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.


Thanks Gabriel!

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

Read more Ask an Archaeologist features here.





Ask an Archaeologist

Archaeologist and archaeological illustrator John Swogger answers our questions.


Ask An Archaeologist: John Swogger

What is your specialism?

I specialise in archaeological illustration, which is about recording and presenting archaeology visually. I do everything from measured drawings of artefacts, monuments, and entire sites to reconstruction paintings showing how places, people and things used to look like in the past. Some of my illustrations end up in specialist archaeological publications and site reports, others – like my archaeological comics – end up in museums, guidebooks and magazines.


Why did you become an archaeologist?

I was always interested in archaeology, even when I was really young. I used to make Egyptian tombs in the garden, fill them with mummies, pots and pieces of furniture I’d made, and leave them for months at a time before digging them up again. I suppose actually becoming an archaeologist was inevitable after that! When I went to University, I realised that archaeology was actually as much about understanding the present as it was understanding the past. If you understand the way archaeology pieces together the past, you realise you’re also able to understand those same things in the present:  politics, economics, culture, history, art, etc.

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

Mortimer Wheeler. He created the kind of public archaeology we know today, and helped us recognise that the past matters to everyone, not just to archaeologists. Without him, we’d have no Time Team, no Discovery Channel, and Jorvik Centre. I think he’d be fascinated by the way public understanding of archaeology has changed over the years, and despite all archaeology’s problems, be extremely encouraged by the number of people who are interested in the past and who value it.

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

Trowel, definitely. Archaeology is about studying the past through the bits and pieces left behind. Without a trowel, nothing would end up in museums, archives or libraries. Knowing how, where, when and why to excavate is the beginning of all good archaeology.

What is your dream find?

Time is not kind to a lot of ordinary materials. Organic materials such as wood, textile, string, leather and skin survive only in particular conditions – like the clothing on the Ice Man preserved in the ice and cold of the Alps, for example, or the skin and hair preserved on bog bodies in peat deposits. Occasionally, you get place like Akrotiri, Pompeii or Herculaneum where natural events like volcanoes preserve the imprints of objects like wooden chairs or loaves of bread. A “dream find” for me would be an entire site from a distant period like the Neolithic preserved in such a way. Imagine all the wooden objects, all the textiles, all the furs and skins that you would be able to recover from some sort of Neolithic Pompeii. I think finding a site like that would be truly astonishing, and quite probably make us think about periods like the Neolithic very differently.

Time travel, yes or no? (Give reasons)

Oh yes, absolutely. So much of the ordinary experience of even the recent past is very quickly forgotten. I grew up in a time without computers, without mobile phones, without the internet – and even I have trouble remembering what that was like. I think time-travel to even a very recent era in the past – say the 1980s – would radically alter the way we think about it. You’d be very quickly made aware of all those ordinary everyday details which don’t make it into the archaeological or historical record. Imagine what time-travel would do for our understanding of the very distant past. Of course, it might put archaeologists out of a job…


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

This is such an unfair question! How can you possibly pick one era out of the whole of human history! I’d want to go back and see what all the places I’ve ever worked in were like in the past: the Sudan during the Meroitic period, the Cistercian monastery of Bordesley Abbey in the thirteenth century, the riverside settlements along the Danube at the end of the Mesolithic, or the Roman marching camps along the Antonine Wall. An impossible choice! But if I absolutely had to pick one era, it would be the Neolithic in Anatolia (Central Turkey, c. 5,000BC). I worked for many years at the site of Catalhoyuk, which is a Neolithic site in Anatolia. This was the time that people were inventing the whole idea of not being hunter-gatherers and settling down into permanent communities. So much of what we take for granted as part of the modern world – villages, towns, professions, trades, government, religion, borders, etc. – started at sites like Catalhoyuk. Seeing these ideas first being tried out, and knowing what later generations would do with these ideas would be really interesting.

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

When I was learning to read, I couldn’t get enough of the Ladybird books on history and archaeology. The pictures in the books – particularly the paintings by a man named John T. Kenney – made the past seem genuinely alive. I know this is one of the things that made me interested in trying to do illustrations and paintings of the past myself.

What are you working on at the moment?

At the moment I’m working on four very different archaeological comics. The first is an educational comic for a museum in California, all about the native peoples that lived on the California coast and left these huge mounds of discarded clam-shells behind. The second is a graphic article about late ceramics in northwestern Mexico – this is going to be published in a specialist archaeology journal in the US. The third is a fictional web-comic about future archaeologists working on the moon, and will be published online later this year. The last project is one I’m working on with Dr H! It’s a graphic short story written by Dr H and illustrated by me. It’s about a girl during the Late Neolithic, and is set around the sites of Skara Brae and Stenness on Orkney. It’s called “One Girl Goes Hunting”, and we’re not sure when it’ll be published, but hopefully early next year.

Thanks John! You can see more of John’s work and read his articles on comics and archaeology on his blog:
Read more Ask an Archaeologist features here:

Buried Treasure

In addition to the Chronicle broadcast of excavations at Silbury Hill, the BBC archive also boasts an array of other archaeological treasures from another age. The BBC 4 archaeology site showcases more episodes of Chronicle, alongside highlights from Buried Treasure, Armchair Voyager and three glorious episodes of Animal, Vegetable, Mineral.


Glyn Daniel gets his hands on the Gundestrop Cauldron

Prominent among these recordings are archaeologists Mortimer Wheeler and Glyn Daniel, both popular presenters of their day.


Mortimer Wheeler pontificating on the subject of Tolland Man.

Dr A and Dr H recently enjoyed an episode of Buried TreasureThe Peat Bog Murder Mystery. This broadcast proves that even in 1954 viewers were seen to have relatively short attention spans. The archaeological discussions (hosted by Mortimer Wheeler and Glyn Daniel) are interspersed with frivolous sections on cookery (Tolland Man’s last meal) and prehistoric fashion.

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These sections are hosted by actor Noelle Middleton, as presumably neither of the men were willing to cook up a batch of barley porridge.

Still, the sight of the presenters wearing chequered napkins sampling prehistoric gruel and mead (served in horn goblets) is a sight to be savoured.


If you want to catch up with these buried treasures you can find them here:


Dr A and Dr H