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:

One Girl Goes Hunting

10 Kat-ya concept 2

This is Kat-Ya.

Around two years ago my family had been binging on Studio Ghibli films. While watching Howl’s Moving Castle both Dr A and I were struck by the similarity between the landscape of the Waste in the animation and the landscape of Orkney. The vivid blues and greens, the huge skies, the constant movement of grass in the wind. I remarked that Neolithic Orkney would look great as anime/ manga in the Studio Ghibli style, and I imagined a girl standing next to the Stones of Stenness. This was the spark of an idea that led to me writing One Girl Goes Hunting.

Having written the script I knew that my artistic talents were not up to the job, so the script lay waiting until Steph Moser suggested that I get in touch with John Swogger.

Emails have gone backwards and forwards as I’ve tried to explain to John how the world of One Girl Goes Hunting looks inside my head.

In the second batch of files I saw her on the screen in front of me. The girl I’d imagined. Kat-Ya.

Dr H



Ask an Author: Sally Prue


Prehistories are very excited to invite author Sally Prue onto the blog to discuss Neanderthals, archaeology, art and writing.

Sally’s book Song Hunter centres on a Neanderthal girl, Mica, whose world changes when she encounters a human.

It’s a beautifully written and compelling story.

Sally has very kindly agreed to answer some questions put to her by Dr H.

Thanks Sally!

Ask an Author: Sally Prue

1. Have you always been interested in archaeology, or is it a recent interest?

It all started with The Flintstones, of course (yabba dabba doo!) but my dad was always turning up neolithic hand-axes and arrow heads in our garden, some of which are now in the British Museum. The only problem was that our garden ran alongside a footpath close to Sir John Evans’ old house, and we never quite sure whether we were living on an ancient site, or whether Sir John used to chuck his rejects over the hedge as he went along.

John Evans – untidy archaeologist?

2. What made you decide to focus on Neanderthals in Song Hunter?

I started off wanting to explore the idea of the first human. The most interesting way to do that was to have a outsider watch him, and that’s where the Neanderthals came in. Then they went and took over the book.

3. It looks like you did a lot of research for the book. Did you find any particular books or papers enlightening/ inspiring/ useful? Did you come across anything you disagreed with?

The main areas I looked at were Inuit culture (because the Inuit have had to face similar problems of living in a cold climate that Neanderthals did), the great apes (because I made the assumption that Neanderthals were at least as intelligent as they are), American hunters (who know how to cure pelts and cook their prey without modern chemicals and technology) and of course archaeological writing. Svante Pääbo’s research into Neanderthal DNA was a real jolt of inspiration, and so was Mark J White’s paper Things To Do In Doggerland When You’re Dead, which gave me an essential overview of the climate and ecology of England about 40,000 years ago.

I found lots of things I disagreed with! To give just one example, I wasn’t that convinced by a chapter I came across about the content of Neanderthal dreams.

4. I feel that politicians view the arts as a luxury – something that can only be funded in times of affluence, something that is not really necessary. In Song Hunter you seem to be arguing that imagination, creativity and invention are intrinsic to being human, and that we sheer away these aspects of ourselves at our own peril. Have I read this right? How important is writing and imagination to your own engagement with the world?

No one can exist normally without an imagination. The reason people don’t always appreciate this is because sometimes imagination is called by different names, eg empathy, or innovation, or even logic.

To answer your other question, it’s only when I begin writing things down that I start to think properly.

5. One of my favourite sections in the book is when Mica finds the mammoth ivory carving dropped by the human:

“She turned it wonderingly in her fingers.

No, not a pebble. A piece of mammoth ivory.

But…it was a reindeer at the same time.”

How hard/ easy was it for you to see the carving as Mica might have seen it? Did you read work on the anthropology/ archaeology of art, or did this understanding come from your own imaginative engagement with the past?

What helped, in an odd way, was that when I was a child the rest of my family saw no point at all in art. This meant that it was quite natural to me that the main questions the Neanderthals ask about art is, firstly, what is it? and then, at least as importantly, what is it for?

I did do some reading about art and archaeology, but archaeologists tend to deal with large principles and I was interested in individual reactions. As my childhood proves, even members of the same species living in the same house at the same time can have entirely different reactions to art.

6. You mention in your blog the difficulty you sometimes had finding the right words to describe Mica’s prehistoric world (restricting yourself to Mica’s reference points and knowledge of the world). Poets sometimes put limitations on themselves to encourage creativity with language. Did these limitations lead to a new way of writing for you?

In some ways every book leads to a new way of writing because each book involves seeing the world through a different pair of eyes. That’s exciting and scary, and always challenging. But the only formal limitation I gave myself in Song Hunter was that the Neanderthals have no concept of colour. Any other limitations came naturally, through the filter of the Neanderthals’ own minds.


7. I read on your blog that you visited the Ice Age Art exhibition (which is where I discovered your book). Do you have a favourite/ selection of favourite objects from the exhibition?

That exhibition blew me away! It’s hard to choose, but I think my very favourite things might be the Venus figures because they were such a surprise. In reproductions they come over as brash and even comic, but in real life they’re private and tender and inward-looking. But the quality of just about all the objects on display – the delicacy of the observation and execution – was utterly amazing. I loved the depictions of animals. I think I really loved it all.

8. What are you working on at the moment?

Children’s book publishers seem to be only interested in producing popular fiction at the moment, so I’m writing a whodunnit for adults called DEATH STITCH about a murder investigation by the members of a WI. But I’ve just written two short plays for children set in Roman Britain, and will have a comedy out next year called CLASS SIX AND THE NITS OF DOOM.

You can find out more about Sally and her work on her Song Hunter and Word Den blogs.

Thanks again to Sally for answering my questions.

Dr H


Meetings Make History: Part One


At the end of May I visited Florø, western Norway as part of the scientific/steering committee for the ‘Meetings make History’ project run by Ingrid Fuglestvedt at Oslo University. The ‘Meetings make History’ project is based on Ingrid’s analysis and interpretation of the Stone Age rock art of Scandinavia, characterised by animal motifs.


She argues that the internal patterns on many animal motifs depict totemic relationships: motifs in different regions of Scandinavia are subtly different in form. We were in western Norway to visit one of the most spectacular rock art locations in Scandinavia (and possibly the world): Vingen.

I’ve always wondered whether the phrase ‘Meetings make History’ was meant to have a double meaning, as the project also incorporates occasional gatherings or meetings of archaeologists to discuss the progress of the project. The first day began with a superb set of papers from some of the people associated with the project. Astrid Nyland, a doctoral student on the project, began the day with a wonderful discussion of Stone Age quarry sites in Norway. The aim of the project is to map the relationship between quarry sites and rock art sites.

Following this Fredrik Hållgren gave an inspiring talk looking at the relationship between the hunter-gatherer cultures of northern Scandinavia and the farming cultures of southern Scandinavia, and the exchange of artefacts between them. One of his focuses was the slate knives of the northern cultures. He had done extensive fieldwork to trace their quarry sites, places of manufacture, use and exchange. It was incredible to see what detailed analysis and fieldwork can achieve. I was especially intrigued as I am currently thinking about the manufacture of Neolithic artefacts in NE Scotland.

The fun was to continue, as the irrepressible Jan Magne Gjerde, post-doctoral researcher on the project, gave a great presentation about encountering rock art at different times of year, by boat, or by skis. Jan Magne is always ‘value for money’ and in this presentation we were treated to a short film of him rowing out to a rock art location in the middle of a Finnish lake. It seems that many rock art sites may have been preferentially visited in winter, by skis, as they were easier to access then.


The centre piece of the morning was Ingrid’s presentation of her thinking about the project so far. This was quite simply astounding; a virtuoso piece of analysis and interpretation looking at totemic and animic relations in Stone Age art. Much of the rest of the meeting was spent debating this presentation.

Finally, the morning finished with a talk from Trond Lødøen, Bergen Museum, who discussed the sites we were to visit over the next few days. He also presented his new interpretation of Vingen and Ausevik. More on that later.

The first morning got us off to a great start, with lots of food for thought, lots of debate and discussion. Debates and discussion continued on our field trip that took place later that day. I will detail our adventures on the fieldtrip next time…

Dr A