Megalithic monuments

Experiencing Volunteering on Community Archaeology Projects

In 2011 I gave up nearly two months of my life on three large community excavations. For free. Zilch. Nowt. Nothing. In fact it has actually cost me a lot of money to be involved. I often get asked why. Before I get the chance to answer, the interrogator normally smiles while pipeing up their own pre-conceived thought on the matter. It goes along the lines of, “Ah, you love doing that stuff don’t you?”

They are right of course, I do enjoy it, I would not do it otherwise. But there is another reason behind my apparent madness. I am a student at the University of Wales Newport Caerleon campus. I am studying for a MA in Regional History and a lot of the course is based on historical landscape interpretation. Quite simply, it is landscape archaeology in another guise. And I enjoy it, immensely. The reasons behind this are multiple. For starters the study is non-invasive, as such no archaeology is destroyed; it is cheap –  it costs me nothing to walk for hours using my eyes while taking notes and photographs; it is important to me that every available means of non invasive information is gleaned from my site of study prior to any possible excavation; lastly, and not by any means should this be last on my list, I have been blessed with tutors who have an active interest in my chosen area of study. That is probably the most important cog behind this. The advice and guidance is, quite simply, second to none.

That is why I volunteer on excavation projects! If my non invasive study is successful, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t be, then the next logical step is to put together an achievable excavation strategy. And it excites me.

The first community project I was involved with in 2011 was the Caerleon ‘Lost City Excavations’ which strangely enough, were in Caerleon. The excavations came about through a geophysical survey undertaken as part of their studies. Led by Dr Pete Guest of the Cardiff School of History Archaeology and Religion, based within Cardiff University. I probably gained more experience from that excavation than any other. It was invaluable.

The recently discovered port wall on the banks of the river Usk, Caerleon.

Next up was a CADW organised excavation at Tinkinswood in Glamorgan. This lasted for two weeks. Yet again, I was fortunate to glean a lot of information on how a community excavation should be run. The site held this amazing atmospheric feel that made you tingle at times. It is hard to put a reason behind this, but it did. It is an Early Neolithic structure and it is pleasing to announce that all of the questions behind the reasons for excavation were more or less answered. Seeing as the first excavations were carried out there in the early 20C, the incredible amount of finds indicates that there should be no reason to excavate further for some considerable time to come. One of the best things things about this excavation came about through the late winter sunsets that we had chance to witness.

A setting sun at Tinkinswood. It really was a magical setting.

The last community excavation I was involved in was St Lythans. Quite lterally, just down the road from Tinkinswood. Another Neolithic structure, this site had not been excavated before. Once again, I was fortunate to learn from the role of a volunteer looking in towards how the site was run. Towards the end of the excavation I was negated to open a trench away from the main investigation. It was wet, cold and uncomfortable, but Tom and I just got on with it, while listening to the squeals of delight while the other volunteers excavated finds near to the structure.

I am on the left of the picture as you look at it. Sometimes it is just better to get on with what you are asked to do…

So, what has this got to do with the Day of Archaeology 2012? Quite simply I always keep a photographic diary of my exploits, as such I was able to deliver a talk this afternoon on volunteering in the archaeological sector at Pontypool Museum. I did not beat around the bush and it went down well.

 

Good luck everybody, I hope you enjoyed my blog.

 

David Standing.

Ses Talaies

The entrance (facing west) of the Talaiot at Ses Talaies

On my route to the centre of the island I stopped by at a site I know since it crossed my way by chance several years ago. It’s one of the around five hundred Talaiotic sites known on Mallorca.

Ses Talaies in Google Maps

Ses Talaies is a wonderful place. The old cyclopic walls surrounding a circular Talaiot that has obviously been excavated professionally (trenches still discernable) are sticking out here and there in between the ‘modern’ rubble walls limiting the parcels of land.

Old and 'modern' stone walls at Ses Talaies

The fields close to the Talaiot are full of objects on the surface esp. pottery. One of the old walls is attached to the Talaiot providing ground for dense vegetation of wild olives and almond trees.

I spend about an hour in the shade at the foot of the Talaiot making up my mind on an abstract I submitted just before starting the holidays.

Why that?

I’m invited for a conference in Cairo in October to deliver a keynote on building archaeology and its methods that are supposed to be strongly influenced by modern technology. For many good reasons the organisers of conferences want to have a summary of what will be presented months before the actual event – this summary is also known as an abstract and it has strong implications for the authors. Mostly you have to summarise first and write the talk later. Not always easy especially when you’re asked to contribute something basic and well thought on the methods of an archaeological discipline.

I usually start with a mindmap. It’s a handmade drawing with keywords. The main topics show up early. This basic concept is then complemented with arguments also interconnected with arrows etc. In the end it doesn’t look good, but it’s sufficient to derive a summary.

I have this mindmap with me, so in very relaxed moments I take it out and look at it and bits and pieces of how to communicate the different arguments come into my mind being written down instantly.

People who know me might find in surprising, but it’s still all by hand. I tried to use mindmapping software tools , but it’s not really working out.

So at least I did something quite typical for an archaeologist today…

Please note: When I visit sites that are not prepared for visitors I

  • do not climb on walls
  • do not pick up anything (not even pottery from the surface)
  • and, of course, don’t take anything with me

To keep the archaeological record intact is extremely important. Ses Talaies might be subject of full archaeological investigations in several decades only. We have no idea about techniques applied in the future. The past twenty years most certainly only offer a glimpse on the changes to come.

Returning to archaeology

In my ‘day job’, I’m an IT professional at the University of Nottingham: my alma mater from which I graduated in Archaeology and Geography some time ago. However, I’ve retained my fascination with archaeology and I’m excited to be starting a part-time MA in Archaeology here in September. In the year leading up to this, I’ve read academic books and papers voraciously, enjoyed the regular research seminars in the Department, joined The Prehistoric Society  and attended some fascinating conferences. I’m really looking forward to studying the subject again in depth over the next two years.

Today, however, archaeology had to be set aside for the morning, as my wife and I attended a friend’s funeral. It was an occasion to share happy memories with her family and to celebrate her life, so in that sense, it was a positive event and we were glad to be there. Recently, I was reading some of the papers regarding the Neolithic landscape of Avebury and Stonehenge in Wiltshire and Mike Parker Pearson’s suggestion of the landscape being divided into domains of the living and of the ancestors, with the transition from life through death to the realm of the ancestors perhaps being related to ritual passage through the landscape. During moments of reflection at the graveside before the committal, I realised that the ritual in which we participating was one which people and communities have shared for thousands of years and that, just at that moment, we had something intangible in common with our Neolithic predecessors.

On a happier note, my archaeological activity today involved some preparation for a conference on Deer and People which is being organised by our zooarchaeology lecturer in the department, Naomi Sykes. It’s to be held in September in Lincoln and I volunteered to help. We’ve discussed some issues for supporting the conference, so I’ve set up an e-mail address for it and provided a link to the conference web page on the University’s web site. Today, I’ve done some work on Powerpoint slides for the conference to be displayed on screen before or between speakers, themed to the colours of the various sessions in the programme.

Lastly, we’re packing tonight for our regular family holiday in Northumberland, my home county and the original inspiration for my interest in archaeology, with its landscape rich in remains from the past. I’m looking forward to the luxury of some time to sit and read. I have some papers in PDF format to catch up with on my laptop and iPad while we’re away but I won’t be able to resist packing a few of the archaeology books I have on loan from the University Library and of course there’s Barter Books to visit in Alnwick. Can one have too many archaeology books? My wife may disagree but I think not!

Finalising Bull Ring henge talk

Having checked my emails and replied to those that can’t wait until Monday, I’m finalising my notes for a talk I giving tomorrow about the Bull Ring henge, near Buxton. I’m more used to talking to children about archaeology (and making it interactive) so giving a straight talk to adults will be a new experience. If anyone reading this is coming to the Open Day tomorrow, be nice!

I’m off to Nottingham later to attend a briefing session on the new Accreditation standard for museums. Accreditation is a scheme that sets minimum standards for museums to achieve in relation to caring for collections, organisational management, visitor services etc. It’ll be interesting to discuss how the changes might affect us.