Tuesday, May 02, 2006

This year and beyond

A Mamluk

A Mamluk

The module list for next year was out on Friday, so I finally found out what I will be studying. (The way it works here is that you rank your module choices and the department tries to assign you to modules as close to the top of your list as possible.)

In the first term I will be studying 'Legend and Myth in sub-Roman Britain' and 'The Qalawunids' (they're Mamluks). In the second term my modules are 'Nature and Animals in the Middle Ages' and 'Justinian and Muhammed'. I was lucky, and managed to get all my first choices, so I am one very pleased student at the moment.

I have also received notice that I have been accepted on to a maritime archaeology field school, which is fantastic. Unfortunately, I have already committed to two months' digging in the summer, and the field school will be taking place during those two months. So, I won't be able to go - but hopefully next year. It's such a pity, but I can't do eveything at once. I haven't got a great deal of diving experience, and the year will be an opportunity to dive some more. So I tell myself. Can't help being a bit disappointed though.

Monday, April 24, 2006


This weekend we had the supervisors' meeting for the summer dig. All very exciting, although I expect it was a bit more exciting for me because I had never done it before. Most of the generalities and quite a lot of specifics to do with the site were discussed, including who's doing what, when and where they will be doing it, what the aims for the summer are and to some extent the longer-term goals of the project.

I'll be looking after the small finds side of things, which is both excellent and a bit scary. My task between now and the summer will involve finding out as much as possible about the way small finds are recorded (I know some but not nearly enough), how the project has been doing it up till now and more specific information about types of finds such as pottery, coins and so on. I certainly don't expect to become an expert overnight, but it would be very useful to have some knowledge of the different sorts of finds. Pottery will be an especially important aspect of this.

As well as all the things on the agenda, it was great to see everyone again and meet people I hadn't met before. It reminded me of how many really nice people you meet in archaeology. Perhaps I'm seeing it rather through rather rose-tinted glasses because I enjoy it, but it seems to me it's one of the friendliest groups of people I have ever encountered. That's not to say that there aren't times when everyone feels a bit down - and you do find the usual sorts of political machinations - but I can truly recommend archaeology as a generally happy, friendly profession.

Can't wait for the summer.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

In the beginning there was the archaeologist...

I've been thinking about something I've mentioned in a previous post, which is the tension or even conflict between historians and archaeologists. Talking to people around the university, it seems that many historians ( by which I mean those who study history) see archaeologists as over-interpreting their finds, and I do agree with this to an extent.

And God created the archaeologist

And God created
the archaeologist

One of the most memorable things I have been told whilst doing archaeology is that we aren't just finding history, we are making it, in that once an archaeologist has decided that he or she has discovered something (a piece of pottery, a building, or even nothing at all), and this discovery has become established over time, it is unlikely to be disputed by those reading the report.

It is true that the establishment of a fact like this can be, and often is, well debated, but so many factors can call this type of discovery into question, not least the development of new interpretational techniques. This is well illustrated by the widespread re-interpretation that has taken place - and still is - of early twentieth-century archaeological discoveries. It is also true that some famous frauds have taken place, one recent example of which is the dozens of falsified bog bodies which as far as I remember took place in the Netherlands (apologies to the Netherlands if I have remembered this incorrectly). But I do not wish to imply that these are common occurrences, simply that archaeology is by no means infallible.

It's a sticky area

It's a sticky area

This dichotomy illustrates something about archaeology that isn't immediately obvious: that it might be described as a discipline with a dual personality. On the one hand, things are discovered, and this uses well-established, scientifically-rigorous methods. This collection of information does not seem to be in question in terms of this conflict. On the other hand, these data must be interpreted to be meaningful in a historical sense, and this task also falls to the archaeologist, mainly because most historians don't immediately have the training to interpret, for example, statistics about soil acidity. On top of that, it is probably better for someone (ie: the archaeologist) who has information about the whole site to put a label on what has been found, rather than someone who may have an interest in just one perspective.

It's a sticky area. Either a historian or an archaeologist is able to do this job, and with different priorities, perhaps it is inevitable that they will come into conflict over it. At the same time, this diversity of disciplines is one of the things that makes archaeology attractive. I hope this will never change, although I can perhaps see a day when the process of discovery and the interpretation of discoveries are split further from one another. Perhaps, as part of an excavation plan, if time and money allowed, a second level of interpretation might take place by a traditional historian who has been less closely involved with the process of discovery. However, since even the emphasis on reporting is relatively recent, and in some ways still in its infancy, that should probably be focused on first.

Soil acidity rocks my world

Soil acidity rocks
my world

I hope I haven't blown this issue out of proportion - that was certainly not my intention. It interests me though, especially since it is a problem that doesn't appear likely to a spectator. The idea that history is something that can be created seems to go against its definition, but in fact in many ways is at the heart of what history is. If historians complain that archaeologists over-interpret, perhaps they are forgetting that they themselves do this as a fundamental part of their jobs. Are they instead saying that a historian would be better qualified to do the interpretation? I think that is a distinct possibility.

But I sympthise with the complaint. It's bad enough having to deal with patchy evidence from the period itself without having to contend with patchy inferences. Apportioning blame is unhelpful, however, so perhaps all historians and archaeologists need a loud exhortation to unity.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Summer fun

Haven't posted for over a month - but that's university for you. I was away on holiday for a week too, but I'm not going to apologise for having fun!

I've been planning my summer of archaeology in more detail. So far I'll be doing two weeks in June in the south west of England and two months in the east over July and August, where I have reached the heady heights of supervising. After that, I have applied for a two-week field school in maritime archaeology, although I'm not particularly hopeful of getting in (it's competitive) and finally I'm thinking about a dig in Kazakhstan. Who knows what might happen.

I hope the weather's good this summer. Living in a tent is lovely, but not as much if it pours with rain for a week. Things tend to get a bit soggy. But really I don't mind at all where I end up, as long as I'm doing some kind of archaeology.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

History, boys

Alan Bennett's play 'The History Boys' is on Radio 3. A TV presenter character says
"We venerate supine antiquity. In our catechism, old is good, older is better and ancient is best - with a bonus on archaeology because it's the closest history comes to shopping.""
Is it really? Shopping as an activity seems to me a way of indulging avarice and the satisfaction of the desire for objects. Archaeology is the latter, but I'm not so sure about greed. There's no aspect of selection in archaeology, nor do I feel as if I'm on a journey of discovery when I go shopping. Archaeology in the pouring rain is immensely preferable to hurrying from shop to shop in a busy town centre.

I can see how this perspective applies to television archaeology, but somehow I doubt that it's relevant to 'real' archaeology. Although something traitorous in me now feels that archaeology is a slightly less robust discipline than other forms of history.

Rector sum

The university inaugurated a new rector last week, amid gowned students and masses of tradition. He's a very pleasant man (and has an interest in archaeology!). In case you're wondering, the rector of the university is the person who represents the interests of the students. There is also the chancellor, who is usually a well-known public figure and promotes the university as a figurehead. At the moment, this is Menzies (Ming) Campbell, who, as an added bonus, but obviously nowhere near as fantastic as being chancellor, has just been elected leader of the Liberal Democrat party. We have a principal too, who runs the university. A terrifying triumvirate.

Our new rector is Simon Pepper, who used to be director of the WWF (no, not the wrestling thing). He entered the town on a horse, then after a short speech mounted a carriage and was pulled around the town by the athletics society on a pub crawl.

I took some photos of the ceremony which you can see if you click here.

Now I must go and write about heresy.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


Just a very speedy post today - deadline imminent. In my wanderings, I came across this blog which appears to be entirely in Latin. Haven't tried translating it yet, but I thought it should be shared. Great work!

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Archaeology for the fishies

Sorry about the hiatus - I have managed to catch the ubiquitous student lurgi that makes the rounds every term.

An archaeological diver

An archaeological diver

Archaeology is usually thought of as involving kneeling in a hole and removing earth. But this is just one type, albeit a popular and widely-practised kind. Less well-known is maritime archaeology, which is done using scuba equipment and takes place underwater. Although it sounds different, many of the techniques used (such as the use of a grid) are the same as in land archaeology. Many of the principles involved are the same too. And of course, the desired outcome is the same: to record and learn more about the area under excavation.

There are additional requirements, however. First and most obviously, a certificate in scuba is required. This can be obtained from established diving certification organisations such as PADI or NAUI. It does not really matter which one you choose. NAUI is perhaps seen as a little more 'serious', but PADI is more widely available, especially in resorts around the world. These certificators recognise each other's qualifications, too, so if you decide to take further courses with the other provider, you won't need to start from scratch.

What's in the amphora?

What's in the amphora?

The basic qualification needed is usually called 'Open Water' (here's a link to the PADI course web page). This allows you to dive to depths of up to 90 feet. On top of receiving your certificate, you will need a basic number of hours on your dive record. Each dive you make is recorded in a log book and when applying for an excavation there will always be a basic time requirement. This might be, at the lowest level, something like 15 hours. That's quite a lot of dives (probably 20 or so), so don't expect to be able to immediately begin excavating once you have got your certificate.

Once you have spent enough hours diving, you will need to go on a training dig, just like land archaeology. Although you may already be an experienced excavator, the practices in maritime archaeology are different enough, and the environment is so different, that you need training in order to excavate properly. As an example, in one article I read recently, the author mentioned that an octopus which lived in an amphora in one area of the site used to try and grab pieces of glass out of the excavators' hands. Not really a concern on land!

The importance of measuring things

The importance of measuring

In my experience so far, maritime archaeology is popular. While this is great for the digs, it does mean that it's a bit more difficult to be accepted on to an excavation, especially when you have few hours and little or no experience. It is best to increase your diving hours as much as possible - the more experienced you are in diving, the more reliable a diver you become for the organisers. Furthermore, maritime archaeology is an expensive practice - much more so than land archaeology - and this means that there are far fewer excavations taking place. You should also expect to pay a bit more for training, not to mention travel, since many underwater excavations take place in balmier climates such as the Mediterranean where ships have been known for thousands of years.

This is very simple introduction to maritime archaeology which covers a few of the principles involved. There does not seem to be a website which covers this subject in greater detail, but by searching Google, you will quickly find a number of societies and universities which offer courses and training. The British Archaeology article 'Archaeology at Sea' gives some good background information.

Sunday, February 26, 2006


Flint found at Pakefield

Flint found at Pakefield

If you haven't already read about it, one of the most exciting finds of the past few months is the discovery in Pakefield and Happisburgh ('Haze-burh'), Norfolk, of flint artefacts which appear to prove that man was present in northern Europe 200,000 years earlier than was thought. Reading about it was expecially thrilling for me because I used to go riding (horses) on that beach when I was growing up. It made me wonder how many times I'd been past that spot, and all the time those amazing artefacts were waiting to be found - although at the rate at which the East Anglian coast is being eroded, they were probably several metres inland when I was thirteen.

Anyway, it is a fabulous discovery, and none of the pictures published on the internet really do justice to the beauty of these flints. The Eastern Daily Press image is probably the best - the angle of the light shows up the ripples quite well, and including a hand in shot gives some proportion (which, while I'm on the subject, more magazines should consider doing!).

A longer article can be found here (sadly no photos).

Saturday, February 25, 2006

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Starting out in archaeology was the most complicated part for me and there isn't a great deal of information about it (at least, not that I could find). If you are not part of a university or school, it probably appears even harder. Here are a few points for a non-archaeologist who is interested in taking part.

A trowel

Shiny new trowel

Please note: when I mention digs, I mean professionally-run excavations rather than digging up your back garden (which I don't really agree with, but will not go into at this point).

  1. Qualifications. I think it is quite a widespread belief (probably inadvertantly fostered by television programmes where everyone excavating seems to be at university) that some kind of degree is required in order to dig. This is not the case at all. You need good will and enthusiasm, and a decent training dig will supply you with the basic skills you need to get started.

  2. Money. A basic dig in the UK will usually charge you for camping and food costs, which might be around £120-150 per week. On top of this, you will need to buy a trowel - these are not garden trowels but the smaller type used by bricklayers. Since camping is de rigueur, you may find you spend some money on a tent and other equipment. The only other cost will be a basic training course (see below). I should point out here that digs abroad can be much more expensive. American digs seem to charge a lot of money, as do field schools (digs with teaching) in popular locations such as Italy or Greece. Anything run by Earthwatch costs a lot of money. If you are interested in digging in a foreign location cheaply, eastern Europe seems to cost a bit less, but there are cheaper digs to be found all over the place if you look carefully.

  3. Magazines. I don't mean the National Enquirer! There are several good monthly or quarterly archaeology magazines. I subscribe to three at the moment: British Archaeology (my favourite), Current Archaeology and Current World Archaeology. They're all well-written and cover a wide range of archaeological topics. Reading archaeological news and articles will give you an idea of what's involved in digging, what kind of people do it, and what issues they are concerned with. Not to mention reading about really cool stuff!
  4. Some archaeologists

    Some archaeologists in raincoats

  5. Looking for a dig. I have been searching for digs to apply to this summer and I use several sources of information to do this. British Archaeology magazine has a listing of field work in the UK in the back pages which is sorted by region. This is a good place to get an idea of what is on offer, and is very up-to-date. It seems to be reproduced online here, but I'm not sure whether this is the whole list (it looks shorter but that might just be the internet). For field work all over the world, the AIA field work database is beyond compare. Current Archaeology publish a Handbook which, again, is UK-centric. I think that's enough for now. One final point is that you might like to join a local society. There are many throughout the world, and this website lists the UK organisations. Some organise their own digs, and some do not, so you might like to check what they do before you join. I have never been a member of one, so I can't comment on how useful they are.

  6. Applying for digs. This is the easy part. There is usually a phone number or address to contact and the people on the other end of the phone are almost without exception very helpful. This application process is not like applying for a job - it mainly depends on whether there are enough spaces. Some digs might like you to have experience, but there are plenty that will train you.

  7. Training. This will probably last a week (it varies) and cost in the region of £100 (again, it varies). I should point out that you won't be sitting in a room listening to lectures and taking notes for a week. All the training courses I have heard about involve you in excavation from the beginning, and everyone I have spoken to had great fun. Group numbers can range from five to twenty. It is unlikely to be more than that.

A muscly archaeologist

A muscly archaeologist

And that's it. Armed with your trowel, you will go forth and dig!

I hope I haven't made too many sweeping assumptions. There is, of course, a great deal more to excavation than this, but I have tried to give a non-archaeologist an idea of what is involved in taking part and the various options available. If you have any questions, please post them in the comments area and I will be happy to try and answer them.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Emperor for 15 minutes

This isn't strictly about archaeology, but it's almost relevant. My Ancient history module this term is about the Roman Empire and this week we're studying the year of the four emperors (69BC). Otho is my chosen favourite. I wrote a short essay on his Life in Suetonius - who, by the way, is a great read on all the emperors and I defy anyone not to enjoy the Penguin translation. We were discussing Otho and Vitellius in a tutorial today.


Otho. Isn't he lovely?

Both of them were only emperors for about ten seconds (okay, a few months), and Vitellius for slightly longer. Personally, I think that neither of them really held power properly, and yet my tutor was making the point that a serious defect in the range of their power was their lack of an heir. But they had so many other things to think about that surely they never really had a chance to do this? It seems to me that choosing an heir had a lot to do with who would be well-received, and Rome was in such uproar that it must have been very hard to tell who was liked and who was not.

Anyway, I don't think either of them were really emperors properly. If they had been, the provinces would have accepted them too, and yet Vespasian was able to revolt with the support of Pannonia, Moesia, Syria and Judaea within a few months of Vitellius' accession.

Read Suetonius' Lives here. They're fab.

Come again?

Me again. I realise a couple of hours between posts is probably setting standards a little too high, but I have thought of something else that it seems important to talk about a bit; that is: what exactly is archaeology?

Sir Mortimer Wheeler

Sir Mortimer Wheeler

The only quotation known by all archaeologists, ever, was allegedly uttered by Sir Mortimer Wheeler. "All archaeology is destruction," he said. It is traditionally part of the indoctrination of new archaeologists to inform them of this in suitably hushed tones. I admit it's a good decription of one aspect of the process of archaeology: you must destroy contexts or layers to reach earlier ones. It's certainly pithy and epigrammatic. But isn't it a bit negative?

A great deal of archaeology consists of reconstruction, either physical (piecing together finds or cataloguing skeletons, for example) or mental (perhaps you might form a theory about a site or create a picture of conditions in the period under excavation). These are vital processes in archaeology, without which only half the job would be done. There are, I know, people who believe on the one hand that archaeologists should theorise only minimally and simply collect data. There are others who believe that archaeologists don't theorise enough. I direct your attention to an article in a recent issue of British Archaeology magazine in which reference was made to people being '"frustrated and puzzled" by management talk'.

A historian

A historian thinks

I am part of an academic history department too, and another side of the story can be found here. Historians (who - for obscure reasons which I will not go into at this juncture - are frequently the arch-enemies of archaeologists) are sometimes heard to complain that archaeologists over-interpret. I am sympathetic to this grievance. Archaeologists' reports can be immensely influential in forming the intial view of finds, and may not be questioned strongly enough by later historians.

In fact, there is a strange dichotomy between archaeology and other types of sources used in writing history. Historians, traditionally, use mainly written sources as evidence (as a simple test open the Cambridge Ancient History at any article and compare the number of footnotes quoting texts and the number quoting archaeological references). Perhaps this is because of the way in which archaeological sources are used - more for the bigger picture than blow-by-blow proof of a historical point? Nonetheless, it still seems clear that archaeological evidence is not used for writing history in ratio to the amount that is undertaken today. It may be an issue of trust, for the reasons stated above.

In any case, I am veering wildly off my original point which was, if you remember (I do, barely): what is archaeology? I think the answer is that archaeology is destructive. But its wider purpose is to do with data gathering with a view to increasing our knowledge of times past and this, I think, is what should be focused on. Perhaps we could have a new quotation: "Archaeology is information".

Rather than ranting on I'll try to supply some more solid information about types of archaeology in my next post. Cheers.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

First fanfare

Hi. Welcome to my diary. I'm Alice, an amateur archaeologist (love the assonance). A very brief resume of my situation:

  • I'm in the second year of studying Mediaeval history at undergraduate level.
  • I study Ancient history and Latin too (this university runs a tripartite system for the earlier years of the course)
  • I spent my first summer (2005) taking part in several digs in the UK.
  • It's addictive! And really fun. I'm going back again this year.
  • I used to work with computers.
I would like to use this diary to do several things. First of all, to use it as a diary of archaeology things I've done and am doing. Secondly, to use it to think about where I would like to go with archaeology and as an extension, with my studies. Thirdly, as a place to record anything else that looks interesting and related to the subject. Fourthly, to practice writing regularly and with some discipline on different aspects of a topic.

Since I am at university, my time is often subject to deadlines and similar educational inconveniences. I too am archaeologically subject to waves of enthusiasm depending on my level of energy and other circumstamces. All this means that I might not post especially regularly - but I promise to try to keep it up.

Mr. A. Skeleton

I should probably record one more salient fact while I'm at it, and that is that I am not a blog lover. This won't turn into a huge moan, I promise, but here are my reasons. Ever since blogs started in earnest a few years ago, I have found most of them to be too long, too wordy and extremely self-indulgent - it might be argued that this last point is really the raison d'etre of blogs. However! I can no longer criticise them without hypocrisy, so that was my one and only declaration on the subject, and I shall be forever* silent on the subject from here on in.

As always, this blog is mainly for my own enjoyment. If you enjoy it or if you don't, or if you would just like to write about something archaeological, I would be interested to hear your comments. I hope the blog comes in handy.

* subject to the length of infinity