Being more than archaeologists

After our short tour of the village of Malton and our meeting with the volunteers  of the museum, we found an avalanche of ideas that had emerged from our brainstorming. All of this was overwhelming, due to the fact that we actually have to put all those ideas in a video game. It may seem attractive to design a videogame that will be played by real people, but taking into account that none of us has any experience in this, the prospect was no longer so appealing. So in our first seminar on Thursday, our faces of confusion and perplexity seemed to had been recorded in our professors’ retinas, since at the end of the session they looked really concerned about us. This was not surprising because the ideas that came out were so different from each other that practically were impossible to put all of them together. Between our antagonistic ideas we went from a time traveler, to a soldier who had to survive in the “Roman jungle”.

Trying to made up our minds with Twine
Working on Twine ( Screen capture: Isobel Christian)

After a little break, we found ourselves heavily deep into an intensive course to learn game programming with a program called Twine. At the beginning, feeling confident after a week on the “battlefield”, we said to ourselves “this can’t be so difficult”, but the reality was quite different. As we progressed I realized that all my experience playing with Flappy Birds or any other game was useless, and my sketch started to seem like an incomprehensible tangle of hieroglyphics. However my brain and my heart beats returned to normality when I realized that in the notes that they had given to us were all the keys that could prevent the disaster in our video game. But we will have to wait until the end to see what results from our “computer mastery”.

Preparing for the First Meeting

Our main task in this year’s heritage programme is to create a videogame for Malton Museum. Naturally, we needed to first meet with the museum staff to discuss exactly what they wanted, so a meeting was prepared for Tuesday afternoon.

If it were left to me, I would have turned up with a biro and hoped for the best, looking like a lesser known Chuckle Brother, although we fortunately decided to prepare a list of questions.

Harald then whipped out his post-it notes. I presumed he was going to write a small shopping list, but we were shown how to use them to organise notes. All of these good organisational skills terrified me a little, but I went with the flow and we ended the session feeling confident.

On Tuesday, we’d allowed a little time to explore and assess the presentation of the Roman fort site. Inquisitive visitors can wallow in education provided by four information boards, yet we were distraught when we found the third board to be completely absent. Seeing a crude rope swing hanging from a tree branch, we deduced that the local youths must be responsible.

Meghan and Sara observing an information panel
Analysing the first sign (Photo: Isobel Christian)

Thankfully, these vandals clearly had some sense of decency, as they respectfully left their ill-gotten gains resting against the fourth information board. We revelled at the opportunity of learning more about the history of the Roman fort, though the only thing we learned from the latter half of the boards was that lichen clings to plastic panels rather well.

Cursing the shenanigans of the sign-spoiling hooligans, we then paid a visit to our pals on the excavation site. Unsurprisingly, mine didn’t seem too pleased when I turned up in my Chelsea boots, after I seemingly blagged myself an early exit from the excavation.

Hayden analysing a lichen covered information panel
Deciphering the lichen (Photo: Emily Pearson)

Matters didn’t improve when one friend laid out her jacket for me to sit on whilst I ate my Nutrigrains, since I refused to sit on the soil. After receiving a complete roasting over my degree choice (and general nambypamby-ness), I made a slightly smug retreat and headed off to meet my appointment at the museum.

I don’t remember Tony Robinson ever being subjected to such grief when he checked up on the man with the colourful jumpers and the bloke with the hat.

Mission Malton

On the day of the meeting, the museum had been thoughtfully closed so that we would have the opportunity to have a full, in depth discussion with the volunteers at the museum. Myself and Emily strolled down, what seemed to be a busy road in the heart of Malton, in our search for the museum itself, which was identified by the two banners hanging on the outside proclaiming the word ‘Exhibition’. Our time keeping skills were slightly lacking and we were the last to arrive for the meeting, entering the building with slight trepidation hoping we had definitely got the correct building.

The first part of our meeting at the museum, introduced everyone and allowed the museum volunteers to give us an overview of the museum as a whole. The four volunteers who were present at the meeting were Anne, Margaret, Jenny and Roy who represented both the education side of the museum and the collections side. It was then I began to fully understand both the history of the museum, and also the issues and problems which it is currently facing, with funding and visitor numbers. It was hearing this history that instilled in me a great want to put all of my capabilities into making sure the game we develop will meet all of their hopes and expectations; and in an ideal world provide the museum with a longevity that a greater use of technology might provide.

Following a whistle stop tour around both the museum itself and the stores, it was time to get down to business and get to the heart of what the purpose of our visit was. To question the volunteers on what their hopes and aspirations were for the video game and to collect a solid basis of information in order to head back and develop our pitch. A tool we used in order to help with this was using post it notes to create a visual representation of their priorities.

Board which depicts the ideas we came up with at the meeting in Malton
The final product, from our meeting at Malton Museum. (Photo: Sara Perry)

Already I can feel my abilities being pushed by this course, and I hopefully am rising to meet them with the best I can give. All I can say is that our first time at Malton felt like a success, and I am excited for the journey ahead of us.

By Isobel

Photography Voodoo

With minimal computer skills, not usually branching beyond opening Netflix or a Pages document, I was surprised to find that when faced with the programming code for Twine I was able to do more than create a steaming hard drive and a black screen of death. This may have lulled me into a false sense of security however, when the next day we were to take on Photoshop and photo editing. With the common phrase used for photography “oh it can’t be that hard” and “anyone can do that” it became very, very apparent that no not anyone can open Photoshop for the first time and create work on par with Ansel Adams.

As we were asked by the university graphic design, photography and website expert what experience we had with photography, I proudly dropped in that I had borrowed my fathers camera and had a dabble; moreover as the £2000 camera and additional £500 lenses were produced my comfort zone quickly disappeared. Various techniques were covered including lighting, the importance of angles and the positioning of what you were photographing — with insight divulged that could only come from a true professional and enthusiast.

I became lost in the photographic jargon that was not only going over my head but taking a running jump to gain as much height as possible. Moreover, the importance of these terrifying-to-achieve prospects became clear for our upcoming data collection day as the comparison between amateur photos and those with depth and accuracy were presented. Unless we wanted our work to look like well, probably what the amateur photos I had already taken looked like, we need to become photography voodoo masters in 5 weeks. As this session drew to a close we found ourselves on a break, sat in a slumped rather depressed looking circle googling the meme “when the lecturer asks you if you have any questions but you sit there in silence because you don’t even know what you don’t know.” The giant safety net comprised of our incredible supervisors and all those experts dedicating their time to this project could not have been felt more than in this moment.

Nothing could prepare me for the next session though, as my abominable IT skills flourished into a horrendously edited photo. Although very enjoyable this session left me staring at the screen thinking some kind of wizardry must be occurring to allow my peers to not make their image go an unappealing shade of off-pink like mine were. The enthusiasm and outstandingly patient persona given off by our lecturer allowed me to keep my cool and fully appreciate what we would be able to produce for our project with more than a little bit of practise.  

Come the end of the day I felt both mortified and excited at the prospect of the task ahead of us, urged on by what I can only assume is sheer insanity.

A computer screen with photoshop loaded displaying an autumn scene mid editing with the editing panel at the side.
Working on Photoshop (Photos: Marionna Sandin)

New Year, New Project

Last summer, halfway through my first year as a PhD candidate, I was asked to help tutor on the University of York’s Digital Heritage Field School, offered through the Department of Archaeology and led by Dr. Sara Perry, my supervisor. The result of the summer term’s work was the Hidden Dale project. It was an incredibly rewarding experience working with undergraduates on their first large-scale heritage interpretation project, and so when I was asked to help out again this year, I didn’t hesitate in saying yes.

This year’s project is quite different — different stakeholders, different institutional partners, different product, different skill set to emphasize in teaching the students. We’re working with Malton Museum, an entirely volunteer-run community museum, and we’re building a video-game to help highlight the museum’s extensive Roman collection. In the course of this project, the students will learn photography and photo editing, audio recording and editing, game design, graphic design, exhibition skills, and will get lots and lots of experience in heritage practice.

For my part, what I’m bringing to the project is help in teaching (alongside my fellow PhD candidate Harald Fredheim) and a background in game design. I worked for several years as a content creator and team leader at a small, independent game studio, and being able to share the lessons I learned in that part of my life with my students, in a practical and implementable way, is something I never expected would happen in the course of my PhD.

Today, after an initial meeting and a lot of back and forth planning, the students will present the pitch for their Twine game idea to the museum. I can’t wait to see how it goes!



The Power of Pottery

The rain clouds had drawn in when we set foot on the excavation site for the first time early on Monday morning, and there was a steady downpour as we were talked through our initiation into archaeological excavation. It was my first time on an excavation, and at that point, the weather was a perfect match for my mood. Field archaeology had never held much interest for me so the prospect of early mornings and long days didn’t fill me with much joy. To top it all off my group happened to have the only site that hadn’t been machine dug beforehand meaning the hard graft was left entirely in our cold, damp hands. Within no time at all I was intimately familiar with our small 10 x 2 meter  trench.

De-turfing the trench.
Trench D, as we began de-turfing. (Photo: Isobel F. Christian)


Trench on my final day
Trench D, at the end of the third day. (Photo: Isobel F. Christian)

Throughout our first day the weather continued to improve and with it so did my mood, my body was aching and sore having not gone through such physical labour before.but the satisfaction when our patch of grass slowly evolved into a trench you might find on Time Team, was not something I had expected to feel. Despite the fact I only spend three days in the on the dig; my entire view of field work definitely did a 180 degree turn.

My first find!
Me with my first archaeological find. (Photo: Jessica Cousen)

The key moment for this I think was the fact that during the first 2 hours of our hard work we found no finds, no pottery, coins, or anything else other than a few worms and some interesting looking stones. But at the end of the first day while cleaning the trench ready to mattock down to the next level I spotted something in the ground. A small insignificant piece of pottery, but honestly in that moment I felt so elated and excited, that the idea of spending my day in the mud and rain didn’t matter anymore because the moment you discover something untouched by human hands for hundreds of years is so enticing I knew I’d had a change of heart.

Despite my unexpected new found love for excavation, the course I have chosen to study at university is Archaeology and Heritage, so my time on the dig was only short as the heritage students began our own digital field school. The idea of studying Heritage is one that I have been wanted to pursue since I was 16 years old, and had my first guided tour around Kings Manor, the archaeology campus at the University of York. History as a subject has always been my favourite, as a child I devoured all kinds of books, tv shows, films to do with anything historical and my parents were constantly taking me on holiday to visit historical buildings, and sites as well as Museums. The one thing I never enjoyed though was the endless displays with boring fonts and language which were inaccessible to anyone who wasn’t well educated and well-read in all areas of the historical and archaeological spectrum. Whenever I found a museum which I could enjoy, it excited me so much; places like Jorvik were my haven. I think my want to study heritage stems from wanting history and archaeology to be something accessible to everyone, as a subject it interests me so much I want to be able to create things which will allow others to experience that same joy and excitement.

Mattocks and Misery

The prospect of physically being involved in archaeological excavation proved to be the source of much concern on my part. Indeed, one major cause of anticipation was the unpleasant weather every archaeologist seems to reference when discussing excavations in Britain. I can withstand rain and sleet as much as the next man, but this usually entails a short walk down the street, and certainly not spending the better part of the day kneeling in a ditch.

To my obvious ‘delight’, the road to Malton wound its way under a titanic rain cloud- and with it, the prospect of cold and misery. Finally on site, my first experience of field excavation consisted of me standing in a field being battered by relentless rain, whilst I attempted to hear a man in an anorak pointing the way to a pair of portaloos. He then pointed to a series of Roman earthworks. One would expect this to be more interesting than the portaloos, but when you’re surrounded by friends laughing at the miserable look on your face, interest is not something that comes easily.

Mr Steve Roskams then appeared, who looked frustratingly optimistic. After a rough overview of the site, he then instructed us to join our specified groups. Fortunately, nobody appeared too more excited than me, and after attempting to sign a very soggy sheet of paper (probably originally a risk assessment), we made our way to the trench.

I was genuinely delighted to find that the initial work we would be undertaking would be basic manual labour. This was something I could get fully on board with, as I could not perceive any possible mistake I could make which would jeopardise the dig (other than mattocking somebody’s toes off, which I managed to avoid). The first task involved working in pairs; with one person using a mattock to create a nice straight edge to the trench, whilst the other shovelled away the spoil. Fortunately, my partner preferred the shovel whilst I favoured the mattock, so I was able to work away merrily until the sun at last appeared, and with it I realised that I was actually enjoying the experience.

Annoyingly, my friends from earlier were working in a group adjacent to mine, and found amusement in me wielding my tool. I had the last laugh when we stepped back and looked at my clean vertical trench wall, leading on to the absolute pig’s ear they’d made in comparison (At least, that is what I told myself). In their defence, they seemed to spend most of their time screaming with joy as they uncovered what seemed to be actually interesting finds. This reminded me of the purpose of me being in this situation, and I endeavoured to be more observant when working on the opposite side of the trench. This new approach proved quite fruitful, as I uncovered what was deemed to be a fragment of worked flint. I enthusiastically threw this find into the tray of modern pottery sherds, and continued my affair with my mattock.

Of course, any complaints I verbalised were consistently met with the same response- “Stop whining, you’re only doing this for a few days”. This was entirely true, as with me being on the Archaeology and Heritage course, my interests centre around the preservation of history, rather than simply its discovery.

Whilst it may be exciting to be the first person to hold something in thousands of years, I find it impossible to ignore the thousands of years still to come after such a brief moment in an object’s history. Whilst mattocking, I considered the fate of my flint in this regard. If everyone were to simply toss their flints into a plastic tray with no concern of what is to happen to them next, the whole process of trying to discover and understand our heritage would be useless. Much consideration has to be made when deciding the appropriate way of dealing with the flint; How important is it? How should it be preserved? How should it be presented? What can we gain from it? These are questions which are seldom considered, yet are vitally important.

Knowing my luck, my piece of flint probably ended up gravelling the site supervisor’s driveway.

Proper Archaeologist

Bright eyed and bushy tailed we turned up to what was for the most of us our first excavation, bags full and hands at the ready to dig. Drastically the smiles faded as we arrived at the site to imminent rain and the chill of a heavy wind, it was not long however until the trenches revealed themselves from behind a corner and the excited buzz grew. Seeing the trench and finally getting stuck into what has felt like a marathon year of lectures on excavation theory was truly thrilling; I finally felt like a ‘proper archaeologist’. I could go home head high and tell all those who had asked me since my first day whether I had been on a dig, that I finally had. Although the dig had not been something I had particularly looked forward to, actually being on a site that held so much information about the past and being the first people to uncover it is a feeling I don’t think will ever go away.

The hard work kicked in as we finished the work the digger had already started, this was a tremendous team effort with jokes and high spirits rife. Turning our attention to the emerging features we looked expectantly from our trowels to the supervisor with the hope of being let loose on them; much to my disappointment the process of ‘cleaning the context’ was broached, and so began the slog of cleaning 1mm of topsoil by hand from a 60m trench. Moreover my disappointment was quashed as I unearthed my first piece of flint; it felt like I had struck gold. After my supervisor told me it may date to 1000-3000BC my excitement could not have been greater as I felt the connection between myself and the human being millenia before me who had deposited it there for me to find. We were like primary school pupils running with their latest drawing to their teacher to show it off, we were instead however running manically across a trench with broken pieces of bone to a supervisor who had seen this a thousand times; still we beamed with our finds. Throughout the following days we continued to clean and more features began to emerge, we identified a possible foundation wall (which with both love and frustration, later took me a day and half to clean between the stones), a possible cremation site and a ditch filled with animal remains. Hearing what was happening in the other trenches I was both relieved and jealous, as my friend had to dig her trench from scratch; my three blisters from digging half a day could not compare to her two solid days of digging. However as possible human remains were uncovered my interest had to be satisfied and I wandered over. Aside from the initial daunting shudder that runs through your body when you first see human remains the after effect of the possibilities this could open was mesmerising.

This image consists of two finds trays filled with an assortment of artefacts. The majority are animal bone and pottery with some interesting looking stones mixed in.
Finds from wall and ditch day three (Photo: Emily Pearson)
Trench six on day one with students at different stages of cleaning the context with trowels.
Cleaning the context day one (Photo: Emily Pearson)
In focus is my hand with a piece of flint in it dating from 1000-3000BC. In the background is a finds tray with various pieces of flint and animal bone.
Flint 1000-3000BC (Photo: Emily Pearson)

As my time at the site drew to an end I remarked at my relief to be leaving the site and heading to a museum to which my friend replied “oh you’re so a heritage student”, which I take no shame in. Although I enjoyed my time on site and would relish at the opportunity to return and see how the work progressed, I always found myself thinking about the next stage: what this meant, how were the finds going to be incorporated into an established museum and what this meant for the community, thus yes I am “so heritage”. I fell into this degree switching at the last minute from another course I loved because I couldn’t see myself doing the alternative as a job. However when I changed and imagined my studies and future, as cheesy as it sounds everything fell into place. The National Trust properties I had visited hundreds of times as a child and teenager became the place I wanted to spend all my time and this was the only thing I had ever felt passionate about. The thought of the stories these places held and me screaming them  at anyone who would listen showed me that after a little refinement of screaming to conserving this is what I wanted to study.

Weathering the elements

Archaeology is undoubtedly one of the degrees that everyone idealizes, whilst thinking about characters like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. But nobody really tells you what it really implies. In our short experience in the field we could experience what it really is first hand.

During the whole course,  we were all so excited about doing archaeology that nobody thought how it would be. The first day, as soon as we arrived , it started to rain- quite a different image to what it use to appear on documentaries, but despite of this, we didn’t lose our enthusiasm.

Finally the actual digging started, and we could experience what we had been looking forward to during all those years in which we imagined ourselves doing our dream degree. At the beginning it wasn’t really exciting, we were just trying to handle all the new information and do our best. As the day advanced, we started to see that we actually were improving, as we started to find exciting things, such as a massive tooth and even an animal bone. At last we were really archaeologists (though the mud drowned any glamour that television and the film industry may have sold us). We had actually awakened to authentic archaeology.

So by the end of the day we were proud of ourselves, despite of the fact that all our muscles were sore-even ones we were not previously aware of.

Team returning to the actual excavation with sunny day joining our excavation
the sun finally appeared in our digging (Photo: Marionna Sandin Catacora

The next day, despite  being exhausted and a bit sleepy after the previous day, we were optimistic after the discoveries which meant so much for us. But the weather seemed to hate us,trying to discourage us with not only rain, but hail and wind.. Overall it was a grey and sad day.

Despite that, we carried on with our research, finding not just little pieces of bone or metal, but the remains of an ancient Roman road. This made us feel that we weren’t simply close to something important, but to a real roman settlement,  as we could actually see that we were in the right place, not just following the information that our previous survey revealed to us.  Perhaps it did not seem as exciting as finding roman columns or roman baths, but it was really exciting to think that prior to us, roman people were actually using that road, and after hundreds of years had remained hidden from everybody else. I couldn’t help to feel like we were privileged, as maybe many people would see that road later, but we were the first ones.

Despite all of the issues and the bad weather, we found that all the bad conditions, rain and thousands of worms that seemed to want to join us, it was worthwhile.

Overall, I believe that these kinds of issues make us consider if this is really our vocation, and for me, undoubtedly, it is. Not even the bad weather that sank our morals, the blisters that maliciously reminded us of the hard work we had to carry out, and not even the fruitless hours of looking at an empty and frustrating ground with which you start mimicking after several hours of scratching the floor without any result, managed to undermine my enthusiasm. I chose archaeology and heritage, because I always thought that books don’t really give you what you need to understand a civilization, to understand why did they settle in a certain place. They just give you impersonal information that doesn’t actually reach the hearts and the minds of people. I  have been always told  that history was boring and for that reason I wanted to do heritage because I wanted to show them how I see  archaeology and history, why I find it so interesting why it is worthy, despite my back disagree with me.  


During the lunch break, the place is free of activity, oozing peace that soon will be disturbed by the rattling of the volunteers, accompanied by a gray sky that preludes rain
Excavation place during the lunch break (Malton) (Photo: Marionna Sandin Catacora)