In the Lab – Fairfax, Virginia

CART Volunteer Setting Up to start Labeling

CART Volunteer Setting Up to start Labeling

Each Diagnostic Artifact needs to be labeled with unique identification information that corresponds to where the artifact was originally found as well as descriptive details that are recorded in an artifact catalog. In the picture, our CART volunteer is preparing to label more pipe stems.

#FindsFriday for Day of Archaeology

At the Portable Antiquities Scheme many of us who are on Twitter have taken to tweeting a find on Fridays. This can be the best find recorded that week or just an interesting object. So as it is Friday I thought I would blog about some of the #FindsFriday objects I’ve tweeted about during the last year. One of my favorites is LVPL-08F250, a post-medieval coin hoard. Not because of the shiny coins of Elizabeth I and Mary but because of the small associated wooden object. At first, in its uncleaned state, the finder thought it might be from the roots of the tree beneath which he found the hoard but as it looked interesting he brought it in anyway. This small insignificant looking object turned out to be an incomplete wooden sundial probably made in Nuremberg!

LVPL-08F250 wooden sundial, mid 16th century.

LVPL-08F250 wooden sundial, mid 16th century.

LVPL-08F250 one silver groat of Mary, (1553-1554) and eleven silver coins of Elizabeth I, (1558-1603),

LVPL-08F250 one silver groat of Mary, (1553-1554) and eleven silver coins of Elizabeth I, (1558-1603).

Another of my favorite #FindsFriday tweets is this early Iron Age sickle found in Cheshire East and reported to me at the Museum of Liverpool. A very close parallel is a decorated sickle in Norwich Castle Museum, (1959.38), perhaps created in the same mould.

LVPL-23E5CF early Iron Age sickle

LVPL-23E5CF early Iron Age sickle

Finally my last pick for today is this fantastic Iron Age fob/dangler. There is just something about these fob/danglers that I love, perhaps it is the mystery which surrounds their function or simply the fact that its fun to say fob dangler! This one however is the first triangular example found recorded on the PAS database and I’ve not yet found a parallel elsewhere. It is beautifully decorated with openwork and has the type of patina I love.

LVPL-78F55A Iron Age Fob/Dangler

LVPL-78F55A Iron Age Fob/Dangler

Several of the PAS FLOs now tweet about our work but in particular on #FindsFriday so if you are interested in finds check out the PAS database and follow a FLO!


Just how are archaeologists made?

The world of professional archaeology is a varied and wonderful thing but sometimes it’s easy to get absorbed into the daily grind and forget what it was that got you into archaeology in the first place. Sometimes though, there are times when that spark re-ignites and you walk home with a bounce in your step, unburdened by the weight of those planning applications you have to comment on or reports that are waiting patiently to go into the Historic Environment Record. I’ve experienced one of those times recently during the supervision of a work experience placement. It came during the handling of objects notably, a flint tool of possible Palaeolithic date. When describing the manufacture of this object and the fact that we were only a handful of people to have touched it in thousands of years, made me remember why I love the subject so much. Seeing inspiration dawn and the glow of excitement re-ignites the embers of that spark and you realise just how privileged you are….

 Here at Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service, we’re lucky to be able to offer work experience placements across the Service for students who are studying from A levels right up to higher education. It’s a somewhat unique experience as we combine archaeology and archives so students can get a broad knowledge of the diversity of roles. For the past three weeks, Kat Webber, an A level student, has been with us working on a variety of projects throughout the Service. Here she describes her experience during her time with us…

Sacrificing four weeks of my last ever school summer holiday perhaps seemed a little daunting three weeks ago. However, as I sit here now, in the comfortable archaeological niche in the basement of the Hive (Worcester library), it is a with disappointed frown that I realise next Monday will be the start of my last week here. Of course, I am tired; even with all the unsympathetic glares of more seasoned workers as I go on about my long 10-til-4 shift, concentrating for a whole day (especially so when the hottest day of the year was spent in an office-like greenhouse, three floors up, typing records into the HER system) is hard work.

I wouldn’t ever complain though, this opportunity has surpassed my expectations ten-fold.

Archaeology, as I found out at a young age having experienced the wonders of Indiana Jones, is not all cursed hidden treasure and precarious chases on the tops of speeding trains, (though I still have a week left, so you never know). What I didn’t realise though was its true extent, far beyond that of the movies. It’s about preserving, displaying and expanding history; it’s about public outreach, conservation and filling in the unknown, about problem solving, people and waiting an aggravating amount of time for a GIS map to load.

To me, ‘History’ holds the most elusive agenda in modern life. Yes, there are reaches of science that boggle even the brightest, space travel and time are too almost foreign to our species – and the future is one big scary unknown (being a student on the verge of leaving home I know this more than most). The past, though, is something that has actually happened and yet we know so little about. A whole different type of speculation.

That is why, while holding the remnants of a Neolithic decorated pot in my suitably dusty hands, I was almost brought to tears. The idea that 5000 years ago someone, so much like us but so far away, went out of their way to create such a beautiful, intricate (ironic) legacy. Not once would they have believed that so far in the future I would stand, awestruck by their design, with my thumb in the grooved pattern made by their own. This was a person who wouldn’t have even comprehended such a future. To think that their imagination was as powerful a force as to survive through eons, it’s both enlightening and harrowing.

My time in Finds has been extraordinary to say the least. From the 2000 year old roman pottery that, wonderfully, still holds the traces of the maker’s fingerprints, to the magnificent presence of an almost whole mammoth tusk found in my very own Worcestershire (even in the windowless and a little cramped confines of the storage rooms, I could imagine the size and power of such a beast as if it were right in front of me.) These last two days processing and bagging Iron Age pottery from a recent site, even this has been incomparable. Getting distracted by large trays of pot fragments and attempting to recreate segments like a three dimensional monotonous jigsaw where you don’t know which pieces you have or don’t.

Most of my time, however, was spent with the Historic Environment Record department upstairs. This is where archaeology meets present tense. When a company or organisation wants to build somewhere it must be checked for archaeological potential, which of course makes a lot of sense, yet many people simply don’t appreciate the work that goes into it. A lot of work – DBAs or WBs (I have learned a lot of abbreviations), the steps that go to protecting our past are prolific.

Archaeologists, I think, are a separate group of people. They see things through the eyes of archaeological knowledge, of course, but from my experience they are also more aware, individual and wistful. I may be a little biased, of course, in planning to study Archaeology and Anthropology at university. I have asked so many questions and all have been answered with a smile and a laugh. Along with the amazing experiences, that smile and laugh is something I will be taking with me when I leave.

Iron Age Pot Base reconstructed by work experience student Kat

Iron Age Pot Base reconstructed by work experience student Kat

Good Morning – 2016 with CART

The Colchester Archaeological Team (CART) has recently had opportunity to help protect even more archaeological resources in Fairfax County by working on projects across the county. The team misses Old Colchester Park and Preserve and plans to return to OCPP, but we are happy to dedicate ourselves to being a county archaeological research team.

This morning, the Colchester Archaeological Research Team separated to tackle different tasks. A couple of staff went out to the field with a transit in order to map and record details of current field work, a few hopped on a computer, others are busy processing artifacts.

Erica sits at a table and catalogs historic artifacts.

Erica D’Elia, CART Assistant Lab Director, cataloging historic artifacts

Worth every penny: a numismatist’s view

By Julian Bowsher, Senior Archaeologist and Numismatist at MOLA.

Roman coin (c) MOLA

Roman coin (c) MOLA

My day started with the arrival of a couple of boxes of coins from MOLA’s recent excavations of a riverside site, near the Tower of London.  And I know that more boxes are on their way!

There are usually more Roman coins than any others from London sites but those in front of me cover a wide spectrum, ranging from Roman Republican denarii to late Roman copies. One 1st-century AD coin is particularly rare, there is a late Anglo-Saxon penny and a couple of medieval coins, as well as numerous lead tokens and a fine sixpence of Queen Elizabeth I. There are also lots of Nuremberg jetons, usually interpreted as reckoning counters (for accounting) but probably also used locally as small change.

Among the post-medieval coins we find there is lots of 18th-century small change and these always feature a few foreign coins: from France, Holland, Spain, Italy and Portugal. The latest coin from this site is, curiously, a French 5 centime piece dated 1883, perhaps lost from a visiting French ship.

Before these coins reach me they travel from the site to the finds processing department here at MOLA, where they are given a clean to get the mud off, they then have record photographs taken and are given accession numbers.  The coins then head to the conservation laboratory where corrosion deposits are cleaned off, they are conserved and stabilised and, usefully, X-rayed.

The first thing I did today was make a list of the accession and context numbers, and then I weighed and measured each one before examining them in detail. I described, identified and dated both sides and these details were entered into our coin database. I made a judgement on which coins need further cleaning to help identification and which might even require chemical or metallurgical analysis. Certain coins need further research and I will discuss these pieces with other numismatists around the country or by popping over to the British Museum.

My next step is to write an assessment of the coins from this site. Firstly, I will arrange the coins by date and sometimes create a table or histogram. I will talk to the archaeologist running the dig to learn about the archaeological stratigraphy and also to other finds specialists in the department. This often determines where, how and when the coins came to be found at the site. Finally, after further research, a publication text will be created.

Such is the exciting and interesting diversity of my job!

#ArchiveLottery 2016 part 2: Registered Finds

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

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


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


Also this hour we’ve had a creepy Victorian doll


and how about this tiny saxon bead


Not forgetting this doughnut shaped saxon loomweight


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

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

#ArchiveLottery 2016 – part 1: General Finds

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hk, Egypt / 2013 season: sorting pottery…

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

Potsherd analysis forms archive

Potsherd analysis forms archive

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

Database setting_ceramic codes correspondences_form

Database setting: ceramic codes correspondence form

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

Ceramic fabric variation across a stratigraphic sondage_Nekhen, Egypt

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

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

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

Many happy returns … for this Day of Archaeology!


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

A day of archaeological finds

Having followed Day of Archaeology since it started I thought it finally time I participated and shared some of the fun from the finds room. Yes the finds room can be fun, with the advantage of being dry (a big benefit today!) and having a plentiful supply of cake. As the Archaeological Archives and Finds officer for the Surrey County Archaeological Unit (SCAU) I love the variety my role now encompasses, today’s activities being a good example.

The day started with a shout out from Sara Cox on radio 2 – I was hoping she would mention our volunteers excavating the World War 1 camp at Witley but that didn’t quite go to plan! Most of the morning then involved liaising with external specialists over the post-excavation programme for a large medieval cemetery that we recently excavated, followed by me yet again covering the office desks in pottery – this time selecting examples for illustration for a publication report. I then delved into the specialist world of clay tobacco pipe manufacturers in Surrey. Who would have thought so much could be written about clay tobacco pipes! Love it. Another day in the library lined up for next week.

clay pipe

Clay pipe



Archaeological Archives are currently in a state of crisis with many museums full and contracting units faced with the prospect of having to hold onto material indefinitely. The situation has received much attention within the profession over recent years, although little progress has been made to resolve the problem thus far. The situation is also true for Surrey, with most museums no longer able to accept any archives. Rather alarmingly the news broke this week from Guildford that the Surrey Archaeology Society has been given notice to leave Guildford Museum following over a 100 years of collaboration. It is still unclear what the future holds for the substantial archives held by the Surrey Archaeology Society, and indeed the future of the museum. We are working closely with colleagues in Surrey to improve our own and local museums storage space and we may have secured a new store to start alleviating some of the pressure to house archives currently curated by contracting units, ourselves included. Hence this afternoon was spent measuring up the prospective store and obtaining quotes for racking. An innovative new use for redundant prison cells, although possibly with less cake.

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

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

The storage crypt of the National Museum of Ireland - Archaeology

The storage crypt of the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology

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

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

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

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

A sample artefact drawer from the reserve collections

A sample artefact drawer from the reserve collections

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

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

A sample artefact drawer from the reserve collections

A sample artefact drawer from the reserve collections

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

A sample artefact drawer from the reserve collections

A sample artefact drawer from the reserve collections

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