My Story

My Story: From Northern Europe to North Carolina

Lab intern Helen shares her experiences in the lab and abroad.

Author: Helen Brewer, ECU History/QAR Lab Intern


I am Helen Brewer, an ECU Public History graduate student. I had the privilege this semester of interning at the Queen Anne’s Revenge Conservation Lab. My focus is on northern European archaeoastronomy, which focuses on the relationships of ancient architecture and observations of celestial phenomena, such as planet and star alignment, eclipses, and equinoxes and solstices. Examples of this field include the Egyptian Pyramids, Mayan temples, and stone circles in Northern Europe. These structures were used for navigation purposes, ceremonial calendars such as fertility or agricultural festivals, or memorialization inside tombs or burial mounds. I studied the stone circles and burials in Scotland during my undergraduate degree, many of which were pulled from the ground by superstitious farmers or Christian missionaries. Many of the stones were inscribed with petroglyphs, or carved drawings. I am especially fascinated by the Picts, an extinct tribe in Scotland known for their intricately carved standing stones with mysterious creatures and symbols. As much of Scotland and Ireland is covered in boggy marshlands, the QAR Lab’s experience in submerged and partially-submerged artifacts was an incredibly beneficial experience for me.

Helen and Blackbeard

One of my main projects for the semester was sifting for gold dust under a microscope. I had a bag of a few ounces of ‘black sand,’ the last stage of sifting dredge spoil collected from each excavation unit. I would take a spoonful under the microscope and sift with tweezers for gold fragments used as currency by French slave traders. This was a fascinating and rewarding process as it helped me learn how to operate delicate machinery and discover microscopic artifacts. The Picts were excellent silversmiths, so the ability to evaluate sites for traces of silver is beneficial as most of the hordes have been stolen.

I learned how to operate an air scribe, a tiny, pneumatic tool that chips away at concretion, and I managed to extract a cannon ball. Any useful skill with iron is valuable in case there is a surplus of iron weapons, tools, or other artifacts that can be uncovered in the bogs of Scotland dating from the Iron Age. I learned how to take artifact photography and how to creatively use light to illuminate the fine grooves and indentations of artifacts that are invisible to the naked eye. In addition, I learned how to record artifact treatments and how to organize artifacts according to temperature and humidity.

Helen at the microscope

I also participated in multiple treatment processes, such as applying tannic acid to iron artifacts, desalinating organic materials, binding degraded rope to prevent further unraveling, and testing of chloride content for artifacts going through electrolytic reduction. I also helped prepare and implement the Annual Open House on the 23rd of April, where I operated the microscope section and explained various artifacts like bead fragments, gold dust, and gold with mercury embedded in it.

The internship at the QAR Lab was an elucidating and wonderful experience to help me gain professional skills alongside talented archaeologists. I hope to participate in excavating and documenting pagan stone circles or burial mounds in Northern Europe, and ensuring they are protected from the impact of tourism. I extend my wholehearted thanks for the opportunity, and I hope to maintain my connections in the lab.

Helen on one of many trips. Image courtesy of Helen Brewer.
Helen with Blackbeard. Image courtesy of Helen Brewer.
Helen working at the microscope. Image by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.