Sheffield Castle: student experiences

Four undergraduate students from the Department of Archaeology share their thoughts on their five-week placements at the Sheffield Castle dig site.

A group photograph of the team taking part in the Sheffield Castle excavation.

Painting a picture of my career path

Working on this project has given me a sense of what working in commercial archaeology could be like and being able to ask the Wessex team questions about how their normal day operates has helped paint a picture of a potential career path I would like to follow. I also feel as though this experience will make me more confident when on future excavations.

Isabelle Sherriff

BA Archaeology

Isabelle's story

What has your placement been like?

The past five weeks spent working under the instruction of the Wessex team has been fantastic. As the project is run commercially and involves the community it has provided me with a middle ground perspective between community and commercial excavations allowing me to beneficially experience elements from both.

How has the placement helped your skills to develop?

The fast pace of the commercial side was satisfying to see, especially in the early stages. Initially, my peers and I carried out the more physical tasks of mattocking, shoveling and troweling and as time progressed, as well as our skill set, we moved on to complete context sheets, draw sections, take environmental samples, photograph features and GPS trenches. Each week would build upon the skills learnt previously and this enabled us to carry out tasks more independently. As required we would work on different trenches and from this we gathered a broader understanding of the site.

What did you enjoy most about your placement?

Working alongside the community through the enthused volunteers was lovely as each day would bring with it five new faces to get to know and talk to them about their backgrounds and why they wanted to participate in exploring the heritage of Sheffield. When the volunteers arrived on site they would mostly want to talk about any medieval remnants but once they entered trenches that had rich industrial material present they would then appreciate that the site is more diverse that what they originally thought.

Working on this project has given me a sense of what working in commercial archaeology could be like and being able to ask the Wessex team questions about how their normal day operates has helped paint a picture of a potential career path I would like to follow. I also feel as though this experience will make me more confident when on future excavations.

Putting my learnings into practice

Having the opportunity to work on this project has been incredible. Having the chance to work on a local project of this scale is not something that comes up all the time, and I feel proud to say that I've worked on it. I have learnt so much in the last five weeks, and its been good to put into practice some of the things we've learnt in lectures.

Georgina Goodison

BA Archaeology

Georgina's story

Tell us what it was like on your placement.

Having the opportunity to work on this project has been incredible. I was completely gobsmacked when I found out that I'd got a place, but it has been one of the best experiences of my life. I can't lie, it has been hard work, and I also have a job, so I've been working fifty hour weeks, but it has really been worth it. I've loved every single second, so much so that I'm carrying on with the project around classes until the project finishes.

What did you learn while on your placement?

Working with Wessex has provided a great insight as to what commercial archaeology is like and what I need to be able to do to get a job in this area. Before I arrived on site I had no idea what was expected of me and I felt slightly out of place, but that all changed on the first day. The team that we've been working with are amazing, and although they have so little time to get everything done, they always find the time to help when its needed. Ash, the site manager, was brilliant with help and advice; during the second week I began to have some confidence issues with paperwork, so one day Ash had me shadowing him. He would take photos and I would catalogue them, he would assign context numbers and guide me through the context sheets and various other things. The following day, he sent me off to trench 9 on my own. I had to take photos, do a section drawing (which I was already used to doing from a field school I did over summer) and write context sheets. I was quite surprised at how easily I managed it and how relaxed I felt, and it was all because one team member took the time give me some guidance. After that there was no looking back. I felt so much more like part of the team and realised exactly what I needed to do. Since then, I have filled in numerous context sheets, taken more photos, done more drawings, and even managed to do a little more digging. I have to admit, at first I was a little shocked at how little digging and how much recording needed to be done - it wasn't quite what I expected.

How would you sum up you experience on the dig?

This has certainly been a once in a lifetime experience; having the chance to work on a local project of this scale is not something that comes up all the time, and I feel proud to say that I've worked on it. I have learnt so much in the last five weeks, and its been good to put into practice some of the things we've learnt in lectures. I really feel as though it has increased my determination to get a good overall grade so that I can work with a company like Wessex after my degree. I really want to say thank you to the university for making this possible, this has been one of the best things I've ever done.

Developing practical skills in the commercial sector

I rank my time on Sheffield Castle as one of the most interesting archaeological experiences of my life. It provided me with valuable skills and gave me practice in how archaeology is undertaken in the commercial sector and therefore has been incredibly important in my development as an archaeologist.

James Chapman

BA Classical and Historical Archaeology 

James' story

Tell us what it was like on your placement.

My time excavating Sheffield castle was a 5-week project that started on the Monday 13th August and ran to Friday the 14th of September. The Sheffield Castle site is located in Sheffield town centre next to the River Don along castlegate. I was one of 4 students that were permanently on site.

Before beginning the excavation all 4 of us had to pass the CSCS operator test and had to take part in a working at height training course. This taught us how to stay safe on a construction site and should prove to be valuable in future should I apply for a job in commercial archaeology.

What activities did you carry out on your placement?

11 trenches were opened for the excavation of the site: trenches 1- 6 were within the castle mote and were all on the raised part of the site in the centre, trenches 7-9 were on the west side of the site on the lower levels and trenches 10-11 were on the east side of the castle located in the middle of where the mote used to be.

Week 1: the first trench opened at the castle site was trench 2, exposing a series of red brick constructions dating to the 19th century, thus linking them with industry. There were also two 19th century drains/culverts running east to west through the trench. This gave us the first opportunity to record the layers in the trench as well as the structures. This involved taking photographs of the features on a digital, black and white film and colour film camera. Following this we had to draw the sections on permatrace and take out context numbers for the trench. This was only the second time I’d recorded features. Late in the week we moved to trench 1. This was on the north side of the site and was slightly deeper than trench 2. In trench 1 there was more defined industrial structures as well as a cobbled floor towards the east side of the trench. For this trench most of what I did was exposing the structure.

Week 2: the second week started in trench 6 where a red brick floor had been exposed on the north side of the trench. I had to draw and record the east facing section of the trench as well as digging a small slot against that section. Later in the week I was moved to trench 4 where again there was a lot of industrial archaeology that had been exposed by the digger. As I was trowelling at the south end of the trench I unearthed a couple of well-preserved leather shoes that seemed to be Victorian. This came out with a lot of other bits of leather and scrap metal. Again, this trench had to be recorded and drawn.

Week 3: for the start of the third week I was placed in trench 5. In it was a 19th century wall and a drain. The trench needed trowelling in order to expose the floor of the trench and any other possible features. I then record the contexts of the west facing wall of the trench and drew the section. I was then again moved to trench 6 as it had been extended by the digger later in the week. There I trowelled off the base of the trench to expose and cuts and was told to put a slot into the floor of the trench. It was in this slot that I found what was possibly part of the castle wall. There were 2 large worked stones in the base of the slot which were at the right depth to have been part of the castle. I then drew and recorded the context changes in the slot.

Week 4: following on from the end of week 3 I was again in trench 6 digging a new slot into a feature that looked possibly like a drain, I went down 1.2 meters but found nothing. I was then moved to trench 7 which was a predominantly post-industrial trench that needed cleaning and recording. During this time the digger expose much more of the wall in trench 6.

Week 5: for all of this week I was in trench 3 and 4. In trench 3 I was cleaning and recording a machine slot put in by the digger that had exposed some very well-preserved timber and a dark soil layer that also contained medieval pottery. In trench 4 I was doing the same in a different machine slot but instead exposed some pieces of crucible furnace and a brick floor running east to west which was very well preserved and linked to Sheffield’s industrial past. As always these finds needed drawing and photographing and putting in the context register.

How would you sum up your experience on the dig?

I rank my time on Sheffield Castle as one of the most interesting archaeological experiences of my life. It provided me with valuable skills and gave me practice in how archaeology is undertaken in the commercial sector and therefore has been incredibly important in my development as an archaeologist.

Reinforcing my career ambitions

As we peeled away the layers we found some very interesting things, especially just how much the site has been used and reused over the centuries, and just how much of the castle was reused by later generations. This dig has reinforced that I do want to be a field archaeologist.

Paul Harrison

BA Archaeology

Paul's story

Tell us what it was like on your placement.

I say we found a castle, but it’s still being debated by some. A site that at first glance just looked like a bomb had hit it, but as we peeled away the layers we found some very interesting things, especially just how much the site has been used and reused over the centuries, and just how much of the castle was reused by later generations.

What activities did you get involved in?

From a possible Cementation furnace in trench 1, to pretty much nothing in trench 2. Trench 3 gave us a beautiful Victorian culvert and a weighing station. I’m still confused by trench four, we got lots of random walls and floors, a grinding stone and a pair of very old leather shoes. It was trench 6 and 9 that gave us probably the best castle evidence. Trench 6 gave us a sandstone structure with steps and a flagstone floor. Trench 9 gave us the moat. But for me personally it was trenches 10 and 11, which I was in charge of that excited me.

In trench 10, I found the dividing wall between a slaughterhouse and its courtyard, both with beautiful cobbled surfaces, which I spent two days cleaning.

What were your highlights of the dig?

In trench 11, I found three buildings that were backed by a lovely, and intact paved path and the buildings themselves had lovely flagstone floors, angled to allow animal waste, such as blood to run away into the drains.

The thing that excited me about these trenches was that we were able to identify the actual properties on the 1896 map of the area, and despite the fact that it was Victorian archaeology, it definitely gave me the most satisfaction.

The five weeks has been very tiring, but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything, I personally worked on the furnace in trench 1, the Culvert in trench 3, trenches 10 and 11 and trench 9, the most. However, I did assist in pretty much all the trenches at some point.

This dig has reinforced that I do want to be a field archaeologist. Wessex were a brilliant team and it’s my hope I can work for them again, hopefully, next year.

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