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Department of Archaeology

February 2016 Spencer Carter

Spencer Carter | Freelance Field Archaeologist, Lithics Specialist and Operations Manager

  • What and when did you study at Durham?

I studied BA (Hons) Archaeology 1984-87 (Hatfield College) when the department was on Saddler Street and the Shakespeare was the archaeologist’s pub of choice. Professor Cramp ran the ship and fostered a friendly, but healthily challenging, atmosphere. The teaching staff included, amongst others, Martin Millett, Anthony Harding, Colin Haselgrove, John Casey, Chris Morris, Janey Cronyn, Martin Jones, James Rackham. I think we were known for our “spirit” and “enthusiasm”. I was also President of the Arch Soc (1986-7), for my sins. My drawing office corner is now the rear terrace of The Varsity pub where I can legitimately indulge in a glass of wine (versus the Prof’s sherry)—though it’s a very strange and nostalgic pleasure. There be ghosts on that staircase!

  • What are you doing now?

After graduating (and a final dig in Poland that summer) I moved from Teesside to London and found a job as a box packer in a basement in Soho as a temp. It turned out to be the first vendor of Unix software, called The Santa Cruz Operation, or SCO, and enabler of the first pizza delivery to be ordered online in the world, in Santa Cruz CA (albeit then delivered to the wrong address). Things escalated and I ended up in a business career as a marketing then sales operations manager for global hi-tech corporations, latterly at Cisco Systems where I ran customer services for some very strange countries (I’ve been shot at in Brazil and chased around Moscow; now there’s a story). I never lost the passion for archaeology, tried to stay well-read, and maintained a particular penchant for the Mesolithic, as one does.

The challenges for older folks in business, triggered also by the present economic crash, involved me taking voluntary redundancy (and a few months to ‘recover’). I decided, in 2012, to try a return to archaeology as the developer-led and construction sectors began to recover. I have been involved in commercial projects, supervised on community digs, and managed to pay some bills! I am also a lithics specialist—a relatively rare breed—and there’s ongoing success there too. I am hoping, therefore, to re-engineer life to see if there’s a viable, if frugal, future here. Building an archaeological people-network from scratch has involved not only conference attendance, such as the brilliant Wild Things events at Durham where I had a poster, but also lots of voluntary work such as becoming Chair of Teesside Archaeological Society (from a London base!) and editor for CBA Yorkshire where many new friend have been made. PS, I’m on LinkedIn, so feel free to connect.

  • How do you feel your experiences of studying Archaeology at Durham shaped your life afterwards?

I think a combination of Durham’s collegiate system and the camaraderie both within college and the department with staff, fellow students and postgrads all contributed to a sense of teamwork and collaboration. We were working in areas where there were (and remain) more questions than answers, and the way of approaching challenges, problem solving, solutioning in the rest of life—the way of analysing, thinking, exploring, testing—prove that archaeology represents an amazing set of transferable skills. Back then, each annual intake in archaeology was small, perhaps no more than a dozen people, and I think we all benefitted from the intimacy as well as self-dependence. Durham and the department have blossomed and grown exponentially, and so I wonder what the experience is like today?

  • What are your favourite memories/experiences of studying Archaeology at Durham?

I’ll start with my least favourite if I may? Remember, we were in the pre-personal computer age (except for the library dumb terminals). There were no such things as a PDF or ‘open-access’. There were journals and books, often hugely obscure books that had to be requested, shared, have overdue fines paid, and returned. I did manage to type up my dissertation on Durham’s mainframe, which occupied an entire floor on the science site. There were no backups. It crashed three times and so I had to type up the dissertation three times. We used letraset and rotring pens for diagrams, SLRs and film for images (which still persist I guess), and there were never enough photocopiers!

Archaeology at Durham in the late 80s was as much about theory as it was about practical skills both in the lab and in the field. Fieldwork was a mandatory and significant proportion of the degree. I have abiding memories of many projects (mine were generally in northern England and Poland) over the summer season, and between terms—both the hard work, the joy of applying taught skills in reality, and the immense fun we all had (very occasionally carnage). Poland, specifically an early Iron Age site at a place called Sobiejuchy near Poznan, was particularly experience-building, given this was before the fall of the Iron Curtain. One student managed to forget his passport and visa, which was interesting. We had to carry our own toilet rolls amongst all the other equipment. Vodka was unbelievably cheap (as was red wine) and the people incredibly friendly. The “tipsy” crop-spraying pilots would dive-bomb our dig every afternoon to “see how close we can get to your heads”. We really did lay flat in the dirt. Unfortunately they also pilfered our meagre rations.

  • What do you miss most about studying at Durham?

I must say that I revelled in the traditions of Latin graces, formal dinners in gowns, the collegiate structure and the fact one couldn’t walk down the Bailey, any time of the week, without bumping into somebody. I miss the self-discipline, the ‘shared struggle’ (but not the deadlines). I miss a certain sense of “owning the city” although I still have a number of friends in today’s department. Having said all of this, however, I still feel a bond with college, the university and with an extraordinary jewel in the North of England. Matriculation in the Cathedral was a truly unforgettable experience. Durham is part of me and, in a very small way, I am part of its history. We shan’t mention Klutes though. Not yet. I still cannot drink vodka.

Post script | After Durham I did periodically suffer from insecurity nightmares where I never seemed to have actually graduated; perennial rounds of revision, floating in shadows, finding somebody else in my tiny college room. So, I contacted Prof Cramp a few years back to see if she would entertain a conversation with an old alumnus. After a really good natter, fine coffee (and a single malt), I can now confidently declare myself free of that particular bad dream. I was there. And I did (somehow) graduate.

My informal blog about Mesolithic archaeology | http://microburin.com

My professional persona | http://timevista.co.uk

Anthony Harding in my ditch, Danby Rigg 1986 (it proved to be Viking not Bronze Age).