Mud and painted nails: An archaeologist’s story

International Women’s Day has been celebrated on 8th March for more than a century. The theme for 2022 is #BreaktheBias. The day celebrates women’s achievement, raises awareness against bias and takes action for equality. For our post this year, ULAS Archaeological Assistant Isobel Moss tells us about what inspired her to become an archaeologist and why she loves her job…

I’ve been working in commercial archaeology for about four and a half years, two and a half of which have been with the University of Leicester Archaeological Services and I’m thoroughly enjoying my job.

I first said I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was about seven, most likely due to my family’s habitual watching of Time Team on a Sunday evening. Seeing women like Carenza Lewis and Helen Geake presenting artefacts and features in the ground with such enthusiasm that I wished to join them.

However, as I grew older I forgot about that dream until I got the opportunity in 2011 through my secondary school to join an HEFA test pitting project in Manuden lead by Carenza Lewis who at that time was working for Cambridge University. I excitedly wrote a three page letter to my teacher begging to go and before I knew it I was in a 1x1m hole in a rural village in Essex. I expected to find lots of really cool interesting artefacts, enthusiastically work as part of a team of interested students and to meet and be inspired by one of my idols. I mean, one out of three isn’t bad is it?

My first dig

We found absolutely nothing of note in our test pit apart from some modern barbed wire and a pig tusk. My team was comprised of other demoralised teenagers who decided that as we found nothing we would aim to win the prize of deepest test pit which put our newly acquired mattocking skills to the test. But I did indeed get to meet and talk to Carenza Lewis who pointed out that our hard work was not for nothing and actually that our careful recording and excavating would increase our understanding of the development and occupation of the village throughout history. This got me to think about the wider implications and subtlety of archaeology, far beyond the amazing finds shown in the media.

This was something I thought about and remembered when I reached the point of starting to apply to universities and decided to study BA History and Archaeology and then a Masters in Archaeology at the University of Leicester (and I’ve never looked back). During my time at university I was taught by some incredible female lecturers many of whom are leaders in their fields and helped to intensify my love for post-medieval archaeology, osteology and paleopathology. I also got to meet other women my age who shared my passion, a few of whom I am lucky enough to be working alongside to this day.

After finishing university I decided I’d actually give being a commercial archaeologist a proper go. In fact I was one of a number of young women in my year who made this decision, many of whom are still working in archaeology across the country being the amazing people they are.

2021 – a year in archaeology

When I first started I lacked confidence in my own abilities; but this changed with time and the example and encouragement of fellow female colleagues and managers who helped me realise that I was just as capable as anyone else and could excel at anything I put my mind to. In fact I now believe that everyone has the capacity to achieve in archaeology if they truly wish to and enjoy what they’re doing and I just love learning all of the different aspects of my job from not only onsite work, but research, finds work and writing reports and take delight in the small things.

ULAS’s women in archaeology

I find such a sense of achievement after successfully excavating a feature using my mattock to dig down or just my trowel, noting the changes in the soil, recovering any finds I see such as pottery or animal bone and revealing things that haven’t been seen for hundreds of years. I like the camaraderie of taking photos in direct sunlight where everyone tries to provide shade to enable the feature to be seen. I really enjoy drawing features using measurements to draw what was within the ground of what was in the ground and recording the information that any small change in soil or finds can tell us. When I get the chance to work in the lab I always have a great time and find satisfaction removing the mud that has covered these artefacts or retrieving evidence from environmental samples.

There are still some obstacles to overcome being a women working on construction sites from insufficient planning for toilet access to the odd sexist comment. However, these issues are becoming scarcer and I hope that this is something I will see continue to improve. Mostly I just love being able to demonstrate how a 1x1m test pit which found mostly modern barbed wire and silting can help to tell the story of a village and its expansion over time.

I come away from a day on site with my painted nails slightly chipped from my work, my hair coming out of its plaits from being underneath a hard hat all day and covered in mud from digging a feature, but I would not have it any other way. I love being a woman in archaeology and if I can inspire at least one person in the way that I have been inspired and continue to be by the other incredible female archaeologists I’ve had the pleasure of knowing throughout my short time in archaeology then I’ll be happy and I’m so proud to count myself amongst them.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Angela Szabo says:

    Thanks for this insight into your daily work life. It’s interesting to hear how attitudes of men in particular are changing. Long may it continue. I hope you continue to find enjoyment and fulfilment in all your life

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