My life in history: Dr Miles Russell, archaeologist
In the second instalment of History Revealed's 'My life in history' series, Dr Miles Russell talks about his career as an archaeologist...
How did you get into archaeology?
I grew up in a family that loved history. My parents were always taking my siblings and me out to visit castles, stone circles and stately homes. Holidays were one continuous detour into the past. I remember studying the Romans at primary school, making armour out of milk bottle tops, at about the same time the Asterix books were first translated into English and being utterly obsessed with the Roman army. In my early teens, I volunteered for an archaeological dig and absolutely loved it. When I discovered you could actually do archaeology for a living, I never looked back.
What find are you most proud of?
Every find is special and that feeling when you clear the earth from a flint flake, bone or metal artefact that has lain unseen for thousands of years is like no other. The discovery that I’m probably most proud of was a prehistoric henge (considerably smaller than the earthworks at Avebury in Wiltshire), with a single stone upright still set within its entrance, which had lain buried for almost 4,000 years. It was unearthed in the very last trench (and in the very last hour) at a site at Mile Oak in East Sussex, now destroyed by the A27 Brighton bypass. It was a totally unexpected discovery, and the monolith (now in Brighton Museum) remains, to date, the only prehistoric standing stone recorded from the South Downs.
What was your first ever find?
It was a tiny, orange-coloured (and luckily empty) glass medicine bottle from the 19th century that I found at the bottom of a friend’s garden near York. I was nine and can clearly recall the electric thrill of discovery. I still have the bottle on the bedroom mantelpiece.
If you could discover anything, what would it be?
It would be great to discover something connected to King Arthur, although – as I don’t believe he existed – that may be tricky! Finding evidence for the lost Ninth Roman legion somewhere in northern Britain would also be nice, but unlikely. Something I always wanted to find, but haven’t as of yet, is an undisturbed Roman mosaic – one day.
What’s an average day on a dig like?
Every day is different, that’s what keeps it exciting. You may be surveying a medieval building in a rain-lashed field in January, excavating pottery from a Roman house beneath a modern town, or cleaning skeletons in a cornfield on a glorious summer’s day. Different sites, different periods and different parts of the world, each with its own quirks and oddities. Only the joy of discovery remains constant. Being on a dig is also the ultimate form of escapism, where you can just concentrate on moving soil, finding things that are thousands of years old and forget about real-life concerns. At times it can be cold and stressful, but it can also have zen-like moments of calm, and it’s almost always great fun.
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What’s the strangest thing you’ve found on a dig?
While excavating an Iron Age site in Dorset recently, we uncovered a series of pits where, 2,000 years ago, people were cutting up cows, sheep and horses and rearranging the body parts into bizarre forms: a cow with a horse’s legs, a horse with a cow’s head, a sheep with six legs. Presumably these were offerings for the ancient gods. It’s at times like these that you realise the past can be a very strange place indeed.
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Any advice for budding archaeologists?
Find out where your local archaeology societies are. Most towns and counties have them (the Council for British Archaeology has an online listing), and go along to lectures, join field visits and get volunteering. If you’re a junior enthusiast, you can join a Young Archaeologists’ Club, and, at whatever age, I’d advise subscribing to monthly archaeology magazines which tell you about the latest discoveries and provide up-to-date listings on what excavations are going on.
What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened during a dig?
The end of a dig is always the worst, especially if it’s one conducted in advance of development. Funding for archaeology has never been great, and there’s never really enough time or resources to preserve things or investigate them fully. Over the past 30 years, I’ve seen two medieval priories, part of a castle, four Roman villas and the remains of a Saxon church smashed into oblivion by heavy machinery. Preservation by record – in plans, drawings and photographs – is really all an archaeologist can do to save such historic sites from the jaws of ‘progress’.
This article was first published in the June 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed
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