Posted on August 4, 2014
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You might recognise archaeologist Susan Greaney from the tellybox. She's been explaining the story behind Stonehenge, where she’s been working since 2009. We asked her about how she got to work for English Heritage, what’s in a working day at Stonehenge, advice for budding archaeologists... and what she sees in the mirror.
How did you get to be an archaeologist? Did you always want to be one?
I remember announcing to my mum that I was going to be an archaeologist age seven – I must have learnt about it at school. For years many of my school friends thought I wanted to be an architect – this was long before Time Team started on television! I don't remember anyone trying to persuade me towards a different career. I used to answer those school career questionnaires to deliberately obtain the answer 'archaeologist'! Someone did once warn me there was no money in it. Of course, I wasn't in it for the money.
When I was 14 I had two weeks of work experience excavating a deserted medieval village. I loved it and was hooked – being outdoors and learning new skills but mostly meeting interesting and friendly people. From then on I took every opportunity to sign up for excavations and dig during my summer holidays at community or volunteer excavations. And then I applied to university to study archaeology at Sheffield – after my Master's degree at Oxford I was lucky enough to be given a job at English Heritage, where I still work.
Tell us about a typical working day.
My job title is Senior Properties Historian. Sadly I very rarely get to excavate or even visit excavations these days. My role is to research and write about English Heritage properties to provide information for our visitors – we look after over 400 historic sites ranging from Neolithic long barrows to industrial buildings. I might be writing an interpretation panel, commissioning a reconstruction or overseeing the production of a film for an exhibition. For the last four years I've been the archaeologist responsible for the exhibition and interpretation scheme at the new Stonehenge visitor centre – a huge privilege.
The great thing about my job is that there is no typical working day! If I'm in the office in Bristol I might be replying to e-mails, writing reports, researching, meeting with colleagues. I can also be found on site visits – visiting properties in order to meet colleagues, look at aspects of a site or project, meeting other researchers. Other days you might find me in a library or visiting an archive or museum store.
What’s your favourite thing about your job? And your least favourite?
I love the fact that my role is to try and understand the latest thinking on our past, and then present that in an easily accessible way to the general public. Corralling all of that specialist information together is difficult, but when I see a visitor enthralled, or explaining to their companion about what they have learnt, it is very rewarding.
My least favourite part? Probably the fact that I don't actually get to excavate any more! Especially on a nice sunny day. And the downside of doing any job you love – you tend to take it home with you! Whether it's a discussion in the pub or the book on my bedside table, it will usually relate to what I'm currently working on. I also have a lot of responsibility and that can be quite stressful.
What advice would you give to a young woman wanting to be an archaeologist?
Get out there and excavate as much as you can, volunteer at your local museum, subscribe to an archaeology magazine, join the Young Archaeologists' Club. Talk to people who are archaeologists already and ask for advice – don't be afraid, they were once in your position! Don't worry about the physical work (there is more of it than people expect – mattocks are seen more often than toothbrushes!) – you will need to be fit, but experience and technique matter a lot more than strength. And remember that there are lots of different types of archaeological jobs – it's not all digging! So try lots of different things.
What does fulfilment mean to you?
I think being fulfilled is being yourself and being happy about who that person is. My career is important – I am very lucky to do a job that I love and that I've always wanted to do. I have to pinch myself sometimes! But it's not everything – my husband, family, friends and other interests are all important too and it's crucial to keep perspective in life.
What are your goals for the future?
I want to continue working at English Heritage. There are some really interesting projects coming up – I'll be working on Tintagel Castle a lot over the next year. I've also just been awarded funding to start a PhD part-time later this year. I'd like to publish more academic articles, attend more conferences – overall to become more of an expert in my field. We'd also like to buy a house and get a dog!
What do you see when you look in the mirror?
Just me. Imperfect, determined, little old me.
Thanks to Susan – you can stay in touch by following her on Twitter: @SueGreaney. If Sue's story has got you inspired, share your story today.