It’s been a while, but Sue Brooke has once again managed to get a response from one of the prinicpals on the Caerau dig. In a departure from our usual email response format, Sue actually managed to sit down with Niall Sharples for a chat at Caerau. Here’s her report…
Over the last 8 days I’ve been popping up to the CAER Heritage Project excavations. I’ve seen lots of exciting things in the ground, held some beautiful items, learned a lot and generally have thoroughly enjoyed myself. I’ve met Professor Niall Sharples quite a few times before and he has always stopped to chat. I emailed him to ask him to do a little ‘Inside the Mind of…’ article but really had got nowhere fast. Fair enough though, he has been quite busy during the digging season. However, having seen him a few times up on the hill I decided to ask if he would sit and answer my list of 10 questions. ‘Yes, of course, tomorrow’, he would say. Tomorrow would come and I would bump into him just as he was leaving and I was arriving or, just as I was leaving and he was arriving. Still, undeterred I kept my list of questions tightly tucked into my bag. On day 8 I arrived on site and yes, he was there. Unfortunately so were the BBC, following him around with their television cameras. In the distance I could see him being filmed on the edge of a trench, arms waving as he did his press relations thing. Ah well, I thought, not today.
Since this is a community dig that involves lots of visitors there were a group of local young people attending. Some were digging, some were sieving and others were helping to clean the finds. Some young people were making pots out of clay, learning how these were made and the skill that it took. I wandered around the site to see how things had progressed in the trenches and eventually sat to watch some pot making, keeping well out of the way of the telly cameras.
After a while Professor Sharples appeared and asked if I wanted to ask my 10 questions. Oh yes, right! We found a couple of chairs quite near and sat in the sun. I’m not sure how I thought this would work. I had questions, I had paper and a pen (well 3 – just in case) so I just asked the questions and made notes about the answers. We chatted about some things that came up, discussed things I hadn’t thought of and generally made our way through the questions. It was all rather laid back but, for me, very interesting.
What sparked your interest in archaeology? was the first question on my little list of ten. Well, apparently it was women – ‘there was a better class of women involved in the archaeology course’. Although this was said, kind of tongue in cheek, I got an inkling that there may be just a little grain of truth in that comment! Niall did however go on to talk about how, when he was younger, he had an interest in what he described as the ‘weird mysteries’ to be found in books such as those written by Erich Von Daniken. Inside my head I could hear a nice little sigh of relief. Having spent quite a few days up at the dig I had chatted to the Cardiff University students who gave me the impression that Professor Sharples was ‘fierce’ and that he ‘knew everything.’ So here I am, sat with the fierce guy, in the corner of a Welsh hillfort, who ‘knows everything’. When he mentioned Von Daniken I was delighted as I had read him too. I knew what he was on about! That felt like a good start.
Niall described how he had initially started at Glasgow University studying archaeology, maths and Scottish history. He didn’t actually learn geography but had an interest in it. Niall described how archaeology was a really interesting subject and one that allowed him to combine history and the geography that he enjoyed. He dropped maths after a couple of months. Niall felt that history was something that ‘could actually be open to interpretation and although an academic subject is not actually based on anything scientific’. Archaeology, in his view however, “…has to have an evidential base. Links between research and the actual archaeological evidence is clearer and therefore provides a far better connection to the past”.
So, how did he get properly started as a ‘real’ archaeologist rather than just a class based student? It was after he had gained student experience on the Glasgow University digs led by Leslie Alcock. Niall worked and learned on digs such as that led by Alcock during the later part of the 1970’s at Dundurn in Perthshire. Niall described one of his own early but exciting finds. It became clear as we chatted that Leslie Alcock really stimulated Niall’s original interest in archaeology. We spoke briefly of the digs Alcock had directed locally to Caerau at Dinas Powys and of course, at Cadbury Castle. He also talked about working on digs alongside David Clarke, now of the National Museum of Scotland. Niall found David to be what he described as an ‘interesting guy’ and together they worked on such sites as that at the very well known Neolithic site at Skara Brae. Niall credited Leslie Alcock as ‘probably the person who has most influenced my career’.
Niall has been recently found working on Ham Hill in Somerset so, excluding that site I asked which other site had he thought of as his most interesting project. Niall talked about Bornish, in the Outer Hebrides, a Iron Age and Norse settlement. I was a little surprised at his very obvious enthusiasm for the Vikings but Niall explained that the site there ‘…integrated different categories of evidence. There were structures, ditches, stratification, all giving up lots of chronological evidence and providing a very complicated story’. It is this kind of complication that clearly holds Nialls attention. I got the impression that he would find absolutely no fun at all in going onto a site, digging it and finding archaeology that all fitted nicely into a neat story. A little bit like his ‘weird’ Von Daniken mysteries – there clearly has to be that little bit of an extra challenge, to stretch him just that little bit more.
We talked about what Niall felt was his favourite British site, at which point he threw up quite a few names. Maiden Castle, on which of course Niall famously worked, and Mousa an Iron Age coastal Broch in the Shetlands, which was a site not familiar to me at all. Finally, Avebury a placename recognizable to most. When I asked him to explain why he simply stated that they were ‘spectacular’.
My next question was about what Niall felt was his biggest archaeological or heritage regret. He described his feeling that archaeology had gone downhill. He spoke with passion about the lack of available resources, the way museums were no longer being valued and what he described as the ‘quality of the experts’ available. He accepted that everyone, with experience properly gained, can become an expert but stated that today’s archaeologists are valued more and more for their ‘ability as good administrators’. Archaeology had become privatized and ‘heritage is not now being looked after as it should be’. The opinion now tends to be more that private companies will pay. There is a real sense of over commercialism. Such emphasis was placed by Niall on this subject that I struggled to keep up with writing my notes.
Moving on I asked if you could change one thing about current heritage protection legislation then what would it be. He answered quite simply that “Archaeology should be returned to the care of the government and they should be investing more in their heritage”. My next question was if you could address Parliament for 30 seconds what would you say – referring to his answer from the previous question he stated, and I can quote, “It would be that!”
Grateful that my next question changed the subject I then asked Niall if he hadn’t made it in his archaeology career then what did he think he would be doing now. He gave it a little bit of thought and said he quite fancied being a film producer or director. I commented along the line of this being rather different to what he did now but he disagreed. He made the comparison with the dig up at Caerau saying there were lots of people there to organize and that, at the end of the dig, they were hoping to be able to tell a story. Just like making a film. He quickly pointed out that he had no ambition to be a film star, which I could understand since we were chatting immediately after he had been filmed over and over for a news item.
The questions were almost done. My last question was, away from his day job what did he do to relax. He talked about how he likes to simply watch TV and films. He still likes his mystery books only now preferring crime novels and murder mysteries by authors such as Ian Rankin and Denise Mina. He pointed out though that he does read ‘literature’ too, particularly admiring the work of Gabriel Marquez on South America.
Once the questions were out of the way we chatted a little bit more about the finds up at Caerau and I thanked him for answering the questions for me. As we got up to leave a young person who had been washing some finds came up with a wet pebble. Niall took it from her and said, “Ah yes, that could be a games piece. Although it’s a pebble it’s water worn and shouldn’t be up here. Where did it come from? Was it the river? Was it used to play games with?” The young lady took back her discovery and just stood looking at it. I just loved it!
Many thanks to Niall (and to Sue). Previous articles in this series can be found here, or by using our Search Bar, and the term ‘Inside the Mind’.
If you work in community archaeology or heritage protection and would like to take part, or have a suggestion for a suitable willing subject, please contact us.