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Lifelines: Alan Hunter Blair, archaeologist

My best find was an Iron Age burial site on wasteland in Newbridge, outside Edinburgh, in 2001.

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This type of site, in which the deceased is buried in a tomb with his chariot and other possessions, had previously been confined to the Parisii tribe in a specific part of Yorkshire. So our find was immensely rare and unique for Scottish archaeology.

I got into the profession by accident 18 years ago. A friend of mine had a job on an interesting Iron Age site and I was brought on as a site assistant. These days it’s probably easier to get in with a degree, but it still can happen for people like me.

I’m working on a project in Campbeltown. A drain is being put through parts of the town and we’re trying to map the old sea wall. The maps showing the town as it has developed over the centuries are not very accurate, so our work will paint a clearer picture. We’re finding evidence to suggest an 18th-century and even a 15th-century sea wall.

I haven’t come across great quantities of gold or silver, but I have worked on sites that have yielded wonderfully decorative artefacts. Perhaps the most interesting has been an Anglo-Saxon, pre-Christian cemetery in Catterick. The men were buried with their shields, spears and swords, and the women with these magnificent amber glass bead necklaces, copper alloy brooches and other decorations.

I worked on a Time Team excavation with Tony Robinson on a farm in Orkney in 2000. A farmer had discovered stone stairs going into the earth and leading to a dark chamber. It appeared to be a small settlement.

Besides working on sites across Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales, I’ve worked on St Helena in the South Atlantic, where we were sent in 2008 to excavate a cemetery next to a planned airport.

These days our work is developer-driven and funded. Planning applications are usually screened by an archaeologist who then advises the council of likely implications. The developer is then liable for archaeological development, which takes the burden off the tax-payer.

Using a digger on a site is common practice. We need the machine to get through the topsoil then, if we find upstanding remains such as walls, floor surfaces or cobbled yards, we proceed more cautiously. Anything we find is cleaned very carefully by hand, then photographed and recorded. And, of course, sometimes we don’t find anything. And sometimes things turn up in the most unlikely places.

Visit www.guard-archaeology.co.uk.

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