TrowelBlazers – a celebration

While discussing our blog many people have also told us about TrowelBlazers –

TrowelBlazers is written by Brenna Hasset, Victoria Herridge, Suzanne Pilaar Birch and Rebecca Wragg Sykes, and is a ‘celebration of women archaeologists, palaeontologists and geologists who have been doing awesome work for far longer, and in far greater numbers, than most people realise.’

Two of our very own TrowelBlazers who have recently featured on our blog are pictured below

Me multitasking. Maximising time

Macarena Cardenas multitasking in the field

Amanda Clarke, our very own trowelblazer

Amanda Clarke, another of our very own trowelblazers


Trowelblazing Part 1: A career in the field

Amanda Clarke, our very own trowelblazer

Amanda Clarke, our very own trowelblazer

The Final Context How very rare it is to have the satisfaction of starting something…and then finishing it! I have worked on countless excavations since I began my fieldwork career…many I joined half way through, some I left half way through. Each was memorable in their distinctive way – but nothing quite matches up to my experience on the Silchester Field School. I began this in June 1997 with a JCB and a handful of excavators – and I finished 18 summers later in August 2014, with 130 excavators, a fleet of JCBs and dumpers, a barn full of finds and samples, 16,303 units of stratigraphy recorded – and a tearful Professor. What kind of journey has it been? (scroll down for some photos!)

Childhood ambition? I have always loved being in the field, and my job as Director of the Silchester Field School at the University of Reading has allowed me to combine this passion with a desire to teach the few things I know, and the chance to develop my managerial and organisational skills in ways I never dreamed possible….

Trowelblazing As a woman in fieldwork I have always taken the attitude that there is nothing I cannot do. My early days in commercial archaeology toughened me up quickly – leading an archaeological watching brief on the site of a multi-million pound multi-storey car-park on a cold December morning in the middle of York, surrounded by a team of hardened contractors intent on getting their job done – was a baptism of fire indeed. Women in site supervisory positions were a rarity in the 1990’s when I was leading teams…..there were women running the finds hut, the environmental aspects, the drawing office ….but outside in the crisp York air I was in a male dominated environment. I have always fought against any kind of ‘gender divide’ on my project teams – but that division does still cast a shadow. Sadly it is a self-perpetuating stereotype….trench work is often seen as ‘physical,’ mattock-wielding, trowel twirling work, whereas finds are all about housekeeping ‘pretty things’….still. 18 years of running the Silchester Field School gave me the opportunity to challenge these preconceptions and actually do something about them. And now that I have just finished running the biggest, boldest, brightest excavation on and in British soil (no bias showing here) – I am pleased to say I feel the scales tipping. In the final Silchester season 58% of participants were women, the majority of my Silchester Supervisors have been women, and the Department has an excellent track record of our female graduates working in commercial archaeology. It’s a good feeling.

Team Tactics Running the Silchester Field School has never been hard for me. Yes of course it is challenging in terms of sheer numbers of hours in the field, and on some of those days when nothing goes right…..the portaloo emptying lorry is stuck in the mud, half the students have a crippling summer cold, the site wifi has dissipated, a dozen tents have blown over, the pump for draining the water from a well under excavation has choked and stopped, 125 unbooked in visitors have arrived for a tour, I can’t find my coffee mug and context 14725 is not where I would like it to be stratigraphically…..But I instinctively know how to make it all work… is simply about the teams and the working environment you create. And the rest just follows. The archaeology may be a repetitive mix of wafer thin gravel layers – but it is still possible to teach and learn, to inspire and aspire.

Opportunity Knocks I love digging, I love excavations – wherever and whatever they may be – and my desire to communicate this passion can verge on the intimidating! I believe that attending an excavation is a life-altering experience – and everyone should try it at least once. My goal is to demonstrate that regardless of age, gender, skill, ability, aptitude, there are many many different experiences and opportunities an excavation can offer – something for everyone. Never think ‘I can’t’ – always think ‘how can I’.


Last day on the Silchester site

The final Silchester site tour

Challenge Amanda!

Challenge Amanda!

Some of our other trowelblazers!

Some of our other trowelblazers!

The Silchester Field School campsite

The Silchester Field School campsite

Working as a team: celebrating 10 seasons on site

Working as a team: celebrating 10 seasons on site

More to come from Amanda next week in Part 2!

Field archaeologist and trowelblazer!

Field archaeologist and trowelblazer!

A bit about today’s blogger: Amanda Clarke is a field archaeologist appointed by Reading University to help train its students in all aspects of field archaeology. She is Site Director for the Department of Archaeologys training excavation at the Roman town of Silchester, and for fieldwork in Pompeii, Italy. When not in the field she is involved in the post-excavation work for these projects. She has spent many years in the field, on sites all over the world including Norway, Beirut, Jamaica, Belize and the northern and western isles of Scotland. She has worked most recently for York Archaeological Trust on many of their large urban sites, as well as directing two seasons of work on the early Christian site of Whithorn in Galloway. She also works as a Teaching Fellow for the Department of Archaeology at Boston University on the student training excavations in Belize, Central America.


A passion for fieldwork: Jim Leary

I became a professional fieldworker in 1998 – the year I graduated from university. I had done fieldwork before that, but this was the first time I was actually paid to do it. I joined what was at the time a small company in London that specialised in digging archaeology in advance of building developments. These were the boom years; the housing market exploded and the company I worked for grew in size, becoming one of the largest in the country. I was hardly ever out of the field. Initially the plan was to get a few weeks digging experience before starting a masters degree, but commercial digging seemed so much more relevant to me than abstract, blue skies academia (plus it was a lot of fun) and so I stayed. In fact I stayed for seven and a half years. I dug sites of every period, mostly in London, and they were good sites – deeply stratified with tonnes of finds – the very best in Britain. We dug Roman and medieval sites in the City of London, and sites in Convent Garden, which was once the beating heart of Saxon Lundenwic. We dug prehistoric sites in Southwark and post-medieval industrial sites along the foreshore. Everything and anything – it was pretty much the best training ground I could have asked for.


It was hard work, of course, and working on building sites wasn’t always easy. These were unashamedly masculine spaces, and I know it was easier for me as a man than it was for my female colleagues. Certainly when I worked in that environment (perhaps things have changed now) most construction workers were men and talk had more than a hint of testosterone to it. That is not to say that everyone lived up to their wolf-whistling stereotypes, but it wasn’t uncommon to find a rolled up porno in the Portaloo. In fact, women on site were largely restricted to archaeologists and although it may not have been common, they did at times find themselves subjected to inappropriate comments. When this happened, though, our team were always quick to pull them up on it, and on one site I was supervising in the City we all walked out after a scaffolding team offended a female archaeologist working below. The whole site shut down until we agreed to return after an apology.

Occasions like that were rare though, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in commercial archaeology – as did, I think, most others working there then – male or female. In fact, we had the times of our lives; working, drinking, laughing, the banter – I miss it, and nowhere else I’ve worked has quite captured that dynamism, excitement, bonhomie and joie de vivre. It was there, too, that I met my wife – a fellow archaeologist enjoying and dealing with the daily trials of working on building sites in London – a relationship forged in the white heat of commercial digging.MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

You can’t dig like that forever though, and we eventually moved on. I joined the Research Department at English Heritage, remaining there also for seven and a half years. I directed some fantastic excavations with EH – from the great prehistoric mound of Silbury Hill to Marden henge – the largest Neolithic henge in the country. And now I am the Director of the Archaeology Field School at the University of Reading. We will be going back to dig at Marden henge next year with the Field School and I’m really looking forward to it. I can’t imagine life without fieldwork – it is, as American archaeologist Kent Flannery once put it, “the most fun you can have with your pants on”.

A bit about today’s blogger Jim-Leary

Dr Jim Leary is Director of the Archaeology Field School in SAGES.  Jim Leary convenes the Archaeological Thought and Careers in Archaeology modules, and contributes to the Practicing Archaeology module. In 2007 and 2008, he directed the major excavations into Silbury Hill and has managed the post-excavation programme since. He co-authored the monograph of this work, as well as a popular account (with a foreword by David Attenborough). In 2010 Jim directed excavations at Marden henge, which lies between Stonehenge and Avebury, revealing one of the best preserved Neolithic buildings in England. More recently Jim assisted with work that cored through the Marlborough Castle Mound, conclusively proving for the first time that its origins are prehistoric and contemporary with Silbury Hill. Jim has also researched perceptions and understandings of sea-level rise in the Mesolithic, as well as mobility and movement in archaeology. He sits on the council of the Prehistoric Society, and has written a chapter on excavation and evaluation for the Avebury and Stonehenge WHS Research Agenda. Jim has also written numerous archaeology-related articles for popular magazines and journals.

Think Athena SWAN is only for women? Think again.

Welcome to the School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Science‘s blog – SAGE(S) Advice – see what we did there? It’s a space for members of our School to share and discuss with you our experiences and ideas about fieldwork, gender and careers.

We’re a School within the Faculty of Science at the University of Reading. In November 2011, we won our Athena SWAN Bronze Award (hurrah!) and this blog forms an important part of our aspiration to create a culture of equality and inclusivity for our staff, students and everyone we work with. We want to engage in a dialogue online and in-person about the fieldwork that is so central to the academic disciplines in our School and to many of the career paths our students pursue. So whilst the title of our blog involved some creative thinking, it is a serious endeavour to widen the discussion and applicability of the Athena SWAN charter. It’s not only for women. It’s a charter for everyone.

So what is Athena SWAN?

The Athena SWAN charter was launched in 2005 “to advance the representation of women in science, technology, engineering, medicine and mathematics”. There are now 114 Athena SWAN members. This is pretty remarkable but there is much work still to be done.

All Athena SWAN members sign up to the principles of the charter:

  • To address gender inequalities requires commitment and action from everyone, at all levels of the organisation
  • To tackle the unequal representation of women in science requires changing cultures and attitudes across the organisation
  • The absence of diversity at management and policy-making levels has broad implications which the organisation will examine
  • The high loss rate of women in science is an urgent concern which the organisation will address
  • The system of short-term contracts has particularly negative consequences for the retention and progression of women in science, which the organisation recognises
  • There are both personal and structural obstacles to women making the transition from PhD into a sustainable academic career in science, which require the active consideration of the organisation

In our School, the Athena SWAN charter and our work on gender and fieldwork is embedded across the many committees and student programmes in operation. We do this not just for women within our School and beyond, but also to enhance the working culture for all of our staff and students.

A bit about today’s blogger

Fieldwork in Sydney, Australia. Follow @DrHG on Twitter.

I’m Dr Hilary Geoghegan and I am Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Reading. I research ‘enthusiasm’ – specifically the emotional affiliations and attachments we feel towards the material world around us and how this influences our actions, passions and performances in the world. I lead on our School Athena SWAN activities and it is my pleasure to work with colleagues on this blog but also our wider gender and fieldwork initiatives on which there will be more in due course. I’ve always loved geography as a subject, particularly the opportunity to visit different places (even if they are very local!) and talk to people about how they experience the world. My most recent bit of fieldwork was in Australia, but I’ll save that for a future blogpost!