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

Norton Community Archaeology Group investigates a suspected formative henge

For five weeks, we are investigating a site on the edge of Letchworth Garden City, between the historic village of Norton and the A1 motorway. Originally thought to be a ring ditch (ploughed-out burial mound), reinterpretation of aerial photographs and a geophysical survey suggested that the site might instead be a henge.

Last year, the group cut a trench across the centre of the site and it became apparent that it was very unlikely to have been a burial mound. There was no trace of a central burial (or any other burials, for that matter), while the deposits towards the centre indicated that they were the result of discrete activities, including burning, depositing Grooved Ware potsherds and flint knapping. There was little time last year for thorough investigation, so this year we’ve returned for five weeks, opeining up a second trench at right angles to the first.

The group consists largely of amateurs who want to find out more about the archaeology of where they live. Many of them have been involved with the group since it formed in 2006 and have built up a considerable amount of experience. I’m their professional advisor and the summer excavation is my main research project. This year, we have a professional supervisor, Caoimhín Ó Caoileáin, and my paid intern, Siân O’Neill, providing professional support.

We stripped the topsoil on Wednesday 27 July and have been cleaning the trenches since. One of the student archaeologists, who worked with us last year, has begun planning the new trench, so we will be able to begin excavation later today. This is obviously the part that most of the people who join the group are interested in! As well as digging, though, I make sure that everybody learns how to draw plans, to record the contexts on which they are working and how to recognise the different artefacts they may encounter.