work experience

Just how are archaeologists made?

The world of professional archaeology is a varied and wonderful thing but sometimes it’s easy to get absorbed into the daily grind and forget what it was that got you into archaeology in the first place. Sometimes though, there are times when that spark re-ignites and you walk home with a bounce in your step, unburdened by the weight of those planning applications you have to comment on or reports that are waiting patiently to go into the Historic Environment Record. I’ve experienced one of those times recently during the supervision of a work experience placement. It came during the handling of objects notably, a flint tool of possible Palaeolithic date. When describing the manufacture of this object and the fact that we were only a handful of people to have touched it in thousands of years, made me remember why I love the subject so much. Seeing inspiration dawn and the glow of excitement re-ignites the embers of that spark and you realise just how privileged you are….

 Here at Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service, we’re lucky to be able to offer work experience placements across the Service for students who are studying from A levels right up to higher education. It’s a somewhat unique experience as we combine archaeology and archives so students can get a broad knowledge of the diversity of roles. For the past three weeks, Kat Webber, an A level student, has been with us working on a variety of projects throughout the Service. Here she describes her experience during her time with us…

Sacrificing four weeks of my last ever school summer holiday perhaps seemed a little daunting three weeks ago. However, as I sit here now, in the comfortable archaeological niche in the basement of the Hive (Worcester library), it is a with disappointed frown that I realise next Monday will be the start of my last week here. Of course, I am tired; even with all the unsympathetic glares of more seasoned workers as I go on about my long 10-til-4 shift, concentrating for a whole day (especially so when the hottest day of the year was spent in an office-like greenhouse, three floors up, typing records into the HER system) is hard work.

I wouldn’t ever complain though, this opportunity has surpassed my expectations ten-fold.

Archaeology, as I found out at a young age having experienced the wonders of Indiana Jones, is not all cursed hidden treasure and precarious chases on the tops of speeding trains, (though I still have a week left, so you never know). What I didn’t realise though was its true extent, far beyond that of the movies. It’s about preserving, displaying and expanding history; it’s about public outreach, conservation and filling in the unknown, about problem solving, people and waiting an aggravating amount of time for a GIS map to load.

To me, ‘History’ holds the most elusive agenda in modern life. Yes, there are reaches of science that boggle even the brightest, space travel and time are too almost foreign to our species – and the future is one big scary unknown (being a student on the verge of leaving home I know this more than most). The past, though, is something that has actually happened and yet we know so little about. A whole different type of speculation.

That is why, while holding the remnants of a Neolithic decorated pot in my suitably dusty hands, I was almost brought to tears. The idea that 5000 years ago someone, so much like us but so far away, went out of their way to create such a beautiful, intricate (ironic) legacy. Not once would they have believed that so far in the future I would stand, awestruck by their design, with my thumb in the grooved pattern made by their own. This was a person who wouldn’t have even comprehended such a future. To think that their imagination was as powerful a force as to survive through eons, it’s both enlightening and harrowing.

My time in Finds has been extraordinary to say the least. From the 2000 year old roman pottery that, wonderfully, still holds the traces of the maker’s fingerprints, to the magnificent presence of an almost whole mammoth tusk found in my very own Worcestershire (even in the windowless and a little cramped confines of the storage rooms, I could imagine the size and power of such a beast as if it were right in front of me.) These last two days processing and bagging Iron Age pottery from a recent site, even this has been incomparable. Getting distracted by large trays of pot fragments and attempting to recreate segments like a three dimensional monotonous jigsaw where you don’t know which pieces you have or don’t.

Most of my time, however, was spent with the Historic Environment Record department upstairs. This is where archaeology meets present tense. When a company or organisation wants to build somewhere it must be checked for archaeological potential, which of course makes a lot of sense, yet many people simply don’t appreciate the work that goes into it. A lot of work – DBAs or WBs (I have learned a lot of abbreviations), the steps that go to protecting our past are prolific.

Archaeologists, I think, are a separate group of people. They see things through the eyes of archaeological knowledge, of course, but from my experience they are also more aware, individual and wistful. I may be a little biased, of course, in planning to study Archaeology and Anthropology at university. I have asked so many questions and all have been answered with a smile and a laugh. Along with the amazing experiences, that smile and laugh is something I will be taking with me when I leave.

Iron Age Pot Base reconstructed by work experience student Kat

Iron Age Pot Base reconstructed by work experience student Kat

Flying high: work experience with Shropshire HER

This week, Victoria James has been on work experience with Shropshire Council’s Historic Environment Team. Here she tells me about what she has been getting up to…

This week I’ve been on work experience with the Historic Environment Team at Shropshire Council, and although the archaeological work going on here isn’t always necessarily hands-on, it’s still as fascinating as ever. The team maintain and compile the Historic Environment Record (HER), which covers every single aspect of the historic environment – including archaeological sites, historic buildings, structures and landscapes – over the entirety of Shropshire.  Much of the work is desk based, but this week one of my tasks has involved working with some of the aerial photographs taken by the team for the HER.

Double ditched Iron Age enclosure and field system, Patten Grange. Much Wenlock. Copyright: Shropshire Council

The team use aerial photography to gain a greater understanding of the archaeology of the county, where past uses of the landscape leave a small trace for the archaeologist to decipher. A key element of this is the formation of cropmarks, which can tell us a lot about what’s going on below the surface. Ditches and walls buried underground affect the crop yield in different ways, as ditches allow the crop to grow better and in a darker colour, whereas buried walls negatively affect crop growth and mean a lighter colour of yield. Although this can be hard to see from the ground, crop marks are clear to see from aerial photographs, which then allow the team to identify areas of archaeological interest and show this to the people working on the land above it.

For me, this was fascinating, as I had no idea that crops could tell us so much about what had happened on that site years before or how aerial photographs could be such a massive help in discovering what’s buried underneath the land. I got to look at many aerial photographs and pick some which will eventually be put to use on the Discovering Shropshire’s History website.

SGetting in the plane

Getting ready to take some aerial photographs on Wednesday. Copyright: Giles Carey

Not only did I get to see some of the previous aerial photographs which had been taken, but during my week of work experience part of the team actually went and took some more. This involved some members of the team getting the opportunity to fly over the county and view the land below, as well as taking some aerial photographs themselves.

Another thing I got to do on work experience was help out reorganising just some of the many books and files that the team has. There were lots of books and files dating back many years from all different topics – although almost all focused on archaeology, buildings or the history of Shropshire – and I had to organise some of these to make them easily accessible to anyone who might need one, which is a likely possibility at any point, given that the team has a variety of things that they have to do.

Additionally, I got to read through an updated version of Pevsner’s book on historic buildings of Shropshire and put these into a spreadsheet to view the corresponding records on the HER and to make a note of any that weren’t there. I found this really interesting because I got to read about different historic buildings in Shropshire and their features, which made me realise just how many there are! Some of the buildings I already knew of beforehand, but I’d never really considered the history of some of them until now, despite the captivating stories behind them.

Overall, this week I’ve been able to see another side of archaeology which isn’t publicised as much as the excavation side of things. The team here still get to go on site visits to different local places of historic significance to try to conserve our local history, but they also get to maintain the HER and do everything that goes along with that. I’ve been able to see what the team really does and how much hard work they have to put into it, but it has also been a really fun week and I’ve learned a lot about not just the job, but about my home county as well.

Victoria James
Work experience student

Many thanks to Victoria, there will be more to follow from the rest of the Historic Environment Team shortly…

FLO work – a 15 year olds perspective


My Archaeology Work Experience with Wendy Scott, FLO for Leicestershire,  by Lewis Monkfield (15).

 First Week

Monday – I went to the record office in  Wigston to set up a Viking exhibition, it was ok but maybe because it was my first day I wasn’t that confident to help or do anything. (he was very helpful! WS)

Tuesday – I went to the record office again as I more determined and confident to join in and help out as I knew what was needed. We then finished the exhibition mid-day and went back to County Hall and started on some objects which had to be recorded.

Wednesday – I was at County Hall identifying all the objects and treasure a detectorist found and started weighing, measuring and taking photographs of them. That then took all day and was still unfinished.

Thursday – I then went to Burrough Hill near Melton to do a dig, unfortunately I didn’t find anything but it was an experience to see what it is like for people who do this daily. I did find out that at the top of Burrough Hill there had been a body discovered, unfortunately they didn’t excavate it so I was unhappy. After lunch I met a nice women (ULAS finds officer) who showed us some Iron age and Roman finds. I met another women (Phd Student) who helped me identify bones of various animals and humans and how to tell if they were female or male which was nice of her.

Friday – I  spent all day putting the photographs on the computer and started to crop them ready for adding to the website. I had to do a lot of editing of Roman coins which had to be sent to the British Museum once completed, which took me some time.

 Second Week

Monday – After completing the photos I then had to put them on a database.  I had to describe them and say what age they were. To go with that I had to match the pictures to the objects and add a find spot, this is to show people who look at the database where the object came from.

Tuesday – I went to the archaeology store in Barrow and looked at all the collected items from people. There was a large variety of different things. The things I liked most and fascinated me were the bugs, beetles and birds in the Natural History collection, which were shown to me by Carolyn Holmes the Curator.

Wednesday- In the morning I was again identifying more objects which I didn’t like doing so early in the morning as I was still half asleep. But then when it came to mid-day I went to Melton Museum to set up an exhibition, I liked this as I organised many objects in my own way , also I met  man called Denis Wells (Secretary of Melton and Belvoir Search Society) who is really nice man to let us look at and display his objects. When I looked at it completed it looked really well organised, as we divided each level into a different time period.

Thursday – it was nearly the end of my work experience and for this day I helped Wendy sort out resource boxes and  categorize different period times and materials into their own little section. This was helpful as I learnt a bit more on how to identify what period they are from.  I tried to laminate words to go with the resource boxes and I made a mess, so yet again I had to cut the words again and laminate them. Wendy sent me home early as I was getting stressed!!

Friday – Last day – Today I helped Wendy finish the resource boxes and upgraded the Roman box and finished everything that was needed which was; cutting which I don’t like doing, and laminating which I mastered this time round. Because of my hard work for two weeks I was allowed to leave early as I was a big help to Wendy during work experience.

I have learnt a lot during my two weeks here at the County Council, as it was a challenge for me. I also had a lot of fun during work experience and I have met a lot of people. I also want to thank Wendy Scott for putting up with me for two whole weeks. I am delighted that Wendy has allowed me to see what she does for a living, which is kind of her. This work experience has shown me what she has to do day in day out, which is hard work! But most of all I’m happy that I came here as I have learnt a lot from Wendy.

Lewis digging at Burrough Hillfort