During Covid I started work at Guildhall Art Gallery and enjoyed myself so much. Having lost international tourists, I wanted to focus on the local community who lives in the surrounding boroughs around the City of London. I tried to start a storytelling workshop for families with children under-fives but then we closed for works to the Gallery and the storytelling went onto Facebook.
I also went out into the community to run art workshops at St Luke’s Community Centre for little ones. Eventually, when we reopened I was able to put on an exhibition of the children’s work in the Gallery itself. Take a look.
One of my other favourite achievements was working with an app called Telmi to record children’s opinions on the artworks in the collection, and then to use them as a children’s audio tour on Smartify. Take a listen!
Billingsgate Roman House and Baths is a little known Roman site in the old Roman Londinium, very close to the Tower of London. It is hidden underneath an office block opposite Old Billingsgate Fish Market and you have to book special tours to get in.
I had a year and a bit trying to open it up more often for more audiences before Covid hit. During lockdown we all learned how to use digital tools, and I used my new found skills in video calling to record various talks about the site.
Here’s just a little taste of some of the videos on that link, an introduction to the early Germanic brooch dropped in the ruins of the Roman bathhouse when it was ruined.
I also started to work in partnership with other Roman sites in the City of London to create a livestream school session that was recently nominated for a Museums & Heritage Award.
I don’t want to use the J word, but I have been deleting old emails recently and it reminded me about the way my freelancing career has developed over the years.
At first it all started as an extra to full time work. I left English Heritage to work at the London Borough of Camden on a Heritage Lottery Funded project, but I was keen to continue to do something in association with the Charles Darwin Trust and, as it turned out, they wanted that too so I started to do some writing and teaching work with them. During the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth and 150th year since the publication of Origin, 2009, I was very busy with work for them as well as work for Camden. It quietened down a little in 2010, and then got quieter still after that, and I had a new baby which also reduced the amount I could do.
I eventually moved from the London Borough of Camden to another employed role at the Pitt Rivers Museum and freelancing went by the wayside. After the maternity cover contract ended I decided to go it on my own. The costs of childcare while working full-time were too onerous and I wanted to spend more time with my little one. At first I trained to be a childminder and managed three months of this. Childminding is not an easy job, let me tell you. I was more tired doing that than any other job I have had, and I have worked as a field archaeologist, in the catering industry and now visit schools to do days of teaching, all of which are tiring but not like childminding. So I looked for other things.
All of a sudden, I found things. I had experience of writing for teachers through English Heritage and the National Museums Online Learning Project so a friend introduced me to a friend who had set up a business called Plan Bee. She needed a history specialist to write lesson plans and resources for the new curriculum so I took that on, writing lesson plans on the Prehistory of Britain, the Shang Dynasty of China, and the Kingdom of Benin, for instance. With this experience under my belt I approached the Hamilton Trust, on the advice of another friend, and said I could write their Prehistory of Britain topic. I found the Hamilton Trust work much more in depth and I still write for them, just recently having finished a recap of all British history for a post-SATS topic for Year 6s.
At the same time I had applied for two local jobs. One was as a secretary for my village’s Neighbourhood Plan at £10 an hour and this lasted for over a year with me working mainly in the evenings. I also applied to be a workshop leader at the Chiltern Open Air Museum and I work there still on a zero-hours contract mainly teaching schools but also families and home ed groups. I also volunteered for Kids in Museums and an opportunity came along to take over organising their workshops on working with families and young people.
I set up Schools Prehistory in order to get information out to teachers for the new topic in primary history, as it is my specialist subject, and I think on the back of that was approached by a contact from the British Museum (which was part of the National Museums Online Learning Project that I had written for) to apply for a job as a writer on the Teaching History in 100 Objects website that the DoE had funded to support the new history curriculum across Key Stages. I wrote about lots of objects for them from Late Bronze Age logboats from Must Farm to a cloth celebrating Ghanaian independence from 1957.
I also started marketing myself as a time travelling visitor with Schools Prehistory to schools and still visit schools across the south-east and midlands as a Stone Age, Roman, Saxon of Viking woman or as an archaeologist, sometimes with colleagues and sometimes on my own. I had difficulty in selling lesson plans through my own website so now they can be downloaded if teachers sign up to my newsletter.
As a time traveller, and for the purpose of developing a Mesolithic workshop at the Chiltern Open Air Museum, I developed some bushcraft skills and so my latest venture has been to set up 500 BC. I asked the Forestry Commission, who look after Wendover Woods near me, whether I could work on their site and duly applied for a licence to do so and now run toddler groups, home ed courses, family and adult bushcraft days, holiday clubs, school visits and team-building workshops. I am expanding to other sites and to sub-contracting.
I have also tendered for shorter freelance contracts conducting market research with families, or devising and piloting schools workshops but have not had much luck with those. Where I have been successful it’s usually through recommendations and word of mouth.
This isn’t meant to be a self-congratulatory post. I wanted to show how I built my freelancing portfolio, which is a little unusual, but has all the elements of how to be successful at freelancing whatever field you’re in.
Network. Having a good network that you stay in contact with via social media and attending sector events is essential.
Don’t be afraid to approach people cold. Before you do this you have to do your research and be sure that they want something only you can offer.
Create your own opportunities if you can – apply for funding, see a need in the market you can fulfill.
Collaborate. Find like-minded people you can sub-contract to (you’ll need employer’s insurance) or pass work to, and they will hopefully pass some back.
Try to have a couple of relationships that bring in a regular income and supplement them with shorter contracts. Then when you need to find the next job, you still have a little work and money to tide you over (I can’t say I’m very good at saving!)
Be flexible. Not everything you will end up doing is going to totally rock your world. As you get more confident and busier, you will be able to say ‘No thanks’ to those contracts that don’t totally float your boat.
I hate saying this, because it’s not something I love doing, but you will need a brand. Either that’s your name or a trading name that will represent you. As you can see, I have a couple of different ones for different strands of my work.
If something doesn’t work, learn from it and move on.
In July 2017 I ran a small excavation for families at the Chiltern Open Air Museum. We debated where it would be safe and interesting to open a trench and decided on the site of the first replica Iron Age roundhouse that was built at the museum at the end of the 1970s. The current version is a 21st century construction, and the house platform for the first is clearly visible next to it.
I was lucky that there were extensive photographs (those old square slightly brown-tinged 1970s style – see right) of the original build which helped to prepare the families for what we might find including the remains of a turf wall and some big post-holes. What is also really useful is having some of the original builders of the house still working at the museum, though they couldn’t remember whether we would find a cobble or rammed chalk floor, as have been used in the new roundhouse.
A small trench was opened over the area where I thought the turf wall might have been, and I hope to hit at least one post-hole, and over a lump that would be inside the house. We found a wooden post under the surface, not big enough to be an abandoned post from the house, and the lump was a small dump of flint cobbles – which also housed an ant’s nest to was abandoned immediately. John Hyde-Trutch, the buildings manager at the museum, remembered leaving a heap of flint cobbles behind after the dismantling of the old house, and that a fence was built along the line of the old turf wall – the source of the wooden post.
Dating evidence for the house was found in the interior, in the form of a twenty pence piece from 1994 and a Stella Artois bottle cap! A broken pencil and pencil lead that refitted, and a stray plastic gemstone also gave us an idea that the house might have been used for educational and family activities.
Parents often asked if the ground had been seeded with objects, which it hadn’t. Children and adults alike loved being able to do ‘proper’ archaeology, and everyone thought the finds were very funny. The Aylesbury Young Archaeologist’s Club helped out on one weekend day as well (very useful as my co-leader Vicky Guy is a field archaeologist). The best bit for a lot of children was reinstating the site, which was done in record time with their help!
It was such a success that I’m running it again year in the first week of the summer holidays from 23rd to 27th July, despite the lack of the Festival of Archaeology this year. It will run for more days (five instead of three), with higher numbers of participants and a larger trench. There’ll be a small charge this year to cover costs and hopefully make it sustainable. It will be on the site of the old house again, and, this year, I want to see if we can find some post-holes and maybe the site of the hearth.
On August bank holiday in 2017 I was privileged to be asked to be a Neolithic woman at the Rollright Stones in Warwickshire. The Rollright Stones are made up of several monuments that may have been erected over several hundred years in the Neolithic and potentially early Bronze Age too. There is a stone circle, the remains of the stone chamber of a long barrow, also known as the Whispering Knights, and a lone standing stone, the King stone, which is now across the road from the rest. There is a wonderful legend about the stones about the king being tricked by a witch and his whole host being turned to stone.
It was a hot day so I tried to keep to the shade, and enjoyed showing people how to boil water using hot stone technology, demonstrating back-strap weaving with nettle fibre and a little bit of flint-knapping. Children and their families also tried out grinding grain on a flat quern and making pots.
Back in May I led an archaeology themed guided walk along part of the Ridgeway National Trail at Ivinghoe Beacon as part of the Chiltern Walking Festival. I was dressed as a Stone Age woman all in skins and fur but I covered the archaeology of all prehistoric periods at Ivinghoe Beacon and the surrounding area. I brought along some replica artefacts for people to connect with as we walked and tried to build up a period of a changing landscape from the Ice Age to the Iron Age.
I have been thinking about a number of things since. The choice of Stone Age clothing was not mine but my clients. I would have preferred, before the walk, to have been Bronze or Iron Age so that I could feel like my character could look back at the past. But, in reality, would a person in the first or second millennium before the common era have had any concept of the developments in the past before them? Well, yes, but they would have been mythical and largely not factual, I would have thought. So I ended up not in character at all, as I wanted to talk about so many different periods. Still, I rock that Stone Age look.
The other issue that came up was the authenticity of the Ridgeway and the related Icknield Way. A whole heritage industry has built up around the idea that these were long distance routeways from the Neolithic onwards but the evidence is less than compelling. It has become an axiom repeated again and again with little reflection or reference back to its origin myth in Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum. The article I encountered a few years ago, “The Icknield Way – Some Queries” by Sarah Harrison in the Archaeological Journal, had clarified some of this for me and I felt that I couldn’t in all conscience perpetuate this legend.
The essence of Harrison’s queries are that the old arguments for the existence of the Icknield/Ridgeway long distance route is the survival of upstanding monuments on the chalk uplands, but the emergence of developer-led archaeology has shown that there is just as much if not more settlement in the valleys, but it’s just been covered with alluvium or flattened by later ploughing. The only other argument is that there is flint from Norfolk in Wessex, but there are plenty of other ways it could have got there. A counter-argument is that any actual tracks found near the route of the so-called Icknield/Ridgeway are generally aligned a different way.
It felt good to do research again when doing this walk. I had a good sense of what I wanted to say but I went back to the sources to get the specifics. The original excavation of Ivinghoe Beacon in the 1960s was reported in Records of Buckinghamshire and, though referenced by later articles, one aspect was never again mentioned, and that is the recovery of a trepanning disc from a human skull that had been turned into a pendant. Imagine my delight! I promptly made one myself (from a sheep shoulderblade though!) I got some good reactions from that.
Cotton, M. A. and Frere, S. S., 1968. Ivinghoe Beacon excavations 1963-65. Records of Buckinghamshire 18 (3). pp 187-203.
We started with a salad from Columella, which involved crushing salad leaves with chopped leek and soft white cheese (feta is good). Mixing in some vinegar with peppercorns crushed in a mortarium added a bit of a bite.
We then made Apicius’ roast tuna with a vinaigrette including the famous garum, a fish sauce. You can still get a Thai fish source that’s quite similar. It smells awful but makes food taste amazing.
We finished with another from Apicius which was boiled ostrich! The sauce involved making a roux from red wine and flour, and then adding vinegar and garum as well as crushed coriander seeds and dates. This was, perhaps, the most popular dish.
Throughout the day we talked about where all the ingredients came from, with some of the most exotic like peppercorns and coriander being traded from India to the Roman Empire, and on to Britain, while some are very local like the flour, celery seeds and leeks. We also talked about how these recipes would be for the very richest people, perhaps some in Londinium would have had access to such exotic ingredients as ostrich!
The table and storage wares were used for their original purposes, from grinding food on mortaria, to storing dates in a carrot amphora, and drinking mulsum (a spiced wine but we used grape juice) from little Samian cups poured from an authentic flagon.
As part of a suite of pilot activities for the Chiltern Hillforts project planned by the Chiltern Conservation Board to go to a Stage 2 Heritage Lottery Fund application, I ran some family activities around Iron Age food at Wycombe Museum during the Easter holidays.
Families were invited to book on to one of two workshops, either making bread and butter from scratch or boiling water with hot stones. It was, of course, meant to be fun and educational, but also to gauge what interest there might be locally for more events like this in the Stage 2 lottery bid and what level of knowledge already existed about the Chiltern hillforts with this audience.
A hillfort is a woolly name given to a wide range of defended sites of the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age, many, but not all, of which are on hills. These generally do seem to have been lived in to some extent when excavated and there is some evidence that some of them were attacked. There are around twenty of them in the Chiltern hills and while some have been excavated, such as Ivinghoe Beacon and Ravensburgh Castle, others have been sadly neglected. Others, still have either been ploughed flat, like Cheddington hillfort, or occupied by later buildings, such as at West Wycombe and Cholesbury, both of which have churches inside them. The Chiltern Hillforts project aims to do more investigation and public events in and around the hillforts. They are currently raising some matchfunding via Just Giving if you feel you’d like to donate: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/chilternshillforts.
So the Iron Age Masterchef event proved that there was a demand for events like this. Many of the parents were looking specifically for heritage events to support their child’s interest in archaeology and history, or their schoolwork. Many of the children had studied the new Stone Age to Iron Age topic in school and so had more background knowledge than the parents (one of whom guessed the Iron Age was in the 17th century – to be fair, technologically, it was still the Iron Age in the 17th century even though archaeologists tend to define the end of it as the Roman invasion for their own purposes).
The children were very committed to keep going with all the activities, especially grinding grain on querns. We also found out that making butter in a bag is quicker than using a pot and spoon, and that even young children can do it very effectively. They tried out some bread cooked directly on the fire and several children stayed for a very long time trying to make the water boil, and we did get bubbles in the end! Here’s a video of a boiling pot from an earlier test I did.
In 2016 I undertook some market research for the Pitt Rivers Museum’s Need, Make, Use project in advance of a new permanent display of some of the archaeological collection that is otherwise not very obvious in the museum; anthropological items are the majority of items on display. The objective was to gauge the interest and background knowledge of family visitors to the museum about archaeology to inform the design of the redisplay.
The desk-based section of the work involved researching what other museums had done with their archaeological collections. It was really interesting to read about and talk to curators about some of the decisions they had taken about the themes and stories they wished to bring out from the archaeology, and why specific items that had been chosen for display. Grace Todd at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff was very helpful, explaining the thinking behind their Adventures in Archaeology exhibition. It was centred around props from the latest Indiana Jones movie, using this as a basis to explore real archaeological adventurers. Themes they wanted to get across were that early archaeologists were not necessarily trained as such but had other backgrounds, that archaeology can be discovered by anyone today, but conversely that archaeology is a skilled profession. Each case was centred around one ‘wow’ object that caught the eye.
The Museum of London had tried out putting modern objects that performed a similar function to their Roman counterparts on display in the same cases to test whether it would help understanding about life in Roman London. The results were mixed. Some visitors were aggrieved to have modern objects in a Roman display, while many teachers felt it helped their children identify with Roman Londoners. At Manchester Museum the Egyptian gallery starts with a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ style display and has visible storage, both of which could be used to describe the Pitt Rivers display policy, but matched it with digital technologies, touchable objects and 3D projections to make it more accessible for families.
The second part of the project involved consultation with families and young people. Family visitors at half-term, parent volunteers at a focus group and the museum’s resident Young Archaeologists Club (YAC) were the targets. The feedback was very interesting. Despite the YAC group’s prior interest in archaeology, the jargon that could be used in archaeology displays was little understood. At the National Museums of Wales in Cardiff, this kind of result had been anticipated, but instead of taking out jargon words, they made sure they were explained.
Timelines were tricky without help, and a visual method of orienting the objects in time was requested by all participants. The Pitt Rivers policy of grouping objects by function rather than period or place was questioned on numerous occasions, though conceded by some that it brought up interesting contrasts as long as objects were clearly labelled. The plan for the archaeology displays was instead to group objects by material. When asked to create their own display of objects, families preferred to group by theme e.g. the domestic world, clothing than anything else.
Families were virtually unanimous that images could give context to the objects, either showing how they were made or used, and several suggested embedded video in the cases, something that’s never been done before in the permanent galleries at the Pitt Rivers Museum. A little information for adults to read to help interpret displays for their children was also requested, but just a little.
The Need, Make, Use blog shows the process of choosing pottery for display in the new archaeology cases, and I think they are going to be as packed as always. I look forward to seeing the final displays unveiled.
Hicks, D & Stevenson, A. 2013. World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum: a characterization. Oxford, Archaeopress.
Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, 2012. Breathing new life into Roman London: Summative evaluation of Our Londinium at the Museum of London. Manchester.
Weeks, J 2013. Ancient Worlds, Manchester Museum. Museums Journal Issue 113/02, p42-45.