The Cambridge archaeologist who started her own dig aged seven

For most children, digging for hidden treasure is over in an afternoon. But having started to excavate a mound at the bottom of her garden, Jennifer Bates kept on digging. She went on to study archaeology at Cambridge, returning to take a PhD. When her supervisor suggested she might balance her academic work with something different, the pastime she chose was intergalactic.

Jennifer Bates in her lab at the McDonald Institute (Nick Saffell)

I became an archaeologist when I was seven. We moved house on the Isle of Wight and there was a grassy mound at the end of the garden. It was just a heap of spoil left over by previous owners. Because we were bored, my friend Adam and I started digging into it. First we found a rusty nail and some bits of wire. We carefully labelled and stored them.

We were both great fans of Time Team. Watching it made us think we too might find something interesting. Each weekend and every holiday we carried on with our personal dig. After about six years, the trench was two metres deep. It had retaining planks to reinforce the sides and a ladder to get in and out. We used spades and trowels but we weren’t allowed a mattock.

The site of Jennifer’s dig at the bottom of the garden (Jennifer Bates)

When we dug deeper, we began to find bits of a pot. It was quite rough and not very attractive with white marks that we later discovered were shellfish. I got some books out of the library and read up about conserving the pot. I carefully pieced together the bits.

“Oh my goodness, you’ve found an Iron Age pot.” That’s what the county archaeologist, Dr Ruth Waller said when she came to give a talk in the village. I’d tentatively shown her my pot, expecting it to be dismissed. But she was very excited, explaining about what it would have been used for and how we could tell it was a local ware.

The young archaeologist opens her Christmas present — it’s a spade (Jennifer Bates)

As I approached GCSEs, my parents spotted an ad in the local paper for scholarships at an independent school — a charity that charges fees on a sliding scale. Best of all, Christ’s Hospital School offered archaeology A level. I got a place and in my first term Time Team arrived at the school. I was allowed to skip some of my classes to join them and spent three glorious days digging at Alfoldean in Sussex.

I didn’t think I was good enough for Cambridge or to study archaeology. My archaeology teacher said: “Don’t be daft — you’re an archaeologist through and through.” I applied to Trinity College and got in. I had the most fantastic three years and was lucky enough to work in Turkey at Kilise Tepe with Professor Nicholas Postgate. I went to UCL to do a master’s and returned to Cambridge for my PhD.

Everyone has a mid-PhD crisis — even if they think they won’t. When I had mine, my supervisor Dr Cameron Petrie suggested that I should take up a hobby, something quite different to take me away from Cambridge for a while. On a trip home to the Isle of Wight, I came across the 501st UK Garrison branch. They’re a not-for-profit costuming organisation dedicated to recreating Star Wars costumes.

I’ve always been a massive Star Wars fan. Within days of meeting the 501st UK Garrison, I was making my own costume and meeting a group of people just as geeky as I am. We have loads of fun making appearances and raising money for good causes — and I’ve learned new skills, everything from how to trim plastic armour to how to wire electrics and how to airbrush alien headdresses!

The archaeology that interests me is how people actually lived: what they ate, what they farmed, what they wore — and even how they organised going to the loo — and how these aspects of everyday life intersected with their identity.

Ancient farmers were pretty clever: they knew it was unwise to rely on just a few plants. My current work focuses on the crops grown in the Indus Valley of South Asia during the period 3200–1500 BC. My most recent research, carried out with colleagues from Cambridge and Banaras Hindu University, suggests that people cultivated a much broader range of crops that we thought. There are important implications for today’s world.

I think it was a big mistake for the government to drop A-level archaeology. There’s real value in learning about the past, through the combination of skills it draws together to the way it encourages us to reflect on our own actions.

A digger arrives to demolish Jennifer’s site (Jennifer Bates)

My childhood excavation came to an abrupt end when I was 13. I came home from school to find a skip in the drive. My trench, the product of more than six years’ digging, had been demolished to make way for an observatory my dad was building to look at the stars. I wasn’t best pleased — but I cheered up when I was allowed to drive the digger.


This feature article was written by Alexandra Buxton and originally featured as part of This Cambridge Life series 27 July 2017.