Today (21 July) is #AskAnArchaeologistDay! To get into the spirit of things, we’ve asked a team of talented archaeologists (and one ancient historian) from the University of Exeter that are taking part in this year’s British Science Festival, to answer some of your questions. From a dig that surpassed expectations, to what goes into preparing for a new site – the team ‘dig’ into these archaeology questions, and more.
Read on to find out how you can book your tickets to see free archaeology events at this year’s British Science Festival (7-10 September 2023) in Exeter too.
What has been your most exciting archaeological find? And why?
I’ve had a really exciting share of discoveries in my life as an archaeologist. From a Roman column capital which once stood 9m above street level (found on my first day of digging as a student), to entire new sites when I first started taking photographs from a light aircraft.
However, as a landscape archaeologist, I am most excited when I can use various remote sensing techniques to map entire ancient landscapes. The largest so far was in Southern Dobrogea. By using a range of oblique aerial photographs which provide very high-resolution satellite imagery, alongside a series of early images from the Second World War and the Cold War, I was able to map thousands of sites scattered across the landscape. The ancient funerary barrows alone numbered more than 8,000! What’s more, the way they were grouped together indicated that a whole range of settlements – from hamlets to large villages or small towns – were once located inland, contrary to what many thought before to be possible based on much later, 19th century evidence.
Stephanie Vinnels: Leather Roman shoes from a waterlogged site in Somerset.
I love historical clothing and fashion and to find someone’s shoes from 2,000 years ago was an absolute thrill. From the same site, my husband found a knife hilt that had been shaped like a leg with its foot wearing a sandal. We also found beads, brooches and coin hoards. Romans – the original litter bugs.
Here’s a photo of me in the slot where I found the shoes.
What does a typical day look like for an archaeologist?
Watch Professor Naomi Sykes’s answer here:
Where in the UK would you recommend visiting for those interested in archaeology?
Dr Susan Greaney: It might be an obvious one, but you can’t beat a visit to Stonehenge! This awe-inspiring site is spectacular in any weather and is a great place to wonder at the achievements of prehistoric people.
I’d recommend a walk in the wider landscape – see if you can trace the line of the avenue or walk among the Bronze Age barrows. Also, it’s a good idea to download the audio tour app and visit the exhibition.
Are there any previously explored sites you wish were undisturbed so that you could work on them with modern tools and techniques?
Professor Ioana Oltean: Pretty much most sites that have seen excavation very early on! While early interest in archaeology contributes to the way modern archaeologists work today, it has led to damage to the sites themselves. The early methods of recording excavations and the finds are very inconsistent or have been lost. It can be very frustrating and time-consuming to try to put them together in a coherent way required by modern computers, on which we now rely to manage and interpret all the information we have from a site.
What is one archaeological mystery that you’d really love to know the answer to?
Watch Dr Susan Greaney’s answer here:
Your team will be at the British Science Festival this year, what is your event about?
Professor Rebecca Flemming: Our event ‘Ye olde health service’ is all about health, disease and healing in the past. We also explore new scientific techniques used to find out more about them. We might expect things to have been very different back then, but were they?
We’ll ‘dig’ deeper into questions like how does history help us think and talk about human sickness and what it means to be ‘well’? And, what have recent scientific approaches—such as different forms of scanning and digital modelling, or ancient DNA and isotope analysis—contributed to our knowledge and understanding?
You’ll get to explore ancient and medieval ideas about diseases–from acute headaches to severe and deepening skin conditions such as elephantiasis—and past practices of disease prevention, healthy diet and medical cures (some of which, such as cupping, continue to thrive today!). Find out about current techniques investigating ancient health and sickness, the impact of historical medical interventions and causes of death. There will be plenty to discuss!
Find out more about the free archaeology events at this year’s British Science Festival here:
Ye olde health service (activity)
13:00 – 17:00 (drop-in), Saturday, 9 September 2023 at Cathedral Green in Exeter City Centre.
Journey through the ‘Ancient Medical Bazaar’ to unravel the secrets of past healthcare. Join Rebecca Flemming and a team of historians and archaeology experts from the University of Exeter to delve into ancient ailments, treatments and explore what life and death was like throughout history.
19.00 – 22.30 (drop-in), Friday 8 September 2023 at Guildhall Shopping Centre in Exeter City Centre.
Join the journey into the cutting-edge techniques being used to pull back the tide and reveal how marine ecosystems have changed in response to key cultural impacts. Explore how the longest-lived animals on Earth can tell the story of past ocean change, and how ancient DNA trapped in sea floor mud can reveal the secrets of past ecosystem change.
Preserving culture (talk)
13.30 – 14.30 (1 hour), Sunday 10 September 2023 at Exeter Phoenix – Studio 74 in Exeter City Centre.
Archaeology and Anthropology Presidential Address: Explore the role of cultural heritage in national identity with Sada Mire from University College London. Discover how preserving artefacts and traditions can foster resilient societies in Somalia, Somaliland and beyond.
Stories from our skeletons (talk)
11.00 – 12.00 (1 hour), Friday 8 September 2023 at the Forum Alumni Auditorium in the University of Exeter Streatham Campus.
Join Pooja Swali from the Francis Crick Institute for this year’s Agricultural, Biological and Medical Sciences Award Lecture, as she explores how studying ancient DNA can reveal the evolution and spread of bacteria throughout history and its implications for the present.
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