You are currently browsing the daily archive for 07/03/2012.

Our latest ‘victim’ is Richard Mortimer, Senior Project Manager with Oxford Archaeology East.

 Brief Bio:

Richard has over 25 years experience in professional archaeology in Europe and in the Southwest and East of England. As Senior Project Manager at OA East Richard tenders for, manages and co-ordinates the post-excavation work for many of their larger and more complex projects. Recent projects have included Clay Farm, Trumpington for Countryside Properties and Anglia Water’s Covenham to Boston Transfer Pipeline with Mott MacDonald.

A Member of the IfA, he is committed to improving our understanding of archaeology. His research interests lie in the Middle Bronze Age and Middle Saxon periods. Richard was co-discoverer of the Cambridge Hoard at Chesterton Lane corner in October 2000.

The 10 Questions:

What sparked your interest in Archaeology?

I never really had one, it wasn’t something that I’d come up against before, there was no TV archaeology in the the early eighties that I remember, and I’d never met an archaeologist socially – there weren’t that many about and we wouldn’t have shared the same social circles anyway.

How did you get started?

On a Manpower Services Scheme (MSC) in Exeter in the mid eighties.  I’d moved down there on the dole from Newport, South Wales (just after the miner’s strike, it wasn’t a happy place). It was becoming common for  the urban unemployed to move to the seaside for a better life (if you’re going to have to be unemployed you may as well be so somewhere pleasant).  However, the Tories picked up on this and made sure it wasn’t made easy for you.  I’d moved down with my girlfriend and we’d blagged a flat but after six or eight weeks the dole still weren’t paying us any rent or keep and we were getting hungry and in danger of losing the flat so we went job hunting and spotted the MSC schemes advertised and went for them.  I didn’t really know what archaeology was but those schemes weren’t picky, they were about getting work for the longer term unemployed, and they were excellent, you got 50 pound a week and help with your rent, and you only had to work three days a week.  I’d never had such a good deal, plus it was summer and you were working outdoors surrounded by fit, tanned young people with a drinking culture that was truly magnificent.  I loved it, and I loved the feeling that I wasn’t making anyone else any richer no matter how hard I worked.

Who has most influenced your career?

The people who have really influenced my career wouldn’t necessarily have been archaeologists, they’d have been the women I was with at those points in my life when my career changed course: the woman I moved to Devon with; the woman who drove me out of Devon into Europe; and the woman who I followed back to England from Norway.  These are the people who drove whatever ‘career’ decisions I made, not that I’ve ever really made a career decision, I’ve just worked hard and tried to make sure that I’ve enjoyed that work.

Archaeologically, the people who have influenced the way I work and the way I think about what I do have always been those that I’ve worked alongside rather than those that I’ve worked for, the people that you share ideas with on site and in the pub.  I learnt what sheer bloody hard work was with a man called Pete Stead in Devon and I couldn’t have had a better grounding really, and then I worked for a long time alongside Roddy Regan in Cambridge, he’s up in the west of Scotland now so I don’t work with him any more, but as an all-round field archaeologist (as well as friend and drinking partner) he’s pretty hard to beat.  Then there’s Mark Knight (of recent Must Farm/log boat fame), he’s a long-standing collaborator (we joined the same MSC scheme six months apart) and perhaps the best archaeologist of prehistory that we have, I’ve learnt a lot from him and continue to do so.

Which has been your most exciting project to date?

This one really is impossible to answer, you have to find the excitement in all the projects you do, I really couldn’t point to one (or three, or twenty-three) in particular, though I think those projects that have sparked off a longer term interest in a particular period – the middle Bronze Age for instance (a quarry site in Bedfordshire), or the middle Saxon period (a housing development in Cottenham, north of Cambridge) have been important.  There are always going to be small, special moments on a site as well: trowelling down to a golden nose in a tomb in the Sahara, finding my first rune-stick in Trondheim.  One tiny site I dug with Roddy in Cambridge, only 3m across but 4m deep, had two Roman roads, a Saxon execution cemetery, a late Saxon church and a medieval house with 2000 gold and silver coins in a box under the floor; that one still counts as a bit special.

What is your favourite British archaeological site… and why?

I’m not a great one for the tourist sites, though I can go to Castlerigg or Silbury or Avebury or one of the great Medieval Castles and be impressed by them every time. Archaeologically my favourite sites are the ones that I’ve excavated because they’re the ones that have taught me the most, but I presume you mean visible sites, ‘monuments’. The one that has been with me longest is something known as the Glory Bumps, on Dartford Heath, a series of steep ridges and canyons in concentric circles that we all used to run up and down, or ride up and down, as kids – I didn’t know what they were then and it made them exotic, mysterious – we were told they were made as a training ground for Napoleonic soldiers, and while I now know that’s not true, the date’s probably not far off.

They’re 19th century, but that doesn’t matter, what’s important is that they are still standing, and they’re still clearly a source of joy and adventure to the current generation of children, as you can see by the bike trails running up and down them. Because they’re not that old no-one stops the kids from doing what kids do.  It’s living archaeology as part of everyday contemporary life.

What is your biggest archaeological/heritage regret?

I don’t have that many personally, I’ve pretty much always managed to get what I needed out of the ground before it disappeared.  There are a few sites where ‘if I’d known then what I know now..’  I would have gotten a lot more out of them; these are a source of some regret but then they couldn’t be helped, I was younger then, and simply didn’t know what I do now (and I’ll be saying the same thing ten years from now too, because I am younger and less experienced now than I shall be then).

If you could change one thing about current heritage protection legislation, what would it be?

Tricky one this.  I’ve always had a problem with the concept of the ownership of heritage/culture/archaeology – call it what you will.  I cannot understand how anyone can claim to ‘own’ what has lain beneath the surface for 1000 years, or 100,000 years.  I think in the case of archaeological remains that Property really is Theft, you cannot claim to own the remains of other people’s lives.  I would (although I realise that it would undermine to whole basis of the capitalist system and is therefore not going to happen) remove the land and all that lies beneath from private ownership and make it commonwealth.

If you were able to address Parliament for 30 seconds on archaeology what would you say?

That’s an incredibly short amount of time – how many words can you get out in 30 seconds? and make them understood? I suppose they’d probably get a paean from me on the absolute joy of archaeology and how vital it is that we know as much as we possibly can about where it is we come from and what it is that makes us what we are because you really cannot have a hope of seeing where you are heading if you don’t know where you are coming from.  Would be nice to think you could change something by talking to Parliament, but you can’t, if I could I’d convince them that there are things that can have enormous worth without having financial value.

If your career hadn’t worked out, what would you be doing now?

Well, the day before I signed up I was a failed art student and my only other money-making scheme involved flogging hand-made postcards around the beach resorts of South Devon, and I don’t really think I was onto a winner there.  My longest-term job up to that point had been five years in a flooring warehouse in South London but I wasn’t about to go back to that.  I really have no idea what would have become of me if that scheme hadn’t have been there, but I’d have had to have found some kind of job pretty quickly; I was a bright enough and fit enough lad, so I’d have found something, but god knows what.

Away from the ‘day job’, how do you relax?

It used to be out of work at half four every day and straight into the pub for five hours, drinking beer and talking long and loud about archaeology, that was pretty much it for years, drinking, smoking and talking about the job.  I have young children now so that’s out the window, though I still try to have a pint most nights, just to keep up the tradition and to make that break between work and home life, a drink is still important, as is meeting up with friends to talk archaeology, and I have to have music, I’ve always had music, and I have always had The Mekons – ‘the most revolutionary group in the history of rock ’n’ roll‘ – if anyone ever reads this, go and look them up, read and listen, and spread the word.  I used to like a game of cribbage (in the pub), watching films, reading books, doing the guardian crossword, sleeping, all things that have disappeared since the advent of children, now you’ll find me ferrying boys to football training or cubs most nights, and cleaning the kitchen at the weekend.

Very grateful thanks to Richard for his forthright answers! We’d quite like to feature people from all strata of archaeology in this series. So if you’re a student of archaeology, or recently graduated and would like to answer our questions, please get in touch!

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