‘Adventures in Archaeology: how Cuth’s and Durham brightened my future in heritage’ by Li Sou (BA Archaeology, 2011-2014)

‘Adventures in Archaeology: how Cuth’s and Durham brightened my future in heritage’

by Li Sou (BA Archaeology, 2011-2014)

I started studying at Durham University in 2011, and decided on St. Cuthbert’s Society as the college I wanted to be in after being impressed by the wide variety of accommodation available – I liked the mix of it being both a college on the Bailey and with modern rooms up at Parson’s Field, where I lived for two years.

I had never studied archaeology prior to university, although I have always had a keen interest in ancient history. I found GCSE and A Level history too “recent” for me, so I jumped at the chance to take a hands-on approach to investigating the past through the material culture that people had left behind. My first year was incredibly fun, and the content of the course was very broad, spanning from the Palaeolithic to Post-Medieval times. We had some fantastic fieldtrips across sections of Hadrian’s Wall and associated forts, Iron Age hillforts in the dramatic Northumbrian countryside, and the medieval priory at Tynemouth, I distinctly remember being on a gloriously sunny spring day.

As with many other first years, my first ever excavation was at the Binchester field school, where for three weeks in summer we were trained in excavation techniques on the site of the Roman fort and its associated vicus (civilian settlement). Two and a half weeks into the dig, I was feeling quite underwhelmed that the barrack building I was excavating yielded nothing, so I was over the moon when I moved into a different corner of the fort, and on my very last day, found a copper Roman coin! Excavations are a wonderful place to meet new friends, and get to know each other quite well as you’re working in such close conditions! Quite a few of the friends I made on that dig were from Cuth’s.

In my second year, I found a great opportunity to volunteer on a project run by the University of Liverpool, to engage local people with archaeology in Turkey, and was kindly funded by the St Cuthbert’s Society Travel Award to go to Boncuklu. This was the site of a Neolithic village, on the outskirts of a village called Hayiroglu in rural Konya province. The project has done some fantastic work setting up school visits, built an education centre and even a reconstruction Neolithic house that visitors can enter! I also excavated at the site, helping to record ancient houses and finding many ancient beads, dating to over 8000 years old, for which the site’s name means “the mound of beads” in Turkish. I had a wonderful time in Turkey, meeting so many friendly people and learning a lot about the culture and history of the region.



Me excavating at the Neolithic site of Boncuklu in Turkey, with other volunteers


I have a wide range of interests in archaeology. The ancient Near East and Later Prehistory of Britain are areas I’ve become particularly fascinated by, though I enjoy researching other periods too. It was in my second year on a trip to the British Museum where tiny traces of surviving paint on the monumental palace sculptures of the Neo-Assyrians caught my eye.  The Neo-Assyrian Empire (9th to 7th centuries BC) spanned much of what is modern day Iraq. Assyrian kings were regarded as the god Ashur’s representatives on Earth, and they each built vast palaces to demonstrate their power. Central to these palaces were decorative wall carvings, which frequently depicted religious motifs, the king, and scenes of his victorious conquests.

Originally, reliefs would have been painted with vivid pigments to highlight various features of the sculptures, but now very little traces of colour remain. With this in mind, I found that relatively little research had been conducted on their colour, so for my undergraduate dissertation, I set out to investigate what past colour schemes may have existed, and through my research, I was able to compile a database of colour evidence, making it possible for me to reconstruct colour schemes and also investigate potential meanings and reasons for the reliefs being painted in such ways, which were found to reflect Neo-Assyrian ideologies which contrast greatly to those of our modern colour concepts today.

I came across the Undergraduate Awards, an international-scale competition to select the best pieces of academic work by undergraduate students, when some friends mentioned it. I decided to submit my research into the relief colours to the competition, and was delighted to find out I was the overall Gold Medal winner of the Archaeology and Classical Studies category. In November last year, I was whisked off to Dublin on an all-expenses paid trip to the Undergraduate Award’s 2015 Summit, where I met other winners in the many different categories, which cover practically every discipline taught in undergraduate programmes at university.  

It was a fantastic way of networking with researchers in different fields, and the highlight of the trip was certainly being presented with my gold medal by the President of Ireland himself, Michael D Higgins.


Receiving the Undergraduate Award medal from the President


Subsequently, my undergraduate research has been published as an online article in the archaeological journal Antiquity’s December 2015 issue (see: http://antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/sou348). I have since completed a Master’s degree in Durham in Archaeology, with a specialist focus in Iron Age Britain, and am hoping to publish my MA research after presenting it at the Iron Age Student Research Symposium this May. I now work as a specialist placement at Historic England, using geospatial investigation techniques such as laser scanning and structure-from-motion photogrammetry to record archaeological features across England, producing 3D models and digital imagery that aids in the research, conservation and presentation of our heritage (my blog has more about my current work: https://lisoublog.wordpress.com/).

I had an excellent time at Durham. Living in college gave me the opportunity to meet people from all over the world, make new friends and join in the fantastic events organised in college (I was the proud designer of the 2012 Cuth’s Day t-shirt, with Lash Penguin on the front). If any prospective or new students at Cuth’s are reading, I hope you take my advice to make the most of the brilliant opportunity that is Durham University: don’t be afraid to ask for help from staff and researchers – they are very willing if you are keen. Jump at any exciting opportunities that get presented (I discovered the Boncuklu Project through a small poster left on a table in the Archaeology Department!), and do explore the rich heritage and history that is on your doorstep!

- Li Sou

Posted by on