On Ada Lovelace Day we spend…Five Minutes With…Dr Alex Bayliss, Head of Scientific Dating, Historic England

What’s your scientific/heritage background?

I knew I was going to be an archaeologist aged 12. The only question was, what kind of archaeologist? During a degree in archaeology, I caught the statistics bug. I went back to the digging circuit, but undertook a part-time PhD on the typology and dating of medieval bells. Bells are good, they have dates and makers’ names inscribed on them, so you can test whether or not your statistics are ‘lies, damn lies’ or actually telling you something true! From there, it was only a step into the intricate world of radiocarbon dating…..

Alex taking a sample for radiocarbon dating (© Historic England)
Alex taking a sample for radiocarbon dating (© Historic England)

What’s your role at Historic England?

I lead the scientific dating team at Historic England. Our job is to find out how old things are – a historic building, a timber platform, a Roman villa, a panel painting, a veteran tree. You name it, we’ve been asked to date it! We need to get reliable answers within the necessary timescale at an appropriate cost. There is no point telling someone that the piece of worm-ridden roof that is now in the skip was actually original thirteenth century. We need to find that out before the repairs are undertaken.

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

I like the difficult ones! They don’t come harder than the Rotherwas Ribbon – an enigmatic linear feature of cracked stones that may (or may not) have been made by man, that has no known parallels, is of completely unknown date, and completely unknown function. It took a combination of different techniques combined to demonstrate that it is indeed man-made and dates to the end of the 2nd millennium BC. What it might be is another matter. 

The Rotherwas Ribbon (© Herefordshire County Council)
The Rotherwas Ribbon (© Herefordshire County Council)

Who inspires you?

People who can think outside the box.

What do you love most about your job?

It is so practical. We don’t just find out the date of things because it is interesting, but to make sure that they are preserved for future generations. There is nothing so satisfying as knowing that your work prevented that thirteenth-century bit of roof going into that waiting skip.

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

On the one hand it is so simple, dating is so fundamental to understanding the past. On the other hand it is so complex, we employ a battery of cutting-edge science every day.