British Isles

A Day in the Life of an Archaeobotanist

8AM: As an archaeobotanist I can have a bit of variety in my work schedule. I can be called on to go on site at very short notice, but generally my base is in the office, doing assessments and analysis on any plant remains retrieved from site.

 

I arrive at the office (Museum of London Archaeology) around 8am. First order of business is usually making a cup of tea and eating breakfast while I wait for my computer to boot up. Then I check through any emails that arrived overnight before starting on my current project.

 

The practical work I’m doing today is part of an environmental assessment for a large waterfront site in London. Around 250 bulk environmental samples were taken during excavation at the site. We processed these in flotation tanks and now it’s my job to scan through the clean remains under a low powered microscope to see if they’re archaeologically interesting, recording very broadly what’s present. Once I’ve finished scanning all the flots, I’ll produce tables of the remains and write a report with recommendations for the next stage of work. This might include anything from recommending further archaeobotanical work on certain samples, to beetle analysis or wood species identification.

Cups of tea: 1.

 

where the magic happens

My work space

10 am: I’ve assessed two flots so far this morning – I could easily have spent much longer on them, but keeping to deadlines and budget is very important in commercial archaeology. Both samples contained lots of stems, some meadow type taxa, bran (the outer layer of cereal grains) and some fruit remains like fig seeds and apple endocarp (the tough bit around the seeds). At this stage I’d suggest they might be mixed dumps of stabling waste and household waste, but I’ll leave it to the analysis stage to really investigate.

Cups of tea: 2

Flots assessed: 2

 

12pm: Not much to report I’m afraid. I’ve assessed two more flots, one with quite a lot of wood chips in it, which might suggest woodworking at the site. At least all the flots have lots of plant remains though! I’ll often have to slog through loads of samples with nothing interesting at all turning up.

 

I’ve also been reminded of one of the perils of being married to another archaeologist – I have been tasked with carrying a metal detector home on the bus so he doesn’t have to come in to the office on Monday morning to collect it himself.

Cups of tea: 3

Flots assessed: 4

 

12.30pm LUNCH!

Cups of tea: 5

Flots assessed: 4.5

Lunchtime conversation topics: Tim Burton movies, Start Trek TNG, cheese fondue.

 

2pm: Still plugging away at the flots, and am now assessing one that’s full of charred wheat chaff as well as waterlogged wood chips. A pretty odd mix, but then all sorts of things float up on a river bank, as anyone who’s taken a walk along the Thames foreshore could tell you. I’ve also fielded a few tech queries from one of the less IT literate of my colleagues here, and a phone call about flotation tank meshes. Ah, the adventurous life of an archaeobotanist.

Cups of tea: Still 5

Flots assessed: 6

 

3.30pm: Had a good chat with our timber specialist about exotic wood timbers (exotic for us being anything not native to the British Isles). Working in London, which has been a trading hub since the Romans founded the city in the first century AD, means that we get woods from all over the world turning up in excavations, particularly in postmedieval deposits. Wood species ID is another one of my jobs at MOLA, so we often work together on assemblages.

Cups of tea: 6

Flots assessed: 8

 

3.30-4pm: For the last half hour of my working day I’ll be replying to emails, tidying up my workspace and washing my lab ware, and filling out my timesheet for the week.

 

And maybe I’ll squeeze in one last cup of tea.

New Bronze Age finds at the British Museum

We have a morning mystery. I have no idea what to expect when I get to the British Museum at 10am, other than there will be two hoards, both from the Late Bronze Age, c. 950-800 cal. BC., that have recently been found, and I have to identify the contents and write a specialist report.

If any of you have ever watched Time Team, you’ll know that archaeologists come in all shapes and sizes, and do numerous different jobs. So, we don’t all dig. At least not all the time. Rather than putting trowel to dirt, I spend most of my time routing around in museum archives looking through collections of artefacts.

I’m a doctoral researcher at the Groningen Institute of Archaeology, University of Groningen, in the Netherlands. I am doing my PhD on the use of bronze weapons, that is rapiers and swords, of the Later Bronze Age in southern England, c. 1400-950 cal. BC.

I’m what they call a metalwork expert, specialised in the bronze artefacts of the Bronze Age, in my case covering what is known as the Atlantic Bronze Age, being the British Isles, coastal and Channel France, the southern Low Countries, and Iberia. I currently live in London, and am in the last 6 weeks of writing up my thesis.

However, I was asked on Wednesday evening by the British Museum’s Curator of European Bronze Age archaeology in the Department of Prehistory and Europe, Dr. Ben Roberts, if I would stop by the British Museum and have a look at two new Late Bronze Age hoards that have just been discovered. Upon discovery they were reported to their local museum, where a Finds Liaison Officer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme would have reported and listed the objects. They have subsequently come to the British Museum to be studied and a short, specialist report produced on them.

It’s these specialist reports, known as treasury Reports, that I’m going to be working on today, and blogging about.

I have no idea what to expect when I get to the British Museum, other than there will be two hoards, both from the Late Bronze Age, c. 950-800 cal. BC, and that there are fragments of sword and socketed axe in them…

Further details about the Portable Antiquities Scheme, your local Finds Liaison Officer and what to do if you find something that you may believe to be of historical and archaeological significance can be found on the Portable Antiquities Website (http://finds.org.uk). Elsewhere on the Day of Archaeology site you’ll also find members of the Portable Antiquities Scheme blogging about their days too.

Archaeological Conservation at the Kelsey Museum

At the University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, my colleague Claudia and I provide conservation for the Museum’s daily activities as well as for two of its excavations. Today we’re working on objects from Karanis, a Graeco-Roman farming town in Egypt, where the University of Michigan excavated in the 1920’s.

These objects will be shown in an upcoming exhibition here at the Kelsey Museum, Karanis Revealed, and they are currently undergoing conservation.

Two of these objects, the knife and the inkwell (top), will need conservation treatment before they’re exhibited. The knife blade, made of iron, has active corrosion that could get worse during the exhibition. The inkwell, made of faience, has cracks and areas where the surface needs to stabilized. The painted bone on the lower right just needs extra TLC; low light to protect the paint from fading, and special handling since the paint is powdery and comes off easily when the bone is touched.

The research and examination undertaken by conservators can help archaeologists understand the materials they excavate, but the primary goal of archaeological conservation is to preserve excavated artifacts. It would be sad if something that’s survived for 2,000 years fell apart after excavation for lack of care!