Gravitational Field Season

Normally the Day of Archaeology falls just as we are packing up at the end of our major field season in Jersey. At the end of a month of intensive fieldwork, public outreach and teaching we’re usually on a high and really reluctant to leave. I wrote about this feeling for Day of Archaeology back in 2013 in this post.

This year we are going into the field a month later and, instead of packing up camp, I’m packing up getting ready to leave the UK. There is excitement but it’s not the endorphin fuelled excitement you feel while on the dig itself. It’s raining and an unpredictable August lies ahead. We’re going to be staying a new base, different to the one we’ve used for the past 7 years and grown into (having spent about 8% of our lives there during these past years). For me these means I’m going to be camping instead of sleeping indoors for a month and so the amount of kit I need seems to be double. I’m fairly OCD when it comes to living environment, so the thought of being somewhere different for a month with different routines having to be evolved very quickly is daunting. Added, to this I seem to have lost my waterproof, which is one of those little things which, right now, with the rain lashing down, feels like a BIG THING.

Translocating your life for fieldwork is something many archaeologists and other fieldworkers have to do, but it takes mental and emotional energy to achieve successfully and it takes a toll.
By lunchtime tomorrow we’ll be moving into our new base and then the students arrive on Sunday. I know that by then we’ll have evolved new systems, adapted old routines, negotiated new ways of making camp and dig life work. It’s such a human thing, entering place and making it a social space. It takes a deep breath and trusting in our team and the human ability to re-form patterns of connection and develop new ergonomic systems wherever we find ourselves.

The Magdalenian camp site we are digging at Les Varines is itself a place people repeatedly journeyed to 14,000 years ago. We envisage it as a place that was visited a number of times, maybe seasonally by the same group. How many seasons are represented at the site is difficult to tell but we suspect, on the basis of artefact numbers, it isn’t so many compared to a site like La Cotte de St Brelade. We envisage maybe a single extended family group entered into a seasonal routine of periodic return to the valley, turning the space into a persistent place of human return. Perhaps, depending on the eventual horizontal scale of the site, more than one group converged here seasonally. What we do know, given the narrow vertical time depth of the occupation horizon, was that this routine came to an end, maybe after only a few years.

What factors disrupted this pattern, climate or environmental change, changes in animal movement patterns, or the discovery of a better site (maybe close by) is impossible to determine right now. But we know that one season long ago the group changed its plans. Heading out from the landscapes of modern day Normandy or Brittany and striking out for the terrestrial island horizon of Jersey, they might have already known at the point of departure that they weren’t going back to the old place but heading somewhere new. The old place at Les Varines had persisted in their annual life but it was now to be left to memory, dreams and the inhuman processes of landscape change: freeze-thaw, rooting, slope movement, soil creep. It may have become, for a while, a story until that too died.

Generations later its presence, through scatters of shiny exotic flint in a potato field, was noted and tracked in upon by archaeologists. Once again this little bit of island landscape rekindled the dark energy of human attention and deepend its own gravitational field, reinitiating the orbits of annual human return.

Feeling the pull we pack and, as a team, converge.

New Island Day Trip

20140709_151151Post by Dr Martin Bates. Geoarchaeologist. Ice Age Island Project.

My day saw geoarchaeological work on Jersey extended off-shore to Maître Île on Les Minquiers as well as continuing work at Les Varines where the excavation of a Late Pleistocene archaeological site is on-going. The visit to Maître Île was made thanks to the Fisheries department on Jersey and we travelled across on their patrol boat. Landfall was made through transfer to a RIB and a fast journey across the sound.


IMG_1545I was accompanied by a botanist and entomologist and all three of us were grateful to be back on terra firma as the journey across was not perhaps the most pleasant with a large swell running throughout the 1hr transit.
Once on Maître Île we were able to examine the island and a large patch of eroding Neolithic organic soil was recorded and sampled.

A number of flint flakes were found and a piece of pottery (probably of Iron Age date) was also recovered. Augering at three locations confirmed the stratigraphy reported by previous excavators and the chance was taken to recover the first samples from the island for pollen analysis. We returned to Jersey rather more rapidly than we went out satisfied with a good days work.
The remaining work has focused on augering at Les Varines where we are attempting to understand the geology of the slopes where archaeological material has been under excavation for the last 4 years. Our geophysical data gathered in previous years and in May of this year is now making more sense and auger holes are allowing us to begin to understand the distribution of the main sediment bodies. We can now think the possible origin of the flintwork and where we might locate our excavations next year.

Earth Moving

Jersey Quake

So half way through our 2014 Day of Archaeology a small earthquake hit the island of Jersey and we got to take a pause. We currently have about 40 people all told on the island: students, volunteers,family members, staff and visiting researchers and as the quake hit, we were of course all just doing whatever it was we were meant to be doing. A shaky freeze-frame of our Archaeological Day.

Most people were at the main dig on the eastern half of island furthest from the epicentre and most barely noticed it. Perhaps the soft sediments the site is situated on took some of the shock.

I was with five or six others at the stores where the ground beneath the concrete floor grumbled like a freight train was burrowing under it, a colleague on the second floor of the adjacent store felt far more movement and the unnerving sound of juddering artefacts.

Staff back the dig HQ on the west of the island nearest to the epicentre felt it the most, like two long explosions, shaking the hard granite on this side of the island.

In the minutes after Twitter provided the confirmation that it wasn’t just our store that shook and that the island had experienced a tremor. I tried to get in contact with everyone just to check in, it felt like what you should do after a tectonic event. (I wasn’t really worried but felt I needed to let everyone know that was, like, not an explosion but actually an earthquake)

So right in the middle of the Day of Archaeology I had to summon up a mental snapshot of the project, where everyone was, what everyone was doing and all of our connections to friends, media and other groups on the island.

It felt like, halfway through the project (where we have moved quite a volume of earth ourselves) for a moment the ground moved and we were forced to stop and take stock.

By the end of the day we had all come back together and everyone shared their experience of this little moment in time (including those who’d been at the zoo and seen the animals go crazy).

I went to sleep thinking about the rumbling caves and collapsing cliffs, shaking granite and tumbling boulders. I can now add tectonics to my list of night-time fieldwork worries.

Back filled: when days of archaeology come to an end


I couldn’t blog on Friday as we were packing up at the end of month of excavation in Jersey, but I was pretty sure what I was going to write about. I was in the midst of making sure we ended well and anticipating what I knew was about to come, that moment when everyone starts to grab their lifts, planes, ferrys and leave the dig.  You’d think, after 25 or so years in the field I’d be used to it, but it doesn’t work like that, maybe age has made me realize how precious these times in the field are or maybe you get less used to transitioning as you get older but the days after a project has ended are a little weird and I think we should think about why that is.

Archaeologists, like other field scientists and researchers, get to experience one of the most fulfilling of human experiences,  working with others as a team sharing everything together from the time you wake up to the time you sleep (often with little in between).  Depending on the length of time in the field, and the degree to which a project has been around enough to have it’s own culture, this experience exists in a totally immersive and idiosyncratic world of it’s own. Dig cultures vary from the Utopian to the dysfunctional, they develop languages, traditions, myths and protocols which mean nothing outside the world of that dig. Members of a dig society co-op into rules, systems and responses which out of context might seem strange, draconian or institutionalized, and yet when it works amazing things can be achieved.  While I’ve worked on digs which vary from the dull to those which are some kind of re-run of the Standford Prison experiment, most have been wonderful, positive experiences in which I’ve grown through meeting life-long colleagues, dear friends  and partners.  For any archaeologist the dig will be the arena for so much growth and shaping as a person that getting the culture right is important.

I personally find the intensity of a 24/7 endevour and its contrast with the professional/social separation of the 9 to 5 ‘real’ world a genuine peak experience. Being in the position now of helping to make digs work, guiding and structuring these short-lived, single-minded societies, the experience seems even more intense.

These days I see getting the end of the dig right as being pretty imprtant.  We’ve learned some practical tips like 1. never have your End Of Dig Party actually right at the end of the dig and 2. make sure you know exactly when everyone is leaving so you don’t end up cleaning the toilets alone, but actually getting the end right depends on how people feel at that point of departure, when every hole is filled and every tent packed.  You only really know you’ve got it right when leaving seems like the most unnatural thing to do.

This year our Ice Age Island project did finish well and our wonderful team of staff and students recorded and back-filled without desperate haste or  despondency. The base was cleaned and goodbyes were heartfelt. Dismantling and packing away your dig societies seems hard sometimes. They are precious because they can’t last more than the season, the next year will always be different and you can never be sure it will keep getting better.

But because the right ingredients of discipline, play, nuture and tough-love can result in great archaeology and great science spending a bit of that back-filling time thinking about how to do it better next time is never wasted.