Old pots, new technology

‘Day of Archaeology 2017’ finds me working on the final stages of a finds project with a difference. Instead of working my way through boxes of pottery sherds, I’m sat in front of my computer, updating and enhancing the Worcestershire on-line ceramic type series. This work builds on the strong tradition of ceramic research in the County, which is one of the few regions in the country to have a comprehensive pottery type series covering all periods. This physical type series is the work of a series of dedicated finds specialists based in the Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service, primarily Derek Hurst and Victoria Bryant. It provides all archaeologists working in the county with a standardised way of identifying and recording pottery.

The on-line type series first went live in 2003 and has been added to piecemeal as and when small amounts of funding became available. However, this year we were lucky enough to secure funding from Historic England as part of its Improving Sector Reference Resources initiative. This has enabled us to not only enhance and add to the information available on the website but also update the software so that the site not only runs more smoothly but is optimized for use on mobile phones and tablets. This has not all been straightforward! A lot of my time has been spent in dialogue with the web designer, identifying things that work well and trying to solve issues and bugs that have cropped up along the way. I have to admit that a lot of the technical stuff has gone over my head and I’m sure that a lot of the detailed pottery information has equally confused the designer, but now we are on the final straight we can see that the time spent sending emails back and forth has been well worth it!

I have mainly been focused on uploading our form series for locally produced medieval wares and more commonly found post-medieval fabrics (the composition of the clay) and forms (the type of vessel). For the forms, this involved selecting and uploading representative illustrations and writing a brief description of each form type. Medieval vessels were also cross-referenced with the MPRG (Medieval Pottery Research Group) type series.

In the case of the post-medieval fabrics, each type sherd has had a clean break photographed. Getting this clean break isn’t as easy as it sounds – it has to be as even as possible to photograph well and in some cases, it felt as if there would be next to no sherd left to photograph as I repeatedly snipped to try and achieve this! However, it has been well worth the effort, with the resulting images being of extremely high resolution, enabling the user to zoom in and out to focus on specific inclusions or fabric details.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of this project has been the addition of concordance tables for all medieval and post-medieval fabrics. This provides a link to pottery type-series from surrounding counties and is hopefully the first step to creating a truly regional resource.

With the end of this stage of the project in sight, my main task today is to go back through each fabric to make sure that the text is correct, that uploaded illustrations and photographs are displaying correctly and checking that all of the links work smoothly. Any last little niggles are being noted so that we can get everything smoothed out before this new, enhanced version of the site goes live in the last week of August. It’s an exciting time – my colleagues and I are looking forward to seeing all of our hard work come to fruition and hope that it will be a valuable research tool not only for other finds specialists but for the archaeological community in general.

For me personally, it’s the end of an extremely successful project! Not only have I enjoyed seeing our rather ambitious vision coming together but I’ve learnt a lot in the process. Working through the fabric and form data and using some of the knowledge I have gained through 18 years of working on pottery in Worcestershire has been particularly satisfying. However, perhaps even more useful has been to opportunity to revisit older reports and discuss content, ideas or issues with colleagues and fellow specialists from other organisations.

For those who are interested in the project, the old version of the website can be viewed at www.worcestershireceramics.org .  The new, enhanced version will be available to view at the same address from the end of the month.