your favourite archaeological sites in Scotland on Twitter using #MyArchaeology.


Nora Edwards RCAHMS Day of Archaeology

I am a member of the Curatorial Group with the Skills for the Future Trainee Team. This is a four year scheme funded by Heritage Lottery Fund to provide 1 year of work experience for 34 individuals who are looking to work in the Heritage Sector. The curatorial skills trainees will undertake a range of tasks and learn about collections, conservation, digitising and access.

My childhood holidays were spent in Scotland and one of the most memorable and interesting places we visited regularly was the Isle of Lewis. There are a number of interesting sites on the island, and while the Standing Stones at Callanish are undoubtedly atmospheric, my most memorable site on the island is the broch at Dun Carloway.  I remember the sheer scale of the building and being amazed that it was so old and yet you could still climb in between the two sets of walls, solidly built to withstand war and weather.

Dun Carloway Broch

The building stands in the centre of a farming township, the remains of blackhouses are dotted around and the fields still show evidence of farming down the centuries. The site is fascinating in the way that it provides evidence of occupation for thousands of years in such a compact area.

If you want to find out more about this years Skills for the Future team, visit our blog or follow us on Twitter @SkillsRCAHMS.


Community Excavation of Thrumster Broch, Caithness

Friday 22nd of July

We are assisting the Yarrows Heritage Trust in their excavation of a broch in Caithness. AOC’s John Barber is directing excavations, and myself and Alan Duffy are also on hand this week.

Thrumster Broch lies on Thrumster Estate. It was modified to form an ‘oval garden’ in around 1810 according to estate records. Subsequently its wall was slighted on the south side and a summer house was built in the entrance area of the monument. The broch was previously believed to be solid-walled, but our excavations quickly revealed intra-mural galleries. We have also discovered a previously unknown entranceway that we believe was filled in along with some of the galleries in the north-western area of the broch, in an attempt to stabilise the building when subsidence of the ground began to cause structural problems. We now believe that the entranceway recorded in the area in which the summer house was built was a secondary entrance, replacing the recently discovered entrance.

We arrive on site to start work each day at 9 am. I give volunteers a site induction on their first day on site; after this, they can get stuck in as soon as they arrive each day. Our community projects are very relaxed – people can turn up as and when they like for as long as they like. This means that people can get involved in our projects by fitting their participation around their daily lives. What’s more, participation is completely FREE, which is always a winner.

We have 15 people digging with us today, all of whom have been on site previously. Some of our volunteers are studying archaeology or have done so in the past, but almost three quarters of the project’s participants had never dug an archaeological site before – and here they are digging a two thousand year old monument! Our volunteers range in age from four year olds to 74 year olds, and each person makes a worthwhile contribution to the project.

As we are nearing the end of the project, we are not opening any new trenches but are focussing on those already opened. We are trying not to create any more quandaries, but hope desperately to resolve those we are already investigating! For example, the broch wall has up to five or six construction stages depending on its complexity in the area examined. Where galleries exist, two or three inner wall elements and three outer have been noted. We want to know if all of these structural elements are contemporaneous (built at the same time) or whether they have been added over time, enlarging an original structure.

I help get the volunteers started for the day, making sure everyone has the right tools and knows what they are doing. Some volunteers are trowelling; others are drawing plans or sections; beginning to backfill; using the dumpy level and taking soil samples.  While digging, volunteers have a plastic tray to hand, into which they place all bulk finds (animal bone, small pieces of pottery, modern finds). Small finds (large pieces of pottery or rim sherds, worked bone, worked stone objects and so on) are bagged up straight away, their details recorded in the register and their exact locations plotted.

Local volunteer Meg with a large Iron Age rim sherd from Trench 4

I have been surveying the site using a total station, an electronic device that records the exact location in three dimensions of any given point. It is used to map and create 3D plans of a site, and to record the location of finds and so on. On a stone-built site like a broch, this means recording the location of a lot of stones! Site photographs are overlaid with the data gathered with the total station to create 3D maps.

AOC's Gemma explains how the total station works to Jonie

We stop for a tea break at about 10.30am and then everyone cracks on. I ask Jonie to help me take some levels using the dumpy level; although we have a total station, we teach the volunteers to use the dumpy level as many archaeological societies use them regularly, and we want to teach people new skills that they will use again and again.

We have decided to bury a time capsule at the end of excavations; at lunchtime, everyone shows what they have brought. Items include a CD of photographs from our excavations; the results from the weekend’s county show from the local paper; a key ring from the Caithness Broch Centre, and some coins. The volunteers sign the plastic tub and we seal it in plastic bags, taped shut. This way their contribution to the project becomes part of the time capsule itself. It will be buried on the final day.

Work continues through the afternoon, with another tea break prompting discussions of cannibalism: how hungry would you have to be before you started eating your comrades? Looking at our motley and dusty crew, I guess pretty desperate.  At about 4.30pm we pack up our tools for the day, and the volunteers sort and bag up their bulk finds. We then have a site tour, led by John. The team walks around the site in the sunshine, discussing the day’s findings and tomorrows challenges. By 5.30pm everyone heads home to rest their weary limbs for another day.

Some of the team on the penultimate day of excavations

Post script

Backfilling was completed on Saturday 23rd of July. Over 45 people were involved in the project during the three week season of excavation, volunteering over 1000 man hours in total. The project relied wholly on the enthusiasm and commitment of each and every one of these volunteers, and for this AOC and Yarrows Heritage Trust would like to express their gratitude.