I just arrived back to Edinburgh last night from working excavations at Bamburgh Castle. The castle is located south of Edinburgh, across the English border into Northumberland. While it was largely rebuilt in the 1890s, the foundations are those of a large Anglo-Saxon coastal stronghold with close connections to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne (the site of Viking raids in 793 CE). The excavations are focused in the outer-ward of the castle (roughly the 6/7c CE) in an area of metal working and industrial activity. If you want to read more about the site check out this article from Archaeology Magazine.
I was on site working as an Assistant Environmental Supervisor, in the role I oversaw and taught students the process of floating samples taken during excavation, drying, sieving, and sorting. I also completed my own admin tasks helping out Alice (Environmental Supervisor) and Tom (Post-ex Supervisor) to make sure all the paperwork was complete for Graeme (Site Director).
An aside: flotation is a process by which soil samples from the trench are put into a tank of water and broken up by hands and jets. This allows for the organic material like charcoal and seeds to float to the top and be collected in a flot bag and the heavier, inorganic material to sink to the bottom to dry and be weighed and sorted. It’s really great for recovering information about what people were eating and growing as well as what sort of wild plants grew in an area.
If you remember, I attended Bamburgh last summer as a student. They must have found my jokes funny, as this year I was invited back as staff. While it was the same site, it was totally different experience and gave me valuable time in a supervisor/management role. I am so grateful for the team at the Bamburgh Research Project for the opportunity!
Just having turned 21 and still in my undergraduate studies, I was the youngest member on staff. Truthfully, at first, I was worried I wouldn’t be up to par for the job or that trying to teach students who were often older than me would be a little difficult. It reminded me a lot of my time practicing tae-kwon-do. Since I earned my black belt at 8, I was simultaneously the youngest but also one of the senior students. This meant that despite my age, I had a leadership role. I learned how to teach a variety of ages and experience levels. And honestly, as I’ve learned, if you can teach a class of 10-year-olds how to spar correctly and safely you can pretty much do anything.
But anyway, back to the archaeology.
Keeping those lessons in mind, I moved quickly into my supervising role. In a passing comment from other staff members, I ‘turned flotation into a well oiled machine.’ We quickly moved through the sample backlog from years’ past and put the Enviro team in a really good starting place for next season. And while I wasn’t the one actually doing most of the work this year, I learned just as much about archaeology as I had the year before. Teaching a skill really does imprint it further. Likewise, taking part in the ‘behind-the-scenes’ aspects of the excavation connects all the separate pieces together.
And while it made me realize how much I actually did know about my chosen field of study, it revealed what I also didn’t know. And that was okay. One of my biggest pet peeves of any leadership is when a leader refuses to admit they don’t know something. As I experienced, it’s okay to admit you don’t know something. A good leader learns just as much from their students as a student learns from a good leader.
I also learned how to quickly adapt to challenges. We had a large sample which was taken from a shell midden last season (oddly enough, it was a sample that I had taken myself so I only had myself to blame for the mess it created). It was 2 15L buckets of heavy organic material that when floated broken down into fibers and blocked the mesh, causing the flot bag to silt up. The team and I had to divide the samples into smaller buckets and mix in hot water and sodium bi-carb to break down the organics. Then we left the buckets to sit for a few days. After the weekend, the buckets were finely ready to float.
Besides working on the environmental side of the excavation, I also taught pottery and finds illustration. It was really fun to teach and again really helped to further ground the skills I had learned this year in my Archaeological Illustration course. I also got hoisted 90 feet in the air to take site photos so that was pretty neat.
I’m sad to see the season over so quickly as I truly enjoyed my time on site. Seeing both sides of an excavation was a really unique opportunity and I glad that I was able to do my part to make this season successful. As worried as I was at the beginning, my fears quickly went away as I got into the flow of the excavation and grew more confident in my understanding of the processes and my abilities to teach. The rest of the staff was so supportive and because they believed in me – I believed in myself. And as my first experience in a management role on a prominent excavation – I’m pretty proud of the work we accomplished.
Today, I’m back in Edinburgh to run errands and wash my clothes, but then it’s back down south for another excavation. More on that to come.