In Need of a Time-Turner (Teaching Osteoarchaeology)

For what seems like an eternity, I have spent the majority of my time behind a desk for archaeology (ha, it’s actually only been two and a bit years). It’s brilliant stuff, don’t get me wrong. I love my PhD (really, I do). I basically get to play the Sims all day… but with medieval plague victims. However, four weeks ago I took temporary leave from my PhD studies (*gasp*) in order to take on a contract as the osteoarchaeologist at the Poulton Research Project field school for the summer. And I LOVE being back in the field. The following is what I did today, on Friday the 11th of July, 2014… the Day of Archaeology.

#dayofarch (I made a HASHTAG using our site photo board - be impressed.)

#dayofarch (I made a HASHTAG using our site photo board – be impressed.)

I woke up one minute before my alarm this morning: 06:44. It’s actually not that early a start for fieldwork – although it was a bit of a shock to the system after my somewhat relaxed PhD schedule. Before I leave the house at about 08:00 there are a number of things I have to get ready, which mostly include eating a decent breakfast, making sure my lunch is packed, that I have plenty of water, that I’ve applied the first lot of sunscreen, and most importantly that I’ve fed my bunnies. Oh… and that I’ve checked the traffic.

The site that I’m working on this summer is about 35 miles (that’s about 55km) from my house, so if I set off about 08:00 I usually get there about 08:50 or 09:00 depending on the traffic. I don’t actually mind the drive. I listen to the radio and attempt to sing along to songs that I don’t really know (but I probably will before the next eight weeks are up, since they play the same ones every day).

On arriving at site I have to go through our security gate off the main lane (I’m on good terms with the security folk by this point – they even comment on what’s on the radio some days when I buzz through), down another long lane that is absolute torture for the poor little Fiat 500 that I drive (not the car that most screams ARCHAEOLOGIST, but hey), past the cows, the crows, and the corn. From there, in order to get to our site you have to drive along a WWII RAF bomber track (which is the centre of many an archaeological discussion on site, as I’m sure you can imagine) and park up outside the cabins.

I’m often the first person on site (something I do on purpose, not because I’m that keen – but because I love the quiet calm of the fields and a cuppa before anyone else arrives, watching the swallows soaring around and swooping under the eaves of the reconstructed roundhouse). Today was no exception and this morning I arrived my earliest yet – 08:45. This is super relaxed for a field site (I cannot stress this enough, although I’m not going to complain)… but we are a research site. The students don’t even arrive until 10:00! (Pfft… back in my day, etc, etc, etc.)

The first thing I did today was head to the ‘Bone Cabin’ (our on-site storage facility for human skeletal material) where I bagged and boxed up the bones of individuals who had been lifted and washed the day previous and left to dry overnight. It took me about half an hour this morning, as I was processing one adult and one juvenile individual. I do this work fuelled by podcasts (no tea allowed around the bones) – this morning, Caustic Soda: Hearing (part of their ‘Senses’ series). I may be on site to teach, but I love learning while I’m there. This was especially interesting as this year was the first that I’ve had to add spare hearing aid batteries to my field kit! This all being said, it was a shame to be inside first thing (even though I enjoy this work) as it was already proving to be a beautiful day. Once I was done I took all of the trays that the bones had been drying in outside, in order to be brought up to the main site once I had some hands free.

Moving on from where I’d set the trays down, I went on to stack up a barrow up with all of the things we store in our on-site museum (in addition to the exhibits of course): context records, skeleton recording sheets, dumpy level, toolbox, etc. I then put on my ridiculously over-full knapsack (lunch, water, bug spray, suncream, waterproofs, toolkits, iPad, kneeling pad, hat, glasses, keys, etc) and wheeled the barrow up the path through the cornfields to the site proper (where the trenches actually are – it’s about 250m).

On the way to Trench I where I am working (the medieval cemetery), I passed Trench L on the left, which is about 50m before the cemetery site. I’ll frequently go to visit them during the day to see what is happening at the ring ditches and roundhouses. I’m not a periodist or featurist or a osteologist (okay, well, actually, I am the last one…).

After unhooking the gate (barbed wire, eep) to get to Trench I, I opened up our site tents (one used as an office and storage facility, the other as a mess with the ‘kitchen’ facilities – a kettle – and general workspace). Then, I did what I do most mornings and made myself a cuppa (green tea, please) and wrote out some of my notes in my field journal until the others arrived. This always includes a bit of mental preparation for what I have to do during the day ahead.

Now, this week we’ve had seven people working in Trench I on the cemetery site. We had a group of three, who yesterday had lifted the skeleton that they had been excavating throughout the week (an young adult individual, likely a male). There was also a group of two who had been working to expose and clean another three skeletons within a single grave cut over the previous few days (three juvenile individuals, perhaps buried all together as a triple, or maybe as a double and a single). Finally, there was a group of two that had been washing skeletal material they’d excavated earlier – but they finished this by lunch yesterday and so went to join the group of two in the afternoon, since three individuals is a lot to manage for just two people (students or otherwise).

When the students arrived on site (at the, dare I say it again, leisurely time of 10:00) we got to work straight away as Friday is the last day on site for many students (although we have two staying on next week who will be joined by some new individuals). The group of three who had already lifted their individual got to work recording their context sheets for their grave cut – and then got on to mapping this onto the site plan. This meant that I had to go through how these aspects of recording are done (but also get them to do it themselves, as they have to learn). I also had to explain 1:20 scale drawings, in reference to our site grid, which I must have done okay as their plan looked very good when it was done!

Students mapping their grave cut onto the site plan.

Students mapping their grave cut onto the site plan.

While doing this, I was also teaching the group of four (or rather, those who had not done it before) how to record their skeleton and grave fill contexts, before their individuals could be lifted. I taught them how to use a dumpy levels, take eastings and northings (again, in reference to our site grid), and understand the various sections on a context recording form (always a good time to chat stratigraphy again, I find). The morning for me involved a lot of running around, grabbing measuring tapes, pointing out pages in the site manuals, answering questions, and generally wishing I had a time-turner.

Students recording the locationg of their skeletons.

Students recording the locationg of their skeletons.

I was also hoping at this point to get another photograph of the three skeletons the group of four had been excavating, as yesterday it was incredibly sunny (which doesn’t make for a nice photo), but sadly the clouds were nowhere to be seen (sadly). I did get the group of three to photograph their grave cut through, for our site records, after they had finished recording it.

After lunch, during which I desperately needed a sit down, but for whatever reason couldn’t stand still (IT’S THE DAY OF ARCHAEOLOGY PEOPLE), the students got back to work with me supervising. The group of three, having finished all of their recording and mapping and photographing got to work washing the bones of the skeleton they had lifted the day before. Thankfully it was a nice day (have I mentioned the sun yet) and they were able to do this at the tables outside. The site air was full of singing, whistling, and jokes. Is there anything better? I will miss this group of students!

Just keep washing, washing, washing...

Just keep washing, washing, washing…

Meanwhile, the group of four got set about lifting one of the three skeletons in their grave cut. This is very slow work, but they did a brilliant job. I spent time supervising their excavating, labelling bags for the bones to go into as they were lifted, identifying certain bones the students were unsure about, completing paperwork, tweeting photographs of their work, collecting completed skeletal elements in bags up into trays, ensuring soil samples were taken for researchers, etc. The last part of their skeleton to be lifted was the skull, which on this site (at least in the last couple of weeks) has had to be lifted in a block – this means taking all parts of the skull up as one in addition to the surrounding soil. I always get the students to help with cutting the block, however I always do the lifting of the skull out of the grave cut and into the tray (mostly so the students don’t have the pressure on them, but also because the skull can be both heavy and delicate at the same time).

Ever so carefully excavating the bones, so they can be lifted.

Ever so carefully excavating the bones, so they can be lifted.

And this pretty much marked the end of my day (on site). After this the group of four cleaned up their tools and shade tent (which they had, because it was so sunny) and covered their grave cut, then they helped out the group of three with some of their washing until it was home time (which to be fair, was about 15 minutes later). Before everyone left the site, I had them take all of the washed skeletal material down to the ‘Bone Cabin’ to store over the weekend where it will dry, ready for bagging and boxing up next week (hmm… what podcast will I listen to next).

Once the tents had been cleared up of all of the stuff I brought up this morning and put back into the barrow, I walked back towards the car – and after collecting my keys from the ‘Bone Cabin’ I got into the car and I drove off away home. The traffic was non-existent. On a Friday. On the M6. I am the luckiest person in the universe. On arriving home, I promptly (well, after reading a number of Day of Archaeology posts) had a shower and then went out to relax in the sun with a beer and my bests (it was really nice and hot and sunny today – this pleases me greatly, can you tell).

How I ended my Day of Archaeology.

How I ended my Day of Archaeology.

I am absolutely shattered as I write this. My skin is radiating heat from the sun I’ve got over the last few days. I am at least 2hrs 30mins past the time I usually head to bed on a night. I may have had a glass of wine. The Tour de France highlights may have already played through and now the cricket highlights may be halfway through too. I can lie in as late as I like tomorrow, but knowing my body clock I’ll be up by 07:30 at the latest.

I do miss working on my PhD (although I get to talk about it with the students on site), but I wouldn’t trade this summer for the world (or even a Doctorate). I am proud of where I am at the minute, but more so, I feel incredibly privileged to be involved in these students’ exposure to osteoarchaeology. Teaching people how to identify, excavate, and interpret human skeletal material is one thing… being there the moment they realise the skeleton they’ve been working on for a week was once a living, breathing, individual person… well, that’s something else entirely.

If you’re interested in the others things I do on site, when it’s not the Day of Archaeology, you can find my weekly updates here or here.

3 thoughts on “In Need of a Time-Turner (Teaching Osteoarchaeology)

  1. Lorraine Hickman says:

    I love this, Alison. You write the same way I do – just the way we speak (well, at least I do). It’s fun to read and very conservational. I’m 51 and an armchair amateur archaeologist student wanna-be. Stuck working full-time as a secretary in Lansing, Mich. Studying to get a degree in history (this has been taking years but I’m nearly there). Still haven’t done any field school or excavating of ANY kind. And now my body is starting to crap out on me. I don’t know if I will ever be lucky enough to get into the trenches, but reading your post is almost like being there. Best of luck to you and your students in future endeavors.

  2. Alison Atkin says:

    Thanks so much for your kind words Lorraine. I’m really glad you enjoyed the post! Do keep up with our excavations over the summer. I hope that your studies go well – regardless of whether one has a degree in the subject or not, it is still possible to be a historian/archaeologist/etc. You clearly have the passion for the subject that is found in so many of us! And it’s never too late to get involved in fieldwork. Whether you’re seven or seventy, there are always things to be done on site – and it’s always possible to find tasks to suit your individual skills and requirements. Can’t get comfortable in a trench? There are finds to process! It is just as (some would say more) rewarding a process. 😀 Don’t give up on it yet…

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