Archive | Conservation

Conserving archaeological materials for future generations.

Surveying Texas parks, where life’s better outside!

“To manage and conserve the natural and cultural resources of Texas and to provide hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation opportunities for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.” Texas Parks and Wildlife Mission Statement.

After almost 9 years working for a private environmental consulting firm, I recently joined the Archeology (that’s the official spelling here) Survey Team for the State Parks division of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. It’s a great career opportunity, a promotion and a raise, and involves less travel (and shorter stints), all of which were very appealing to me as I get older and want to settle down a bit.

John Lowe

Here I am, recording a rockshelter site for my new job!

But what I really like about my new job is encapsulated in our mission statement above: “manage and CONSERVE the…cultural resources of Texas.” After all, the “M” in CRM stands for “management”. I work for the people of Texas, as a steward of public lands, to help protect (manage) and conserve the archaeological record of this state.

The nuts and bolts of the job aren’t much different than private sector CRM. My coworkers and I conduct archaeological surveys of existing and proposed State Parks and State Natural Areas, where we identify and assess cultural resources (primarily, but not necessarily limited to, archaeological sites). We walk transects, we dig holes, we identify and sometimes collect artifacts, we note previous natural and artificial impacts to the sites, assess the integrity of the deposits and the potential research value. Often, this is project specific work; if a park wants to develop a new series of trails, or expand a campground, there’s a survey beforehand.

photo (6)

One of the many stark, beautiful views from the canyons of the Lower Pecos region of Texas

Recently, we have been surveying a new, not-yet-opened, property in the Lower Pecos. We are helping the park planners determine where campsites, roads, and trails can be placed to have minimal impacts on cultural resources, while also allowing our park guests the opportunity to experience and explore the area. This is also something we must consider in our work, as high visibility sites (such as rockshelters, structures, and large burned rock middens) will certainly draw attention and visits, even if they’re not in the immediate impact areas. In fact, one of the criteria we use in evaluating sites is potential for vandalism (a sad, unfortunate fact of life).

Our work doesn’t stop with the planning of the park. One of the things we do is develop a cultural resources management plan for the park rangers and superintendents. This may involve a regular visit to some of the sites (the time frames differ, depending on the significance and visibility), limiting access to extremely sensitive areas (a last resort), or doing nothing. We thoroughly document the sites with maps and photographs to assist with the monitoring.

We also help with interpretation. In our reports, we try and tell the “story” of the park. We are fortunate to have access to broad yet constrained areas for our studies, as opposed to the long, narrow, linear surveys so common these days in CRM. We also have the luxury of time to do background research and analyses that can help us in our understanding of the parks; after all the resources are being protected (although our budgets are certainly not unlimited). Finally, we (as an office, it’s not really part of my job) can develop interpretative displays and materials for the parks, so that the guests can also know the story of the park, and appreciate some of the resources. We are always learning and thinking of new ways to do this.

So that’s what I do, in general. What am I doing today, on the Day of Archaeology? I’m working on a report for a survey done at Bastrop State Park following the devastating wildfires of September 2011. Right now, I’m finishing chapters on the artifact analysis and the sites that were recorded. Eventually, I will be bringing in the information from all of the previous work done in the park to tell the story of the park. I’m not even sure what that is just yet, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

(note: the words, thoughts, and opinions expressed above are mine alone, and do not represent the official words or policies of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, except where explicitly quoted)

Continue Reading

Karen Stewart (MOLA): Identifying Roman writing tablets

Originally I wasn’t going to do an entry for Day of Archaeology this year as I was scheduled to be doing almost exactly the same thing I was doing last year, assessing waterlogged flots from waterfront dumps, which would have been a bit boring. However, following a visit from a project manager at 9 this morning, I am now tasked with identifying the species of wood used in a selection of Roman writing tablets before they get sent to a Roman cursive writing specialist for analysis. These tablets are just some of the over 300 recovered  from a large urban site in the centre of London, which you can read about at the Walbrook Discovery Blog.

Before I start the writing tablets I assessed a couple of flots from the same site, as they were the last two in a box and I wanted to get it finished. They were very similar flots, full to bursting with bran, straw, moss, wood, some charcoal and waterlogged seeds. With those recorded I moved on to the writing tablets.

In order to identify wood to species, you need to section it along three planes (transverse, radial and tangential), mount them on a slide and observe them with a high powered microscope. You can then look at the microscopic features that can be used to narrow down the list of possible features. As these are Roman artefacts, there’s a broader range of species that might have been used, as they tended to import a lot of stuff from the continent.

Taking a wood sample of a Roman ruler for identification

Taking a wood sample of a Roman ruler for identification

Generally speaking, writing tablets are made of silver fir, but at this site we’ve had a bit of variety so I was looking forward to a surprise. Unfortunately, there were no surprises to be had and all 16 have indeed turned out to be silver fir. However, Michael Marshall, one of our Roman finds specialists, saw I was doing wood ID’s and ran over to get a sneaky ID on an artefact he was recording – a Roman ruler. That turned out to be beech, so I got a bit of variety in my results today after all.

Continue Reading

The East African Association for Paleoanthropology and Paleontology: 2013 Conference in Mombasa, Kenya

Hi everyone,

We’d like to introduce ourselves – we are the East African Association for Paleoanthropology and Paleontology (EAAPP)!


The EAAPP was officially launched in Kenya on July 18, 2005.  Membership is open to paleoanthropologists and paleontologists working in Eastern Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda). The first objective of the society is to bring scholars working in this region together for scientific exchange and reporting on paleoanthropological and paleontological research findings. To this end, we hold bi-annual conferences with an emphasis on making East African and foreign scholars working in East Africa aware of each other’s research, as well as addressing issues affecting all researchers in East Africa such as policy regarding research requirements, collections management, and fieldwork ethics.  The second objective of the society is to raise funds for East African scholars to conduct field and laboratory research within East African countries.


Let us introduce ourselves: the members of the EAAPP Secretariat are –

1. Chairperson: Dr. Emma Mbua (Kenya), a Senior Research Scientist and the Head of Earth Sciences at the National Museums of Kenya, Kenya

2. Vice Chairperson: Dr. Zeresenay Alemseged (Ethiopia), Chair of the Anthropology Department at the California Academy of Sciences, USA

3. Organizing Secretary and Representative for the USA (USA): Dr. Briana Pobiner, Research Scientist and Museum Educator in the Human Origins Program, Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, USA

4. Representative for Tanzania: Dr. Jackson Njau (Tanzania), Assistant Professor in the Department of Geological Sciences and Geoanthropology, Indiana University, USA

5. Representative for Kenya: Dr. Purity Kiura (Kenya), Head of Archaeology at the National Museums of Kenya, Kenya

6. Representative for Eritrea: Dr. Amanuel Beyin (Eritrea), Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice, University of Southern Indiana, USA

7. Representative for Ethiopia: Dr. Zelalem Assefa (Ethiopia), Research Associate in the Human Origins Program, Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, USA

8. Representative for South Africa: Ms. Andrea Leenan, Chief Operating Officer, Palaeontological Scientific Trust (PAST), South Africa

9. Representative for Europe (Germany): Dr. Christine Hertler, Scientific Researcher for Paleobiology, Research Centre ROCEECH (The Role of Culture in Early Expansion of Humans), Senckenberg Research Institute, Frankfurt, Germany

10: Representative for Asia: Dr Masato Nakatsukasa (Japan), Associate Professor, Laboratory of Physical Anthropology, Kyoto University, Japan

11. Representative for South America: Dr. Rene Bobe (Chile), Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, George Washington University, USA


Right now we’re in the throes of gearing up for our 4th bi-annual conference, which will begin in two days! It’s being held at the Leisure Lodge Resort in Mombasa, Kenya, from July 28th – August 2nd. The conference is organized by the secretariat of the EAAPP in coordination with the National Museums of Kenya (NMK). We’re very excited to have 52 presentations planned by researchers from all over the world. The archaeology talks range from discussions of the characterization and chronology of the earliest Acheulean at Konso, Ethiopia to characterization of obsidian sources and provenience of Middle Stone Age artifacts in the Kenyan Rift Valley, to the implications of ostrich eggshell strontium isotope analysis for reconstructing prehistoric exchange systems in the African Late Stone Age, to recent findings of multidimentional features of megalithic monument centers in southwestern Ethiopia. There are also papers on case studies of cultural heritage management such as conservation of the paleoanthropological record with limited resources: the case of Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania and oil exploration in sensitive cultural landscapes: the case of Tullow Oil in the Lake Turkana Basin, Kenya.


We invite you to visit our website: and Facebook page:, and we’d love for any of you to attend our conferences! Email us at if you’d like to be put on our email list to get updates about future conferences.

Continue Reading

Living Kirkyards in the Clyde and Avon Valleys

Written by Sarah Phillips, Built and Cultural Heritage Officer, Clyde and Avon Valley Landscape Partnership

Graveyards capture a sense of place unlike any other historic sites. Wandering within their walls, visitors reading the richly detailed gravestone carvings and inscriptions are rewarded with glimpses of a day-to-day life long since lost.  Today, these historic graveyards are also outdoor museums teeming with life from the fauna and flora which live there.

Dr Susan Buckham, Kirkyard Consulting

Over the past few months the Clyde and Avon Valley Landscape Partnership (CAVLP) has been working with graveyard specialist Dr Susan Buckham to develop a conservation strategy and action plan for rural, historic graveyards within the project boundaries. We think these are valuable places, both for their natural and cultural heritage, which need our care and attention.


St Patrick’s Churchyard, Dalzell

In January, CAVLP commissioned Dr Susan Buckham, of Kirkyard Consulting with Fiona Fisher from the Strathclyde Building Preservation Trust to undertake a conservation strategy for our local kirkyards because..

Although graveyards are often found in every community, actually we know surprisingly little about them. Eight different graveyards have been surveyed as part of this project to identify interesting gravestones and buildings and the habitat, aesthetic and amenity values of their landscapes. Fieldwork also measures how well this important resource is faring against the effects of time, the elements and management issues. Studies like this help us better understand what’s unique and special about graveyards so that we can ensure their protection and promotion to a wide audience.

Dr Susan Buckham, Kirkyard Consulting

The burial grounds surveyed all have interesting aspects to focus on, from churchyards such as St. Ninian’s at Stonehouse to cemateries like the 1906 lawn cemetery, also at Stonehouse.  There are small estate burials, such as Mauldslie and  a pet cemetery at Dalzell. Glassford boasts a fine collection of 18th century gravestones, including one with a rare “Tree of Life” symbol carving, while Dalserf has a hogback stone, likely to date to the 10th or 11th century.  We also have a World Heritage Site in our collection, as the non-denominational burial ground for New Lanark, one of our partners,  is on our doorstep (yes, my office is in a World Heritage Site).


Where I get to come to work everyday – New Lanark World Heritage Site

Today, I am reviewing the final report and identifying initial actions from the plan to take forward to help achieve CAVLP’s overall aims and objectives.  It really has provided me with a comprehensive plan to take forward, we may not be able to do everything identified but we can definitely add to our understanding of these valuable resources.

There has been a considerable amount of work done by different community groups on recording the graveyards in the area, in particularly Stonehouse Heritage Group for their local churchyard and Lanarkshire Family History Society.  Some groups are interested in recording inscriptions; others have focused on the Covenanter graves in the area.  Looking at the report, the first action will be matching information recorded to site plans, and filling in the gaps; include creating site plans for a few of the sites.    A key element of this will be developing a full photographic record for each of the burial grounds.

Community involvement will be key in doing this and we hope to pull in individuals and groups already interested in the graveyards, as well as develop new interest in local communities.  Our village network events allow us to chat to communities and hear what is important to them, and certainly the burial grounds are of interest but often people are not sure what they can do to help.

J Young Tour

John Young, Stonehouse Heritage Group, providing an engaging tour of the churchyard.

A new aspect for me, as an archaeologist, is the importance of the kirkyards as “living”; places to encourage a diverse range of wildlife. There has been less information collected about this element of the sites, and so this has been a great opportunity to collaborate with my colleagues in the partnership on how we can involve volunteers and experts to undertake natural heritage surveys to begin to understand their importance as habitats for wildlife.

The report also suggests many ways we can promote this information to local communities through interpretation and events.  We have already had one event, where Stonehouse Heritage Group provided a walking tour of the Stonehouse Kirkyard and a series of short talks from a range of speakers including Peder Aspen, a geologist who spoke about the issues of stone conservation and the Friends of Glasgow Necropolis about raising funds for their conservation work.

So today, will hopefully result in me moving forward on what we can do next.  The passion and enthusiasm from our consultants has really brought these sites to life for me.  I hope through the developing projects with communities we can do the same for others, and at the same time update and enhance the historic record for the CAVLP area.



Continue Reading

Day of Archaeology 2013: From One End of the State to the Other

Last year, I put together a piece on the contents of my desk. It was appropriate at the time, as we had just completed a really big dig, and I was working at restoring order to my office work environment.

This year, the big dig was (thankfully… it’s exhausting to manage) run by someone else, so I haven’t needed as much time to recuperate, though I’ve been no less busy. This Day of Archaeology post looks at my last week of work and how it covers a wide range of activities, all of which are within my duties as an archaeologist for the Arkansas Archeological Survey, the Natural State’s public and research archaeology agency. We’re one of the best (if not the best) such agencies in the country. My boss, Jamie Brandon, and I work at the Southern Arkansas University station, and handle archaeological research and outreach for 11 counties in southwest Arkansas (pretty much everything south of the Ouachita River, plus a few other counties thrown in to boot.

Mapping Baytown

DSC_1404 small

This was a rice field when Phillips, Ford, and Griffin visited. It’s a little harder to work in now.

Though assigned to southwest Arkansas, I frequently get called out to assist with projects elsewhere around the state. Being the station assistant, I get calls to help Jamie’s equivalents in other stations quite frequently. The bulk of this week was just one such example.

Dr. Elizabeth Horton, station archaeologist at Toltec Mounds State Park, focuses on furthering our understanding of the Toltec Mounds, located outside of Little Rock. To do this well, she needs to study contemporary sites to understand how Toltec fit into the social landscape of the time. In pursuit of that goal, she recently inaugurated a project focusing on the Baytown site in eastern Arkansas. Occupied during the same rough time period as Toltec (we believe this to be the case, but we need to make sure… that’s why we’re starting working there), Baytown was a set of mounds, perhaps as many as ten. It is also under threat from both looters (it’s on federal property, so anyone caught could get hit with an ARPA violation) and erosion, so this project is timely and necessary.

Baytown is well-known in archaeological circles. It was one of the sites documented during the Lower Mississippi Valley Survey in the 1940s by Phillip Phillips, James A. Ford, and James B. Griffin. They named the Baytown phase after it, along with two pottery types, Baytown Plain and Baytown Incised. Check out their Archaeological Survey in the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley, 1940-1947 and Martha Rolingson’s chapters in The Woodland Southeast for more about the site. Despite its importance, Baytown hasn’t had that much research done on it. It’s been mapped a few times, and there have been some limited excavations, but nothing in line with what one would expect for such a site.

To start fixing this shortfall, I helped Dr. Horton, Dr. John House (Survey station archaeologist at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff), Ms. Jessica Howe (station assistant at the University of Arkansas at Monticello) and two students start mapping the site and examining it for signs of disturbance, assessing threats to its integrity, and evaluating its potential for future work. Much of my responsibility circled around running the Trimble GeoXT global positioning system, which allowed us to map mounds and modern features, even in thick forest. This will allow us to register past sketch maps of the site to the modern landscape to assess landform change, document where previous work has taken place, and allow us to start planning future research.

We really lucked out with field conditions, I must add. Usually, Arkansas in July is really, really hot. Eastern Arkansas also tends towards the humid side. Luckily, we ended up with a humid high-80s/low-90s with very few ticks or chiggers. The poison ivy was a little crazy, but with liberal application of Tecnu, I think we held that in check (knock on wood). It was, all-in-all, a really good time, though exhausting (as fieldwork usually is).

Paperwork, Paperwork, Paperwork

Working within a statewide agency, there are forms to fill out and reports to file. I’ve got two travel claims to finish off this morning, and need to compile field notes and GIS data to send to Dr. Horton. But, being a researcher, I’ve got other, more engaging tasks to polish off.

I’m in the process of editing a volume of chapters on Arkansas historical archaeology for publication. It’s a long, peer-reviewed process, and I’ve got some work to do on that this morning. I’m hoping that the project will be both a handy example of the effectiveness of the various state, federal, and private agencies on this front as well as an interesting volume for Arkansans, or anyone interested in historical archaeology and regional history to thumb through.

Touring Dooley’s Ferry


Giving a Tour of Dooley’s Ferry, 2012

Baytown was the research end of my job. The other end, public outreach, came on Friday afternoon. Each year, Historic Washington State Park (think Colonial Williamsburg, but for the 19th century) puts on the Red River Heritage Symposium, a multi-day teaching workshop and public lecture session focusing on the history and heritage of the Ark-La-Tex.

In past years, I have given papers here on my research at Dooley’s Ferry and on the archaeology of Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, a project I worked on while with the National Park Service. This year, I am giving a presentation on the archaeology of Dooley’s Ferry for the teaching workshop portion, showing a bit about what we have done, what we are going to do, and what archaeology can teach us about the past. I’ll probably throw in a bit about the Survey and how it functions in hopes of getting some opportunities to come and teach a bit about archaeology to regional schools.

That’s supposed to be a tour of the site, but given today’s forecast…

Continue Reading

Itchy trowel syndrome

Jude Jones and Dr Yvonne Marshall in the finds hut

Jude Jones and Dr Yvonne Marshall in the finds hut

I went along yesterday to our Basing House excavation (currently underway in partnership with students and staff from the University of Southampton).  Officially I had my Conservator hat on, but once the duties of handing over a dry box and some silica gel were performed, and having found the finds hut running like clockwork I confess to whipping the trowel out and jumping in the nearest pit :)

Claire Woodhead, Conservator

For  more detailed progress reports, follow the dig on

Continue Reading

The Pitt Rivers Archaeological Models

The Pitt Rivers archaeological models from 1890′s

Part 3

Watch our conservation video:

Pitt Rivers and the archaeological excavations on his estate

A retired General, Augustus Pitt Rivers inherited Cranborne Chase in 1880. Cranbourne Chase spanned over 26,000 acres across two counties, Dorset and Wiltshire. The estate contained a wealth of archaeological material from the Roman and Saxon periods and this land provided the perfect area for Pitt Rivers to investigate unspoiled archaeological remains.

 A systematic approach

Pitt Rivers excavated Cranborne Chase from the mid-1880s and whilst many previous antiquarians had been attracted to burial mounds and their beautiful treasures, Pitt Rivers was interested in a wider area of investigation. His most important innovation was to collect, record and catalogue all the artifacts, not just those most decorative treasures which were admired by his contemporaries.

His approach to studying and recording the archaeology was highly methodical. He was the first to thoroughly document the stratigraphy and position of finds. On the Cranborne Chase estate, Pitt Rivers focused on the excavation of settlements and examined all the Roman and Saxon artefacts, producing illustrations. The discovery of pottery sherds for instance was indicative of everyday life and a subject worthy of study.

Pitt Rivers also published his findings and illustrated his reports. By the standards of the time, Pitt Rivers was systematic in his approach to gathering information and his records are extensive. He is widely regarded as the first scientific archaeologist to work in Britain and archaeologists to this day acknowledge his work and legacy.

Model of Woodyates Hypocaust (1888-90)

Model of Woodyates Hypocaust (1888-90)

3-dimensional archaeological models

Pitt Rivers was inspired to improve upon his 2-dimensional plans with 3-dimensional models of his excavations. The archaeological models which survive today in the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum are made from wood, wire and plaster of Paris.

The detail, scale and accuracy of the Pitt Rivers archaeological models is extraordinary. He marked where almost every object was found…

Model skeleton, created by Pitt Rivers

A model skeleton, created by Pitt Rivers from the Woodyates Hypocaust model: part of a Roman settlement, 1889-90

Pitt Rivers displayed many of these models when he opened a museum on his estate and today, the majority of the collection (approximately 22,000 objects) is held at the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford.

Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum

Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum acquired a collection of artefacts, archaeological models and manuscripts called the Pitt Rivers Wessex Collection in 1975. The four large archaeological models from the collection had been in storage for over 30 years and had not been accessible to the public.

This year, Salisbury Museum was awarded a grant from the AIM Pilgrim Trust Conservation Scheme to conserve the models. As these four models are so heavy and fragile, the Wiltshire Conservation Service moved some of its equipment to create an conservation laboatory at the museum and opened the doors to the public.

Conservation exhibition hall

The Wiltshire Conservation Service moved some of the equipment into Salisbury Museum to create a conservation laboratory and exhibition.

At many museums there is only ever enough space to display a small proportion of the collection at any one time. These models are very large and although they provide a significant resource, they do take up a good deal of space within a gallery. To make the most of the gallery space, smaller examples of Pitt Rivers’ models have been on display.  By conserving these large models today, the Conservation Service will ensure that they will be protected and remain in good condition for the future.

More posts to come……

Wiltshire Council logo

Continue Reading

Admin, Aurochs and Adventures: an academic’s Day of Archaeology

By Jacqui Mulville, Reader in Bioarchaeology/ Head of Archaeology, Cardiff University, Wales

Just back from a week at Çatalhöyük, Turkey and still catching up on various issues.   Working as an archaeological academic is a bewildering mix of teaching, research, administration, fieldwork and engagement.

So far today I have tackled opportunities for postgraduates to teach next year, read a draft PhD chapter, virtually checked up on the faunal and conservation team left out at Çatalhöyük (they are at Gobekli Tepe as I write – see Facebook for the images), checked teaching timetables, planned staffing and activities for our ‘Lunatiks and Sun worshippers’ Guerilla Archaeology event at Wilderness Festival as well as mused on the history and archaeology of Nazi sun worship and written a student reference.  It is 10.30am.

We have students and staff scattered around the world in the summer months and keeping track of them all is a huge task. I have just left one postgraduate and four students out at Çatalhöyük in Turkey working as faunal analysts and conservators. Elsewhere there are groups of students excavating at Ham Hill in Somerset with Prof Niall Sharples, and crawling around caves in Montenegro with Dr Dusan Boric, as well many other students dotted around at various locations.

Fieldwork is probably one of the highlights of archaeological research and we prize the process, the products and the insights from hands-on archaeology highly. Indeed at Cardiff we make all our undergraduate students do eight weeks fieldwork or conservation placements.  Some of them do not enjoy the experience, it can be muddy, frustrating, back breaking, boring, painstaking and painful – however the majority leave with improved knowledge, skills and experiences as well as a whole new raft of friends.  The challenges of working closely with other people, often away from home, comforts and familiar routines can be hard.  I always know that at the end of the first week I feel a strong urge to leave, but if I wait a day or two the whole thing suddenly slots into place and the excavation becomes a new ‘home’.

This year my fieldwork has been curtailed due to an injury so I only spent a short time at Çatalhöyük over the eight-week excavation season.  I am ‘Faunal Team Leader’ and I was once again be beguiled by the giant aurochs bones and buccrania (skulls), the huge wild pigs and the tiny horses.  Aurochs have been extinct in Britain since about the Bronze Age and are extremely rare in assemblages therefore handling these huge bones is always astounding.


Aurochs skull being reconstructed by a Cardiff conservation student

Part of our research at Çatalhöyük this year was focused on understanding a series of early mixed human and animal deposits found lying outside the site (excarnation, butchery, consumption) as well as continuing to look at cattle domestication (strangely late at Çatalhöyük compared to other sites in the region) and the role of wild species in this domesticating society. There are interesting changes towards the end of the Neolithic sequences – in terms of the species present, the houses, art and artefacts (including hunting tools) that seem to coincide with the appearance of domestic cattle – so were these Çatalhöyük cowboys different to their predecessors? We also are trying to map changing rates of accumulation in houses and middens to better understand how, and hopefully why, the inhabitants managed their waste.

Summer for Cardiff archaeology is also festival time; we take staff, students and alumni to music festivals to tell people about archaeological research. Guerilla Archaeology is in its third year of festival attendance and kicked off 2013 with a very successful Glastonbury trip. You still have time to catch us at Wilderness, Shambala or at the London Shuffle festival (curated by Danny Boyle!). Look out for my ‘24th century BC Party People’ piece in the program at the former, discussing the archaeology of festivals.

Speaking to people about my research has quickly become one of the highlights of my job. The challenges of explaining what we do and why it is interesting, important or revealing really gets me thinking about both modern and ancient humans as well as challenging assumptions and exposes the gaping holes in my knowledge. I have read more, and more widely, than ever before as a result of these interactions and whole new areas of research activities and ideas have developed from outreach activities. Just speaking to fellow academics can become rather insular and isolating, so getting out there can really impact on yourself as well as the wider public.

Anyhow it is now 11:04 and the various claims on my time are calling…. so back to work. I have the final edits of a monograph on sea level change in the Isles of Scilly to complete and a Swiss grant application to review – though I would rather be at Gobekli Tepe  looking at the carved animals on the monoliths…

Have a great day of archaeology!


Continue Reading

A journey through space and time: from Salisbury plain to the Thames Estuary

Archaeological conservation is a varied profession. One day we may shift large waterlogged timbers, the next day we may be looking at minute fibre samples under the microscope. This is what we would get up to on a typical day:

X-radiography ( forms an integral part in documenting archaeological artefacts. It allows us to look beneath surface layers and record unstable objects, such as iron. An X-radiograph (x-ray) shows the shape of an artefact, which can sometimes be heavily disguised by overlying corrosion layers. It shows the condition of an artefact, such as extent of corrosion, cracks or damage from marine boring organisms and it can show construction and decoration details, such as joints, precious metal inlays or coatings. We recently carried out quite a bit of X-radiography on finds from the protected wreck London: The London ( sank following a gunpowder explosion in March 1665. It is currently being investigated as it lies in the very busy shipping channel of the Thames Estuary.

Pewter Spoon from the London

Pewter Spoon from the London


X-Radiograph of pewter spoon

X-Radiograph of pewter spoon

But we go much further back in time. Large parts of our days have lately been taken up with conserving Neolithic and early Bronze Age artefacts for the new Stonehenge visitor centre. This is a huge project. Over 400 artefacts were assessed. More than 260 required conservation work. To read about the work see the most recent issue of Research News (

Examination of an object using an endoscope.

One of the objects going on display at the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre being examined using an endoscope.

And once all the practical work is done we can finally sit down with a cup of tea and start writing reports. Keeping records is of utmost importance in conservation. The treatment an object receives forms part of its history and we have to document this for future generations. There may be cases when old treatments have to be reversed, because materials have aged or failed. It helps if we know which materials have been used in the past. Reports also form the basis for research and can help colleagues to find solutions to their conservation problems. A recent report example can be found here:

Ah, cup of tea!

Ah, cup of tea!

Continue Reading

Conserving a spearhead

I am an objects conservator working to help preserve museum collections in Wiltshire. Much of the work I do is with archaeological collections including the item I am working on today which is a spearhead from the Saxon period and the ferrule from the bottom of the spear.

The spearhead and ferrule

The spearhead and ferrule

Why this needs treating

The item has been part of museum collection since the 1940s and has been treated in the past to conserve it.  A thick layer of clear lacquer was applied as part of the old conservation treatment which is not the way iron objects are normally preserved today.  The lacquer gives the object a glossy appearance and several hairs from the brush it was applied with are stuck in the coating.

As well as being unsightly the coating is also ineffective. The idea behind using the coating is to prevent corrosion by stopping oxygen in the air from coming into contact with the metal. However the coating has either worn away in places or did not completely cover the object and new corrosion is forming in the gaps. Fresh corrosion can be seen as little round bubbles of orange material on the surface of the object and the corrosion is also forcing cracks to open up in the metal. If this deterioration was allowed to continue it could cause a great deal of damage to the object with fragments of metal flaking away until ultimately there would be nothing left.

The treatment

To prevent any further deterioration I am going to remove the coating and corrosion products using a technique called air abrasion. This is similar to sand blasting but done on a very small scale. The object is cleaned with fine aluminium oxide powder in a jet of air. The air and powder comes out of a hand held nozzle less than 1mm wide. I can control the air pressure and the amount of abrasive powder I am using in order to clean the object very precisely and will be working under a microscope so that I can see exactly what I am doing in fine detail. I will post another picture of the object when I have finished so that you can see the difference cleaning it has made.


A colleague using a the air abrasive machine

A colleague using a the air abrasive machine

Continue Reading