Commercial archaeology

Starting Over in Alberta

The Alberta weather is sometimes cold

The Alberta weather is sometimes cold

This year, the Day of Archaeology actually fell upon the first day of a four day weekend. Having moved to Alberta from Wisconsin in late-2014, I’m currently working a 10-day on/four-day off shift as a field tech for a Canadian Cultural Resource Management company. Actually, they constantly remind me that I’m not a field tech, if only because they don’t use that particular title. Officially, I’m a staff archaeologist working for this particular firm for a limited time. The job duties are essentially the same, though. I basically accompany a higher ranking archaeologist and help them by doing the basics: dig, walk a lot, look for historic properties, and take notes. I’m pretty removed from any decision-making, which after 15 years of being in a supervisory role, is both incredibly relaxing and somewhat boring. It’s nice to be free of the stress and obligations of being a boss. At the same time, I really enjoy performing a lot of the boss-type duties.

In Alberta, you need to be issued a permit in order to conduct archaeological excavation. I’ve been approved to apply for one, with certain reasonable restrictions. This means that I could theoretically work for a firm as a permit-holder, and run my own projects. Unfortunately, I chose pretty much the worst time to move to Alberta. With the price of oil in the tank, development has all but stopped. There just aren’t very many archaeology positions, this year, so I feel lucky to have the job I do. The only other place that seems to be hiring is apparently working their staff for long shifts comprised of 12-hour days. That just sounds like burn out city to me. I can’t imagine how someone could consistently produce quality work with that sort of schedule and I wonder how many will still want to do archaeology in five-years time.

The typical day starts with a safety meeting, which is called a tailgate meeting despite the fact that most of them don’t occur at the tailgate of our truck. After that, the bosses knock out any coordination with the client that might remain. Then, we head out to the project site, where we drive around looking for sites and historic structures. We follow a judgemental survey strategy, which means we dig shovel tests in places where we think there’s a good chance of finding a site. This targeted approach is different than the systematic survey methods that I’m used to. For that, we shovel test along regular intervals in order to get broader coverage. There can be some down time while bosses do boss stuff. Flexibility is an essential skill for a (not a-) field tech.

During all of this, we talk. In addition to the usual discussions about our interests in pop culture, we discuss archaeology. As a result of the judgemental method of surveying, we debate about where sites might be located and how that differs between the boreal forest, the northern plains, the alpine portion of the Rockies, and any other places that we know about. We talk about possible interpretations of the sites that we’re currently working on. We compare the differences in the compliance process between Alberta, the other Canadian provinces, and the United States, which has strong federal legislation. We talk about the job market and the potential for work after the project ends. This all helps me calibrate my reasoning to the Albertan way of doing things, as well as the local variations of cultural property that we might encounter.

This job is sort of a restart for me. In addition to just getting the local experience that employers want to see, it lets me see the local archaeological properties, methods, and processes first hand so I can relate it back to what I already know. I’ve been taking advantage of the opportunities to discuss our work with my coworkers and that will hopefully lead to more (and longterm!) employment in the future. The bottom line for many of the archaeologists that you might have seen in other Day of Archaeology posts is that archaeology isn’t just something we love, it’s something we do to (hopefully) pay the bills. Trying to make that profession fit with the rest of our lives can sometimes be a challenge. In my case, moving has required me to restart my career in a number of ways.

The value of non-academic archaeology

I’m a PhD candidate at a major research university. I’ll be defending my NSF-funded dissertation this fall and – finally! – graduating with that long-sought doctorate. And like most freshly-minted PhDs, I’ll be navigating the job market over the coming months and hoping for validation of the blood, sweat, and years I’ve put into earning this degree. But unlike many of my colleagues, I got my start in cultural heritage management (CRM) archaeology, and I currently work for my state government as a transportation archaeologist. This post is all about why the non-academic, contract-based (but still professional!) work – the sensitivity assessments, the pre-construction field surveys, the endless negotiations with engineers, developers, land owners, and bureaucrats, and the reports (oh, the reports!) – is every bit as important to our field as the comparatively glamorous work of  research-focused archaeology (which, I won’t hesitate to admit, has the potential to be a lot more exciting a lot more often).

First of all, CRM exists for a very good reason – the National Heritage Preservation Act (1966) and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (1979) were both enacted in recognition of the fact archaeological and cultural resources are put at risk whenever developments (new construction, re-alignment or renovation of existing infrastructure, etc.) occur. CRM firms, and state and federal archaeology programs, fulfill the mandate of those acts to protect tangible and intangible cultural resources in the face of development.

Beyond this well-known reason, though, lies another facet of non-academic (or “mitigation”) archaeology: it’s inherently public. Public archaeology, as a practice within academia, has gained increasing attention of late for its engagement of local communities, its usefulness as a “face” for our discipline, and its contribution of alternative perspectives on both history and prehistory. It is, in part, the answer to the complaint that academics only talk to each other. Federally-mandated professional mitigation archaeology, on the other hand, has always been outward-facing. Those endless negotiations with engineers, developers, land owners, and bureaucrats – taxing as they can be – mean we are constantly talking about what we do and why we do it to non-archaeologists of many stripes.

As a transportation archaeologist, I might get sent anywhere in the state for any number of kinds of projects, I have to be ready to interface with construction workers, residents of soon-to-be-developed land (who may be soon forced out of their homes), tribal representatives, fellow state employees, curious passers-by, you name it. My job description might not state, per se, that I am required to “sell” the value of archaeology to anyone, but it’s built in to what I do. And beyond just acting as (hopefully) good PR for our discipline, I get to hear what non-archaeologists think of our work and of the past that we study. I don’t always want to hear person X’s theory on why aliens built the pyramids (ugh) – but I never get tired of being told how fascinating the past is. I never get bored with being reminded of how unusual and how extraordinary an archaeologist’s work is. More importantly, I get to be a part of cross-disciplinary dialogue, even if on a small scale. And if there’s one thing I never tire of, it’s talking to people about archaeology.

Core blimey! Jason Stewart and the Sediment Core Samples

The best thing about working as a geoarchaeologist at MOLA is the variety; one day I could be watching a machine ripping through the odorous remains of a 19th century gas works, the next day could find me wrestling with the implications of a newly returned set of radiocarbon dates.

Today however finds me in the lab examining sediment cores retrieved from an evaluation. The site is in Dartford within the Thames estuary and has early prehistoric peat forming on top of the cold climate landsurface with various phases of being mudflat, marshland or flooded.

The cores are carefully laid out with the top of the borehole at one end of the lab and the base at the other. As there is 16m of sequence and the cores are 1.5m long and filled with heavy sediment this can take longer than you would think.  The cores are then methodically cleaned and the colour texture, inclusions and nature of the boundaries are recorded.  This detailed cleaning and logging allows me to think about the depositional environment of the site and the nature and rate of the changes that occur.

The next task is to select the locations from which to take samples, we take samples for radiocarbon dating, this enables us to places the changes in environment in some kind of chronological framework allowing us to compare the developments onsite with other work we have done in the surrounding area.  We also sample for things which will tell us about the environment in the past (usually pollen, diatoms, ostracods and plant remains).  These are carefully sliced from the core and sealed in labelled bags to be sent off to the various specialists.  The cores are then re-wrapped and returned to their climate controlled environment, the lab surfaces cleaned and the results typed up.

Jason Stewart

Louise Davies: Not a typical archaeologist

If I have a pound for every time someone had asked me what the most exciting thing I’d ever found was, or which exotic places I’d been digging in, then I’d be very rich. The truth is I’ve never found anything amazing, and I’ve never worked outside the UK (unless you count a month training dig in Menorca in summer 2000, although I wouldn’t exactly call that work). I’m not a typical archaeologist, but it doesn’t mean I love my profession any less.

As part of the project management team at MOLA we are responsible for all the unglamorous aspects of archaeological excavations; the planning and preparation, the costings, the invoicing, the endless meeting about piling, but without us then the exciting work would never take place.

We have often been working on a project for years before excavation starts; negotiating with curators, meeting with planners, quantity surveyors, architects, and demolition contractors. Poring over plans for temporary works and figuring out how we can stop the pavement falling into the excavation area with sheet piles, whilst not destroying any archaeology in the process of inserting the sheet piles. We have to make judgements about time and cost of excavations based on sometimes scant information, trying to do the best for our clients whilst ensuring the archaeology is properly recorded. Archaeology is never straight forward, and we generally have no say in when we can go on site to start work, but we will do everything we can to fill gaps in the MOLA excavation programme and try to maintain constant employment for our hard working field team.

So today, as I sit at my desk sending out invoices and thinking about all the amazing artefacts I have never found, I am happy knowing that my work means something. Without archaeologists excavating and recording the remains left behind by an infinite number of lost Londoners before they are gone for ever beneath another glass sky scraper, then the world would be a much more boring place.

Uncovering Ontario’s History since 1972

Archaeological Research Associates Ltd. (ARA) is Ontario’s oldest archaeological and heritage consulting firm, uncovering Ontario’s history since 1972.

Over the past 43 years, ARA has completed hundreds of contracts for clients in the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors across Ontario. With strong ties to Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU) in Waterloo, Ontario, ARA has consistently been staffed with the best and brightest archaeologists and heritage specialists in Ontario.

Stage 4

At ARA, we approach the landscape in a holistic way, offering services in both Archaeology and  Heritage. We have a strong commitment and Education and Outreach, sharing our knowledge with the public and engaging them in learning about their local and greater community.


Archaeology

ARA’s Archaeology Department is responsible for conducting all 4 Stages of archaeological assessments as regulated by the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport (MTCS).

Stage 1 investigations consist of an archival search of any known historical, environmental and archaeological data for the study area. The information obtained in this search may be used to determine the archaeological potential of the study area. Sources in Stage 1 investigations may include, but are not limited to, historical maps and archives, oral histories, geophysical mapping, and Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport site records.

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During Stage 2 assessments, field crews are dispatched to the study area to examine it directly for the presence of archaeological and heritage resources. Visual inspection or subsurface-testing techniques are employed depending on field conditions. Significant archaeological finds are noted on large-scale field maps, and diagnostic artifacts (i.e. buttons, coins, pottery, bone, stone tools) are retained for analysis. At this point, MTCS guidelines are employed to determine whether or not a site requires further investigation.

In this photo our Field Technicians are completing a Test Pit survey to identify any new archaeological resources in the study area. This particular survey required some creative transportation in the middle of the assessment!

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Peter and Crew 2

We always gain permission to enter the property where we are working, here Field Director Sarah has made a new friend in this pygmy goat while checking in with some property owners before beginning their assessment.

Sarah and Goat

After Stage 2, our crews may continue to excavate an archaeological site at the Stage 3 level. A Stage 3 assessment is conducted if a potentially culturally-significant deposit is encountered during Stage 2 investigation. The site is subject to a controlled surface pickup (CSP) in which all artifacts visible on the surface are individually plotted using a Global Positioning System (GPS) device. All of our surface artifacts here are marked by red and white straws.

Rock GPS

In Stage 3, a series of 1×1 m test excavation units are placed in a grid formation, and the resulting artifacts and soil features are used to determine age, cultural affiliation, density, and extent. A determination is made, in consultation with the MTCS, regarding the need for further investigation in the form of full (Stage 4) excavation.

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Filling a Unit

Being responsible archaeologists means back-filling all of the units that we excavate…but sometimes the soil just doesn’t want to fit back in the same space! Here we see crew member Owen doing his best high-jumps to pack the soil back in!

In the below photo we are excavating a Euro-Canadian site at the Stage 4 level. In this final phase of the process, a site which is endangered and cannot be preserved is subjected to excavation. Stage 4 excavations are carried out according to MTCS guidelines and industry-accepted standards and practices. At ARA, we endeavour to collect research-grade data. Our collections are effectively curated and are made available to qualified scholars and researchers.

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Pam HiVis

Field work can be dirty but we do have fun! We rock the most enviable styles… #fashion

Mikes Goodbye

And sometimes you just want to rule from a throne of dirt! Did we mention our Game of Thrones obsession might have run a little wild? #MustLoveDirt

Unlike archaeology in the movies, the work is seldom glamorous. Archaeological work is physically demanding. Working out-of-doors means exposure to the elements and biting insects; frequently in isolated and sometimes challenging conditions.

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#NotTodayTicks

At the same time the archaeologist occasionally has an opportunity unavailable to others – to be the first to discover and retrieve artifacts last used by people that came before us hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. It is through these artifacts and other evidence preserved in the record of the past, that their experiences come to life once again.

FridayFun


Heritage

In addition to looking at cultural heritage resources below the ground in the archaeology department, ARA’s Heritage Department also looks at built heritage resources and cultural heritage landscapes. Our job is to help piece together the history of individual properties and landscapes.

Most of our jobs start in the field doing site visits (rain, shine, sleet or snow!). We get to get up close and personal with lots of different types of buildings and structures. We document their layout, location and condition through floor plans, photographs and even measured drawings.

Kayla and Sarah - Tower in Kingston

These investigations can take you to some very interesting places, like this former military tower!

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Here we are taking a close look at some wood flooring to determine if it is original to the structure

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We’re testing the pH level of a gravestone to assist with a condition assessment.

Research at local archives is like a treasure hunt. One newspaper clipping may make the whole history of a building fall into place. We find all kinds of interesting articles, from an ad in a 1820s newspaper for a circus held behind a subject building advertising “Grand Entrée by six horses which will go through many pleasing maneuvers” or a fur company catalogue showing stylish men and women. By reading through a record of land transactions we can determine who owned the land and how long they lived there. By examining historic photos or maps we can see the progression of a building over time.

Map 15 Building Footprints

Our work helps to tell the stories of the buildings that were witness to incredible moments in history, ordinary lives lived, and the growth of our cities and towns. We dig deep to describe the people who once lived, worked and played in these buildings, and their importance to the community both past and present.


Outreach and Education

ARA is also very involved in numerous Outreach and Education initiatives. Our Heritage Department recently worked with the City of Burlington and Heritage Burlington to draft stories for 30 themes and 30 properties in the City for their new website (www.heritageburlington.ca). The research for this involved detailed investigations of many interesting local legends. This website’s goal is to engage the community in learning about their history, and sharing their own stories.

Heritage Burlington WebsiteIn honour of Aboriginal Month (June) in Canada, our Heritage Cartographer worked on a joint project with the Kitchener Public Library to produce the “Local Aboriginal History and Culture Bike Tour”. The Library made this guide available online and in it’s main branch, and held guided tours through out the month.

Large Map Design May 26 2015 v2To view and print the brochure:
http://www.kpl.org/_docs/gsr/AboriginalHistory/TourMap.pdf

We also speak and lecture at various venues. From opening the Mississauga’s of the New Credit First Nation Annual Gathering, to jetting off to Alberta to talk about social media, we are always excited to talk about our passions!

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Our Heritage Manager talking about “Heritage is #trending” at the Municipal Heritage Forum in Alberta, Canada.

Speaking of social media, for more behind-the-scenes photos, interesting cultural heritage news, and all things ARA please check out our Facebook Page (ArchaeologicalResearchAssociates); Twitter profiles @ArchResearch and @ARAHeritage and to further fuel your Pinterest obsession you can find us at www.pinterest.com/araarchaeology and www.pinterest.com/araheritage.

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Jon Chandler: The day to day assessment of our cities

My name is Jon Chandler. I am Lead Consultant Archaeologist with the Heritage Consultancy team. I have various responsibilities, including quality assurance technical reviews of our archaeological desk-based assessments. Developers use these to support planning applications – anything from a residential development to major infrastructure projects. Recently this included the Thames Tideway Tunnel, Thames Water’s new sewer for London. For over two years I managed a team of up to 15 consultants and specialists in archaeology and buildings assessment, foreshore archaeology and geoarchaeology.

A broad range of archaeological, documentary and cartographic sources and geological information is consulted for our reports. We try to establish the archaeological potential of the site, taking into account factors compromising survival (e.g. existing basements, foundations, services and landscaping). The likely significance of any archaeological remains is assessed, along with the impact of the proposed development. We provide recommendations which the local authority planners will use to decide what must be done as part of granting planning consent.

This morning I am looking at a development site on the Isle of Dogs. This area is now heavily built over but in the prehistoric, Roman and medieval periods was all open floodplain marsh prone to flooding. Prior to rising water levels, the underlying topography would have comprised gravel islands suitable for prehistoric settlement, and deeper channels, crossed by timber trackways in the Bronze Age. Such remains are buried beneath a sequence of deep alluvium floodplain above which is a thick deposit of ‘made ground’ (artificial ground) dumped here from the excavation of the adjacent docks in the mid-19th century.”

We need to assess what depth the archaeology is likely to be at (possibly 3–4 metres down), and how the construction of the new building will affect any remains that might be present. We also need to know whether this is evidence of prehistoric activity or 19th century dockyard remains.

This afternoon I will start to review an early draft of our Portsmouth Harbour Hinterland Project, which is funded by Historic England. The Royal Navy established Portsea Island as its main harbour and base in the 16th-century. As a consequence, the surrounding rural hinterland was developed with an extensive supporting infrastructure, protected by a significant group of sea and land defences. Much of this survives today, but their heritage significance in relation to the docks is not always fully recognised. The aim of the project is to enhance understanding and heighten awareness of how the Portsmouth hinterland has developed as a result of the naval base. This helps to assist local decision making, planning, development and management of the historic environment.

As part of the project a survey toolkit and user-friendly guided will be created. This will help the local community and volunteers identify the presence of buildings, landscape and other heritage assets associated with the development of the hinterland. It enables the local community to further understand and add detail to the narrative.

Yesterday, the MOLA project team met with Historic England to discuss progress on the two-year London Urban Archaeological Database project. We are digitising, in a Geographical Information System (GIS), the location and extent of all past archaeological investigations in the historic centre of London. Thousands of investigations have been carried out (see the map). The information will enhance the data held by the Greater London Historic Environment Record.

Rainy day

Day of Archaeology 2015 begins slowly. Yesterday we spent all day in the sunshine, completing the site plan of a curious series of irregular pits, packed with burnt grain, charcoal and heat-shattered stones. These are evidently medieval, on the grounds that a single medieval pottery sherd was found in the mix! Explaining why the pits are where they are and what exactly was going on may prove more difficult. We have bulk samples for study and charcoal to radiocarbon date. This will take time to unpick.

No outdoor activity today whatsoever. Its raining steadily. So a day in front of computers it will be. We have several assessments to undertake for single, on-farm, wind turbines. We also have a trip to plan for next week, up to Shropshire, to dig some evaluation trenches on anomalies picked up by a geophysical survey on the proposed site of a small solar farm.

2015, like 2014, is largely about renewable energy projects. Now the British government seems determined to roll back the progress made by the renewable sector. This bizarre development may well impact upon the archaeology sector, as many firms undertake work associated with renewable energy developments. This comes on top of the threat to take brownfield sites out of the planning system in England. Even here in West Wales we sense that the cold winds of austerity are starting to blow through the world of the archaeologist. So Day of Archaeology 2015 comes at a time when the future for our sector is somewhat clouded by uncertainty. But we plod on…

If I told you, I’d have to kill you….

The Day of Archaeology is meant to be an opportunity to give the wider public an insight into the work of archaeologists -‘a life in the day of an archaeologist’. Most posts will be about the specific work the archaeologist is doing on the Day of Archaeology, but this one won’t be. I’m not allowed to tell you what I am digging, or where I am working. I’d like to say that if I told you I’d have to kill you, but the reality is I’d probably just be thrown off the project.

It is not that I am working on some top secret government excavation, it is simply that my client- who is developing the site- doesn’t want any uncontrolled publicity. So….instead I’m going to talk about some of the issues around publicity and openness in commercial archaeology.

Archaeology as public benefit

One clear justification for archaeological work is that it has a public benefit, and that people are interested in what we do- in fact several major contracting units are ‘educational charities’ as the carrying out and dissemination of archaeological work is considered to be of intrinsic benefit. Many commercial archaeologists spend a lot of their time trying to inform people of what exactly it is we are actually doing, after all there is little point in doing our work if people can’t hear about it. So it can seem a trifle odd that we spend a lot of our time palming off passers-by with vague statements, weasel words and (frankly) bullshit. We would (usually) love to tell you more, but often we simply aren’t allowed.

Confidentiality

Why? Well, a lot of sites have confidentiality clauses written in, as do many employment contracts. You simply aren’t allowed to talk about what you are working on. Breaking the confidentiality clause can have serious repercussions- I know of several archaeologists who have been severely reprimanded for posting photos or comments on Facebook about the sites they work on, and of at least one archaeologist who has been sacked for tweeting about their job. I would bet that at least a few Day of Archaeology bloggers will be breaching their contracts by posting about their site!

Most archaeological work in the UK is done within the planning system and since planning applications are often locally very contentious ‘the archaeology’ can become a football for use by all sides. As someone who spends a lot of time working in development archaeology, but who is also facing the prospect of 140 new houses in the field behind my home, I can kind of see both sides. If there are any possible archaeological remains on a site then those can be used to lobby to stop development (although only development would usually see those remains excavated) and dry, factual archaeological statements can be twisted by both sides to support their argument. It’s a sad situation that sees archaeologists stuck in the middle and often not able to talk about what they have found. They can be attacked by vested interests on both sides, and often it is easier to keep quiet and not say anything at all.

In my personal view however, keeping quiet is usually not a good idea. People will always fill a vacuum with noise; better to have good, open communication to the locals- it is their heritage after all. Desk Based Assessments and Evaluation reports will usually be posted on the Planning Portal, so the question to clients is why not make the most out of what you are paying to have dug up?

Making it public

Several large commercial excavations have managed to deal with the issues of publicity and control in an adult way: producing real-time blogs, websites and updates throughout the life of the project. There are some really supportive clients who realise that archaeology can bring excellent publicity for their company -last year I worked on one such site for a local pub who were fantastic clients and who actively supported blogging about their site; they ended up with a short piece in The Sun and Current Archaeology, and lots of free publicity for their business, as well as the respect of many locals for funding what turned out to be a very important excavation.

Public talks, open days and displays can all get the information out to those who are interested; local societies are always interested in talks on local excavations. Displays of key finds are also a good way of telling a site’s story- although dusty cabinets in office foyers can feel a bit unloved, especially after a few years have passed, but they can work really well in getting museum finds into the wider world.

The Risks

Of course there can be some good reasons why you might want to keep shtum on a finding- you might need to do complex specialist tests like DNA or radio carbon, further background research or prepare a decent press release so you can tell the story better. There are also times when you don’t want rivals to steal your findings: excavation reports can take years to come out and there are some ‘academics’ who are known to use information heard ‘down the pub’ to try and beat the scoop by rushing out articles based on incomplete evidence.

There is also a risk of attracting nighthawks– thieves who use metal-detectors to rob sites of finds and disturb the archaeological deposits. I’m not sure whether publicity does attract significantly more nighthawks, but it is a risk. Sites with human remains are often considered similarly risky to publicise- on many cemetery sites you simply can’t lift all exposed burials every day, and there is a risk of people breaking in to steal skulls, as well as legal obligations to keep the remains screened from public view that can be problematic.

And partly some of the reticence is because we are a bit scarred by press reports that exaggerate and embellish the carefully crafted press statement, and home in on the irrelevant or the photogenic. This makes us want to control the media more, rather than realising that we just have to accept occasionally crap reporting and rely on the intelligence of the public to follow the links to the real story.

The Public Face of Archaeology

The public face of archaeology is vitally important: we carry out excavations because people are interested in what we do, and they are interested in us. If we don’t try and communicate and stay sealed off behind our hoardings then we shouldn’t expect the public to support or understand the work we do. Clients will often be reticent about opening up a wider public engagement and worry about the risk of bad publicity, but as long as the excavation is being done properly, and the reasons, methodology and findings are clearly communicated, then there is seldom a risk of this. Some clients will wait until after the site is finished before sending out a press release and this is perhaps a happy medium between full openness and secrecy. There are real risks, especially if you make unexpected discoveries, but in my view it is nearly always better to get good, factual information out first, rather than having to react to bad press.

The Cost

Of course the key question is cost, everything costs money, and clients are concerned about the cost of hoarding posters, viewing galleries, open days and the possible pressure to do further work beyond the brief. And our time as archaeologists is also dear -evenings giving lectures or weekend open days are not always paid, and we have a hard enough job meeting deadlines without the extra work of organising public engagement and writing blog posts in our spare time. But the cost is usually worth it for all parties -the archaeologists benefit from having to communicate their findings in a clear and understandable way, and can learn new skills at public events, ties are made with local communities, the public benefit from learning about their archaeology and heritage, and the clients generally get good publicity and a visible profile.

Sensible site publicity doesn’t need to be hard work, many sites post construction updates on their hoardings, and archaeology can easily be added into this. It doesn’t need to be academic level, peer-reviewed text, just a basic outline of what is known and what has been found. A few photos and some background text and that is enough for most people who are walking past the site, if you can link to a company website or a project blog then fantastic- you can use QR codes so passers-by can scan get more information on the spot.

So the next time an archaeologist spins you some vague bullshit through the Heras fence about ‘old stuff’, or is evasive and changes the subject when you ask if ‘you’ve found anything interesting’, just remember that they may actually be itching to tell you all about the ditch they’ve been digging, or the pottery they just found, they just aren’t allowed.

Michael Marshall (MOLA): looking at small finds from Cheapside, London

I’m spending this Day of Archaeology writing up the small assemblage of Roman and medieval small finds and Roman glass from a MOLA excavation on Cheapside in the City of London. It is a bit of a break from the Roman Walbrook sites which have really been at the centre of my working life for the last couple of years.

The Cheapside excavation is an interesting site overall but the finds assemblage is small and not terribly well-preserved and so it makes only a modest contribution to the wider story of the site. The Roman glass is fairly commonplace (mostly 1st-century cast ribbed bowls and 1st-/2nd-century jars and bottle glass) and there are only seven Roman small finds, again mostly common types such as bone hairpins and counters.

Roman glass bowl rim fragment.

Roman glass bowl rim fragment

See a complete example of a Roman pillar-moulded bowl  here.

These objects will help us date the stratigraphic sequence and can tell us a little bit about what was going on in the local area. But the careful records we make mean that these objects can be incorporated into wider projects of finds research based around London more generally and hopefully they will get a second chance to shine in the future. The two hairpins, for example, can be incorporated into a big project on the date, distribution and function of Roman hairpins from Londinium that is currently underway.

Roman hairpin

Roman hairpin

The medieval finds are mostly early in date, belonging to the Saxo-Norman period, the first centuries after the walled city was reoccupied. There is some interesting evidence for craft activity such as most of a hemi-spherical crucible with a pinched pouring lip. This is in quite a few pieces now but can be reconstructed by the conservation team to allow it to be illustrated.

hemi-spherical crucible

hemi-spherical crucible

See a complete crucible with a similar form but in a slightly different fabric here.

The star piece from the site though has to be a lovely bone ‘trial-’ or ‘motif-piece’. This is a section of rib with carved interlace designs typical of the period. The precise function of these objects is unclear. Some people have argued that they could be used as moulds or formers but it seems more likely that they are a way of practicing or working out designs which can then be executed in other mediums. Similar objects have been found in contemporary contexts at sites such as York and Dublin; there are plenty of other examples from London too but this is a particularly interesting example.

The new Cheapside trial-piece

The new Cheapside trial-piece

See some more examples here and here.

Writing in 1991, Frances Pritchard noted that most of the trial pieces  found in London seemed to come from a fairly restricted area in the western half of the city north of Cheapside. We’ve found a lot of new examples since then so this morning I spent a bit of a time plotting more recent finds in GIS to see if this pattern still holds true. It seems like the distribution has expanded a little to the area directly across Cheapside to the south and a little to the north in the area at Basinghall Street where there is a recent find and also another older find, not plotted here, from nearby at London Wall. In general, however, the pattern remains strong and more recent excavations near this area have produced large groups of these finds as at Guildhall Yard and No 1 Poultry. The outlier to the south along the waterfront is from a much later 13th century context and was probably redeposited during dumping to expand the waterfront. Overall, the evidence seems to suggest strong quite tightly focused evidence for Saxo-Norman craft activity around Cheapside and the immediate vicinity.

Preliminary GIS plot of Saxo-Norman bone trial piece from modern excavation

Preliminary GIS plot of Saxo-Norman bone trial pieces from modern excavations


Natasha Powers and Charlotte Bossick (MOLA): A visit from the Archaeological Survey of India

This week we are really excited to have met archaeological and museum colleagues from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), India’s foremost organisation for archaeological research and protection of cultural heritage. Dr B. R. Mani and his party are spending a few days in London on a trip coordinated by the British Museum and were accompanied on their visit to MOLA’s offices at Mortimer Wheeler House by Professor Michael Willis and Rachel Brown. The visit involved a tour of MOLA’s London office and our neighbours the Museum of London’s Archaeological Archive, whose status as the largest archaeological archive in the world definitely impressed.

Dan Nesbit of the LAARC

Dan Nesbit of the Museum of London’s Archaeological Archive explains how the collections have been acquired and displays a few special objects

MOLA Roman pottery

Fiona Seeley, MOLA Head of Finds and Conservation, shows Dr B R Mani and colleagues how MOLA record and analyse Roman pottery.

There was a great deal of practical discussion: how we plan archaeological features, what pro-formas we use, how we digitise our data and how we store objects efficiently.

Admiring the loading bay

Admiring the stone from St Mary Spital priory – and the expanding racking system which enables us to load pallets using a forklift.

This was all followed by a Q&A session with MOLA Chief Executive Taryn Nixon and Professor Willis from the British Museum which focused particularly on comparing the planning process and way in which projects are funded and sites protected in Britain and India. We also heard how objects from Britain’s colonial past turn up on Indian archaeological sites and are looking forward to helping to identify some recently uncovered ceramics and glass manufactured in London. And of course enjoyed some goodies!

CAKE!

East meets West – Brick Lane’s finest Indian sweet selection and British cream buns!