I started off studying Prehistoric Archaeology, History of Art, and Geology at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, before coming to Oxford to do a doctorate in Medieval Archaeology. Much of my published work has been focused on finding ways to extract information from metal-detector finds turned up by treasure hunters and amateur archaeologists all over Britain, and exploring what they tell us about economy, markets, and trade in the Early Medieval Period.
When Dr Lisa Bendall approached me in 2008 to ask whether I would like to investigate the archives at the Institute of Archaeology, I jumped at the chance to learn more about the personalities involved in shaping the history of the subject. Little did Sally and I know what we were letting ourselves in for! As the Institute never had the finances to support an archivist, only a small proportion of the archives had been properly boxed and catalogued – a real labour of love from past archaeologists and graduate students. So Sally and I – lab-coat, masks, gloves and torch in hand – set off on a search for hidden treasures among the three knocked-together Georgian houses and six floors which comprise the Institute of Archaeology. Searching old rooms, chests, drawers and cupboards sometimes felt like conducting an indoor excavation, with materials ranging from the 1980s on top to the 1890s or earlier at the bottom.
And treasures we have found ever since. What I most enjoy about this work it that it provides you with a real insight into what fascinated archaeologists about their subject, what drove them, and why. Often this was not straightforward and influenced by many factors, such as the people they met, political circumstances, religious ideas, or war. I am currently working on the archive of the German refugee archaeologist Prof. Paul Jacobsthal, who was deprived of his post in 1935 and fled to Oxford. The letters, which he sent to Germany to ask for help with his book, and the people who did (and did not) reply, are a real eye-opener. They show the state of archaeology during the Third Reich and the often complex personalities of archaeologists, and the choices they made. As a young student at Heidelberg I studied many of the books of these archaeologists – and never for a moment paused to consider the ‘person’ behind the writing. Maybe I was just naive, maybe it had to do with a more general silence about what archaeologists had been up to before, during, and after the war, much of which is only now coming to light. This archive has certainly changed my views on some of them, as it doubtlessly will others. And this is just one part of the power of archives.
My favourite find to date is a padded envelope we discovered while sorting through another male archaeologists’ archive. Marked PRIVATE and CONFIDENTIAL, on opening it turned out to be stuffed full of women’s tights (high-quality) and a blue woman’s belt. There was a lot of merriment and wild theories about the significance of this find, which also involved contributions from our neighbouring room of bone-specialists. To this day, interpretations vary, but, as someone in our group pointed out, high-quality tights used to be hard currency during the war. You never stop learning.