Local government in England

A Day In The Life Of A Council Archaeologist!

Hello to everyone from West Berkshire!

I got into the office around 8:20 – first thing on the agenda is to go through my emails; luckily it’s a Friday so it’s reasonably quiet on that front. I did respond to an interesting post on the Historic Environment Record (HER) Forum regarding HERs as an education resource for schools: this is something that I was promoting in my previous role as HER Officer for Hampshire, so glad to see that others are also on board with the same ideas. Now that archaeology has a stronger presence in the National Curriculum I hope that HERs can make a positive contribution in the future.


Next on the agenda is to set up some meetings with some other West Berkshire colleagues; firstly at the West Berkshire Museum (/https://twitter.com/WBerksMuseum) to discuss good practice when dealing with archaeological archives. The Museum is due to re-open at the end of August after being closed for a while, so everyone is working very hard! Secondly, with our Conservation Officers to catch up on how our local listing and parish heritage initiatives are going. These are both important projects aimed at getting local communities to recognise their heritage and feed it into policy and good practice. This will hopefully highlight the importance of local sites and ensure that they are recognised and appreciated by everyone.

After that, I commented on some pre-applications that have come in. This involves an initial appraisal of some proposals before they are submitted as planning applications, and ensures that archaeological issues are highlighted, with suggestions on how these issues can be dealt with. This can sometimes include evaluation (such as a geophysical survey), or in other cases there are no historic environment concerns at all. Further details on our part in the planning process can be found here.


Next it’s time to get out of the office for a bit! Off to Speen (just north west of Newbury town) for a meeting to discuss the location of an information board about the Civil War Second Battle Of Newbury. This board has been developed in partnership with the Battlefields Trust and the West Berkshire Heritage Forum and will be another good example of raising local awareness of heritage. Fund raising for the board came partly through a series of talks held at West Berkshire Council’s Shaw House. The idea is to have a grand unveiling of the board in October as close to the 370th anniversary of the Battle as possible! I also took the opportunity to visit Speen Church and holy well to snap some photos!

Archaeology at Letchworth Museum: telling stories about the past

A bronze escutcheon from an Iron Age wine-mixing vessel

A bronze escutcheon from an Iron Age wine-mixing vessel found in Baldock © North Hertfordshire District Council

We archaeologists are constantly reassuring the public that it’s not all about treasure: we are as interested in rubbish (if not more so) than in Tut‘ankhamun’s gaudy baubles. Yet we all go slightly dewy-eyed when something really beautiful turns up, even if we are sometimes ashamed to admit it. A gold stater of Cunobelin found on site will have everyone rushing across to see it: yet another sherd of Harrold shelly ware will not.

This isn’t hypocrisy. As I explained in my previous post, most archaeological finds really aren’t suitable for public display. All too often, they consist of fragments – slivers of animal bone, potsherds, rusty lumps of iron – that are, frankly, uninspiring (unless you know what you’re looking at, of course!). When we find something that is instantly recognisable for what it is – a well preserved brooch, a sculpted stone, a complete pot – it really is more exciting. And the good thing, from the point of view of a museum archaeologist, is that it is easier to tell stories about it to non-archaeologists.

For this reason, museums tend to display their best looking artefacts. With a collection that is varied, there is almost an embarrassment of riches: we have to pick and choose what goes on display. We also have to pick and choose which items will be priorities in our disaster management plans. Which objects do we save first? The most valuable? The most fragile? The most iconic? It is always a difficult decision and one for which there are no right answers. I have my own personal favourites that are on display, but they are not necessarily the artefacts that would need to be saved first.

Tenth-century sword chape from Ashwell

Tenth-century sword chape from Ashwell © North Hertfordshire District Council

Because Letchworth Museum tells the story of North Hertfordshire from the arrival of the first humans (actually most likely members of the species Homo heidelbergensis) over 400,000 years ago through to the turn of the twentieth century, there is an enormous range of objects on display. We have Lower Palaeolithic hand axes from Hitchin, Mesolithic tranchet axes from Weston park, a Neolithic polished axe from Pirton, a Bronze Age Ballintober type sword from Gosmore… By the time we reach the Iron Age, there are so many objects that could potentially be displayed that we are forced to choose the best: we have two cauldrons (one from Letchworth Garden City and one from Baldock), for instance. Pride of place goes to the early Welwyn-type burial from Baldock, which was packed with treasures. Moving into the Roman period, there is a beautiful marble portrait head, probably from Radwell, that is among the finest ever found in Britain.

Although the closure of the museum in September will mean that these items will not be available for public viewing again until the new museum opens in 2014, we are working on a digitisation scheme that we hope will make selected parts of the collections available through the web. We are currently looking at collections management systems and web-based solutions for making our huge collections accessible to a wider public. There are interesting (and busy!) times ahead.

Community Heritage at Heeley City Farm

I am the Community Heritage Officer at Heeley City Farm in Sheffield.

We are running a Community Excavation ‘Life at No.57: The Sheffield Terraced House Dig’, its part of the CBA Festival for British Archaeology. Today is Day 14 of 16 days of excavation. It is a community dig run in partnership with the University of Sheffield but with lots of volunteers of all sorts and ages. The project really wouldn’t be possible without our amazing volunteers who are doing everything from keeping the finds room under control to supervising the trenches and keeping me organised. The Dig is free and open to everyone.

My Day started with a live phone interview with BBC Radio Sheffield to promote the Dig, my phone contribution was part of a large piece which had been record on site the day before with interviews with Dr Roger Doonan from the University of Sheffield, Megan and Morgan two 10 year old volunteers on their first dig and Joseph one of our volunteer supervisors who began his career in Archaeology through the Sheffield YAC (Young Archaeologists Club) and who is now just waiting for his A-Level results, we all have our fingers crossed for him as he wants to take up his university place to study Archaeology. We talked about why we are excavating 3 Victorian terraced houses on a city farm, who lived in them what we have found and who has taken part so far.

Radio Interview

During the interview a lady living in rang the radio station, she lives in Hampshire and had been listening on-line as she used to live in Sheffield, it turns out that she lived on the very street we are excavating! The houses were all demolished in the 1970’s and she lived there as a child just before they were pulled down. The BBC producer passed on my number to her and we had a lovely chat, she is going to e-mail me her memories of the street.

When I began work on site the volunteers had already started and our 3 trenches were going very well. We have 3 large trenches, Trench A has the front wall of No.50 Richards Road, Trench B has the front cellars of No.52 and 54 Richards Road and a passage into the back yards, the biggest trench , trench C has the back yards of 4 houses and an outhouse.

This is the third year of this project and its getting better each year, this year we have been looking for evidence of light trades and home-working, trades such as button-making and handle-finishing, we have found evidence of this in previous years. Our work will be supported this year by an exhibition all about trades in Heeley 100 years ago at Kelham Island Museum.

I spent most of the Day supervising volunteers and the trenches. Today we had about 40? volunteers or visitors to the site (it might be more, not had time to add everyone up yet) all the children are getting credit for their involvement through the Children’s University so i spend some time registering people for this.

We had a visit from a local Heritage Photographer who is artist in residence at the moment in the Archaeology Department at Sheffield University he took lots of lovely photos of people at work in the trenches as well as a few of our reconstructed Iron Age Roundhouse which happens to be in the same field as the trenches.

We finished and packed up at 4, I said some sad goodbyes to volunteers digging for their last day, tidied and locked up up our finds room and came to do some paper work.

I’m working on getting ready for a lovely new storytelling project next week, a summer holiday week of activities built around a historical mystery with lots of trips out for 9 to 11 year old’s.

Community Heritage always involves doing at least 3 projects at once. its now 5.30 and I’m going to walk home for my tea.

AM: Eating toast – planning the day.

I am Nicole Beale (nee Smith),  a PhD student at the University of Southampton, looking at the impact that the Web is having on professional practice in the cultural heritage sector.  As with every weekday, my morning has begun with some toast, a cup of tea, and my RSS feeds.  I have a meeting with my supervisor later today, so I’ll mostly be spending time with my own thoughts this morning, but there’s still time  to do a few little fun ‘archaeology’ themed jobs.

Firstly, after I have brushed my teeth I am planning to clean up a blog that I set up for a great project that is run by two insanely motivated archaeologists, between Southampton University and Zupanja Museum in Croatia.  The blog is quite dusty and needs a spring-clean before the next load of students begin to populate it with this year’s fieldwork data (they survey/dig through August).  The blog aims to give updates about the fieldwork season as it goes on, but invariably has been updated at the end of a season with a few personal thoughts and then a season summary.  I’m going to try to encourage more ‘raw’ content this season, but don’t know if those digging and surveying will be able to find time to contribute content.

In an attempt to lessen the frustrations of visiting a blog that doesn’t have regular content updates, I have tried to fashion it more like a static website.  Not sure if that does actually make the lack of new content less frustrating for the subscribers, but it certainly does lessen my guilt for not spending much time cleaning it up as I should have last year (or the year before).  Time is the biggest barrier I think to the success of communication avenues like the blogs we set up every year.  Along with persuading team members that content can be brief and still worthy of inclusion.

Next up; the semantic web and art gallery data sets…