Life in the Field
By Carolyn Howle
Students at Achill Archaeological Field School begin their courses by meeting at the train station in Westport, County Mayo, on the Saturday afternoon before their start date. This was where I began my first friendship of the summer as two of us had arrived early in fear that we would be late. Jackie Rumley, the Field School's always immaculately dressed mini bus driver brings the group down to Achill Island, after a quick trip to the supermarket to stock up on supplies and a nice meal at his favorite pub, Nevins Bar near Mullrany. The bus normally arrives at the Field School accommodation block around 9pm on a Saturday evening.
The students all live together in a two story Accommodation Block, located beside the Archaeology Centre; it has a fully equipped kitchen, a dining area, a common area, four bathrooms, and a mixture of two bed, four bed rooms and free Wi-Fi access.
Four days a week students will wake up around 8.00am to cook breakfast, make a packed lunch and head outside in time to be collected by Jackie at 8.45am. The day on site finishes at 4.45pm when Jackie brings the students back to the Field School. Expect many stories and jokes from Jackie along the way. Back at the house they can cook a nice dinner and have a warm shower before relaxing in the common room watching the TV or using the Wi-Fi to browse the internet. Students wishing to apply for academic credits will have to complete a short research paper during their stay, so many of the evenings will be spent reading books and articles from the Field School library and working on writing and editing their papers. The paper I worked on set me on a new path of research that I could have never previously imagined, and I'm considering following up on that work for a future project. If some evenings cooking seems like too much effort then a local family owned bar is only a few minutes' walk from the house. The bar serves reasonably priced home cooked food.
Depending on which site the students are working on they will either be driven up to the southern side of Slievemore Mountain, where the prehistoric Cromlech Tumulus is located, or to the western end of the island where a historic settlement is being investigated in the valley overlooking Keem Bay. Each morning, the equipment is gathered from the tool sheds and carried to the site. The work day includes two breaks: a snack break at approximately 11.00am and a lunch break around 1.30pm. These breaks last for half an hour and for many students these breaks involve taking a quick nap!
Every other moment at the site until 4:30pm is focused on excavating, cleaning and recording the site. Throughout their course students will participate in setting up the site grid, cleaning and excavating large soil horizons, excavating discrete features, drawing 1:20 scale plans of areas of the site, drawing 1:10 scale vertical sections and elevations of trench sides and discrete features, collecting elevation readings using the site level, taking formal site photographs, filling out context forms and recording finds locations. The lessons on each task are quite intensive as the Site Director and the Supervisors want each of the students to really understand the processes they are undertaking, which means giving a lot of detail about what the students are doing, why they are doing it in a particular way and what other options could have been chosen.
It is really important that students pay attention to all of these lessons as the courses are so packed with activity that there is only a limited amount of time in which instructions can be repeated. The members of the staff are really good at explaining the work and even though the process is intensive they try their best to ensure that all of the students understand what they are doing. While working on the site is indeed hard work and a lot of focus is required from the students, the days are always filled with craic (Irish fun!) as well.
One day during each week is given over to a morning lecture and an afternoon fieldtrip. Typically this is on Wednesdays although this might change depending on the weather. The lectures present an in depth overview of Irish archaeology from the Mesolithic through to the Historic period, a span of about 10,000 years all together! These lectures last for about two hours and then there is a half hour break to let the students eat and get their hiking gear together. Sometimes the hikes start at the Field School Centre and other times Jackie arrives to collect the students and drive out to places of interest around the island. A number of the field trips provide excellent opportunities to undertake some surveying tasks and so we were often laden down with various pieces of equipment such as the site levels, the cameras and the hand held GPS kits. Whilst I was at the Field School we discovered a new site during one of our field trips, the remains of a fish-trap on the beach at Dugort. A few weeks later we returned to the site with the EDM, the GPS kits and the DSLR camera and undertook a detailed survey of the site which was then written up and submitted to the National Monument Service, the National Museum of Ireland and Mayo County Council.
The weekly Wednesday morning lectures aren't the only lectures that take place during the courses. Every two weeks a visiting lecturer comes to the Field School to present an evening talk on their own research, which provides the students with a great opportunity to hear about some of the cutting edge research taking place in Ireland, and an opportunity to meet and chat with some of Ireland's leading academics, especially useful for students like myself who are considering taking post graduate courses in Ireland.
In addition to the fieldwork there are lessons that take place in the lab, which generally take place when the weather is too unpleasant to go to site. The most important of these lessons is the instruction on using AutoCAD and Photoshop that teach the students how to take the plans and sections they have drawn by hand on site and import, scale and trace them in AutoCAD and then how to bring them into Photoshop to colour and label them to create publication quality drawings.
As with the field instructions these procedures are comprehensibly explained with the aim that students could take the field skills and computer skills they have learned during their courses, undertake their own survey projects and be able to produce illustrations suitable for inclusion in a thesis or, in the best examples, in a proper publication. Other off-site courses offered by the Field School include finds illustration, ceramics analysis and using ArcGIS to interrogate archaeological data. Each of these courses is taught by a specialist brought in to teach the students and so not every course will be available to every student group, and it is important to check on the website which of these additional programs are included in a particular course. Whilst I was at the Field School we had a two-day course on finds illustration taught by Rena McGuire from Queens University Belfast. This was a fabulous course for me as I discovered something new that I not only enjoyed but I felt I was quite good at. I was later asked to illustrate the finds from the 2015 excavations for the excavation report, which was a real thrill.
There are so many things crammed into the courses at Achill Archaeological Field School that it really is hard to convey how much I developed and learned during my six week stay. I loved the excavations and the training but for me perhaps one of the real standout moments was the final field trip we undertook on my sixth week.
The Director of Fieldwork, Stuart Rathbone, wanted to survey a few sites on north side of the island, to the west of the Booley Village at Annagh. To get to these remote settlement sites we had to climb over a high ridge, down a narrow path cutting through a steep cliff face, around the side of a gorgeous lake and then across a large isolated plateau. We surveyed two 19th century settlement sites using the handheld GPS Units and used a compact digital camera to undertake a 3D photogrammetric survey. We were then faced with the choice to walk back the way we had come or to cross the back of the large mountain, Croaghaun (668m), which lay immediately to our south. As the weather was so good and my fitness had come on a lot over the previous five weeks we decided to go for it! This was certainly the longest and steepest hike I have ever undertaken, and by the end of the day I was sore and exhausted but I had never felt so exhilarated! The views over the island and the coast from the mountain were quite spectacular and seeing these sites that were built by people who chose to live in such isolated spots was an experience that I will never forget.
This Field School gave me the opportunity to push myself not only in the archaeological realm, but also in terms of my personal fitness and my confidence in exploring areas that are off the beaten track, and I know that they have prepared me well for my future as an archaeologist.
Carolyn Howle is a student in the Honors College at the College of Charleston, South Carolina and attended Achill Archaeological Field School in 2015 where she worked on the excavation of the Cromlech Tumulus