This happened last week, more details in a minute, but first of all I need to ask your indulgence for a bit of background. A bit more than eight years ago, in September 2004, we started teaching undergraduate archaeology at UCLan. At the beginning of that enrollment week we had a teaching staff of two. Vicki had been working for the university for five weeks and I had been there about two. Everything was more or less in place to teach the first year of a degree and, after some frantic activity in UCAS clearing, we even had a list of students we were expecting to turn up to be taught.
In those days archaeology was part of the Department of Environmental Management and, on the first day of term, all the new students on all the Department’s degrees were summoned to meet the staff. So, there we were, along with our colleagues from geography and ecology, staring at a room full of bright young faces and wondering which twelve of them wanted to be archaeologists. The head of department began to read out names, imagine the pilot episode of Grange Hill but with Lancashire accents, but every time he came to a possible archaeologist there was a horrible echoing silence. By the end of the meeting we had two lecturers and one single student, Sam. I don’t know who was more alarmed by this state of affairs: Sam, me and Vicki, or Nigel – the Head of Department – whose cunning scheme the whole archaeology degree was.
As it happened, the rest of our students were waiting patiently in another room, having been sent an earlier version of the enrollment letter with the wrong directions. All of that first cohort of students were a fantastic part of getting the archaeology degree off the ground here, but the great meeting mix-up meant that Sam got the honour of being absolutely the first student enrolled on the UCLan degree. She went on to get a first class degree and win a NERC scholarship to study on the Osteoarchaeology MSc at Bradford University. After some time working in commercial archaeology she came back to UCLan to work on a PhD on Early Bronze Age burials.
Sam’s research is a really important combination of traditional archaeological re-analysis of the context of Early Bronze Age burials from Northern England with an up to date re-evaluation of the osteological evidence from all the human bone. She has used this data to re-examine a whole range of issues around age, sex, gender and status in the Early Bronze Age population. She has her own blog, with lots of details of her research, here.
When you study for a research degree obviously the major part of the whole thing is the thesis you have to write, and which is read and marked by at least two specialist examiners. However, the most nerve-racking part of the whole process for the student is the oral examination, or viva, when you have to defend the thesis to these examiners. Everyone else knows that the thesis is fine, the viva will be a breeze and that the examiners are pussy cats. All the student can remember is everything that has gone wrong with the project, all the typing mistakes they have found since they submitted the thesis and when the examiners turn up they look like a combination of Dick Dastardly and Lord Voldemort.
Last week we had two vivas in two days in archaeology. First up, on Valentine’s Day, was Clare for her MSc on portable XRF and Chumash Rock Art. I was internal examiner on this one so other people got all the stress. All I had to do was introduce the externals, do a quick run through the regulations, and then sit back and listen to a fascinating discussion about science and art. It was a good result, lots of prosecco was drunk in the research student office afterwards, one down and one to go.
On Friday it was Sam’s turn. I was her supervisor, so I wasn’t allowed in the viva, but it was taking place in the office next door to mine. To stop myself pacing the corridor like an expectant father I spent the time writing last week’s blog post about GPS survey – so if parts of that made no sense now you know why. After about an hour and a half Sam emerged and then we had an even more nerve-racking few minutes while the examiners deliberated. Once again we had a good result, more prosecco got drunk, and, as well as being the first ever undergraduate, I think Sam is the first of our former undergraduates to complete a PhD.
Major congratulations to both Clare and Sam for all their hard work.