What’s it like working in a research team in archaeology?

I work on stone tools and soil chemistry from a site in Yorkshire called Flixton Island 2 as well as a little bit of work on another much bigger and better known nearby site called Star Carr – and yes, it can be dull at times (putting soils out to dry is never thrilling, though oddly calming) but the results about what they can tell us about how people were living tens of thousands of years ago can be really exciting. These sites are both from the Mesolithic period, when we were still living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in Britain. It’s all about getting down to the nitty gritty, day-to-day lives of people in the past.


A Student’s Day of Archaeology

Some of my Day of Archaeology Projects

Fig. 1 – Some of my Day of Archaeology Projects (Photo by Daniel Leahy)

I am currently a second year undergraduate student at the University of New England (UNE) in New South Wales, Australia.  I’m studying a Bachelor of Arts (BA) majoring in Archaeology and History.

I had planned to visit a local site on the Day of Archaeology, however poor weather on the day (and for much of the week before) prevented this from happening.  Instead, much of my Day of Archaeology revolved around my studies.  This included catching up on recorded lectures for some of my classes; completing an online quiz about historical archaeology; and making more notes for an upcoming history essay comparing memorials of the First and Second World Wars and the Vietnam War.  Studying via distance (i.e., online) meant all of this was done in the comfort of my own home.

Recently I have been involved in a project called the ‘Digital Air Force’ for the website,, whose goal is to digitally document Australia’s aviation heritage using modern technology.  Part of this includes 3D scanning artefacts related to aviation heritage.  So on the Day of Archaeology I started work on creating a digital 3D model of a small piece of metal from a Second World War aircraft crash site (see bottom of Figure 1).  In a nutshell, this process – known as ‘photogrammetry’ – requires a lot of photos of an object to be taken from all angles.  These photos are then loaded into a computer program which determines the angle and distance at which each photo was taken, builds a model of the object, then stitches the images together to form the textures of the object.  This is a process I learnt about at an archaeology conference last year and have been experimenting with in my own time.  The first part of this model was created overnight and resulted in what is known as a ‘dense point cloud’ of the scanned object (see Figure 2, below).  At the moment this still needs quite a lot of work done to remove the surrounding items which were captured, clean up parts of the artefact itself, and join ‘chunks’ to form a complete model but it is hoped this will be completed over the weekend.

Dense Point Cloud (WIP) of WWII Aircraft Wreckage

Fig. 2 – Dense Point Cloud of WWII Aircraft Wreckage (Image by Daniel Leahy)

Personally I became interested in archaeology (and palaeontology) at a very young age.  I was however dissuaded from pursuing a career in either of those fields because of a perceived lack of money that would be made.  Instead, I followed my uncle into the I.T. industry, completing a Bachelor of Information Technology degree then working with a variety of systems for about ten years.  It was at this time that I felt I had to change careers and decided to formally study archaeology, which today I feel is one of the best decisions I have ever made.


(P.S.  July 29th was also my birthday, hence the greeting card from an archaeologist friend which can be seen in Figure 1).

Who says that professors don’t work in the summer?

My day as an archaeologist and professor at East Carolina University: Conducting research for a National Science Foundation grant proposal, popping in to help a grad student with her MA thesis data collection in the lab, then a phone interview with an editor at Archaeology Magazine on some current research conducted with another MA student at Qasr Hallabat, followed by the gym and beers with colleagues. I am a bioarchaeologist, someone who studies human skeletal remains along with mortuary practices, and I co-direct a field project in Petra, Jordan. We are in the field every two years, and a lot of my time in the interim is spent planning for the next field season. A colleague of mine in Geography and I are putting together an NSF grant proposal application to develop a method for documenting spatial patterning of commingled human skeletal remains within the tombs that I am working on at Petra. I hope that it tells us a lot about how the remains got commingled in the first place – was it due to mortuary practices at the time?  Natural forces?  Tomb looting in later periods? – and about any interesting patterns based on age and sex of the bones. I get excited thinking about new techniques and how they can answer questions that have been nagging me and other archaeologists. I started the Petra project wanting to focus on disease and diet of the city’s residents, but in the end, partly due to the poor condition of the skeletal remains, the mortuary practices have been the most interesting and informative aspect. I think that is how research goes… you never can truly predict what you will find, and if your data are not conforming to your initial expectations, you need to be flexible.

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Megan Perry, Associate Professor of Anthropology at East Carolina University and Co-Director of the Petra North Ridge Project


What do university archaeologists do in the summer?

As an anthropology professor on a nine-month contract, I have the summers off to pursue lots of projects. On the DoA I am working on two projects. First, I am writing a report on an archaeological survey I conducted at Western Kentucky University’s Upper Green River Biological Preserve. While there are a few prehistoric sites on the preserve, my report focuses on historic sites associated with Euro-American and African-American settlement, including the remains of the Coats homestead dating to the late 1790s. Second, I am updating web pages and doing other tasks in preparation for Living Archaeology Weekend. This is an annual, two-day public event in the famous Red River Gorge of eastern Kentucky featuring demonstrations of native and pioneer technologies and lifeways. Learn more about this nationally recognized and award-winning program at


A historic period pine tar kiln in a boulder at the Coats homestead site in Kentucky


Darlene Applegate demonstrating native plant domestication at Living Archaeology Weekend 2012

A Day in the Life of… a PhD Student!

Hi folks!

There are all kinds of contributors to the day of arch and I feel extremely proud to be one of them.  This is just an introduction to me and setting the scene for what I will actually be doing tomorrow.  My name is Rachael Reader and I am currently writing up my PhD thesis, hopefully handing in within the next three months.  My interest in archaeology began when I was eight (no, really!) when I was introduced to Time Team.  It seems a little cliched, but it is the God honest truth! My parents were more than happy to fuel my interest and let me dig up the back garden of my house in a little town, just outside of Barnsley (my best find to date is a 1980s ten pence piece…).  My parents found out where digs were happening and took me along to them, including one in York where I learnt the real truth about archaeology.  I had an illuminating conversation with someone working in the museum gardens who told me that archaeology was poorly paid, nothing like Time Team and definitely nothing like Indiana Jones (which meant little to me as even to this day, as I have still not seen the films!).  I asked the archaeologist why they still did it and they replied simply “because I love it”.  The enthusiasm he had, even when describing the negatives, sealed it for me and off I went to university to pursue my career.  I studied Ancient History and Archaeology at Birmingham University before doing my Masters at Cardiff, where I developed my current research interests in the later prehistoric period and particularly, the landscape approach to archaeology.

Whilst writing my Masters thesis I was pondering over what to do next.  I had spent several weeks here and there, excavating with the University but also community digs, including SHARP at Sedgeford in Norfolk.  I loved digging but had yet to know how commercial archaeology worked, so I began putting my CV together and waiting for jobs to come up at units.  However my supervisor directed me to an advert for a PhD position, at Bradford University and it involved two of my favourite things: Iron Age stuff and landscape! I could not resist and I eagerly put together my application, was offered an interview and ultimately the position, which I was thrilled to accept.  I began my current position in October 2008 and I feel a little sad that I am beginning to wind down and *gulp* hand in.