THE YOUNG ARCHAEOLOGIST by CATRYN POWER. Longlisted in the FISH International Memoir Competition 2018.

There is a hillfort in Dorset dating at its earliest to the Neolithic period and was used as a fort during the Iron Age. The hill itself is achalkoutcrop, on the south-western corner of Cranborne Chase. The site was excavated in the 1970’s and 1980’s by a team from the University of Edinburgh. It was my first job on an archaeological excavation. It was the warm summer of 1978. It was exciting to head off abroad! Even if it was just across the ‘pond’ to England! I had also  been offered a place on four other excavations that year, including one in Israel and one in Iraq. Most archaeological excavations abroad at the time were dug by volunteers in return for their food and lodgings as well as training. I was a student of archaeology so it was work experience that I was seeking. Life would have been different if I had chosen any one of those other excavations rather than England. I would have contact with other people and possibly countries, which could have lead down a different track. A few years later I had other offers following the completion of my Master’s in Dental Anthropology. The first was a place in dentistry, which I declined as putting my hand in live fleshy mouths, did not appeal to me. A dry boned skeleton is enough for me. I had also declined a place in London and also Copenhagen. I was also offered a job in Africa excavating fossils of early humans. The qualifications in my Master have made me suitable to examine the fossil teeth that would be unearthed here. Teeth are very significant when examining the variety of fossils and assist in differentiating fossils. It’s interesting to imagine where I would have lived and if I would be in Ireland or wherever if I had taken that job working on fossils. I made choices as everyone does every day and if one knew how significant they are, one would almost hire an advisor or sage to set you on a certain path! So I continued on the route of archaeology specialising in examining human remains.
Prior to heading off for the hillfort in Dorset, I had a very pleasant job working in O’Dee’s book shop in Youghal. It was on the main street in the town centre. One day early in thatsummer some part of a nearby demolished building was cleared and as I looked out the side window of the shop onto the side street I was in heaven. Several feet below the current road and adjoining the main street there was a team of archaeologists beginning a dig. I think they may have been there for a few weeks only but it was like a TV for me. Being shy (not one person believes that but myself!) at the time, I never went to talk to the people on site. Everyone at the hillfort who travelled from abroad to England got a small allowance towards their air fare or ferry. My allowance was £4.50! That amount of sterling at the time would have bought at least five pints of beer at 82 pence per pint in an expensive public house or hotel in England, even if I didn’t drink. I had travelled by plane from Cork to Plymouth in the days when we were lucky to have easy access to our relatives in Devon. The excavation had a staff of forty individuals including the volunteers. They came from Glasgow, Ireland, London, Neath, New York, Oxford, Rome, Santa Barbara and many more places. The volunteers included a bank manager with a huge tent, a librarian, a teacher, an expectant mother and a handful of students with their professor from the continent. Many students of archaeology or classical studies or English were among the volunteers on site. My brown five-man tent was close to the tent of the librarian from London and a bit further away was the tent of a Polish group. I felt safe there. We were camped in a field in which sheep had been grazing but when the tents were up the sheep went elsewhere. One night I woke up due to a noise of something pulling at the tent. I was terrified and sat still for ages, probably an hour. Then I got a bit  brave and unzipped the tent and peeked out. A lone sheep eating grass right nextto my tent! The one thing that I was wary of was earwigs and several had got into my tent. I stuffed my ears with cotton wool because one fellow digger kept reminding me that they would get in my ears and eat my brain. Though I knew it couldn’t be true I decided on the cotton wool, just in case! I still have my brain; at least I think that I have!
It was thrilling to be involved with this international team. I had packed my rucksack with a borrowed tent or did I buy it second-hand? This beauty of a tent was in use until recently when someone cutting the grass mowed over the edges of the tent! However it was my companion for many years and was fitted under my rucksack, when on my back. I was very proud of my blue nylon aluminium-framed rucksack which nestled very comfortably into my back. My black wellington boots were the last items to go into the rucksack and as there was not a lot of space this meant that the feet of the boots hung out over the top of the rucksack. As I travelled by bus through the south of England via places with wonderful names like Yeovil in Somerset (where many years later I discovered my paternal great grandparents were from) to Dorchester and to the final destination, a small villagein Dorset.   I was frequently asked why I packed my little sister who was wearing wellies so that by the time that I got to the excavation I was known to people there already as having seen me on the various buses on which I had travelled with my little sister! Every morning in order to get to the excavation we climbed the hill to the top of the hillfort, 200m above sea level, on a specific ‘bridle path’. Most of the time, we walked in small groups, according to who had risen first in the camp site in the morning. A red transit van was part of the excavation supplies and if the supervisor was passing, then we had the luxury of a lift to the top. When we walked to and from the excavation we were mesmerised by therich supply of wildflowers and butterflieson the hillside. The hilltop is large and would occupy fifty football pitches! It was a perfect archaeological site. It was majestic. It was a wonderful start to my working life as an archaeologist.

On my way to the site one morning, I got a mighty fright as I could see someone hanging from a gibbet on the hillfort! It was a joke. The artificial human was made from a few stuffed hessian sacks. This prank had been carried out when the excavation director was away for a few days. The villagers were not too impressed! The scaffold was soon dismantled along with the hanged ‘sacking’. This gallows had been seen for miles around. It certainly got the site noticed. As I was new to excavations I was horrified to find out that each one of those digging had to take their turn emptying the contents of the portaloo used by at least forty people into a large excavated hole on the hilltop. I nearly died when it was my turn. There was no odour as it was sanitised with much disinfectant. Thankfully we had just the one turn while on the excavation. The worst part was if the contents splashed when it hit the bottom. The splashes came up quite high. We then threw a few shovelfuls of over the latest contribution! During the first week my hands were blistered and the skin was bursting and obviously very sore from using the pick and shovel on chalk ground. After my hands were bandaged I was placed with some students who were trowelling. A few days of trowelling left my hands in a bad way. So my days were then spent assisting the finds person Fiona, who to this day is a very good friend, though she lives far away in Canada. I washed and dried, then listed all the finds, gave them numbers and labelled them, followed by bagging, packing and boxing everything. They were all ready to be sent to the various experts who would carry out investigations on human bones, or on pottery etc.

We also had one evening helping the cook in the church hall prepare dinner for the same forty people. I had the privilege of skinning potatoes for those forty. As a vegetarian I starved that summer! So too did some meat-eaters! My dinner dish after work in the evening included a special lump of cheddar cheese taken from a larger wedge which was hidden during the day in one of the church cupboards. As one can only imagine my cheese was bitten by a mouse! When I saw the mouse he was sitting on the lump of cheddar cheese! I told him that he could keep it! So the delights for the meat-eater included true British fare, haggis and faggots! Haggis is a Scottish national, a savoury pudding containing heart, liver and lungs minced with onion, suet, oatmeal and spices (the cook gave us her recipe!). While faggots are made from meat off-cuts and offal, most likely pork it is often made from pig’s heart or liver. I was thrilled to hear that I wasn’t getting the treat for lunch, liver sausage! The kind cook had gone to the nearest big town as the village didn’t have any lemon curd. I spent each lunch-time that summer hopping around while eating my delicious white breaded sandwich containing a ginormous dollop of lemon curd. During that hot summer the wasps were constantly around my sandwich hence the hopping! At eighteen years of age that archaeological site changed my life in more than one way. It gave me some positive direction which I could follow in my archaeological specialisation.
The second big influence that this site had on my career was the human skeleton. During my time on site one Saxon dated skeleton was excavated from the hillfort. The police had been called to the site initially to ensure that the skeleton was not a modern forensic case. I became very interested in the excavation of that skeleton. I thought that it was a fascinating and cool job. Also to me the excavation of bones was far more interesting than digging the soil out of a huge fosse a few metres deep. I wrote a letter to the University at home asking that I would like the professor’s permission to study human remains for a master’s degree after Ihad finished my primary degree in another year. The professor contacted me soon after in the affirmative. I was over the moon!

An English couple Mark and Addie were studying English at some university in England. To me they seemed the perfect couple. However Addie influenced my fashion. It was her hair which was dark brown and had masses of permed curls, which the local hairdressers had made in the form ofa perm or a permanent colour. I wanted my straight fair hair to be as magnificent as hers. However, I couldn’t afford it. It was £9. My father had sent money on to me by telegram when my high heeled straw shoes with denim broke into bits in the rain of the summer. So I couldn’t go asking him for something non-essential! (As if the high healed straw shoes were! On a dig!). One evening I found a ten sterling note near the cricket field. I asked around the camp and the church hall if money had been lost by anyone but nobody claimed it. After a few days it became mine! I had no doubt how to use that amount of money. Probably equivalent to fifty euro plus today it would pay for my hair to be permed just like Addie’s! To me it turned out amazing! It was perfect for my role as bridesmaid at my sister’s wedding in Devon a few weeks later. When I had left the excavation another volunteer Gitte from Denmark also had her hair permed and a trend was set. A few of the archaeologists continued to write to me, the supervisor of the finds hut Fiona is one such friend. We have also met since then. Tony an Italian living in Canada still keeps in touch. It all seems like yesterday.

©Catryn Power 2015-2020 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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