One of Britain’s most prolific and colourful archaeologists dishes the dirt with CA Editor Lisa Westcott.
Why did you become an archaeologist?
My first great loves were literature and poetry. I had no interest in archaeology until I was about 26 years old, on a military posting in Arabia, and came across a site called Naqab al Haja. I was in the army for 15 years, during which time I read voraciously and eventually worked myway back through time to the epics of the Dark Ages. I finally discovered Antiquity, a journal that changed my life irrevocably – I would read it cover to cover the minute it arrived. My real fascination with archaeology started there and I decided to quit the army and try my hand at it. Now that I am the editor of Antiquity, I always keep my former self in mind as a target reader.
Who are your archaeological heroes?
V Gordon Childe and Stuart Piggott are the two that come immediately to mind, because they wrote well. It matters much more to me that people make sense and inspire, than that they just do things. Both Piggott and Childe race along, feeding you their narrative, making you feel part of the adventure.
But heroes do not have to be well known figures. I do many public lectures every year, including Workers Educational Association (WEA) groups and local archaeological societies, presenting new ideas, models and results. I like these groups because everyone comes from different professions and they approach the past from their own perspective. Often, during the discussion, someone with specialist training of some kind will pick apart my observations or theories, or help with pertinent information. Really, these groups are doing professional archaeologists a favour and I find it very inspiring. They educate you in a nice way. So, they are heroes to me as well.
Martin Carver Editor of Antiquity.
What would be your dream site to dig, and why?
My dream site is Squillace, in southern Italy. Cassiodorus built a monastery there which he called the Vivarium, developed at the site of his wealthy 5th century villa. Many of the great Romanworksofscholarship and literature were preserved there, but all we have is basic documentary descriptions of it. I am especially intrigued by the rock-cut fish traps that Cassiodorus constructed, where ‘happy fish’ would be washed in from the Mediterranean.
More generally, I would love to dig a Pictish settlement or cemetery, on a grand scale. We have much still to learn about the Picts. Though they didn’t leave a history of themselves, they were arguably the greatest artists of their day and are now one of Europe’s most intriguing lost nations. I also believe that the Picts give us our best chance at capturing the elusive Britons.
What is your greatest-ever archaeology moment?
Well, it has to be the very first time one finds something, which for me was a small Roman coin at Sparsholt Roman villa in Hampshire, on my first day as a digger. My most important ‘eureka’ moment was finding preserved wattle fences embedded in sand under an old theatre basement at Durham – 10th century, as it happens; something historically precious in an unlikely spot.
Most recently it is Portmahomack, of course. When the Vikings raided the monastery, they broke up the stone crossslabs and scattered them around the site. We dug up fist-sized lumps of sculpture, most of them with carvings as fresh and clear as the day they were made. It was a magical fortnight – a new piece coming up every day. Nothing beats a work of art emerging as the soil is brushed away.
current archaeology | www.archaeology.co.uk
November 2009 |