End of Season Thoughts

It has been a busy but productive excavation season and, as always, seemed to come to a close all too soon. Thankfully it seems very likely that one of our principal objectives for the summer, which was to identify a building, or buildings, associated with our large and impressive-looking cobble surface, was fulfilled. We had been looking for post-holes or beam slots of a series of modest to small buildings that would front onto the cobbles. This was based on the metalworking building/forge that we had seen in a later (9th century) layer, that was build alongside a pebble pathway. It was quit a modest-sized building and, as we were looking for other industrial style workshops, it made sense that they would also be quite modest in size.  As is often the case in archaeology, what actually was found turned out to be a little different. Instead of a series of smaller structures, we have now identified a large building at least 9.6m north-east to south-west. It extends beyond the trench towards the sea and as we have only seen clear evidence of two of the walls, we are far from certain about its width.

Rather than seeing evidence of the building itself, what we found was that the edges of two cobble and pebble surfaces align at 90 degrees (a right angle, like the corner of a rectangle) and therefore appear to outline the space where two sides of a structure once stood. As we only have its outline in general so far, we are still uncertain if, like the later 9th century one, it was associated with metalworking or some other industrial style activity. It does include in its floor space a hearth and stone-lined water channel that was uncovered by Hope-Taylor, but it seems likely that this is an earlier phase of activity so not evidence of what our newly discovered building was for.

This year we were also fortunate to have a donation to fund some radiocarbon dates, and we used them to confirm the date of the cobble surface and some potential associated features in the main section that passes through the Hope-Taylor area. As this is an important–and very likely deliberately-planned–surface, being able to more closely date this will help to interpret it better, and, just as importantly, interpret the features and structures associated with it. This new dating has confirmed that the cobble and pebble surfaces that outline two sides of the large timber structure discussed above are of the right date to be contemporary and are mid-7th to mid-8th century.

In addition to investigating the cobble surface and the features around it, we have also been looking at the west trench edge and Hope-Taylor’s ‘lower pavement’. We have long thought this was likely to be the foundation for a substantial timber building or structure rather than a pavement and further work seems to have confirmed this. Last year we thought that we found a southern limit to it, and this year we have further investigated what appeared to be gaps spaced along its length. We thought these might be indications of post-holes for raking supporting timbers (think of them as buttressing the main structure on a diagonal), but as no post-holes were found, we are now thinking that we were looking at this the wrong way! Perhaps we have a series of extensions from the line of the stone foundation and not pits cut into it. If this is so, then we still have raking supporting timbers, but they are based on extensions to the surface and would be more consistent with the main wall which must be a beam or series of posts set onto the slab stone foundation.

lower pavement explanation

It is a little annoying when a blog tells you to keep checking as we have some important announcements to come, so I feel I should apologise for doing this now! The truth is we do have some really exciting projects for the next few months, but are just not quite in a place to announce them yet. It does mean though that the blog will be a good bit more active this autumn and winter than it normally is, which I hope is good news.

Graeme Young, Director

 

 

Round-up: Week 6

Yesterday was our last day on site for the field school, but there will be some bits and bobs to take care of over the next few weeks for each of the departments as we approach the off-season. The off-season is the time we get some of our work published, send out artefacts for conservation, ship the environmental sample flots to the lab, apply for funding, and plan out next season!

We floated, sorted, and bagged numerous samples from this season and cleared up some of the backlog of older samples.

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The finds team led digitisation of our finds catalogues and the eventual physical removal of boxes from our old office in the Windmill, our temporary office in the castle apartments, and the long-term archive room under the staterooms. We’ll be storing most of our material securely off-site in the future!

In the trench, we excavated a pit abutting the Lower Pavement at the centre of the western side of the trench as well as the ash deposits to the northeast of the western latrine pit and to the north of the eastern latrine pit. We also invited a team of specialists to take some samples of the hearth to the south of the western latrine pit.

We also planned the entire trench the past two days to get a final picture of Trench 3 in all its messy glory.

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For all of us here at the BRP, we thank you for keeping up with us this summer! We hope to keep the blog posting occasionally in the off-season with interesting bits about next season. Please check back in the next few weeks for a closing word from Director Graeme Young, as well as a few thoughts for the next phase of the project.

 

1 Project, 6 Weeks, a Lifetime of Memories: Cassidy’s Takeaways

Today was our last day with the students, but before we post our round-up for tomorrow we wanted to share the story of one student who joined us for the ENTIRE season. Below is a great read from Cassidy Sept about her experience with us. Mucho thanks to Cassidy for taking the time to share this with us and for in general being A Very Good Egg.


It was 2016 and I was reading my new Archaeology magazine cover to cover (as 22-year-old archaeology nerds often do) when I came across an article titled “Stronghold of the Kings of the North.” This article described 20 years’ worth of archaeological excavation and research at Bamburgh Castle, a fortification located on “the windswept northeastern coast of England.” What I remember most of this article was the introduction of the late archaeologist Brian Hope-Taylor’s work at Bamburgh in the 1960-70s and the rediscovery of his field offices which had remained unopened for decades. It was through this article that I first learned about Bamburgh Castle and the Bamburgh Research Project (BRP). Little did I know how much BRP would come to mean to me in just 3 years’ time.

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I graduated this past year with my master’s in archaeology from the University of Edinburgh and I have participated in several diverse field schools, both in the UK and the US. I say this to provide context for what I write below regarding my views on the BRP field school experience. I was the only student “crazy” enough (the staffs’ words, not mine… though I don’t entirely disagree!) to sign up for the full six weeks of this year’s field school. I was eager to sign up for BRP’s field school ever since I read that article; however, the timing hadn’t worked in my favor until this summer and I wanted to make the most of the opportunity. I’m so glad I did as it has turned out to be one of the best times of my life thus far and my best archaeological experience to date.

Lauren, our public outreach officer, asked me in week two if I would write a summary blog of my time here at the end of week six. I readily agreed, thinking I would have plenty of time to gather my thoughts, organize them in a somewhat coherent manner, and write up something illuminating or at least informative. Well, those weeks flew by and my good intentions were otherwise directed to learning everything I could during the field school and to developing new friendships. So, I have instead decided to condense these rambling thoughts on the BRP 2019 student experience into 4 main points.

 

  1. Field schools are also about forming friendships. This field season saw 45 students pass through the trench. Each student brought something new and interesting to the group dynamic: ages ranged from 16 to 75; careers or degrees ranged from archaeology (no surprise) to nursing to engineering; archaeology experience ranged from none to some to returning BRP graduates; nationalities and socioeconomic levels also varied amongst the student pool… but two things brought us all together: archaeology and BRP 2019. As sappy or cliché as it sounds, life-long friendships were forged here, and memories were made to last us all a lifetime. Or at least until next year’s field season when we can make more friends and memories. In all honesty, archaeology field schools routinely bring together people of all walks of life, united by a common interest (or downright passion), and these friendships are just as rewarding as the practical skills gained by the training side of the field school.
Four adults crouch to lift small grey and blue cobbles and place them in yellow buckets.

Lifting some of the cobbled surface. (top left)

  1. It’s not just about the digging. As any archaeology student or hobbyist knows, this work goes beyond the excavations. Our discipline is inherently destructive and it’s the recording processes that ensure some relative permanence to what we uncover. Learning and reinforcing skills in photographing, planning, leveling, documenting, and digitizing all form the fundamental process to what we label “excavation.” BRP does a phenomenal job of introducing students to the entire process from start to finish. Not a day goes by that we don’t hear staff say “record, record, record”… and to paraphrase Tom Howe: digging slowly and recording is what separates us from the animals. Out of all the field schools I’ve been to, BRP teaches this the best.

 

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Cassidy (centre) working at the flotation tank.

  1. Post-excavation and “enviro” are EVERYTHING. This goes along with point 2, but it’s surprising how many affordable fields schools do not teach students the post-excavation and environmental sampling processes. Again, kudos to BRP for ensuring we all get a taste of these fundamental archaeological procedures. Being at the trench edge may be more exciting, but I’d argue that learning to catalogue, digitize, illustrate, organize, and preserve our artifacts is just as stimulating as it helps to establish their survival after the excavation process. Not to mention the ability to work with BRP’s archaeobotantist and learn to float soil samples, identify botanical residues like charcoal and seeds, and see their composition under the microscope. Not many field schools offer this in-depth post-excavation tuition and I would recommend BRP to anyone particularly interested in what comes after the excavation process. The adage goes that every day of excavation generates at least two or three days of post-excavation work.
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Cassidy (R) and Nathalie digging…all smiles!

  1. Friends, laughter, whisky, and sugar. In that order. To me, those are the ingredients to surviving six weeks in a tent… with a communal living arrangement… with at least 15-20 other people at any given time. It doesn’t hurt to have killer music playlists and endless rounds of Sh*thead – the BRP 2019 students’ card game of choice. Find what makes you happy, surround yourself with good friends, throw in some quality archaeological excavation work, and you’re guaranteed to have a great time at your field school of choice. It’s always what you make of it.

 

Many thanks to the BRP 2019 staff and students for making this such a memorable summer for everyone involved – whether for one week or five… or six. It’s going to be a grand reunion at BRP 2020.

Link to Archaeology article mentioned above.

Environmental Archaeology Crash Course: Flotation

Environmental Supervisor and archaeobotanist Alice Wolff gives us some insight into her work on site:

Today’s blog is going to be a more in-depth look at the environmental archaeology activities here at Bamburgh. Last weekend, we had three open-day sessions where members of the public helped us process some samples through flotation. In this blog, I’m going to break down what exactly we did and what it helps us learn about the site!

A wooden tank labeled “HMS Floaty McFloatface."

What is flotation?

Flotation is a method of processing bulk soil samples using water. Essentially, the different materials in the sample (such as the soil, the rocks/bones/artefacts, and the charred material) have different densities. When you put the whole sample in water, the soil and the artefacts sink while the charred material floats. This allows us to extract fragile and hard-to-see objects such as charred seeds or fish bones that are essential to our understanding of diet and environment at the site but are nearly impossible to excavate in the trench.

Flotation at Bamburgh

After recording pertinent information about the sample – i.e. where it came from in the trench, its volume and weight, what the soil looks like – we dump it into a 500µm mesh that lines the flotation tank.

Two students with their hands in the flot tank.

Next, we raise the water level until it covers the sample completely. We then shut off the water and gently massage the dirt with our hands.

Two pairs of hands submerged in muddy water in a flot tank.

Once most of the soil has fallen through the mesh to the bottom of the tank, we turn on the water again and let it flow through the spout, catching any floating material in a 250µm mesh bag.

A stream of muddy water flowing into a white bag held in place with clips.

In order to conserve water, we use two settling tanks and a pump. This allows us to recycle water and avoid flooding the castle at the same time!

Two students at the flot tank in front of two black bins filled with muddy water.

Once flotation is finished, the heavy fraction of the sample (the bones/rocks/artefacts) is dried in trays while the light fraction bag is hung up on a line indoors out of direct sunlight to dry slowly. After drying, both fractions are sieved, sorted, recorded, and stored in our archive for future researchers to look at! The heavy fraction can be picked over by students, but the light fraction requires the use of a microscope to separate out and identify the charred seeds.

The members of the public only spent a few hours in enviro, but our students spend at least one full day per week doing flotation and/or sorting. On particularly sunny days, enviro is a welcome break from the trench! After spending so much time carefully studying the various materials we find in samples, students return to the trench with a better understanding of what they are digging up and why environmental samples are so important for filling in the picture.

 

A Day in Archaeology

Today is the Day in Archaeology! In celebration, we have submitted a post to the Council for British Archaeology blog to give you an idea of the outreach routine on our site. As mentioned before, this is probably the most mysterious job on a field school, and we wanted to pull back the curtain for all of our friends and supporters. Click here to read it!

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Today is also the day we celebrate youth engagement in archaeology! We’ve hosted three student blogs, here, here, and here. One thing we’d like to draw your attention to are the recurring themes in our admittedly-small sample: a recognition of one’s own opportunity, a push for diversity and accessibility in the field, and a hopefulness that archaeology can one day fulfill these aspirations. Three incredible young women shared with us their perspective on archaeology today as well as a dream for the next generation of archaeologists. It’s so inspiring to see young people with such passion for archaeology that they strive to make real positive change in the field. The future is in good hands.

Festival of Archaeology Update/Youth Takeover III

Our second day of environmental archaeology tutorials as part of the Festival of Archaeology went well, without the intermittent monsoons of yesterday! We will have a step-by-step guide to environmental processing later in the week to explain just what we were doing.

Tomorrow (22 July) is both the Youth Takeover celebration as well as A Day in Archaeology. Click here to read about a day in the life of people in various archaeological roles as well as some behind the scenes info about how digs work!


Below is another Youth Takeover post, where Nathalie (21, left) talks about making archaeology more accessible.

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Accessing Archaeology

As a student in ancient history and history, I had only come across archaeology in lectures and readings, but have had little opportunity to actually study it apart from the most introductory modules. Archaeology provides so much evidence that is vital to our understanding of the past, but can be overlooked when just looking at documentary evidence. I think that it is extremely important to include archaeological study in any study of the past, particularly as it provides a much needed different perspective, often a multidisciplinary view.

I have always been interested in archaeology, visiting sites throughout my childhood, in particular spending hours wandering around the British Museum. Even now I still drag my parents and reluctant sister to numerous obscure sites (some turning out to be rather big adventures) wherever we go. More and more through my degree, I have come to realise that it was archaeology that truly moved me. I have been taking any module I could that was related, which was surprisingly difficult as my university still doesn’t actually have a proper archaeology department. Through the opportunities that field schools have provided, I am starting to build up some experience in the field that I was missing in the classroom. However it worries me that this is something that is not always possible for many financially.

Field schools can sometimes be prohibitively expensive, especially as a student. This could prevent many people of every demographic getting vital experience due to socioeconomic circumstance rather than their ability. This is compounded by the fact that many archaeology jobs are not well paid, making it difficult to even support yourself, let alone pay back the multitude of loans needed to get the degrees in the subject you love so dearly. I myself plan to pursue a masters in archaeology, but I feel so absolutely lucky that I am able to do this, as many don’t have these opportunities.

Archaeology in the future needs to become more open to people from all backgrounds, but we as a field especially need to address socioeconomic diversity. We must do all we can to promote low-cost or free field schools and scholarships (which is difficult to provide because of competition and lack of funding, I know, I know), or even push for restructuring of the wage system both to allow professional archaeologists to pay back loans and also make it a more viable long-term career prospect. If we don’t make this change now for the future of archaeology, it will continue to be a field closed off to many.

Festival of Archaeology: Day 1/Round-up: Week 5

Today is the first day of our free Festival of Archaeology programme at the Castle. Participants get to spend a half-day with Environmental Supervisor Alice Wolff processing soil samples, sorting the residue (artefacts and gravel), and examining the flot (the charred seeds skimmed off the top of the soaking sample). This programme was made possible by the Mick Aston Archaeology Fund through the Council for British Archaeology.

Here are some pictures of the environmental samples being floated!

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Round-up: Week 5

This week we took down the Porch, the area in between the latrine pits, as well as the area south of the porch that abuts the entrance ramp sondage. We were able to mattock the area, which tickled everyone because everyone loves a mattock.

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When we first extended the sondage (mini-trench) near the entrance ramp, there were two large flat stones just a few centimetres down; the one in the centre of the sondage is visible in the top left corner of the photo. This of course was not nearly enough evidence to say anything meaningful…until we had a bit of rain. The rain revealed something peculiar: three areas drying at different rates. The right of the main stone was light brown, the area in front of the stone was light brownish yellow, and the left side of the stones out of frame was dark brown, and all retaining water differently. We call this “differential drying.” Usually when a patch of earth doesn’t dry as quickly as others that means that something is happening under the surface, like stone that has affected the drainage path of the water or clay is acting as a shallow bowl. We thought that we might possibly have a linear feature, but the constant cycle of rain and bright, drying sunshine kept revealing and obscuring it over the past week. We sometimes wondered whether it was a mass hallucination.

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As we worked outside of the sondage near its northwestern corner, suddenly more stones appeared at roughly the same angle of the boundaries of the weird light yellow patch. They formed a little channel that we are carefully chasing as it heads toward the eastern latrine pit. The only artefacts found associated with this linear feature were some fragments of copper.

On the western side of the trench, we reach the edge of excavation from BHT and our re-dig from many years ago and began taking down the midden deposit. Here is the cutest little section ever excavated:

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We finally bottomed out the western latrine pit! We reached our re-excavation horizon, as well as BHT’s initial attempt to fully excavate it. We were so excited to reach unexcavated soil perhaps holding some Iron Age material…but the excitement was not long-lived, as it turns out BHT stopped only 15cm above the bedrock. Oh well!

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Lastly, the weird northwest corner of the trench continues to gift us more mysteries. The Roman glass bangle fragment (hyperlink) came from this area, which had been quartered and each quadrant excavated individually. It’s remained damp through the sunniest days, as usual.

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Meet the Team: Outreach

Lauren Nofi, Outreach Officer

IMG_20190701_100915Lauren is the public outreach officer for the BRP, so she writes the blogs, posts photos, and delivers updates on the various social media sites in addition to giving trenchside tours and talks for visitors to the castle. She has a BA in Anthropology from the College of William and Mary (US) and MA in Archaeology from the University of Sheffield. Her master’s dissertation was based on the 2012 season at Bamburgh Castle. She has worked at numerous field schools and community digs throughout the UK and Ireland and enjoys teaching archaeology to university students and interested hobbyists in those contexts. Presently she is an educator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh (US), where she teaches a little bit of Egyptian and Haudenosaunee archaeology, but mostly talks to primary school children about dinosaurs because why not just confuse people more about the differences between archaeology and paleontology? Her research interests include multi-period sites that are occupied from prehistory into the “historical period” and colonial contact where communities with a power-advantage encountered communities they intended to subjugate. She also really loves ice hockey and will talk about it even in the depths of summer.

 

Youth Takeover, Part Deux

To continue elevating the voices of the next generation of archaeologists, we’d like to share a brief thought from Miriam (17), one of our youngest students. Here she shares a vision for a future where archaeology illuminates the past rather than allowing our current social structures to be projected back onto history and prehistory.

 

Modern Archaeology?

To quash social, political, and gender segregation seems virtually impossible in today’s new age, despite the push for universal equality and the rise of acceptance and awareness of various societal flaws. For instance, the #MeToo movement and the extent to which Gay Pride has rapidly grown show that society is moving towards a better and more peaceful place. Such developments, however, do not mask humanity’s deep-seated prejudices.

When it comes to archaeology, Sir Richard Hoare said ‘we speak from facts not theory,’ a statement reassuring to modern archaeologists, however how much of it is fact? The distinct biases that manifest themselves within the population are deeply ingrained, ensuring that we even display tainted perspectives subconsciously. In the 1870s, Hjalmar Stolpe discovered a Viking burial equipped with a sword, spears and various other sharp weapons as well as two horses. The esteem of having horses and violent weaponry possibly for warfare, a universally-assumed masculine activity, was a clear indication to the archaeologists that the skeleton was that of a man before it was revealed in 2017 that it was in fact a woman. Such an error has raised serious issues regarding the modern understanding of Viking Age society, and it has also made archaeologists and historians question the divide between genders in the past and the previous societal roles of gender. The position of women, men, and trans or nonbinary/third-gender people in our interpretations of the periods that we as archaeologists are excavating shows how severely inequality and present political atmospheres can colour our perceptions of the past. It is true that in order for facts to be used to the best of our ability’s theory must be implemented, though bias is unavoidable.

Antiquarians, mostly wealthy European men, once dominated archaeology, hence much of the archaeology we now understand could be tainted by their privileged position within society. However, with the rise of different ethnicities and the increased opportunities for leadership of women in the archaeological field, a more wide-reaching understanding of historical civilisations can be achieved. While perspectives can still be biased based on environmental situations and upbringing of individuals, archaeology is drawing closer obtaining a deeper understanding of life throughout the centuries, pushing the modern world to understand and nurture equality in all respects. The archaeological field has become essential in dissecting and resurrecting the positivity of humanity’s existence.

The Youths…They are taking over!

As a run-up to our Festival of Archaeology event this coming weekend, and in solidarity with the Day in Archaeology (22 July), we’d like to to share the voices of some of the younger archaeology students we’ve encountered this summer. They will tell their stories in their own words, about why they study archaeology and what they hope for the future of archaeology.

First up is Jillian (20, right) who spent two weeks with us at the beginning of the season.

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“But you never dig in the garden?”: From California to Bamburgh

I was lucky enough to spend two amazing weeks with the Bamburgh Research Project this June. The BRP was one of the few field schools that my university, St Andrews in Scotland, recommended on its archaeology department’s webpage. More, it was the only program of that select group to focus primarily on medieval archaeology. Therefore, it is was not a difficult decision to sign up and resulted in me pestering one of the Project Directors, Graeme Young, over email with questions about the dates that the 2019 season would be running.

I was seventeen years old when I chose to study medieval history and archaeology at the University of St Andrews. I had never before taken a class that looked at medieval history in depth, nor had I ever done anything remotely related to archaeology before I submitted my degree intention. I simply knew that I was interested in studying history, and it sounded really cool. I mean, who wouldn’t like to be their own version of Indiana Jones? At St Andrews, archaeology is not its own degree route and could only be studied in conjunction with either ancient or medieval history. Further, students are not properly able to take modules solely on archaeology until our third year. So, when I, a seventeen-year-old from California, confirmed on my application to a university in Scotland that I wanted to study medieval history and archaeology I was going with a gut feeling.

For me, living in the UK was always a dream. So naturally, as I progressed through school and began looking at places to do my undergraduate degree, studying history in a place where the history felt so much more vast than in my own home country was something I was immediately attracted to. I am also fortunate enough that pursuing my undergraduate degree abroad was a feasible option because I do not believe I would have been as happy studying anything else in any other place. I am still so enamored with the idea and the experience of studying history in the place it was made, and it is something I would recommend to anyone who is thinking about studying subjects like history and archaeology.

As I mentioned earlier, the archaeology program at St Andrews is structured so that students only really encounter archaeology-based module in their third year. That being said, there were always plenty of opportunities to get involved with archaeology. I was really able to capitalize on these opportunities in my second-year when I became more involved with the Student Archaeological Society. I was able to volunteer with the archaeologists in St Andrews Department of Environmental History and SCAPE (Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion) and to clean, sort, and catalogue the finds from their excavation at Higgins Neuk in Falkirk, carried out in an effort to find archaeological evidence of the lost royal dockyard of James IV. An article on the excavation was published in Current Archaeology 347 and I was able to have my first taste of what an archaeologist does. Through the Society, I was also able to go on my first ever archaeological dig at Dunfermline Abbey, helping to locate and record gravestones under the graveyard turf. At the end of this year, to cap it off, I was also elected the new President of the Society, giving me the opportunity to help myself and others to get greater involved in archaeology. My experiences doing archaeology in my second year never gave me cause to regret the choice that I made when I was seventeen, but instead gave me a new enthusiasm to pursue this passion further.

I was able to explore this newly invigorated passion for archaeology at Bamburgh this summer. Despite never having camped for more than a single night before, and definitely never by myself, I was willing to submit to a life in a tent and learned to love it for its own lack of insulation and noise barriers. So, when my mother asked why I wanted to live in a tent for two weeks and to dig in a muddy trench, saying “But you never dig in the garden?”, she did not understand that archaeology is more than just shoveling dirt until we find a piece of stone from a Northumbrian chair. In my two weeks, I did squat on a foam knee-pad and too-carefully troweled away at a pebble path, I nearly froze my hands in a flotation tank to try to retrieve charcoal from an environmental sample, and I painstakingly tried to stipple my already poor illustration of a bone pin. That experience that I gained at the BRP was invaluable to me. The staff at the BRP were my first real teachers of archaeology and they demonstrated how amazing the field that we both chose was.

The two weeks that spent with the BRP were undoubtedly some of the best of my life and will not be easily forgotten. As I write this from my 80°F/27°C backyard in California, I am fondly remembering when the passing rain storm woke me up throughout the night and I do not regret any missed sleep. My time with the BRP allowed me to learn more about a degree-turned-passion that I pursued because my teenage-self thought it sounded cool. It confirmed to me that I made the right choice.