New MOLA Training Schemes

MOLA have created two new fieldwork programmes. One specifically for new-to-sector trainees who have no formal qualification or archaeological experience – the aim is to open up non-traditional routes into the sector (e.g. for people who don’t want a degree or who are changing career), which it’s hoped will contribute to diversifying the profession. The second is a condensed version for Graduates who have familiarity with the concepts, but might not have the commercial experience needed to get a job in the sector.


The Graduate scheme is defined as 3-6 months’ long because different universities teach different levels of practical fieldwork skills, so each Graduate will have slightly different needs/skill gaps. Every Graduate gets a six month contract but if, at three months, they are able to meet all the Learning Outcomes they ‘graduate’ and become Archaeologists with the appropriate salary increase. If they are not ready, they continue on the programme for up to another 3 months, with continued, tailored support and regular reassessment. This means ensuring only competent people pass the scheme while also rewarding those who are ready to progress. It also ensures they all receive six months’ commercial experience, regardless of when they finish the training – often a per-requisite for many entry positions.

Approved National Occupational Standards 

Both schemes have learning outcomes which map to the National Occupational Standards for Archaeological Practice, and have been approved by CIfA. We also want to use the opportunity to really help them be as employable as possible (hence the use of BAJR Skills Passports as a way to document their newfound knowledge), and will be offering workshops on topics like CV writing and Excel skills as well as helping them through the CIfA application process.  The intention is to offer as many people as possible a job at MOLA after the training, though as ever, it will be dependent on work levels at the time.

MOLA recruited five experienced field staff internally to be deployed as Fieldwork Trainers to deliver the training, and they’re currently going through training themselves in topics such as mental health awareness and learning disabilities awareness.

Amy Atkins ( is always happy to speak more about the programme and welcomes different people’s thoughts on it – there’s some more information on the new Early Careers page and on the Trainee job advert 

Currently the starting salaries are £19,000 for the Trainee rising to £20,000 once they pass their 3-month assessment, and Graduates start on £20,000).

Archaeology on Furlough: attitudes and expectations to online resources

Teagan Zoldoske from ADS recently flagged up the following report with colleagues:

Wiseman, R., and Ronn, P. (2020). Archaeology on Furlough: Accessing Archaeological Information Online: A Survey of Volunteers’ Experiences.

For those unfamiliar with the initiative, Archaeology on Furlough provided professional archaeologists in the UK with access to volunteer projects that can be done from home.

This excellent report summarises the expectations and realities of using online resources for specific research needs. The ADS is cited frequently within, and they are glad to see the overall positive response.

The heavy use of the ADS Library, particularly unpublished reports, over Spring and early Summer 2020 is now partially explained!


Source: ADS

Bilingual Welsh-English Archaeology Skills Passport

Mae’r BAJR yn hynnod falch o fedru cyhoeddi’r Pasbort Sgiliau newydd – fersiwn CYMRAEG-SAESNEG DWYIEITHOG. Rydym yn ddiolchgar iawn fod y fersiwn wedi’i gyfeithu gan David Connolly oddi wrth y fersiwn gwreiddiol gan CADW, sydd hefyd wedi darparu grant I alluogi 600 o gopiau i’w argraffu. Y gobaith yw y gall hyn fod yn hunangynhaliol yn y dyfodol.

Mae’r ddogfen yn hollol ddwyieithog ac wedi’i anelu at siaradwyr Cymraeg, dysgwyr a rhai sy’n astudio a gweithio yng Nghymru. Mae’n cydnabod pa mor bwysig yw’r iaith Gymraeg I dreftadaeth Cymreig, a’r gobaith yw y bydd y cyhoeddiad hwn a’r testun allweddol gwaith maes Cymraeg yn cyfrannu yn allweddol I gorff adnoddau y iaith Gymraeg.

BAJR is delighted to announce the publication of our newest skills Passport version – a bilingual Welsh-English edition. This edition has been kindly translated from David Connolly’s original version by Cadw, who have also generously provided a grant to enable the printing of an initial run of 600 copies. It is hoped that take up of these guides will be sufficient to enable their production to become self-sustaining for the future.

The document is entirely bilingual and is aimed at Welsh speakers, learners and those working and studying in Wales. It recognises the importance of the language to Welsh heritage and it is hoped that the publication of this key fieldwork text in Welsh will contribute to the body of Welsh language resources.

Thank you  Nia Wyn Jones for the translation above   and to Cat Rees of CR Archaeology – and Adele Thackray-Durkin for making it all happen.

Buy your copy here:



Invisible Diggers III

by Paul Everill

The Invisible Diggers story began a little over 20 years ago, when I was working in developer-funded archaeology and felt, like many around me, disenfranchised, invisible, and inaudible.

Determined to have my voice heard I joined CIfA and Prospect (or IfA and IPMS as they were at the time of course) and in trying to make a difference, and be more visible, I became a union rep and later co-founded Diggers’ Forum with Chris and Jez. Although I was ultimately frustrated by the rate of progress, I had become particularly interested in the impact on individuals of commercial working practices, and the clear sense I had of people being driven away from something they loved by, most often, low wages and short-term contracts, but other factors too and I wanted to understand this process.

As a result, my PhD was probably more an ethnography – or sociological study – than it was a traditional archaeological thesis, and the core data for it was formed through the triangulation of a series of semi-structured interviews with UK commercial archaeologists; a lengthy ‘participant observation’ on site; and a quantitative survey designed to underpin both. Having finished my PhD in 2006, it was its publication in 2009 that helped transform the anecdotal understanding of aspects of commercial practice by providing data on individual views and experiences, particularly from the survey.

That first survey clearly demonstrated that the majority of new entrants were leaving the profession after 3-5 years; and that for many it wasn’t necessarily the pay that was driving them away but that, having fallen out of love with archaeology, they could no longer justify those earnings or job insecurity. A revised Second Edition was published as an eBook in 2012, however the main update was the data from a second survey earlier that year. Being undertaken as the sector was just starting to recover from the global financial crisis, the data showed, amongst other things, that the turnover of staff had slowed, and that, with very few new entrants, existing staff were more reluctant to leave their jobs and change career. In turn, it became apparent that peaks and troughs in employment could not only be mapped against UK economic events, but that they were still visible in the profession.

The third survey was planned for earlier this year but, like many things, it had to be postponed. While I had always intended to expand the survey to look more closely at training, CPD, and wellbeing, collecting data now also gives us the chance to capture a snapshot of UK archaeology at a crossroads. We can assess the impact of the pandemic on individuals in planning-led archaeology; and we can record the state of the profession before the end of the transition period of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, and ahead of possible changes to the UK planning framework.

My hope is that the results of this survey can be published as an ID3 ‘expansion pack’ – a free to download update of the previous research so that the data can inform debate as widely as possible. There are lots of people in archaeology – in the field and in the office – who are skilled and talented, and love archaeology, but who feel invisible or inaudible. The project is named for them, but it also says that you don’t have to accept it.

Be visible; be heard.

Do the Invisible Diggers III survey here 



Stonehenge illuminated thank you to heritage workers


Eight people were chosen to appear on the uprights of Stonehenge to thank them for the  part they played in supporting arts and heritage during the coronavirus pandemic.

Stonehenge has been temporarily illuminated with images of ‘unsung heritage champions’ from across the UK, including one of its own staff members.

The historic takeover was unveiled by television personality Sir Tony Robinson. Prohibited from attending the display due to current restrictions, a video projection of Sir Tony acted to first illuminate the historic stones and introduce the display.

The night-time celebration, supported by National Lottery funding, used eight projectors to honour the individuals who have worked tirelessly to keep the UK’s heritage accessible during the pandemic.

English Heritage’s James Rodliff is Operations Manager at Stonehenge and oversees the day-to-day running of the site. He was one of the heritage workers honoured with the illumination.


Without any visitors to the iconic site, and with the majority of the Stonehenge staff on furlough, James worked with a small team throughout both lockdowns to ensure the care and conservation of the 5,000 year-old monument.

James, 35, was instrumental in planning for the re-opening of the site in early July, which received fantastic feedback from visitors, for the safe environment and warm welcome they received.

Stonehenge is just one of more than 400 sites cared for by English Heritage and almost all were able to re-open safely to the public following lockdown.

James Rodliff said:

‘I’m surprised and humbled by this recognition from The National Lottery. I certainly didn’t expect to turn up to work and see my face up in lights. English Heritage has worked exceptionally hard – at Stonehenge and the hundreds of historic sites in our care – to look after these inspiring places and to welcome people back safely to them.  

‘Over the years, the National Lottery has helped to transform Stonehenge including grassing over a road that ran right through the site, removing the old visitor facilities beside the monument, and creating a new visitor centre that does justice to this wonder of the world.’


Also recognised are:

  • Jade West, volunteer Co-ordinator at the Skylark IX Recovery Trust in West Dunbartonshire, Scotland. Jane has played a vital role in continuing the charity’s work to support the engagement, training and skills development of our addiction recovery service clients during this year’s Lockdown. The Skylark IX project is restoring a Dunkirk Little Ship, which rescued over 600 men during the Second World War.
  • Luke Strachan, CEO of Wild Things, an environmental charity in north east Scotland. Luke has been behind the pioneering Silver Saplings project, which helps whole communities and vulnerable older people, including care home residents, to take part in nature-based activities in a bid to tackle isolation, loneliness and immobility.
  • William Colvin, of Cushendun, Northern Ireland. William has worked to rescue a deconsecrated church, repurposing it as a community arts and heritage venue in an isolated village that is part of the Antrim Coast and Glens Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
  • Uzo Iwobi OBE, founder of Race Council Cymru Wales. Despite the pandemic, Uzo led and delivered the first-ever Black History Wales 365 initiative. This was an ambitious year-long educational, heritage, cultural and celebratory programme of events that supported grassroots ethnic minority communities during the pandemic.
  • Lee Turner, from Penllegare Trust, Wales. Lee works towards restoring a heritage woodland. He has worked throughout the pandemic to run the project, whilst also keeping the space open and safe for visitors during lockdown and beyond.
  • Susan Pitter, from Jamaica Society, Leeds. The society Susan is a part of provides a voice and value to unheard and sometimes challenging stories of the Jamaican community in Leeds.
  • Mick Byrne, from the National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire. Mick is one of the many volunteers who strives to provide a world-class visitor experience. The NMA is the UK’s year-round centre of remembrance. It’s freely open to all and set in 150 acres of beautiful parkland with around 25,000 trees and around 400 memorials all dedicated to service and sacrifice.

To find out more about how The National Lottery is celebrating the work done by unheralded people across the UK, visit their website.

1000 Ancient British Genomes


Whole-genome history and evolution in a thousand ancient people from Great Britain

The revolution in human genome sequencing is producing unparalleled insights about human genome biology, the genetic architecture of human traits, and the future potential of personalized medicine. Many of the current advances in human genomics are being spearheaded through studies of British populations, particularly through the UK Biobank, which links human genomes and phenotypes in half a million people from the United Kingdom and represents by far the world’s largest such resource. This invaluable resource of phenotypic and medical information along with genomic data from over half a million people is supplemented by genetic studies of the British population in initiatives such as the UK10k, PoBI and the National Health Service’s 100,000 Genomes Project. This makes the United Kingdom the most promising region in the world for understanding fine-scale genome evolution in human populations.

Lack of ancient genomes

In parallel, ancient genomics–enabled by our ability to sequence genomes from skeletal remains tens of thousands of years old–is revolutionizing our understanding of human history and evolution. However, in contrast to modern genetic data, there is a distinct lack of ancient human genomes from Britain, with only 17 published ancient whole genomes at ≥1-fold depth–a gap that this project will fill. This lack of ancient genomes means that the demographic and evolutionary processes that shaped present-day genomic variation cannot be fully understood. While modern- day genomic data can provide clues about history and evolution, such information about short-term human evolution is only proximate, and confounded by processes such as population structure and admixture. The combination of ancient genomes with existing data will allow us to resolve these processes, and characterize past episodes of adaptation. In combination with the unparalleled existing resources for genomics in Britain, the ancient genome data we will create will provide a resource for fine-scale human evolutionary genetics that is unmatched anywhere in the world.

Extending the sequence

The Skoglund Ancient Genomics Laboratory has been funded by the Wellcome Trust to undertake a fine-scale reconstruction of human evolution by extending the genomic record of Britain into a third dimension by sequencing at least 1,000 ancient genomes. This study will represent a data increase of two orders of magnitude, and provide the most high-resolution time series for understanding the evolution of the genetic basis of human biology and disease for the foreseeable future. We expect to uncover both fundamental evolutionary processes in human populations and specific evolutionary pressures on traits important to past and future health challenges. The genetic data we produce will be uploaded to publicly-accessible databases on publication, producing an unprecedented ancient DNA resource for future investigations of human evolution and medical genetics.


Importantly, the project will involve close collaborations with archaeologists, historians, and genomic epidemiologists, aiming to achieve synthesis between the research goals of genomics as well as those of the sciences of the human past, and to create a new horizon for public engagement about Britain’s past. Where DNA preservation is good enough, our project will naturally produce information on an ancient individual’s genetic sex, ancestry and biological relationships with other people from whom we have DNA data. We will also screen samples for the presence of ancient pathogens using a metagenomic approach, which can identify preserved DNA from a range of pathogens with which an individual was infected at the time of their death.

Learn about the sampling protocols here:
Sampling Protocols PDF

Looking for samples

  • We are collaborating with archaeologists and museum curators on developing sampling strategies where any data we generate on sex, ancestry, relatedness and disease can help to address outstanding site-specific, regional or national-scale research questions, following guidelines on ethics and destructive sampling issued by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)1 and the Advisory Panel on the Archaeology of Burials in England (APABE)2. We will provide this information to collaborators as and when we produce it. We are happy for collaborators to use this information however they wish (e.g. public outreach, publications), even if this pre-empts our own publication plans. If you are interested in collaborating with us on this project, please contact

    To answer some questions that BAJR already asked:


  • Can the material be from older excavations? – Yes, very happy to take material that has already been excavated or has been out of the ground for a while. Also, we don’t mind so much if the skeletal material have already been extensively handled without gloves etc., it’s probably better if they haven’t but it doesn’t make so much difference to us as we can detect and potentially control for contamination.
  • Do we have to bring the material to you? -No – we have a travel budget, I’m happy to come and fetch the bones and bring them back once they are sampled if someone gets in touch (depending on the COVID restrictions…)
  • Do we already need to have a precise date for the material? – No – it also may not matter so much if there isn’t a secure date – we have some budget for radiocarbon dating, and so if we get some DNA out, it’s likely we will get a date if there is some doubt.

1 care-of-human-remains-in-museum.pdf


IA Issue 55. The Post-excavation Analysis and Archiving of Outputs from Complex, Multi-period Landscape Investigations: the example of Heslington East, York


This new article in Internet Archaeology discusses the post-excavation analysis and archiving of data generated by fieldwork undertaken at Heslington East near York in the UK.

This project, stretching over two decades, involved two commercial companies as well as student training and local community elements, and recently concluded with a thematic publication (Roskams and Neal 2020).

The article has twin objectives. First, on a theoretical level, it reflects on the complex challenges that arise when attempting to combine diverse stratigraphic, spatial and assemblage data from different sources to reach meaningful interpretations of an extensive, multi-period landscape. Second, on a practical level, it aims to act as an introduction to the project’s archives to make them accessible to future audiences, something that is essential if we are to enable any re-interpretation of the site.

Roskams, S. 2020 The Post-excavation Analysis and Archiving of Outputs from Complex, Multi-period Landscape Investigations: the example of Heslington East, York, Internet Archaeology 55.

Internet Archaeology is an open access journal based in the Department of Archaeology, University of York. Except where otherwise noted, content from this work may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY) Unported licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that attribution to the author(s), the title of the work, the Internet Archaeology journal and the relevant URL/DOI are given.

Every issue, every article

The Lam(b)mermuir Hills? Exploring the history of sheep farming in southern Scotland from the comfort of the UK coronavirus lockdown

Gemma Scott

March 2020. As schools closed, flights stopped, shops moved online and the UK went into that strange hibernation that was the coronavirus lockdown, it seemed like archaeology in Britain would similarly grind to a halt. Professionals across the heritage, education and commercial archaeology sectors were furloughed, without any clear idea when (or even if) they would be able to return to work. For an industry built largely on the passion and dedication of its employees, this was for many, a bitter pill to swallow. Thankfully though, salvation was at hand, in the form of Archaeology on Furlough.

Advertised through social media, Archaeology on Furlough provided a series of online volunteer projects which could be completed, over the course of a few weeks, by small teams of archaeologists, working purely from home, using only the materials they might reasonably be expected to have on their home computers. The aim was to lift spirits, raise morale and ultimately equip participants with additional experience to support future job applications. Any professionals who were interested could submit their details on the website, including an outline of their interests/expertise. They would then be matched with a project (and some new team mates), whereupon they could begin their investigations.

Ranging from Saxon Buildings and Prehistoric Henges, to Roman Coal Mining and the Extinction of Aurochs, the projects (virtually) transported members across the UK and through centuries of history. After dusting off their kilts and donning their finest tartan, Group 7 headed for the hills, ready to explore the woolly world of sheep farming in the Lammermuirs.

Sheep farming in the Lammermuirs has a long history, likely dating back to at least the later prehistoric period. As a result, it has had a profound impact upon the culture, economy and above all, the landscape of this part of South East Scotland. Group 7 would be focusing on these changes to the area’s landscape, by searching for and recording the locations of structures connected to the sheep farming industry.

Comparing data souces allowedfor a more complete site recognition

But how could this data be collected? During a time in which Britons were limited to one hour-long walk per day (which had to both start and end at one’s own front door), how would it be possible for a team based throughout the UK to conduct this type of archaeological field survey? The answer was, of course, technology.

Once the team had got to grips with the basics of Zoom video calling, we decided to use Google Earth to identify possible sites, with each person being given their own section, or “grid square” within the search area. We were then able to cross reference images of these potential sites (as they weren’t always particularly clear!) with other publicly available sources of aerial photography, including Bing and Apple Maps. Modern and historical OS maps, which are available for free on the National Library of Scotland’s website, were also invaluable tools for cross referencing and identifying sites, while some team members were even able to use their skills to analyse the Scottish Government’s LiDAR dataset to discover sites that were not visible to the naked eye.

In total, the team was able to identify 860 sites, once errors and duplicates had been removed. We recorded their locations, along with their size, physical description, nearby features and any other significant details, using GIS technology to plot each point on the map. We were then able to analyse this information, leading to some surprising (along with some not so surprising) discoveries.

Various types of sheepfolds were recorded, from different time periods and function

Firstly, and unsurprisingly, the most common types of structure were turf- and stone-walled circular sheepfolds, with 289 examples found. These structures are essentially circular-shaped pens in which sheep can be held and were found throughout the search area. Interestingly, further research by one of our team members indicated that many of them were constructed on top of medieval rig and furrow farming. This means that they are likely to be post-medieval in date, although some still appear to be in use (if you’re wondering, one of the most exciting parts of the project was finding a sheep actually inside one of your potential structures).

Gamelshiel Castle, robbed to create a stone circular sheepfold

The other sites that we recorded included sheep stells (curved or straight walls in a variety of configurations against which sheep could shelter in inclement weather), sheep houses (where sheep could be kept inside), and sheep dips or washes. Generic animal enclosures, as well as several modern and historical farmsteads were also found. Some of these features were found throughout the search area, while others appeared in particular clusters or groups.

Topographic analysis showed that the majority of sheepfolds identified were situated less than 100m above sea level, with none found above 122m. This suggests that, despite their hardy reputation, neither the sheep nor the farmers of the Lammermuirs were particularly keen on braving the harsh conditions that can often be found on the tops of the hills. Since heavy winter snowfalls often rendered these areas inaccessible however, this is not particularly unexpected.

One of the GIS distribution maps

In fact, accessibility of sheepfolds does appear to have been important, as 56% of examples were found within 100m of a roadway or pathway. In contrast, only 36% of sites were found with 100m of water or a waterway, while 28% of sites were close to woodland.

One of the most interesting outcomes of the project was the research that one of our team members conducted into the area’s place names. This research showed that the names of several sites had a direct link to their sheep farming history. This included Ewelairs Hill (meaning a place which “afforded good pasture for sheep”), and Wedder Law, Wedderlie and Wether Law, which all found their origins in the Old English word for ram, weðer. There were also many places which included the word “fold” in their name, for example Stonefold and Hurdlaw Folds. In addition to shedding light on the activities that occurred in these places throughout their history, this is also an excellent example of the cultural impact that sheep farming still has on the area today.

Finally, one of the most surprising (and potentially exciting) outcomes of the research was a discovery which was arguably not related to sheep farming at all. What was it? A potentially unrecorded hillfort. This hasn’t been confirmed as yet, but the team would love to explore this further in future, now that physical archaeology has started to resume. Perhaps the team could have an excavation/staycation in the area next summer!?

The tell tale double ditch cropmark of a typical fort lying on the edge of a steep drop to the river below. Only appearing on a single BingMap Image year.

Overall, the team really enjoyed completing the project and are proud to have been able to contribute to the history of sheep farming in the Lammermuir hills. In addition to enabling us to use our skills (and our brains) in a meaningful way while on furlough, the project also had one other major benefit: we were able to connect with a wonderful group of people (or maybe sheeple?) from across the country, whom we otherwise may never have met. In other words, the project was a perfect way to stay sane (and safe) during lockdown.

If you want to read about the results of our project in more detail, as well as others completed by Archaeology on Furlough volunteers, project reports are available at:

Engaging with your future


I remember a time I lacked money and means. I had time due to me and took a few days leave. I had to travel across the channel to attend conferences. Paid for it myself and had to put some things off for a few months. Every year for the first decade plus of me educating myself by going over the North Sea. For me here and now it was seemingly useless, a waste of time, a mad hobby of self-inflicted financial and personal damage. Being a member of CIfA in Europe for the last 20 years seemed to be as useless as a nail without a hammer.

Is it?

Nowadays I’m told that I’m influential and people have even accused me of being part of ‘the establishment’, even perceived as the enemy. No clear explanation is given and proof seems to be lacking – and not even required.

After 25 years talking and striving for decent working conditions, pay and collective labour agreements, I feel I have lost my grip on reality? For all that time I tried to both warn and inform my fellow archaeologists about the down sides of a commercial system (there is an upside as well, but for now that is not the point). Now I hear my same arguments with the same tired answers being rehashed and reworded as the great new idea to better the lot of archaeology. I have tried to stir up interest and called for activism – and failed!

My payment so far is a reasonable to warm welcome in most offices, institutions and sites in the UK; on average I get offered more drinks than I buy for others; on a regular base I’m put up in spare rooms when I visit the UK; we have lovely chats with lovely people. In essence though – nothing changes and as with almost everywhere else in the world – archaeologists are not that happy with the situation they are in.

So is it hopeless?    No!

I would like to take a brief moment to thank David and his colleagues for all the hard work they put into BAJR, the associated organisations and charities and the massive BAJR Facebook group. Did I ever get a job in UK Archaeology, the answer is no, however, many did and still do. So for me, there was no direct profit in me joining CIfA or involving myself in discussions on BAJR, no return on my investment of countless hours online trying to wrestle answers from the whole situation of labour as an aspect of the archaeological organism in a Pan European context. Was it money- wise wise to do this, as with so much in my life, it can be perceived as a net loss.

I have had several arguments with David over strategy and tactics. Never a fight but rather constructive and civil arguments where I have thought some of his actions unwise and he undoubtedly has had similar views about some of my more naïve ideas. That said, we have both gained some weight and there is more grey in our hairs. But in one way or the other we find ourselves as being perceived as influential.

In truth he is much more influential than I am especially with a larger and broader audience. But in essence our aims have not changed over the last few decades. Improving the lot of archaeology workers broadening its general appeal and striving for a better quality in research and conditions under which we work. The agenda is there and it has been there for 30 years.

You want some influence as well? You want to be heard? You will show those in power how to use it for the betterment of archaeology, including archaeologists!
Then here is the secret recipe:

  1. Turn up
  2. Join others
  3. Pay your dues
  4. Speak out
  5. Make contributions such as lectures, volunteer your time, participate
  6. Take risks
  7. Pick yourself up
  8. Repeat those steps and never stop.

But this has not worked

True but there is a perfectly simple explanation why the effects of our (a word that signifies all others that walk the walk and talk the talk along their way) endeavors have been so limited. It is the lack of a critical mass. In history these revolutions or switches in beliefs and paradigm’s are only there because of critical mass, for with a lack of numbers, a lack of participants there can be no movement for change. You believe that, as if by magic, things are suddenly different, no, it is the consequence of a long long process building up to a critical mass of people.

So what do we need more than anything right now?

Engagement and You

Join CIfA, Join Groups, Join PROSPECT give up some of your time, (just a bit). Support each other, and be kind to others. Blame nobody and strive to make others lives better, you may find that as if by magic, your life will transform too.

CIfA :
CIfA Groups :
BAJR Facebook:


Archaeological search engine under construction


Apps that can identify ceramics, coins or bones shows that archaeology has embraced artificial intelligence and now Alex Brandsen, a PhD candidate at Leiden University is working on a search engine that scans vast quantities of text from archaeological works and understands the nuances.

It hardly seemed a recipe for success: graduating in archaeology in 2009, the year of the crisis. But Alex Brandsen had studied digital archaeology at York and he successfully made it through the crisis as a programmer. Now his knowledge of both archaeology and programming is in great demand: ‘I’ve noticed at conferences over the last two years that AI has become a real buzzword, and a lot of money and energy are going into it.’

Brandsen himself is working on a search engine for archaeologists that can quickly and effectively scan all the excavation reports of Dutch finds. ‘For example, if you search under burial rites in the Middle Ages, the search engine needs to understand that the term 1200 CE is also relevant. There are thousands of terms that mean Middle Ages and it has to find them all. It must also be able to distinguish between a bill as a bladed weapon and a researcher whose name is Bill.’ Using the supercomputer ALICE in the University’s renovated data centre, Brandsen is training his language system in recognising these archaeological concepts.

Extras for archaeologists
Brandsen wants to add even more extras to make archaeologists happy. ‘Google’s search results only give you a few snippets and the title. Archaeologists are very interested in where something is, so I want a map to be displayed with every search result.’

Alex Brandsen, PhD candidate at the interface between archaeology and computer science

‘It’s a big challenge to make it as fast as Google’
The search engine must have the ability to rapidly use all the text in a database of around 60,000 reports containing a total of around 360 million words. ‘That isn’t particularly large from the text mining perspective, but with all those extra tasks it’s a big challenge to make it as fast as Google.’

There is already a search engine that scans only the metadata of archaeological papers, such as the title and abstract. But, as Brandsen points out, a paper about the Bronze Age – according to the title and abstract – can actually contain an important observation about the Middle Ages. ‘Digging’ with his search engine can therefore result in new finds.

Burials and cremations
‘As a case study, I’m working with a fellow archaeologist, Femke Lippok. She’s researching burials and cremations of people who died in the early Middle Ages. The current consensus is that burial was the norm, but she’s already found a few reports that mention cremations. It’s just not possible for her to read everything about the Middle Ages, settlements and burials herself, so a search engine that can find this information is very useful. It can give us a clearer picture of the past.’

Archaeology is full of AI
The extent of the growing use of artificial intelligence in archaeology became even more evident to Brandsen when he and his colleague Wouter Verschoof-van der Vaart organised a session on AI at a conference. ‘There were presentations about mobile phone apps that can completely analyse a photograph of a shard. Type of pottery, type of decoration… In Leiden, master’s student Anne Dijkstra is working on a method for measuring heel bones and then determining whether they’re from a man or a woman. And coins too can already be automatically identified, giving you the year and the emperor as well.’

Verschoof-van der Vaart, the colleague who organised the AI session with Brandsen, is himself working on a universal system to find and classify archaeological objects on digital height models on the basis of artificial intelligence; burial mounds, for example. This is greatly needed, because the veritable flood of images available to archaeologists today, thanks to satellites, height measurements and other forms of remote sensing, is beyond the processing capacity of humans.

Text: Rianne Lindhout
Photo: Patricia Nauta