Sticks and stones: a day in the life of a finds specialist

My name is Dawn McLaren and I am a finds specialist here at AOC Archaeology Group, based in Loanhead, Scotland.  On a day-to-day basis I’m involved in analysing artefacts recovered as the result of archaeological excavations undertaken by AOC’s fieldwork team.  Most of the objects that I have the privilege of working on come from archaeological sites in Scotland but as we have offices in York and London I’m also involved in identifying finds from digs across England.  My job is to identify any artefacts uncovered and this means figuring out what material the objects are made from, what date they could be and what they might have been used for.  In order to get as much information from the finds as possible, I work closely with AOC’s fieldwork team to understand as much as I can about the context of the finds on site and their possible significance, as well as working with AOC’s conservators to ensure that the objects are cared for properly once they come out of the ground.

Examining the grinding face of a rotary quernstone

Dawn examining the grinding face of a rotary quernstone

To give you an idea of the range of finds that I deal with, in the last few weeks I’ve been looking at a some Neolithic pottery from a site in northeast Scotland, some ironworking waste from a Roman site in southeast Scotland and a post-medieval assemblage of iron and worked bone from an urban site in Edinburgh. As I said in my 2012 Day of Archaeology blog, each artefact I meet presents its own challenges and it definitely keeps me on my toes!  They all have their own story to tell, so let’s see what’s in store today….

Today I’m examining a small group of worked stone objects from a Roman site in southeast Scotland. My first step is always to examine the individual objects in detail to allow me to observe any surface markings that might be tool marks left from manufacture of the object, wear from use or damage sustained to the object before it was deposited.  Some types of stone tools are more recognisable than others, such as this wonderful fragment of a rotary quernstone (see images), but this detailed approach allows me to categorise the wear and helps me to create, where possible, a biography of the artefact- from its manufacture to its deposition after its use had ceased.

Analysing a Roman quernstone fragment

Analysing a Roman quernstone fragment

The next stage is to catalogue the objects and this means describing each artefact in detail and taking measurements of each item.  Assisting me in this task is Marissa, an overseas student who I’m supervising here at AOC Archaeology this month on an Arcadia Internship.  The internship aims to provide training and experience in post-excavation work and is an important part of AOC’s commitment to making archaeology accessible to a wider audience and to provide valuable experience to promising students.

Taking measurements of central socket

Taking measurements of central socket

Having now looked at all stone objects within this particular assemblage, the star find for me is definitely this wonderful quernstone fragment!

Roman quernstone fragment

Roman quernstone fragment

These rotary quernstones would have been used as a pair – an upper and lower stone – to grind grain into flour. The lower stone would remain stationary and the upper stone would be turned by hand as the grain was fed down a central hole in the upper stone.  This particular stone represents approximately one half of a lower grinding stone and has a clear series of vertical grooves decorating the edges of the stone and a convex grinding face which has been deliberately dressed to make a rough surface for the grain to be ground against.  What is really interesting about this example is that the style of the quern mimics imported Roman lava quernstones but is almost certainly made from local sandstone.

For more information on our post-excavation services please check out our website:



Day of Archaeology 2013 – LAARC Lottery! (Intro)

LAARC Archive stores

The London Archaeological Archive & Research Centre is the WORLD’s largest archaeological archive.

We’re pretty big.

Millions of artefacts big.

So how to choose what to share for the Day of Archaeology? Let’s play a little game.

Following on from the fun we had last year, we’ve brought back our interactive LAARC Lottery. We have five major areas of the Archive to explore: General finds, Registered finds, Metal, Paper Records and Environmental.

Each hour from 12 until 5 today we will be exploring some of our archaeological finds interactively and completely randomly. But we need your help. Here’s what to do.

  1. We’ll give you a range of numbers
  2. You tweet us a random number from within that range
  3. We head to the archive shelf that has the matching number
  4. We show you what sits on that shelf


First up we’re exploring our General finds: artefacts that are normally treated as an assemblage – pottery, animal bone, building material etc. – and which make up the bread and butter of London’s archaeological material. We have 6210 shelves of general finds in the archive, so what we would like you to do is suggest a shelf number between 1 and 6738, either by Twitter using the hashtags #dayofarch #LAARC or #LAARCLottery, or by leaving a comment below, which we will then go to, photograph and blog about the objects we find there.

So get tweeting / commenting!

Eastbourne Ancestors Day of Archaeology 2012

This is the first ‘Day of Archaeology’ that we (Eastbourne Ancestors) have taken part in and so we are quite excited to be involved!

I’m also excited as this is my first full time job in archaeology as the Project Co-ordinator for Eastbourne Ancestors. I work in the commercial world of archaeology as an osteoarchaeologist (human and animal remains) in my spare time too, as well as excavating with a local society and the Eastbourne Museum Service. Archaeology is for everyone and I strongly believe in the community aspect, getting hands on.

You can follow our progress here:

Although the ‘Day of Archaeology 2012’ fell on 29th June, I was in meetings which wouldn’t have made for exciting reading…but today is a different story.

We are a Heritage Lottery Funded project run by the Eastbourne Museum Service in East Sussex. Our aim is to To fully examine all the human skeletal remains in our collection from the Eastbourne area in order to produce a demographic profile of the past populations that were living here.

The skeletal analysis will include determining the age, biological sex, stature, metric and non-metric traits, ancestry, health, diet, handedness and evidence of pathology. We will also be conducting research into migration studies using isotope analysis, physical appearance using facial reconstruction and family connections, DNA and C14.

As part of this project, we will be giving volunteers the opportunities to participate in artefact conservation, osteoarchaeology workshops, field work, study days, talks and demonstrations and much more. We will conclude the project with academic and public published material as well as an exhibition.

On Friday, Jo (the boss) and I took a road trip to Bournemouth University to deliver 30 skeletons to students to study for their MSc dissertations. We also have a student from Exeter University studying clavicles for two weeks with us for her research. In a few months time we will be taking some of the collection to Canterbury University to be studied by their MSc and BSc students too.

Today is our first volunteer day, we have 5 volunteers busily cleaning skeletal remains from an Anglo-Saxon cemetery site in Eastbourne. Each day for a month, volunteers will be helping to get the remains ready for analysis, which they will also receive training for as part of the Project.

By the 2013 ‘Day of Archaeology’ I hope to have some interesting findings to write about: Where did these people come from? Are they local? How did they live and die? What did they wear? What did they look like?

In Small Things Remembered

Among other things, I chose archaeology for one primary reason – I did not want to be stuck in an office working nine to five.  Inundated with commercial television, I assumed, as many, that archaeology was all about traveling to exotic places to solve ancient mysteries of long-lost civilizations.  Archaeology, not dissimilar to the adventures of a certain Dr. Jones, was about adventure and big, spectacular discoveries.  My 18-year-old self would probably be horrified to learn that I do, in fact, work nine to five and much of the discoveries I deal with are neither ancient nor big.  In fact, now, I commute on a bicycle, work in an air conditioned Toronto office, and get to sleep in my own bed every night.  I work in commercial (aka CRM) archaeology as a report writer and a material culture analyst and I get REALLY excited if my Euro-Canadian site pre-dates 1800 AD.  Despite all this, I am happier and much more self-fulfilled than my 18-year-old self ever imagined myself being.

Today, I spent my day analyzing artifacts from a survey of an 1830s to 1850s Euro-Canadian farmhouse located about an hour’s drive north of Toronto and as far as big ancient mysteries were concerned, it was neither big nor ancient nor particularly mysterious.  In fact, it was a scatter of early-to-mid nineteenth century artifacts that was sparce by any standards.  The occupants of the site, tenants who were among the earliest settlers in the area, lived a frugal existance in a sparcely occupied landscape that did not warrant a large accumulation of material goods.  The number of tenants that occupied the site is unknown and the site’s name comes from an individual who is listed on the property only once in an 1837 directory for the area.  This is no grand Egyptian temple.

Ceramics, a bottle base, buttons, a pipe, and some nails:  A small sample of the artifacts from an early nineteenth-century Ontario farmstead.

Yet, this small site is an excellent example why archaeology, especially historical archaeology, is important.  Much of all written history was written by the privileged elites who, through their perceptions of what is significant and fundamental left to us a written record that has narrowed our vision of the past by reproducing in us what they considered important.  Archaeology challenges the bias of written history since the disposal of refuse is a universal activity done by everyone within any given society.  While the archaeological record can be obscured, manipulated, and altered, the traces of past human activities remain to be discovered and interpreted.  By that fact, the study of that refuse, archaeology, is an increadibly democratic process.

Nowhere is this more true in historical archaeology than the excavation of lowly log cabins of early European settlers.  From politics, economics, cultural norms, and the geography of the land itself, the work and social interactions of countless of individuals in the recent centuries has transformed the economic and social landscape into what is recognizeable today.  Over the years, historical archaeology has contributed to the understanding of a variety of topics including the development of modern foodways, the growth of industrial capitalism, and the institutionalization of present day socio-economic hierarchies.  Yet, these studies have started through the analysis of simple sparce farmsteads occupied by more-or-less nameless individuals such as the one I’m working on.  The lives of the people that discarded these ceramic sherds and pieces of bottle glass had a lasting effect on the sorts of lives we experience today.  These people have lived as long and as complex lives as we have and yet we do not know who these people are and have only vague ideas about their daily lives.  Their non-degradable material on farmstead and concrete-covered urban lots is the only record they left behind for archaeologists to study.  It is through this record we can know something about them and thus know something about ourselves.  Every day, the work of contract archaeologists continues to discover and document humble homes of lowly individuals and it is up to us to tell their stories and interpret our findings, we owe them that much for all the world they have created.

Pen, paper, and plastic bags in front of a computer: The necessities for analyzing artifacts.

Anatolijs Venovcevs
Historical Archaeologist
Toronto, Ontario

VCU 3D at George Washington’s Boyhood Home

by Bernard K. Means, project director, Virtual Curation Laboratory

VCU students Alison Curran and Ian Salata participate in the Day of Archaeology by excavating at Ferry Farm.

I chose to spend my Day of Archaeology at George Washington’s Boyhood Home, located in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Archaeologists working here have uncovered traces of human occupation dating back thousands of years, but understandably have been focused on the period associated with George Washington’s tenancy.  George moved here at the age of 6 with his mother Mary, his father Augustine, and several family members.  A team of archaeologists is working this year–as they have in past years–seeking to broaden our understanding of George Washington’s childhood–a rather poorly documented time period.

VCU students Ashley McCuistion and Victoria Garcia look on as the “BW” spoon is being scanned.

My goal today is to use my NextEngine scanner and create digital models of archaeological objects recovered at Ferry Farm, including items recovered this year by Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) students as part of their recently completed field school, as well as objects recovered in past years from  contexts definitely associated with the Washington family occupation.  These objects are categorized as “small finds” or unique objects that might be lost in traditional archaeological mass data analyses.  For a recent article on small finds at Ferry Farm, and how they can broaden our understanding of the Washington family’s personal and social worlds, I recommend Ferry Farm archaeologist Laura Galke’s (2009) article “The Mother of the Father of Our Country: Mary Ball Washington’s Genteel Domestic Habits” Northeast Historical Archaeology 38:29-48.  I began the day by scanning a pewter spoon handle with the initials “BW”–representing George Washington’s sister, Betty.  This spoon and its significance for socializing Betty in gentry-class society is discussed by Galke (2009).

“BW” spoon as it is being scanned.

The spoon actually proved more challenging than expected because it is thin, dark, and the design is shallow.  But, a little fine powder coating and a long scan seems to have resulted in a nice digital model.

The second artifact we scanned is a lead alloy cloth seal that resembles late 16th century AD examples from France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. We also scanned a Civil War Minie ball found by VCU student Ian Salata during this year’s field school.  An interesting artifact that we scanned was a toy hatchet made of lead dropped by a tourist visiting the place where some claim (erroneously) that George Washington chopped down the cherry tree!!!


Zen and the Art of Curation


Greetings from the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois-Champaign! Recently, I have been spending my days in the lab helping to update and transcribe site inventories into a digital database.  The excavations that produced these artifacts were conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, and the only inventories that exist are on hard copy.  Additionally, some of the artifacts are still in their original paper collection bags.  I am currently relabeling and rebagging artifacts, mostly lithics, and entering catalogue and provenience information into a digital database.  (Provenience refers to the exact location on the site at which the artifact was found; as opposed to the “Antiques Roadshow” term provenance, which refers to the entire history of the object from its discovery to the present).  It is important to curate these items using materials and technology that will help to preserve both the artifacts and their associated provenience information.


While this task might not entail bullwhip-cracking excitement and Spielberg-worthy finds, I think it is every bit as valuable as the discovery of a new site, the excavation of a unique artifact, or the ground-breaking research taking place daily.  This is due in part to my recent completion of a Master’s thesis in which I analyzed artifacts from the Chesapeake Bay region, despite living about 800 miles away in the Midwest.  I was able to conduct a majority of my research and some data collection using the Comparative Archaeological Study of Colonial Chesapeake Culture database (, created by the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory and other Chesapeake archaeologists and collaborators.  This information was available to me thanks to the careful curation and meticulous inventorying of thousands of artifacts by Tidewater archaeologists in Maryland and Virginia.


As I work on curating the artifacts and information from excavations conducted years ago in Illinois, my recent research experience is always in the back of my mind.  I hope that our careful curation of the artifacts from decades-old excavations will assist researchers investigating these sites to more easily access this information.  The field of archaeology continues to advance both technologically and theoretically, and it is important to preserve artifacts and information as completely as possible to assist future researchers in the reinvestigation and reanalysis of previously-excavated sites.  Who knows what exciting reinterpretations might someday be based on these nondescript bags of broken rocks?

These chert samples were collected from a site investigated in the 1960s and 1970s.


Day of Archaeology – LAARC Lottery Part 4 (Metal Finds)

Now onto our Metal store – this entire store holds a host of treasures, and more coffin nails than you’d care to imagine!

Our first lucky object from shelf 496 comes from site ABO92 – Abbott’s Lane, excavated in 1992 by the then Museum of London Archaeology Service (MOLAS). Being a waterfront site this excavation produced a wealth of metal objects – all surviving due to the aerobic conditions of burial.

Our object is a medieval pilgrim badge that depicts the mitred head of Thomas Becket dating to c.1530 – 1570. An additional badge of better condition was also excavated from the site. The cult of Thomas Becket was one of the most popular in London during the medieval period – not surprising as he was also considered the city’s unofficial patron saint. These badges would have been collected at the site of pilgrimage – this one may have therefore travelled all the way from Canterbury in Kent, before being lost or perhaps purposefully discarded. The badge is a miniature imitation of the reliquary of a life-sized mitred bust of Becket that was held in Canterbury Cathedral.


Lead pilgrim badge

Lead pilgrim badge, depicting the mitred head of Thomas Becket dating to c.1530 – 1570, and from shelf 496 of our metal store


Publication photograph of a similar pilgrim badge to the one found on our shelf

Publication photograph of a similar pilgrim badge to the one found on our shelf (MOLAS Monograph 19)

Our second object, stored on shelf 593, is from the more recent excavation SAT00. Found in the upper stratigraphy this is a beautifully preserved pocket sundial.

Copper sundial

Copper pocket sundial, from shelf 593


A great source for comparison with these metal artefacts is the Portable Antiquities Scheme which holds the records of thousands of objects discovered, mainly through metal detecting, from across the country. Our sundial, excavated from the site of St. Paul’s Cathedral Crypt (SAT00), has a direct parallel with one found in Surrey.

Quoting from PAS object entry SUR-7790B4:

“These sundials are known as simple ring dials or poke dials (‘poke’ being an archaic word for pocket). The sliding collar would be set into position for the month of the year and, when the dial was suspended vertically, the sun would shine through the hole in the lozenge-shaped piece, through the slot, and onto the interior of the ring. The hour could then be read by looking at the closest gradation mark to the spot of light on the interior of the ring.”

Next it’s our Textile artefacts. Again, segregated and stored in a controlled environment, this store is humidified to preserve these important materials. Tweet using #dayofarch or #LAARC, or message us below, a number between 784 and 910 to discover, completely at random, what that shelf holds…

Iron Age Slag – No Puns Please!

I’m Dawn McLaren and I’m a finds specialist at AOC Archaeology Group based at Loanhead, Scotland. On a day-to-day basis I’m principally involved in the post-excavation analysis of artefacts recovered as the result of developer-led excavations ranging from early prehistoric through to post-medieval in date. To give you an idea of the range of finds that I deal with, in the last couple of weeks I’ve been looking at coarse stone tools and querns from an Iron Age settlement, some pottery from a Bronze Age burial and post-medieval metal finds from an urban site in Edinburgh. It definitely keeps me on my toes!  

Today I’ve been examining some later prehistoric ironworking waste from a multi-phase site at Beechwood, Inverness and I’m really excited about what it is telling us about metalworking on the site.  The site, which was excavated by my colleague Rob Engl and others, revealed several Bronze Age/Iron Age timber roundhouses, palisades and enclosures together with evidence of Neolithic settlement.

Dawn identifying slag from Beechwood

Starting from the beginning, what is ironworking waste?  Basically, it is the non-iron component of ore that is separated out from the iron during smelting and smithing but there is inevitably other associated debris such as bits of ceramic hearth lining and vitrified stone which don’t necessarily need to be connected to metalworking. I’m terribly over simplifying, of course, but I hope this gives you an idea. Visually, this material doesn’t look like much, I admit! It often looks like rusty or glassy shapeless ugly lumps. But I’ve been trying for years to convince people that it’s really interesting and can tell us a lot about metalworking technology.

My first step is always to visually examine (macro and microscopically) the individual pieces looking at the colour, texture, shape and how melted and fused the material is. Another important part of the initial identification is to determine whether the material is magnetic. All of this information helps me to split the assemblage into broad categories: what is ironworking waste and what has been formed as the result of another pyrotechnic process, what is diagnostic of iron smelting and what might be bloom- or blacksmithing debris. Once I’ve identified the individual pieces, I record all the details (e.g. weight, quantity of pieces and measurements) into a spreadsheet so that I can feed in the contextual data later.

Small smithing hearth bottom from Beechwood

I’m pleased to say that the assemblage from Beechwood has a bit of everything!  It’s not a large assemblage but so far I’ve identified several smithing hearth bottoms and fragments of smelting waste so that I can say that both processes were taking place on or around the site.

Smelting slag from Beechwood

Now that my catalogue of the slag is complete I’ve started to look at where the pieces were recovered from. The excavations at Beechwood covered a very large area and I can see from my initial examination that the ironworking debris is focused in two quite disparate parts of the site. One area, which we’ll call A, includes a possible metalworking hearth or furnace associated with smelting slags and the other area, B, which is quite a distance away and must represent a separate focus of activity, has small residual amounts of both smelting and smithing debris. We’ve already had some of the pits and postholes from these areas radiocarbon dated and those associated with the ironworking waste have provided wonderful Iron Age dates.

Looks like my task for tomorrow is to see how the Beechwood evidence fits in to other Iron Age metalworking sites in the area!

For more information on our post-excavation services please check out our website:

Conservation of Archaeological Metal Assemblage

I am an objects conservator at AOC Archaeology group, a commercial archaeology company based in Loanhead, Midlothian, Scotland. There are only two of us in the department so we are kept very busy and are involved in all sorts of projects with every day being completely different. We conserve and stabilise all the finds that our archaeologists in the field excavate.  Often we are the first non-archaeologists to deal with freshly excavated materials and we are constantly ensuring that the materials gain their archaeological potential.

At the moment I am conserving a large number of finds from two sites excavated by our London office. The purpose of the conservation is to stabilise the finds for the long-term archive as well as possibly reveal new details on the surface of the objects, helping the specialists identify and describe the finds.  The finds are all metal – iron, lead and copper alloy with a large number of Roman coins and many coffin nails.

All the artefacts were covered in thick layers of soil and corrosion obscuring the surfaces and masking any detail. Following x-raying of the finds, I cleaned the iron artefacts using an air abrasive machine and the copper alloy items using mechanical methods (scalpel, bamboo skewer) carefully under a binocular microscope.

Me cleaning a copper alloy spoon under the microscope


Roman coin after conservation


This morning I have been finishing the last few objects and taking after treatment photographs. This afternoon I will be documenting the treatment of each object. As the objects were excavated in London we have to follow a specific documentation procedure set by the Museum of London. Each object has a A5 proforma card with specific information about the find, its condition and how it was treated.

While I have been working in the lab Alan Braby a freelance illustrator has come in to do a recorded drawing of one of the amazing Roman altars that we have been conserving recently. If you would like to find out more we set up a blog about the conservation work we have done on these two Roman altars excavated at Lewisvale Park. Here is the link: