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:

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