What’s it like studying Archaeology? – The Auckland excavations

Sebastian Sandford-Hopper

Cover image – the ‘culvert’, an old open drain.

Finally getting to excavate

After having spent the last three years unable to be part of the Auckland excavations for my course due to Covid, I felt relieved to finally experience it during the last week. With the sunny weather on our backs, myself and the group of archaeology students who were in the same situation as me were able to properly experience getting our knees dirty and using our trusty trowels.

With a labour-intensive start to our week, we spent the day understanding the site and clearing out the area in preparation for the careful process of scraping back the soil to reveal any finds. During this time, I had been assigned to the ‘culvert’, found in the trench to hopefully release the structure from the painfully abundant amount of dirt that had covered it. It was only a matter of a few hours before I realised how frustrating this job was when I had reached the giant tree stump that occupied the culvert, its roots entangling every nook and cranny we uncovered.

The tree stump

A rewarding experience

Whilst Archaeology may not be the most glamorous when it comes to excavating, it certainly feels the most rewarding when finding something, even if that ‘something’ is smaller than your pinkie finger and resembles a rock.

To any aspiring archaeologists, I can tell you now, as soon as you are on-site, every other minute you will second guess the shape of a stone or clump of dirt for a find. And as your fantasy runs wild with all the praise that you will receive when presenting it to the group, you are only corrected by a supervisor to your disappointment.

Luckily, myself and others within my group had discovered plenty of exciting finds, including a large mandible bone from an animal. It is always a fun experience to guess the nature of the finds, and particularly to question how it had made its way to the location.

mandible from an animal found at the culvert, although I am not sure how it got there…

Patience is a virtue

Being one of the first, and possibly the only, archaeologists in my family, some of the questions that I get asked after a day’s excavation vary from “Isn’t it just a lot of scraping around in the dirt?” “Did you find any gold?”  “So, are you like Indiana Jones?”, to which I can only reply with “Yes” “No…” and “I wish”.

Though, since I had experience working on construction sites with my dad, I had grown accustomed to the heavy lifting and running a wheelbarrow to and from the site, and so the shovelling of kilos of mud, stone and brick had become a habit I enjoyed doing on excavation.

I think that the only major difference between a construction site and an excavation is the thrill of destroying and removing the building and furniture that littered the construction sites. It was for this reason, that I had to restrain myself from pushing the culvert over or to chop away at the large mass of tree stump that occupied it.

I believe that working at Bishop Auckland has taught me to have a lot of patience…and to heed the advice of my superiors, especially when I continue to dig at the dirt and rubble in a way that may put the very essence of archaeology to shame. Luckily, I have not destroyed anything….yet.

I have to say thank you to Jamie Armstrong and the Archaeology Services team, including Megan Olshefski and Chris Gerrard for making this experience amazing!

Discover more

Our Department of Archaeology is a leading centre for the study of archaeology and is ranked 8th in the world (QS World University Rankings by subject 2022). 

We are an inclusive, vibrant and international community. Our students develop knowledge and gain essential and transferable skills through research-led teaching and lab-based training.

Read Molly’s blog about the Auckland dig here

Visit our Archaeology web pages to learn more about our postgraduate and undergraduate programmes. 

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Sebastian Sandford-Hopper

Hello! My name is Sebastian, and I am a third year Archaeology and Ancient History undergraduate at Collingwood College. I have an fascination for all things antique and enjoy getting involved with volunteering for heritage groups when I can. I hope to be involved in Heritage Management after university!

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