Matt Law

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?

From Day of Archaeology’s Bristol Office

As I write this, it’s 9.30 am on Saturday in the UK – which means it’s 10.30 pm on Friday in Hawaii (yes we have contributors in Hawaii). For most of the world, Day of Archaeology is over (although we will continue to publish posts for the next week). I am amazed, really very pleased, by just how many people embraced the idea of Day of Archaeology. Right now we have just under 360 posts published, with the promise of more to come. I’m told the #dayofarch hashtag was used over 900 times on Twitter during the day. I can’t begin to thank everyone who has been involved enough, from my fellow volunteers – Jess, Dan, Lorna, Andy, Stu and Tom – to all our contributors, and those who shared word of the day on facebook, twitter, Google+, and other social media. What I hope we’ve created together is the single best resource to answer the question “what do archaeologists do?” Already, thanks to Terry Brock and Leigh Graves Wolf, work is underway turning the project into a schools teaching resource.

My day, unsurprisingly, was mostly spent checking through posts as they came in, occasionally altering them to make sure links to other sites or embedded videos worked, adding categories or tags if appropriate and (not too often actually) catching typos. I have no idea how many posts I checked, but I was consistently busy from 8 am to 6 pm and still working at 10.30 pm. I did grab the time to recruit one final volunteer for an archaeology engagement stand I’m helping to run at the Green Man music festival in Wales next month, but otherwise my day was all Day of Archaeology (how meta).

Had I not been doing this, I would most likely have been on site in Somerset, where I’m currently part of a team of commercial archaeologists excavating the surface of a former island now thoroughly inland, and buried under two metres of marine clay. The site occasionally yields some very nice lithics, such as this:

Flint arrowhead from Somerset

I may have been doing some lab work. I’m a part-time PhD student at Cardiff University, investigating environmental change throughout the period of human occupation in the Outer Hebrides. Mostly, this means I identify and count snail shells from samples taken in different features and layers on archaeological sites. You might think of the reasonably large snails you see in your garden when you read that, but there are many more species of snail that are truly miniscule – as small as 1mm in their largest dimension. Often these snails have very specific tolerances for the environmental conditions they can live in, which is especially informative when you have a few different species with similar tolerances occuring together.You can learn quite a lot about the use of different areas of a site from the snails. Some snail species arrived on the islands later than others, and I’m going to be working to date these arrivals as closely as possible, with the hope that the presence of a particular species in a deposit can become a tool for relative dating, much like archaeologists use particular types of ceramic or lithic form (the picture above, for example, is a classic Neolithic leaf-shaped arrowhead).

The day after Day of Archaeology will be spent (in part at least) reading through posts I didn’t get a chance to see yesterday. I’ve really enjoyed reading about other archaeologists’ working days around the world. I don’t think I’ve learned more about archaeology in a single day before. Day of Archaeology will return next year. Thank you all for making it such a positive experience

Matt Law