Admin, Aurochs and Adventures: an academic’s Day of Archaeology

By Jacqui Mulville, Reader in Bioarchaeology/ Head of Archaeology, Cardiff University, Wales

Just back from a week at Çatalhöyük, Turkey and still catching up on various issues.   Working as an archaeological academic is a bewildering mix of teaching, research, administration, fieldwork and engagement.

So far today I have tackled opportunities for postgraduates to teach next year, read a draft PhD chapter, virtually checked up on the faunal and conservation team left out at Çatalhöyük (they are at Gobekli Tepe as I write – see Facebook for the images), checked teaching timetables, planned staffing and activities for our ‘Lunatiks and Sun worshippers’ Guerilla Archaeology event at Wilderness Festival as well as mused on the history and archaeology of Nazi sun worship and written a student reference.  It is 10.30am.

We have students and staff scattered around the world in the summer months and keeping track of them all is a huge task. I have just left one postgraduate and four students out at Çatalhöyük in Turkey working as faunal analysts and conservators. Elsewhere there are groups of students excavating at Ham Hill in Somerset with Prof Niall Sharples, and crawling around caves in Montenegro with Dr Dusan Boric, as well many other students dotted around at various locations.

Fieldwork is probably one of the highlights of archaeological research and we prize the process, the products and the insights from hands-on archaeology highly. Indeed at Cardiff we make all our undergraduate students do eight weeks fieldwork or conservation placements.  Some of them do not enjoy the experience, it can be muddy, frustrating, back breaking, boring, painstaking and painful – however the majority leave with improved knowledge, skills and experiences as well as a whole new raft of friends.  The challenges of working closely with other people, often away from home, comforts and familiar routines can be hard.  I always know that at the end of the first week I feel a strong urge to leave, but if I wait a day or two the whole thing suddenly slots into place and the excavation becomes a new ‘home’.

This year my fieldwork has been curtailed due to an injury so I only spent a short time at Çatalhöyük over the eight-week excavation season.  I am ‘Faunal Team Leader’ and I was once again be beguiled by the giant aurochs bones and buccrania (skulls), the huge wild pigs and the tiny horses.  Aurochs have been extinct in Britain since about the Bronze Age and are extremely rare in assemblages therefore handling these huge bones is always astounding.


Aurochs skull being reconstructed by a Cardiff conservation student

Part of our research at Çatalhöyük this year was focused on understanding a series of early mixed human and animal deposits found lying outside the site (excarnation, butchery, consumption) as well as continuing to look at cattle domestication (strangely late at Çatalhöyük compared to other sites in the region) and the role of wild species in this domesticating society. There are interesting changes towards the end of the Neolithic sequences – in terms of the species present, the houses, art and artefacts (including hunting tools) that seem to coincide with the appearance of domestic cattle – so were these Çatalhöyük cowboys different to their predecessors? We also are trying to map changing rates of accumulation in houses and middens to better understand how, and hopefully why, the inhabitants managed their waste.

Summer for Cardiff archaeology is also festival time; we take staff, students and alumni to music festivals to tell people about archaeological research. Guerilla Archaeology is in its third year of festival attendance and kicked off 2013 with a very successful Glastonbury trip. You still have time to catch us at Wilderness, Shambala or at the London Shuffle festival (curated by Danny Boyle!). Look out for my ‘24th century BC Party People’ piece in the program at the former, discussing the archaeology of festivals.

Speaking to people about my research has quickly become one of the highlights of my job. The challenges of explaining what we do and why it is interesting, important or revealing really gets me thinking about both modern and ancient humans as well as challenging assumptions and exposes the gaping holes in my knowledge. I have read more, and more widely, than ever before as a result of these interactions and whole new areas of research activities and ideas have developed from outreach activities. Just speaking to fellow academics can become rather insular and isolating, so getting out there can really impact on yourself as well as the wider public.

Anyhow it is now 11:04 and the various claims on my time are calling…. so back to work. I have the final edits of a monograph on sea level change in the Isles of Scilly to complete and a Swiss grant application to review – though I would rather be at Gobekli Tepe  looking at the carved animals on the monoliths…

Have a great day of archaeology!