Ask an Archaeologist: Alice Watterson

The latest archaeologist to agree to questioning by Prehistories is Alice Watterson.

Ask an Archaeologist: Alice Watterson

What is your specialism?

Archaeological illustration, digital data capture and visualisation, I’m currently working on my PhD thesis in archaeological visualisation at the Digital Design Studio, Glasgow School of Art.

Why did you become an archaeologist?

I wish I could tell you my journey to becoming an archaeologist had come from a childhood dream or something delightful like that, but really I ended up studying it by chance! Starting at the University of Glasgow at 17 I had no idea what I wanted to be so when I was asked to tick off on extra classes to take as minors one of my choices was archaeology (my major had been geography and the other minor was theatre studies…so you can appreciate how unsure about my future career I was at that point!).

One of the introductory modules was “Archaeology of Scotland” and after a few classes I was hooked and switched to archaeology as my major. When I was growing up my family would pack up our camper and spend nearly every weekend away kayaking or cycling, where I’d spend a lot of my time exploring coastlines and scrambling over ruins. Suddenly I was looking at all these sites and landscapes I’d explored as a kid in a new light and they had this added richness of understanding. Following my first fieldschool my supervisors noticed I had a skill for drawing and a career as an illustrator (which later expanded into digital visualisation) really sprang up from there. The remainder of my undergrad was spent training in the conventions of different types of illustrations in my spare time. My lecturers would give me ‘beer money’ for producing publication illustrations for their papers, and I really owe a lot of where I am today to their enthusiasm and encouragement.

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

Vere Gordon Childe. Over the past couple of years I’ve been doing a lot of work up in Orkney and specifically at Skara Brae where Childe excavated in the late 1920s. I know a lot of people roll their eyes at Childe’s work at Skara Brae as a lot was overlooked (I think he even admitted himself that excavation wasn’t his strength) and much of the work was focussed only on consolidating the remains, not to mention the fact that with the advent of radiocarbon dating we now know Skara Brae wasn’t a “Pictish Village”, but Neolithic.

All this aside I’d love to have had him onsite with us when we were making the Digital Dwelling at Skara Brae film ( because I think he had a wonderfully imaginative mind when it came to interpretation. His site reports are punctuated by these great narrative threads about some of the finds where he takes the evidence and invents a little accompanying story to explain how an artefact was used or why it ended up in a particular context.

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

Landscape. Since beginning my PhD nearly 3 years ago I’ve learned a lot about the way I approach the interpretation of a site and why. I think that coming at this research having just spent a year specialising in digital survey and 3D modelling at the University of Southampton meant that I was very focussed on sites in isolation and consideration of the wider context didn’t come naturally to me at all.

Over the course of the past two years or so I’ve worked quite extensively with Aaron Watson (who instinctively knows all things prehistoric and insists that each fieldwork project we work on has us out exploring the landscape as well as working on site) and Kieran Baxter (whose low altitude kite aerial photographs place sites in their immediate landscape context). Working alongside Aaron and Kieran really helped me to reflect on my own process of visualisation and to see past the site in isolation, forming a real appreciation for the importance of landscape in any interpretation.

What is your dream find?

Though I’m out on fieldwork quite a bit, I don’t do that much excavation myself anymore so I’m only really in a position where I observe others digging up finds. The best thing I’ve witnessed while on site was the opening of the Bronze Age cist burial at Forteviot (part of the SERF project). We had excavated a huge stone slab the previous season and had to wait a whole year to have it uncovered and bring a crane in to lift it. The anticipation had been killing everyone for months so when the day finally came to lift the stone we were all really hoping there was actually a cist underneath! Thankfully after all that fuss there was, complete with bronze dagger and what turned out after lab testing to be the remains of meadowsweet flowers. Even though I hadn’t excavated the slab and opened it myself it was amazing to be part of the opening that day, I was later commissioned to do the reconstructions for the monograph too so I don’t really feel too left out of all the excitement!

Time travel, yes or no? (Give reasons)

I think if you had asked me this question a couple of weeks ago my answer would undoubtedly have been “Yes! Get me in that Delorean and gun it to 88mph!” But recently I’ve changed my mind.

About a month ago I was interviewing one of the excavators up at the Links of Noltland in Orkney (which has phases of occupation from Neolithic to Bronze Age) and his response to a similar question was “absolutely not”, his reasoning being that if we knew the exact motives behind the often completely bonkers actions of people in prehistory some element of the fascination with that time period would be ruined for him, he liked not knowing.

When I really think about it I have to agree with him, it’s the not knowing that I love about archaeology because it makes the process of interpretation so fascinating. One of the challenges with the kind of creative reconstruction work I produce is conveying the ambiguity and intangibility of an interpretation to an audience; if we knew the answers for certain it just wouldn’t be as captivating, and I’d be out of a job. Also, realistically if we did go back to the Neolithic I think we’d have absolutely no idea what was going on anyway!

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

I’m going to contradict myself here after answering “no” to the time travel question, but if I could relocate to the past I would love to go back to any era during the occupation of St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides.

I’ve done quite a bit of work out on St Kilda and have recently finished work on a paper with George Geddes at the RCAHMS about use of the ‘cleits’ which are these unique little stone walled, turf capped structures used for storage and drying. At first glance their use and significance seems pretty straightforward, but then you realise there are literally hundreds of these structures all across the archipelago with no good reason for such excessive numbers. I don’t think the use of the cleits is something that can be answered by a quick nip back in time and asking a few questions, I think it’s much more complex than that and would require some level of prolonged observation. Although I wouldn’t want to time travel back to prehistory, St Kilda’s recent history seems so tantalisingly close so it’s frustrating not to have a clearer understanding of their lives.

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

The graphic novel Mezolith by Ben Haggerty and Adam Brockbank and the novel The Gathering Night by Margaret Elphinstone are both wonderful examples of archaeologically informed creative storytelling. I find them really interesting and in some ways inspiring because they occupy this strange ground where they are consumed as fiction but the stories are the product of extensive research in the fields of prehistoric archaeology and anthropology. I’m really interested in the ways different contexts and approaches change the way people consume archaeological images and interpretations and I think a lot can be learned from creative storytelling and fed into the ways we present ‘interpretive reconstruction’ to the public.

What are you working on at the moment?

Finishing and submitting my darned PhD thesis before Christmas!


Thanks Alice! You can read more about Alice’s work on her excellent blog:

Read more Ask an Archaeologist features here:

Folklore Fridays: Rusborough Camp

Rusborough Camp is a triangular promontory fort at Broomfield, Somerset (ST 228 335).

Its entry in Grinsell  caught my eye because of a connection with a graphic novel I’d just read (see below).

The area between the inner and outer ramparts of the hillfort is known as the Money Field. It is said to conceal an iron castle filled with gold and silver. The castle is guarded by gnomes and spirits. The only way of revealing the hidden castle is to dig at noon. It is imperative that you dig in silence, or you will not find the castle or its treasure.

The need for silence when treasure hunting seems to have carried beyond these shores to America and Canada. It is mentioned in tales of men hunting for pirate treasure or gold buried for safe-keeping by early settlers to the region. Hope Larson draws on these stories in her graphic novel Mercury (the title referring to the substance used to locate buried treasure).


Dr H

Ghosts and Daemons

This week I have been lucky enough to encounter two great TV show from the 1970s featuring archaeological references

The first is from The Stone Tape, a TV drama from 1972, in which a group of scientists and computer specialists encounter a powerful haunting in an old house (being renovated to form their new headquarters).

The team, who are working on a new recording device, discover that the building itself has recorded the death of a servant in the nineteenth century. But has this “stone tape” also retained traces of something far more ancient?

Strange noises (perfectly orchestrated by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) and glowing lights evoke menacing prehistoric spirits.

Coincidentally, The Stone Tape was referenced in this week’s Doctor Who (Hide), which mentioned keeping supplies of spam to keep the ghost at bay – in The Stone Tape, US soilders based in the house during WWII feed spam to the ghost in order to placate it.

This leads me on to my second 70s experience – Doctor Who and the Daemons (Jon Pertwee period – 1971).

Drawing on the Chronicle broadcast of the excavation of Silbury Hill, this Doctor Who story starts with TV coverage of the excavation of a prehistoric mound near the village of Devil’s End (in reality the village of Aldbourne, Wiltshire).

When the mound is opened, it all goes wrong. The pompous archaeologist is frozen to death, and a demon-like alien escapes – only to be harnessed by the Master, who is masquerading as a local vicar. It’s well worth watching. One of my favourite scenes is this, in which the UNIT team approaching the site get a view strange hoof prints leaving the excavation site.

If you see any of these in your aerial photos be afraid, be very afraid…

Dr H

Ice Age Art


During the Easter break I had the chance to visit the ‘Ice Age Art’ exhibition at the British Museum for the second time. I was there on the opening night, and will take a group of Masters students later this month; I can’t keep away! The objects in this exhibition have really captivated me to the extent that I’ve written a paper on the artefacts from the exhibition, to be published in a book on art and archaeology edited by Andrew Cochrane and Ian Russell; the artefacts offer us an intriguing perspective on the Upper Palaeolithic, c.40-10, 000 BC, not typically covered by the text books on Cave art. Although I was familiar with some objects, such as the Lowenmensch or Lion-man from Hohlenstein, others were unfamiliar. One of the things that struck me was the miniature size of so many of the objects carved from mammoth ivory. I’ve been working on aspects of miniaturisation for the last couple of years and had not realised that there were good examples of this from this period.

Ice age art

Poster drawn by Xanitose specially for Prehistories

While I was at the British Museum I had the chance to visit some old friends, the Folkton Drums, three carved chalk cylinders from the Neolithic (c.4000-2300 BC) of Yorkshire. The Folkton Drums are on display in gallery 51, (Prehistoric Europe) in the British Museum. They were excavated over a hundred years ago, they are unique and we really know very little about them; something I am hoping to remedy in the future. I had written about these intriguing objects in my last book ‘Prehistoric Materialities’ so it was good to see them again.

folkton drums watson-001

Illustration by Aaron Watson

I was lucky to be able to join one of the occasional museum talks given by curator Andrew Cochrane in the European prehistory gallery. It was great to be able to talk to members of the public about my ideas about these intriguing artefacts, with the artefacts sitting in front of me; a rare opportunity – I’m usually relying on slides when giving talks. People became really excited about these artefacts as we both explained their significance; are they representations of people? Why were they buried with a child? Why are there three of them? Were they made by the same person? Why are they unique? Some prehistoric artefacts captivate archaeologists. These artefacts have certainly obsessed Andrew Cochrane and myself (and Dr H). They are well worth taking a look at next time you visit the British Museum.

Dr A