Lisa Westcott Wilkins chats to Matthew Symonds, Acting Editor of Current World Archaeology for the past year, who is just about to take up the editorial reins at CA.
Why did you become an archaeologist?
I’ve loved archaeology for as long as I can remember. I think it started with reading archaeological fiction, like Rosemary Sutcliff and the Astérix comics. Around the time I was getting ready to go to university, I realised, from watching Time Team, that archaeology was not just something you read about, it was something you could go out and do. So I went on a training excavation at Bignor Roman Villa, led by David Rudling, and after that I was well and truly hooked. It was an amazing week: I was very lucky with finds, it was sunny every day, and I even got to stay in a pub until closing time for the first time. It was like getting a taste of university a year early, and I thought archaeological digs must always be like that. I have a much more realistic view now!
Did your first dig influence your choice of specialism?
I wonder… but looking back, I’ve always been interested in the Romans. I remember seeing a question on a school test when I was little asking about what the Romans did for us, and thinking ‘great, I know all this’… unfortunately, my answer was based entirely on what I’d learned from Astérix in Britain. But I’ve come a long way since then. Hopefully!
I first visited Hadrian’s Wall, which is my main personal research interest, when I was about eight years old. This was after about two years of badgering my parents to take me there. I really wish I could remember how I’d first heard of the Wall or why I wanted to go there so badly, but I was definitely fascinated. I can remember wondering not only about the lives of the Roman soldiers who had built the Wall, but also about the native population and how it must have felt for them to suddenly have something like this appear on their doorstep. I use this perspective quite a lot in my research.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever found?
When I was at university, there was a major training dig going on in Bulgaria. It was a fantastic experience. We lived with local families in a remote village, so I got to experience a very different way of life, and dig some fabulous archaeology. Just down the road was the deserted Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum. I was digging in what would have been the agora, and I had that moment – when you know you’ve found something, but you’re not quite sure what it is yet. I carefully trowelled around it, and saw that it was a tiny square of bone, stamped with a series of intricate little circles. I suddenly realised I was looking at a Roman die. After it had been carefully recorded, the time came to bag it up and send it off for finds processing. I had it in my hand, and I thought: no one has rolled this for almost 2,000 years. I couldn’t resist having a go. Off it rolled…and it came up on ‘1’. I thought: just my luck. A couple of days later, the finds expert came up to me and said: ‘We were looking at that die you found. Guess what? It’s loaded with a tiny piece of lead – it always comes up a “1”.’ Suckered by a 2,000-year old Roman swindler…but I like to think I’m only the latest in a long line to fall prey to that dodgy die.
Has working on Current World Archaeology changed your perspective on archaeology?
Absolutely. The past year has been a fantastic opportunity to learn about areas of archaeology that I’ve never had a chance to look at in depth before: like the Khmer culture, which I knew very little about. Getting to talk about a fascinating civilisation like that with a world expert is a real privilege. It’s certainly allowed me to study Roman Britain in the widest possible context. It’s all about the Romans, really!
What are your thoughts about the current climate for archaeology in the UK?
I’m very worried. I think we forget how much new information has come out of the commercial units, which, of course, are suffering from the downturn in construction work. The planning process is also looking a bit shaky, and so is university funding. I really hope we’re not dialling archaeology back to the pre-PPG16 years. It must be obvious how important it is to preserve archaeology’s place in planning controls. These regulations came about to combat the trashing of so much archaeology in the 1960s. We don’t want to headback that way. I hope that what we’re seeing is a response to a short-term economic crisis rather than a long-term downgrading of archaeology.
What are your plans for the future Current Archaeology?
I’ve been reading CA since I was 16 – ever since some archaeologists were brought into my school ahead of planned construction work there. I started chatting to one of them who said that if I was interested in archaeology I should get this magazine. So I did. And when I was being interviewed for university, I spent most of my time talking about a CA article I’d read on the Clava Cairns, in Scotland (CA 148). It inspired me so much that I went up to visit them. In fact, I saw that same piece on the CA website the other day – it was like seeing an old friend! So, the magazine has been there, all through my personal journey in archaeology. I even referenced a couple of CA articles in my doctorate, which is unusual for a popular magazine. But there are sites for which CA is the only published record, and that is incredibly important. I want to continue to produce articles that are enjoyable, and have that same enduring use. Hopefully, CA will continue to inspire people to find archaeology as exciting as I do, and also continue to be a voice and outlet for sites that might otherwise never make it into public awareness.
What’s your dream story to write?
I am crossing my fingers that another Staffordshire Hoard comes up soon. Very jealous of that one!
Tell me a secret…
Every year on my birthday, I go to the Hadrian’s Wall milecastle that has the same number as my age, and drink a pint. No – I am not telling you how old I am! But I will say the Wall is 80 miles long, and I’m not half-way yet. I love being up in the hills, and am fascinated by the milecastles – they are the key to understanding what Hadrian’s Wall was for. Though I can think of at least a dozen people who will email me within seconds of reading this to tell me I’m wrong…!
Matthew Symonds studied archaeology at Nottingham University, and then at Christ Church, Oxford. He is a Visiting Fellow at Newcastle University, and co-edited Frontiers of Knowledge: A Research Framework for Hadrian’s Wall. He has excavated in Bulgaria, Sicily, Italy, and Britain, and can ask for a trowel in five different languages.