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January 2018

Posted by admin on January 4, 2018

Our first blog of 2018 is from Mike. He writes about how working in commercial archaeology compares to working on the Teffont Project, the difficulties of deciphering old notebooks detailing mid 20th century forays into Teffont's archaeology, and the importance of using archaeology to tell stories about the past.

In the summer of 2010 I spent two weeks sleeping in a tent, eating in a cow shed and showering in the woods. It was my first time at Teffont.

I was coming into my third year as an archaeology student at the University of York. I had six weeks excavation experience under my belt. In those six weeks I had learned which end of a trowel to use, the importance of keeping straight sections and not mixing context numbers up. I thought I knew it all.

After a week of excavation at Teffont, I moved onto my second activity block of the season; Landscape Archaeology. The person due to teach us earthwork survey had been taken unwell, so myself and the other student were given another task.

We were shown a notebook from the 1950s – 1960s that had belonged to a local amateur archaeologist. The notebook had been loaned to the project by the amateur researcher’s son-in-law, and detailed excavations he undertook, and what he had found. Our task was to work out likely locations of his trenches, based on the somewhat cryptic descriptions given. We didn’t find them that year (though in later years we did find two), but I learned that straight sections and neat trowelling isn’t what archaeology is about. It’s about the story.

As you read this, I am probably shoulder-deep in a Romano-British boundary ditch on a building site somewhere in the East Midlands. I am probably thinking about how long it is until teabreak, how much further I can go into this ditch before admitting defeat. I am trying not to think about the cold, or how the wind will make drawing difficult later.


The day job: Excavating as a commercial archaeologist. Photo credit: Albion Archaeology

I have been a commercial archaeologist for nearly four years. Most of that time has been at Albion Archaeology, based in Bedford but working all around the East Midlands. Our bread and butter is isolated Late Iron Age – Early Romano-British settlements that are going to have housing developments built on them. Some of our excavation areas are so big you could stand at one end and have a hard time making out the other. It’s a very different archaeological world.

In 2011 I returned to Teffont, not as a student, but as a supervisor. Unlike at my university field school, there were only four students to a supervisor, not ten. Much like what I do now, we were under time and financial pressure, and a very tough client to please (Dave). TEF11 was more ambitious than 2010; a bigger area, with more people working on it. Every year after the project continued to grow. Every year we said ‘Next year, smaller.’

I have been fortunate that my employer has always allowed me to take time off to go back to Teffont. For me it is an opportunity to do a different kind of archaeology, not just what we’re finding, but how we’re finding it and the goals behind it.

As a supervisor, I don’t get to do a lot of digging, but that’s not why I’m here. The quality of the training provided at Teffont has always been placed on an even footing to churning out context numbers and reaching natural at the bottom of the trench sequence. I come back, year after year, to teach people what this archaeology lark is sort of about.


Excavating Teffont's Roman monumental well in the Glebe

I have always believed that anyone can be an archaeologist. Experience, fitness, background and level of education should not be barriers. The Teffont Archaeology Project has welcomed students, community members, old lags and complete novices, and offered them all the same commitment to training and developing them as critical archaeologists, not just trowel monkeys.

It’s not about straight sections (although that’s a good start), but how to take a line of stones and layers of different-coloured soil and piles of buried rubble, and imagine how those could have been walls of buildings, with floors and layers of occupation, or an earthen bank strewn with rubbish, how to collect good evidence, and turn that evidence into a story about the past.

I wonder if I will be in Teffont in ten years’ time, August 2028, TEF28. I am certain someone will be; there will still be compelling questions to answer, and I am certain whomever is tackling them will be better equipped for it than I was in 2010, or 2017. I’ll probably be too old to be sleeping in a tent and eating in a cow shed. If it will all be a bit much for me. If I can do another year.

But that’s okay, TEF29 will be smaller.