I was looking at a post on Spencer Carter’s Microburin blog about fieldwork at Seamer Carr in 1985 which got me remembering my first excavation experience, also in 1985 but a bit further north, in Hartlepool. This got me thinking more generally about how people get into archaeology. I started digging in the summer after my A-levels because Cleveland County Archaeology Unit were finishing the excavation of the Norton-on-Tees Saxon cemetery. This was just over the road from my house, so, in a break from the important business of watching every ball of the Ashes series†, I wandered up to site and asked if I could have a go. They were nearly finished, and the last thing anyone wants on site in the final few days of a cemetery rescue excavation is untrained volunteer labour, but they pointed me in the direction of another project the unit was just starting on the Anglo-Saxon monastic site on Hartlepool Headland.
I’ve talked to many archaeologists over the years about what led them to their first excavation and a few constant themes come up. One is an affinity for soil. Nearly everyone was the sort of child whose favourite outside game was making mud pies in the garden (my brother and I used to anoint my Grandad’s pigs with (mostly) mud – they loved it, we used to play in the muckspreader too, make what you will of that).
Archaeologist (and also Financial Journalist admittedly) in training
The other key influence that lots of people have in common is children’s historical fiction. My understanding of Iron Age social systems is supposed to be based on a whole range of academic papers but actually depends at least as much on Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Warrior Scarlet and The Eagle of the Ninth. Archaeologists all seem to have absorbed this sort of stuff by the bucket load as children: Henry Treece’s Viking Saga books, Geoffrey Trease’s ones set in ancient Greece, Leon Garfield, John Grant’s Littlenose books and, ones which I inexplicably missed as a boy but have just discovered, C. Walter Hodges The Namesake and The Marsh King, both about King Alfred.
The Late Bronze Age/Iron Age transition explained
All these authors seemed to be a staple of Jackanory during the 70s. There was a parallel genre, known in our house by the catch-all title of Around the Corner and Into the Olden Days, which was equally popular for television dramatisation around the same time. Here past and present intertwine for children who find themselves working through versions of ancient myths or caught up in past titantic struggles. Penelope Lively, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne-Jones and William Mayne all wrote very powerful children’s fiction that required and expected you to understand the importance of the past to the present.
Once you have a child who knows who Grendel and Athelstan were and is comfortable around industrial quantities of mud then the damage is done. There is no hope for the little one but a future in archaeology.
†Overshadowed, even at the time, by the Botham/Willis heroics of ’81, this was a fantastic series in its own right. Australia were strong, but not the remorseless humiliating force of the 90s, Border was captain and they still had Geoff Thompson, although he was older and slower, McDermott was their main strike bowler. David Gower couldn’t buy a run going into the series but suddenly clicked about half way through and made his highest ever score. England won, then Australia won, then there were many nervy draws before England won the last two to take the series. In my memory the series turned on one dismissal in the second last test. Wayne Phillips pulled a ball down onto Alan Lamb’s foot, it bounced straight up into the air and Gower ran around to catch it. Phillips was given out to a great chorus of moustachioed shouting and finger-pointing.