Discussing Archaeology Careers on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula

Teacher Alexander Conlon shares his experiences as an Archaeology graduate and a member of the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project team.

I’ve been going up to Ardnamurchan since the Summer of 2013, when I signed up for fieldwork as part of my degree. I was fortunate that one of my lecturers – Dr Hannah Cobb (now Professor) – was a co-director of the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project which she had run in conjunction with Dr Oliver Harris of the University of Leicester and Phil Richardson of Archaeology Scotland since 2007. The aim of the dig is primarily as a field school for undergraduates, but also to try and uncover the different phases of human settlement in one small valley – Swordle – right back to prehistory

After graduating, I had no idea what exactly I wanted to do as a career. I investigated the potential of going into commercial archaeology, but was unsuccessful. I considered the army, but realised it probably wasn’t for me. After working in a bar, I eventually I settled on teaching, and completed by PGCE back in my home town of Bradford, West Yorkshire. I’m entering my fifth year of teaching at a school within the academy trust that I studied at a as a teenager, and after being appointed as Head of Year three years ago, the students under my wing are now entering Year 11 – the final year of secondary education in England and the year when they undertake their GCSE exams.

Throughout these years, I’d kept in contact with the archaeology and continued to volunteer every summer after that due to the amazing people, landscapes, and history which you are afforded in the Highlands. A later season in 2019 clashed with going back to school, and COVID-19 squandered any chance of returning in 2020. I was finally able to go back in Summer 2021, and might have mentioned it quite a lot in the run up to the students in my year group. This brilliant band of 120 teenagers – now well versed in the ways of virtual education thanks to the pandemic – suggested that it would be good for them to see what exactly it is that an archaeologist does. I had, after all, gone on quite a fair bit about in the previous three years. One of the key ‘drivers’ at the academy where I work is ‘employability’, with a really strong focus on careers education. As someone who primary teaches History and RE, but also dabbles in Geography, I really wanted to showcase to the students another potential future path.

So, armed with my phone and my year group Twitter account, I endeavoured to take as many informational videos as possible whilst in Ardnamurchan in 2021 as a record for the project, but also to show the students back in Yorkshire the various different elements that make up a career in archaeology. I recorded videos on test pits, the use of Pythagoras’ Theorum, artefact analysis, archaeobotany and more. It was also fantastic to work closer than ever before with the local volunteers who were there to help as part of Archaeology Scotland’s Adopt-A-Monument ‘the Real Wild West’ project. As someone really interested in local history and genealogy, it was great to talk and hear about stories from Ardnamurchan’s past, whilst also using archaeological techniques to go even further.

One particular highlight was helping to complete a building survey of the Fascadale Ice House. I was able to use my iPad’s LiDAR function to create a 3D point cloud model of the interior of the ice house, along with a model of the coble fishing boat which volunteers had repatriated back to Scotland from Hartlepool.

3D point cloud model of the interior of Fascadale Ice House

I also spent a lot of the three weeks helping to sort through the residue created by wet sieving samples from 10+ years of digging. There is nothing more exciting as an archaeology graduate and a history teacher than to hold in your hand the teeth from a prehistoric cremation, or hazelnut shells from a Bronze Age souterrain – and of course jet beads from Yorkshire that found their way onto the necks of the dead up in the Highlands thousands of years ago.

A Bronze Age thumbnail scraper

Archaeology is a vital part of investigating the past, and the way it makes history a tangible concept through artefacts and fieldwork is why it is so important as a tool to educate and define who we are as a society and culture as we go through the early decades of the 21st century and the challenges we face.

Archaeology Careers: Part 1
Indigo – commercial archaeologist
Archaeology Careers: Part 2
Indigo – commercial archaeologist
Archaeology Careers: Part 3
Hannah – Professor of Archaeology
Archaeology Careers: Part 4
Hannah – Professor of Archaeology

Author: Alexander Conlon, Head of Year 11 & Teacher of Humanities at Dixons McMillan Academy

The professional archaeologists interviewed for this blog all studied in England. To find out more about archaeology courses and entry requirements at Scottish universities, click on the links below:

University of Aberdeen

The University of Edinburgh

University of Glasgow

University of the Highlands and Islands

University of St Andrews

Post Author: r.boyde