Ask an Archaeologist: Gabriel Moshenska

Gabriel MoshenskaLecturer in Public Archaeology at UCL Institute of Archaeology has kindly agreed to take part in Ask an Archaeologist

Me digging air raid shelter

What is your specialism?

I have several different areas of specialism, which is a bit exhausting.  Firstly I work on the archaeology of modern conflicts, in particular Home Fronts and the civilian experience of war.  I’ve dug up and surveyed quite a lot of air raid shelters, and that’s a lot of fun.  Secondly, I’m working more and more on the history of archaeology, in particular popular archaeology in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Amongst other things I’m writing a biography of Thomas Pettigrew, a Victorian antiquarian who used to unroll Egyptian mummies in public.  Finally, I work a lot in community archaeology and I study and teach public archaeology in general, including looking at the public understanding of archaeology and techniques for communicating archaeological research.

Why did you become an archaeologist?          

Originally I wanted to be an aeronautic engineer, but I joined the Brighton and Hove Archaeological Society when I was in college and had too much fun digging with them.  Then I decided to study archaeology at university, dug in fun places, and met loads of lovely and brilliant people.  I’ve dug abroad a couple of times but it’s British archaeology that gets me most excited, even at the low points like when I’m mattocking clay in the rain.

Which archaeologist (past or present) would you invite onto an excavation?

It would have to be the Wheelers – Tessa and Rik – and really I’d like them to invite me onto one of their excavations which they ran as a team, preferably at Maiden Castle in Dorset in the mid-1930s.  Tessa was a brilliant fieldworker and teacher and I’d love to have a chance to work under her guidance, and of course it would be rather fun (also a bit scary) to meet Rik, although being neither young nor female I doubt he’d have much interest in me.

Choose one of the following: trowel, archive, library, laptop.

Archive, definitely.  I’ve spent a lot of time in archives while I’ve been researching the history of archaeology, and some of the things that I’ve found have been just extraordinary, enough to give me those shiver-down-the-spin moments of total excitement.  Mostly it’s just letters and bills, boring everyday stuff, but every so often there’s a note or a letter that gives you a really penetrating insight into the people and the times they lived in.  Sometimes it’s a comment or a complaint, a bit of gossip or an insight into somebody’s world-view.  Other times its something personal, like (possibly my favourite archive find) a letter in which a very famous Egyptologist rather plaintively asks for advice on an embarrassing and painful STD.  Archives are the best.

File:Ray Flying Legends 2005-1.jpg

What is your dream find?

Even though I didn’t become an engineer I still have a lot of love for old aeroplanes.  My dream find would be the (sadly mythical) crates of Spitfire fighter planes that some archaeologists went looking for in Burma some time ago.  There’s hundreds of myths around the world, including plenty in the UK, of huge secret burial places full of old WW2 aircraft, tanks, jeeps and other stuff, just waiting to be dug up and driven or flown home.  Of course 99% of the time its total bollocks.  Still, I’d like there to be just one Spitfire waiting for me out there, nicely preserved in its crate, so that I could have the excitement of finding it and then the enduring fun of owning a whacking great fighter plane.

Time travel, yes or no? (Give reasons)

No.  One of the best things about archaeology for me is the moment when you’ve studied a landscape or parts of a landscape long enough that you can see its development in your mind’s eye, and vividly imagine it changing over time into its present form.  The archaeological imagination is a wonderful thing and I wouldn’t want to give that up, even for the answers to a whole load of big questions.  Also, I’d probably step on a beetle or something and change the entire course of human history in some horrible and unpredictable way.

Image of Perthi Duon in 1802, sketched by the Rev. John Skinner

Sketch by Rev John Skinner (1772–1839)

If you had to relocate to the past, which era would you move to?

I think I’d make a rather good eccentric antiquarian vicar in early Victorian England.  I’d dig barrows, record local folklore, collect artefacts that farmers dug up, and write long dreary books with engraved illustrations.  I’d cultivate an interest in some kind of exotic antiquities like Indus seals or Assyrian tablets, and spend all my money in auction houses and in sponsoring expeditions.  In my spare time I’d write ghost stories.  The actual vicaring would be a bit of a chore but not too bad.*

*N.B Dr A has often expressed a similar wish. The idea of a REF and admin-free lifestyle dominated by research in a comfortable vicarage is probably at the root of this daydream.

Is there a work of art (e.g. novel, painting, music, film, etc) that has influenced you as an archaeologist?

Sussex is where I did my first digs over several years, and the Sussex landscape and its history are still great loves of mine.  I read Kipling’s Puck stories when I was quite young (Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies), and they did a brilliant job of painting time depth and the human stories of the past into the Sussex countryside.  My favourite visual reminders of the beauty and depth of this landscape are some of Eric Ravilious’s paintings, which capture the colours and contours of the Downs just perfectly.

What are you working on at the moment?

As usual, far too many things.  I’m recently started drawing comics about archaeology and the history of archaeology, and I’ve got two in the planning/sketching stages at the moment.  I’m also trying to raise funds for an oral history project, which is slow going.  I’ve got several book projects on the go on public archaeology and conflict archaeology, all of which are swallowing up too much of my time, and also two long articles on the history of archaeological science that I’m revising for publication.  On top of all that I’m hoping to spend at least ten weeks digging over the summer on a bunch of different sites.  My work life is stressful and exhausting but never boring, and I like it that way.

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Thanks Gabriel!

Gabriel’s excellent comics about archaeology can be seen here and here.

Read more Ask an Archaeologist features here.