TRYING TO MAKE SENSE OF IT ALL: DAY OF A PHD STUDENT

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign? (Bless you, Albert Einstein)

My name is Dawn Cansfield and I’m a part-time PhD student at the University of Winchester, UK. My Day of Archaeology has been unglamorous but dry, spent at my desk in front of my computer, surrounded by piles of paper, writing.

My research is into burial practice in the early Neolithic period (c.4000-3300 BC) in south-east England, specifically looking at how people were treated when they were buried depending on their age or sex. Whereas a full-time PhD takes about three years to complete, a part-time one can take twice that and, indeed, I’ve been doing it for five years so far. It is a long haul and you have to really love your research subject to stick with it which, fortunately, I do!

My interest in past burial practice came about while on an Iron Age excavation where two infant skeletons were found beneath the eaves of a roundhouse. I was doing my Masters degree at the time (also part-time) and these burials formed the basis of my dissertation. For me there was something very poignant about trying to imagine the background story of these two little babies from a couple of thousand years ago, not far from where I live now. There are certain things you can try to find out about people in the past from the way they buried their dead and in prehistory, when no written records exist, and I find it particularly fascinating to try and piece together what their treatment of the dead says about how people were viewed in life.

Boxes of human remains in a fairly typical museum store

Tools of the trade (from top down): osteometric board, tape measure, sliding caliper, spreading caliper

I’m coming to the end of my PhD journey now, writing-up my thesis, which I plan to have finished by the end of the year. I am therefore spending quite a lot of time at my desk at the moment trying to make sense of it all. However, prior to this my research has involved many visits to museums to examine human skeletal remains to estimate their age and sex, and using written records, such as excavation reports, to identify details about such things as burial location, position, orientation, and objects buried with the dead (grave goods), followed by statistical analysis and interpretation.

All this has been a great experience for someone whose secondary education, back in the day, was something of a disaster. It turns out what I needed was to find ‘my’ subject and archaeology was it. There have been – and continue to be – some marvellous opportunities along the way, such as working on a grant-funded project to assess the human remains at Brighton Museum, which I wrote about last year, writing articles and papers, presenting conference papers and teaching on the MSc in Funerary Archaeology course. I’ve met and worked with some great people and learned a huge amount more about archaeology and heritage – and about myself. Now that there is light at the end of the PhD tunnel I’m looking forward to the next phase of my life in archaeology (although I’m secretly enjoying this writing-up bit too).

Human remains laid out for analysis