My current position in the Archaeology Department involves being largely chained to a desk. However, in the preceding 12 years fieldwork was a daily reality for me as I worked for Commercial archaeological companies. I hope to outline some of the fieldwork experiences I have had below without it reading too much like a personal statement for a job application.
Like so many archaeologists plying their trade today, my first real experience of fieldwork was a training season at the Silchester Town Life Project in the summer of 1999. I had archaeology A-level and had carried out a couple of weeks digging at Colchester in 1997 so was not entirely new to the trowel, yet the 4 weeks spent in that field in Hampshire cemented in my mind that digging holes was something I was always going to do.
On completing my undergraduate degree I began working with Oxford Archaeology, a company I was to work with for a further six years. It was with OA that I worked on a number of infrastructure projects such as the Channel tunnel rail link in Kent and the expansion of Heathrow with the construction of Terminal five.
Projects on the scale of an airport expansion can make you feel like a pretty small cog, with the huge amounts of machinery, noise and not to mention aircraft. It was also sometimes difficult to focus on the Bronze Age ditch I was digging when Concorde was taking off in the background. Every time I fly from Heathrow I reminisce about several of my trowels that lie forever buried beneath the concourse….
After seven or so years of commercial archaeology I realised that I should probably attempt working somewhere more exotic that required less high visibility clothing. The opportunity presented itself with the WF16 project at the magnificent Wadi Faynan in the Jordanian desert.
I was prepared as well as I could be with sun cream, mosquito repellent and multiple jabs, yet nothing could have prepared me for the incredible landscape and archaeology I was to experience. Excavating 10,000 year old mud walled structures surrounded by mountains, Bedouin tents and many, many goats was far removed from the world of commercial archaeology I’d temporarily left behind. It was an equally eye opening experience getting to know the local Bedouin workmen. Watching the moon rise over Wadi Ghuwayr while drinking tea with Ali and Abdullah is something I won’t forget in a hurry.
Over the next few years I participated in a project in Crete excavating a Late Minoan mountain top settlement at Karfi, a few weeks digging a Roman iron working site Austria and a five weeks of hellish northern French winter excavating an Iron Age settlement in Brittany. Subsequently I’ve also been involved with the Hebridean projects co-ordinated by Professor Steve Mithen, working on Islay, Mull and Gigha. The Mesolithic site at Rubha Port an t-Seilich on Islay, overlooking the sound to Jura is probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever been let alone worked.
Returning to the less glamourous world of commercial archaeology, the most challenging fieldwork project I co-ordinated was for the widening of the A11 in Suffolk. This was composed of numerous sites extending over 11km and was subject to strict deadlines. Despite the regularly stressful day to day of such a project I really enjoyed working with a talented team of archaeologists and responding to the often leftfield demands of the construction managers. Could I just move everyone from the carefully timetabled excavation areas to dig the bit they want to stick an oversized newt tunnel through….of course I can.
During my commercial career, Silchester was a permanent summer fixture (to the possible annoyance of my employers). Over the fifteen seasons I attended, supervised and finally co-ordinated I had the hugely rewarding task of teaching students and volunteers the techniques of excavation and recording. Witnessing people who were so shy they could barely speak develop confidence over a few weeks to work as part of the team was always amazing as was witnessing students eventually returning as staff member and passing on their learning. Seeing the trench I cumulatively spent the best part of two years in backfilled last summer was a very strange experience.
And now I find myself back in the Archaeology department working for the very project that kick started the whole process. In a few months I embark on a new phase of excavation at Pond farm, just outside Silchester and with knowledge of what’s gone before await the trials, tribulations and (fingers crossed) excitements to come.
A bit about today’s blogger: Nick Pankhurst
Nick works as Project Assistant for Silchester Town Life project, combining overall site supervision for the field school and post-excavation analysis of the late Iron Age and Early Roman stratigraphy. He has participated in the field school since his first year as a Reading undergraduate in 1999 and as staff member since 2001.
Prior to his current role, Nick worked for 12 years with commercial archaeological units in Oxford and Cambridge. During this time he co-ordinated numerous rural and urban excavations including projects such as Heathrow Terminal 5, the A11 widening in Suffolk and in Winchester, Cirencester and Oxford. He has also supervised on research projects in Jordan, Crete and Austria and worked on excavations in the Hebrides and northern France.