Ask An Archaeologist


Team Insights


Greg Speed

Gav Robinson

Sarah Parker

Rachel Cubitt

Hannah Clay

Alice James

As part of the 2020 Digital Festival of Archaeology we answer the questions asked by you.


What would you like me to take with me to the grave? Besides state secrets, obviously. I want to make future archaeologists happy

Something with your name on! Something that says who you were/what you did (in my case a trowel). And something really enigmatic. Nothing an archaeologist likes more than a mysterious rusted lump to X-ray and then discuss at length in a report.


Did you find any deviant burials among the Mowbray inhumations from any period?

The modern PC phrase seems to be ‘alternative’. Yes, the recent A1 improvements, together with earlier excavations, have found prone or decapitated Roman burials at several sites.


What was the most common but also most personal item found in the Roman graves of Mowbray?

Apart from coffin nails and hobnailed shoes? The most common personal items in Roman burials in the Vale tend to be bronze or iron bracelets, followed by beads and/or amuletic items such as pierced coins, pendants, bullae etc. (which are often found together).


How did burial goods change from the Bronze Age to the Anglo-Saxon period for the burials of Mowbray?

Bronze Age cremation burials sometimes have a pot, rarely anything else. Most Roman and Anglo-Saxon graves have no grave goods; where these are present, they tend to be similar, comprising one or more pots, items of dress (clothes fasteners, footwear etc) and items of adornment such as jewellery. These obviously varied with changes in costume and fashion, and Anglo-Saxons tended to get more! The main differences are that Romans sometimes have nailed coffins and Anglo-Saxons sometimes have weapons.   


Looking at the pathology, are there any differences in the signs of stress – malnutrition, repetitive use injuries and arthritis – between Bronze Age, Roman and Anglo-Saxon inhumations from Mowbray?

Unfortunately, this is almost impossible to answer. Bone preservation tends to be quite poor in the area (typically two thirds of the graves have no bone surviving at all), and all of the Bronze Age burials are cremations anyway! Some burials do show indicators of stress, but the evidence is too patchy to allow for meaningful comparisons. Sorry.


Why are site findings hand drawn? Why isn’t a photograph a sufficient record of evidence?

Although a detailed, accurate record, drawings are also partly interpretive, you can emphasise stuff and clarify things. Smaller hand and foot bones don’t show up well against a gravel background, for instance. Nothing worse than a photo where you can’t quite make out a critical detail! 


What have you found that made you most excited, and why?

Greg - So many options! The 10th/11th century defensive rampart bank around the Durham peninsula is a good candidate, because I identified it from a ‘grey literature’ report – nothing better than spotting what others have missed! J It’s also absolutely huge and entirely invisible, buried under gardens! 


How we can work as an archaeologist in a foreign country?

​For commercially funded work, it depends on the country as each funds archaeology differently. But universities do a lot of research archaeology all around the world, if you are interested try finding out which universities are carrying out research you may be interested in then contact them for advice.


How do you know if it’s male or female when you find human remains? ​

We ask an expert, an osteoarchaeologist can estimate whether human remains are probably male or female (as well as a lot of other things) from examining the bones. Also, DNA techniques are available that can provide an accurate assessment.


What happens to the skeletons once you’ve dug them up?

​That depends on the project, the conditions on the 'licence to remove human remains' issued by the government, and often the date of the burial. In general, the remains are carefully packaged and sent back to our offices where they are washed and packaged ready for long-term storage (to slow further decay). The bones are then sent off to a specialist (osteoarchaeologist) for study and sometimes are radiocarbon dated. Once the analysis and reporting have been completed and the project is over, all finds, paper and digital records are sent to a museum for long-term storage so that further research can be carried out in the future. However, depending on the project, human remains are often re-buried.


What’s the most valuable relic you’ve found?

Gav - ​In terms of monetary value, none. That's not what it is about. In terms of scientific value, the most important thing I have ever found was a small collection of broken pottery sherds which turned out to be Early Neolithic in date and related to the first farming communities of Cumbria. Scientific analysis discovered milk fats within the fabric of the pottery which proved that even at that early date (about 6000 years ago), people in that area had domestic cows and were using their milk. This was the first evidence of this.


What is the oldest relic you’ve found?

 ​Gav - I once found a very early worked flint blade, a 'Creswellian point' that was probably around 13,000–11,800 years old.


What is the oldest thing you have found?

Greg - Ignoring fossils etc, the ‘oldest’ thing I’ve found was a carbonised domesticated wheat grain which was radiocarbon dated to around 41,500-40,600BC – since wheat wasn’t domesticated until a good 30,000 years later, and that part of North Yorkshire was under an ice sheet at the time, we’re guessing that’s a duff date! Other than that, probably Early Mesolithic flints dated to around 9,300 BC.


Which area are you interested and why?

Gav - There are many fields of archaeological study that interest me, especially the period when people first started farming (the Early Neolithic period). I'm also very interested in how techniques from other branches of science can help archaeologists (such as radiocarbon dating, isotope analysis, DNA studies and absorbed residue analysis). But mainly I'm interested in how early communities and societies dealt with everyday things (like shelter, getting food and water, interacting with other people) and why they did it in the way that they chose to. The answers to this tell us an awful lot about ourselves and why we do the things that we do.


What made you want to become an archaeologist? ​

Watching the Indiana Jones movies, then reading books about the past.


Which has been your favourite site so far? And why? ​

Gav - That is a very difficult question! Each site is so different, with its own challenges and discoveries. But if I had to choose, it would be work I have been doing at a Quarry near Penrith for Breedon aggregates. Every few years or so they need to extend the quarrying, so we go and record any archaeology in the new area. Several phases of work have revealed a landscape rich in important early prehistoric remains. The site is interesting and important because as quarrying advances we are revealing the full range of archaeology along a small river valley. Usually we only get to look at a small area.


Do you have any problems with illegally digging, especially when the site of digging is posted? And what are your safety measures against it? Here in Australia on some places we do not publish the exact location of excavations because of problems with it.

​The answer to that is complex. In the UK only special sites (such as Scheduled monuments, listed buildings, conservation area, battlefields etc) are protected by law. Most archaeological excavation is undertaken through the planning system as conditions added to planning permission. Sometimes, rouge metal-detectorists will illegally 'raid' known sites under cover of darkness, or even excavations that are underway. Protections against this range from the trespass and theft laws, security guards (for some digs on construction sites) to 'seeding' a site with non-ferrous nails, nuts and bolts to deter detectorists. But by far the best protection is local community engagement and liaison and involvement of local detectorist groups.





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