An American Intern in York
My name is Kyle Knapp and between October and December 2016 I was a visiting student from Hamline University, which is located in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I was raised in Chetek, Wisconsin, an area that draws many archaeologists due to its rich Native American history. This environment helped foster an interest in learning about both history and other cultures from a young age.
When I was 12, I became interested in the study of human skeletal remains in a forensic context. This was due to the fact that I had an extreme fear of blood, but wanted to work in a forensic science related field. Many adults in my life told me that I needed to develop a strong stomach or else I would not be successful.
Then I was introduced to the television series Bones. I realized there was a field of study where I could work as a forensic scientist and not come into contact with flesh or bodily fluids. About one year later, my mother arranged a meeting with the forensic anthropologist for the state of Minnesota who happened to be a professor at Hamline University.
I followed her advice and took several college classes while in high school, such as American Indian Studies, General Anthropology, and Cultural Anthropology. Now I am in my third at Hamline majoring in Anthropology and minoring in Forensic Science with the ultimate goal of working as a forensic anthropologist.
York, England is a popular destination for anthropology majors at Hamline, especially those focusing on archaeology or biological anthropology. The program is made up of two segments that involve a class taught by Hamline faculty at the University of York for the first month, followed by modules and/or an internship.
The Hamline class was co-taught by Professor Van Dusenbery and Professor Liz Coville, a sociocultural anthropology and a linguistic anthropologist. It was called “Ethnographic Encounters” and had the students studying British public culture. We were tasked with riding public transportation, exploring the shops in the city centre, and other domains. Then I started my internship with the York Archaeological Trust a couple weeks later.
Curatorial Internship at YAT
Prior to starting my placement with the York Archaeological Trust, I had little archaeological experience. My education was in mostly sociocultural and biological anthropology, as well as forensic science. I had assisted my advisor with forensic and sacred burial recovery and taken a bioarcheology class, but lacked any other formal archaeology training. In fact, I first learned how to dig from archaeology focused classmates while out in the field.
My lack of experience meant that I was a bit intimidated when I first arrived in York. That changed on my first day when Collections Manager, Dr. Nienke Van Doorn had me try washing finds. I was greeted with a bag full of dirt covered bones and quickly felt right at home.
The process involved two medium sized tubs, not quite long enough to lay an adult humerus flat. One was used in conjunction with a small, handheld sieve that was used to catch any bone fragments or teeth that might be stuck in the clay. The second sieve served as a rinsing device before placing the bone or fragment to dry. The tools used to remove the soil were two different kinds of brushes, an ordinary toothbrush and a longer brush that had rough bristles. I also used a wooden skewer to reach dirt in any apertures, fossae, or grooves. Finally, the remains were placed in an open wooden box lined with newspaper and stacked along the wall in the washing area. These boxes were also labeled with site numbers and sometimes a card noting the side of the body from which the bones belonged.
Finds washing became an activity that I would assist with from time to time; however, it did not make up the bulk of my work at YAT. I worked on changing silica gel in “the store” and at some of the satellite exhibitions around York. The compound is used to control humidity in the containers or cases that house artifacts. I also witnessed the reading of “log tags” that record humidity levels in the displays at the Minster and St. Mary’s exhibitions.
The majority of my internship involved helping Jagoda Olender, one of the Collections Assistants, with finds selection for a traveling exhibition going to Coventry. She and I were looking for primarily crafted items, such as ingots, arrow heads, shoes, bone skates, vessels, and many others. They were eventually organized into three different display cases according to category and function. I was surprised at how much thought and preparation went into the process.
First, we had to compile spreadsheets with artifact information into a master list of sorts. There were a number of database elements we took into consideration, which meant the spreadsheets tended to have many fields. If there were any missing pieces of information, Jagoda or I would search for the artifact in the database and attempt to fill in the blanks. Once completed, we used the master list to quickly find and select viable artifacts for display.
Secondly, we evaluated a couple hundred items and made a list of the selected and rejected. This was systematically accomplished by focusing on one type of material at a time. For example, we would focus on just wood artifacts until we felt that we had enough.
I eventually asked Jagoda what aspects of an artifact made it more viable than another. She stated that it must represent the ‘intended period’ and have ‘historical importance.’ This meant the artifact could construct a historical narrative, providing insight into a particular behavior or custom. Aesthetics were also an important part of the decision process. Some items were tattered and did not even resemble the item they once were. Jagoda stressed they should be intact enough as to be recognizable to people not trained as archaeologists.
Thirdly, the selected objects were approved by the head of department, Christine McDonnell. Those rejected by her were replaced with better suited ones. Jagoda and I then cross-referenced the periods displayed for each artifact in the database with text in the fascicules. If they were discovered to be from a period outside of Anglo-Scandinavian, they would be replaced.
Lastly, the approved artifacts were transported to the offices at Aldwark and mock cases were made. This was done on a table fitted with foam and boundaries created with string. Jagoda would lay the artifacts within the imaginary case in an intentional configuration. For example, the metal working case possessed a chronological narrative. The artifacts association with the production of metal finds were placed in the top left, while the finished products occupied the bottom right. Some items rested on the bottom of the case, while others were placed on blocks. This was also somewhat intentional, but also for aesthetic purposes.
Putting English Archaeology in Context
Once this project was finished, my time at YAT was drawing to an end. The last week was spent interviewing different members of the organization for an ethnography I intended to write about English Archaeology. I chose to label the field in this way because I did not interact with archaeologists from Scotland. Some people found the distinction between ‘English’ and ‘British’ to be unnecessary; however, I based this decision on the work of the social anthropologist Kate Fox and her work called Watching the English: the hidden rules of English behavior. I was more concerned with representing the history and ideologies of a particular region than a social identity. This was also reflected in the title of my ethnographic paper, ‘English Archaeology in Context: Through the Lens of the York Archaeological Trust,’ which I completed after returning to the United States.
This final paper allowed me to receive credit for the internship back at Hamline, but also to organize and process the paradigmatic differences between American Anthropology and British Social Anthropology and Archaeology.
Working as an intern at the York Archaeological Trust was one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. This was the first time I was able to pair my passion for anthropology and archaeology with formal work experience. The job also allowed me to connect with professionals that taught me skills I would never have learned from a class or reading a textbook. The staff at YAT were extremely supportive of my interests and allowed me to explore the field of English archaeology practically, historically, and theoretically.