Digging into the Past

The success of TV programmes like Time Team has helped to popularise archaeology and showcase how it helps to explain important details about our past. Dr Andy Seaman, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology in the School of Humanities, talks to Inspire about the flourishing teaching and research community at Canterbury Christ Church University.

When Andy joined Christ Church in 2012, he was the first archaeologist. He is now one of four staff, is overseeing a major research grant project and is organising fieldwork in multiple locations. He recalls when he first joined the University: "At that point, there was an archaeological pathway within the History programme but there was no archaeology degree. Since being here, I've built that up from a pathway of a degree to its own subject and more colleagues have joined."

"I'm interested in what happened when Britain ceased to be part of the Roman Empire, and the society and culture of the early Middle Ages."

digging-into-the-past

Dr Andy Seaman on a recent field trip

Andy's particular area of specialism is the end of Roman Britain and the early Medieval period from around AD 400 to AD 1100: "I'm interested in what happened when Britain ceased to be part of the Roman Empire, and the society and culture of the early Middle Ages – the early church, the origins and development of Christianity, the formation of kingdoms and settlement and landscape."

His specific geographical focus is on South Wales. As Andy explains: "It's the only part of the Western Roman Empire that wasn't subject to barbarian incursion when the Roman Empire collapsed. So unlike England, which was settled by Anglo-Saxons, Wales remained British. So it's a very interesting part of the Roman world to explore processes of social change, and I'm looking at a number of themes within that area."

As an active field archaeologist, Andy is currently involved in a number of field research projects. "One project is examining a famous fortified hilltop settlement called Dinas Powys, situated in the Eastern Vale of Glamorgan, which dates back to AD 400 – AD 700 and was first excavated in the 1950s. For the last seven years, I've been leading a project which has been re-evaluating that site, undertaking new fieldwork and excavation, and returning to what was found previously and analysing it with new techniques. In fact, some of our students here have come on excavation with me. We carried out three seasons of excavations in 2012, 2013 and 2014 on that site.

"Another strand of my fieldwork is a site called Mount St Albans, which is an early church site near Caerleon in South Wales, that we think could be the burial place of two of Britain's first Christians – individuals called Julius and Aaron who are recorded in a sixth-century text. Alongside St Alban, they are the first recorded Christian martyrs in Britain. I carried out excavations there in 2014 and 2016, again with students from the University. We have very good evidence that a church on the site could be of early medieval origin."

"Manifestations of Empire is a major project, attempting to understand what happened when Roman Britain collapsed by using what we call palaeoenvironmental research methods."

One of the largest fieldwork research projects which Andy is leading on is Manifestations of Empire: Palaeoenvironmental Analysis and the End of Roman Britain, in collaboration with Professor Stephen Rippon of the University of Exeter. The project was recently awarded £250,000 of funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). Andy reveals: "It is a major project, attempting to understand what happened when Roman Britain collapsed by using what we call palaeoenvironmental research methods. This applies a technique called pollen analysis, based on the basic principle that all plant species produce pollen, which then builds up over time in peat bogs and lake beds. We put a core down through that peat bog and extract the pollen from each level. We then examine the pollen under a microscope, which provides us with information about the environment and how it has changed over time. By learning more about the scale of farming and the rural economy over time from the pollen analysis, we can begin to understand whether the end of Roman Britain was violent and short or a longer, drawn out process."

The research project will take 20 months to complete and generate important new insights into key archaeological sites, and what happened at the end of the Roman Empire.

There is also an impact strand to the project, as Andy explains: "We're going to be working with the Vale of Glamorgan tourist team, Angharad Wynne Marketing and Communications, as well as collaborating with the Vale of Glamorgan Ambassadors, who are about thirty prominent local people with tourist-facing positions. Their role is to enrich the tourist experience by telling people about the Vale's history, culture and environment. The ambassadors will be helping us with some of the fieldwork and we will be creating a walking route and providing the ambassadors with a guide of the sites, the monuments and their landscape setting. By enabling visitors to learn more about the region, the local economy will benefit as tourists are then more likely to either extend their stay or return to the area in future. With a project like this, you have to tap into local networks. I'm from South Wales and I know the area very well, so that helps a lot too."

"That's the great thing about Canterbury; there is no better place to study history because you are just immersed in it."

Despite his upbringing in Wales, Andy has strong connections with Canterbury. "After completing my PhD, I worked at the Canterbury Archaeological Trust (CAT), working underneath the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge in town, which is located on the site of a medieval inn, as well as in the Isle of Thanet. I lived in Canterbury for a year after my PhD and before my first academic post. When the job came up here, it was at a University I was familiar with and I knew Canterbury a little, so I was keen to work here. There are some good parallels with the geographical focus of my research work: Canterbury is very much the hub of English Christianity and I've been working at the hub of British Christianity further West. I used to walk by St Martin's Church every day which, as an archaeologist specialising in the early church, was fantastic – you can see the archaeology and history here. That's the great thing about Canterbury; there is no better place to study history because you are just immersed in it."

Andy is also thrilled by the possibilities of recent excavation work that took place at the University's North Holmes campus, ahead of construction of the University's new Arts Building. In order to find out more about the area and ensure medieval, Anglo-Saxon and Bronze Age remains were preserved, CAT excavated the site and uncovered the footings of St Augustine's Abbey precinct wall, dating back to the 14th century. "It's not every day you get to excavate in the outer precincts of an Anglo-Saxon monastery," Andy says. "It's been great because some of our former students have been employed by CAT and have been working on the excavation, which is fantastic to see.

"The excavation work has also been valuable for our students and we organised weekly trips to the site as part of our first-year introductory module called Archaeological Skills. The trips have given them an opportunity to witness an excavation from beginning to end, enabling them to see how the techniques they learn in lectures are put into practice in the field. I think they really benefited from that."

"It's not every day you get to excavate in the outer precincts of an Anglo-Saxon monastery."

He is also pleased by the development of archaeology at Christ Church. "I was appointed to put archaeology on a proper footing. We validated a combined honours degree first in 2013 and our first cohort graduated a couple of years ago. We then created the single honours degree and took in the first cohort in 2016. I now lead a team of four archaeologists, we have the full degree and we're recruiting well. We also have a number of postgraduate students and we're looking to develop a taught Master's degree, which we hope will be our next milestone."

"…you can't learn to be an archaeologist without undertaking some practical archaeology. I feel very passionately about that… "

As ever, Andy feels strongly that fieldwork is a core part of that: "I validated modules in archaeological fieldwork because you can't learn to be an archaeologist without undertaking some practical archaeology. I feel very passionately about that, not just because of the skills they learn in order to be archaeologists but also because of the life skills they learn from working in that environment – teamwork, problem solving and time management. It's a brilliant experience.

"We send students out to a variety of places. We have the Culver Archaeological Field School in East Sussex and the majority of our students go there. But I've also taken students along to my own fieldwork projects, so they've excavated at Dinas Powys, as well as Mount St Albans. For me, that's probably one of the most rewarding parts of my role – seeing the students excel in the field. It's really satisfying to see students, once they've graduated, move into field archaeology and to know that we've helped them on that career path."

"We are the only university offering a single honours degree in archaeology in the south east outside of London on a World Heritage site – that's a big pull factor."

Despite challenges in the sector, Andy is optimistic about the future for archaeology at Christ Church: "It is difficult times – nationally, applications for archaeology degrees are going down but the number of departments is rising, so the pie is getting smaller. However, Canterbury is one of the most significant historical and cultural centres in Britain, and we are the only university offering a single honours degree in archaeology in the south east outside of London on a World Heritage site – that's a big pull factor.

"We are also witnessing rising salaries and better employment conditions in field archaeology – it's becoming a very attractive profession. With HS2, there's going to be enough work for a whole new generation of archaeologists, so we have many reasons to be very optimistic."

Find out more about the Archaeology course at Christ Church.

Images: courtesy of Dr Andy Seaman

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Last edited: 05/12/2017 05:49:00