What first sparked your interest in archaeology?
I’ve always been fascinated by it. I was one of those quiet, geeky children, and I remember walking into a bookshop, seeing this dinosaur book on the shelf, and pestering my mum until she bought it for me. I still have it now! I was completely obsessed with dinosaurs, and that grew into a love of history generally. And then I decided that I wanted to be an archaeologist – well, it was that or going into musical theatre.
How did you get your first job?
I followed a very traditional route: I did an undergraduate degree at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, and then went straight into field archaeology with MoLAS [Museum of London Archaeology Service, now MOLA], which was like being thrown into the deep end. You do fieldwork as part of your degree, but not to the same extent – I really learned to dig while working. There were so many amazing sites, and the archaeology was fabulous – that deep urban stratigraphy that you just don’t get anywhere else other than places like Rome.
Is there anything you wish you had known when first starting out?
I think the pay could always be better, but they did warn us about that on day two of the degree. Archaeology is such a learning curve – you can go to work somewhere you have never been before and have to learn the local geology. I would tell aspiring archaeologists: just give it a go! It’s not just about excavating, you could go into conservation or the techy side… there have been so many innovations and there are so many ways to be involved. Just go in and see what suits you best. I started as a field archaeologist and now I’m more of a public archaeologist and broadcaster – you evolve.
What are some of your career highlights?
Surviving ten years of Time Team! I acknowledge my career hasn’t been normal; I have been incredibly privileged to work in so many different roles. In London, I worked on beautiful Walbrook sites, the first port in London, bits of Anglo-Saxon London. And then, as a broadcaster, I never imagined I would get to see the items from Tutankhamun’s tomb up close and personal. TV has taken me to Pompeii and Herculaneum, where I was asked to do crazy things like go into the crater of Mount Vesuvius. And getting to dig all over the UK with Time Team – it gave us experience of working on such a variety of sites. Coming from an urban background, I enjoyed digging so many rural sites – not all archaeologists get to do both.
And what was Time Team like?
It was like another family – we lived and worked together for six months of the year, and that built amazing bonds. I remember turning up on my first day and being overawed, but I was also very lucky because I already knew some of the Team. I had been to uni with Matt Williams and Alex Langlands, so we had known each other since we were teenagers.
On site, we all knew we were there for three days and we had a job to do – we worked incredibly hard (and also partied hard!), but we made sure to give each other time. The older members of the Team were so generous. I would be digging away and then Stewart Ainsworth would pop up and get out his notebook and give me a little landscape lecture. Or Mick [Aston] would come and talk to me – there were all those little nuggets of joy. In commercial archaeology, you tend to be really focused on the small patch of ground in front of you. Time Team taught me to look outside my trench and think about how everything fed into a wider story. And as for Tony [Robinson] – I like to call him my TV dad. He taught me to present, he would always challenge me, saying ‘That’s archaeological jargon, I don’t understand.’ It made you think about what you were saying.
Did you have a favourite Time Team site?
Mull had a fabulous story about two women, Forestry Commission volunteers, who had been walking through the woods when they saw some lumps that they thought might be an early Christian chapel site – and, lo and behold, it was. We were able to talk about people bringing Christianity to Scotland, pretty much on a wing and a prayer, travelling to the middle of nowhere to dedicate their lives to God and create such peaceful, contemplative spaces. The archaeology was great too – not only the beautiful chapel, but we also found a burial, a portion of a Celtic cross, and a couple of monastic cells.
I also enjoyed our digs in people’s gardens – they really got into it, even while we were asking if we could trash their lovely rose garden! And then there were the ‘big’ sites like Westminster Abbey. But the thing I really like about Time Team is the way in which community groups have run with the initial research we do, creating their own projects around it. Sometimes I’ll be reading Current Archaeology and I’ll think ‘We dug there, we did that!’. I’m really proud that people are building on what we did.
You’ve worked both as a field archaeologist and as a broadcaster – which role do you prefer?
I don’t dig much now, but post-pandemic I am desperate to get into a trench again. I haven’t had enough trowel time! I remember talking to the former director of Pompeii, and I asked him ‘Do you come down here during excavations for a quiet scratch?’, and he said he did. Once you’ve been a field archaeologist you never lose that. But TV work is an incredible privilege. I never thought I’d go out to the HMS Invincible site and see underwater archaeologists do their thing. It was a real eye-opener – I’m very much a land archaeologist – and it was thrilling to see them crane up something they had excavated at the bottom of the sea. You also get these wonderful insights into the conservation process – as a field archaeologist, you usually do the digging and the paperwork, and then the artefacts are sent off to finds specialists so they can write their reports.
You’ve also been involved in a lot of community projects and with the Young Archaeologists’ Club…
It was Mick Aston who got me involved with the YAC. He was so naughty but so brilliant, he had a little beady eye for people’s potential – a crazy knack from his years of teaching and community archaeology. Time Team used to write an article in the YAC magazine every month, and Mick persuaded me to take it on – I did that for around three years.
As well as Time Team, I was working with the local government’s community and engagement team, and when I left I wanted to do more of that. I think the best way to engage people is to focus on their local area: everyone lives somewhere. Archaeology doesn’t need to be the full Indiana Jones, going somewhere exotic – archaeology is all around you. During the pandemic, my husband and I went around our local woods, where there used to be some grand Edwardian homes – you can still see the remains of their back plots. The Digital Age is great for that kind of thing – you can go for a five-minute walk, take a few notes, and then access archives from your sofa to research a place in detail.
At the time of your appointment as CBA President, you said ‘it has always been my passion to break down elitist false impressions about archaeology’. What did you mean by that?
The profession is still quite dominated by particular groups, and it is disappointing and quite scary that archaeology hasn’t managed to diversify itself. I’ve been in archaeology for 20 years, and when I started out there were very few people of colour working. Things have got a bit better, but how do you expand who you’re reaching, and ensure that people stay in archaeology once they’re there?
When you look at the statistics in ‘Profiling the Profession’, in 2012/2013 archaeology was 99% white. By 2019/2020, that had gone down by 1% to 98%. If other professions can and have diversified, why can’t archaeology? The stories we tell are about humans – all humans – and archaeology is about interpretation. You need to consider things from different lived experiences or you will be looking at the past with myopia. You might miss out on something massive when someone else might spot it because it’s something that they do culturally. I’m not just talking about ethnic background, there are also very few archaeologists from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
What can we do to make archaeology more representative?
Changing the school curriculum and the way we teach history – and what our history is – might help. History lessons should include more archaeology, and it is so strongly connected to geography as well – you could do really good projects combining those.
I think there is also still a disconnect between cultural institutions and ‘normal’ people. When I was with local government, we used to go for training evenings at the Tate Modern with child-minders, and their feedback was very interesting – they told us that ‘I would never have placed myself in the Tate Modern before, because I didn’t think it was for me’. By saying to normal people ‘It’s OK, we want you to come and see this. It’s not middle class or elitist. This is a safe place for you, please come and enjoy it’ – we have to break that chain of thought that these are snobby places. It’s the same with archaeology. Kids are so fascinated by the past – how do we get them to take that interest forward?
Do you think opportunities to get involved in archaeology have narrowed or broadened since you started out?
I think opportunities are going in the right direction – community projects and that kind of engagement are great, but I would like to see more engagement from the commercial sector. They do it, but not enough. Archaeology as a process has gone behind hoardings on a building site – there, 70 archaeologists might be doing amazing work, but walking past you might just think ‘Oh, they’re building an office block’. People would jump at the chance to see what they do. We need to demystify the day-to-day process.
And, archaeology is a lot of fun! I think for a time ‘fun’ was a bit of a dirty word, but it’s important. Archaeology brings people together. At the Festival of Archaeology launch, I met someone I had taught to dig, and she is still in touch with volunteers from Canada and New Zealand – they go on holiday together. Archaeology is a great leveller: whatever path you follow, you are part of a team, and that creates amazing friendships.
What are the other main issues facing archaeology in the UK today?
We’re in quite a politically interesting spot – archaeology is feeling the impact of Brexit, and this weird pseudo-culture war we find ourselves in. You can see that in threatened closures of university departments, and there are also planned changes to the planning system – it’s all incredibly worrying and divisive. All our lovely European colleagues are finding it hard to work here, and at the same time we don’t have enough UK archaeologists – our government acknowledged that on their shortage occupations list. Meanwhile, they’re cutting funding to humanities departments – it’s a vicious cycle. I was really shocked to hear about the University of Sheffield’s Archaeology Department closing – their staff, the people they produce, their research, they’re all world-class. Decisions like this narrow the field and take away places to study – we can’t go back to the ’90s when only red-brick unis were doing archaeology. The archaeology A-level was also a really nice step for people to try it pre-degree, and that no longer exists. Apprenticeships through commercial units help, but it’s not enough on its own.
What will your priorities be in your three years as CBA President?
To break perceptions of archaeology and make more inroads into engaging with lots more people. Taking the traditional audience along with us, but also reaching people who might not think about it as a possible career – or who are interested, but are a bit scared. We need to tell them that it’s fun, it’s creative, you learn so much.
What else have you been up to? At the beginning of the year, I was asked to present a programme about the Boxing Day tsunami, and I’ve also made a show called Countdown to War, looking at what people were doing in the three days before the Second World War broke out. There are some really interesting parallels with our experience of lockdown – people were saving things up, making sure they had enough stocks of tea, for example – for us it was toilet roll that was the big concern, but for them it was tea. I’m working on another new show in August, and I’m writing a children’s book about archaeology too – it’s all go!