Museum of London Archaeology

A Day in the life of CITiZAN Community Archaeologists

CITiZAN is the Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeology Network. We’re Megan and Andy, the team’s Northern office. Between us we cover the English coast, running between the Scottish border and the Dee on the west coast and the border to the Wash on the east.1

Discussing coastal erosion with the Historic England’s inspector for the World Heritage site of Hadrians Wall on the coast of the Solway Firth

Over the last few days we have been travelling down the north-western coast of England from Cumbria to Lancashire; staying in Maryport and Morecambe. Along the way we’ve been stopping off to explore exciting intertidal and coastal archaeology. Our preparation for the Day of Archaeology started on Thursday with Andy whizzing off to the record office. Meanwhile, Megan went off to site for a reccy ahead of a guided walk around the 7th-century chapel.


The 7th-century St. Patrick’s Chapel on the dramatic coast of Morcambe Bay

Andy spent most of the day searching out historic records; seeking 19th century and early plans of the area for a community training session in map regression. Among the things he found was a list of fruit trees planted by the rector of St Peters (the successor of the early medieval chapel) recorded in the list of Birth, Burials and Marriages for 1773.

Meanwhile Megan was out at the site planning her tour. The guided walk started at Rectory Gardens Wood, looking at the terraces where the rector had planted his apple, plum, pear and cherry orchard. She then moved on to look at Mesolithic settlement sites and Second World War practice trenches on Heysham Head before heading to the early medieval St Patrick’s Chapel, a National Trust owned site with unique, enigmatic rock cut graves. She finished at the 10th century St Peters Church, where several medieval cross bases and a hogback stone nestle amongst Post-medieval gravestones.


Megan discusses the Mesolithic settlement of Heysham Head on her guided walk

The Day of Archaeology itself started with a big fry-up before heading to St. Patrick’s Chapel, to kick off a two-day building recording event. The 7th-century chapel overlooks the stunning Morecambe Bay and although it stands on a sandstone promontory, a good 10 metres above mean sea level, is at serious risk of erosion and destruction with several metres of the headland having disappeared since the turn of the 20th century.

The morning was spent teaching interested member of the public the theory of archaeology recording; off-set planning, buildings recording, taking levels and photographs. It was a lot of information for our novices to take in but everybody enjoyed themselves.

In the afternoon we put the classroom sessions into practice. There was a chance to plan the rock-cut graves; some with head sockets and others with indications of slab coverings. The graves proved a little bit challenging but our volunteers ploughed on. Next they moved on to drawing an elevation of the chapel, much of it ruinous, with the west wall completely gone. But a fantastic Anglo-Saxon doorway in the south wall remained. Intrigued by the arched door, with three similar doors reconstructed in St Peters Church, they discussed it with Paul Gwilliam, our building’s expert.  Debating whether the doorway was in its original position or whether it was moved during the early 20th century reconstruction of the chapel.


Our volunteers record the enigmatic rock-cut graves

All these processes are how a buildings archaeologist would go about recording a site such as St. Patrick’s Chapel. Our volunteers now have the skills to record their medieval church and monitor the erosion caused by Morecambe Bay.  The three CITiZAN offices, based in York, Portsmouth and London will be teaching archaeological skills on beaches, cliff tops and intertidal zones around England in the next three years.  Hopefully every training session will be as fun as today!

CITiZAN explores wrecks in the rain

CITIZAN South East has been having a wet and soggy day in Maldon at the start of a three day event for the CBA’s Festival of Archaeology.

The Small Unmanned Aircraft survey of the ‘barge graveyard’ was sadly curtailed by the rain, but an interesting conversation was held with a passing coastal geomorphologist. In the afternoon the Thames Barge Sailing Trust kindly gave us a tour of the barge Pudge, not just a barge but also a Dunkerque little ship. This was followed by a talk on the history of these fascinating vessels, “the heavy goods vehicles of the Victorian age”.

The tour and talk was especially interesting as we’ll be recording the remains of barges over Saturday and Sunday at the ‘barge graveyard‘and again later in September (dates and volunteer opportunities to be announced). Despite the rain it was a most successful  day!


Karen Stewart: A day in the life of an archaeobotanist

I was doing some botanising even as I walked to work this morning, when I spotted this on an acorn on my way through Shoreditch park –


As it’s a gall I hadn’t seen before I brought it into the office to see if I could find out what it is. A swift Google introduced me to Andricus quercuscalicis, a gall wasp which induces these ‘knopper’ galls. Mostly irrelevant to me as an archaeobotanist though, as apparently they only started appearing in Britain in the twentieth century!

My first actual job of the day is some charcoal analysis from a Bronze Age ring ditch site in Hampshire. The first sample I looked at was all oak, which can be quite boring, as it’s the easiest of all the woods to identify. On the other hand, that means I can absolutely tear through it and save some time for the samples that are more challenging.

My second sample of the day has been entirely oakless, and is thus taking much longer to work through.  It doesn’t help that all of the fragments are pretty small –


At the very end of my day of archaeology 2015 I had a quick look at a wall hook from a Saxon grave chamber, which has some mineralised wood attached to it. It’s part of an ongoing project that I’ve been working on since I started with MOLA in 2009, and is almost ready for publication. Of course, that means that there are a million things to check at the last minute. Having provided an answer (sort of!) to the finds specialist and editor, that’s me done for the day! See you in the pub next year!

First airing of conservators’ new toy at the Royal Academy

By MOLA archaeological conservators Liz and Luisa

Sometimes, we archaeological conservators get to do some non-archaeological related work. This week we have been helping the Royal Academy of Art pack their collection of human remains.


This collection is mostly comprised of articulated skeletons and limbs. And was probably used by art students to learn anatomy and help them draw accurately. The articulated nature of the objects presents quite a challenge when moving and packing the remains. So special attention has to be paid to fingers and toes, bouncy patellae and spring action jaws. We have been making acid free tissue mittens and socks to protect the hands and feet; and bandaging mandibles and joins to make sure they don’t shake whilst in transport.














Packing loose material

However the bulk of our work is archaeological; and currently quite a bit of it is the conservation of waterlogged organics, like leather and wood. In order to treat these types of objects we need a vacuum freeze dryer. Our very elderly vacuum pump for the freeze dryer finally decided to take a much deserved retirement (in a skip) a couple of months back. Today we finally received our brand new shiny vacuum pump and Liz could not be happier.



Proud mama looking her new baby for the very first time



It’s alive!

The rest of the day will be looking at our new toy every five minutes to check the vacuum pump is still working properly and filling up the freezer chamber to start drying leather again.

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.

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.

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