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




I’m Dawn Cansfield and I’m a part-time PhD student in the Archaeology Department at the University of Winchester, Hampshire, UK, researching prehistoric burials (morbid, I know).

On this year’s Day of Archaeology I was involved in an open day at Brighton Museum. These regular drop-ins are held on the last Friday of each month in the Museum Lab, when the public are able to come and find out about the work on the archaeology collections that usually goes on behind the scenes. The Brighton and Hove Archaeology Society bring along educational displays, artefacts from their excavations including pottery, stone tools and animal bones, and work on post-excavation activities such as recording and drawing finds.

My involvement in these open days arose from a collaboration between Andy Maxted, the archaeology curator at the museum, Paola Ponce, osteoarchaeologist at Archaeology South-East, and myself. We were fortunate to be awarded the inaugural Collections Study Award by the Prehistoric Society which is funding us to catalogue and assess the museum’s collection of prehistoric human remains. At the monthly drop-in days I work on a particular skeleton (as I do on my usual days at the museum), lay it out in anatomical order, assess and record it and discuss the work with visitors.

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Human remains to be assessed

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Recording form (tbc)

Today I laid out a skeleton from the collection that we have very limited information about but hopefully we can find out more through further research, something we are doing as part of the project. The human remains in the collection are of Brighton’s prehistoric ancestors and they vary from a good number of fairly complete skeletons to some which comprise just a few bones. Often the museum record includes details of where and how the skeletons were found and in some cases there are newspaper cuttings dating back to the 1920s and ’30s; occasionally there are even written reports. Ultimately all these individuals will be uniformly assessed and recorded with digitised summary reports uploaded to the museum database for future researchers to refer to.

We had a lot of visitors today and I spent pretty much the whole day talking with people about archaeology generally and the study of human remains in particular. This was no hardship for me! It was great chatting to people, adults and children alike, from all around the world, about things like how you can work out the age and sex of a skeleton, which bones are which, the timeline for prehistoric Brighton and how we are using our research to try and tell these people’s stories. All this chatting did, however, mean that I didn’t get very far with my actual recording on this occasion (which is not unusual at these events) but that’s fine because I can finish it at my next visit. Today was all about sharing the wonders of archaeology!