BBC

Michael Marshall: Assessing Small Finds from Roman London

Like any job in archaeology, working with small finds can be a bit of a mixed bag. For every box opened to reveal shiny ‘treasure’ there are countless others containing more prosaic yet interesting finds which are indicative of everyday life and activities in the past. These are really the ‘best bit’ of any assemblage but more numerous still on many urban sites are boxes full of highly fragmentary and corroded ‘dross’. Some of this is completely unidentifiable, fairly undiagnostic (such as fragments of iron sheet or wire) or else tantalisingly close to being a recognisable object leading to some speculative flicking through likely find’s books or trips around the office to bother colleagues.

Today I am working on a post-excavation assessment report for an interesting Roman site in Southwark and it is no exception. This morning I’ll be dealing with some more of the most corroded horrible bulk nails it’s ever been my misfortune to handle (don’t expect any terribly enlightening updates about these) but this afternoon I have some more nice Roman glass to round off the week so stick with me. There are lovely glass vessels in this assemblage and some evidence for glass working – probably the first evidence of this sort from south of the river.

In the meantime I’m off to grab some gloves and some more boxes of nails. At least it’s a bit cooler today. I grew up in Scotland and so anything above about 24°C is a bit on the warm side for me and it was horrible yesterday when it topped 31 degrees in the office. I was wearing gloves and a dust mask and had to close the windows and turn off the fan in my section of the office to stop all the dust, rust and muck from the nails choking the osteologists and finds specialists I share a room with. For the present here’s a photo of my rather generic desk in that room to contrast with all the lovely site photos that I’m seeing appearing on the website already. This is ‘where the magic happens’… or something like that. The sharp-eyed will notice the awesome (free and pretty accurate) BBC prehistory timeline above my computer.

Treasure ahoy!

Where the magic happens


A New Day

Morning in York. A new day. A day doing archaeology. Not that many would recognise it as archaeology. I’ll be going through a pile of references on engaging young people in archaeology to help complete a report for the CBA. Do most archaeologists spend most of their time digging? No! We spend most of our time reading.

Just read on the BBC News website that some pot sherds from Xianrendong in China have been dated to 20,000 BP. The oldest pottery yet discovered. That puts British Neolithic pots into perspective.

Also just received a nice photo of an Acheulian hand-axe from Prof. Bae in Korea to help illustrate an article I’ve written for the Young Archaeologist magazine. The hand-axes at the Jeongok-ri site are made of quartzite. It’s very hard and tough to knap – I tried when I was out there last month. I have my poor attempt at a my very own hand-axe on my desk as a paperweight.

Heeley City Farm Community Dig, Sheffield, South Yorkshire

My day started at 7am, but I drove to the dig site shortly after 9am. I was absolutely exhausted and barely functioning on a basic level, but once onsite I’d be okay to a degree.

Gill as Finds Officer

Gill as Finds Officer

Why was I so exhausted? I have medical conditions which make my life challenging on a daily basis. Some people tell me I’m NOT disabled, but as my abilities have been severely restricted since I developed these conditions five years ago (including costing me my job at the time), I beg to differ. A nasty head cold triggered a balance disorder and associated symptoms including chronic fatigue syndrome, tinnitus, hyperacusis (sensitivity to certain tones and pitches of sound), anxiety and depression. Fortunately here in Sheffield we have an incredible Audiovestibular Department at one of the hospitals, staffed by very attentive and compassionate people. Not everyone suffering from a balance disorder is that fortunate. There is no “cure”, but a programme of specialised exercises set and monitored by a physiotherapist to retrain the brain into interpreting the signals for your balance correctly. Essentially, you’re being re-taught how to stand and walk and sometimes it can take years as pushing yourself too hard does more harm than good.
The hardest element of my condition is that I look normal and people judge me accordingly. I visibly lose my balance occasionally, but what people don’t see is me concentrating as hard as I possibly can to remain upright and avoid walking into people and objects. Due to the balance system no longer being automatic, my brain has to therefore think about walking and standing, so every task (physical and mental) uses up those limited energy resources very quickly. The problem doesn’t end there either – you may feel okay after a good night’s sleep. People with chronic fatigue syndrome don’t. After five years I now know that if I exert myself mentally or physically one day, I need to rest completely for a week in order to recover properly. That means doing absolutely nothing; no housework, no visiting friends or family, no going food shopping, no attending medical appointments, no studying. I don’t have a social life per se, as it’s too tiring. I visit friends and family at their homes. Chronic fatigue is cumulative, and those energy levels return VERY slowly.

Anyway, bored you enough with the background, so back to the Day of Archaeology:
I’m 41 years old and study the BA in Archaeological Studies part-time at the University of Sheffield as a mature student. I have just completed year 3 of 6, and for the second year running I volunteered my services to Sally Rodgers, Community Heritage Officer at Heeley City Farm, for the community dig during the Festival of British Archaeology.

Last year I assisted in the Finds Room with cataloguing finds. That was my very first time on a dig, and due to my disabilities I’d requested to be used where I could best contribute. This year I accepted the role of Finds Officer, partly for the opportunity to become more involved and to learn more, but also as being on a summer dig is a requirement for a module I’m taking next academic year.

The dig started on Saturday 16th July and had been taking place every day. What were we excavating? Victorian terraced houses. Boring, you might think. The local community would disagree with you there! The site of the farm was once residential housing built during the latter part of the 19th Century and we want to know about the structures and the people who once lived there during the houses’ entire history.
The Finds Room already had approximately 20 finds trays awaiting sorting and recording, but let’s start at the beginning:

Gill as Finds Officer

Gill as Finds Officer

Three trenches were opened onsite and the Trench Supervisors; Ken Dash, Jane Woodcock and Joe Page, would come to me and request a context number and recording sheet. Archaeology is a precise discipline. When recording finds and structures the context in a three dimensional space is essential in mapping the distribution of those finds. Without the context the finds are meaningless and have to be recorded as un-stratified. Every time a Trench Supervisor discovered a new layer of different material (different soil layers, rubble layers etc) or if they extended their trench I would assign them a new context number made up of the site code, trench code and a unique reference number. This layer in the trench would be labelled and all finds discovered in that context would be labelled accordingly. I also provided the Trench Supervisors with additional finds trays with relevant context tags where required (which was happening more and more frequently in Trench C!). Heaven help anyone who touched my recording sheets – including the Site Director – as I’d threaten to bite them!

The trays would come into the Finds Room where I would sort through them in turn, separating them into materials such as metal, wood, bone, plastic, glass, ceramic etc. Each pile would then be placed into a finds bag labelled with the context reference (as detailed above) but additionally a unique three digit finds number would also be allocated and recorded on the Finds Register. The Finds Register records the finds number, site and trench codes, context number, number of items in the bag, weight, and a brief description of the contents such as clear glass, or bone fragments etc. The bags were then set aside for later processing.

Pretty simple you’d think, but my responsibilities also included greeting members of the public who wished to be on the dig. My duties involved ensuring they were properly attired (suitable footwear and clothing), that adults were aware of the age restrictions for children, ensuring all participants had completed the relevant documentation including photography permission forms, and introducing them to Sally, Dr Roger Doonan (the Site Director and one of my lecturers) as well as Jane, Ken or Joe out at the trenches.
Engaging with visitors is essential on a community dig, and in the Finds Room Sally had created display boards of information, maps and photographs of the farm site throughout history. This encouraged visitors to ask questions and make observations, particularly the older generations who recalled living in the properties before they were demolished for a doomed relief road during the 1970’s. I would ensure these people were introduced to Sally so she had the opportunity to record their stories for future use and interpretation of the site.

Due to the number of interesting finds, I created a special tray and once those finds had been suitably recorded I placed them there for visitors to look at. This included two Police Community Support Officers and a Police Officer! Of particular interest was the button stamped GR for George Rex, made by a company called Firmin & Sons Limited (which was stamped on the reverse). They started manufacturing buttons for the military and then the Police in 1677 and are still in business today! As part of a research project in conjunction with Heeley Historical Society and the Hawley Collection at Kelham Island Museum, we had information from the Trade Directories and Census Returns for the addresses we were excavating, and we knew a Policeman resided in one of the properties as a lodger at one stage. Did HE lose the button? It was very exciting!

The day was much of a sameness with trays coming in, trays being processed, context numbers being issued, participants and visitors being greeted. The huge excitement was all of us standing around Roger’s vehicle during the morning whilst we listened to Rony Robinson on BBC Radio Sheffield. He’d been out at the site previously to interview Roger and participants regarding the dig and interesting finds. Sally was talking to Rony live by phone and we found some of the comments really funny, such as the “Knicker Hoard of Heeley”. A collection of lady’s underwear had been discovered earlier on in the dig, and this had produced much hilarity amongst the volunteer staff. You don’t have to be mad to work here – but it helps!

As the personal belongings of all participants and staff were kept in the Finds Room, I was also responsible for ensuring the security of the room. Unless another member of staff was present I would secure it if needing to go elsewhere on the farm site such as the cafe (which is excellent!) or the toilets.
The dig day ended at 4pm, but certain tasks needed to be completed before we could leave. I would ensure the large table where I worked was tidy, that all finds trays were processed in the order they came in, and that all paperwork was in the correct folder. All staff would close the shutters, ensure all tools and display boards had been brought inside and we’d signed out before the room was secured and the shutters brought down. My day ended at 4:25pm before I headed home to collapse with my cats.
Usually Rachel Walker-Higgins, a friend of mine, had been assisting me in the Finds Room, but she was poorly that day, and I would like to thank her particularly as without her help I would never have coped with the demands of the role. I would also like to thank Roger for his patience and confidence in my abilities to be Finds Officer despite my limitations; Sally for the incredible opportunity she gave me and her undying confidence that I could achieve what was required; Giovanna Fregni for her support and advice which proved exceptionally valuable; Rach, Jane and Ken for repeatedly badgering me into taking breaks to rest and eat properly; but most of all I want to thank all of them for making me take days off when my exhaustion was severe despite my sense of duty, and their compassion and understanding regarding my disabilities. They helped me feel like I have a value, that my disabilities haven’t made me worthless, and that I still have something to contribute to society and the world around me. An exceptional experience and one which will look amazing on my archaeology resume. I’m still recovering now!

Community Heritage at Heeley City Farm

I am the Community Heritage Officer at Heeley City Farm in Sheffield.

We are running a Community Excavation ‘Life at No.57: The Sheffield Terraced House Dig’, its part of the CBA Festival for British Archaeology. Today is Day 14 of 16 days of excavation. It is a community dig run in partnership with the University of Sheffield but with lots of volunteers of all sorts and ages. The project really wouldn’t be possible without our amazing volunteers who are doing everything from keeping the finds room under control to supervising the trenches and keeping me organised. The Dig is free and open to everyone.

My Day started with a live phone interview with BBC Radio Sheffield to promote the Dig, my phone contribution was part of a large piece which had been record on site the day before with interviews with Dr Roger Doonan from the University of Sheffield, Megan and Morgan two 10 year old volunteers on their first dig and Joseph one of our volunteer supervisors who began his career in Archaeology through the Sheffield YAC (Young Archaeologists Club) and who is now just waiting for his A-Level results, we all have our fingers crossed for him as he wants to take up his university place to study Archaeology. We talked about why we are excavating 3 Victorian terraced houses on a city farm, who lived in them what we have found and who has taken part so far.

Radio Interview

During the interview a lady living in rang the radio station, she lives in Hampshire and had been listening on-line as she used to live in Sheffield, it turns out that she lived on the very street we are excavating! The houses were all demolished in the 1970’s and she lived there as a child just before they were pulled down. The BBC producer passed on my number to her and we had a lovely chat, she is going to e-mail me her memories of the street.

When I began work on site the volunteers had already started and our 3 trenches were going very well. We have 3 large trenches, Trench A has the front wall of No.50 Richards Road, Trench B has the front cellars of No.52 and 54 Richards Road and a passage into the back yards, the biggest trench , trench C has the back yards of 4 houses and an outhouse.

This is the third year of this project and its getting better each year, this year we have been looking for evidence of light trades and home-working, trades such as button-making and handle-finishing, we have found evidence of this in previous years. Our work will be supported this year by an exhibition all about trades in Heeley 100 years ago at Kelham Island Museum.

I spent most of the Day supervising volunteers and the trenches. Today we had about 40? volunteers or visitors to the site (it might be more, not had time to add everyone up yet) all the children are getting credit for their involvement through the Children’s University so i spend some time registering people for this.

We had a visit from a local Heritage Photographer who is artist in residence at the moment in the Archaeology Department at Sheffield University he took lots of lovely photos of people at work in the trenches as well as a few of our reconstructed Iron Age Roundhouse which happens to be in the same field as the trenches.

We finished and packed up at 4, I said some sad goodbyes to volunteers digging for their last day, tidied and locked up up our finds room and came to do some paper work.

I’m working on getting ready for a lovely new storytelling project next week, a summer holiday week of activities built around a historical mystery with lots of trips out for 9 to 11 year old’s.

Community Heritage always involves doing at least 3 projects at once. its now 5.30 and I’m going to walk home for my tea.

Prehistory by phone and e-mail

Hello! I’m Sue Greaney, and I work for English Heritage as a Senior Properties Historian. A historian, I hear you gasp? I thought this was a place for archaeologists? Fear not, I am an archaeologist – my job title isn’t particularly accurate as its archaeology and prehistory that are my specialist subjects!

Today is an office day in Swindon. Not huge amounts of digging in my life, unfortunately, unless you count digging in archives, libraries and my own computer filing system. My day also doesn’t have any meetings or scheduled site visits in it, so that is a bonus – I’ll be catching up on quite a few different pieces of work, so you’ll get an idea of the wide range of things I do.

Me at my desk.

The major project that I’m currently working on is the new visitor centre that we are planning for Stonehenge. I’m the archaeologist advising on the content of the new exhibition and the new interpretation for our thousands of visitors. It’s a really important project and most days I have to pinch myself that I get to work on it. I work closely with a small project team dedicated to the interpretation, learning and outreach elements of the project.

First thing I uploaded photographs from a field visit to Kilmartin Glen in Argyll, Scotland last week and put them on our SharePoint site. Not a usual port of call as by its very nature working for English Heritage usually involves England! But Kilmartin House Museum is renowned as a prehistoric museum, and the landscape has been fully interpreted and designed for visitors to explore. It even has two podcasts. We went to see the new European funded interpretation scheme in the area, to meet the museum curator. It’s not a dissimilar approach to the one we’ll be taking at Stonehenge– we want to equip people in our visitor centre to understand Stonehenge, but also the various monuments and features they’ll see in the landscape, and also encourage them to get out and explore the rest of the World Heritage Site.

Some of the new interpretation at Kilmartin Glen

A series of phone calls followed. Talked to an interpretation colleague about the reconstructed Neolithic houses that we’re planning for the external gallery at the visitor centre, arrangements for a site visit to Stonehenge next week and our temporary exhibition programme. Talked to a scientist colleague of mine down at Fort Cumberland about some externally commissioned research. Talked to a visitor operations colleague at Stonehenge about the Neolithic houses. You wouldn’t believe what a busy summer they’re having! Couple of e-mails sent to Stonehenge team members and archives staff at our National Monuments Record.

Tea break. Right, onto some proper work. The rest of the morning was spent doing some research that will support the contents of our display cases in the visitor centre exhibition. This involved writing up a paper for discussion at a meeting next week, using our own internal (and rather wonderful) webGIS, the Pastscape website (we have our own internal databases behind this, but Pastscape works so well I use it a lot) and the fantastic Wiltshire Heritage Museum collections database. I can’t tell you much about what’s actually going into the cases, as it wouldn’t be a surprise when you all come and see the new visitor centre when it opens in 2013! Suffice to say that I spent the rest of the morning and a few hours after lunch looking at lovely prehistoric objects and reading antiquarian and 20th century archaeology accounts of their discoveries.

After sending off this and another paper to the Stonehenge interpretation officer and curator, I sent confirmation to a freelance researcher that we were taking him on for a small piece of synthesis/writing work.

Ok, time to clear some of my e-mail inbox. I’ve been so busy this week that several things have been neglected for quite a few days. First, I arranged a meeting date with colleagues in September to review the next stages of the Stonehenge scanning project. Next, I responded to a query from the curator at Salisbury Museum about where the late Paul Ashbee’s archive is residing. I downloaded some mapping tiles that I need to create a map which will go on an interpretation panel at Kingston Russell Stone Circle, one of our small free properties down in Dorset. When I’m not thinking about Stonehenge I usually pick up a few interpretation projects at our free properties.

Kingston Russell stone circle, Dorset

And then the most important e-mail of the day – anyone up for the pub? Well, it is a Friday! Cue random exchange of e-mails from my friends at work.

Next I respond to request from BBC Learning for an EH expert on Vikings. Not sure if we have one of those! And reply with photographs to a colleague of mine in York who is working on the EH Coastal Risk Assessment and wanted some information about cliff erosion near one of our guardianship properties at Halangy Down on the Isles of Scilly. This is somewhere I did some research and interpretation a couple of years ago.

Me at Halangy Porth beach, Isles of Scilly, a few years ago

Well, there ends the Day of Archaeology. Now to add the blog post! Let’s do this again next year.

2. Getting started in Archaeology: volunteering and studying as a part-time mature student

Getting started in archaeology: volunteering and studying as a part-time mature student

I’m going to explain how and why I came into archaeology (which will discuss volunteering and studying as a part-time mature student), and why I went into the field of early medieval archaeology. I hope this will show the positive effects of history and archaeology in schools, the role of museums in stimulating interest, and the significance of public access to archaeology. It will also hopefully provide some insight into the value of education, and the challenges of studying archaeology as a mature student.

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