Archaeology – so much more than digging!

I have been pondering on how archaeology is one of the best subjects to teach youngsters as it covers so many different subjects. It uses skills that you don’t use in any other walks of life. I never thought I would ever use Pythagoras Theorem until the day I had to learn how to lay out a 1m x 1.2m test pit. Now the trenches are not laid out to any pattern, but maths is still an important part of what I do.

I have been lucky enough to be able to run my own archaeology project, learning so many different skills along the way. 10 years ago this year I was heavily involved in one of the very first Neighbourhood Plans, and heritage and archaeology were a vital part of that project. When I sat in a meeting with various local historians and enthusiasts and they asked me what my end game was, my answer was simple: I wanted a Time Team style archaeology project across the village.I never dreamt how successful we would be. 10 years, 46 test pits, so many talks and displays I have lost count, local radio and newspaper interviews, in between all of that my own degree and Masters. What was there about archaeology that interested me so much?
Here are some thoughts about why I like archaeology and why it is so brilliant for schools.

I always get people saying that geography is just about maps. Well, in archaeology maps do play an important role. Whether you are surveying the latest satellite imagery, or using GIS software to map a potential dig site, yes, you are using mapping. However, geography is about so much more. We look at human geography and the changes and adaptations to people over time, migratory patterns. Physical geography we look at how an area has changed over time, what physical features are there. Our current project is looking at why a village moved, and how much influence the Ouzel Valley played in the Danelaw boundary and Viking raids.

Knowing whether rocks and stones are natural, river/glacial movement, or moved by humans is key to some of the aspects of our current project. Ironstone is rife amongst the most frequent of the large stones, but what about those that moved with the glaciers? What about Greensand, and how does it change as the landscape alters?. Why is the sand on one side of the canal some of the finest in the world, but scarce on the other, or is it? Looking at the geology of an area can help focus these questions and also help answer some of the geographical questions.

There used to be various disputes between historians and archaeologists. As a historian and a community archaeologist I like to think I straddle both worlds quite well. You have to know how to research an area, find out the history and work out what you are trying to find out. A knowledge of time periods is crucial. If you are metal detecting then you need to know your kings and queens for coins. It also ties nicely in with geography. Looking at records, along with the geography can help piece together why an area changed and developed.

I could start with ancient DNA, moving onto osteoarchaeology, with a bit of C-14 Carbon dating thrown in, along with dendrochronology. Archaeology is as much a science as it is a humanities subject. The science part of archaeology fascinates me. Science, of course, is part of our human history. For thousands of years people have been looking to the stars, or to nature, to try and explain why things happen. Our evolution has taken us from tree dwellers to designers of modern technology. Science can tell us so much about it. I almost missed out environmental archaeology, with the smallest of seeds you can paint a picture of the wild plants, the food and of course the time of year that something happened.

I would be lost without some of the technology we have today. LiDAR lets you see what the eye and satellite images can’t. Of course, satellite images are also important as they show you a bird’s eye view that previously would have been from a plane. Drones have been an addition to this project and I am wondering how we ever managed before! GIS software to overlay old maps to modern satellite images, map out the finds from across the area, as well as adding in the LiDAR for extra measure. Programmes that you can create complete pottery vessels from a rim or a base, technical drawing to give you the perfect trench drawings. So much has changed and evolved during the last 10 years, with OpenSoftware being a perfect match for community groups such as ours.

This could be anything from drawing a trench to an artefact or imagining how people used to live. In order to create the technical drawings, you need to create the real ones first. Part of the dig kit is a drawing kit. On, or off, site sketches can be valuable when writing reports and evaluating the results of a dig

Where doesn’t maths come in on a dig? The constant measuring of trench sizes, depths, calculating how big something would have really been. It is all part of life on a dig. Using those measurements to then accurately recreate the trenches for technical drawing or for artefact drawing purposes. For our current dig it will be working out how much water can be pumped out of the trenches and how long it would take!

This is why I love archaeology, there is so much to it, and it will always be changing and improving. Whilst I can dig in the archives and the trenches I will never have a dull moment.