Posted on Leave a comment


Hello folks,

It’s been very quiet round these parts recently; April/May was exam time, and June/July/August has been taken up by this little development:

Note the thoughtful provision of a copy of Bike magazine, so I could choose ‘what I wanted to crash next’.


While I was overtaking a lorry on Gina, my Suzuki V-Strom 650, it turned right and knocked me off my bike. While I had life threatening injuries, the staff on the trauma unit in the hospital did a great job of stitching me back together. I was in hospital for quite some time before being released into the wilds. The only injury I am still dealing with is a brachial plexus injury, which means that I currently have no movement or sensation in my left arm. I likely won’t have a great deal of motion for about 18 months, so it’s just a matter of playing the waiting game now. Luckily my university (UCL) are bending over backwards to help me out, which is really lovely.

Given my newly disabled status, I’ll obviously have to bear that in mind while studying; two of the modules I was hoping to take this year are heavily practical-based, so I’ll have to find a workaround. Stay tuned for an article on how I get on with just one arm in upcoming posts.

Posted on Leave a comment

Feline groovy

Occasionally I get some able assistance from the resident Norwegian Forest cats here at Chez Armstead.


'Ah, from a Bronze Age site, you say?'
‘Ah, from a Bronze Age site, you say?’




'Yes, definitely a cortical removal with a hard hammer.'
‘Yes, definitely a cortical removal with a hard hammer.’




'Hmm, don't think much of this core. Bloody Bronze Age tat.'
‘Hmm, don’t think much of this core. Bloody Bronze Age tat.’




Posted on 3 Comments

Girl’s on film

On-cameraNo, not a post about a popular beat combo from the 1980s, nor an attack of Wandering Apostrophe Syndrome (or Pedant Disease as it’s also known); this post is about my adventures in documentary making as an unforeseen but enjoyable effect of taking ACRL3001: Archaeometallurgy as one of my Year 2 modules. Who could resist the chance to ‘make history’, as the course handbook states, by being the first group at UCL to have a video submission option as coursework. I thought this sounded like immense fun, having had my fill of the more typical 2500 word essays this term. At times I seriously wished I’d picked the alternative option to the video, which was a poster submission, but on the whole I have to say this has been a great learning experience and good fun to boot!

As part of the submission we’ve been asked to submit a short piece on how we found the crash course in video making and give feedback on how we got on with the various aspects of producing an informative and educational video. So, here’s my take on this unusual assignment.

Initial thoughts

I will admit to a brief squee when I saw the choices we had for the second assignment. I’ve done posters before but I’ve never done anything with video, despite owning Adobe Aftereffects – I was always more of a Photoshop type when it came to digital media. I instantly knew  that I wanted to do a video on lead; despite the fact that it’s always trying to kill me, I am very fond of plumbum as the one metal you know you can rely on when giving a metallurgy demonstration. Furnace not hot enough to smelt copper? Zinc escaping while trying to make brass? Have no fear, for lead is here; requires almost no effort to go molten, it is the Christian Bale of the metal world. As long as you can build a small fire and have plenty of lung capacity, you can melt and cast lead.

The assignment guidance notes made it clear, however, that we had to have a point to our videos rather than just being a paean to our favourite metals. I ran a lead shot casting activity at Primtech 2012 (where first years camp in a field for four days at the start of the degree, messing about with experimental archaeology) and thought that might be a good thing to film. Building on that, I wanted to strong-arm my blacksmith friend, Dr David Sim, to appear in the video as an interviewee and for him to show how a plumbata was made – one of the weapons used by the Roman army which relied on lead in its manufacture. Lastly I wanted to ground my video in the landscape, so a trip to the lead mines at Charterhouse-on-Mendip was on the cards; over 2 hours drive away but I wanted to go the extra mile (all 270 of them) to get some good footage for the introductory voiceover.

So, my initial plan was:

  • Work up a rough storyboard to solidify the ideas in my head and get an idea of the structure of the video
  • Background reading on Roman mining in Britain with reference to lead
  • Research the locations
  • Write down the interview questions
  • Do the lead shot casting
  • Make the plumbata
  • Post production and editing

Background reading

I approached this in much the same way as I approach the research for an essay; first I looked at general mining and metallurgy books, then searched more specifically for ones that dealt with lead, Roman mining, and preferably both. Charterhouse is an odd place in that there’s not been a great deal written about it. Unsurprisingly, Craddock’s Early metal mining and production (1995) was my go-to source for  general information, with Todd’s Roman mining in Somerset: Charterhouse on Mendip: excavations 1993-5 (2007) as a more focussed publication. Although I didn’t end up using it directly, I can recommend Gough’s The mines of Mendip (1930) as an entertaining read.

Something which became clear very quickly was that I was going to have to be ruthless about what made it into the video. There was a lot of interesting information that I either ditched because it wouldn’t translate well to a visual medium, or was just too in depth to treat briefly, which was what I would have to do to fit it in. Examples of information from the readings that didn’t make the cut were more modern mining at Charterhouse and a list of the 11 ingots known to have come from the site and where they ended up.

The locations

The lead mines at Charterhouse are not what you’d call a tourist destination and as such there isn’t a great deal on the internet to give you an idea of what’s there. The English Heritage page is focussed more on the context of the mines within the greater Mendip AONB. But, nothing ventured, nothing gained, so with my intrepid camera expert friend Martin we hit the road and figured we’d drive around a bit once we got within shouting distance of Charterhouse in the hope that we would find something visually striking to film. I was expecting to film from the roadside at best, so was thrilled to find that we could not only access the old mine workings, but were welcome to clamber up and down the rakes (as the furrows where lead ore had been extracted are known, thanks Gough!) and get some really good quality video.

Looking out over the rakes, at Charterhouse-on-Mendip.
Looking out over the rakes, at Charterhouse-on-Mendip.

The interview and experiments I knew wouldn’t be a problem location-wise as David has a big garden and neighbours accustomed to open fires and odd experiments. The only thing that worried me slightly was that it would be completely dependent on the weather as David’s forge/workshop is somewhat bijou in terms of space. In the end there was nothing to worry about as we managed to film both the Charterhouse and the Reading footage in glorious sunshine.

The video

Martin preparing the next panning shot.
Martin preparing the next panning shot.

As part of the support system for those of us making videos for the first time, we had a teaching assistant assigned to the course to answer questions/provide advice. I can’t give any feedback on this aspect of the assignment as I used the digital expertise of my long-suffering friend Martin instead. As primarily a stills photographer, video was a new experience for him too, but as usual with anything techy it didn’t pose much of a challenge to him. The UCL wiki on the assignment was really helpful though, written by the obviously knowledgeable teaching assistant (David Larreina Garcia).

The video was shot on a Canon 5D Mk III using a variety of tripods. The panning shots were all done using a tripod with a Novoflex ClassicBall 5 Platform, a steady hand, and some precarious footwork – smoothly rotating a camera on a tripod through 270 degrees is not easy when you are perched on the edge of a 2 metre high rake bank. Video panoramas require specialist damping heads rather than the still photography equipment we had but the video came out brilliantly regardless. We shot in 1920×1080 25fps using a H.264 codec All-I, which means it was high quality video suitable for editing frame by frame in post production. All the video processing was done in Adobe Premiere, by Martin – I learnt a lot by watching, but as with Photoshop, it’s not the kind of program I can pick up straightaway and with the submission deadline approaching, I didn’t have the 5 or 6 months it took me to get competent in Photoshop.

The sound

Argh, the sound. This was the only part of the video that gave us grief. It was obvious from the on location shooting that the sound pickup from the camera itself was not going to be good enough for what we wanted, so we decided to use my Zoom H1 instead. This little digital recorder is great – but unfortunately for us, picked up far too much in terms of wind noise, despite the foam head we used to combat this. Martin ran the sound through Adobe Audition and managed to rescue most of it, and while the sound is a little off and hollow in places I think he did a top job getting the level more or less the same throughout the film considering what it sounded like straight off the recorder. I’m sure I could have borrowed a microphone from UCL, but it didn’t occur to me at the time – a valuable lesson learned.

The experiments

The simple hearth we built to melt the lead.
The simple hearth we built to melt the lead.

As expected the lead casting went off without a hitch. It’s always a joy to work with David and indulge my inner arsonist, and the only points we had to bear in mind were making sure that we weren’t moving in front of the camera while tending the ladle or pouring. Having to plan out each step of the experiment to make sure it would make sense to the viewers really focussed the mind on what was important; I knew that I wanted a good shot of the molten lead in the ladle as it’s not something people see very often, and it’s beautiful to boot.

Post-production and editing

Having shot all the footage and put together a rough running order, I was surprised to find it was approaching quarter of an hour long… for a video that’s supposed to be 6 minutes (not including the credits). That was a real eye-opener as trying to decide what to cut was very difficult, either because I felt they were an important part of the story, or because the footage was fun in its own right. For example, while doing the part that follows the introductory landscape panning, where I’m holding a square of lead, I originally had another clip following where I unrolled the roofing lead I was using – seeing a Swiss Roll in metal really brings home how malleable lead is. But, sadly, it had to go.

The major casualty of the video shoot was the section on lead shot, which was really disappointing as I considered it ‘my’ bit; while I did the casting for the plumbata, I was using a shaft and iron head made by David, while for the shot, it was all me. Ego aside, it wasn’t really adding anything to the story, so out it went. We also cut down the interview from 6 questions to 4, purely due to the time constraints. There were a lot of clips that made for a smoother video, but when push came to shove, had to be thrown out; for example, when the film cuts to David for the interview, there was a clip leading up to that of the two of us walking down his garden path, chatting, while the voiceover explained who he was. While it made for a more natural transition, there was just no time left to squeeze it in.

All of the video footage, but especially the landscape shots, were edited to make adjustments to factors like the colour levels; on the original film the rakes were less obviously defined as the grass and moss had become a little amorphous, but playing with the contrast and levels brought them back into defnition.


From the couple of hours we spent at Charterhouse, we only used about 30 seconds of footage; we spent approximately 5 hours in Reading and used 5 minutes of film.

With regards to the post processing, neither I nor Martin had ever used Adobe Premiere or Adobe Audition before. Putting a credit at the end of the video to thank Martin for his work is woefully inadequate. I tried to pick up a few things as to how key frames work, how to layer on the stills over the footage, but my input was dwarfed by his. Including learning how to use the software, post-production took between 60 – 80 hours. I now have a much greater appreciation for video graphics artists, as my video was pretty low tech in terms of graphics/title sequences, and took long enough – even allowing for the fact that we didn’t really know what we were doing to begin with.

My thoughts

I enjoyed being given the opportunity to try something new for this assignment, and have certainly picked up new skills and perspectives. Aside from the usual dislike of seeing/hearing oneself on film I think the video has turned out very well and looks so much more professional than I ever thought it would. David is an old hand at being filmed for interviews, and helped me get over my nerves at being on camera and the fades and transitions applied by Martin look great.

I think the video tells an engaging story, although I wish I’d had another minute or so to wrap everything up at the end, and to include more of the interview footage. I can be far more ruthless while writing an essay than I was with the video, but I put that down to the fact that the video feels like far more work than writing, both in terms of actual time spent capturing footage and then the hours to edit and process it.

For a subject like archaeometallurgy I think making a video works well, as there are plenty of visually interesting stories to be told. How it would work with other modules is something to think about, although whether it gets rolled out to other courses will depend on how our work is received. All that’s left now is to cross fingers and await marking!

PS Best played fullscreen.

Posted on Leave a comment

Rolling, rolling, Rollright

One of the core 2nd year modules on my degree is Public Archaeology, and as an assignment we had to visit an archaeological site and critique the various issues as they relate to the course. Public Archaeology is a bit of a mishmash of issues; politics, the media, illicit antiquities, tourism and education are some of the main areas we’ve looked at so far. For this assignment I picked the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire, more or less on my doorstep – and because I like this site so much I’m going to share some of the main points with you.

The Kings Men - turned to stone by a witch!
The Kings Men – turned to stone by a witch!

The main part of the complex is the King’s Men, a circle of standing stones between knee – head height (I’m 5’9″!), with the majority on the smaller side. The stones are freely accessible and touchable, with the usual sanctions of not sitting or standing on them; some of the lichen growing on them has been dated to 1195 A.D – yes, this lichen pre-dates the discovery of the US by Columbus!

These stones are said to be the remains of an army, turned to stone by the Rollright Witch:

A certain King… had set forth at the head of his forces to conquer all England, but as he went up the hill on which Rowldrich stands there appeared to him the Witch to whom the ground belonged… she stopped him with the words:

“Seven long strides shalt though take, and if Long Compton thou canst see, King of England thou shalt be.”

The King, who now thought his success assured, cried out exultingly:

“Stick, stock, stone, as King of England I shall be known!”

So he took seven strides forward, but lo! and behold, instead of his looking down upon Long Compton there rose before him the long mound of earth with still stands before the King-stone, and the Witch said:

“As Long Compton thou canst not see, King of England thou shalt not be. Rise up stick, and stand still stone, for King of England thou shalt be none, thou and thy men hoar stones shall be, and I myself an eldern tree.”

Thereupon the King and his army were turned into stones where they stood… (Evans, A. J., 1895. The Rollright Stones and their folk-lore. Folklore 6 (1) pp. 6-53)


This folklore is typical of many British sites, and show the continuing use and interaction of monuments by the residents of the landscape. The wooden sculpture of the Witch facing off with the King, above, shows that even today people are moved to interpret and interact with monuments. The Witch was installed by a local artist, David Gosling, and although sadly now  removed, made a striking addition to the site.

Modern day offerings to the Whispering Knights.
Modern day offerings to the Whispering Knights.

You can see further evidence of people connecting with the stones as you walk around the field boundary next to the King’s Men, and down the hill towards the Whispering Knights. Also turned to stone by the Witch, legend has it that these knights were plotting against their king and so were petrified for perfidy. Every time I have visited the site, there have been coins tossed across the railings to land in the various hollows on the stones.

Datewise, the complex is early Neolithic to the early Bronze Age, with the Whispering Knights (a portal dolmen) dating to 4000-3500BC, and the King’s Men to 3500-1500BC. This is intriguing as if the dates are correct, this site saw several changes in society, from the transition of subsistence from the ‘agricultural revolution’ of the early Neolithic, through the abandonment of widescale sedentary agriculture that we see during the middle Neolithic, to the reuptake of cereal cultivation in the Bronze Age. These stones have witnessed a lot in their time!

The Whispering Knights - turned to stone while plotting against their king.
The Whispering Knights – turned to stone while plotting against their king.

While some of the reviewers on TripAdvisor seem to have missed the point entirely (I get the impression that not having a full repertoire of shops, cafes and entertainments renders most cultural sites not worth bothering with for some people) I’d recommend stopping off and having a look if you’re in the area; the Rollright Trust website has directions for how to find it, as it’s not particularly well signposted. Let me know what you think of the site!

Posted on 4 Comments

Tools of the Trade 1: Gina

Let me start this first post in a series on my ‘tools of the trade’ by reassuring readers that Gina isn’t an actual person who follows me around on digs, barrowing my spoil away and fetching my tea. Although having thought about it, I quite enjoy being the barrowmonkey, but only because I pretend I’m in the ‘Archaeology Zone’ of the Crystal Maze, where spilling soil en route results in an automatic lock in and one less person to grab golden tickets (while being serenaded with the harmonica stylings of Richard O’Brien, of course).

Image from
Your guess is as good as mine, Richard.

Wait, what?

Inane site-based daydreaming aside, every archaeologist needs transport, as it’s not unusual to be digging in a country with third-world public transport and woeful infrastructure – and digging outside of Britain can bring its own automobile annoyances too. The stereotypical vehicle for an archaeologist has to be the trusty old Land Rover Defender. It’s built from girders and Blitz Spirit and is capable of tackling far more than the occasional pothole in Tescos car park, which is as close to off-roading as most 4x4s round here get.

Seriously – in my highly scientific study (sample locality: the A4260 Banbury – Kidlington, yesterday), the most common 4×4 in Oxfordshire is the Range Rover Evoque, with the ‘just had a skip dropped on it’ styling and, I shit you not, low profile tyres. Of course, I’m wildly over-exaggerating for comic effect. No self respecting Evoque owner would be seen dead in Tescos. Land Rover even released a special edition ‘Tomb Raider’ Landy, and if that’s not a ringing endorsement for the archaeological aptitude of this icon of British engineering, then I don’t know what is.


However, this is all a moot point for me, for one major reason: cost.

When I decided that it was time for me to pull my finger out and graduate from the eternal limbo of a green licence, I had to choose between a car, or a motorbike. Now, I’d had three lessons in a car when I was 21, but I didn’t get on very well with the instructor (on being asked to describe the two types of brake, I responded ‘Foot brake for slowing while moving, hand brake for corners’) and being completely naive, I didn’t expect to be driving through Guildford town centre on my second lesson, on market day. Either I was better at driving than I thought I was, or the instructor just wanted to end the pain of teaching me, quickly.

Fast-forward to 29 and I was still dependent on public transport, and having suffered at the hands of Worst Late Western for several years, I specced up the costs involved in learning to drive versus learning to ride. The clincher for me was how much I’d have to pay the thieving swine   insurance companies – £1020 for a Landy, £990 for a sensible learner car (Micra) and *drumroll* £118 for a Honda CBF125 in my favourite colour, ‘Subcontinental Rust’. Ah George, you were the two-wheeled equivalent of a phone call to BT; outsourced, shoddy quality and exceptionally slow to pick up.

This bike was called George. Don't ask.
This bike was called George. Don’t ask.

However, you always love your first experience of automotive freedom, and George and his mighty 11.3bhp propelled me to my first proper archaeological experience: the ‘Town Life Project’ at Silchester, run by the University of Reading.

Surprisingly, for a teeny-tiny little bike like the CBF125, it had zero problems at all getting up and down the gravel track to the excavation car park. Admittedly, there was the very real danger of bending the front wheel out of true when running over so much as a pebble, but my faithful steed performed admirably on the sketchy surfaces of the track and the grass field car park. My abiding motorcycle memory of Silchester was waking up to a howling gale and torrential rain at 3.30am one morning, convinced that my flimsy ride would be blown into the car next to it by the fierce winds. Cue me slogging down to the bike and using my spare tent pegs, a fistful of bungee cords and an unlimited supply of alarmingly foul language to stake it to the ground.

George served me faithfully for some time, but all first loves fade in the cold, harsh light of wanting to do more than 60mph downhill with a following wind. I’d been accepted to UCL to study archaeology, and being thoroughly sick of trains and tired of haemorrhaging cash at the ticket office every day, I started scouring the interwebs for a motorway-worthy motorbike. I struck gold in Chichester, finding a Yamaha Diversion from 1995 in mint condition with the gobsmackingly low total of 3,000 miles. Owned by someone who had nearly 30 other bikes, poor Lumpy had languished unloved and unridden in a garage on the south coast. I named him Lumpy due to the sound his engine made the first time the dealer fired him up for me; akin to a sackful of spanners and badgers being kicked down a stairwell.

Lumpy. The bike, that is.
Lumpy. The bike, that is.

Once I’d replaced the original Yokohama Ditchfinder tyres, which dated from 1993 (!!!), the bike was transformed from a  scrobbly understeering deathtrap to a mile-munching, fun-filtering mean machine. Lumpy babysat me through my first intitial flailing at the coronary-inducing horror that is riding in London and got me up the track to Silchester – not a bad effort for a bike with a belly pan. Sadly, my partnership with Lumpy ended the day I threw him down the road while negotiating a diesel-soaked roundabout. Although the damage was minimal, the steering was a little vague and carb-icing related breakdowns were taxing my AA Membership. Apparently it’s not a loyalty card system, so they take a dim view of racking up the call outs. The last time I called the AA, the recovery truck broke down before it got to me. I can take a hint, guys.

And so we come to Gina, my Suzuki V-Strom 650. Named for the colour (see what I did there?), I went for a more upright riding position in an attempt to stave off the inevitable spinal collapse caused by commuting from Banbury to London every day. I’ve had a thing for V-Stroms since I got into biking, and Gina is comfortable, quick, and has more road presence than either George or Lumpy. Mild offroading is no problem (for the bike, anyway) with dual purpose tyres, bash plate and engine bars. I’ve been to a few sites so far, exploring Oxfordshire – and upcoming posts will feature various archaeological sites I’ve been to, starting with the Rollright Stones.

Gina on the day I picked her up. No longer this shiny, sadly.
Gina on the day I picked her up. No longer this shiny, sadly.

Feel free to leave comments and suggestions – do any of you use your bike for work, and what factors went into choosing your ride?

Til next time,