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Guest Post: Brief History of Elmet Archaeological Services Ltd by Alex Sotheran

1 Sep

Alex Sotheran is the Archaeology Manager at Elmet Archaeological Services Ltd.  Alex has worked in field archaeology since 2001 after graduating from the University of York and helped to set up Elmet Archaeology in 2009.  He has a particular interest in the First World War and has worked on battlefield sites and training areas in the UK, France and Belgium.  In 2013 Alex graduated with an MA in British First World War Studies at the University of Birmingham.


Elmet first opened its doors in 2009 during the student training excavations at Brodsworth in south Yorkshire.  These training digs were run by Sheffield and Hull universities and were a chance for the archaeology students at both universities to undertake some archaeological fieldwork.  The Brodsworth project was also open to members of the public and it was noticed by Elmet’s founder, Christine Rawson, that there was a demand for archaeological volunteer work from people in the local areas of South Yorkshire.  Archaeology is one of those subjects that many people are interested in but few get a chance to actually take part in any hands on work, so Elmet was set up with that in mind.  It was intended to create a company that would specifically allow members of the public with no background in archaeology to take part in archaeological investigations with full training provided.

Therefore, Elmet was not only directed by community involvement but also steeped in educational outreach as well.  The company largely depends on funding from various community bodies across the UK, including, but not exclusively, the Humber Learning Consortium, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Council for British Archaeology and the Coalfield Regeneration Trust.

One of the first projects began in 2010 and was conducted alongside the University of Sheffield at Monk Bretton Priory; the two-week project attracted over 300 people through excavation work on a Tudor mansion and local history and family sessions.  On the back of this success, the Dearne Valley Archaeology Group was created with help from Elmet staff; it is now self funded and features regular talks on archaeology from various experts.

alex ulley

Elmet Archaeology Investigates the site of Ulley in South Yorkshire, where geophysics was used to determine the nature of the archaeological remains beneath the field. Image credit: Elmet Archaeology.

In 2011 work began at one of Elmet’s long running projects, the Hickleton Hall Prisoner of War Camp.  Whilst searching for prehistoric remains the team came across the remnants of a Second World War camp, first used by I Corps as a headquarters and then used for housing prisoners from Germany and Italy.  The project is ongoing and 2014 saw a new season of work uncovering concrete hut bases, again with the help of volunteers.  Alongside the fieldwork was a project strand which aimed to collect memories and stories from local people who had experienced the prisoners first hand, one lady told us that two Italian prisoners would call round to her parent’s house every Sunday for tea!

The summer of 2013 saw staff from Elmet branching out into various commercial archaeology jobs.  The sites were in North Yorkshire and various levels of archaeological investigation were stipulated by the county archaeologist before wind turbines were erected.  One of the sites had a Romano-British boundary ditch running through it, but very little else.

In 2013 another large-scale project was completed after Rotherham Archaeological Society had approached Elmet with the intention of locating a possible Roman fort at Ulley.  This project took the form of a fieldwalking exercise and geophysical survey of a field that had been identified as containing a Roman fort by the one of the society’s founders, Mr Philip Smedley.  This potential site was flagged up in 1953 and the project was carried out as a memorial project for Mr Smedley.  Unfortunately the results proved negative and it appears that Mr Smedley had misidentified medieval ridge and furrow marks for the layout of a fort.  However, the project engaged over a hundred people in their local history and taught them archaeological skills at a basic level, further to this the project helped to raise the profile of the Society and increased their membership.  We like to think that Mr Smedley would have been pleased with what was achieved by the Rotherham Archaeological Society and Elmet.

alex ulley field

Members of the public taking part in field walking a site, looking for surface finds and artefacts that could indicate the nature of the archaeological remains underneath. Image credit: Elmet Archaeology.

The winter of 2013 saw Elmet excavating a cementation furnace in the industrial heartland of Sheffield’s Kelham Island.  This large brick-built structure dated to the middle of the nineteenth century would have been capable of producing large amounts of steel and was part of Sheffield’s industrial growth.  This was a commercially led project so only two members of staff were on site to conduct the work; however, we still continued our commitment to the wider community by sharing photographs of the project as work progressed.

In April of 2014 Elmet began work at the Silverwood Scout Camp, which previously had been the training ground for the Barnsley Pals during the First World War.  This project was particularly pertinent given the centenary of the First World War was just around the corner when the work began.  Again community members were involved in the geophysical survey and excavation of several concrete bases which formed the ablutions and latrine blocks of the First World War camp.  We even had a visit from the retired Colonel of the Yorks and Lancs Regiment whilst on site!

It is not just all twentieth century archaeology though, in 2013 and 2014 Elmet worked with the Wetlands Archaeology & Environmental Research Centre (based at the University of Hull) at Sutton Common, close to Doncaster.  The site at Sutton Common has an Iron Age enclosure, surrounded by banks and ditches and a complex entrance way.  However, Elmet were concerned with rather older remains, in the form of Mesolithic flint scatters and possible structures, which were located on the edge of a palaeochannel.  Volunteers and students from various universities helped on the work and it proved to be a rather interesting site.

alex silverwood

After highlighting the archaeological features of this trench at the WW1 site of Silverwood, excavators define the features by cleaning back the soil. Image credit: Elmet Archaeology.

Outside of archaeological investigations, Elmet have several other strands of community involvement, one being our weekly reminiscences group which brings together people suffering from dementia and gives them an outlet to attempt to alleviate their condition.  We also host a weekly family history group, where access to computers and heritage websites are provided to the attendees.

The next big project for Elmet is the investigation of a back garden in a village called Swinton, near Rotherham.  This is an exciting new venture for Elmet as it is a crowd-funded excavation, something we have never tried before.  The project came about after the house tenant, Mr Andrew Allen, found a surprisingly large amount of Roman pottery during gardening work.  Not knowing what to do with the finds Andrew contacted Elmet and we decided that we could excavate the garden, teach people the rudiments of archaeological excavation and recording and hope to understand what a large deposit of Roman artefacts was doing there in the first place!  The project can only be carried out by the willingness of people to donate to the fund and each strand of donation has its own reward, with the larger tiers carrying a chance to actually come and excavate with us!  There is more information on the Sponsume site for our project, it can be found here.

Elmet has also hosted several yearly Dearne Valley Archaeology Days, where we have attracted speakers from all over the country talking on a variety of current archaeological topics. Each year has been well attended and has grown in size and scale with each event. The 2014 event was a resounding success, with speakers such diverse topics as blogging in archaeology, the archaeology of Sherwood Forest, Egyptian mummies and Scottish hill forts! This is a tradition that is set to stay and only grow!

Elmet have many future projects on the boil, including a return to Hickleton and Silverwood.  Beyond this we hope to expand into education and training with our series of monthly archaeological workshops.  These are open to members of the public and are taught by experts in many fields.  The workshops we have run already have been well attended and received and included the varied themes of human and animal bones, stratigraphy, illustration, industrial metal working, GIS and a whole host more!  We have several fieldwork opportunities in the future that we are working on, so please drop us a line or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to see our regular updates!

Further Information

  • Details on the Elmet Archaeology’s remaining 2014 workshops (topics include an introduction to human evolution, map regression and archaeological illustration) can be found on the above link on their website.  The workshops are often held in Wath-Upon-Dearne, South Yorkshire, on Saturdays throughout the year.
  • Elmet have a Facebook project page for Unlocking Swinton’s Roman Past, and you can also sponsor the excavation and research with a donation here.  Backers of the project can choose what level of involvement they’d like in the project (dependent on the amount donated), and they can also take part in the excavation themselves and receive copies of the report produced.
  • The Dearne Valley Archaeology Group regularly meet up to discuss heritage and archaeology in South Yorkshire.  They hold monthly lectures from specialists around the region on a variety of topics.  DVAG also help Elmet Archaeology with their annual Dearne Valley Archaeology Day conference.  (I can attest as to how good these conferences are as I attended and spoke at the magnificent 2014 edition!).

‘Free Archaeology’ Series at Conflict Antiquities

20 Aug

Over at the Conflict Antiquities site, a blog ran by Dr Samuel Hardy who is a researcher at UCL, there are a series of entries on the subject of ‘Free Archaeology‘ which help to highlight the current plight of the archaeological and heritage sector in the UK and beyond.  The series is a great introduction for current cultural, political and employment issues and trends in the sector, whilst also highlighting the dire effects that austerity is having on the archaeological and heritage trades in the UK and further afield.

Free Archaeology

Free archaeology across the globe in languages (Source: myself, TBOM).

So without further ado here are a few of my favourite and informative posts by Dr Samuel Hardy*…

1.  Free Archaeology: Volunteering, Training and Crowdfunding

From the post: “One of the most striking elements of the current system is the (sometimes accidental, sometimes deliberate) confusion between archaeological volunteering and archaeological training. And (to my mind) absolutely the most troubling aspect is the shift, not merely from being-paid-to-work to not-being-paid-to-work, but actually from being-paid-to-work to paying-to-work.

A point many volunteers on archaeological excavations in the UK will recognise- am I paying just to provide labour for the company? (It is reminiscent of the ‘pay to play’ policy that some music venues used to employ for upcoming bands to perform).  Am I being trained in the best archaeological technique or am I just providing a helping hand?  It is rare that volunteering is free on UK excavations, and in some popular and well regarded excavations it can cost hundreds of pounds a week just to partake, let alone factoring in the the accommodation or living costs for the duration of the participation.

2. Free Archaeology: Precarious Excavators and Unpaid Heritage Workers

From the post: “Every tier – unemployed, unpaid, underemployed, underpaid – needs to recognise that the majority of the people in the levels above them are exploited allies trying to establish their own basic security (which is not a betrayal).”

It is important to recognise that your manager is also a person undergoing the same stress of every day living as well.  Archaeology, as a sector, has been hit hard by the recession and lack of building projects in the past few years.  Smaller units are continually feeling the pinch and costs of projects each and every week, whilst larger ‘safer’ units are themselves having to downsize and cut costs.

3. Free Archaeology: Austerity Britain- Museum Workers and Entire Workforces are Replaced with Volunteers

From the post: “They completely exclude other real-terms or effective cuts to the cultural heritage sector, such as frozen funding and frozenpositions (and consequently stretched staff); sometimes drastically reduced opening hours (and consequently reduced wages or lost jobs, or staff consequently reduced to precarious, seasonal workers).

They also completely exclude allegedly temporary, years-long closure or mothballing of sites and projectsdefinite but unspecified redundancies and funding cuts with proposed job losses and other as-yet-unstated consequences; and other threats of redundancy and precarisation, for instance through the outsourcing of (decades-long) museum contracts.

They don’t begin to address the targeting of archaeology departments to compensate for university funding cuts, such as the shutting down of Birmingham University’s Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity and the redundancy of the majority (19) of its staff.”

I have wrote before on this blog regarding Birmingham University’s decision to shut down it’s Archaeology and Antiquity department, and the impact that this has had on other university departments who are eagerly watching as to how this impacts the development of other archaeology departments across the university sector.  What we are seeing with the effects of austerity is the loss of highly capable individuals across council units, academic departments and commercial units.  The issue of funding PhD’s has also come to the fore as a price hikes in undergraduate degrees for students at UK universities also impacts Post-graduate study intake numbers.  It is my belief that changes to the intake numbers of archaeological departments will result in some form of academic change regarding archaeology departments, I will follow this up if it takes place with another entry.

4. Free Archaeology: Simply Illegal Unpaid Internships

A quote from the post: “When I raised the issue of unpaid internships, an employee of the Department for Work and Pensions observed, ‘it’s almost a two-tier system now.’ (I did raise my eyebrows at almost.) ‘If you can afford to work for free, you can get lots of experience and you can get a great position; if you can’t, you have to swim with the rest of us.’

Perhaps, and it reminds me of the mantra of archaeology is ‘that you do not go into it for the money but for the passion’.  Personally I have been able to volunteer extensively because I have had the time and have had the money to provide for transport and food whilst volunteering.  I have mentioned this before, but if you are a UK or an EU student, try and get onto a European Union funded Leonardo Da Vinci archaeology placement– all fees, accommodation and travel is provided for and you get spending money and a fantastic archaeological experience.**

5. Free Archaeology: Drawing the Line Between Work Experience and Work; Identifying Structural Disadvantage and Exclusion

From the post: “but are not recognised as workers and paid as such. And those who cannot afford to volunteer, those who cannot afford to pay for the opportunity to work, cannot gain skills that are ‘essential’ to their entry to the cultural heritage profession.”

There are further posts in the series but I shall leave you to discover them.  You may not agree with every point that Dr Hardy makes, but they do help to highlight the changing face of the archaeology and heritage sectors over the past few years.  It is something I would heavily advise students or individual’s who are considering working in these sectors to consider and to research.  As an archaeologist without a job in the sector, and as a volunteer for numerous years with numerous units, it is fantastic to see a series of posts discussing the current employment, political and cultural situation within the archaeological and heritage sector.  And it is rather refreshingly frank!

* Who I hope will forgive me for advertising the excellent posts.

** Full disclosure, I attended the 2011 Magdeburg placement and gained invaluable new skills, friends and experience.

Closures and Petitions: University of Birmingham & Wincobank Hill in Sheffield

2 Jul

There have been a few outrages recently in the heritage world in the United Kingdom.  Firstly I want to draw your attention to the threatened closure of the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity (IAA) at the University of Birmingham.    The institute has been threatened with closure as a result of University cutbacks.  It is proposed that a total of 19 staff would be left without a job, whilst only 4 out of the 18 employed archaeologists would retain their job.  The remaining IAA staff would then be spread around the Universities various departments.  Just how will the University provide valued and respected teaching in the subjects of archaeology,  ancient history, and classics, has been the subject of heated debate and speculation by all those involved.

The University has provided a statement saying that the closure of the IAA would be mitigated by the setting up of a Centre for Archaeology Research in its place.  A claim which the UCU University of Birmingham website state that it would just be an online website, and not a true centre for research of academic excellence.  The UCU website has a detailed entry setting out how this whole debacle has been ‘disastrously mishandled‘ from the outset.  The ‘Archaeology’ facebook group has been active in calling out for signatures to help show public support for the subjects involved at the University, as it is a scenario that is likely being watched very closely by other universities that house archaeology, ancient history and classical departments.  Archaeologists remain upbeat however- an unknown person has made a humorous youtube Downfall parody, showing an angry Hitler threatening to take archaeology back to the dark ages (sadly copyright has been slapped rather fast on this video!).

Meanwhile in my section of the woods, there has been much speculation and dismay at the plans to build a new housing estate on the Iron Age site of Wincobank Hill, located just inside the city of Sheffield. Information on the site of Wincobank Hill can be found here, and there is an English Heritage page about it here.  A petition has been set up for signatures to be gathered showing support for new housing not to be built on the protected land.  There are already worries that sections of the Iron Age enclosure are being damaged through neglect, and it would be unfortunate if more of this interesting site was lost to professionals and enthusiasts alike.  The planning meeting was held recently, and it was with great pleasure that the application to build 24 new houses on the site was turned down.  However, there will be further developments, and it is vital that this campaign is sustained.

It is hoped that there will be another guest entry on this blog in the near future, but for the moment I have to focus on my dissertation research and write up.  I’ll be around though…

The View From Wincobank Hill (Change Petition 2012).

Update 07/09/12:

The fight still goes on for both of these causes.  Regarding Wincobank Hill near the city of Sheffield, the City Council have decided to refuse planning permission on the site.  However the battle continues as the decision now goes to the Planning Inspectorate to uphold the decision of Sheffield City Council in the preservation of this little understood Iron Age/Romano-British site.  You can do your part now in protecting Britain’s heritage by signing this petition here.

Update 29/09/12:

A fairly depressing update regarding the position and tactics used by Birmingham University regarding the department of archaeology.  The article can be read here, and the headline says it all, ‘The University of Birmingham throws in the trowel- as College buries Archaeology! ‘.  The tactics also seems to be promoting past projects to entice new students, whilst ignoring the on-going destruction of a valued department.

Update 14/01/13:

Fantastic news regarding the Scheduled Ancient Monument of the Iron Age site of Wincobank Hill in Sheffield- the Planning Inspector has dismissed Investates appeal to build houses on the site, and the site will remain green and building free.  It is an excellent result, and an impressive show of the interest of both professionals and of the interested public.