A Trainee Archaeologist’s First Week

I have just finished my first week as a trainee archaeologist with Oxford Archaeology East. I am based in their Cambridge office as I live in Peterborough (and adore Cambridge!). It has been an amazing week, and it’s been a long and twisting road to get here – I graduated with a BA in Archaeology in 2007, but through a series of bad choices ended up in retail jobs for the next 7 years. During this time I did a lot of volunteer work with museums, historic environment centers and city council offices, and ended up with an MA in Preventive Conservation somehow as well. I would apply for trainee jobs and internships but did not have enough experience. Then the planets aligned, and a few months after my contract finished at my last job, Oxford Archaeology East had a community volunteer dig – the Romans of Fane Road. I attended almost every day of the 3 weeks, and then applied with OAE as they were looking for trainees to take on.

A month later and I finally get my big break and start working for OAE. Through a lot of perseverance I’m finally getting to live my dream. Enough of my back-story, this is what my first week was like!

First thing I learnt about was the early mornings – everyone has to be in the office at 7am to get to the site by 8!


I was starting along with 3 other recruits. We spent our first day being shown around the office, and talking to all the specialists (pottery, skeletal, human skeletal remains), as well as doing reams of paperwork! All of the Personal Protective Equipment we would need was issued (hard hat, high-vis jacket and trousers, ceramic-toed boots, fleece) and tried on. We spent the afternoon visiting the environmental archaeology unit (out at an old aircraft hanger) and visiting one of our sites to learn how OAE do feature photography.

Day 1 Excavation

The second day was much more exciting – on site! I was paired up with a lovely girl who had been digging for years, had already been on this site for 5 weeks, and had just started mattocking a trench in a long ditch to try and find something dateable – the previous 2 trenches had turned up empty. We took an environmental sample from the top layer, from which we soon found a piece of clay pipe and some vitrified clay. There were rabbit warrens intersecting the feature however, so we weren’t 100% that the pipe was where it should be.

Day 2 finds

We got our 1 metre trench cleaned out, so we did the context sheets for the cut and layers, and did the plans. I was a bit hazy on the specifics, but I’m sure the more I do them, the easier they will become!

Context sheets

Then the most exciting part of the day – I got to start my first solo trench! Further down the same feature, looking for more datable evidence. I only got half an hour, but it was enough to find a tiny bit of pottery in the top layer.

First trench

Day 3 was a total wash out – we only managed to spend an hour on site total in between huddling in the porta-cabin waiting for the rain to ease off. It was getting dangerously slippy, and the archaeology was in danger from us tramping muddy boots over everything.

Rain SiteRain trench

The rain never did ease off, so after an hour or 2 we headed back to the office for everyone’s favorite activity – finds processing!!

Finds Processing

Today was mostly back in the office; we had a bit more induction about the IfA and what our next 3 months will be like – starting a Personal Development Plan with our mentors, taking notes on our learning so we can join the IFA, that sort of thing. Then we all trooped into town to take our CSCS card test (which we all passed!). Most of the questions were laughably easy;

But it’s essential to show we all know the procedures to operate safely on an archaeological site.

Back at the office we learnt how to do the time sheets, and then more finds processing!

Next week we’ll be back on site again (weather permitting!), where we’ll start proceedings with our new mentors.

Skills Collections Trainee: A Variety of Learning

Name: Gillian Rodger

What do you do?
I am a Heritage Lottery Funded Skills for the Future Collections Trainees at RCAHMS.

How did you get here?
As a creative youngster I’ve had a fascination with visiting and photographing historic places and objects as long as I can remember. Though I grew up near Chester, my family are all Scottish and having enjoyed many childhood summers exploring the Scottish countryside and going to various Historic sites, I’ve long since wanted to move to Scotland, to promote and get involved with maintaining Scottish Heritage.

Working on John Marshall Material at my Desk

Working on John Marshall Material at my Desk

Unsurprisingly then during my Art History undergrad I turned towards researching Medieval Art and objects and on returning to Edinburgh for my masters I became focused particularly on aspects of Global Material Culture and Collection Histories, whilst also collaborating with the NMS and interned on the Carved Stones Project with RCAHMS. Getting to apply and earning the chance to work as a skills trainee at RCAHMS felt like the perfect opportunity to combine my personal and academic interests whilst enabling me to gain greater experience in the Heritage Sector and in Collections.

What are you working on today?
Today, as is usual for skills trainees, I have been involved with a variety of different activities! I have been on the search room desk this morning, answering enquiries, aiding visitors with their research and hearing some brilliant family stories.

In between enquiries I’ve also started researching the sculptor John Marshall (1888-1952) in order to catalogue a fascinating box of his material for public access.

John Marshall box of material

John Marshall box of material

So far within the box I have discovered his sketchbook of sculpture from 1911, a worldwide picture postcard album and many photographs of himself and colleagues dressed for an ECA Revel Party, including Sir Robert Lorimer. This afternoon I have also been finishing organising and re-housing many excellent Threatened Buildings Survey Drawings completed by RCAHMS survey staff .

Favourite part of your job?
I would say the favourite aspect of my job is in fact the variety of activities we do during the placement. For example, so far outwit our varied ongoing collections work programme; I have been on placement at the National Galleries, attended heritage/medieval conferences, visited the outreach trainees on placement, worked with conservation on re-housing collections and done digital accessioning [see pictures]. In the next month I will also be invigilating at the RCAHMS Commonwealth pavilion for the Sightlines film, working with the NCAP team and beginning work with the other trainees on our big showcase project at Stirling Castle!

As such our job gives us the opportunity to learn lots of different skills, figure out my own strengths and interests, meet a variety of fascinating people and contribute to the work of the commission and Heritage in Scotland in various ways! So yes, getting the chance to have constant variety and new challenges in my work is fantastic.

What did university not teach you?
Despite Art History being a visual degree primarily focused on specific objects or artworks, there is a surprising lack of requirement to actually see and handle the tangible material one is researching, and for much of my art historic research I only utilised photographs, drawings or witnessed objects in their museum setting.

When I began to handle historical objects and material collections and research their collection histories for my work here, I was shocked at how little I had previously appreciated the benefit of having a tangible experience with collections. Not only this, but also just how important that form of first-hand experience can be for producing the best personal and academic research. For example, the scale, exceptional detail or even makers marks on collection material are rarely comprehensible from a photograph alone!

After this realisation I have and will certainly continue to be, an advocate for the promotion of access to original collection material and collections histories where possible, and hope I can continue working and promoting such values within Scottish Heritage beyond this traineeship!

To see a vine of my day, click here

A Trainee’s Day in the Museum and After

Today I have spent my day in the Archives of the museum. We have been working on a catalogue of objects with enameled decoration for months. So far I have managed to collect every objects from the storage racks (that was actually quite a long process, had to check about 30 000 objects and pick up all with enameled decoration) and photograph them.

Most of them have been drawn, but today’s job was to draw the rest of. I have nearly finished, about 10 pieces left for Monday. The  job is basically to make a section drawing of the pieces (mostly brooches) in 1:1. Since the artifacts are usually 2-3 mm wide and about 30 mm long, it is quite a delicate job to do, but sometimes the results are rewarding.

However, this is not the end. The raw photos and drawings need to loaded into the Photoshop (the drawings are scanned) and has to be edited. The frontal photos will be put next to the back side photos and the drawings. Basically this is what I will do tonight. Later I need to correct the drawings as well with Photoshop but that’s the job for next week in the  museum, because I need to see the objects for that.

So that’s about the museum day. But since I am also a PhD student I have other things to do in Archaeology today. I am over the halfway in the dissertation (but at the very end of the stipend period…) so tonight I’ll also do some reading and writing. Anyone interested about Late Antique mausolea in Pannonia and Dalmatia? Well, you need to wait a little bit, but soon you can gain some information from my thesis (hopefully…). Going back to the practical side, thesis writing is not just reading and writing, but lots of drawings, as well. I have some drawings in various quality, size and angle and I have to make them look right and also bring them on the same scale. So since I don’t have Corel Draw I also use the Photoshop here, which actually helps a lot.

So what is the conclusion? The most important tool of an Archaeologist is the Photoshop…

Zsolt Magyar