National Museum of Scotland

Training School – Well that was the day that was!

At the beginning off this day one of the team working with me at the Rampart Scotland fieldschool asked if this was a normal day, to which I replied, yes.   What I meant of course was that every day is different.  And even within a single project, every day, every hour can be a diverse mix of new and old, familiar and challenges.  Best of all is working with and helping to train people who have a real passion.  Perhaps this means that ater 30 years of digging, I still have that spark that makes me proud to be an archaeologist.   With the chance to document this event in Day of Archaeology, the originators (who I can’t thank enough) and those that have helped make it happen (who I also must take my hat off to)  I am happy to share one day in my life …   are you sitting comfortably!   Then I’ll begin.   But first I best tuck into some coffee and cake!

The morning started with a shock, as I forgot that we started at 8am, so it was quickly feed the hens, feed the cats, make breakfast for my wife (who has discovered the joys of a bad back – courtesy of our last excavation!)  who also runs Past Horizons.  No time to feed myself, as I jumped into the minibus and drove through the side roads of East Lothian in Scotland to our project – White Castle hillfort on the edge of the Lammermuir hills.  We troop out the van and stroll to each trench, discussing what we will do today, and why.  The process is as important as the digging.  One trech is to be planned, another cleaned for photography, yet another must investigate and sample a layer with charcoal.  And of course the ditch needs cleaned and recorded and topographic survey must continue.  Everyone splits off to their tasks and trenches, smiles tell me that Murray Cook and I are doing something right.

To us there is not such thing as a bad question or a stupid one – they all mean we are discussing and always have time to explore a concept, whether it is long distance trade of bronze and raw materials to the names and locations of supposed Irona Age tribes in Scotland around the 1st century AD.  Then why not use the spectacular view across the Lothian plain before us to talk about 18th century agricultural improvements and farming techniques.   It all matters.

That is a steep rampart!

That is a steep rampart!

Suddenly trench 13 runs across with exciting news – what could it be?  Well it turns out it was a fragment of cremated bone coming out of the charcoal.   Only 4mm long and they spotted it, how about that for keen eyes.  They soon find more, and we discuss what it could mean and a variety of ‘right’ answers.  Talking seems to be half the fun of archaeology in this environment.

Trench to nowhere. The ancient road must be here!

Trench to nowhere. The ancient road must be here!

Soon, another car turns up, with three students (or ex students) from Edinburgh University, they are sset to work on a new trench in the deep bracken (an invasive and damaging fern like plant) .  They want to learn to draw and dig, survey and section, plan and record – they will be the new archaeologists – so for them, the training is more detailed, more structured.

The council archaeologists turn up for a visit as I try again to connect to the internet and post another message from the hill – to no avail –   but Murray and I then spend an hour with them, touring each trench, discussing future strategies and even mutual support in coming years.   They have useful comments to make – and sometimes it pays to listen rather than talk (or perhaps I am just growing up).

Tea break comes and goes, and the hut platform becomes a platform, with no trace of a hut  (yet)  but plenty of sign of root damage to sub surface archaeology.  It looks like it has been put through a cement mixer and then poured back onto the site.   Useful to know for monument management plans.   We start to discuss the next year already, and the next, while talking of other projects to come, and projects we have remembered fondly.

Trench 17 - the dinky ditch!

Trench 17 - the dinky ditch!

All too soon, it is 1pm, and time to head off to Edinburgh, however, I decide to go home, with a twist.  We wind and drive deeper into the hills and point to castles and cairns, standing stones and sheepfolds, that each tell a millennia old story of people and place.  Back at base, we clean and prepare for the big city, which gives me just enough time to check BAJR jobs, answer some emails and even help out a poor woman, who needed a trowel in Cornwall ASAP!  –  no worries.   Then I collate the Open day rota for Saturday ( only 15 people at a time, bussed up from the nearest village) phone up and email confirmations just in time for the team to arrive at my house and it is off to Edinburgh.

Team on the National Museum of Scotland steps

Team on the National Museum of Scotland steps

The newly renovated museum is stunning and I let them off the lead in a stunning, sunny Edinburgh.  Time to meet at 6pm, when I will take them on a mini archaeo-tour and then to some of my favourite watering holes.  Bannermans, Whistlebinkies and the Pear tree.    Although I am only on the orange juice it does not matter, and I get to listen to their stories and lives, their reasons for coming and what they hope to get out of it, from real knowledge to pure simple fun.  And why not, archaeology should be fun, archaeology can produce amazing new evidence and still remain fun.

I tell them about another couple of local projects and a TV link up to a live event with the amazing Archaeology Scotland that is happening over the next month as well as some other education events. The best thing about them is that I can’t wait o learn, and from the team (who are so mixed in what they do in real life) I absorb hints, suggestions and ideas.

Well hello.. so you are archaeologists

Well hello.. so you are archaeologists

Edinburgh trip allows us to bond more to learn about each other, which in a way is just as important as any iron age ditch.   WE even find that the locals can be overly friendly.

Heading back to base, I head off with the boys, and we discuss everything ranging from poor superman jokes to Pictish identity and broch building, then turn again to what could make the fieldschool better.   The conversation is easy and enjoyable.

As I finish off this piece, I am back home, its late, I am tired but I am happy.!  Now…  I wonder what will happen tomorrow…. oh yes…  there is an open day.

Opening Day at National Museum of Scotland

I like to consider myself as a Heritage Management Consultant and sometimes even a Museum Designer. This morning for work (of course) I visited the Royal Museum which was just opened today by the National Museum of Scotland. The museum has been closed for about 3 years now and has been undergoing a £47 million renovation and reinterpretation. The important thing to say is that my firm Jura Consultants helped them with their redevelopment master-plan and supported them in their HLF bid for funding. Most projects that we’re involved in take quite a bit of time to come to fruition so it’s amazing to be able to see the designs you saw on paper become reality and experience the fruits of your labour.

And what a fantastic experience it is! There were thousands of people lining Chambers Street at 9am waiting for the doors to open. We had an animatronic T Rex, tribal drummers, aerial dancers abseiling from the roof, and fireworks. A great atmosphere indeed. The entrance has now been diverted from the main staircase to two street level entrances that lead into the undercroft. Here is a really spectacular and dramatic space. Once used for storage, the space has been converted into a visitor reception area that includes and information desk, cloak room, gift shop, toilets and a new Brasserie. From the dimly lit space, you then ascend into the light-filled Grand Gallery that seems almost like a birdcage with all the iron work. This is meant to be a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ that entices visitors with an array of different and wondrous objects. Beyond this space is an escalator that takes you up to the very top floor, allowing visitors to work their way down. This is an interesting feature and an important one as previous research found that only 5% of visitors made it beyond the ground floor. The other controversial move was to put the museum café on the first floor. But I think it’s one of those things that if you build it they will come.

It was quite clear that the animal gallery was the most popular. Jammed packed with people, prams and exotic animals. The incorporation of video screens with hanging oceanic creatures is quite something to behold. Other galleries include world cultures, design, nature inspired objects, Egyptians, sculpture, and decorative objects. I think the one thing that stands out is the lighting. It certainly adds to the atmosphere and creates distinctly different experiential areas. The colour scheme works really well too, using jewel tones to delineate thematic areas.

I think though, my favourite thing about today was observing the other patrons around me. One little boy asked why fish die, referring to a display in the animal galleries relating to environmental issues such as pollution, poaching etc. His mother responded with ‘because some people don’t recycle’. Another woman remarked about her disappointment with the Egyptians. ‘Liverpool has a mummy but there’s no mummy here.’ The same goes for the way people begin to use the space. We weren’t in the door 5 minutes and there were already people lined up for the café. There was a pram car park that started in one corner and people were sitting on display plinths and touching objects (hopefully this was the intention). I think what it reflects is that visitors are comfortable in the space, are able to read the space properly and that the museum has been a catalyst for conversation.

A truly great morning! I encourage everyone to make a trip themselves.