My name is Jasper Sandford-McFadden and I am an archaeology student, studying BSc Archaeological Practice with a Professional Placement at the University of Winchester. I am in my third year which is my work placement year. In September 2019, I was fortunate to have started the first three months of a nine-month work placement, with Wessex Archaeology, based at the Salisbury office.

The main reason I got into archaeology is that I have a great love of history. Archaeology gives you a way of personally touching history.  It allows you to create a more detailed story in the mind, as when a site is excavated, you gain insights into what is was like for people living at a particular place, during a specific period of time.

I enjoyed taking A-Level History, which I passed with a B. I studied the Russian Revolution, the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, along with Witchcraft.  As part of my coursework, I wrote an essay on Richard III and the possible fates of the Princes in the Tower, for which I was pleased to get an A grade. 

My placement at Wessex Archaeology is especially relevant for me because along with my various strengths, I have some additional needs & learning difficulties, including higher-functioning Autism and Dyslexia. This makes it more difficult, for instance, for me to socialise and to communicate with people.  This means it can be harder for me to understand instructions. Wessex Archaeology, as a company, are very supportive of my needs and they are keen that we learn from each other. This work placement is designed for someone with additional needs, like me.

There are various adjustments in the work place that can be made which, if implemented, enable me to bring my strengths into my job. Wessex Archaeology supports my needs at work and they have a detailed, written policy on autism in the work place. Some examples of small adjustments that can make a big difference are; I will often need instructions to be straight forward and precise, and for them to be broken down into sections. Also, I may need people to explain things more than once or sometimes write them down and to check I have understood what is needed. It also means that I may need longer to complete tasks than other people. It is also helpful to have confirmation that I have carried out the task to the best of my ability.

I generally need more time when I am carrying out a written task, such as, an article, report or a blog. The university generally gives me more time where I need it and this works well, so I am able to complete the task. My experience at university has meant I know that with a little understanding and some reasonable adjustments, I am able to work to the best of my ability and settle comfortably to my work, fulfilling what is required.

One of the really helpful aspects about this placement is that I am working with mentors.  My first mentor is Jenny Loader, a Field Technician.  Jenny has taught me a lot and has been great to work with. Andy Crockett, Regional Director South, is overseeing the placement and the mentoring, and I can go to him about anything I need to. 


Working at Wessex Archaeology

I started the placement with a two-week induction at the Salisbury office.  Then I had a few days to research the site I was going to be working on. I also spent some time washing finds, including some that were already coming in from the dig. I also started studying for the online CSCS (Construction Skills Certification Scheme) exam.

My main role at Wessex Archaeology during my placement was to be part of the fieldwork team and work on site at an archaeological dig.  The dig was at Somerton in Somerset, and the Project Officer was Kathryn Brook and the Project Manager was Damian De Rosa.  Working on the site was really engaging, challenging and enjoyable; I learned so much.  The site is an Iron Age/Romano-British settlement and it is located about an hour away from the main office. It was important that the archaeology work at the site was completed during this excavation because there will not be another opportunity to excavate there, as they are planning to build a new Primary School at the site.  Due to the extremely interesting archaeology that has been uncovered and the unexpected, high level of finds, the excavation period was extended to December 2019. I was so lucky to have been working on such a great dig at the start!

My main role there was to excavate features on the site and then to record them in detail. For me, this mainly involved excavating post holes. This is due to the availability of jobs to do on the site, at a specific time, and because they are a useful, first target to practice excavation techniques with. They are particularly good for practicing undertaking half sections, which you have to get the edges straight on.  This is a challenge on any excavation.

Jasper on site recording postholes

I also worked on other features, such as ditches and others which have turned out to be natural features, rather than archaeological. This image shows me working to clear up the area around, what we believed may have been the edges of a ditch, so that we could clearly see this from the surface. Once excavation had started, we found that there were some natural features there.

 As a result of having excavated at least 10 postholes, I can say I pretty much got the hang of it! I learned to make sure that my half sections are straight and no doubt, I will have the opportunity to practice this further.   

Once the sections were straight, I then photographed them, using the correct, measurement scale bars. Then I recorded the exact details of the half section and the feature by carrying out, firstly, a half section drawing, which is done using a level string and a measurement tape, and then, a plan of the feature which I do using the tape to measure from.  To make sure the string is tight and level, Jenny and I devised a useful clip system to fasten the string, as due to my challenges, I find tying knots very difficult.  One simple way we adapted archaeological methods, to make it possible for me to do what I need to do successfully!

The set up for a half section drawing of two postholes

The set up for a half section drawing of two postholes.

I found that the two types of drawings, which are recorded on the same drawing number and sheet, are not so simple to draw. I had to remember that the half section is drawn using the scale 1:10, whereas, the plan is drawn 1:20. Furthermore, the exact details that are placed next to the two drawings are completely different. For example, for the half section I had to record a Matrix of all the different contexts in the feature and how they come chronologically. Whereas, for the plan I had to record a North arrow, showing the direction of North in reference to the feature, which is determined using a compass. Both of the drawings tend to need a key, to explain what different features in the drawing are, for example, the stones.  I think my drawing has improved during my time on this site.

An example of a half section drawing, that is in the process of being drawn

An example of a half section drawing, that is in the process of being drawn. 

After making the drawings, I then made a record of information about each of the contexts in the feature, which tend to be cuts and the fill. This information includes what material the cuts are made up of, their color, and the feature’s dimensions. This information is important, as it helps people in post-excavation learn more about the different contexts and what they tell us about the feature and surrounding features. This could include, how old the features and context are, which could be found either from the order in which the context was created e.g. which cuts were dug first, or by any archaeological finds that may have been recovered from the features. However, not that many archaeological finds were recorded from the post holes that I excavated.

As part of the Fieldwork Team, to start with I carried out all of the work on the archaeological site with my mentor, Jenny, who was really nice and helpful. However, she was later able to leave me to carry out my excavation work on my own, for long periods of time. She still needed to check when I was ready to take the required photographs and if my Context Sheets have been filled in correctly. Also, I was given other specific tasks to do, by the Fieldwork Director, Kathryn Brook.

When I was doing the finds washing, at the main office, I was working in a group of various other people, who were also working for the Salisbury, Wessex Archaeology department.   So I met lots of the staff members from the Salisbury office.

From the excavation, I would say that I learnt how to make half sections straighter.  My troweling and mattocking skills have progressed, and I learnt a lot about drawing and my drawing skills have improved.  Furthermore, I have become almost an expert on knowing how to fill out the different types of Context Sheets correctly.

Also, I have passed the CSCS exam, an industry standard qualification, that means I can work safely on a construction site.

What I learned from my placement

The work that I have done with Wessex Archaeology has beaten the expectations that I had when I first started my work placement.  I had the opportunity to learn so much about archaeology by working here. Doing this placement has given me a real insight into professional archaeology.  This will stand me in good stead for going into this field for my future career. Therefore, I would really recommend doing a placement with Wessex, as part of archaeology course or just as work experience. I also think that I have surprised even myself, in terms of the quality of work that I have been able to carry out, so far with Wessex Archaeology.  All these new skills and the knowledge acquired will feed into my final year at university and my future career prospects.      

Next, I am hoping to move away from excavating post holes, to start excavating other features. One of my later tasks was to dig a metre-wide section into a ditch. I did this by using a mattock and shovel to excavate down to the natural material, which is Blue Lias stone on this particular site. Now that we have finished excavating at the site, construction of the school can begin. I am also looking forward to finding out what my next fieldwork project will be.

Becoming an archaeologist

If you are interested in becoming an archaeologist, as well as a love of history and an interest piecing together the past, then I would recommend that you need to be a tough person!  Someone who is able to deal with working in extreme conditions.  As we have worked through very wet, cold and sometimes windy conditions.  A good base layer can definitely help!  And a tolerance for mud is useful!  Also, you need to be prepared to practice and repeat certain tasks. Overall, I would really recommend becoming an archaeologist, as I am finding it is very enjoyable, especially working at Wessex Archaeology.

By Jasper Sandford-McFadden