This Monday (27th September 2021), archaeologist and well-known flint specialist Phil Harding celebrated his 50th anniversary of working in archaeology! We took this exciting opportunity to sit down with Phil for a chat and ask him a few questions about his career in archaeology...
Congratulations on celebrating your 50th anniversary of working in archaeology! How does it feel, and have you celebrated yet?
“Well, I don’t know whether it’s a cause of celebration! It doesn’t seem like 50 years – I mean everyone always says, ‘Doesn’t time fly?’ Yeah it does, I’ll tell you that! It don’t feel like 50 years.
I suppose the main thing is, that sense of achievement that I’ve done with my life what I set out to do, and it has been 50 years! Certainly, when I set out on that, you’d have never dreamed that it was possible. You might have thought you’d have done it for 10 years, or something like that, but the idea that it would carry on and still be going after 50 years. The downside of course is the fact that you’ve done it for 50 years, chances are you ain’t going to do it for another 50, so that’s not so encouraging! But I keep going as long as I still love archaeology. That’s when it’s going to be the time to pack up, when I don’t love archaeology anymore. I can’t see that ever happening, to be bluntly honest!
I must confess, it was appropriate that we should celebrate in a little way. Chris Brayne and Giles Woodhouse took me up to the pub and bought me a pint and a small group of us went out for a curry and, to be bluntly honest, I probably celebrate that more than I do a birthday, I’m not a great birthday-er or anything like that, just reminds you that you’re getting old. But somehow or another, 50 years in archaeology, that is worth having!”
You must have seen some interesting changes in the field of archaeology during this time. How does archaeology differ now from when you started?
“The obvious one is that you can be an archaeologist now! When I started, you were just an itinerant digger. The funny thing is that when I started probably most of the people on the digs hadn’t been into higher education, or perhaps if they had done they’d dropped out. Now when you talk to people everyone’s been to university, so there’s a big switch in that respect. Inevitably you get changes where it’s become a profession; the tie-ins to the construction industry and all the rules and regulations that we follow, and none of that existed in my day!
One of the things I do feel very grateful about is that the funding is much better – not just the funding for the fieldwork but for the post-excavation. There was just so much work years ago that was not funded. You went and did the dig, but you were not allowed to write it up and now that is an integral part of any project. I think that is an important thing.”
Our conversation is going to be shared on our website, which obviously 50 years ago wouldn’t have been possible! Many people have been introduced to archaeology through TV and the internet. Do you have any thoughts on how we share archaeology and bring it to life has changed through your career?
“Well, going back to my childhood, we didn’t have telly like everyone seems to have telly now (except people like me). I think there’s always been a passion or an interest in archaeology on the telly. Going back to my childhood, it was Sir Mortimer Wheeler and people were captivated by him because he was such a strong personality, and he was vibrant and dynamic and came over well. And of course, archaeology was different in those days; it was very much a set BBC format, much more regimented than what it is nowadays.
Modern forms of communication have come in and some of us adapt to those things more readily than others. In other words, I’m one of those who doesn’t! I ain’t got a lot of time for social media. I think it has its values; like a lot of things, there are a lot of pluses but there's a lot of minuses. You know, any of these things could be open to abuse. If you go back to the old main medium of television or radio, you can get good radio or good television, but you get absolute rubbish as well!
I have had people who can remember seeing us on Time Team saying, ‘It changed my life. I went and took a degree in archaeology’ and that’s a great privilege. But it’s also scary in a way, it’s a scary responsibility, because what is a passion for me might not be a passion for them. What they see on Time Team is obviously telly as well as archaeology, so it doesn't necessarily reflect the day-to-day jobs archaeologists do. I just have to hope like hell that once they dip their toe in the water, that it was what they thought it was gonna be and that they have actually decided it was worth the effort! It always worked for me, and when I used to be on the telly, truth to say it wasn’t being on the telly that was important, it was the archaeology that was important.”
Do you have any particular moments that really stand out from your time as an archaeologist so far?
“In a professional sense and probably in a personal sense it was being awarded an honorary doctorate. I know that's not a great find or a great site, but it was something which at the time was unexpected – I didn’t expect to get it and I didn’t ask for it, but it was very humbling to think that you've made that contribution. So those sorts of things you think well, I suppose somebody must be noticing what I’ve done!
I mean, I don't think it makes me a better person or a different person. I still regard myself as, you know, ‘Phil off the telly’, ‘Phil out the trenches’, that's the way I feel. I don't want to be rewarded. The reward is hopefully doing good archaeology.”
Are there any archaeological sites or stories that you weren’t involved in, but wish you had been?
“No I don’t think so. You take what lady luck throws at you! I’ve been perhaps even luckier than most.
In about 20 years on Time Team, I went to so many diverse places and that provided the challenge of learning about different archaeology, in different parts of the country, and particularly on different geology and the rest of it. Those were the great rewards for me professionally - that challenge of getting your head round an alien geology, trying to work out how the archaeology looked and how you were going to deal with it, and using your experience to learn more.
I have had the opportunities of digging in such a diverse spread of places. I’ve got a map on the wall with all the pins of all the places that Time Team dug, and it’s not just where they are in the British Isles (and some abroad of course), like I say the different geologies are different archaeological challenges. Those were the great rewards for me, to dig in places like that and to get that diverse experience. Yeah, there's always great sites other people have done, great finds other people have made, and all the rest of it, but they’d probably be envious of some of the sites I've dug. They ought to be cause I've done some crackers!”
And are there any archaeological sites or archaeological milestones that you have your eye on for the future?
“That’s dead easy! Clear some of my excavation backlog. My moral duty as an archaeologist is not just to dig sites but to write them up, and that's just something that’s been drummed into me, and the older I get the more I enjoy writing.
The old body don't work quite as well as it did in terms of muck shifting, but it would break my heart to think that I could not finish off some of the sites. Bulford is still number one, and then once I've got that out then I might feel like slackening off a bit. It keeps me driven, because I have an obligation; that to me is my moral responsibility as an archaeologist. I’ve always said, ‘he or she who digs sites should be responsible for writing them up. Nobody knows the site like the person what digs it.’”
What’s your favourite thing about being an archaeologist?
“I don't know, I suppose in the early days it was finding stuff and also I did enjoy physical work. If I could do it to the extent that I used to I’d still like to do it, but I suppose it is increasingly now ‘what does it mean?’ and ‘what does it tell you?’ and trying to recreate those past communities with these modern technologies. It’s not to say you couldn't recreate them in my day – you’d have illustrators in the mould of the late great Victor Ambrus. There's always gonna be a place for people like Victor. He was such a talented man. You can never say those people are obsolete, but there's a place where you can embrace that with modern technology.
The work that I’m doing now in Salisbury is to tell the story of the city from 40 years of digs. The most recent thing I’m getting excited about was the history of the cloth production in Salisbury and finding out about something called the Salisbury ray which was a form of cloth that was distinctive to Salisbury. What the hell is that got to do with archaeology? Everything! You might start off being focused on wall foundations and dirt and layers and that sort of thing and you’ve got to get your head round that. That’s your raw data. But then you can expand out from that. ‘What does it tell you about the people?’ There might have been a weaver here – well what the hell was he weaving? ‘I don’t know’ – well go and find out. Beaver off to some book or Google, and you find this stuff called ‘Salisbury ray’ so now the big challenge is, ‘what the hell does Salisbury ray look like?’ You think that you’ve come to the end of the storyline, but bang! It goes on again, it’s never ending.
Where do you think archaeology might be in the next 50 years?
“I really don't know. I'd like to think that archelogy will thrive – I think people are captivated by it and the amount of information that we can learn compared with what we could learn years ago because of these scientific techniques.
When you make these discoveries, if you communicate it in the right way, you can captivate the population so that people respond and appreciate archaeology and why understanding the past is really really important. If you find stuff and you don't project it and animate it in the right way, and speak of it vigorously, people are going to go ‘oh, is that all you found? That’s not very much, that’s not very exciting’, so archaeology isn’t very exciting. But if you inject a bit of passion into it – it’s got to be genuine passion – if you can communicate with people in plain English, if you captivate and recreate and tell people why this stuff is really important, then I think that they have a better understanding and a better grasp of it, and they really do appreciate why it is necessary to carry on doing it. If you’ve got the population and the love of that behind you, it is a lot easier. Of course, a lot of developers do understand the public relations benefits of promoting what they do so you know that helps as well.
I suppose what I’d have to say is that it don't matter how many new modern techniques they come up with, you’ll never replace somebody down a hole with a trowel and a shovel. You won't get rid of them. If you get rid of them, you ain't gonna get any archaeology done at all!”
Do you have any advice for those just starting out in archaeology?
“Oh that’s a very simple, simple one to answer. Just go out and do it. You know whether you want to do it, and that’s not just archaeology, that's life in general - if you’ve been chosen to do whatever the fates have said ‘that's what you're gonna do’, then you’ve just got to go out there and do it. You do it as long as you can, to the best of your ability, and if at the end of it you have to give it up, you’ll say ‘well at least I tried’.”
Thank you Phil for chatting with us, and congratulations again on celebrating your 50th anniversary in archaeology!