Five minutes with…Gill Campbell, Head of Environmental Studies, Historic England

What’s your background in heritage science?

At school I liked both arts and sciences and wanted to study something that combined the two. Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology in London was the answer where I could learn about ancient Mesoamerica one day and soil science and conservation the next. Gordon Hillman introduced me to archaeobotany, people’s relationship with plants throughout history, and I was hooked. To strengthen by botanical knowledge I moved to Birmingham University to take a master’s degree in the conservation and utilisation of plant genetic resources. I then got a series of jobs on sites around the country digging, taking and processing samples in all weathers and working on the plant remains recovered under the watchful eye of some great heritage scientists. I spent 10 years at Oxford University on contract to English Heritage working on a range of sites including the Raunds Area project and the Danebury Environs Project. In 1999 (gosh is it that long ago!) I started work at the English Heritage, now Historic England, laboratories in Southsea.

What’s your role at Historic England?

Historic England is the public body that looks after England’s historic environment. We champion historic places, helping people understand, value and care for them.I convene our science network and I am our Trustee for the National Heritage Science Forum. I head up a team of 6 heritage scientists -experts in geoarchaeology, human remains, palaeoecology, zooarchaeology and archaeobotany. We provide advice and services in environmental archaeology to Historic England and the wider profession.

purple moor grass studland
Purple moor grass in early winter. Studland Heath, Dorset Photograph by Gill Campbell © Historic England


One day I can be visiting a site, the next meeting about current projects, advising on project proposals, signing paperwork and editing reports. Then I might squeeze in some time at the microscope identifying some plant remains and trying to answer the question – “just what is this? ”

WHH top_basal_nodex6_3
Basal part of the stem of purple moor grass. (centre). Bronze age remains on the left, modern reference material on the right. Photograph by Gill Campbell © Historic England


What’s been the most exciting/challenging thing you’ve worked on recently?

It has to be the Whitehorse hill burial discovered eroding out of the peat on the top of Dartmoor ( It is such a poignant site and has given us a unique insight into Early Bronze Age life and technical know-how. I helped identify the vegetative material which was packed round burial and placed a layer in the bottom of the stone cist as purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea). By observing the structure of the grass stems and the way the plant behaves at different times of year we were able to suggest that the burial took place in late summer or early autumn. I also helped determine that the turned wooden studs were made of spindle (Euonymus).

Transverse section through a detached fragment from one of the Whitehorse Hill wooden studs (x 200 magnification) Photograph by Gill Campbell © Historic England


Who inspires you?

At the moment, Emily Carr, a Canadian writer and artist. I discovered her work whilst on holiday in British Columbia. Her book ‘Klee Wick’ and the short chapter in it called ‘the blouse’ really helped me think about what people take to the grave and why.

What do you love most about your job?

Each day is different. I get to go to amazing places, see wonderful things and explore the age old relationship between the environment and people. My job is about understanding our heritage and helping protect it now and in the future.

In a single sentence, tell us what’s great about heritage science.

Heritage Science bridges the gap between the arts and sciences and helps us understand ourselves, bringing the past to life.