An archaeologist abroad

Well, sort of. London certainly feels like a country all of its own sometimes! After so much manic socialising at Christmas, the fiancé and I decided on a Bridget Jones-style mini-break as a change of scene, and thanks to Groupon, we got it half price with dinner slung in (always a winner). I’ve been obsessed with going to the Cotswolds ever since I read Sophie Kinsella’s The Undomestic Goddess (showing my academic side here…) so obviously I picked Blockley in Gloucestershire. And obviously it rained the entire time.

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Broadway in deep, rainy mist

Still even in rain the Cotswolds managed to be beautiful; we even went on a bit of a hike! This was distinctly out of my fiance’s comfort zone; particularly since he refused to buy wellies…. This blog does not recommend trainers as floodwear. Halfway up what turned out to be a tramp up a long hill I remembered why I don’t like hiking, out of breath with only more uphill ahead of me – I prefer walking to GET places- but when we got to Broadway folly with the Cotswolds all spread out below us I decided it was, on balance, worth the short walk. I think we must have been the only walkers out that day using umbrellas however….everyone else was in true hiker gear, anoraks and walking sticks included. No thank you!

Broadway Folly

Broadway Folly

I loved the Cotswolds for its honey-coloured stone buildings, some thatched (a feature I’m only a TINY bit obsessed with) and most in the smaller villages all smushed up together to the extent some were partially underground. Thanks to growing up in a cottage I get particularly fond when I see latticed windows too….all to the dismay of the fiancé, who would feel like an elf in Bilbo Baggin’s den if I miraculously came into money and bought one.

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Gorgeous AND chocolate containing!

However the archaeologist in me got particularly excited when, perusing the local maps to decide on our mini sodden hike, I noticed the spot of ‘Upton (abandoned) medieval village’. Why no one else I asked was even remotely interested in this is beyond me. 

Apparently there are thousands of abandoned villages in Britain – Stephen Fisk has set up a website to record and display photographs of these quite haunting places, see http://www.abandonedcommunities.co.uk/index.html to take a look, although Upton is not currently included. I imagine this is because all  that remains of the village is earthworks. Excavations by the School of History of the University of Birmingham between 1959 and 1968 revealed 29 buildings. In 1973 what apparently is known as a watching brief (you learn something new every day!) was set up for 20 days as a pipe was built through the area, and this confirmed the Roman origins of the village through sherds, walls and hearth remains, as well as possible timber footprints. Excavators theorise that the site may have prehistoric origins, although a substantial modern excavation would be required to assess this thoroughly. The Trans Bristol Gloucestershire Archaeology Society 102 (1984) has full details of the observations made here.

Villages have been abandoned through our history for myriad reasons; disease, war, forced resettlement – I have a vague memory of a village in the North which was flooded by the sea and a nearby resident stating that the church belltower was still visible at low tide, but can’t for the life of me remember its name, so if any of you have any clues do let me know! Upton is thought to have been a victim of forced resettlement by local elites, who wanted the area for sheep farming.

 

Wharram Percy's abandoned church: one of the best known abandoned villages in the UK. Photo courtesy of Gamedecor.com

Wharram Percy’s abandoned church: one of the best known abandoned villages in the UK. Photo courtesy of Gamedecor.com

Even though my interest was piqued by Upton, and we did try to find it, I actually couldn’t. We drove to the area we assumed it was and attempted to get down a byway, but this turned out to be private land, and the torrential rain put me off getting out and trawling the woods and fields, possibly squashing a half-flooded potato field along the way. In the summer I have every intention of tramping over the whole of the Cotswolds if necessary to find the damned place, but it’s a shame there’s no sign to distinguish one field from the next….I’ll have to get my archaeology glasses on and scour the ground.

Meanwhile, I’m back in the Big Smoke, standing outside border control in a mini hurricane, wearing evidently not waterproof boots. Unfortunately, wellies are not considered appropriate office wear.

 

Christmas Giggles

It’s quite amusing that, while I’m under qualified for Egyptology roles (read: PhD-less), it appears I am also Undesirable No. 1 for the more standard job roles. I have made my bed, and now I must lie in it! 

Now, I’m not entirely sure what a description of the ideal candidate for some of these companies is, but from the rejection reasons and odd interview questions I’ve had (and tried so hard not to laugh at while still in front of the interviewer!), an Egyptologist certainly does not fit the bill. So, for my  Christmas blog, and safely after my suitability for the posts has already been decided, I thought I’d make a list of the most ridiculous reasons for not hiring me, and throw out a question: can anyone top them??

1. The Classic: ‘Thank you for your application; unfortunately, the calibre of applications this year was extremely high, and your skills and experience were not quite in the area we were looking for’. Feedback level = Zero.

2. The Stupid: “You’d be bored in this job.” This is my most common one. Yeah, guys, because being employed is so very riveting. ‘Scuse me while I rush back to doing…nothing….

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3. The Nice Guy: “We just don’t feel that you really want to be in this field.” I always figured having a passion for a job was something quite rare; only applicable for the dream career that it takes a while to conquer. From Sainsbury’s stacker to retail assistant, if you don’t prove you’ve been aiming for the field since you were 14, you don’t have the team spirit it takes to make it!

4. The Patronising: “You’re too clever for this kind of work”. I’m unsure if they mean this as a compliment, while they have a bit of a pointed jab at their  current employees….but 

5. The Disdainful: “How would you cope with the social aspect of the team, because we have a very young workforce, and you don’t seem like you would fit in.” This was on account of the fact that, when they asked me what my hobbies were, I thought ‘drinking with my friends’ sounded ever so slightly unprofessional. Apparently gardening was NOT the right thing to replace it with. Ooops.

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Gardening…not so cool

6. The Degree-haters: “Don’t you think you should have spent a year in business instead of in a Masters?” No. Because I’m only doing this until I can do the Dream Job, not because I have an insatiable urge to type up your spreadsheets. Unfortunately, you can’t say this. And I have a hard enough time keeping my face under control so as not to reveal it.

And then there’s the less imaginative employers who simply never reply to a job application…

A Masters seems to overqualify you for anything that makes any money, while underqualifying you for anything you actually give a damn about. So while I wait for PhD opportunities I’ve given up trying to convince someone to hire me and come to the conclusion I should just make my own. This Egyptologist is going into business! Website to follow as soon as I can comprehend the complexities of domains and design.

Merry Christmas to one and all!

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Life affirmations

PhD application no. 1 is in, people. I can finally stop feeling guilty whenever I bake/chill/generally slouch around the penthouse (*cough: currently icy, can-see-your-breath freezing apartment). I’m not a natural procrastinator, but I like fast results from things, so that arduous slug through long lists of personal details…bleugh. 

Sometimes the endless fight to get a toe in the door gets on top of you. I have so many friends in similar situations, and news like the recent bombshell that 1 in 10 museum jobs have been cut across the country does not exactly cheer you on. Often, you wonder why you’re still bothering. 

March for the Alternative

Now, here’s my little anecdote for the week. I had a client the other week, a banker, with the standard job in central London and a six-figure salary. Now I often have clients in these high-flying jobs who love their work, but this lady was not one. It was clear she hated her job, and had always wanted to open a restaurant, but couldn’t get up the courage to leave her secure job. I felt unbelievably sorry  for her. I’d been feeling pretty poo about my plodding life that morning, but when she came out with a sad ‘You should always do what you love, always follow your dream.’  in a somehow very genuine, non-corny way, it was like a splash of water to the face that I, and everyone out there battling with endless volunteer work and unpaid excavations, was doing the right thing. And a life affirmation bell rung out!! I do hope she gets up the courage to open her restaurant too…

So while I still have other applications to get done and funding to apply for (more important than the original applications really), today I threw my cares to the wind and decided to have a bit of a bake/craft day! Because if you can’t do what makes you happy sometimes, what’s the point?

I love poking through the cupboard to see what odds and ends of uber specific ingredients I have left and seeing what I can do with them. Stem ginger, dried figs and glacé cherries, I am looking at you! This afternoon, I thought I’d use up the cherries, and found a lovely looking chocolate & cherry fairy cake recipe from Nigella: http://www.nigella.com/recipes/view/chocolate-cherry-cupcakes-144, so thought I’d give that a go.

The mix involved melting dark chocolate and mixing it with the butter, after which the process was very much your basic sponge with the addition of 300g of jam. Nigella quite snobbishly tells us she uses particularly elegant Morello Cherry preserve, and if we DARED to use a less elegant jam, to decrease the amount of sugar accordingly. Now, I love Nigella’s cooking (especially, I might add, because she isn’t stick thin but is a nice sensible size), but given the economic climes, that jam I just happened to have stuffed in the back of the cupboard already is a-coming out, no new purchase thank you very much.

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Lookin’ scrummy

 Anyway, a chocolate and cream icing topped with a glacé cherry finished it off. As scrummy as they looked, these were not Nigella’s best. The mix sunk in the middle (which MAY have been my fault), they stuck to the silicon cake tin (which CAN’T have been my fault the amount of butter I put on the damn thing), they had a tendency to fall apart (I blame the jam), and when I ate them, they were so heavy! Only fruit cake in deepest darkest winter can be forgiven for heaviness, although they did improve the next day, I will admit (staleness is sometimes a virtue…).

So poor show Nigella….The British bake-off contestant inside me noted that the mixture could have done with an extra layer of texture, so I would recommend chopping up the glacés next time and adding them to the mix, as well as replacing melted choc with good all-purpose dark cocoa. I might add, my fiancee, upon whom all my bakes are ‘tested on’ (*cough, gobbled down by), thought a big layer of the icing would have covered all multitude of sins….

The day was also spent on the first of many Christmas craft projects. Natural decorations with home-made touches are affordable but also make Christmas less cold and over-elegant, more warm and family orientated in my opinion. So I duly got home from work one day and walked home through the park to collect branches and pine cones. To my horror, I found not one pine cone. Is this a curse of the south?! If nothing else, that means I will have to move back to Manchester one day… I ended up resorting to buying a ton on ebay, to my eternal shame. At least I found the sticks though! My work shoes and trousers were pretty dirty from getting stuck in the mud trying to reach a potential source of pine cones and petting a gorgeous boisterous puppy though. It seems the child in me has never learnt of the concept of play clothes.

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Bit addicted to pine cones now

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Nothing wrong with some bling au-natural

 

These have subsequently been sprayed gold. The pine cones will end up on a plate surrounding candles, accompanied by holly (of which thankfully there is no lack, otherwise I might as well be living in palm-tree climes). The branches will be stacked like dried flowers in a glass vase, with gold beading (snitched from my childhood Christmas tree), fairy lights and perhaps little baubles. And voila! An easy to achieve Christmas atmosphere right from the park.

Now, I probably should get on with those funding applications….

 

 

Sprouting Glories

I don’t care what anyone says; archaeologists like digging, and we like getting dirty. How else could we handle 12 hour days in muddy holes or sandstorms? It’s one reason we’re all so afraid of suits….

So it’s really no surprise that I love gardening, although I must admit it took me a few years to get over my irrational fear of worms! The recent weather quite literally puts a dampener on getting out in the soil very often at the mo, so I indulged my gardening craze with a trip to The Garden Museum recently.

Can you even believe there is a garden museum?! My friends all thought I’d lost the plot a little (well, a little more than usual anyway) for being so excited, and excised deep pity on my fiancee for being obliged to come with me. Such things are definitely part of the relationship contract.

The church cloaked in greenery; very appropriate!

The church cloaked in greenery; very appropriate!

The museum is housed in the old St-Mary-at-Lambeth church, where the Trandscendents, the original gardening family, were buried. The church and the small garden around it, a tiny bemusing oasis in the centre of one of the busiest parts of London, was actually part of their family estate, and was saved from destruction in 1977 by the museum organisation. It has really only begun to develop its museumness since 2008 however, and to be honest, by the look of it at the moment, it is undergoing significant development. It is an absolutely brilliant example of the melding of heritage and modern needs discussed in my previous post however. I have a distinct soft spot for church conversions. Why knock it down to rebuild something not nearly as interesting architecturally?

John Trandescant's tomb...well one of them anyway!

John Trandescant’s tomb

The museum has a permanent exhibition on the history of gardening, as well as a current temporary exhibition on gardens and gardeners in art. It was particularly interesting to see how the perceptions of gardeners themselves changed as gardening became a ‘gentleman’s hobby’, and the plain but practical tools used in the early periods give way to funny little things like walking sticks with hoe attachments and long lace-up wellies to keep his Lordship’s snazzy trousers clean. And now, in my opinion, until you get high up into fancy landscape gardening, basic pottering about and planting has become an old lady activity. Probably another reason my friends’ think I live the life of a retired person….

As usual, my eye was drawn to the ceramics in the museum. Two in particular caught my eye; early watering cans!

Thumb pot

Thumb pot

Bit more familiar

Bit more familiar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The thumb pot dates to the end of the 16th century, although it bears a remarkable resemblance to a faux-Roman glazed pot I once bought in Spain as a child and somehow carried back as hand luggage….back in the day when it wouldn’t be regarded as some sort of crafty weapon. The idea, apparently, is to submerge it in a pool of water and place your thumb over the top when full. Slowly releasing the pressure would make the water come out of the holes in the bottom, like a hand-held sprinkler hose. Ingenious!! I suppose the latter one was created when they realised how much easier sprinkling could be made by attaching a side bit, sometime in the 17th century. I bet the older gardeners felt like prize idiots….

These are my favourite types of pots; the ones not meant to survive. They were practical, everyday items for someone, and reflect society and activities more clearly than those meant to carry a message. As much fun as it is unravelling that message, it is also nice to see things that flesh out the background of someone lost to time.

The few photographs, drawings and references to gardening throughout the ages which survive also bring to the forefront individuals often lost or overlooked in archaeology; women and children. Now I certainly don’t want to come over all gender studies here, but early archaeological reports and literature were typically more reflective of Western society than those they were supposed to be studying. Any body with a sword was a man, any with a grinding stone a woman, that sort of thing. It gets rather amusing (and foolish!) when against all 19th century sense the occasional body proven to be female was accompanied by great riches or weaponry, at which we are loftily informed that these reflect not her wealth, but her husband’s/brother’s/father’s. Of course, the most complex interpretation must be true….

The same goes for children. Their experience of life was little talked about, and only now are studies beginning to emerge which demonstrate the vital economic role even very young children often played in society. 

So what was interesting is that according to museum research, there was never much segregation in the gardening world; men and women worked side by side and both achieved a lot. Children were trained in the trade from a young age and were often drafted in groups for large projects! It was quite nice to know that a 19th century me could have also got involved in the garden.

If you’re ever in the vicinity of Lambeth anyway, pop in; they also have a small knot garden designed by the Marchioness of Salisbury, which was the main draw for me. There’s something very beautiful in the idea of transferring what looks like an intricate drawing to plants. I especially like the earlier, pre-box hedge knot gardens, which I think would fit very nicely in a modern garden as a draw to butterflies and bees, something constantly being drummed into us at the moment. Lavender and rosemary for the chunky design and lemon balm and sage for ground cover. Mmmmmm. One day…..somehow I don’t think my landlord would appreciate me digging up his entire garden quite yet to have mini hedges springing up all over the place….

The knot garden

The knot garden

My appetite nicely whetted for planting yet again, I potted up my window box in its winter dress finally, and it does look beautiful. I did notice on another day walking past the snazzy hotels and fancy houses of London, that a lot of them had purple/white tipped heather, and white cyclamen decorations – exactly what I’d done! Perhaps I do have a fashionable bone in my body after all!

Height of London fashion!

Height of London fashion!

Del-boy ahoy!

The thing about a Zero-hour contract and temping, is that one minute you can be leapfrogging madly from one job to another, while the next you’re sat vegetating on the sofa idly twiddling your thumbs. Monday was one such hectic day; border control in the small hours turning on my extensive charms while stifling yawns, receptionist for sick leave cover at a Toyota showroom in the afternoon (luckily they didn’t ask Little Miss Clueless to sell cars), and mentally registering a lorry advert for Christmas Parcel Couriers in the back of my mind. Given my proximity to Peckham, I felt like the star in a 2013 update of Only Fools and Horses, piggybacking from one scheme to the next.

Ideas for future ventures?

Ideas for future ventures?

Tuesday, however, was the complete opposite, and grey as anything. The kind of day where I threw off my Egyptology cares, ignored the PhDs waiting to be completed in the background and made my first Christmas cake!

Apparently the tradition of making a fruit-and-spices-messy-mix dates back to the early Medieval period, but the Christmas cake as we know it only took shape after Queen Victoria decided to ban Twelfth Night and its traditional accompanying (very similar!) fruit cake. As much as I would like to pass myself off as a food historian extraordinaire, this particular information was gleaned from a speedy whip around our old friend google. My actual knowledge about Christmas cake stems from oral history; what my Mum and Nana used to tell me when I was little. My favourite titbit was always how the same cake base was used in wedding cake recipes, and then a slice was saved to eat at the first baby’s Christening. BUT back to Christmas. 

Saucepans often have to act in for mixing bowls in our house...

Saucepans often have to act in for mixing bowls in our house…

One tradition is to have the youngest person in the house stir the cake first and then to continue up to the oldest. In my Crystal Palace penthouse apartment (*cough small top floor flat), this meant dragging my reluctant fiancee away from his computer to stir the sticky mess a few times. It’s said to be good luck for the coming year, and I could certainly do with some goodwill from the patron saint of jobseekers….

Yummy fruity goo

Yummy fruity goo

For such a grand cake, the recipe is surprisingly easy. Delia (my go-to for the occasions I venture toward more traditional recipes) tells you to put it in the oven for FIVE HOURS but others say two (phew), and this seemed to work well enough. The basic recipe is here (http://www.deliaonline.com/how-to-cook/baking/how-to-make-a-christmas-cake.html), but I cheated by just using a big bag of mixed dried fruit rather than all the different raisin varieties. I also had no string for tying the baking paper around the tin and improvised with sewing thread…which seemed to dissolve in the oven, but meh. The main work is ‘feeding’ the cake for the next two months, pouring brandy into it once a week, like a drunken friend. What I’m looking forward to the most isn’t having the cake at Christmas but eating the leftovers come January/February. I remember a chunk of mature fruit-packed cake being just the thing to cheer you up on a miserable January evening, when it’s barely got light all day and you’ve been in a whole host of maths lessons at school…

I was pretty chuffed with myself when it came out(don’t judge me, it’s not decorated yet!). I did toy with the idea of being a cliché and putting marzipan pyramids atop, but think I might stick to the English Christmas scene in the end–it is my favourite season, after all.

The masterpiece

P.S. In case you were wondering, the patron saint of jobseekers is Saint Cajetan–time to get nagging!

Battles of heritage

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It’s been the most deliciously crisp autumn weekend down here in Crystal Palace; absolutely freezing, but wonderful blue skies. Given the horror expressed by family members and their friends up North London way when we told them we were flat-hunting in this neck of the woods,  the sense of being in the countryside couldn’t be more incongruous.

I’ll openly admit: when we moved to London, I picked Crystal Palace because it was pretty. I’m an absolute sucker for Victorian conversions– drafts, water lurching between hot and cold, and random heart-stopping creaks as the house moved about overnight like it was alive (or a burglar was prowling around as I more commonly think) are, thanks to growing up in a 300 year old toll house, necessary for a home. New builds, with their insulation and perfect squareness freak me out no end. It was the wealth of old houses here that meant I dragged my fiancee into ten different estate agents until we found someone to give a viewing of a flat that afternoon, not any consideration of the history of the area. And the sheer number of drinking spots of course….

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I’d heard about the palace but never really considered it much past an observational “Ah, yes, this is where it must have been!”. The obsessive archaeologist within me however, was not entirely impressed with my energy being expended entirely on cushion arranging and after one too many times manically scrubbing the bathroom sink on yet another unemployed afternoon, strictly told me to get myself together. If I can’t be a paid researcher on an Egyptological project, there is no reason why I can’t be a volunteer researcher on a local project. 

To this aim, I have recently joined the Inspired by Crystal Palace Subway Project (http://www.inspiredbythesubway.org.uk), whose aim is to reopen the old railway subway, which closed in 1954, to the public. I will leave detailing the project’s manoeuvrings to a separate page on this blog; but as I sat in an Oral History training workshop over the weekend it was not the subway that was the main focus of debate (or the mysterious reason it is known as a subway and not its English word, an underpass) but Park Politics.

In particular, the fact that a Chinese Billionaire, Ni Zhaoxing, had purchased the plot of land upon which the original Crystal Palace had stood, and was planning to rebuild it, came under heavy fire (for more information, see here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-24375547).  This would mean building right over the subway, which would not be demolished but used as an entranceway.

Protecting our heritage from non-sympathetic redevelopment is, in my opinion, absolutely vital if we are to avoid becoming a concrete, soulness nation. However, I seemed to be the only one reserving judgement about the development until more information was provided. Both my enquiries as to the intended purpose of the development and whether the Exclusivity Clause signed with Bromley council meant council-led excavations would be carried out pre-building were met with blank stares. The only thing flying freely about was rumours, although this seems to be a feature of the news coverage in general; a 6* hotel and an exhibition space are only two of the purposes being confidently asserted as definitive!

An artist's reconstruction of the proposed development (image belongs to Sky.com)

An artist’s reconstruction of the proposed development (image belongs to Sky.com)

This is not intended as a slur on the project; far from it. One of its main aims is to interview members of the public for their personal memories of the subway, bringing the community into a heritage project which could have become purely architectural all too easily. Rather, this is meant as an observation of the tension simmering beneath the surface of every archaeological and heritage find, brewing spats between the desire to protect heritage and the needs of a modern community. How are we meant to deal with both? Are they inherently antagonistic? 

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View from the West Croydon train station

Redevelopment is, in my opinion, not only a necessity for heritage sites but often a blessing. If an ancient building is sensitively redeveloped and given a new use as a town hall, it will be seen more as community heritage than if the stone skeleton was picketed off from the public and red tape made it impossible to use the area. One of the most beautiful things about British cities is how new builds have grown around old and the fascinating picture that presents on a day to day basis. On the flip side of the coin, cases such as in Sudan where future redevelopment of the Nile river is due to flood not only archaeological sites but also modern towns obviously brings no benefit to anybody. 

Nu and the Zhongrong Group have promised not only to restore the site but also to engage with community feedback, although whether they will keep this promise remains to be seen. Personally, my main concern is the loss of community green space. What do you think?

It’s that time of year again people…

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Yes, degree application deadlines are looming. Oxford’s first run ends on the 16th November, but its second in January follows the trend set by most other universities in the country. While January might seem far away, when you need to prepare a SPARKLING PhD proposal that will wow departments into throwing funding at you, two months is pretty tight.

I’m knee deep in the mire of my research proposal, somewhere between laying down the points I know I need to include, and making it into a persuasive piece of prose worthy of a Booker Prize. I haven’t quite figured out the means of crossing between the two. However, I’ve picked up a few useful tips for writing a research proposal along the way, so I thought I’d share them here:

  1. Be superbly interested in the topic, to the point of craziness and comments from other people. You are going to be locked away in a library or dusty museum basement for the next three years, living and breathing pectoral amulets or whatever you decide on….make sure you don’t run out of steam 6 months in. My tutor once said to a friend about me “I’ve never seen anyone quite so…enthusiastic about pots before…”, so I’m pretty well set up!
  2. Have a rock solid methodology. A wishy-washy “I want to look at how chariots are portrayed” just isn’t going to cut it. WHY chariots, chariots on temple walls or on material items, WHICH temples etc.
  3. Send it to a supervisor/academic/someone in the know to check you’re on the right path. I started my MSt proposal waxing lyrical on how my childhood inspired me to archaeological greatness. Luckily my tutor pointed out in time that they wanted basically a detailed plan of action, NOT a miniature autobiography.
  4. Emphasise that you have thought over timing and break down what you plan to do each year – Universities live in fear of the perpetual PhD-ers, still in the library years after the initial deadline. They do usually let you up it to four years if you need extra time though!
  5. And finally: keep in touch with TRENDS OF THE TIME. Nowadays, huge manuscripts of pot typologies without a discussion are not only extremely dull and extremely expensive, but are also mightily out of fashion. More emphasis is, thankfully, being placed on the WHY than purely the HOW. The move towards social interpretations of material culture has finally started to catch up to Egyptian ceramics! 

The first draft of mine has just been sent in, so fingers crossed I haven’t gone hurtling down a side-street….and I’ll update any more tips I hear as I go.