Greater London

Antiquities, databases and an atypical day at the British Museum

The Moorlands Staffordshire Trulla

The Moorlands pan, one of my favourite objects

For the last eight years, I have worked at the British Museum, following a couple of years working for a German Investment Bank in the City of London. I’m responsible for the management of the Portable Antiquities Scheme‘s IT infrastructure and I provide advice to the British Museum on ICT issues when needed. The world of IT, is entirely self taught knowledge for me; at university I studied archaeology at undergraduate and post graduate levels, with a specific interest in maritime archaeology. It has been a sharp learning curve, and one that I think will always be challenging and disrupted by new technology. Of course, I’m open to offers to get back below the seas and excavate underwater again!

The department that I work for, the Portable Antiquities Scheme (and Treasure) is a DCMS funded project that records objects that have been found within the boundaries of England and Wales by members of the public. They voluntarily bring these objects forward to one of our 60 members of staff, who then record them on our database. You could say that this is at heart, public archaeology in action. This database now provides the basis for a massive amount of research within the university environment and it is very gratifying to see what people do with the database that I built. For example, the map below (produced in ArcView – I use QGIS at home) shows where coins of different periods are found by our contributors. Of course, I have to be very careful who has access to the full spatial co-ordinates, academics have to apply for access and I use some maths to obfuscate points on a map.

A plot of all coins recorded on the Scheme's database

A plot of all coins recorded on the Scheme's database

I’ve also been heavily involved with the #dayofarch project alongside friends and colleagues (we’re calling ourselves”Digital Archaeologists” ). The team working on this project were Matt Law and Lorna Richardson who came up with the plan, Tom Goskar, Jess Ogden, Stu Eve and Andy Dufton). I provided the project with server space, Google analytics, installation of the software and configuration of the software with Tom Goskar. The project has been amazing to work on, and we’ll hopefully be writing this up and getting a chapter on it into Lorna’s PhD.

My day is pretty varied and is either filled with writing funding bids, writing papers (CASPAR workshop papers on Archaeology on TV and Museums and Twitter at the moment), refactoring or writing new code, creating maps in various GIS packages, manipulating images (by script and hand), meetings with academics, TV people or colleagues. It is extremely different to my previous job, and it is probably why I’ve stuck with the role for such a long period. The database that I run, has been written from scratch and I’m currently transferring all my code to GitHub so that others can make use of my work. All the software that I either use or build has to be open-source. I have a very small budget for my IT work – £4000 per annum; is this the smallest budget for a National IT programme ever? I use products from Vanilla for our staff forum, from WordPress for our blogs and various framework packages like Zend Framework for our main website and database. As such, I spent only £48 on the site’s rebuild, the rest goes on server hosting and backup! At the moment, I am also working on a variety of funding proposals, a couple of JISC bids and I’m also looking for funding for the Video-Conferencing workshop that Elizabeth Warry refers to in her post. This is based around the discovery of the Frome hoard and forms the basis for her Masters’ dissertation that I’m supervising with Tim Schadla-Hall. Other people working on this include the British Museum’s education team and members of the Treasure Team. I’m also on various academic advisory boards, an honorary lecturer at UCL (currently helping to supervise Lorna Richardson’s PhD) and a Trustee of the Palestine Exploration Fund, a scholarly society based in Marylebone that has a wonderful collection of artefacts, maps and photos, and I’m currently involved in helping with a research bid for high resolution imagery of fragile documents which involves a wide array of partners.

Ian Richardson hold a double eagle

Ian Richardson hold a double eagle

Currently we have records for over 720,000 objects which have been contributed by over 19,000 people in a 14 year time span. We get around 60,000 visitors per month to our site and around 3-10,000 objects recorded; the time of year has a great effect on this – harvest and seasons especially impact. The site was awarded ‘Best of the Web’ as a research tool or online collection at this year’s Museums and the Web conference in Philadelphia. Something I’m extremely proud of for all our staff and contributors.  All of these records are released under a Creative Commons NC-BY-SA licence and we’ve had considerable success with a variety of digital projects. High profile finds that come up generate a huge amount of interest, and I’ve been trying to get suitable images for the Wikipedia community. We’re finding our relationship with them very beneficial and we now have lots of images in the Wikicommons.

With my wife, Katharine Kelland, I built the Staffordshire Hoard’s first website in 12 hours, and this was viewed by 1/4 million people in one day when we launched. I now use this model as a way for publicising other significant archaeological discoveries. I’m very lucky to work in the British Museum, I never thought I’d end up working there and you never tire of walking through the main gates and up the stairs to the Great Court. In the last few years I’ve been privileged to have seen amazing discoveries close up – the Hackney hoard, the Moorlands patera, the Staffordshire Hoard, the Frome Hoard, the Wheathampstead hoard, and the list goes on. I’ve even got to dress up as a gladiator and parade around the Great Court. Where else could you do this?

London

I’m in London for meetings, fall asleep on the train after staying up too late writing reports. One of the lads drops me off at the station on his way to site, he sings the entirety of London by The Smiths at me in the car, singing along to the fast live version from the Rank album. All the way down I have the lyrics “do you think you’ve made the right decision this time?” stuck in my head as I fall asleep and wake up again. Also stuck in my head are the words from the Bo Selecta Bored of the Rings sketch which is a site banter favourite, particularly for the last few weeks. At the station he hands me a report and assures me “I’ve sprayed upon every page!” “I’m going to London town centre in the middle and I shan’t be back!” I tell him and leave. It’s typical site banter, seizing on little artefacts of pop culture like the most obscure and occult small finds.

After the meetings I make it to the Tower of London for the last hour. It’s crawling with tourists and I must have ended up in about fifty holiday snaps as I head for the White Tower. Two teenage American girls regard the codpiece on Henry VIII’s suit of armour. “Oh my god! If this guy got hit in the junk NOTHING would have happened!” I look at the design, it is very ostentatious, like a party seven emerging from the groin but I imagine it reflects contemporary clothing fashions. Having worn groin guards for various sports over the years I wonder if the design had any hidden practical merits, as getting kicked in the knackers while wearing the modern cricket box design always makes me flinch. I imagine “my junk” would be safer lying in the armoured barrel of Henry VIII’s armoured codpiece, I wonder if there is a paper in this somewhere, if I decided to test the hypothesis by experimental archaeology I would have no problem finding volunteers to kick me in the knackers. Such is the life of the small company archaeologist.

In my hotel at Tower Bridge I try to relax by watching the film Plunkett and MacLeane, but I’ve still got my game face on, I notice the drain they run down near the end has an egg-shaped profile, something yet to be invented in the 18th century. The egg-shaped profile in London drains had a brief vogue in the 19th century as it was less likely to block but problems with repairing and cleaning saw the normal tunnel profile return. I end up in the Red Lion in Westminster, I love that most London pubs have stayed traditional but my arm sticks to the unwiped counter. It wouldn’t have happened in one of my pubs, it feels like not that long ago I was still a barman, an out-of-work-archaeologist, now there’s so much archaeology work on I haven’t got time to wipe my metaphoric counter.