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#AskAnArch 2023

Every year the Palace takes part in the Festival of Archaeology’s #AskAnArchaeologist day.

It’s a day where visitors, volunteers, staff and anyone else can send in their deep buried archaeology questions. This year there were a number of submissions with topics ranging from tools to if anything is still to be found at the Palace.

1. What’s the strangest – or controversial! – thing you’ve found at the Palace?

Alexis says: I’m not too sure about strange. We have certainly had some interesting finds like the very early turkey bones that date to the Tudor period. I do find it a bit odd that we recovered a button from the Rhymney Railway Company. This was a Company that operated with the collieries in South Wales, where several of our WWI soldiers came from. One of them- Arnold Angell Jenkins – lost a leg and couldn’t go back to coalmining so became a railway carriage cleaner. Possibly on this very line. Spooky!

Controversial – A condom tin found in what is the museum store but what used to be a toilet. I had originally thought this may have been dropped by one of our recovering soldiers in WWI but apparently it had a Durex paper instruction leaflet inside which dates it to post-1932. Funnily enough Bishop Winnington Ingram complained about the number of condoms discarded in alleyways and parks, especially after the weekends and holidays. At the Lambeth Conference of 1920 the Church of England condemned all ‘unnatural means of contraception avoidance’ – so a controversial find indeed!

2. How can we make archaeology more accessible?

Alexis says: This is a problem. With the professionalization of archaeology and its ties to the construction industry (and all the health and safety regulations that come with it), the opportunity for amateurs and enthusiasts to partake in archaeological excavation is now incredibly limited. It is even harder for children. Several archaeological societies do undertake regular excavations and this is certainly a way to get involved. Obviously when we dig at the Palace this is very much so community based and we encourage those with an active interest as well as school and uniform groups (and our Young Archaeologists’ Club) to get involved. The Council for British Archaeology website is also a good starting point to find out what is going on in the UK archaeologically. As an industry I do think archaeology needs to work a bit harder in terms of outreach and creativity. It is trying to, but the many pressures of time limitation and tight budgets don’t make it easy. In terms of Young People I’d say have a look at joining a YAC club to start with and take it from there!

3. What’s your favourite fact about the Palace?

Alexis says: That’s a good one! I like the fact that we are constantly finding out new things. For instance, I didn’t realise until very recently that Bishop Terrick’s chapel was actually on the first floor which was removed when Bishop Howley subdivided it and turned it into a library. I also like the fact that Bishop Robinson had to call in Sir John Vanbrugh and Sir Christopher Wren to see if he could tear down the dilapidated State Wing in 1714. All the greats came here you know!

4. What’s the best part of your job?

Alexis says: Certainly I have always loved the variety that archaeology brings. From digging to researching and writing. All things that I love. These days I get to pass that information on too and it is really great to work with enthusiastic young people. The members of the Fulham Palace YAC club are incredibly knowledgeable and I have certainly learnt a lot from them! I like lecturing too. Really, archaeology is a journey of discovery that encompasses so many different elements it is hard to get bored!

5. I have a child who’s interested in archaeology – how can I encourage them further?

Alexis says: The best way to do this is to join a local YAC club and to encourage their interest where you can. I was inspired by a teacher when I was 7 years old following a talk on wattle and daub. I was fortunate that my parents were happy to indulge my curiosity and as a family we went on weekend day trips to castles and ancient monuments. I went to see Lindow Man at the British Museum with school when I was 8 and that blew my mind. I felt like I was the only child in the class that realised he was a murder victim and that he had been sacrificed for some unknown reason. That certainly stuck with me and the Late Iron Age to early Roman crossover is one of my favourite periods!

6. What are the most important skills you need to be an archaeologist?

Alexis says: That is a good question and one that is hard to answer! I think you have to be fairly open minded in that it is difficult to get everything right. Always expect the unexpected as they say! It helps to be patient, and as you progress you are going to need to share your knowledge and skills with new starters. It also helps to have a sense of humour. Archaeology can really put you into some ridiculous situations! Writing skills also help, and organisation in terms of data management is necessary too.

7. What’s your favourite depiction of an archaeologist in film or television?

Alexis says: Wow! I haven’t really thought about this one. Archaeology is not often brilliantly portrayed on the big screen or on the television. I don’t fight Nazis on a daily basis or carry a whip, and I can’t run a good quality excavation in three days! I haven’t watched The Dig either I’m afraid. Actually, the closest reality I have seen to archaeology on television was in The Detectorists when Mackenzie Crook’s character Andy said that he quit archaeology because he felt disillusioned! I’d just like to point out that although at times archaeology can feel like that, it always drags you back with something amazing in the end! I also enjoyed the scene when Toby Jones’ character Lance said ‘Saxon Church – boom’ too! I swear I’ve heard something that on site before! I did enjoy Detectorists but the scene when Andy became an archaeologist, found a mosaic and was told to dig elsewhere by the supervisor wasn’t fair. No archaeologist would ever do that. A consultant on the other hand…!

8. Have you written any books?

Alexis says: Ohhh – this feels like a plug! Well I have indeed been published quite a few times and am currently writing up the monograph on the archaeology and history of Fulham Palace (I’m nearly there I promise!). But the last book I had published was ‘Tales from the Vaults and other Newington Horror Stories’. It covers an excavation I ran at the former St Mary’s churchyard in the Elephant and Castle between 2012 and 2013. If you like some grim 19th century social history it is likely to be right up your street! Weirdly I found out in the post-excavation process that my great-great-great grandparents were married at the church in 1833! They emigrated to New Zealand in 1848 and I had no idea! You can buy the book here.

9. What’s the biggest misunderstanding about archaeology? (Is it when people mix up archaeologists with palaeontologists…?)

Alexis says: I suppose the biggest one is yes, that archaeologists dig up dinosaurs. Which we don’t. Generally. Other ones are that we are paid by the government and all personally know Tony Robinson and Phil Harding. Otherwise, people are generally quite interested in what archaeologists do. I suppose it is always a conversation starter!

10. What’s your favourite tool to use?

Alexis says: Archaeologists use everything from toothpicks, teaspoons and trowels right through to shovels, mattocks, concrete breakers, chainsaws and 360 degree mechanical excavators. All of this always depends on the task in hand of course. I personally always used to quite enjoy shovelling, but my back isn’t so happy about this now and I had a hernia operation in 2015 that goes to show that archaeology can be bad for your health!

11. Is there anything still to be found at the Palace?

Alexis says: Of course there is! We have only scratched the surface really. I’d love to have an excavation on the moat to find out more about the internal bank. I’d also love to dig up the main lawn to find out more about the 13th century chapel and the Tudor garden layout, and to excavate the north lawn to find more of the State Wing and Saxo-Norman Palace!

12. Did you always want to be an archaeologist?

Alexis says: Good question! When I was really little I thought I might like to be an aeronautical engineer. But given my poor skills in maths and physics that was never going to happen! The subjects I always really enjoyed at school were history, English literature and geography so I guess becoming an archaeologist was likely. I undertook one of those skill tests at school that told me I should work for the Forestry Commission. I studied history at university but didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I left. One of my friends was living with an archaeologist who told me to volunteer at PCA because they were busy and short staffed. I did and about 4 weeks later they gave me a job!

13. Tell us your best archaeology joke!

Alexis says: Ha! I’ve been told a lot of jokes by archaeologists over the years but most of them are far too rude to print here! The classic one I always heard was how many archaeologists does it take to change a lightbulb? Three. One to actually change the lightbulb whilst the other two moan about them behind their back! Meow!

Our own Young Archaeologist’s Club even asked some of their own questions as well!

1. Would you recommend archaeology as a university degree?

Alexis says: Well I took a history degree but obviously most of my former colleagues took archaeology and they would certainly recommend it! You don’t have to be an archaeologist with an archaeology degree. Many go into all other kinds of work. But if you want to be an archaeologist then yes! You get to go on digs and study the periods and cultures that fascinate you.

2. Is it common to stay in only one country or travel?

Alexis says: Personally I have only ever excavated in the UK. When I go on holiday I want a break, although I love to visit archaeological sites and museums when abroad. Lots of my friends have done both though and excavated in really interesting places like Iraq, Pakistan, Romania, Peru and Belize. So the choice is really yours!

3. What is the rarest discovery in archaeology?

Alexis says: That is a really tough question and one that is incredibly difficult to answer. It would have to be a one off find or feature, the likes of which have never seen before. There’s a few of those but it would be difficult for me to pick one!

4. Where do you go after a degree to get a job as an archaeologist?

Alexis says: There are different choices. For most British archaeologists you go to the British Archaeological Jobs Resource website and see which units are hiring. Otherwise some archaeologists follow more of an academic path and work within universities and continuing to study. The best place to get practical excavation skills is of course in the field though.

5. Did the Phoenicians visit Britain?

Alexis says: Thanks Nico. Always ready to through a curveball. I have never heard of any archaeological evidence relating to Phoenician activity within Britain! There seems to have been a trend in the 17th century to suggest that they settled here, but this was a period in which nations were searching for origin stories. Obviously the Phoenicians were great sailors and traders which suited the political narrative at the time!

6. Why is it that although there was no proof that mythological creatures / gods existed, they were still widely believed in?

Alexis says: Wow! Now there is a question and a half! I think the problem here is that it is very difficult for our modern mindsets to empathise with those of the past. This is something you really need to think about as an archaeologist – to try and conceptualise past societies and how they thought and functioned. Which is difficult. But if we go back in time, life was often dependent on the success of harvests and so worshipping the elements makes sense. The sense of otherworldliness has never really left us. People still go to church, mosques and synagogues and take faith in what they believe in. In many ways it is exactly the same!

If you’d like to learn more about archaeology at the Palace, visit our archaeology page.