University of Wales

Confessions of an Archaeologist

My name is Laura Johansson and I am an archaeologist. I am originally from Pargas, Finland, but moved to the UK in 2010 to do my undergraduate in archaeology at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David. My interest in archaeology stretch back to my early teenage years, and since my passion for archaeology has only grown. My real passion though is for maritime archaeology and I am currently studying for an MA in Maritime Archaeology in Southampton. University will start back up in September, but up until then I am employed as a full-time archaeologist for Southampton City Council Archaeology Unit and on annualised hours as a museum guide for The National Museum of the Royal Navy, which is based in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

I’ve chosen to write an account of one of my days at the Medieval Chantry Dig in Southampton, working for the SCC Archaeology Unit. We are currently clearing out any archaeology from an area where the Drew Smith Group is planning to build a new set of flats. As mentioned before, this site has previously been the location of a medieval chantry which was connected with St. Mary’s Church, located just across the road. In this case there is a substantial amount of documentation connected to our site, which has allowed us to understand what the different medieval features on the site may be. However, there are also several Saxon pits, containing a substantial amount of animal bones.

On this particular day I had just started digging a new feature. So far the theory is that the feature is a pit of unknown date which is being cut by a ditch which seems to be running across a large part of the site. This job is my first paid full-time position in commercial archaeology (yay me!) and it is refreshing to get to work in a different side of archaeology (previously I have mainly participated in digs organised by universities). Surprisingly (to me) it is quite different! I was told today that in contemporary British Commercial Archaeology we no longer use trowels for other things than cleaning the mud out of our boots. However, (if archaeology was a religion) I did feel like a sinner in church as I was shovelling out the layers of my pit!

Unfortunately I can’t really tell you anything interesting about my feature as I don’t know much myself. The dig started in the middle of April this year and we are now running on the last few weeks. Unfortunately time is against us and we are having speed up the process a bit (we are like digging machines!), but fortunately it looks like there is not too much left to do. Hopefully the weather will be with us these last few days as we otherwise will be sat in the office doing finds washing (which isn’t too bad either!).
It has always been my intention to pursue a degree in archaeology after university. My interests are quite wide, but my expertise lies mainly within British and Finnish archaeology. One of my greatest passions is to promote archaeology to the wider public, which is something I am hoping to continue to do in the future. Among other things I am planning to partly base my MA dissertation project on public outreach so we shall see how it goes! Wish me luck!
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Drew Smith Group, Dr Andy Russel and Emma for their kind contributions to this piece.
Disclaimer: All photos were taken by the author, except the Google map images.

Making Archaeologists. Caerleon Excavations.

As ‘Day of Archaeology 2012’ sprung into life, the excavations on the Iron Age Caerleon 2012 dig came to a close. This is our final day of a brisk five day project. At the moment it’s about 8:15 in the morning, and I am looking out towards the University of Wales, Newport campus. There are clouds, lots of them, and they are not the fluffy light ones, they have a pretty foreboding look about them… The campus is roughly a twenty minute drive from our excavation site, and our team this year has been dependent on our committed core of undergraduates. I should clarify that these are history undergraduate students, rather than archaeology undergraduates. Time was, our university had a bustling and well respected archaeology department, but for a variety of reasons, we sadly lost that department, and history was left standing alone. However, there are enough of us archaeologists who survive in and near to the university, and the desire for archaeological research stands strong, even if we don’t have the name ‘archaeology’ on our department notice board anymore. A strong tenant of our excavations in the past was to train prospective field archaeologists, and that has been seen again this year, with the majority of the team being made up of first time archaeologists.

You would not know to look at them, but all five of the team members here are on their very first field excavation.


The excavations this year are just below an Iron Age hillfort (Lodge Hill), which overlooks the Roman fortress at Caerleon. We’ve been following up on a number of features, and today we are focusing on the second of our two sites, the excavation of a trackway feature. We have some great maps that suggest the length of the trackway to be pretty significant, and running in a temptingly straight line (tempting if you like Roman features that is), going straight over the top of the hillfort. Lots of questions were being asked of this feature, how was it made, how old was it, what was it used for? As the final day of our excavations proceed, hopefully we’ll be able to deal with some of those queries.

The trackway.

(…several hours later…)

Well, back home now, 6pm(ish), in the warmth of the office, feet up and in front of the computer. Those black clouds spied earlier gave as expected, and turned the majority of our ‘day of archaeology’, into a day of mini trench floods and occasional soakings. Such is the way with field archaeology. That though is not to say that our last day of excavation was in any way a negative, in fact we had quite a successful day.

First things first though, for many of the entries posted for Day of Archaeology, we have been treated to some stunning artefacts and insights. Alas, the most time consuming activity that took place on our final day, was, as is often the case for field excavation, back filling! It’s one of those questions that is often asked of us by passing visitors, ‘what are you going to do with it (the archaeology) once you’ve finished?’, the standard short answer is ‘fill it in’. So for our day in the life of an archaeologist, it was a day of hole filling, more so than it was for hole excavation (although it’s not always a dull affair as these keen excavators hopefully show)!

As some of the trenches were being filled in though, we had sunk two test pit sections through our trackway feature, which previously in the week had revealed two distinct surfaces, and in the last hour or so of the day, revealed a third. Coming down on a really compact clay surface (you can see the moment when it was revealed here), the most obvious inclusion was a wealth of charcoal material.

The discovery of this surface was one of the last acts of archaeology on site for the year. However, the questions go on. Dating from the charcoal will be next on the agenda. We only returned a few sherds of probably post medieval pottery (though it might be late, you never know) from the first two surfaces, but the charcoal may well let us take our site back much further, we’ll have to wait and see. When we do get the results though, that should go a long way to helping us tackle some of those many questions we had going into this, so it’s a great result, even if the result means that we must wait on some more results.

And so as the day of archaeology ends, so does our excavation. It’s been a blast being involved in field archaeology again after some time away, but as interesting as the excavation element has been, today, as with the rest of this week has reminded me of one thing in particular. Field excavation has a funny effect on people. There is something about going through the hours of excavation, be it in sunshine or rain, be it through the excitement of discovering a road surface untouched for however many centuries, or the frustration of sifting through yet another find free ditch (two of our team know what that is all about now), that brings people together. At the start of this week, we had probably four distinct groups of people, different backgrounds, different social groups, different interests, yet spending the week sharing the experience of field excavation, those barriers gradually whittled away. Those involved became friends, became united, and that is both a surprising but also familiarly reassuring thing about field excavation. At the end of it all, we had had a wonderful time, become good friends, and ultimately, we were united as archaeologists. Here’s hoping your day of archaeology was as good as ours!