First Fieldwork Experiences – Duncan Garrow

I remember my first two fieldwork experiences well…

The first was being down a 4m deep trench in Covent Garden, on a week’s work experience when I was still at school. The MoLAS team were in a massive rush (it was the last week), and I had very little clue what was going on. It was a Saxon site, and I helped a friendly Canadian do flotation all week. It was a strange experience, but I enjoyed the strangeness, the feeling of being deep down below the real (contemporary) world, of people stopping to stare, asking if we’d found any gold yet.

The second was digging an Iron Age storage pit just outside the ramparts of the hillfort of Wandlebury, on my undergraduate training excavation. At the time it just seemed like normal archaeology to me, but looking back on it now, I was digging an amazing feature containing loads of bone and pottery, full of what might now be called ‘structured deposits’. I suppose that first real digging encounter must have stayed with me, as in my academic work I’ve written a fair bit about ‘ritual’ deposition and pits since then.

Like both Jim (see Oct 28, 2014 post) and Amanda (see Nov 14, 2014 post), I previously spent a few years working for a developer-funded archaeology company, in the late 1990s/early 2000s. My time at the Cambridge Archaeological Unit was, by and large, great fun; immensely rewarding, academically and archaeologically. I learnt a huge amount, not just about digging, but about how to read material culture patterning and interpret archaeology in general. I got to dig all sorts of fantastic sites, from Neolithic pits, to huge Bronze Age landscapes and barrows, Iron Age roundhouses, Roman settlements and Saxon cemeteries. I once even dug up a pickled snake in the Bishop of Ely’s garden!

 

Me on site at Whittlesey brick pits, Cambridgeshire, 1999

Me on site at Whittlesey brick pits, Cambridgeshire, 1999

In writing this post for the ‘gender and fieldwork’ blog, I’ve obviously had cause to reflect on gender issues, as far as I’ve experienced them. When I was involved with fieldwork full-time, I have to say that the gender of my colleagues and friends was never at the forefront of my mind. I think fieldwork requires such a broad range of skills that gender has little effect in terms of who’s actually good at it. The first two site directors I came across (in Covent Garden and at Wandlebury) were women. In contrast to Amanda’s experience, at the CAU many of the site directors and excavators I worked alongside were women. However, that is not to say that the sorts of broader societal factors which the Athena Swan charter seeks to address within academia are not relevant here. They are.

As Jim Leary said in his Oct 28 post, the world of development that you work in as a commercial archaeologist is often a male-dominated one (of quarrymen, builders, digger-drivers). At times though, I felt quite envious of the women site directors running sites alongside me – many of the digger drivers we spent hours machine-watching alongside were more respectful of them than me, no doubt partly because they were women in the usually-man’s world of construction.

A frosty morning on site at Kilverstone, Thetford, Norfolk, February 2001

A frosty morning on site at Kilverstone, Thetford, Norfolk, February 2001

Looking back at my colleagues who still work in that world, we’ve all aged (sadly). Many of the men and women I worked with have made very good careers for themselves, moving on into management roles and other positions of responsibility. But others, including me, have moved on. Some of the women have perhaps done so feeling that it might be difficult to marry the demands of long days in the field (sometimes away from home) with having a family, etc.; but this is certainly a factor that affects men too. I suspect that age and underlying financial circumstances are also key factors in determining who stays working in the field.

Having left the unit and embarked on my PhD (which didn’t require my own fieldwork), I initially found it hard to get back into digging. I felt that, in the academic sphere, I could never match the scale of excavation (and funding) that I’d witnessed in the commercial sector, and wondered whether maybe I should just leave it to the pros. However, I’ve come to realise that, even on a small scale with relatively little funding, you can do a great deal if you target your efforts effectively. On the Neolithic Stepping Stones project over the past few years, we’ve dug some amazing sites, and spent time in some incredible places. We’ve also found out a lot. If it hadn’t been for our (academic) funding, those sites would never have been dug at all, and may even have been lost to coastal erosion by now.

 

Island digging at An Doirlinn, South Uist, Outer Hebrides, August 2012

Island digging at An Doirlinn, South Uist, Outer Hebrides, August 2012

 

I remember talking to Chris Gosden (Professor of European Archaeology at Oxford University) about fieldwork, when I worked with him a few years ago. He told me that he felt it was important to keep digging, despite the writing time is takes out of your busy academic year, as it makes you think about new things, move in unexpected directions, and always surprises you academically. He was right.

DuncanGarrow_w A bit about today’s blogger: Duncan Garrow teaches later European prehistory (with a particular focus on Britain) and archaeological theory. His research interests include the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition; long-term histories of deposition; burial practices; the interpretive potential of radiocarbon dating; the integration of developer-funded and university-based archaeology; archaeological theory; and interdisciplinary approaches to material culture. Duncan worked in the commercial archaeology sector (at the Cambridge Archaeological Unit) from 1996-2002, when he left to undertake his PhD on Neolithic and Early Bronze Age pits in East Anglia. His most recent book (2012), co-authored with Chris Gosden, was entitled ‘Technologies of Enchantment? Exploring Celtic Art 400 BC to AD 100’. He is currently co-directing (with Fraser Sturt) an AHRC-funded project entitled ‘Stepping stones to the Neolithic? Islands, maritime connectivity and the ‘western seaways’ of Britain, 5000-3500 BC’; as a result he has recently directed excavations in the Channel Islands, the Outer Hebrides and the Isles of Scilly. For more information see the Stepping Stones project website. He is currently working on a book exploring ‘ritual’ deposition in British prehistory, from the Palaeolithic through to the Iron Age.

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