In this blog, Dr Bob Clarke, our Deputy Research Director, takes us on a personal journey as he explores what he, as a visually impaired expert, adds to archaeology. From interpreting material culture to developing a more accessible language, Bob discusses opportunities to make archaeology more inclusive. 

I hope everyone is enjoying the latest series of Digging for Britain on BBC 2. Yet another collection of interesting and exciting archaeological sites under excavation by commercial archaeologists, universities and independent heritage groups. I always think that the connection with archaeology, in its many guises and forms, has something to offer everyone. This blog hopefully demonstrates that idea, from my personal perspective as someone who was filmed for the latest series of Digging for Britain, exploring possible signs of a Civil War skirmish at the HS2 site of Coleshill Manor, and as someone with a visual impairment.

My journey

Just over four years ago my world radically changed when I lost my sight practically overnight. In that moment, it felt like the dreams and ambition’s of my family went up in smoke. On reflection, things are not as bad as they may have seemed back then, and here's why.

I count myself lucky, as I had 54 years of being able to see. This allowed me to have a full career as an aircraft engineer working both here and abroad. It also meant that I was able to follow my second career path, that of one in archaeology. Now everyone has a certain view as to what constitutes an archaeologist. Currently, people who flaunt their scruffiness and often own a hat of some description seem to be at the forefront of any public interpretation of the discipline. Of course, we all know this is not the case. Programmes like Time Team and the more recent newcomer (although it is in its 10th series) Digging for Britain, have been at pains to show the public that there is much more to archaeology than just digging. And this is where my story really starts.

I firmly believe that the last two years of various lockdowns and social privations has demonstrated to many of the population that there are some in our communities who suffer debilitating problems through disability. Maybe controversially, those lockdowns and restrictions have forced us to understand what a life hampered by physical and mental restrictions really feels like.

When I lost my sight at the beginning of April 2019 I thought my career was over. I was two years into a Research Manager role with Wessex Archaeology, dealing with project management on a range of sites across the country. I conducted regular site visits, wrote up sites and interacted with archaeological records, numerous publications, photographs, maps and plans - you name it I dealt with it. I had a number of research interests, including a major input nationally in the study of the Cold War and the Archaeology of Mass Destruction (I can talk about concrete structures for hours!). I was in the process of building, with other departments, a multi-disciplinary programme covering crashed aircraft sites, both marine and terrestrial. And I was also beginning to think about my career progression within the company. So you can imagine, to say the loss of my sight was a shock, is quite an understatement and certainly a major career-stopper as far as I was concerned. Thankfully, Wessex Archaeology didn't think so and since those dark days I have been supported by a fantastic team allowing me to carry on with my chosen career, unhindered.

A new perspective on archaeology

I am now developing new ways to encounter archaeology and demonstrate some of the benefits I can bring through my physical interaction with sites and archaeological artefacts. Don't get me wrong, there is a long way to go but I am a great advocate of promoting archaeology and I now feel I have been given a new role - to make the discipline more accessible.

The opportunity to discuss the Civil War evidence from Coleshill Manor with a TV crew was a chance not to be missed and once again I'm thankful that Wessex Archaeology was able to support me in this. I had a twofold mission, the first was to actually encounter the archaeology first-hand, as you will see in the episode of Digging for Britain. Touch is everything. By scanning the wall by hand I can understand the spools of material that had been knocked off the recently discovered gatehouse and think about what they were telling me. The first thing to say is that a bullet hole of a musket ball is just that in a photograph, it appears like a dot and nothing more, when it is illustrated it appears like a dot and nothing more but when you stick your finger in it, it becomes so much more.

 Dr Bob Clarke and Professor Alice Roberts standing together in front of the medieval gatehouse at Coleshill Manor. They are both wearing orange high vis clothing and a helmet.

Above: Dr Bob Clarke and Professor Alice Roberts stand together in front of the medieval gatehouse at Coleshill Manor.

The size of the hole, including both diameter and depth are informative, as is the angle of penetration, revealing whether the shots were fired straight on or at an angle. All this has a bearing because it is a secondary way of understanding something of the instance the weapon was fired. Pockmarks of similar diameter and depth suggest that either the same musket or the same calibre of musket was fired from a similar position.

An examination of the musket shot found on site is also informative. Of course, musket balls are intended to be a near-perfect ball shape, although, in reality, this is very rarely true. There was very little industrial process to the production of such ammunition and there are plenty of accounts of churches and other buildings having lead stripped from them so it could be made into shot for both Royalists and Parliamentarians. All this can be felt simply by rolling a musket ball between your fingers - it is surprising how subtle the deformity can be but your hands still pick this up.

When a musket is discharged, the gunpowder rapidly turns into an expanding gas. This is what propels the ball along the barrel and then on to the target. As lead is relatively soft, the gas deforms the shot as it drives the ball out of the musket. The shot can pick up unique marks from this. A shot hitting nothing also can be informative, as can a splattered (technical term!) example. This is a signature that the shot has struck something hard, like a gatehouse perhaps?

The point is that this can be done by feel alone. And just to prove the point I recently identified a slingshot round in an assemblage of Iron Age ceramic material. This again was done through touch alone. Of course, you have to know what constitutes an Iron Age slingshot round in the first place, but this can be taught. Not being able to see the artefact in your hand forces you to interpret every little lump and bump or shape/ misshape you feel.

The second reason for grabbing the opportunity to appear on the BBC was to be able to show the world that even when severely visually impaired, you have a chance to do what you want. Granted, I sit on quite a wealth of previous experience, but no matter, I am still a blind archaeologist, on a construction site and able to show I can add value to the interpretation of the archaeology of that site. And pleasingly, Digging for Britain was happy to make sure my white cane was visible in shot and to introduce me as a visually impaired archaeologist.

Making archaeology more accessible

So, what can I add to archaeology? First and foremost I hope I've demonstrated that getting up close and personal with the archaeology on a given site presents the visually impaired archaeologist with an opportunity to interpret material culture in a different way. 

The sharing of archaeological results is one of the most important parts of our investigations. Yes, digging is vital, and many of us have suffered extreme weather conditions just to ensure that the maximum information is recovered from a site. That said, it is how we promote our findings and inform not only our clients and national heritage debates but importantly, the public on what we do and what we have discovered.

These days I cannot ‘see’ images so have to rely on the descriptions provided by site records or by my colleagues to build up a mental picture. What I have discovered is that there are a million and one ways to describe anything! Clearly there is potential here to streamline this somewhat. This would help develop skills in our teams but probably, more importantly, if I cannot understand what is being described to me, especially in written text, then the public will also find that text indiscernible.

So, you hopefully get the idea. As I have said all along, this is definitely a work in progress but it is one way I feel I can help make the discipline, its findings, and heritage generally, more accessible. As mentioned at the top of this article, one of my main specialisms is the archaeology of the Cold War - I'm currently working out how to describe a rather featureless concrete blockhouse to those that can only build a mental picture of it. Did I mentioned I also enjoy a challenge?

If you're interested in Bob's work please feel free to contact us at