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As regular readers will be aware, I recently met with James Gossip at Carwynnen Quoit, and during our conversation I managed to convince him to give us all a glimpse ‘Inside the Mind’…

Brief Bio:

James Gossip has been working as an archaeologist since 1987.

He has no international reputation but is known by a small bunch of interested types for his dedication to all things relating to Cornish archaeology, particularly his striving to involve the amateur voluntary sector whenever possible in professional archaeological work. James dug on the circuit for various units around southern England and the Midlands (and briefly in Italy) until coming to Cornwall in 99 when appointed as an archaeologist at Cornwall Council’s Historic Environment Service (formerly Cornwall Archaeological Unit).

He is president of the Meneage Archaeology Group, a small amateur archaeology society based on the Lizard Peninsula and in addition to his work for Cornwall Council has run excavations for Cornwall Archaeological Society.

James is married to an archaeologist, Jo Sturgess and has two children with no discernible interest in archaeology whatsoever – perhaps they’ll be able to support him in old age after all. He became a MIfA in 2007.

The Ten Questions:

What sparked your interest in Archaeology?

I used to love digging up Victorian bottles as a child in Wales….and generally playing in the mud, so I expect that’s where it all started. Oh…and castles – as many castles as I could drag my parents around. After leaving school fairly unqualified I had a semi-homeless stint in London and the British Museum was a great place to keep warm – although I was aware of all the treasures from around the world I think it was then that I started to appreciate the richness and variety of British archaeology for the first time.

How did you get started?

Luck. After a series of rubbish jobs and unsuccessful interviews I saw an advert for a ‘Trainee Archaeologist’ in Oxford job centre and was lucky enough to secure a 12 month contract on the Manpower Services Commission’s ‘Community Programme’ at (then) Oxford Archaeological Unit. After the initial delirium caused by success in a job interview I was brought back down to earth by realising that in fact they were obliged to take anyone on this scheme. I really started to enjoy both the work and the social aspects of being part of a digging team, meeting a wide range of individuals, and during my second year with OAU began to think about taking it further by getting a degree. Having left school without A Levels that meant it was off to night school after a hard day’s digging – a bit of a struggle sometimes! I was accepted onto the archaeology degree course at Leicester University, which I loved, and during holidays got digging jobs with the Local Authority unit there (now defunct).

Who has most influenced your career?

Simon Palmer at Oxford Archaeology who actually made me realise I could have a career in archaeology, Richard Buckley and Patrick Clay at ULAS for giving me a break, and my great friends Lynden Cooper (ULAS) and James Meek (Dyfed Archaeological Trust) who made me persevere when times were tough. And all the friends I’ve made along the way.

Which has been your most exciting project to date?

There have been so many! Tempted by No 1 Poultry in the City of London, where preservation was second to none, or Tremough, near Penryn, where digging over the past 10 years has revealed a complex ceremonial and settlement landscape spanning several millennia. But I think it has to be the excavation of a Bronze Age roundhouse and Iron Age fogou at Boden on the Lizard Peninsula where I’ve had so much fun with the many volunteers whilst finding such amazing archaeology. The investigation and ultimate re-erection of Carwynnen Quoit (a Neolithic portal dolmen) is an ongoing project that would be up there too!

What is your favourite British archaeological site… and why?

Tricky. Possibly the courtyard house settlement of Carn Euny (magical, tranquil and a little unkempt), Boden fogou, a place where I feel totally at peace with the world, or Carreg-y-Bwci (The Goblin Stone, Carmarthenshire) a round barrow and Roman signal station where I would sit as a child and look out over the imposing hills and mountains of West Wales.

What is your biggest archaeological/heritage regret?

Personally no regrets, just thankful for all the lucky breaks – after all I’m still working in professional archaeology 25 years on – and I still get my hands dirty from time to time!

If it’s a regret about working in the sector, it’s that there’s still such a divide between professional (at times over-precious and snobbish) and amateur (often lacking confidence and difficult to gain experience).

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

The government are good at saying all the right things, but rarely seem to put them into practise.

I don’t see any real evidence that the historic environment is considered as an important economic or social asset which can benefit the lives of communities. And important as it is, there is a worrying shift of emphasis onto the built environment and away from the buried archaeological resource.

If you were able to address Parliament for 30 seconds on archaeology what would you say? That it’s time to teach children from primary age onwards the importance of the archaeology of their own cultures when attempting to make sense of the past. Ancient Egypt is all very exciting, but how about learning about the communities of the British Neolithic or Iron Age? Children that grow up caring about their ancient past and loving their historic environment will have a better idea how to protect it as adults.

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

Driving up and down Route 66 with a dusty, battered guitar case. Or cooking sardines on an Italian beach.

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

Playing the guitar and cooking, eating and drinking with friends, preferably in sight of the sea. And pretending to still be a young person at festivals.

Many thanks once again to James for submitting himself to our scrutiny. Previous articles in this series can be found here, or by using our Search Bar, and the term ‘Inside the Mind of’.

We are particularly interested in getting more community archaeologists and FLOs involved in the series. If you would like to take part, please contact us


November 2012

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