What it's really like to work in archaeology with HS2

Helen Glass works in archaeology with HS2 and says every day is different. Unearth the truth about her job!

Helen left school with three A-levels in english, ancient history and sociology. After a BA honours degree in archaeology she was all set to dig into an archaeology career!

Tell us about your job...

I'm the Archaeology & Heritage topic lead at High Speed Two, which means it is my job to set the technical standards for HS2 for anything related to the historic environment. HS2 will be the biggest historic environment investigation project ever undertaken in the UK and offers a unique opportunity to deepen our understanding of our country's heritage.

No two days are the same in my job. One day I can be visiting an archaeological site or historic building to understand what the impact of the railway might be. Another day I could be delivering presentations at a conference or speaking to the media about what it means to be an archaeologist on HS2.

I spend a lot of my time involved in the development of the design of the railway, along with engineers, acoustic specialists, landscape architects and many more. This is to ensure that our historic environment requirements are addressed as the scheme progresses.

What are the best bits about your job?

As topic lead for HS2, the most important part of my job is to ensure that we fulfil the commitments made by the Secretary of State regarding the historic environment. This is the promise to Parliament that HS2 will be built with proper regard to our heritage. It is a massive responsibility, but I like a challenge!

I like the fact that I don’t have a ‘typical’ week. I enjoy seeing the flicker of light dawning on a colleague when they understand that archaeology, when properly planned and integrated, will not halt construction in its tracks, and that this is a fabulous opportunity to discover our shared past.

Because of the scale of HS2, we are constantly reviewing how we traditionally might have approached our work and seeking ways to innovate. I work with a very talented team, and it’s tremendously exciting being able to challenge the normal way of doing things, especially through using technology.

What 3 top skills or qualities are important in this job?

  1. The ability to communicate is the single most important skill, whether in writing, presenting formally at a conference or at a meeting with colleagues.
  2. Listening to others, understanding their requirements, how our work fits together and where there are gaps in the picture that need further work.
  3. Enthusiasm. If I am not enthusiastic about my role, then why should anyone else care?

How did you get into a career in archaeology?

I grew up near Hadrian’s Wall and visited it on school trips and family days out. When I was younger I assumed that all Romans were Italian, and so I wondered what the soldiers from the hot Mediterranean made of windy, wet and cold England – especially as the soldiers wore skirts!

I always wanted to be an archaeologist, and remember the look of bemusement on my career teacher’s face when I announced this. Luckily my school had previously had a teacher who taught archaeology so they got in touch with him to ask for some advice, and he put me in touch with a local archaeologist. He wrote to me and suggested that I volunteer on one of his excavations to see if I would like it – and so a summer began of volunteering on excavations in the northeast of England. I loved the physical work (although not so much when it rained) and how many different skills were required. Field archaeology involves digging, discovering foundations or bits of pottery, surveying, drawing (I was useless at drawing), and recording the artefacts you find. Each part of the site work helps to build the story about what people left behind.

Getting to participate in excavations as a teenager helped me realise that a lot of physical effort and thought went into understanding how our ancestors lived. As a teenager still at school, going on excavations with university students and staying away from home was an adventure. On my first dig I was taught how to shovel correctly and how to load a wheelbarrow – a must in the archaeological world!

So I am a rare thing, someone who has done no other work whatsoever other than that related to archaeology. But I have found more than enough variety to allow me to experience other aspects of professional life, from mentoring and leading individuals and teams, to budgeting and business development.

What subjects did you love at school?

I did A-Levels in my favourite subjects: English, Ancient History and Sociology. These helped me go to university to study archaeology.

What advice would you give to anyone who'd like an archaeology career? Be passionate. A career in heritage and archaeology is not something you do if you are not passionate, as you need to be able to convince others as to the value of the historic environment when they are balancing time scales, budgets and a myriad of other concerns.

You also have to learn to be tolerant of jokes about ‘Time Team’ and the assumption that all site excavation work is undertaken by students and volunteers.

Any top job hunting tips to share?

  1. Look at a range of websites regularly. I found my two career defining roles by chance, when I was not actively job seeking.
  2. If you are interested in archaeology and heritage roles, also look at town planning, environmental and engineering consultancies.
  3. Ensure you have a ‘professional’ email address for job applications. The funny one you invented to use with friends is not amusing to a prospective employer.
  4. As an employer, I will want to know what you did in a particular role and what you learned from it. On your CV, don’t just describe the overall project. Be specific about your contribution.
  5. Don’t stress about hobbies, I am not going to employ you just because you can play the piano or scuba dive. But don’t make them up – the interviewer may share the interest so you need to be able to talk knowledgably about them.
  6. In interviews, a lot of questions will be the same, and you can rehearse them. Always a have an answer to ‘What do you know about our company/project?’ and ‘What attracted you to apply?’

Are you interested in creating real change? Using technology to put the passenger in control? More than just a railway, HS2 is about unlocking potential, and making better connections between people and places. It’s about finding new skills, growing new industries, and starting thousands of people on a rewarding career. This takes ideas, and it takes creativity. If you want to help build the country’s biggest mega project, and get Britain moving in all the right directions, HS2 could have the career for you.

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