Tales of a boring man: the fieldwork experience

Fieldwork is a major part of many archaeological projects, the Round Mounds Project is no exception. Although a lot of fun and a welcome break from being stuck behind a computer or in the lab, fieldwork can also be challenging and just plain old hard work.

In this week’s post, Kevin, our very own expert technician talks us through his experience of last week’s fieldwork trip to County Durham and East Yorkshire…

Although I spend most of my time working on “enterprise” (i.e. commercial) projects for the SAGES (School of Archaeology Geography and Environmental Science, University of Reading) consultancy Quest, another key part of my job is to assist in fieldwork and laboratory work on research projects. So it’s not a 9-5 Monday to Friday job, which is why I spent my Saturday evening packing my bags and checking the weather forecast…

Starting work mid-morning on a Sunday isn’t everyone’s cup of tea which is why the campus was pretty deserted when I met up with Phil. We were ready to head to County Durham where we would meet with the other half of the team, ready for a fresh start first thing on Monday morning. With one last peruse of the equipment check list, as we wouldn’t be able to pop back if we had forgotten anything and the only supplier of the equipment being based in Surrey (a mere 550 mile round trip from Bishopton Castle!), we had to be sure we were fully prepared so no time could be lost in the field.

After an uneventful but rather foggy journey we arrived at the hotel, swathed in the mist, and as we were there for more than one night I unpacked my bag and checked to see if the internet connection was good enough to hold a video call home. In the morning we ate a hearty breakfast, at previous accommodation out with the Round Mounds Project we have seen a range of offerings including kippers or porridge topped with a dash of whiskey, but I settled on poached eggs which I hoped to keep me going to coffee break. We headed off to site through the thick fog going down some surprisingly busy country lanes until we spotted the motte at Bishopton Castle and the access gate into the field. Access to site can be tricky and looking at the sodden grass we decided to check how viable it was to drive the vehicle up to the motte. It was decided it was pretty firm but we were then held in check by the fact the combination code didn’t work on the lock! A quick phone call to the landowner revealed the mistake of one digit and we were back in action.


Bishopton Castle Motte in the fog

Once the drilling kit was lugged to the top, the “breath taking vista” was obscured by the thickening fog, although we must have been making plenty of noise as a local approached Elaine as she was surveying the earthworks to inquire if we were “installing a phone mast on the mound”! He informed her he used to strim the vegetation on the mound, how we wished he still did when the jacking ring rolled down the slope and disappeared into the long grass for a while as we were packing up on the second day.

Luckily, after a day and a half of drilling at Bishopton we had finished our task a bit early and had the opportunity to check out two other potential sites for next year (in Catterick, N. Yorks), so we hoped into the 4×4 and drove of on an unexpected journey. I do love a bit of ad hoc adventure!


Pallet Hill, Catterick – a site we checked out, but that seems a bit small and misshapen  for our liking…

We travelled down to Yorkshire for our second site of the week (Skipsea Castle, East Yorkshire) and as we pulled up to the gate we could see the massive banked enclosure and mound in the distance. After careful consideration I thought we had an 80% chance of getting the vehicle quite close to the mound without getting stuck. That’s pretty good odds isn’t it? As we unloaded we had to wait for a group of ramblers to cross the stile at the entrance of the mound but it gave me a chance to explain what we were doing to local people. The fog had cleared to be replaced with light rain, and after a while it was decided that moving the vehicle to dry ground would be sensible… As I fishtailed down the muddy pathway I reconsidered my optimistic evaluation but with a big grin I stopped on the grass in front of the gate. I wouldn’t be driving back on even in the 4×4! Luckily we have an off-road trolley for times like these… The coring went well and we trudged damply down the track with a full trolley as dusk drew in. The next morning we scampered down the track looking forward to continuing further into the mound but we soon realised the honeymoon period was over. The sediments we had drilled through the previous day were so friable that large cobbles had fallen in from the sides of the borehole and were now blocking the hole. On top of that we had visitors coming to see what we are doing!

We decided to use a window gouge to try and clear the blockage. This takes time but would be worth it in the long run. Then the rain arrived. It has been asked what qualities are needed for fieldwork; generally a sense of humour is the top answer, although stamina is also important. I tried to remember this as the water slowly filled my wellingtons and the equipment became slippery with mud…


Drilling in the rain!

Battling against the weather, and constant collapse of the borehole, we finished the first borehole at Skipsea rather later than planned; all the same we would have to relocate and try and sink a second borehole before the light failed… and anyway we were already soaking wet so what the hell! Locating a flat area safe enough to work on at a lower height seemed the best way forward and as the rain continued we stopped short of our goal, we would need to return in the morning to finish off. The next day was dry and once we had taken a few more metres it was concluded we were in the natural deposits underlying the mound. The slope was treacherous but we avoided any mishaps and were soon on our way back south.

Mercifully we didn’t get caught in the Friday traffic and as I dropped Phil off at the train station I was even able to text ahead saying I would be home early enough to eat and put in a request for pizza!


One of the less glamorous aspects of fieldwork!


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