Growing my archaeology skills in Sherwood Forest: a training field school with Mercian Archaeological Services CIC

It’s been a great few weeks for growing my archaeology skills!

First, the two week dig at Vinegarth in Epworth with IoAHC, then a fantastic week with Mercian Archaeological Services at their training field school (http://mercian-as.co.uk/fieldschool.html)  Andy, Sean and David certainly know their craft. They presented the course in an accessible, fun and creative way with a good balance of practical tasks and brilliantly delivered talks and demonstrations; as well as evening outings to Sherwood Forest and places of interest in the surrounding area.

I arrived at their ‘Tin Tabernacle’ base on the ‘King John’s Palace’ site in the beautiful village of King’s Clipstone on the first morning, not knowing quite what to expect. The welcome from the Mercian team was warm, with coffee provided by Roy (the onsite caterer…I’ll say more about him and his culinary skills further on…) and the training group was a lovely mix of all ages and experience. We had a lighthearted and relaxed welcome talk and introductions – then a site tour and a fascinating background history of the medieval palace site and how it functioned and related to the surrounding area. This set the field school into a lovely context as part of the long-standing research and hard work by Mercian, who are a not-for-profit, Community Interest organisation. Their ethos is outstanding. They have a firm emphasis on research, community engagement, training and education – all underpinned by their very obvious passion for the local Sherwood Forest archaeology and history

39105177_10156045609638999_6281374242877472768_n‘King John’s Palace’ – King’s Clipstone, Nottinghamshire.

The course itself was amazing, with depth and meticulous attention to detail in all aspects of core skills such as excavation, context sheet recording, plan and section drawing and site photography, and secondary skills such as finds processing. I loved the pottery and small finds identification sessions, and the animal, vegetable, mineral’ object quizzes….and we even got to have a go at flint-knapping at the end of the week. I think I might manage a stone tool or two now, should things get apocalyptic… 🙂 Seriously, it was great fun.

We learned a massive amount in the space of a week. The teaching involved not just the correct processes, but also the whys, the wherefores and often the maths (yes, maths!) behind technical approaches such as trench layout from co-ordinates, use of dumpy level, total station, and so on. Now, I don’t have a particularly refined maths brain, and it’s a (very) long time since my GCSEs but Andy presented it in such a way that we could apply and use it effectively. I was pretty impressed that his approach made it stick!

 

 

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Getting my head around Total Station…

The excavation part of the course was interesting and rewarding…finding and identifying medieval pottery and other small finds on a medieval site is always exciting. We didn’t find the boundary wall structure that we were looking for, but there was still a depth to go at the end of our training week and the changes in stratigraphy in the trench were starting to look rather interesting. I wish I could have been there for longer! It was a fantastic experience and I came away feeling a lot more confident in my developing skills.

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Great to find some medieval South Yorkshire coal measures pottery in the heart of Nottinghamshire!

Now I have to talk about the food. Oh goodness me. Roy, the site caterer, is a magician. A two course hot meal every day cooked onsite in a tent, ranging from full-on roast dinners to kebabs, cottage pie and fish and chips and some rather naughty puddings. His homemade cinnamon sponge with homemade jam has custard was divine. I think there must have been some ex-army field catering experience there…but the food he produced every day was amazing and delicious. I was fully prepared to end the week looking like a house side. I didn’t…but it’s a wonder!

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So then. I’d highly recommend this wonderful field school set amongst all the history and legend of Sherwood Forest. A huge thanks to Sean, Andy and David for all the support and effort that goes into their teaching and course development…and to Roy for keeping us all fed!

For me, back to dissertation work and relentless job seeking. Keeping fingers, toes…and probably eyes crossed too on that if it helps any!

Links:

http://mercian-as.co.uk/about.html

http://mercian-as.co.uk/fieldschool.html

https://www.facebook.com/Mercianarch/

https://twitter.com/mercianarch?lang=en

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The rewards of being a volunteer. And a huge thank you!

People volunteer for all sorts of different reasons. For interest, self- enrichment, for something different to do, for career progression, to help others, etc.  There are, of course, all the fantastic folk who selflessly volunteer for charity organisations: for the homeless, the elderly, and so on.  For me, gaining voluntary experience in heritage and archaeology has absolutely been a two way street.  I admit, I desperately needed experience in the field to complement my distance-learning MA study, but from the outset I was prepared to give a whole boatload of graft and gratitude back to whoever gave me that opportunity.

People have said to me…why do all that hard physical work, huffing and puffing and digging on a voluntary basis? Because a) the experience is wonderful, b) you get to meet and work alongside some great people and c) it is great fun! That’s maybe because I love it so much, and it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for me…it’s been one of the best experiences of my life and it’s helped me to focus my thinking and grow my skills. The thing with volunteering is that you can tailor what it is you do absolutely to your interests and abilities. You might have an interest in archaeology, but be physically unable to carry out some of the heavier site tasks. Don’t let that deter you!  There are lots of different ways you can become involved.

In my last post I mentioned IoAHC (Isle of Axholme and Hatfield Chase Landscape Partnership http://ioahc.net/ ) and the phenomenal experience that they have provided for me over the last few months.  IoAHC  is Heritage Lottery Funded and is currently conducting sixteen fascinating and worthwhile projects in the North of England in conjunction with various partner organisations – running over a five year period under three themes: Time and Place, Community Connections and Peatlands and Wetlands.

I have been lucky enough to have been involved in the “Reconstructing the Wildscape”, “Castles and Manors”, “Presenting the Past” and “Landscape of Heroes” projects so far, and it has been utterly brilliant. They’ve allowed me the opportunity to take part in field walking and site walk-over surveys, finds processing and recording, report writing and geophysical survey.  I’ve been out coring with the “Reconstructing the Wildscape” team at various sites in Thorne and the Isle of Axholme: learning to core safely and effectively, to identify soil types and stratigraphies (I’ll Munsell that… :-)),  on-site initial recording and sampling and even help to dig a dropped GPS out of a core hole!  I had no idea that getting that muddy would be so much fun, or how excited I could be about different soil types. And when you get banding appearing in a core sample when it’s out of the ground and starts to oxidise…it’s like…oooh… magic! (Maybe that is just me…)

banding

 

The “Castles and Manors” excavation at Epworth was also exciting stuff…looking for evidence of the Medieval Mowbray Manor. Some amazing finds, great for my skills development…and muscle development in wielding a shovel and a mattock! Overall, an unmissable excavation experience with a great team of volunteers and professional archaeologists.  It was also great for the local community.  I grew up in Epworth and it was lovely to dig where I played as a child and see familiar faces at the very well-attended open day.   My little dog ‘Lily’ even came along to sniff approvingly at the vast amount of animal bones sitting in the trench one spoil heap (far too many to keep!) and to see where her mom had been for a fortnight.

me and lily

Photo: IoAHC (Facebook)

Did I mention IoAHC? ?? I know, I know, sorry, but I’m mentioning again…

The lovely Laura Smith-Higgins, Archaeology and Heritage officer with IoAHC has offered relentless support with my learning, suggesting projects that will most benefit my skills development and (as you can probably tell) I’m extremely grateful to her for all her help and guidance.

I’m also extremely grateful to the various project teams for their support and enthusiasm: Nika Shilobod and Dr Kim Davies (Humberhead Levels Partnership/University of Plymouth – “Reconstructing the Wildscape”);  Chris Percy (“Landscape of Heroes” Project Manager, http://www.ukeconet.org); Lydia Hendry (Heritage Lincolnshire/”Presenting the Past”);  and the York Archaeological Trust/ArcHeritage/Trent & Peak Archaeology Team on the two week “Castles and Manors” excavation at St. Andrew’s Church, Epworth.   I’ve learned some valuable practical skills through their guidance and sharing of their expertise and I can’t thank them all enough.

I’ll keep on volunteering while I crack on with my dissertation…and even when (hopefully!) I secure some employment, I’d still love to participate in the IoAHC projects in my free time. I’d miss the people and the projects too much to stay away!

Right then. I’ve waffled on enough for today. Besides, I need to knuckle down to some more dissertation research. Thanks ever so much for reading. More soon… x

 

 

A little about me…

What do you want to be when you grow up?  For an eighties teen in rural South Yorkshire, that was a big question.  What did I want to be? I knew what I wanted to be.  I’d wanted to be an archaeologist since I was six or seven….I guess a lot of kids do (or was it just me?)  I was fascinated by ancient history…I loved pulling books out at the local library about the Ancient Greeks, Romans and Egypt. I used to stare at pictures of Stonehenge and desperately want to know more about why and who. I remember feeling completely bowled over by the Jorvik excavation on a trip to York with my parents and that feeling never went away.  Unfortunately, that feeling crashed into a whole bunch of expectation and necessity. This, along with a distinct lack of career advice, took me in a completely different direction. The ‘late 80s me’ didn’t imagine for a moment that a career in archaeology  would be available to me. That was something someone else did. Not me. Besides, living in a very rural area, I was desperate to move away, earn some money and live some life. Office work seemed to be the way to go. I bounced straight out of secondary school with a decent number of GCSEs and headed into a YTS in the editorial office of a local newspaper, then to a properly paid job in the office of a haulage company.  As lovely as that was (and it really was)… it wasn’t enough. I took English Literature and Art at A Level at evening classes after work when I was 18 and thought, perhaps, that I could go to university to do….something! By that time, archaeology seemed quite impossible. I gave up, albeit temporarily…

Skipping forward…(too long!) … having brought up two children and finding myself working in a primary school office … enough was enough.  I needed to feed my brain. I started a part-time degree with the Open University , graduating with a BA (Hons) in Classical Studies in 2016.  In 2017, I started studying a part-time distance learning MA course, The Classical Mediterranean, with the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester. It’s an amazing course, heavy in archaeological theory and with a clear emphasis on personal research….but by nature, being a distance learning course, it lacks the practical, hands-on archaeological experience that I need to progress in the field.

So what to do? How would I go about getting site experience? How would my Classical Mediterranean archaeology study focus sit alongside prospects of gaining employment within UK archaeology?  Feeling pretty lost, I contacted the lovely David Connolly at BAJR (www.bajr.org) who talked about transferable skills, made lots of suggestions and was extremely encouraging.   I started searching online for volunteer roles in archaeology and heritage, and for training digs. I applied for my BAJR Skills Passport – there had to be a way!

It was the best thing I could have done. In early April 2018, I went along to a voluntary field walking and finds washing session with the Isle of Axholme and Hatfield Chase Landscape Partnership (http://ioahc.net/projects/) which has since led to four months (so far!) of a variety of wonderful volunteer opportunities.  The skills and experience they’ve provided me with has been phenomenal.  I’ll write more about IoAHC – their fantastic projects and how they have supported my learning experience in my next blog post (it’s far too big to write here and I’m sure you’re bored by now!)  I’ve also booked onto the training dig at Sherwood Forest with Mercian Archaeological Services mid-August, which is exciting stuff. My MA dissertation is also looming!

It’s all happening.  I will get there!

 

Useful links:

Isle of Axholme and Hatfield Chase Landscape Partnership

British Archaeological Jobs Resource