A history of the pot in 5000 years

I’m Rob Hedge, and I work for Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service in The Hive, Worcester. I’m a Community Project Officer, and I spend some of my time doing outreach and education work for the service, and some of it locked away in the basement working on archaeological finds. Today, I’m in the Finds Room.

I began the day by preparing to get rid of several boxes of artefacts. This goes against many people’s expectations of an archaeologist’s role. Shouldn’t we peculiar basement-dwellers be hoarding everything, clinging onto dusty consignments of mysterious treasures for all eternity? Well, maybe, but the unfortunate truth is that British archaeology faces a storage crisis. Besides, there’s a limit to how often museum curators can feign interest in the contents of a Victorian dump.

But one person’s junk is another’s treasure, and I confess to being fond of the detritus of late-19th century throwaway consumerism. In this case, the finds in question were uncovered in Evesham, having spent the last 120 years in a pit. The museum didn’t want them for their archaeological collections, but thankfully a sympathetic social history curator was only too keen to snap them up for their educational handling collections. So, my lovely assortment of ‘Virol’ bone marrow containers, beer bottles and the ubiquitous ‘Camp Coffee’ jars were handed over to their new home, and will once more sit proudly on a shelf.

One item that wasn’t complete enough to be taken was this plate, depicting the bell tower of once-mighty Evesham Abbey. I love it because it highlights a very human desire to mark significance and local identity, and its discovery just a few hundred metres from the landmark it depicts amuses me. It’s as if the tower, still standing defiant and isolated, is stubbornly outliving our attempts to immortalise it in commemorative crockery.

Plate depicting the Bell Tower, Evesham Abbey, c.1900

Plate depicting the Bell Tower, Evesham Abbey, discarded around 1900

From one pot to another: having set up some of our volunteers and our work experience student with their tasks, I turn my attention to a site that couldn’t be further from the familiar world of late Victorian dumps. Project Officer Richard Bradley and I are working on the report for an excavation he led at Shifnal, Shropshire. It’s a fascinating but elusive site: occupied in the Neolithic period around 5000 years ago, then seemingly abandoned before once again being a focus of activity in the Iron Age, about 2500 years ago. There are few finds (a common feature of prehistoric sites in this region), plenty of pits and ditches, and a tangled web of radiocarbon dates. It’s a real challenge to unpick which features belong to which periods. One issue is resolved when we identify some grotty fired clay as ‘briquetage’: coarse Iron Age salt containers used to pack salt for transportation from the brine wells at Droitwich.

What the Neolithic finds lack in quantity, they make up in quality. Tell-tale parallel worn grooves and a smoothed, ground surface reveal a block of stone to be a rare ‘polissoir’, for polishing Neolithic stone axes. And a large chunk of a Mortlake style Peterborough ware bowl, around 5000 years old, displays the unmistakable imprint of the potter’s fingernail in the elaborate chevron decoration. A pattern which, like the bell tower, serves as a mark of identity. Pots like this were produced across Britain, in a huge variety of designs but with strong regional trends in ‘fabric’ (the material incorporated into the clay during manufacture) that seem to defy purely functional explanations. Mass produced or hand-made, ancient or modern, a pot is never just a pot – it’s a window on a world-view, and in this case a direct connection to the delicate, precise actions of a craftsperson across around 250 generations.

Neolithic Peterborough Ware (Mortlake) pottery, c.3000 B.C., found in Shropshire

Neolithic Peterborough Ware (Mortlake) pottery, c.3000 B.C., found in Shropshire

Archaeologists are a merciless bunch. “Where’s the rest of it?” they tease Richard. Elsewhere, work experience student Kat is tasked with counting, weighing and piecing together an impressive assemblage of Iron Age pottery. You can see how she got on in her own day of archaeology post. I welcome a group of school and 6th form students, who get to work on processing some finds from an HLF-funded community archaeology investigation into intriguing early ironworking sites in the Forest of Dean. Later, as staff and volunteers trickle home, I set up some photographs, bringing together two pots separated by 5000 years, but crossing paths on my day of archaeology.

On my way out, I pause to check on a very exciting discovery, recovered by our archaeologists from a Worcestershire quarry a few months ago. It returned from its trip to the conservator yesterday, and soon it’ll be going on display for the summer at Worcester Museum, to delight children and adults alike… can you guess what it is?

Mystery find - watch out for it at Worcester Museum this summer!

Mystery find – watch out for it at Worcester Museum this summer!

Cooking with Vikings

maude fire  At the Hearth with Helga (Maude Hirst)

I’m a Viking-Age archaeologist, interested in the everyday lives of people in early-medieval England, Scotland, and Scandinavia, which I try to understand through looking at their artefacts. I am most well-known for my work on what might seem an odd choice of artefact: Viking hair combs (I’ve already written elsewhere about why these are important, so I won’t bore you with that again here). I’m also interested in metalwork, particularly what we can say from the evidence recovered by metal detectorists (this builds on my previous life as a Finds Liaison Officer with the Portable Antiquities Scheme; if you don’t know about the PAS, do check it out). But most recently, I have started up a project that uses scientific analysis of pottery to learn about how people stored, prepared, cooked, and ate food in different parts of Viking-Age England.


#ArchiveLottery 2016 part 2: Registered Finds

Now it’s time for the sexy objects, selected at some point in the past to have their own individual finds number.

To get us going how about this tip top medieval shoe from 1982’s Billingsgate  excavations. @ImAnitaSharma helped us find this by tweeting us shelf 170


This incredible piece of medieval ship was generated from shelf 352. thanks to @OldLadyBedtime for this. It comes from 1988 excavations at Gun & Shot Wharf


Also this hour we’ve had a creepy Victorian doll


and how about this tiny saxon bead


Not forgetting this doughnut shaped saxon loomweight


Thanks to @DominikaErazmus, @@bolshie_walshy, & @Kath_Creed for selecting these

Next it’s our Environmental Finds Archive. These are typically extremely small objects that take up little space (hence the small shelf range) and include objects such as seeds, pollen and small animal bones etc. Tweet me @AdamCorsini using #ArchiveLottery & a number between 1 and 40 to discover, completely at random, what that shelf holds… who’s going to be the first to get a coprolite?

#ArchiveLottery 2016 – part 1: General Finds

It’s great to be back and what a start we’ve had to this year’s #ArchiveLottery.

Our first object was from @lornarichardson and their choice of shelf 397 generated this amazingstoneware bottle


Also in the past hour we’ve had some flint from shelf 310 (thanks to former Archive digital records office @andyfev for this)


And one of our favourite items has been this roman strainer from Brockley Hill (shelf 4). Thanks to @Colmuseum’s @Jess_Dowdell for this one


Next up it’s our Registered finds: objects assigned an individual number (akin to an museum accession number) because they are of particular interest.  Tweet @AdamCorsini using with #ArchiveLottery and a number between 1 and 500 to discover, completely at random, what that shelf holds… – and we’ll post back our results around 1pm

#ArchiveLottery 2016 part 5 – paper records

To wrap up the day it’s time for my favourite section – the archaeological records.

In among our items this hour have been:

A photo of The head of Serapis from the Temple of Mithras excavations


A nice photo of an archaeologist’s backside

bum in air

A skeleton recording sheet from the Royal Mint site

skelton recording sheet

And a great graffiti covered front cover to a small finds notebook from Aldgate excavations

small finds

A massive thanks to everyone who offered a number today and joined in with our #ArchiveLottery.

Have a great #DayOfArch and hope to see you on a visit to the Archive store soon 🙂

#ArchiveLottery 2016 part 4: metals

We’ve having fun and hope you are too. Here’s the metal objects that your random shelf numbers have found for us.

Lead-ing the way is this fantastic pilgrim badge from shelf 253. Thanks to @Lucinda_Dixon for picking this number.


Check out this finger ring from excavations at Hay’s Dock which was chosen via @the_deku_scrub’s shelf number, 365


There’s obviously been this – Iron nails feature heavily in our metal store but really, our own @Kath_Creed should have known better


And how about this to get you excited….


We’re still uncertain whether it’s a potter’s tool (It is from Lambeth close to the area’s pottery workshops…) or whether its a pastry jigger. What do you think? Either way, nice one @amelia_dowler for selecting shelf 300 to get this one.

And of course how could we do a metal store #ArchiveLottery without some unfortunate person getting this:


Metals were fun (lots more if you search for #ArchiveLottery on twitter), but stick with us as it’s time for the most important bit of the archive – the paper records!!! Tweet me @AdamCorsini using the hashtag #ArchiveLottery with a number between 1 and 431

#ArchiveLottery 2016 part 3: environmental finds

One of my favourite #ArchiveLottery sections, it’s time to go small.

Included in this hour has been some fish bone

fish bone

and then there was some fruit seeds


and we’ve also seen some nut shells

nut shell

Fire up the barbie as we also had some charcoal


and thanks to @BodCons we also picked a coprolite! Poop!


And they were very pleased 🙂

poop praise

Time for the metals! These objects are stored separately. A dehumidified store, sealed boxes and silica gel help us maintain these objects to a high degree of preservation as they’d slowly degrade in normal room conditions. Tweet me@AdamCorsini using #ArchiveLottery & a number between 1 and 500 to discover, completely at random, what that shelf holds…

Pots and stats! Moments in a day of a post-doctoral researcher

This is my first blog post for the ‘Day of Archaeology’.

I am going to write about some aspects of the research project which I have been working on for most of the last two years, at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, London, UK.

The focus of my research is the later Egyptian Prehistory, also known as the ‘Predynastic’, a period which covers approximately a millennium (the IV millennium BC) and during which the most fundamental features that characterise the ancient Egyptian civilisation developed: sophisticated funerary rituals, monumental architecture, craft specialisation, the first forms of administrative practices and economic centralisation.

Some areas which I have been trying to investigate through my ongoing research are:

  • chronological and functional variability of settlements;
  • how the process of state formation influenced the life of the inhabitants of the Nile Valley (i.e. how it is reflected in the material culture of settlements, rather than how this process affected the mortuary realm);
  • dynamics of interaction between different cultural spheres extant in Egypt at this early stage.

The archaeological data which I have been using in my research especially concerns pottery and has been collected by me over the course of several study seasons I spent in Egypt in the past and in recent years.

Hk, Egypt / 2013 season: sorting pottery…

Some pottery collections held at the Petrie Museum and the British Museum in London, as well as unpublished archival records and published reports, pertaining to pottery which is not available for visual inspection and analysis, have provided further valuable data.

Potsherd analysis forms archive

Potsherd analysis forms archive

Re-use of data produced by other researchers and the integration with data collected by myself, though necessary for having a base of data as large as possible, has been quite challenging at many points, because of the different terminological conventions and multiplicity of systems employed for the classification and recording of the Predynastic ceramic material. Thus, initially part of my work has consisted in tracking correspondences (or lack thereof) amongst terms and codes used in different systems for indicating ceramic wares or shapes. Here one of my first attempts towards ‘translating’ (also visually) the code of a specific ceramic category from one classification system to another one.

Database setting_ceramic codes correspondences_form

Database setting: ceramic codes correspondence form

This integrated corpus of data has been the basis for conducting a series of quantitative and statistical analyses, aiming at identifying potentially significant patterns. In the ceramic assemblage of certain sites, several technological and morphological developments can be traced, for example appearance of new fabrics and the decline of others (see picture below); adoption of new ceramic shapes, etc. These developments seem to have a chronological meaning and, in some cases, reflect wider changes taking place within the society and economy in the course of the Late Predynastic, the period of state formation, in Egypt.

Ceramic fabric variation across a stratigraphic sondage_Nekhen, Egypt

Ceramic fabric variation across a stratigraphic sondage (Nekhen, Egypt)

I learnt the analytical methods I have applied and how to use the software to perform such analyses as part of a specific training program I followed. The research project has been supported by a funding scheme (Marie Curie Actions) which specifically fosters advanced training and career development of researchers.

I feel so privileged for this exciting experience of research and training! Equally, I am grateful for the support I have received from my teachers, mentors and colleagues in the past and in more recent years!

Many happy returns … for this Day of Archaeology!


You can find out more about the project on this webpage.

Why Archaeological Archives Matter: Preserving the Pieces of Our Past at the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology

On the 2015 Day of Archaeology, I am working with the reserve archaeological collections in the Antiquities Division of the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology as a member of the museum’s Inventory Project. This work involves the identification, organisation and documentation of a vast quantity of varied archaeological artefacts, which are mainly stored in wooden drawers in the basement storage area below our exhibition space – an area commonly known to us as ‘the crypt’.

The storage crypt of the National Museum of Ireland - Archaeology

The storage crypt of the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology

We document the collections from the crypt by the process of each team member working on one drawer of material at a time. Any individual drawer can contain a varied and eclectic mix of artefacts, often unrelated by chronology or provenance, with sometimes the only shared connection being that they were acquired or accessioned by the museum in the same year. Following the post theme of “Why Archaeological Archives Matter” suggested to us members of the Society for Museum Archaeology, I decided to share my work with the museum reserve collections in order to discuss this subject.

Artefact storage drawers in the crypt of the National Museum of Ireland - Archaeology

Artefact storage drawers in the crypt of the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology

Of the last few drawers that I have documented, the artefacts have ranged widely in type and age, with some recent examples including Neolithic pottery, a bronze spearhead, a stone spindle whorl, a copper alloy seal matrix, a clay pipe stem, and some post-medieval glass and pottery sherds.

A sample artefact drawer from the reserve collections

A sample artefact drawer from the reserve collections

The museum’s reserve collections may often be mistakenly underestimated in value by the public due to the fact that they consist of objects which are not on permanent view in the exhibition galleries, but the worth and importance of these collections cannot be overstated. The placement of objects in the reserve collections can often be due to their inability to match the themes displayed in the institution’s current exhibitions, or simply due the lack of space to display such an enormous number of artefacts. A number of unusual and unique artefacts from the reserve collections have been re-discovered and re-assessed during the work of the Inventory Project, a number of which have been detailed on our Documentation Discoveries blog.

The museum reserve collections span all archaeological chronologies and typologies, and offer a physical timeline of the development of material culture, seen within the changes and advances of material choices and the design of objects. As an example, seeing a flint javelin head, a bronze spearhead, and a collection of musket balls all in the same storage drawer clearly shows some of the development in weaponry throughout thousands of years of the human past.

A sample artefact drawer from the reserve collections

A sample artefact drawer from the reserve collections

A large section of the reserve collections consists of domestic material uncovered during archaeological site excavation – items such as pottery sherds, samples of shellfish and butchered animal bone, and waste material from craft and industry. While perhaps not aesthetically arresting or unique, objects such as glass sherds, clay pipe stems and metal slag samples offer us valuable and extensive information on everyday life and practices in both the near and distant past. The reserve collections also offer an extensive base for archaeological researchers and students to study specific artefact types or groups, or the complete physical results of an archaeological excavation.

A sample artefact drawer from the reserve collections

A sample artefact drawer from the reserve collections

The artefacts hold further valuable information in their detailed documentation in the museum’s paper and digital records, which can consist of topographical files, accession registers, object archives and collection databases. These sources record important supplementary information relating to the object provenance, find circumstances, typology, associations and acquisition – all of which provide researchers with an improved and necessary understanding of the full story in the life of the artefact. Overall, the archaeological archives of the museum reserve collection are held in trust for a number of reasons – for conservation and security, for potential future display, as well as for their use as a research base for the future. Work with these collections constantly educates me on our sizeable and impressive national material culture, and the continual need to conserve and collect these important pieces of our past.



Experimental Archaeology towards Experiencing Archaeology

My name is Martin Lominy. I’m a trained archaeologist, a career educator, a self-taught craftsman and the founder of Aboriginal Technologies Autochtones, a Quebec based business with an educational mission aimed at providing the general public with a more practical vision of the past and a better understanding of aboriginal cultures of North America through the reproduction and experimentation of ancient technologies. In the past couple of years, my Day of Archaeology posts have focused mainly on artefact reproduction because this is what I do most of the time. So this year I would like to talk a bit more about my work in education as I am spending the day preparing educational material for upcoming activities that take place in August during Archaeology Month in my home province of Quebec.

Flintknapping demonstration in a reconstructed native village. (Photo: Les Primitifs)

Flintknapping demonstration in a reconstructed native village. (Photo: Les Primitifs)

Third grade student learning to fletch an arrow.

Third grade student learning to fletch an arrow.

Learning about ancient technologies through experimentation is central to my work but sharing this knowledge is the ultimate goal of my career. In fact, most of my artefact reproductions are purchased by museums and interpretation centres to complement their activities and exhibitions. I have worked as a museum educator for over a decade from delivering to developing public programmes and always enjoyed giving the general public a better understanding of what life would have been like in the past. I have dealt with all sorts of groups ranging from children to elders and from amateurs to scientists as well as survivalists looking towards ancient technologies to expand their wilderness skills. It’s always been a challenge to adapt the complexities of archaeology to a variety of audiences but one that has kept me passionate about public education.

Families learning to make prehistoric fish hooks. (Photo: Maison Nivard De Saint-Dizier)

Families learning to make prehistoric fish hooks. (Photo: Maison Nivard De Saint-Dizier)

Survivalist group learning about ancient fishing technologies. (Photo: Les Primitifs)

Survivalist group learning about ancient fishing technologies. (Photo: Les Primitifs)

As a craftsman, my educational approach is about communicating through objects that can be touched, used or created so my activities range from interactive conferences for adult audiences to craft workshops for school groups and demonstrations for public events where people can experience the subject directly. For this purpose, my work in artefact reproduction is not about imitating artefacts with synthetic materials but rather going through the entire process or creating them from raw materials to finished tools and testing them so that I can explain how they were made and what this meant for people using them in the past. This level of experimentation is mostly a way for me to learn beyond theory but it also allows me to share my knowledge and skills with specialized groups such as college and university students interested in experimental archaeology.

Anthropology students from the University of Montreal learning about the uses of plant fibres. (Photo: RÉAUM)

Anthropology students from the University of Montreal learning about the uses of plant fibres. (Photo: RÉAUM)

As a part time anthropology teacher, I have also used my classroom experience to develop specific activities that can be integrated into anthropology classes to give students a better understanding of anthropological concepts, archaeological techniques and past lifeways. The school curriculum in Quebec includes several chapters on aboriginal culture and history which were integrated only a decade ago, so most of the groups that I meet are primary and secondary level classes looking to complement their programme with activities giving them access to specialized knowledge and material while discovering archaeology as a profession. Primary school children are my favourite age group whose limitless curiosity and enthusiasm inspire me the most to educate the public about the importance of learning from the past through archaeology.

Primary school students learning about prehistoric lifeways through a modelling project.

Primary school students learning about prehistoric lifeways through a modelling project.

So these are the things on my mind and on my table today. To learn more about Aboriginal Technologie’s educational programmes, please visit my website.