University College London

Prehistoric Fibres, Writing up Results

Today I’m writing up the results of research into tree bast and flax fibres. These fibres were common during the Mesolithic and Neolithic in Europe. I am interested in them through my research into prehistoric textiles and basketry.


Since I found out about tree bast fibres, I’ve been curious as how you get fibres from trees and what they’re like. They come from the inner bark of species such as lime, oak, poplar, elm and willow. Over the years I’ve learnt how to extract the fibres and process them so they can be spun into thread. It’s exciting making string from part of a tree!


Beyond processing, I want to find out the properties of these fibres. For this I work with material scientists at Manchester University. Today I’m surrounded by books and papers that I need to write up our research. I also have the graphs of our results on my computer screen.

I’m a Research Associate at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. Some of my papers can be downloaded here. There is a list of my publications and contact details here. If you have any questions, get in touch.

All change please! Acid-free tray renewal makes an old curator very happy

My name’s Rachael Sparks, and I’m Keeper of the Institute of Archaeology Collections at University College London. My role here is document and manage our collections, deal with queries and visiting researchers, provide objects for classes, and manage our small army of volunteers, in between teaching, marking, supervising postgraduate work, fielding ethics queries from our students and doing my own research. And whatever else is required. (more…)

Archaeology – It’s not just about digging

I am a part-time post-graduate research student at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, and Vice Chair of the Egypt Exploration Society, a charitable organisation, which has been carrying out archaeological fieldwork and research in Egypt for the last 129 years

The Day of Archaeology 2011, happily, fell on the same date as a scheduled meeting of the EES’ Board of Trustees: an excellent reason to take a day away from my largely non-archaeological ‘day job’ and to reflect upon my productivity on the day. Consequently, the morning started with some prep work for a forthcoming lecture and article before I travelled in to the Bloomsbury offices of the EES.

The Trustees, numbering fifteen and drawn from the worlds of Egyptology, academia and business, meet six times a year in order to govern the work of the Society and to consider and ratify the recommendations of the Society’s various task groups.

Sadly, I am unable to discuss the detail or content of our considerations or, indeed the cut and thrust of our debate. I can report, however, that attendance was excellent, with Trustees travelling some distance to be there, with one joining us from Italy via Skype and that decisions were made in respect of fieldwork, research, finance, publications and future directions.

Although it was a fairly lengthy meeting, lasting from 13:30 to 17:30 with only a short break—tea but no biscuits—I was able to catch up, briefly, with a colleague, who was there to use our extensive library. I took the opportunity to make some arrangements in order to progress the Society’s ongoing Oral History Project, which records the detailed reminiscences of senior Egyptologists for use by future researchers.

Directly following the meeting, there were some much-needed drinks in ‘The Duke of York’, the Society’s closest watering-hole and, as might be expected, the talking continued. In fact, without the constraints of an agenda and a ticking clock, there was an even greater opportunity to discuss some interesting and exciting proposals for the future both as regards the Society and in the wider Egyptological milieu.

By 19:30, dinner in Soho awaited and I headed off into the evening sunlight, satisfied, although there was neither sand in my shoes nor dust under my nails, that I had made a small but real contribution to the academic progress and public understanding of the archaeology of Egypt: a day well spent.

Further details of the history, facilities, and ongoing work of the Egypt Exploration Society can be found at:

John J Johnston

Archaeology Summer Schools

Spent the day running annual summer schools on Ancient Egypt and the Near East for Bloomsbury Summer School at University College London. My passion is public engagement and lifelong learning. We run six different 5-day summer courses every year, open to anyone with an interest in Ancient Egypt and the Ancient Near East, of all ages (16 up) and backgrounds. Friday was the last day of this year’s summer schools – the final day of ‘Lofty Places and Sacred Space: archaeology in the Ancient Near East’ and a course on Ancient Egyptian literature. At UCL we are privileged to house the extraordinary collection of archaeological material in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. Our summer courses often include object-based learning in this very special museum, and gallery talks in the grander galleries of the British Museum. Now it’s time to start thinking about which archaeologists/curators/academics to invite to teach next year’s summer schools. We also have our winter course taught in Egypt to look forward to – a week in Aswan with visits to archaeological sites in the mornings and lectures in the afternoons – can’t wait!


Well worth a visit ...

Archaeometallurgy in the university – a PhD student’s day


My name is Ruth Fillery-Travis, and I am an archaeometallurgist. That is, I use scientific analytical techniques to examine metal objects and the evidence of their production. I’m in a sub-discipline of a sub-discipline, as archaeometallurgy is a part of archaeometry/archaeological science, which is often considered a sub-discipline of archaeology. Luckily enough all the sub-sub-sub stops there, because I’m in the UK – if I were in the US archaeology itself might be considered a sub discipline of anthropology!

It might seem strange to be in such a niche subject area, but it fits my interests perfectly – I wanted to be a physicist right until I started studying it at university! After that I switched to Classical Archaeology, which had zero science and a lot of critical analysis of art, architecture and archaeological objects. Archaeometallurgy allows me to combine those two areas – I get to look at sometimes quite stunningly beautiful classical objects and not just analyse their physical appearance but use scientific techniques to analyse what they were made of and how they were made – like the snake ring adjacent.

Snake head of gold Roman finger ring

I’m currently reading for a PhD at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. I started in 2009 – before that I worked in local council archaeology as a records assistant on the ‘Sites and Monuments’ or (in more modern terms) ‘Heritage Environment Records’ of Norfolk and then Greater London. Nothing to do with archaeometallurgy – but then that’s a common problem with studying archaeology. If you can get a job in the discipline at all – which is tough – then it often isn’t in the area you originally trained in. But the advantage of that is that you can gain some fantastic experience – certainly my time working on the Greater London records was fascinating.

Between those jobs (more…)

Managing the Monster

I’m Keeper of Collections at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL, in London. The collection was founded back in 1937, and has over 80,000 objects from all around the world, with a sum total of two staff to manage the monster. Mine is an academic post, so I’m expected to combine teaching duties with museum work. My day is often an eclectic mix of activities – with my lecturer’s hat on I might be writing or giving lectures, marking, meeting with students, reviewing chapters my doctoral students have drafted, revising course handbooks, attending meetings or writing papers. But with my museum hat on I might be getting objects ready for other people’s handling sessions, cataloguing backlog material in the collections, updating our databases, writing a blog post for the collections, fielding research queries, supervising visiting researchers or finding jobs for my volunteers. I never really know what the day is going to throw at me, and when I do make plans I often find they get overturned the minute I get to my desk.

Today I have four researchers booked to visit the collections, so I’m hoping this will give me some free time to work on other things. But we shall see … (more…)

The other side of the viva! And working on the Silk Roads

My day started early, checking over my notes for a PhD viva I was examining this morning here at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London.

I don’t need to go into much detail of the experience as the candidate has already posted his experience of the process below (see James Doeser’s post “Pass – no corrections!”). It was an interesting thesis, and as James said, we had a lively discussion about the data gathered, the approaches and the outcomes. Sadly we failed to live up to his pre-viva fears that it could be “At worst … an aggressive demolition of a new researcher by two senior academics with egos and reputations to protect.” Damn – will try harder next time!

Now I’m back in the office working on a thematic study of the Silk Roads for ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments & Sites). It is a broad survey of the evidence for the Silk Roads between Asia and Europe through Central Asia and the Indian sub-continent. The aim of the study is to provide a platform to help the countries along the routes to develop a strategy for protecting, conserving and communicating this rich archaeology. In part it is hoped it will lead to multi-country nominations of sites (small as well as big) for the UNESCO World Heritage List, but mainly it is about sharing knowledge and experience amongst the countries. My role is to pull together existing information and synthesis this into a broad understanding of the routes and their impacts (great cities, the spread of religions, ideas and technologies, etc) – and the scale of diversity, change and adaption along the routes. It is a massive job (and a lot bigger than I’d planned it to be when I took the study on – but that is the fun of research, it takes you further and pushes you into new areas). The database behind the project has been assembled in a computer-based Geographic Information System (GIS), with a variety of maps, chronologies and information about places and empires. This will be distributed amongst the archaeologists working along the routes, but we also plan to make a lot of it available on the internet to everyone through Google Earth. I have a deadline for the draft report of the end of next week – so I need to get back to it!

However, some of the rest of my day will be spent organising things for an excavation, survey and site management project I run at Ancient Merv, in Turkmenistan (Central Asia). This is a long-running project on one of the great Silk Roads cities – in the 10th century CE Merv was perhaps the third largest city in the world! Today it is a World Heritage Site and managed by the Turkmenistan Ministry of Culture, who are our partners on the project. I’ll post up some info on the planning later today.

Tim Williams

Senior Lecturer, Institute of Archaeology, UCL


2. Getting started in Archaeology: volunteering and studying as a part-time mature student

Getting started in archaeology: volunteering and studying as a part-time mature student

I’m going to explain how and why I came into archaeology (which will discuss volunteering and studying as a part-time mature student), and why I went into the field of early medieval archaeology. I hope this will show the positive effects of history and archaeology in schools, the role of museums in stimulating interest, and the significance of public access to archaeology. It will also hopefully provide some insight into the value of education, and the challenges of studying archaeology as a mature student.