Perks of being a PAS volunteer

My career as an archaeologist has been somewhat intermittent: I currently work as an archaeologist only one day a week and purely for the love of it. I’m a volunteer with the Portable Antiquities Scheme, based at Liverpool museum with the Finds Liaison officer there, Vanessa Oakden. I’m the Thursday girl, and usually help out by digitally manipulating images of the finds (mainly bought in by metal detectorists) on photoshop, so they can be included on the PAS database. With over one million objects and counting, this is an eclectic, fascinating and ever expanding corpus of the ‘what on earth is it?’ and workaday; the lost and discarded; the plough trashed and serendipitously preserved, see https://finds.org.uk/database

My Day of Archaeology was a special day – a training session with behind the scenes access- including tours and talks – at the British Museum. An early start in Chester, and three hours later I am trying to look nonchalant negotiating the London Underground, like I do this everyday, and am not a tourist: an impression I failed to sustain as I got a bit confused and failed to fast track myself through the excited queues outside the museum, with the result I was only just in time to find the meeting room, get my volunteer badge and a warm welcome off Claire, the resources officer, before the programme began.
There was a series of interesting talks on how the PAS explorers scheme has developed and how it operates; what happens when an item is declared treasure; and how a phD student made use of the PAS data to inform his research on medieval markets. Then it was lunchtime, and a chance to meet and chat with some of the other volunteers from different parts of the country. Over a delectable array of digestibles I compared notes with Katherine from Derbyshire before making good use of my museum map to whizz round a couple of exhibitions that looked particularly interesting (though it would have been nice to linger longer) and drool (not literally of course!) over some of the handsome books in the bookshop.

For the afternoon tours we were split into two groups, and were escorted through locked doors into the inner recesses of the museum. Leaving the hurly burly of the exhibition spaces behind, you are first of all struck by the incense of old books that flank the stone corridor in tall glass fronted bookcases from floor to ceiling, before coming into a large, friendly feeling room, walled with more books. There was a big wooden table in the middle with a timeline of treasures laid out that we were allowed to examine, as Helen, one of the PAS officers, gave us detailed and entertaining accounts of their provenance. There were two gold torcs, and although similar in design, one was one of the smallest and the other one biggest that had ever been found: the smallest was about 25-30cm in circumference, the largest was big enough to act as a belt for someone of sizeable girth. Amy, one of the treasure officers, told us that the finder had thought it was a car part when he found it, and then mislaid it round the edge of the field and had to detect for it again! There was also a beautiful Anglo Saxon brooch, the garnets and fine craftsmanship apparent despite the dried mud that still clung to it, and also memorable, was a tiny inscribed silver ring which we were told was a vervel, or leg ring for a hunting hawk. They were used to identify the owner, who in this case was King James.

It was then time to swap over with the other group, and we trekked through the labyrinthine rooms to be admitted to the inner sanctum of the coin department. Here, the coins are stored in their own individual pits in especially made wooden trays that slot into little wooden cabinets, interspersed on the shelves with thousands of reference books. We were shown a range of coins, including a selection of small denomination Roman coins from the Frome hoard that the curator was currently working on, see The Frome Hoard voted top Treasure – The British Museum Blog. The curator shuddered as he revealed some of the extreme ‘cleaning’ treatments that coins get subjected to, such as vinegar baths and a good scrub with a bit of wire- wool, and explained that modern conservators prefer a more minimalist approach!

For the last session of the day we were taken round the museum by Ian to look at some of the treasures that were currently being exhibited, including a Viking hoard and some high status gold objects from the Iron Age, although I must admit I got a bit distracted by the Sutton Hoo exhibits at this point.

I felt like I was glutted with looking by now, and just wanted to rest my appreciation and ruminate on all the wonderful things I had already seen, but there was one more treat in store. The organisers had kindly arranged for interested volunteers to go round the current staring exhibition ‘Hokusai’s Great Wave’. I did have a passing familiarity with Hokusai’s views of Mount Fuji (think a million greeting cards depicting a snow capped volcano) but was stunned to discover how prolific he was (he lived to be over a hundred, but thought he only really started to reach his artistic potential in his eighties!), and I was bowled over by his depictions of birds in particular, which were new to me. The exhibition was really crowded but laid out very cleverly with niches and small spaces like interconnected small rooms which meant you were confronted with his works like vistas as you turned a corner and there was a sense of intimacy and close interaction despite the crowds.

Thoroughly replete – I really could not have managed to look at another thing – I set off with my new friend from Derbyshire to walk the short distance to the train station. It had felt more like a real treat than a training session, although I am sure I had learned a fair bit along the way, and it certainly roused my enthusiasm and commitment as I felt like a V.V.V. (Very Valued Volunteer).

one of the treasures we got to examine at the British museum

vervel with identifying marks of King James

 

Saxon grave good awaiting conservation

Saxon brooch, The craftsmanship still apparent under the dirt