Reconstructed Round House, Flag Fen
Originally uploaded by lilith_kayt.
I’m sat in my tent in the middle of the fens, listening to the Foo Fighters and thinking about how lucky I am to be doing what I am- something I love and find endlessly fascinating, for what amounts to a full time job. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, if the nice lady in the office here at Flag Fen will let me onto her PC for ten minutes tomorrow morning, I should be able to post this to my blog. Musing here in the gathering dark seems a good time to write the post I promised you a while ago- how I got into this whole archaeology/ computing thing…
But first- I’ll tell you where I am and what I’m doing…
I’m at Flag Fen, near Peterborough half way through a week of fieldwork which is the first real piece of on-the-ground work for my PhD (which is all about how to apply geophysical prospection to peatland environments). Flag Fen is one of the most important Bronze Age sites in Europe and is both inspiring and mystifying- the people who lived and farmed the edge of the fen basin (which was wetter and less peaty- the peat grew during the time they lived here) built an immense post alignment out into the fen, and in the deepest part of the fen they built a massive platform, which seems to have had some sort of religious function. The encroaching bog preserved all the wood the platform was built from, giving archaeologists a glimpse of prehistoric woodworking techniques and a whole host of other organic remains, which are almost always lost on dryland sites. This makes the site and ideal case study for the PhD- lots is know about it, but there are still useful things I can contribute with the work. So far, the results seem to only be reflecting the differential drying out of the peat at the surface, but tomorrow I go to work with the ground penetrating radar, and that has worked on similar sites before, so I have high hopes!
So how did I come to be sat in a tent at the edge of the fens, thinking about radar frequencies and signal travel times in waterlogged wood, all the while wondering what Bronze Age people were thinking and why they built the platform?
Unlike a lot of people my age that I talk to, I have always known what I wanted to do in life. I changed a few times as I grew up, but there was always a plan. When I was very small I wanted to be a vet or an explorer, and my wonderful father would tell me stories of ‘Kayt the vet’ or Kayt the explorer’ and all the adventures I was sure to have. One night I’d be rescuing a recurringly accident prone cow from a ravine, and the next I’d be off in the deepest Amazon, finding lost valleys full of dinosaurs. Like all kids, I had a major dinosaur obsession. I still do to a point, but it was the humans that grabbed me in the end, not the big lizards. My parents were fantastic at taking me off to museums, but also around the landscape, looking for tumuli or deserted villages, and the odd ruined castle or church. I recall being up in the highlands of western Scotland and Dad showing me the cairns and crosses used as route markers, and the deserted sheillings. As long as I can remember I imagined the people who lived in these places, or built them. I was enthralled by maps as well- especially old ones, unusual ones- different ways of seeing the world. I’d plan my own motte-and-bailey castles, draw the inhabitants and write about their lives. I’d design my own forest houses (based on Lorien from the Lord of the Rings), and avidly read tales of Vikings and Danes, Romans and Celts and medieval princes and wars.
I think at some point I realised that most of the great exploring had been done (and I have a marked aversion to large spiders, which sort of rules out the Amazon), and realised we still know very little about our own past. As long as I remember having a ‘plan’ for what to do after school, it has been archaeology. However, for all those plans and my avid watching of documentaries (and I blush to admit, Time Team), I didn’t manage to actually do any until I went to university.
I went to Southampton as I had already met a lot of the department through a family friend, I also liked the units they had on offer and the reputation of the department as being theory led was attractive to me. There I found an amazing subject with huge subdivisions and its own obscure specialities and branches. I took as many British period based and practical courses as I could, hoping eventually to be a field archaeologist in the UK (or so I thought, up until my third year). I had some big problems in my final year, not least of which were financial. I realised that field archaeology just wasn’t going to be an option for the basic reason that it would not pay well enough to service all my debts. Thankfully, I also sat Dr Wheatley’s unit in archaeological computing, and realised that whilst I found it very challenging, I also appeared to be quite good at it- possibly because it was challenging enough that it forced me to work harder and put more in. I also rather enjoyed it, especially the analytical side of things.
A rescue plan was hatched- I could come back and sit the MSc in archaeological computing in a couple of years, once the finances were a bit better, and an MSc in GIS related things would help me get a year round job in archaeology with a liveable wage, rather than the temporary and seasonal contacts I could expect as a green digger.
Two years passed and I realised that if I didn’t go back NOW (this was in 2004) I never would as the world of work would suck me back in. I applied to Southampton and the AHRC for funding. Southampton were happy to have me back, but no money was forthcoming. This was a major blow- I’d planned to take the course full time, keep working 20 hours a week and get it all done in 12 months, but without funding it was going to be impossible. My Mum and Dad saved me. We agreed I’d study part time, which would reduce the fees considerably- I’d be able to keep working (32 hours a week in the end!) and pay most of my fees and parents and grandparents clubbed together to cover the shortfall. In the end, despite being devastated by not getting the funding, doing the degree part time was the best thing that ever happened to me; a load of timings fell into place that never would otherwise. I discovered that I loved doing GIS work, and also renewed a fascination for prehistory. I was able to take geophysics as one of my optional units as well, something which I had loved since starting out- in fact the only archaeology I did before uni was day helping with a survey when I was 16. Studying over two years gave the chance to really get into everything in depth, with a lot less pressure on than my full time colleagues. Balancing uni and work was a challenge, but one that gave me skills which are proving invaluable for the PhD!
It is hard to put my finger on what I love so much about computing and archaeology- I guess on a level it appeals to my huge inner geek. I love the things we can use computers for to help us understand, but I also firmly believe that human experience is vital to understanding the past, and a computer can’t do that for you. What they do do is make to easier to share and describe those experiences and thoughts. A viewshed map accomplishes with one image what thousands of words can’t, but you still need to see and describe the landscape- the map isn’t enough on its own, but it in some ways is clearer than pages of thick description. Spatial statistic help us separate meaningful patterns from wishful thinking, and spatial databases are vital for the proper recording of excavations. Moving away from GIS, the web lets us research and publish. Wiki’s let us collaborate, tagging and folksonomies let us re-describe the world in our own terms…. I ‘m probably speaking to the converted here, on a blog, but I don’t see anything incongruous in computing and archaeology, though people often seem baffled that the two go together!
How I came to be in the Fens- a friend said to me at a conference in early 2006 that there were PhD studentships on offer at Bournemouth, fees paid and a decent living wage on top, as part of an initiative to grow the research community. He said there were two that sounded like I’d enjoy them- one looking at flint scatters and GIS analysis, and one looking at geophysical survey in peat. I took a closer look and decided that the geophysics one was ideal for me- it combined all of my favourite things- prehistory, north west Europe, geophysical survey and a really knotty problem to solve that I could employ GIS to help with- as part of my geophysics unit I’d looked at what data processing tools were available and if they could be improved or replicated within a GIS, and what the benefits of bringing geophysical data into a GIS were. I applied, and then waited with baited breath. I didn’t dare let myself hope that I would get it; I refused to start making any kind of plans in my head. Within a few days of each other, I got word that Bournemouth University wanted to interview me, that I had an interview for a job I applied for with the ADS (by that time I knew that I wanted out of my office job, even if it meant leaving Southampton and the not –spouse-creature behind), and that I had the chance to work for APSS in Italy for 2 months. My job were great and let me leave on a weeks notice- Mum and Dad came to the rescue again agreeing that if I didn’t get the PhD or the York job they’d help out while I found work when I got back (I realised that if I went to Italy for the summer there was no way I’d finish my dissertation and manage to work 32 hours a week when I got back- and I’d not be able to take 2 months as leave!). I went to Italy full of mad plans to come back to York for an interview if I had to… but I’d been there less than 24 hours when I got an email saying I’d been accepted at Bournemouth!
Somewhere along the line of doing my masters I realised I wanted to be part of a university, either as a researcher or a lecturer, doing research and teaching people. The PhD gives me a real chance at that and plenty of chances to get experience along the way. So here I am. I’m doing a PhD that wasn’t my idea, but I’m sure if I had been thinking about it for long enough, I might have come up with something similar. I can’t believe how well the topic fits what I’m most interested in and what I love doing so much. At times it has been stressful, but it is made up for by experiences like the last few days here at Flag Fen- I spent last night in a reconstructed roundhouse, sat by the fire talking to an archaeologist, an artist and an expert on prehistoric woodworking techniques. We baked trout in the fire and then sat and set the world to rights. I’m doing useful, interesting and exciting research at one of the most important wetland sites in the UK. Tonight I sat and watched huge dragonflies hunting up and down the lane by my tent and watched the stars come out. I’m a very lucky girl….