First Day at the new Birdoswald Excavations

Today was my first day on site at Birdoswald, a Roman fort and English Heritage site on Hadrian's Wall, where Newcastle University and Historic England are conducting a new excavation project that will run for the next few years. It feels like forever since I have been out on an excavation. 

(Side note - in fact, this is the second time I've been out 'in the field' this year. The first was a site walkover at Carvoran just down the road from Birdoswald. I somehow have found myself involved in all these amazing sites along Hadrian's Wall...)

Today reminded me of all the reasons why I became an archaeologist. The excitement of travelling somewhere new. Funnily, this is actually the closest excavation to home I have ever been involved in, but waiting at the train station and the journey to site had that same feeling of anticipation I have experienced working half way across the world. Watching through the window, clutching a takeaway coffee that provides the familiarity of habit as well as a morning injection of caffeine, seeing the landscape change as we wind our way through rural Northumberland. Disembarking onto a platform without a single soul in sight, and waiting 20 minutes for a bus that runs but three times a day, only slightly nervous about whether it will show up on time (or at all). I was the only person on the bus for the whole journey, which I am glad about. It was a rather small bus, and I am still not overly keen on the idea of crowded public transport after a year of avoiding it completely during the pandemic. And finally, we're here. I spot the familiar branding of English Heritage, that once upon a childhood our family could rarely afford, and now here I am, with the privilege of being able to work at one of their amazing sites.

Today was just a drop in for me to get a sense of the set up and planning. I will be on site full time from next week, and cannot wait to see what we find. It is the first excavation I've been involved in where I have had complete oversight of the environmental work. More often than not I spend most of my time collecting soil micromorphology and other highly specialised samples. This time, I get to do the lot, including running a full size flotation tank with a motorised pump. For those not familiar, stay tuned for a video, coming soon!

It is a big responsibility, but I am confident our team will do a great job. We have had specialist advice from Don O'Meara, Historic England's Science Advisor for the North East, and Newcastle technicians Eline Van Asperen and Diana Blumberg will be here all summer keeping an eye on things. Eline specialises in pollen and animal bones, and Diana has substantial experience as a finds supervisor on excavation projects in Pompeii and Portus in Italy. We are also very lucky to have a number of great postgrad students joining us who are working on Roman archaeology for Masters and PhD projects. 

This is the first year I have felt like I fully deserve such a position of authority. Not so much because of imposter syndrome (though I did have a bit of that when I was a student, I got over it many years ago), but I am at that point now where not only do I know what I am talking about, it comes quickly and naturally without hesitation. Even though this is my first Roman excavation, I know the process of archaeology, the complexities of formation processes and environmental work, and perhaps most importantly, I am not afraid to ask questions. This is why being an environmental archaeologist is the best! I get to look at big themes about people and the environment, about food resources and procurement, about environmental impact and management, and see how this varied across space and time. How many other archaeologists can work on sites as diverse as Paisley Caves in Oregon, Çatalhöyük in Turkey, Stonehenge, to Margat Castle of the Knights Hospitaller in Syria

Working on the archaeology of the Roman Empire is a real challenge. There is such a complexity and depth of information that I could never hope to make sense of the environmental data without close collaboration with my colleagues. Project directors Ian Haynes and Tony Wilmott are leading experts in Roman archaeology and Hadrian's Wall. I look forward to learning from them and making my own small contribution over the next few years!