Archaeologists make the best team-workers: shearing 2013

For years I’ve been saying to anyone who’ll listen that archaeologists make the best team-workers. And by God, we proved it on Saturday when with the help of two young contract shearers (brothers Harry and Sam Lombardi) we managed to shear around 150 sheep between ten o’clock in the morning and four in the afternoon (including a good long lunch break for the brothers’ backs to recover). The day got off to a slow start because the previous evening, when very sleepy (and after an excellent supper), I texted Harry the postcode of the house we lived in until 1993. To make matters worse I left my mobile charging indoors, so only received their (six) urgent calls when I noticed they hadn’t arrived. I hadn’t exactly covered myself with glory. Meanwhile, however, the group of archaeologists who’d been invited to help (they do it for love and a good feed in the evening) had got on with preparations, so that when Harry and Sam did eventually find us, they were able to get straight down to it.

The shearers in action

The Shearers in action with Sam (foreground) and Harry Lombardi behind him. Behind them the winding team are waiting for fleeces.

We don’t have any hard-and-fast rules about who does what, but generally speaking men tend to work on the ‘supply side’, driving sheep towards the shearers’ specially-built trailer. The supply side team also handle the shorn sheep, dabbing any cuts with a special soothing oil that also repels fly and maggots and usually administering a dose of wormer. That’s normally my job. Then, at the end of the day the various sheep have to be driven back to their pastures.

This year the shearers, Harry and Sam, were new to us, because our usual shearer, Stephen, had hurt his back quite badly. The winding team would have to work particularly hard, as they had to service two shearers. Wool winding isn’t as easy as it looks. The fleece has first to be thrown out, then the sides are folded to the centre. It is then tightly rolled and the neck wool twisted into a long rope, which binds the fleece into a tight ball. Then the rolls of fleece are packed into wool-sacks (or ‘sheets’) – about 30 to a sheet. As soon as each sheet has been filled, it must be removed from the frame in which it hangs, and another one put in its place – and all this without delaying the shearers.

Winding two fleeces

Winding two fleeces at the same time, with (from left) Kate, Rachael, Liz and Maisie.

Kate with gimmer fleece

Kate with a rolled gimmer’s fleece, ready to go into the wool sack. These are the first fleeces a sheep yields; the wool is very fine, but the quantity is a bit smaller. A ewe’s fleece would be about 30% larger.

Work on the supply side is less continuous, and also easier on the back, although when the sheep aren’t co-operating it can be very hard graft indeed. It’s all about maintaining a continuous supply of animals into the shearers’ trailer. It’s easier for the shearers to catch the next sheep if the trailer is kept full, so the supply-side team have to be alert. And when things go wrong (for example, a sheep escapes) it’s the supply-side team who have to sort the problem, while the winders keep winding.

Harry Lombardi told my wife Maisie that our winders and supply teams were the best he’d worked with so far this year and everything ran very smoothly. As we were working I realised that the whole set-up felt like a well-run excavation: we all had our jobs and knew what we were doing. But just like a real dig, we didn’t do our jobs in isolation. We always kept an eye on the general picture and if ever a problem arose, I’d soon find helpers arrive, without having to call for assistance. That’s the way it should be. I’ve always known archaeology made a good training for life, but I never really realised why. It’s because good practical field archaeologists are all good team-workers.

Finally, a word about the two teams. On the supply side it was me, Nick (like me, semi-retired, now a consultant in building conservation and project management/design), Mike (a wood-working specialist and currently supervising a major prehistoric excavation), Becky (an animal bone specialist, and also currently working on a prehistoric dig) and Mark (director of an archaeological contracting company). The winding team was led by Maisie (a leading specialist in ancient wood-working) ably assisted by Liz (a Professor and leading conservator, at London University), Kate (an experienced archaeologist, now working in television production) and Rachael (an archaeological Project Manager with the National Trust). Not a bad line-up, eh?

The winding team

The winding team mid-way through the day: (from left) Rachael, Maisie, Liz and Kate.

The supply side

The supply side team with Mike (left), Mark and me (without sheep, but with filthy trousers). The picture was taken by the fourth member of the team, Nick.

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