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Ask an Archaeologist: Katy Whitaker

One of the archaeology blogs I enjoy reading is Artefactual, which focuses on the making and recreation of archaeological artefacts.

I was really pleased to track down the site’s author, Katy Whitaker, and have her take part in Ask an Archaeologist. The interview is illustrated by Katy’s replica artefacts.


Ask an Archaeologist: Katy Whitaker

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Antler die after Frocester Court Roman villa

What is your specialism?

My specialism is aerial photography.   I work with England’s national collections of some 4 million air photos, which are part of English Heritage Archives, cataloguing and researching images.

Most recently I’ve been working on the Aerofilms Collection through the Britain from Above project.   The Aerofilms Collection is really important for understanding different landscapes, because unusually it includes extensive air photo coverage from the inter-War years, and because of its predominantly urban and industrial subjects.

However, I also make replicas of artefacts for display and education purposes, and teach experimental archaeology.   Ancient technology is a fascinating and really hands-on way for people to get involved in the past.   I’ve always wanted to know how things were done – its part of understanding why people did what they did.   If I’m not in the archive or library, I’ll be in my workshop!

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Bone practice piece, Upper Palaeolithic, horse head on a rib (after Courbet Cave, but not a copy)

Why did you become an archaeologist?

Now you ask the question, I realise I’ve never really asked myself!   When I was at school, thinking about University, it seemed entirely natural to look at the archaeology courses on offer.   As we couldn’t study archaeology at school (no A-Level in it those days) I would have to do it at University.

With hindsight, I realise that I was drawn to archaeology by my intellectual interest in and emotional response to places and to things, inhabited, made, and used by people in the past.   I loved visiting sites and museums, and after I worked on my first excavation, aged 18, I wanted to learn more.

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

Dorothy Garrod (1892-1968).   I would invite her for two reasons.   First, her undoubted fieldwork skills.   Having cut her teeth in France, she led the excavations of a series of very important Palaeolithic sites in Europe and the Near East.   Secondly, and actually this is most important, I would want to learn from her exceptional abilities to run a team in the field, bearing up with difficulties and indignities, and inspiring those around her.   In contemporary letters, and in later interviews with Dr Pamela Jane Smith who has researched Garrod’s career, members of her crew often comment on Garrod’s self-assurance, sense of humour, and courage.  She has a reputation as a talented, determined, committed fieldworker; working collaboratively with her team members, developing them and placing trust in them.

Choose one of the following: trowel; museum; archive; library; landscape; laptop.

Archive.   It’s all well and good excavating; if you then accession the artefacts in a museum; and publish something with your descriptions and interpretations; and people can wander the landscape in which a site sits; or trawl the internet to find out what they can about a site from the comfort of an armchair.   But the archive is what enables people to see and understand what you actually did during your fieldwork.   The archive is what makes it possible to reinterpret a site, to ask different questions or apply new techniques.

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Sarsen hammerstone;

This is a work in progress, I’m using it in a long-term pre-experiment, so at the moment it doesn’t look like the hammerstones on display in Devizes and Salisbury, but it will do when the work is done

What is your dream find?

My answer changes from day to day!   Right now my dream find is a hafted prehistoric scraper from a European context.   Scrapers are probably the most common knapped flint tool in much of prehistory, but we only ever get the stone bit, never the handle (if there was one).    We can think of a range of tasks that scrapers could have been used for – and use methods like use-wear analysis to study them – but our analogies for hafting come from very different places around the world.   There are really good ethnographic examples of scrapers in handles, but because these are from countries like Ethiopia and Canada with very different histories, environments and social contexts, they don’t necessarily make good analogies for the European archaeological assemblage.   So there is something really very basic, about a prolific archaeological artefact which you could easily collect when field-walking most places in Britain, that we simply don’t know about.

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Hafted scraper

Time travel, yes or no?

No.   It would be too weird for words.   Of course I want to know what life was like in the past, just like physicists want to unpick the Big Bang – but I am embedded in the Western cultural and scientific idiom in which time’s arrow flies in one direction.

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

I would live in a medieval hall house and run the dairy; visit a medieval church with its un-Victorianised fixtures, fittings and open nave free of furniture; see a medieval cathedral being built.


Tesserae in Totternhoe stone

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

Not one thing, no.   However, the work of artists like John Piper, Eric Ravilious and Heather and Robin Tanner suggest creative ways in which insights into the past can be made.   I’ve recently been enjoying Stonework by Mark Edmonds and Rose Ferraby and The Fork’s Tale by Alana Jelinek, both of which are “a different way of telling”.   Edmonds describes Stonework, a book about Neolithic quarrying and axe making in the Langdale Fells, as an experiment working towards “a more appropriate truth to materials”.   In The Fork’s Tale, Jelinek gives a voice to an object in a museum in order to explore the relationship between collections, collectors and collected things; and in doing so questions how we know what we think we know about the past.

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A cannibal fork; my interpretation, not a copy

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a replica of the Kingsteignton Idol.   This is an Iron Age figure carved from oak, found in the mid-nineteenth century in Devon.   It was dug out of the bank of the River Teign by workmen from a local clayworks, along with other wooden items preserved in the anaerobic conditions.   You can see it in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter.   There is a small group of prehistoric wooden figures from Britain and Ireland, but they date from the Neolithic to the middle Iron Age so it’s hard to say if they were made for similar reasons or used in similar ways.

The Idol doesn’t have arms, but there is a hole through the neck above the position of the shoulders.   Other figures appear to have arms, like the ones from Roos Carr which have peg arms fixed in holes drilled in the body, and the Ballachulish figure on which the arms and hands are carved in relief on the body.   I have decided to make sets of arms for the Idol, enabling different forms or poses to be made.   This has the potential to lead to different interpretations being reached and different experiences being had by people who then handle and play with the (replica) Idol.

However, I have to carve the figure first.   To borrow a concept from lithics analysis, the chaîne opératoire begins with procuring the wood.   Selecting the right piece of oak has already presented me with some problems to overcome.   The Idol was carved from a section of roundwood and Bryony Coles suggests in her paper about prehistoric carved figures that the wood was unseasoned.  Unseasoned roundwood is very susceptible to cracking.

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Frullini; Bronze Age beaters, Lake Fiave (for food preparation)



Thanks Katy! Please go and check out her excellent blog.

Dr H

About Hannah


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