Excavating on site with Richard Osgood
Excavating on site with Richard Osgood

Archaeologist of the Year finalist Richard Osgood on his work with Operation Nightingale, advising Philip Pullman and his career so far

The winner of Current Archaeology Live's Archaeologist of the Year prize for 2019 was Richard Osgood and we caught up with him to discuss his journey so far as well as all things archaeology. Richard, co-founder of Operation Nightingale – an initiative that uses archaeological fieldwork to aid the recovery of wounded veterans, opened up about advising Philip Pullman and his work so far. 

What got you into archaeology in the first place?

I grew up in a small Wiltshire village, so it was, perhaps, inevitable that archaeology would be an interest. My school used to have these horrific cross-country runs titled ‘fun-runs’ and some of us found a way to take short-cuts across one of the nearby farmer’s fields thus removing a fair portion of this torture (I shouldn’t actually be saying this as my Mum was a teacher at the school). If you timed it right you could arrive after the keen runners, having ambled a few hundred metres and thus negated the need to exhaust yourself. To put off time, we looked in the ploughed parts of this field and would often find little pieces of oyster shell and pottery. It soon turned out that there was in fact a Roman villa under the school football pitch – wonderful mosaics and all! Excavated later by no less than Mark Corney – this sporting skulduggery resulted in a life-long love of archaeology. I’m one of those annoying types that has pretty much known what they wanted to do from age 11.

All archaeologists have a favourite civilisation or time period – what's yours?

I do a great deal of 20th century archaeology now! My earlier interests were really the Bronze Age – it’s a time of alchemy after all, and this led to me doing some work on late Bronze Age warfare some years ago. Any time I get to work on sites of this era is always a bonus. I wouldn’t say I have an overall ‘favourite’ now – opportunities to study human lives, cultures and beliefs of the past, whatever the period, is a real privilege.

Is there also a favourite site?

May I have two? In terms of visiting – I have always found the West Kennet long barrow to be a really special place. Aged 12 I won a school history competition for making a model of one of the chambers (prize – a copy of Bram Stoker’s gothic novel ‘Dracula’) and I try to go to the monument as often as possible. There is something about it – like many of the Cotswold Severn tombs with their folklore associations, rich artefactual assemblages and links to the antiquarian past too. Some years ago, I had the sad task of helping to clear the library of the late Professor Stuart Piggott for the executors of his will. As payment, I was allowed to take one book from this collection for myself. I chose Piggott’s personal copy (signed) of his own 1962 excavation report on West Kennet, it’s just about the favourite thing I have.

In terms of excavations, my favourite site has been that of Barrow Clump on Salisbury Plain. This barrow, with Neolithic, Beaker, Bronze Age, Saxon and military layers has been fundamental to the success of the Operation Nightingale programme – in fact many of the military participants seem to regard it as something of an archaeological ‘battle honour’. In spite of badger disturbance there have been many fascinating discoveries – both in terms of the well-defined prehistoric layers and also other components such as the Saxon cemetery and associated finds. The beautifully preserved 6th Century bucket, and the first Visigoth brooch from a burial context in Britain being two (both found by soldiers). Many friendships have been made on this site, and it has improved the well-being of so many people in addition to launching some new archaeological careers and rescuing the human remains that were otherwise being burrowed away. The location, looking over the River Avon in idyllic Wiltshire Countryside, does wonders for the soul.

Operation Nightingale is a really innovative and important initiative, a way for archaeology to be relevant to today. Tell us a little e bit about it and the projects that have flourished under its aegis?

That’s kind of you to say. Operation Nightingale began in 2011 when a group of soldiers from The Rifles (an infantry unit that had taken lots of casualties) came onto Salisbury Plain to see whether engaging in archaeological rescue work on an Early Iron Age midden site might help their recovery. The results were such that we decided to do much more work and thus we have now looked at sites from many periods – from Neolithic through to Second World War. We now have ex-military men and women at University, in field units, with long term ‘kinship’ groups (especially Facebook) and many in an altogether better place with camaraderie. It has been so moving as an archaeologist to see people discovering a passion for the subject that you love yourself. From my perspective in working with the military, it has also been important to show them another reason why we go to great lengths to protect our historic environment – as it can inspire. It might seem counter-intuitive taking traumatised service personnel to battlefield sites for cathartic reasons but many of them adore conflict archaeology hence the many WW1 and 2 projects - interestingly the discovery of human remains on sites does not seem to be a prohibition. There is a proximity to this work with it being so recent that adds another level of engagement; we have had veterans recovering soldier’s remains for a subsequent war grave at Bullecourt in France, and also working on a Spitfire crash site with the pilot’s daughter.

In archaeology, there are always jobs for everyone whatever physical or mental challenges they face, and this combined with the teamwork dynamic make it so successful. It is also important to have non-fieldwork components (ranging from model building, archive research to public speaking elements) to give a broad and year- round experience. The programme has also, conversely, helped the archaeologists involved in setting lives in perspective and learning new skills. The critical maxim we work to is ‘do no harm’ – be it to participant or the archaeology. Sitting round a camp fire, telling stories, seeing their training areas and landscapes in a whole new light (whilst bringing their own appreciation of topography and form to the analysis) has real power to help. Building communities is another benefit – in the ‘Digging War Horse’ project, army children and families at Larkhill not only joined the veterans on site at the old horse hospital but then did lots of school workshops afterwards gaining a sense of place. The project has been able to make use of some military equipment to aid the work – as this provides useful, unusual training – I think in particular of the work at Rat Island near Gosport which included combat support boats to permit access at high tide – all very ‘Apocalypse Now’!

As the archaeologist for the Ministry of Defence, you have a very wide-ranging brief. What is it like being an archaeologist for the armed forces?

I love it! It’s exhilarating working on astonishingly unspoilt (thanks to military) multi-period landscapes. Having a curatorial requirement for almost 800 Scheduled Monuments and parts of 10 World Heritage Sites, writing management plans for Mayan temples in Belize, dealing with mosaics in Cyprus, protecting burial cairns in Kenya reads like a script for a film series. I’m probably one of the very few archaeological curators who have major archaeological sites protected by artillery (several Roman villages lie in the artillery impact area on Salisbury Plain). The military understand heritage (just look at the badges that have the Sutton Hoo helmet, or a Stonehenge trilithon) as it is an important part of their recruitment and ethos, indeed they are laying down their own heritage as borne out by the raft of designations of First World War monuments in the UK recently including the Bulford Chalk Kiwi. Such understanding is crucial for any overseas deployments. This work is not without its pathos – when we were requiring archaeological conditions to be added to training features (and sometimes heritage ‘texturing’ such as ‘grave sites’ or ‘museums’) installed for exercises in Iraq and Afghanistan one was always painfully aware that a number of those who would deploy to theatre after the training would not be coming home alive or would be gravely damaged. I suppose that is why I’m so passionate about Operation Nightingale and very moved to see our discipline being able to give something back, however small.

Where in the world would you want to travel to for your dream project, if given the chance?

Gosh, what anywhere? Lots of places – Easter Island/Rapa Nui (I went there ages ago), any site with a guaranteed bog body (I have always been fascinated in such discoveries having read P V Glob, visited the sites in Denmark and just adoring the poetry of Seamus Heaney). I also love the idea of archaeology connected with film. I was lucky enough to excavate the site of the ‘Great Escape’ with Tony Pollard and Iain Banks in Poland so perhaps that leaves Matmata in Tunisia (Tatooine in Star Wars if you are wondering!)

You previously worked advising Philip Pullman on archaeology in his Northern Lights trilogy. How did that come about?

The work on Northern Lights happened when I was working in Oxford. Philip Pullman had contacted my then-boss Barry Cunliffe about wishing to discuss the logistical side of archaeological projects. As this was something I used to do for Barry at Danebury and Le Yaudet he passed the request over to me. The most challenging aspect was perhaps feeling fairly fraudulent! I made a pretty quick decision that digging in the winter and frozen lands (Alaska being the archaeological focus for the books) was not for me; I recall a day in Warwickshire where braziers were used to melt the ground. Not for me. Thus, chatting with him about organising excavations and their logistics was easy enough, as was citing a few examples of archaeology and finds in frozen climates such as Pazyryk and Qilakitsok, but empathising with this work was more tricky. It was a very enjoyable experience – he’s excellent company and the research was done in a pub. Furthermore, it’s the only time I’ve gained any kudos with my daughter as she later saw my name in the acknowledgments!