I live near Pontefract in Yorkshire. Recently near where I live some builders making houses found a grave with Roman soldiers in. My grandad was talking to one of the builders and he said they still had their armour on. Did this happen often?
Charlotte Wilson (age 9)
This does sound unusual as armour was normally re-used or recycled, although there are a few examples of this practice in Roman Britain. It sounds like a remarkable discovery!
In 2010, a complete set of Roman armour was found on a dig in Caerleon in South Wales by archaeologists from Cardiff University. It was a rare and incredible discovery. Dr Guest from the University said: “Along with the armour, we’ve also found traces of textiles, a helmet – which could have been a parade helmet – other military equipment and what look like ornaments or fittings off a coffin or funeral casket.”
Perhaps your local archaeology service – West Yorkshire Archaeology Advisory Service – will be able to help you find out more about the discovery near where you live.
Thanks for your question!
From Ian the Archaeologist
What do you do when you find artefacts?! Do you put them in a museum, sell them in an auction, or just keep the items?
Rukiye Shahla Babaoglu (9)
The artefacts we find are carefully cleaned and catalogued, before being sent to specialists to study. These specialists can include people who are experts in particular materials, such as pottery, animal bone or metal work, or period experts who study the Romans, or the Medieval period and so on. There are some experts who do, for example, pottery but are especially good at one period, like the Romans and are also the leading expert on a particular type of pottery such as Samien Ware.
The specialists write a report for us on their findings and we use this information when we write up our reports on an excavation. After we have done this, the artefacts are either stored safely for other people to study, or they are passed to museums to put on display if they are particularly important.
It is important to say that the owners of the artefacts are the owners of the land the artefacts came from. They usually make an arrangement with the archaeologist to pass the artefacts to a museum. However this is different if the artefacts are 'Treasure'. This is a legal word meaning that they must be reported. Museums then have a chance to buy them for their collections from the owners.
Artefacts are 'Treasure' if:
They are gold or silver objects and over 300 years old.
They are a group of coins over 300 years old (but not for single coins).
If they are any prehistoric 'base metal' artefacts from the same archaeological feature.
Hope this helps!
My 10yr old daughter wants to be an archaeologist and is mad keen on history. Can you recommend any books for someone her age?
There are loads of good books about archaeology for young people.
A good general starting point is The Usborne Introduction to Archaeology by Abigail Wheatley It has loads of great internet links to help you find out more too.
I also like Archaeology: Discovering the Past by John Orna-Ornstein. I think that this is out of print, but you will probably be able to pick up a copy second hand if you search online.
And a final general recommendation would be Archaeology Detectives by Simon Adams published by the Oxford University Press.
Then depending on interest there are loads of more specialised books too, looking at the different archaeological periods. You are probably aware of Horrible Histories... I also like the You Wouldn't Want to be... series from the Brighton-based Salariya Book Company published under their Book House imprint. These two series both have a cartoon/humour approach, which I think works really well to engage young people.
Book House/Salariya and Usborne are probably my two favourite publishers making kids' non-fiction archaeology-related books.
There's also loads of historical fiction that your daughter might like to explore. There are classics like Rosemary Sutcliffe's The Eagle of the Ninth (which was also made into a major film). Or she could try the popular Roman Mysteries series by Caroline Lawrence. And for something set a little bit further into the past, try the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series by Michelle Paver. The first book in this series is called Wolf Brother.
I hope that gives some good starting points!
Do ask your daughter to email email@example.com if she finds any more great archaeology books.
What did they find in King Tut’s tomb?
As Howard Carter said when he first opened the tomb... "Wonderful things!" Several thousand items were recovered, many made of gold, including statues, musical instruments, jewelery and chariots.
Most importantly, they found Tutankamun himself, mummified in his sarcophagus with the famous gold death mask. A huge amount of evidence has been recoverd in recent years about his life and death from his body and the objects he was buried with. There are many important unanswered questions, too, such as why he was buried quickly in such a small tomb, and whether there is another tomb attached to his.
Perhaps the most signifcant thing is that they found anything at all, as many of the Egyptian Pharoah tombs were robbed long before archaeologists discovered them.
From Ian the Archaeologist
I am interested in what types of jobs women did in Celtic villages. I know they would look after their children and their family, but what else?
There were many other jobs apart from looking after children that women - and men - would have had to do to keep a Celtic village going, such as food preparation, making and repairing clothing, tools and other equipment, and looking after livestock.
There are records of powerful women who acted as priests and leaders, the most famous of whom in the UK is perhaps Boudicca. But in truth, although we perhaps assume that men and women had very different roles in these societies, we don't actually have all the evidence. Personally I think that although it is likely that women did look after children - certainly when the children were small - many of the basic jobs of surviving were probably shared to a certain extent.
From Ian the Archaeologist
How do you know where to look?
Usually we know a little about an area before we start to investigate it, so there are clues to help us target the right place. These can be documents (maps, letters, etc), or features in the landscape (such as roads, earthworks, etc)
Records of earlier archaeological work, such as excavations in the same area, can suggest that more archaeological evidence might survive nearby.
We can also use different survey techniques to help understand landscapes. LiDAR produces 'topographical' models of the ground surface over large areas and is good for spotting archaeology and places where archaeology could be. Geophysics also helps us identify features and target our trenches to find them.
I hope this answers your question!
From Ian the Archaeologist
What is a top tip for studying archaeology at university?
I would think about whether you are generally interested in archaeology or whether you have a particular area of interest (Prehistory, Roman etc). Different university departments have different areas of expertise, although you should get a taste of everything wherever you go. There are lots of courses for specific time periods, as well as for different types (Underwater Archaeology, for example). Having said that, many people start with a general archaeology degree and then specialise later with a Masters degree.
It would also be sensible to bear in mind that you can do an Arts degree (BA) or a Science degree (BSc) in Archaeology so checking out the course details and chosing one that reflects your interests and ability is important. Also, you can do Archaeology with other subjects (like History), and these degrees might be of interest to you.
But my top tip when you're at university is to make sure you put the work in, but also get out and meet people. If you're interested in fieldwork, or museums work, as a later career then make sure you check out what projects are available for you to work on while you're a student. These will help you gain experience, which is important to an employer.
From Ian the Archaeologist
Who inspired you the most to become an archaeologist?
I suppose my grandmother, who was a history teacher, first got me interested in the past.
I come from Orkney and ended up living in the West Country so I grew up with great archaeology all around me, which was inspiring.
My first site as a volunteer was at South Cadbury in Somerset, which is a famous Iron Age hill fort that was originally excavated by an archaeologist called Leslie Alcock; his book Cadbury/Camelot is very good, if a little old-fashioned now.
I also enjoyed Time Team, so I can also blame Tony Robinson, Phil Harding, Mick Aston and Carenza Lewis for leading me astray ...
From Ian the Archaeologist
How long have you been an archaeologist?
Hi Daniella – I did my first archaeological dig in 2000, which is quite a long time ago now! So I have been doing archaeology for 16 years. I volunteered on excavations and did a training dig before going to study archaeology for a year at university. I got my first paid job in archaeology in 2003, so I have been a professional archaeologist for 13 years.
From Ian the Archaeologist!
Do you find any jewels and gems and what is your most valuable find?
Jewellery is discovered by archaeologists, often working together with metal detectorists. A really good recent example is the Staffordshire Hoard, which was discovered by a detectorist and excavated by archaeologists. See www.staffordshirehoard.org.uk for more information. Also, have a look at the Portable Antiquities Scheme website for more about artefacts found by detectorists and archaeologists.
I have never been lucky enough to find anything like that whilst excavating. I have found coins, and also parts of a medieval altar piece made of alabaster stone and decorated with red and gold paint. Most of what we find is valuable for the information it can give us, rather than for how much money it could be sold for. The most interesting site I worked on was probably the Roman cemetery in York where we discovered that many of the burials had been decapitated (had their heads removed) and had injuries you would expect during fighting. Some experts think they might have been gladiators; we have never found the amphitheatre they may have fought in, however.
I live in Harding, South Africa. I want to be an archaeologist when I grow up. Please can you help me?
I'm afraid I can only really tell you how to be an archaeologist in the UK, although I'm sure it's similar to South Africa.
There's lots of information about archaeology on the YAC website. This is a good place to start: www.yac-uk.org/news/what-is-archaeology
You could try checking out local societies for volunteering opportunities. At school I would recommend history and geography; the science subjects are useful too if that's the kind of thing you want to do.
Maybe the best place to start is here: www.archaeologysa.co.za/
This seems to be aimed at adults but there is careers advice and other information. Otherwise, your school may have a careers advisor who can help you.
From Ian the Archaeologist
What is your favourite find?
My favourite personal discovery was a complete medieval leather shoe, which I found in a layer of thick stable-sweepings (OK, a large deposit of horse-poo!) I found it whilst we were excavating on the site of a new supermarket in York. It was complete, with the leather really well preserved, and a lovely thing to find ... even if it was a bit smelly.
Where are the best archaeological places to visit in the south of England for kids like me?
Gosh, you’re spoiled for choice! It depends what you like … If you love prehistory try Stonehenge, Avebury, or any of the amazing hillforts, such as Danebury. If you prefer the Romans visit the villas at Fishbourne or Bignor, and Maiden Castle. My favourite museum is the Mary Rose experience in Portsmouth, where the remains of Henry VIII’s flagship and its stunning artefacts are brilliantly displayed.
Check out www.yac-uk.org/places-to-go for more!
And don’t forget the rest of the country too!
How did Stone Age people become clever enough to learn to hunt and gather food? And how did humans and animals evolve?
Rukiye Shahla Babaoglu (9)
I am not a specialist in early Human archaeology but when I’m asked questions like this I always point out that ‘Stone Age Man’ was the same person as us – Homo Sapiens Sapiens – and therefore was just as clever, or potentially clever, as we are. So they learned the same way we do – from their parents and grandparents, by trying things out and succeeding (or failing …), and most importantly for humans, by discussing their ideas with each other.
It’s important to realise that there have been several species of human and that not all of them directly lead to us. Our species was probably partly responsible for the extinction of a very successful human species known as the Neanderthals, who survived alongside us until about 20,000-30,000 years ago. This sounds a terribly long time ago but in terms of evolution it’s very recent.
As for evolution, the place to start is with the title of Charles Darwin’s famous 1859 book ‘On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection’. Natural selection occurs when differences and changes within a species are passed on to the next generation. Changes that help a species survive are passed on, and become more common, and so the species evolves to include these characteristics.
The archaeology I mostly encounter doesn’t cover the huge amount of time needed to show evidence for evolution, but archaeologists do see how people have adapted to their environment – and also adapted the environment – via the evidence left in the ground.
How long can archaeological digs go on for, months, years, decades?
Most excavations are over in a few weeks or sometimes months; these are usually ‘commercial’ projects, meaning they are done as part of a development such as the building of a housing estate or a new road. A few commercial projects do last for years because they are so large and cover many different important sites – the Crossrail project in London is a good example.
Many research excavations last for several years, with the site dug in ‘seasons’, usually over the summer, and covered up during the winter. A Viking house site I worked on in Orkney was excavated like this – the first few days every summer involved lifting up the plastic sheeting and cleaning off the silt and sand that had blown in during the winter.
Many of our most famous excavations took many years, and sometimes decades. The famous Viking Coppergate excavations in York took place from 1976 to 1981, and the major excavations at Winchester Cathedral lasted from 1962 to 1971. Sutton Hoo was excavated archaeologically in 1938-39, 1965-1971 and 1983-1992.
Have you been on exciting travels and what have you found on them?
Charlotte and Oliver
Hi guys! Yes, I have travelled to some exciting places, like Iceland and Australia, but only ever on holiday and not while I was working! It was fascinating seeing Icelandic villages where the oldest building was the church that had been the only thing to survive a lava flow because it was on the only hill in the area! The best place I have worked was as an archaeologist was in Orkney, where I was part of a team excavating a Viking house on the island of Westray.
Did you enjoy studying to be an archaeologist?
Jessica and Ryan
Hi Jessica and Ryan!
YES!! It was brilliant. Studying something you really care about is possibly the most fulfilling thing you can do.
How many items do you recover each day?
Megan and Euan
It really depends on the site. I have gone weeks finding absolutely nothing on some sites (particularly in rural areas) and then worked in a city where hundreds of things are found every day. Most of these are pottery, animal bones and building material, but occasionally you find something special. Part of the excitement is never knowing what or when something might turn up!
How many years have you been an archaeologist for and how did you become one?
Ashton, Paige and Zoe
Hi Guys! A giant broke into my bedroom under the stairs in my step-parents’ house and told me I was an archaeologist at the age of 11 and that I had a place at the secret school for archaeologists! …
No, actually I have always been interested in archaeology because I come from Orkney, where there is a lot of it everywhere. But I studied history at University and didn’t realise that archaeology could be a job until I saw Time Team for the first time when I was 20. I tried it out with a local society and loved it straight away. This was 17 years ago; I did an MA and then started my first job as an excavator in 2003.
We did some research online about the spirit Senkarah and it said she was the goddess of happiness is this true?
Amelia and Isobel
Hi Amelia and Isobel! My online research found her as a character in the ‘House of Anubis’ TV show but I didn’t find any further information, so I can’t help you much there I’m afraid.
How did the dinosaurs die? We think they got extinct because of a meteor crashing to the earth!
Ella and Louis
Some archaeologists get very grumpy when someone asks them about dinosaurs… but I love them so I don’t mind.
As far as I know a meteorite is the latest theory to explain how the dinosaurs died out, but it wasn’t just the meteorite strike, even though that was catastrophic. It is thought that the dinosaurs were already under pressure from climate change (which changed the weather patterns) and that the impact of the meteorite pushed them over the edge. But I’m not a palaeontologist! And it's palaeontologists who study dinosaurs and fossils.
When did you find your first artefact and what was it?
Sonny and Lily
Hi Sonny and Lily! I went on a training excavation at Bignor Roman Villa in Sussex when I was 21 (a really long time ago…). On my first day I was working inside the villa and found a piece of painted wall-plaster. I was really excited, but it wasn’t that surprising … I was in a Roman building, after all!
Do you have to go to university become an archaeologist?
Lucy and Kian
Hi Lucy and Kian! You don’t have to go to university to be an archaeologist, so the answer to your question is "no". I started in archaeology by joining a local society in Brighton and also by going on a training excavation when I was 21. I didn’t know about YAC when I was growing up (but that was quite a long time ago …)!
I did do an Archaeology Masters degree and this has helped me to go further in my career. I now organise excavations and surveys, which are usually done by other archaeologists.
Most people working as archaeologists in the UK do have a degree but not all of them, and you can be an archaeologist without one – the many hundreds of excellent local societies in the UK are full of talented and committed archaeologists who didn’t study it at university.
What is the most delicate object you have ever found, and where and when did you find it?
Bethany and Lauren
Hi Bethany and Lauren! I found a Bronze Age burial urn on a site in York about 10 years ago. This was so fragile we couldn’t just dig all the soil away and pick it up. I worked with another archaeologist who works as a conservation archaeologist looking after really fragile artefacts. We had to ‘block-lift’ it. This meant leaving a block of earth around the body of the pot and digging down all around it so we could then wrap the whole thing in plaster of Paris. This is same idea as putting a cast on a broken arm or leg; it held the pot together and protected it from being bumped or crushed. Once it was wrapped we pushed a thin metal sheet under it and lifted the whole block together. The conservation archaeologist then x-rayed it to have a look inside, before carefully unwrapping it and excavating it slowly in the laboratory, collecting the tiny pieces of cremated (burnt) human bone inside it.
What is your biggest find in your lifetime?
Charlie and Maisie
Hi Charlie and Maisie! The most important thing I have found was part of a medieval church altar piece, in a pit where it had been smashed up and buried during the English Reformation in the 17th century. This was when Protestant soldiers destroyed many Catholic places of worship. The fragment I found was made of alabaster, a soft white stone easily carved into different shapes. It was face-down when I found it, so it looked like a flat white stone. When I turned it over it had four heads, painted red and black and decorated with gold paint!
If you meant the ‘largest’ thing I ever found then that would be the foundation for a steam-powered engine in a Victorian flour mill. These were made of 2m long slabs of sandstone, surrounded with brick and tied together with steel pins longer than I am tall (about 1.8m … ). The engine that sat on these bases would have had two huge pistons driving a grooved drum with steel ropes that turned the drive shaft for the entire mill, which was a 7-storey building!
The most important things found in the UK during my lifetime are probably the Mary Rose and the Staffordshire hoard, but I’m sure every other archaeologist in the county will disagree with me … we’re good at arguing!
Do you think we will discover things from the past that will make us live long?
A-Keya Davis (11)
Hi A-Keya. I’m not sure exactly what you mean. I don’t think we’ll discover anything that will improve our medicine, although it is interesting to see how illness and injury were treated in the past. A famous excavation in York discovered the skeleton of a monk wearing a knee brace, probably to help with the pain of a ligament injury like the one suffered by several famous footballers today. I have found healed fractures (broken bones) in skeletons, and evidence for arthritis too.
Some archaeologists do study ancient human DNA to find out about illnesses in the past and how they have changed. It may be possible to learn more about human DNA in a way that helps us live longer through this, but that’s way beyond the knowledge of this archaeologist!
What are some things you have found?
Most of the things I’ve found have been other people’s rubbish – broken pottery, bricks, tiles, animal bones and that sort of thing. I have found some good stuff though – a complete medieval leather shoe, a Neolithic flint scraper, Roman coins, a Bronze Age burial urn.
I worked on a Roman cemetery where one of the people had been buried with their shoes – all that was left were the hobnails, still lying in the shape of a pair of boots. I reckoned they were about a size 7.
I did also find a toy Ankylosaurus on a factory site in Sheffield. So when someone asks the question ‘Have you found a dinosaur’ I can actually say ‘Yes!’ and hand them a plastic one. It’s more fun than having to explain that we don’t do dinosaurs. Again.