MOLA Planning Services – Friday site visit

I’m out on site today, meeting with a client to look around a building at the start of a new consultancy project. It’s up in Highgate, which is always a great part of town to go and spend a bit of time in although it’s a shame it’s overcast so my site photos won’t look particularly good.

The site visit is the first stage of producing a Heritage Statement to accompany a planning application for the alteration of a mid-19th century townhouse including adding a rear extension. I’d say that maybe 75% of my work is on the alteration of Victorian townhouses and of those projects the vast majority are rear or basement extensions. Our role is to work for the client to try to spot where their plans might have an adverse impact on ‘heritage assets’ like listed buildings or conservation areas and then work with them to find ways that they can alter their designs to lessen those impacts or, where there are no adverse impacts, to provide full reasoning for that conclusion to assist the local authority in their decision on the planning application. In many cases (like my work today), contemporary developments are undoing the unsympathetic alterations of the recent past and are generally positive.

When I get to site, I’ll look over the building inside and out, taking note of the overall style and fabric and note any particularly interesting historic fixtures and features. With the assessment afterwards, I will write a description of the building then something called a ‘statement of significance’ where I explain what the heritage significance of the building is and what the specific aesthetic, historical, evidential and communal values are that add up to that significance (see Conservation Principles). The next stage will be to assess the proposed development in terms of what potential it has to impact on those values and, by extension, on the significance of the building, the settings of other nearby heritage assets or of conservation areas. That might sound like a lot of terminology – the term ‘heritage assets’ seems to really annoy archaeologists – but you have to write for your audience and in this case the audience for my report is the borough Conservation Officer and planning committee and those are the words they need to hear to be able to make a considered judgement on the application as it is the terminology of the planning guidance they will be working to.

Finally, if I conclude that the proposed development might have adverse impacts I can suggest mitigation. If it’s anything major, I would make the suggestion to the client and work to alter their proposal. If it’s smaller, I will in some cases suggest archaeological recording in advance of the work and if the Conservation Officer agrees it might become a condition added to the granting of planning permission.

So, for this Day of Archaeology, a pretty typical day really, but a walk around Highgate is always nice even if it is gloomy. I’ll be passing Trowelblazer (sort of) Mary Kingsley‘s blue plaque on my walk from the bus stop and last time I was working up that way I walked past Damien Lewis, Ashton Kucher and Kate Moss within a couple of hours of each other, I wonder who it’ll be today…

Liz Goodman and Luisa Duarte (MOLA): From Caesar to Victoria – conserving diverse objects

We are two of archaeological conservators that work for MOLA. We mainly work on archaeological material excavated by the unit, but every once in a while we get to conserve objects that belong to other organisations.

This morning we have been finishing these modern objects. As you can see, they are not particularly archaeological. One is a nitrous oxide inhaler and the other is a wooden box containing anaesthetic equipment from a social history collection.



Interesting use of a Victorian half penny

Interesting use of a Victorian half penny

Clamping the wooden box

Clamping the wooden box

We started them yesterday, as the adhesive in the joins has to set over night. In the case of the broken rubber tubing, Luisa is reinforcing the break with red-coloured nylon gossamer to make sure it doesn’t break again. And Liz is trying to hold a difficult warped join in place. Fingers crossed they will hold.

However we never stray far from our true love:


This Friday afternoon we have been prepping medium-sized Roman wood for treatment in polyethylene glycol (PEG) where they will stay for the next 12 to 18 months. After the PEG treatment they will go into our freeze drier.

Recording wood before PEG treatment

Recording wood before PEG treatment

Some of the recorded wood waiting for PEG bath

Some of the recorded wood waiting for PEG bath

Caution! Wood conservation may cause harmful effects to your mental state!

Caution! Wood conservation may cause harmful effects to your mental state!

Karen Thomas (MOLA): A day in the life of a jack-of-all-trades – The Musical!

Busy day ahead! – need to sort out work placement students for next week (and today!), help Nick with the community dig next week, answer all those unanswered emails lingering in my inbox from earlier this week and maybe do some archiving!

Phone call from the curator at Chelmsford Museum with whom I had left a message yesterday.  He sends through a new set of standards he’s been working on and I pass the info on to the relevant project manager so that he can let the site staff and processing know the particular requirements for his site (I hope!).

Tried to contact the contractor at the Community Dig about site set up but got his voicemail.  I never seem to be able to get anyone on the phone these days!

Mid-morning and I think I’ve got the students for next week sorted now.  Hélène (our intern from France) pops in to pick up her evaluation form – she has been brilliant for the 4 weeks she has been with us.  She will be very welcome if she finds herself in England again and I hope her course goes well.

(yes I know he’s Belgian but the song is in French!)

 While eating lunch put finishing touches to letter about next Young Archaeologists’ Club session and sort out sending some books over to MOL for a LAMAS function on Tuesday.  Managed to eat a jam doughnut without wearing most of the jam – generously supplied by Patti who is leaving us today.  The poor girl got stuck in the Archive for a while when she first joined us and we will miss her chirpy personality.

Finished off a few things on the Community Dig (yes I did manage to get hold of the guy in the end) and lined up some more to be done on Monday.  These things are so time consuming but I think it will be quite good fun in the end.

It’s 4.30 and I’m now going to do some archiving!!!!  AutoCAD site plans here I come!

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 (MOLA): Day of [REDACTED]

Day of Archaeology and I’m looking at something really exciting! Right now. …and I can’t tell you anything about it! Client confidentiality you see. Lovely site in [REDACTED] loads of [REDACTED] and some really nice evidence of [REDACTED]. This got me thinking. Commercial archaeologists are sometimes criticised for not making results available quickly enough, but there are lots of reasons why information doesn’t necessarily become available as soon as you down trowels – reasons which I will now grossly over-simplify:

1.   Getting it right – important in research, vital in a press release. Once it’s out there you can never take it back, no matter how much you might want to. Just because I think I have found the earliest  evidence of [REDACTED] at [REDACTED] doesn’t mean I’m going to say so until I’m sure and that means until all the strat is sorted and I’ve had a chance to check out the literature, properly. (I’m pretty sure it is the earliest [REDACTED])
2.   Mum’s the word – it wouldn’t be very sensible to tell everyone that you’ve found a load of shiny stuff/the Ark of the Covenant, until it’s recorded, lifted and safely off-site, unless you have very good site security (if you think you’ve found the latter, I’d also refer you back to point 1). Clients may have all sorts of reasons for not wanting information released, including the nature of the site, the stage of the planning process that their project is at and because…

Shut your eyes. Don't look at it no matter what happens.

Shut your eyes. Don’t look at it no matter what happens.

3.   Timing is everything – Yes, publicity benefits the company and the client, but we also send things to the press because we’ve found something really exciting and want LOTS of people to know. Would the papers really have written about an old set of false teeth if the press release hadn’t gone out for World Smile Day? So, if we hold back on telling the world about [REDACTED] until National [REDACTED] Week, then I reckon that’s probably fair enough.
4.   Some sites are bigger than others – the most important bit. The post-ex process is complex. Our recent site at [REDACTED] produced [REDACTED] contexts [REDACTED] finds and more than a dozen people are now working on it. It’s going to take a while to check, integrate and analyse all that information, but this bit is the point of recording it in the first place (and vital for point 1). Even a small site report might involve half a dozen people. Good research and publication takes time.
5.   Lack of funds – let’s face it, it happens. When things go wrong, we have to be creative, and creativity takes time too…

So I’m afraid that I haven’t got anything to show you for Day of Archaeology 2014, but you’ll be able to read about the first [REDACTED] when it’s published next year*


Written by [REDACTED], Head of [REDACTED] for MOLA

*not  guaranteed

Jess Bryan (MOLA): All work and no play

My day of archaeology is not typical by any means. It started last night at the Bloomberg London summer party. Held at a warehouse in Shoreditch, London, this was the kind of party rarely seen by archaeologists, and then usually only by company directors. Working on the Bloomberg London project (yep we are still doing the post-ex) has allowed me to attend more than my fair share of these corporate do’s and the relationship between Bloomberg, MOLA and McAlpine means the whole team get to go. This party did not disappoint: champagne, edible mist, ice cream made with liquid nitrogen, BBQ, photobooths, live band and a DJ. Of course there was the obligatory networking and hobnobbing to be done but everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves (perhaps a little too much).

Safety first

Correct PPE must be worn at all times in the photobooth

And so my task today involves organising our own party, as tonight MOLA are hosting a Bloomberg London (or Bucklersbury House as we call it) reunion! People who worked on the site (and those that didn’t) can come along, catch up with old colleagues, and hear where we have got to in the Post-ex process. It’s over a year since we came off site, and although we are still wading through all of the records, we thought it would be nice to update everyone on our findings and show them what their hard work on site has resulted in so far. So often you leave a site and never hear of it again. So I am putting the final touches to my presentation, checking the finds and enviro specialists are still coming to speak and making sure the pub that we have booked is ready for the onslaught of 50 archaeologists. Although it will not be on the level of last night’s party, there will be a few drinks and nibbles available to all…

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!


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

Steve White (MOLA): archaeology in Kent

Week 9 of our project in Kent continues apace, with many features revealed, and many more yet to dig. We have some interesting alignments of postholes and ditches, revealing a potential settlement with a substantial structure at its heart.

Not pictured: fantastic weather

Not pictured: fantastic weather

The site comprises several kilometres of stripping for a new road and a housing development, which creates logistical issues that don’t normally occur on the sites we run in central London. Every day is a challenge, but one that is made easier by an amazing team, and up until today, fantastic weather!

Karen Thomas (MOLA): Another musical day from the Archive

Started the day by walking from Liverpool Street to the office as part of my new fitness regime

First job was to finish the digital archiving for a small but, hitherto lost, archive under the Jubilee Line extension project in the 1990’s – LBG95.  Yesterday I spent ages trying to understand why there was a box of finds for this site with no archaeology (and therefore no contexts!) until the penny dropped and I realised that the finds belonged to LGB95.  Note to all archaeologists: make sure you put the correct site code on all your records including the finds labels!!!

Media meeting discussing all the great projects MOLA is working on and how we are publicising them via blogs, Facebook, Twitter and any other media outlet we can think of.  I think this is brilliant for getting the message out there however, I’m a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to technology which is why Stephanie is going to be ‘posting’ this for me (I hope I got the right word there!)

Back to some spreadsheet compiling for a project to digitise all our site reports – a bit dull but a very worthwhile project to free up some space and make the reports much more accessible.

LUNCH – actually escaped my desk today and had lunch with the girls.

After lunch, more spreadsheet stuff but with the happy distraction of listening to JB next door regaling a visitor from Argentina on the archaeology of Shakespeare’s London.

Had enough of the spreadsheet so moved on to another site archive that is nearly ready to microfilm.  Change of scenery and temperature with a trip to the Drawing Office (where the air conditioning actually works) to convert some report figures from coreldraw to pdf/a.  Nice and quick now there is a new W7 computer to use.

Back to the tropical conditions of the Archive to finish off the metadata – always a good thing to fry your brains on a hot Friday afternoon!

Now time to go home and enjoy the weekend.  Hope you’ve all had a good day.