Gordon Childe

Lecture Prep for ANTHRO 101

Kia ora! On this year’s Day of Archaeology, I’m preparing lectures for the World Archaeology survey course at The University of Auckland. Lecture prep may not be among the more glamorous activities in which an archaeologist might be engaged (see this post on grading for additional thoughts on this). But for me, teaching the introductory survey course is one of the most rewarding parts of being an archaeologist because it gives me a great excuse for reading research outside of my area of specialization. Even though my own research doesn’t bear directly on Neanderthals, early New Guinean agriculture, or the origins of Taíno (yet), I get to stay up to date with those and other parts of prehistory as I prepare lectures. And I get to talk about this stuff with a bunch of students who are not only new to archaeology, but new to learning in a university setting, which is a blast.

Because it is a survey course, some of the material doesn’t change dramatically from year to year: Thomsen still develops the Three Age system, and Pleistocene sea level decline still connects Asia and North America. But many closely held ideas in archaeology are actually kind of contentious, such as East African origins of genus Homo or the broad spectrum revolution. This gives me opportunities to brush up the lectures with some new ideas and get students to think critically about the way archaeologists interpret their finds.

Each semester I try to pick at least one lecture and fully revamp it. Last year, I added a new lecture looking at the development of village life, drawing on examples from Europe, the Carribean, and the American Southwest. We look at what the definition of village is, and why village settlement is different. This year, I’m putting together a new lecture on the rise of the state in South Asia. I want to try and find something that will spark the interest of as many students as possible, so I try to keep the material we cover diverse.

The course just started this week, so Monday’s lecture is on the history of archaeology from the late 19th century onward. Today I’ll be reading Robin Derricourt’s recent biographical article on Gordon Childe’s career while I update my slides. See you in class!

In Search of Rocks and Stones

Name: George Geddes

What do you do?
I’m an Archaeological Investigator with RCAHMS

How did you get here? 
I started with a BSc at Edinburgh followed by a few years on the Scottish digging circuit. An MA at York in 2003-4 focussing on the archaeology of buildings in the Western Isles led to five years at Headland Archaeology as their building surveyor. In 2007, I took up the post as St Kilda Archaeologist for the National Trust for Scotland, which led to an interest in conservation management planning. In 2008, I moved to RCAHMS to work on a range of archaeological survey projects.

What are you working on today? 
Today I am splitting my work over a series of projects: as aerial survey forms part of my work, I am interpreting and cataloguing photographs of cropmarks taken in the Lunan valley last year, an area where a whole archaeological landscape of multiple periods survives under modern land use.

Later in the day I will continue researching the work of Gordon Childe with RCAHMS from 1942 to 1946 and digitising the photographs, notes and sketch plans he made on about 700 sites during the war, so that they can be viewed on Canmore.

Gordon Childe, a Commissioner at RCAHMS for 4 years, in Edinburgh.

Gordon Childe, a Commissioner at RCAHMS for 4 years, in Edinburgh.

We are also producing a new book on St Kilda’s archaeology, surveyed by RCAHMS in 1983-6 and 2007-9, and I am researching and writing the chapters for the 19th and 20th century, exploring new approaches to the sites and their wider context.

My most recent fieldwork has been a re-survey of the fort at Finavon, and the discovery of a whole new and significant phase, and a trip to the Flannan Isles, where a medieval chapel and seabird hunters bothies survive – for both, I will begin the drafting of our detailed descriptions.

Favourite part of your job? 
In comparison to project manager, the job title ‘investigator’ seems so old-fashioned but the Ordnance Survey and RCAHMS used it for many years as it describes so well the process of critically engaging with the archaeological landscapes and collections in Scotland. Whether it is getting to grips with complex earthworks at Finavon, or teasing together the evidence of how we have got where we are today in interpretation, the focus at work is so often on that process of investigation.  When this process is coupled with a good old sense of ‘public service’, it can be very productive and rewarding.

What did university not teach you? 
While University was fantastic at providing a broad overview, and the opportunity to share and develop ideas, it did not provide an adequate grasp of either fieldwork skills (excluding excavation) nor of the character of Scotland’s field archaeology. While this can to some extent be learnt simply by tramping round sites on one’s own, as so many of us have done, the advantages of doing this more intensively (i.e. looking at everything within a study area), and with experienced colleagues, makes a huge difference. When one considers that RCAHMS has had staff in a similar post to myself since 1908 (initially in fact, the only staff), there has been a huge amount of accumulated organisational experience, passed on from generation to generation (this can include bad habits too!).

The chapel and lighthouse on the Flannan Isles

The chapel and lighthouse on the Flannan Isles

Surprising part of your job? 

George thinks his colleagues are surprising...

George thinks his colleagues are surprising…

The colleagues! No seriously, I’m surprised that there is still so much investigative work to do in Scotland. Though we are really far ahead of most countries in the world in having more than a century of relatively coherent and structured fieldwork (by many individuals and bodies) behind us, resulting in a fantastic collection not to mention an ever-improving sense of the past, great swathes of the country still require thorough field survey, to support research, planning and to enable the public to engage with the past. This national project, when combined with an excellent and robust system of planning-led archaeology, and community archaeology, must surely be the envy of many countries.

Top tips for aspiring archaeologists?  Earn a fortune in something else and then self-fund excavations and surveys in the land of your dreams (i.e North Rona).

Colleagues on North Rona

Colleagues on North Rona

Dorothy Graves McEwan (RCAHMS) – Orkney

Orkney ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

Orkney ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’


My name is Dr Dorothy Graves McEwan and I am the Skara Brae Project Cataloguer at RCAHMS. Skara Brae is the best preserved Neolithic settlement site in Western Europe, and through this distinction has become a World Heritage site beloved by many people the world over. This unique site captured the imagination of antiquarians in the 19th century. It continues to fascinate archaeologists, myself included, to this very day.

My first ferry ride to Orkney. Copyright the author

My first ferry ride to Orkney. Copyright the author

My reasons for loving Skara Brae are entirely personal. In 2004, in the early days of research for my PhD, I took a trip up with my boyfriend (now husband) to visit archaeological sites in the Highlands.  Eventually, we pointed the car north and just kept driving until we came to John o’Groats. We looked at each other and said, “Why not?”

Onto the ferry we went, and the next thing I knew, I was staring at the glorious remains of a settlement that reminded me so much of The Flintstones that I had to laugh. At that moment, standing above House 7, I realised I was entranced by the Scottish Neolithic. It has since become a research passion.

Skara Brae; house 7. Copyright RCAHMS (SC346480)

Skara Brae; house 7. Copyright RCAHMS (SC346480)

An average day of my work currently consists of delving into containers of archive material that was created by archaeologists Dr David V Clarke and Dr Alexandra Shepherd, who in the 1970s excavated material from Skara Brae’s middens. A midden can be considered a fancy archaeological word for the ‘trash’ heap, where literally anything and everything can be found deposited. It is by excavating the midden so carefully that Clarke and Shepherd have been able to open a door into the past that might have otherwise remained closed forever.  By combining their work with Prof V Gordon Childe’s iconic excavations in the 1930s, we know so much more about the daily life of the people who built and lived at Skara Brae.

Skara Brae: Vere Gordon Childe in hut 8. Copyright RCAHMS (SC372285)

Skara Brae: Vere Gordon Childe in hut 8. Copyright RCAHMS (SC372285)

The midden has revealed an extensive diet including plants, shellfish, fish, wild birds, deer, and pigs. They created stone, wooden and bone objects and tools. They even possessed artwork: beautiful pieces such as carved stone balls and incised decorations that appear on some of the stonework.

Skara Brae Finds Photograph: Bone and stone objects, including mattocks and carved stone objects. Copyright  Historic Scotland (SC1165931)

Skara Brae Finds Photograph: Bone and stone objects, including mattocks and carved stone objects. Copyright Historic Scotland (SC1165931)





All of this and so much more will be forthcoming in a final report by Dr Clarke and Dr Shepherd. In the meantime, it is my job to catalogue the material into a singular Collection that any member of the public can easily consult online or in person at RCAHMS.

This is what I’ve chosen for Day of Archaeology, but why not tell us your favourite archaeological sites in Scotland on Twitter using #MyArchaeology.



RCAHMS National Collection

The RCAHMS National Collection includes a wealth of material illustrating and recording all types of archaeological sites and monuments across Scotland ranging in date from the late upper Palaeolithic period to the present day.

People have been making a record of their heritage for centuries and the archaeological collections reflect this, ranging in date from the early 19th century to the present day. Included are perspective drawings, excavation drawings and photographs, site reports and notebooks, context cards, small finds cards and correspondence, as well as the latest digital technologies like laser scanning and 3D models.