June 2017 Emma Wells
Alumni Feature – Questions
• What and when did you study at Durham?
I undertook my PhD at Durham from 2009 to 2013. My thesis was entitled: An Archaeology of Sensory Experience: Pilgrimage in the Medieval Church, c.1170-1550. I was also a member of University College, elected as Secretary to the MCR in 2010-11 and elected as Secretary and P.R. Officer of the Durham Medieval Archaeologists in 2010 alongside Lisa Brundle at the helm. That year we devised a seminar series and resulting conference on ‘Current Archaeological Projects and Research in Northern and Eastern Britain AD 400 - 1500'.
• What are you doing now?
After graduating, I set up my own business in heritage consultancy which thrived but, without making any advances in cloning, also proved quite difficult to manage as a one-woman band. Consecutively, I was appointed as Visiting Lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at York St John so my toe remained dipped in the waters of academia. From there, I was invited by Reverend Dr Dee Dyas to take, what I thought would be a simple little addition to my repertoire – Course Convenor of the new PGDip in the History, Heritage and Fabric of the Parish Church at the University of York. After three years of hard work, determination and a drive to provide students with the best course we can offer, I am now Associate Lecturer, Programme Director and lead tutor of the PGDip in Parish Church Studies: History, Heritage and Fabric as well as the brand new MA in English Building History which I created and developed over the past 18 months. The latter programme has been an absolute labour of love – it developed from nothing more than a kernel of an idea for an interdisciplinary MA resulting from a gap in the market. Last year I also published my first general readership book, Pilgrim Routes of the British Isles which was inspired by several ‘road trips’ taken with fellow ‘Castle’ friends to Lindisfarne in my first year. I am now onto my second book and, although I can’t divulge too much about the subject matter, let’s just say this one was inspired by the evocative landscape and the people behind a rather large building right on the doorstep of the city.
• How do you feel your experiences of studying Archaeology at Durham shaped your life afterwards?
There is an innate sense of comradery, collaboration and support which runs rife throughout the department, and instils a sense of confidence ensuring one is ready for the next journey ahead. The department feels like a family, one that encourages independence but provides for students by evoking an intimate environment, where one can feel open to discuss personal and professional matters of any nature. Above all, without my degree from the Archaeology department at Durham, I would certainly not be in the position I am today. Studying at Durham made me realise that an academic career was what I wanted to pursue and where I was supposed to be – it, essentially, gave me the confidence to believe in my own abilities. Without the risk my supervisor took (or should I say confidence she saw in me) in giving me a graduate teaching post in the first year of my PhD, I would not have gained the skills in both leadership and teamwork I now possess, which have aided me immensely, not only in my talent for teaching and conveying my research, but also for interacting with various groups of people. In fact, I would never have had the confidence to be self-employed nor stand up in front of hundreds of people and present lectures and talks without the experience Durham offered me -- skills which are invaluable and I now ultimately take for granted.
• What are your favourite memories/experiences of studying Archaeology at Durham?
I can honestly say there are too many to list. My entire experience was peppered with wonderful memories and was, very likely, the happiest years of my life.
But, if I must choose… OK, I am going to unashamedly name drop here.
A great memory was being invited to Mick Aston’s 65th birthday party. Mick was in the area to receive his honorary degree (I believe he completed a PhD back in the 60s/70s but it was stolen from the back of his car when at a gig!) over a few days, one of which happened to fall on his birthday. As we were on the committee of the Durham Medieval Archaeologists, the department kindly invited Lisa and I to his birthday celebrations. He was such a thoughtful, kind and interesting man, though I do remember his eyes glazing over as we got to talking about our ‘sensory methodologies’, before responding with “I don’t understand these new approaches – they’re over my head!”
I also made my first on-camera appearance thanks to and whilst studying in the department. Given Gary Bankhead’s recent medieval Cuthbertine pilgrim badge find in the River Wear, the BBC were to film for a series in conjunction with Michael Wood’s A People’s History and so thought his findings would make a great feature. My name was passed forward as an ‘expert’ on pilgrimage and so, to my delight, I found myself gossiping over pectoral crosses and hairstyles with Helen Skelton in the feretory of Durham Cathedral – a very surreal experience indeed! This fired a love for broadcasting and, ever since, I have followed the media train, doing bits and bobs where I can. Without this first opportunity, I would never have caught the broadcasting bug and realised just how much I love presenting my work in different mediums and to a wide variety of audiences.
• What do you miss most about studying at Durham?
Besides formals twice a week, Castle’s June Ball, the MCR’s Wii (and drinks cabinet), and that first glimpse of the Palace Green vista as you approach the crest of Owengate (though not walking up the steep hill itself – no, my legs certainly don’t miss that!), above all, I miss the people. I met my greatest friends within the walls of Durham Castle and still share a close bond with many of the students from the department to this day. My supervisor, Dr Pam Graves also shaped me into the academic that I am so, to her, I owe everything. I also miss the close-knit academic community of the department. It was a pleasure to study in a small department where I wasn’t treated like a number nor like a student, in fact. As a PhD student, I was eternally made to feel equal to the members of staff – a rare yet invaluable gift for instilling confidence in one’s thoughts and own abilities. My heart will always lie with Durham University.