The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 107

Issue 107

July / August 2009



Scottish dig has big surprise in the post

Urine to navel fluff: the first complete witch bottle

Celtic tankard adds value to Welsh treasure

In the press

In Brief & Phase 2


on the web

Recommended websites
Websites of univeristy archaeology departments and a community site for Digging Vindolanda.


your views and responses

CBA Correspondent

Some recent projects benefiting from Challenge Funding.

my archaeology

Simon McBurney is a writer and actor; his father, archaeologist Charles


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts

on the web

Top Site

Now teaching archaeology at the University of Aberdeen, Caroline Wickham-Jones checked out the competition's websites.

Aberdeen has been building a new website: the content had to be collated from scratch for the UK's newest department of archaeology. Others have the benefit of websites that have grown over the years – or so I imagine. How persuasive are they?

What is archaeology, why study it? Surprisingly few departments address this on their home pages. Central Lancashire and Oxford are honourable exceptions; elsewhere the information is hidden, as at Bradford.

So, you have chosen your career, who will teach you? Every department provides staff information, but it is not always simple. Sheffield offers a variety of options before names, Reading leads you through information "About us". Some are more up front (Exeter), a few even name the department head on their home page (Oxford), though Lampeter's "message from the head of department" is strangely anonymous. Data on individuals vary from biographic detail (Aberdeen) to notes (Liverpool), while unusually Nottingham includes future research. Photos (if they exist) vary from smiling (or not) mugshots to extreme action snaps.

What will you learn? Glasgow's comprehensive course detail includes reading lists. Others are less generous (Bristol), though all provide useful information.

It is all very well to learn, but what sort of research takes place? All universities promote their strengths on their home pages. UCL (the formerly independent Institute of Archaeology) emphasises quality control before leading you into five different research groups. Liverpool explains the organisation of research. Cambridge directs you to some impressive pages.

So, is this an ivory tower? What else goes on around the department? Most sites link to news from their home page, but not all look very dynamic. Exeter devotes a column to news and photos. York's simple format emphasises up-to-date headlines. Edinburgh is content with two news stories. Queens University Belfast has plenty, but they are hidden. Some mix events into news (Leicester), others keep them separate (UCL).

The final choice: why here? Many departments highlight the recent research assessment results; some emphasise outside links, others quality of life. Durham covers everything: its position as a top-rated department, the challenges and opportunities of archaeology, the facilities and links on offer. Orkney College emphasises location. Bournemouth is more modest.

And what about a job? A question that most avoid. Liverpool addresses it statistically (there seem to be a lot of archaeologically-educated sales staff), while Queens University Belfast remains upbeat (why not start in "the booming commercial sector"?).

There is a refreshing lightness and modernity in the appearance of almost every site. But obvious (to me) information is not always clear, and finding a department's site from the university home page is often far from easy. Perhaps word of mouth – or last week's Time Team – still plays an important role?

Top Site Thumbnail

• See the Guardian university guide on archaeology.

UK university archaeology on the web

Digging Vondolanda

Since 1970 the Vindolanda Trust has carried forward excavations by the Birley family at the Hadrian's Wall fort. Harry Johnson set up a website for the many volunteers who work there.

We Dig Vindolanda

When excavation finished at Vindolanda in 2006, a number of volunteers talked about a way to stay in touch through the off-seasons. That autumn, I put together the first We Dig Vindolanda forum pages. It quickly became more than just a keep-in-touch site. In the 2007 and 2008 seasons, it proved an excellent place for people to post their own pictures and stories from the ongoing digs. Andrew Birley, the director of excavations, and his deputy Justin Blake gave their support to the website, and have posted many threads and weekly group photos as well. It has been a great record of day-to-day digging by regular folks, sharpened by the input of the lead site archaeologists themselves.

Vindolanda is one of those excavations that gets under your skin. It is not just the awesome archaeology, or cracking jokes with a living legend like Robin Birley as he wanders the trenches. The countryside is gorgeous, the people are friendly and welcoming, the food at the pubs is tasty, the local villages and market towns really have their own personalities – it all adds up to an experience that folks kind of carry with them long after their dig is over. Many volunteers come back year after year, some from thousands of miles away, and lots of us really enjoy having an armchair view of the digs when we cannot be there.

Knowing all that, I was sure We Dig could grow into a real resource in addition to a social site. This past winter, I decided to ramp it up. I enlisted the help of long-time member Eric Jacobson, who has a real love of Roman political and military practices. Working together, we created a new Digger's Guide for volunteers. It helps explain Vindolanda's 12 different occupation levels or periods, and gives background primers on the Roman army, as well as overall imperial grand strategy and mindset. The idea is to help a novice make some sense of what Vindolanda really was, and what it was doing there in the wilds of Northumberland. On a more tactile level, the guide includes information on the typical kinds of items that a digger could expect to come across (there are currently pages on Roman coinage and Samian pottery, with more slated).

What is key to us is that the guide – and the website as a whole – focus on the volunteer digger and interested novice. It is a way to jump into Vindolanda and quickly understand the story of the site – a way to help you make the most of your time there, be it a week digging, or an afternoon watching and exploring. A really fun addition has been the brief wrap-ups from recent excavations. Using 100% member-submitted photos, I have created pictorial records of the discoveries of the granaries found in 2008, and the north-west corner of the first stone fort found in 2007. It is great to be able to take member info and turn it into a recap of a season's work.

The website strongly encourages anyone and everyone to post pictures, thoughts, and ideas – and have a good debate. Later this season there will be new updates on local walks, other interesting but off-the-beaten-path archaeology (such as the nearby 18th century lime kiln), and general "things to do" in the area – again focused on the needs and time constraints of a digger who is working much of each day. The website is constantly maturing. Our first focus has been content; more interactivity and technology will follow. And as digger priorities evolve, we will learn, adjust, and grow.

Harry Johnson, self-described avid amateur, lives with his wife and young daughter in Saco, Maine, USA.

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