Roman London

Plots, Papers and Reports, Oh My!

Wieke surveying at Monte san Nicole


I woke up this morning very excited about the Day of Archaeology, and looked over the first few posts while I ate my breakfast at home. It was a good moment to reflect on the last eleven months, since Day of Archaeology 2011. I’ve moved out of the shipping container (!) and now have a lovely flat near the park. I also now work full time, have been appointed a second post-doc position for the ‘other’ 20% of my time within my department (looking at Roman Minor Centres in the Pontine region). Technically, they have my fridays, but in practice we’re more flexible than that as they’ll need me for whole weeks at a time later in the year, so I’ll be working on Rural Life stuff today…


09:00 – and I’ve just arrived at work by bike- almost all of my colleagues bike or walk to work, even if they come from further afield, they’ll use the train. I check my email then get to grips with my to-do list (after tweeting it!). I’m happy because I’ve been able to cross a couple of things off it this week. I had to drop everything to get our CAA 2012 paper written up, after delivering it in Southampton in March (I’ve been on two lots of fieldwork and short holiday since- and haven’t had time to update my blog), and we’ve been working on the final push to get two pilot geophysical studies published. The latter isn’t quite finished, but it’s at the point of having been sent off to be read by someone other than me and Martijn- my project leader. We’re both at the point with it where we can’t really judge it objectively any more. I’m glad it’s almost done- it’s very difficult to write up research you didn’t conduct yourself, and I really hope that I’ve done justice to the work of the people involved before me!

To Do List

09.30 – … my elation turns into a sinking feeling as I ponder my to-do list. It looks OK in the picture, but the thing is, each of the things on the list has it’s own, usually longer list on another bit of paper somewhere. I’d been in the middle of writing a report tying up all of the loose ends from our 2011 fieldwork, when CAA and fieldwork intervened. It is a tricky job because we had to work out a lot of the data-handling as we went, so I don’t have a standard set of methods that I can update with the incidental details- everything needs to be carefully explained, every decision made in the field, every bit of statistics or image correction applied afterwards.

10:00 – Ten AM on Friday is coffee and cake time for the whole institute, but I decide that today I have too much going on to take part in the chatter and socialising, and start looking at some raw data files for the report…

10:15 – and my computer spectacularly crashes, fortunately the only thing it wipes out is the start of this post, which word can’t recover when I get everything rebooted… and my email is misbehaving so I decide coffee is a good idea after all.


10:30 – and I’m back at my desk. I’m working on a file from a site where gradiometer surveys last July showed the presence of several (probably Bronze Age) structures on a small plateau. This data is a series of surface MS (magnetic susceptibility) readings taken on the topsoil by the team in October, when I wasn’t there. They made a small but critical error in how they decided to place the readings on the grid set up for the geophysical surveys. It’s not a major problem, but it means I have to do about an hour’s careful editing work on the data before I can get it loaded into a program that lets me plot the results in a plan view, to let me look at spatial variations and compare them to other data. Luckily, the field team kept excellent notes about exactly how they gathered the data, so while it takes time, I can be sure that I have the right readings in the right place by lunchtime. I write it all up carefully in the report, and make a note to myself to update and improve the training notes and protocols I hand out to our student helpers.


My morning’s work- the offset between the plot and the lines of the grid is intentional due to the mistake made collecting the data.


Writing it all up…

12:30 – and I go to lunch in one of the amazing old buildings at the heart of the university with my team. Today,the canteen has mosterd soup (a local speciality) that everyone loves. We chat about the football, and the weather in a mixture of English and Dutch, and then head back over to the Institute for the rest of the day.

13:30 – I’ve loaded the data into the plotting program and I’m making corrections to it (such as removing very high or low values, to better visualise subtle changes) when I hear a lot of commotion outside. It’s the bus being loaded with all the equipment needed by the teaching excavations at Crustumerium next month. It makes me grin, knowing people will soon be off to Italy, but for now I need to concentrate so it’s in with the earphones and on with the music.

14:30 – I have to admit I’ve been sneaking onto the Day of Archaeology site and following the #dayofarchtag on twitter. The LAARC guys give me a five minute break by tracking down the contents of shelf 666 for me. Turns out, it holds a neat little bone gaming die from Roman London. I love small finds, I don’t get to work with them very often- though on this current project I’m learning a lot about protohistoric pottery. I’m fascinated by the little everyday things that make it into the archaeological record, probably more so than the big and shiny things that make the headlines.

16:00 – I’ve finished with the first survey for the report. It takes a while to get everything into the GIS to compare it to the other surveys of the area we made in July, and information about pottery lying on the surface in October. I record everything I have done to the data, as well as the exact conditions it was collected under, then describe the pattern of values. Finally I write a short paragraph offering an archaeological interpretation of the data, taking into account everything we currently know about the site and the landscape. It’s really important to record things in this level of detail for any future researcher that needs to understand how the final plots were made, and why I concluded specific things about the site. It’s painstaking, and probably no-one will ever need to use it, but I’ve had the horrendous experience of trying to work with badly described geophysical data before, so I’m determined not to leave some potential future researcher in the same mess! I start with the next site. On this one, we did some surveys because workmen found a protohistoric storage vessel in a trench for an irrigation pipe, but the surveys didn’t show up anything structural. I still have to write them up in the same detail though!

The gradiometer survey of the same area

The gradiometer survey of the same area

17:00Corien, another PhD student knocks on mine and Wieke’s door. Wieke is the PhD student I work with- the geophysics I do is part of a wider project encompassing her PhD research. We normally work until 18:00 but Corien reminds us that it is Friday, and drags us off for a post-work drink. Our project leader Martijn comes along too, and we’re joined by another PhD student from another part of the faculty. We chat about the path PhD students are expected to follow- all three of them are at different stages, and it’s quite different to the UK in some ways, so interesting to me. At six we part company and head off on our bikes…

I’m about to submit this to the team at HQ, and while I wait for it go live I’m off to read as many of the other posts as I can fit in! Happy Day of Archaeology everyone.

Day of Archaeology – LAARC Lottery Part 5 (Textile Finds)

Day of Archaeology: Blog 5 – Textiles

Moving onto and into our Leather & Textile store, we have two classic objects chosen by you, completely at random.

Our first randomly selected object, from shelf number 876, is a Roman leather shoe, excavated from site BUC87 – once the heart of Londinium. The LAARC holds over 5000 Roman and medieval shoes (we are the largest Archeological Archive in the world after all) and this artefact is a fine example of its type. The leather sole of the shoe has been preserved through waterlogged conditions but once exposed would quickly dry and shrink. Luckily the Museum ofLondon’s conservation department owns a magic machine called a freeze-dryer which, through the process of sublimation, leaves these leather objects in a very stable condition.

Roman leather shoe

Roman leather shoe from BUC87 – and shelf 876

 A common comment on archaeological Roman shoes is that they always seem very small. The leather may have shrunk somewhat after two millennia in the ground and the freeze-drying process may add minimally to this, but on the whole our Roman Londoners seem to have small feet…Perhaps a comparative study should be conducted with the many Roman skeletal remains held at the Museum’s Centre for Human Bioarchaeology!

Our second object is a piece of post-medieval textile from site EAG87  (and shelf 809), excavated by the Department of Urban Archaeology (DUA) back in the late 1980s. Archaeological textiles suffer from damage to both their texture and colour; however, our Curator of Fashion & Decorative Arts gets particularly excited about brown bits of wool!

Post-medieval cloth

Post-medieval cloth from EAG87 – and shelf 809

Again our textile much like other organics and inorganic, such as metal, has survived through waterlogged but anaerobic conditions. This fragmentary piece was probably part of the C18th backfill of a well excavated on this site.

Our last major store section holds our Environmental finds. 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 using #dayofarch or #LAARC, or message us a number below, between 1 and 44 to discover, completely at random, what that shelf holds…

Michael Marshall: Assessing Small Finds From Roman London Part 2

So the many, many boxes of nails, thank god, are now a distant memory. At the assessment stage we only do a fairly coarse quantification in order to determine the potential of the material for further work. This sometimes just involves weighing and counting the fragments but when preservation is good enough some other data can be collected such as number of complete nails from each context (divided into broad size categories), minimum number of nails and comments on particularly distinctive styles or features. The point of this isn’t to write a definitive account of the use of nails on the site but to assess their potential for further analysis, decide what role they will play in the final publication and how they can help us to address research questions.

Unfortunately, it’s probably not worth doing much more work on the Southwark nails as they are in terrible condition. Most are completely encrusted or incomplete and the assemblage is quite small with a maximum of c. 15 fragments from any given context making any inferences of limited value.

Much more exciting this afternoon is the Roman glass and glass working waste which will definitely feature in the final publication. As mentioned briefly in my previous post, this seems to be the first Roman glass-working evidence from this side of the river. The types of waste include ‘moils’ (glass from the end of the blowing iron left behind when you crack the vessel off) as well as a variety of melted, fused and runny lumps.  Threads, pulls and trails etc derive from more detailed manipulation of glass during decoration or the addition of handles etc.

Glass working waste from Basinghall, London: Threads and Nails( (c) Andy Chopping, MOLA)

The assemblage is relatively small so far with only about 25 moils worth of fragments accounted for, each of which equates to a vessel manufactured onsite. This estimate is based on EME (estimated moil equivalent) a technique lifted from pottery studies (EVEs) which is calculated by measuring the proportion of the moil diameter present in each fragment. Of course many more vessels could have been made and the moils recycled or not recovered. Vessels were being made from both naturally coloured blue-green glass and amber coloured glass.

Glass working waste from Basinghall, London: Moils ( (c) Andy Chopping, MOLA)

The general range of waste types is not dissimilar to those found at the much larger glass-working dumps at Guildhall Yard and Basinghall Street across the river in Londinium (see pictures below) and, like those dumps, the waste was found alongside lots of broken vessel and window glass intended for recycling. Raw Roman glass was brought all the way from the Mediterranean so recycling this ‘cullet’ made good economic sense. Identifiable fragments of bottles, beakers, jugs and jars from amongst the smashed up vessels suggest a probable date in the early to mid 2nd century AD for the glass working.

If glass working interests you check out this website and a great little book called Glass workers of Roman London by John Shepherd and my colleague Angela Wardle, which provides an interim popular account of their work on the Basinghall assemblage and the techniques of glass making.  Their work on the final monograph is nearing completion, but luckily the new evidence from Southwark should still just about make it into the gazetteer of glass-working sites included in the text, and contribute to their discussion of the organisation of the industry.

That’s enough from me. I don’t have time to tell you about the lamps, finger rings, combs, figurines, crucibles, hairpins, querns, toilet instruments, tools or the large and interesting assemblage of glass vessels I have already recorded from the site. Unfortunately, I can’t even tell you about the cosmetic mortar or the blue blobbed glass beaker, probably an import from the Rhineland, which I recorded yesterday. The whole point of the assessment stage is so we can get our head around what we’ve got, and how best to study and publish it, so if you want to know more you’ll need to hang about. This is certainly shaping up to be an interesting site and I’ve already spent too long waffling here and not enough time doing my glass data entry.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back and finish this context before the end of the day, so I can get to the pub on time.


An archaeobureaucrat writes…

A day or so in my life as an archaeologist working for English Heritage.

Started off by working at home at Haslemere in Surrey, eating toast with tea while dealing with e-mails with Radio 4 providing the background noise.  As usual, was mildly distracted by Frankly the cat who views my attempts to sit down and work at a laptop as his cue to demand food with menaces and then attention, generally in that order. 

A demanding cat. Frankly.


E-mails give me a few things to deal with before I do anything else. There are corrections to check on a chapter I helped to write for the forthcoming book on the Elizabethan Garden reconstruction at Kenilworth Castle. I was involved in organising the programme of archaeological and architectural research that contributed to the project, and I’ve co-written the archaeological chapter with Joe Prentice of Northamptonshire Archaeology, who directed the excavations, and Brian Dix, garden archaeologist extraordinaire, who advised throughout. Not much left to do – just checking that the photographs are in the right order, have the right numbers and captions, and are available in the right format for reproduction.

That done, I moved on to deal with some work on our forthcoming organisational restructuring. It’s no secret that English Heritage took a huge hit in last year’s government Comprehensive Spending Review. The organisation is having to deal with the impact of a net 35% cut in our grant from government. I can’t say a great deal about what is currently going on, but it will come as no surprise to learn that many jobs are being lost, and that I and many of my colleagues will be put formally ‘at risk’ in the autumn, and will have to apply for a smaller number of jobs in the restructured National Heritage Protection group.  We’ve been through such reorganisations before, and I know the stress that this puts my colleagues through, but the scale and scope of these changes is greater than anything we’ve seen so far. A lot of colleagues are having to consider other career options and paths; an unsettling time for us all.

After a couple of hours, time to trek to the station to catch the 11am to Waterloo. I’ve been taking a few pictures to illustrate this blog, and drew pitying looks from fellow travellers as I took a photograph of the train as it came into Haslemere station.  I’m a blogger, not a trainspotter….


My train arriving at Haslemere station


The train was fairly full, but got a seat and used the time to write up the blog of the day so far. Also did a little more on the draft publication strategy and synopsis for the Windsor Castle updated project design.  I worked at Windsor from 1989 to 1995. We started off in the Round Tower, the shell keep that stands on top of the 11th-century motte, excavating and recording the structures as part of a major engineering project.

Round Tower team, 1989, with the blogger looking much younger.


We’d just finished that project and evacuated our site office in November 1992 when fire broke out in the Upper Ward. That was the start of a huge programme of salvage and architectural analysis, with some excavation involved too.

Archaeological salvage of fire debris starting in the Grand Reception Room, Windsor Castle, 1993

The assessment of these large project archives was largely complete by the end of 1998, but work has been on hold then for a number of reasons.  I’ve been in deep discussion with my colleague and good friend Dr Steven Brindle over the last few months, and the next stage is to get in touch with all the project specialists to let them know that the analysis may finally be about to happen. Hence the publication strategy, so they can see what we’re asking them to do.  By Guildford my seat was surrounded by loud and excitable children, and I was bitterly regretting having left my i-pod in my bag, which was overhead and thus inaccessible.


English Heritage offices at Waterhouse Square, Holborn

By bus to our Waterhouse Square offices in Holborn, where I find a seat among friends in London Region. Here I dealt with a variety of business by e-mail, including mundane admin tasks such as approving invoices and expenses.  Fortunately we have quite good electronic systems for dealing with such things, so they were finished very quickly. The online press summary included a link to a Telegraph opinion piece on the listing of London tube stations. I tweeted the link with my own comments, and was later gratified to learn that my comment “Entertainingly daft Torygraph rant” appeared on the relevant page of the Telegraph website.  A small but pleasing result. At this point I lost the use of the camera; my chum Dr Jane Sidell was off to give a walking tour of Roman London, and borrowed the camera to record the event.

Trying to persuade Dr Jane Sidell, Inspector of Ancient Monuments for London, to point the camera somewhere else.

I also had to draft a response to a member of the public who had written to say that she was disappointed to learn that we aren’t running the Fort Cumberland Festival of British Archaeology event this year. I explained that this was as disappointing to us as it was to her; our free FOBA weekend event has been very popular, usually attracting c. 2000 people over a weekend to enjoy a range of archaeological and related activities. We enjoy it as much as the visitors do. We had to take the difficult decision not to hold the event this year in late 2010; by then it was already clear that we would be in the middle of a major reorganisation, and in that context it seemed unfair to ask colleagues to commit their time and energies to planning the event at a time when they were likely to be severely distracted by other events. We hope to be able to reinstate the event next year, resources permitting…

At 2pm, I took part in a Portico project team  meeting. Portico is a project that aims to provide up-to-date research content on the English Heritage website for our historic properties. Enhanced content is already online for all of the free sites, and the first sets of pages for 12 of the pay sites are now available. An introduction to the project with links to the available content is available at (insert link).  We were updated on progress, which remains good; the first batch of site information is now online, and all of it has been or is being updated with links to online resources. Another batch of sites is nearly ready to go online, including Susan Greaney’s excellent Stonehenge pages.  The next stage of the project is currently being planned; I may have volunteered to write up one or two sites myself.  A day conference is being planned for London next April to promote the project. The introductory page on the EH site shows the content that’s available so far –

Following the meeting I had a very useful discussion with Christopher Catling about the National Planning Policy Framework, which is currently out for consultation.  I think we agreed that it’s a huge improvement on the earlier practioners’ draft, preserving more of PPS5, but there are still some concerns, including the assumption in favour of development that permeates the document.

After that, there was time to check e-mails and deal with a few more bits of business before catching the train home. This included correspondence relating to one of last year’s fieldwork projects, on the Romano-British settlement around Silbury Hill, and the forthcoming excavation at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, where we’ll be digging up parts of the French Parterre to assist in its restoration.

That was Thursday 28th July – I decided to write it up for Day of Archaeology as I was taking today off.  In the event, I took a trip to Corfe Castle, which I haven’t been to for far too long.  Despite the long queues of holiday traffic, it was a useful and hugely enjoyable visit. I always particularly enjoy the path up to the keep, which passes through the tumbled remains of the demolished sections of the keep. It’s very evocative of the sheer scale of destruction on this site.

The degree of destruction caused by slighting varies from site to site; this would appear to be off the vindictive end of the scale. The site is looking very good, but I was very disappointed by the new interpretation panels, full of rubbishy unhistorical cliches. The panel about ‘oubliettes’ was the worst example. It went on about the agonies of the poor prisoners abandoned in deep pit prisons. The work of Peter Brears has, of course, demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that such structures are strong-rooms, for the safe storage of documents, money and other valuables. The reason that they often have well-lit chambers with fireplaces above them is not to provide accommodation for the better-off prisoners, but to provide a room for the clerk or steward to work in. Worst of all, having conjured up imaginary sufferings  in imaginary oubliettes, the panel finished by admitting that no such chamber survived at Corfe. So the point of this rubbish was…..?  Rant over.

The effects of undermining - the tower has slid down the slope, and the curtain wall has fallen over.

I took some time looking at the evidence for the destruction of the site, which is a particular interest of mine. This was the subject of the thesis of a friend of mine, Dr Lila Rakoczy, and since reading her work I’ve become more interested in looking at the evidence for how buildings were demolished. The walls at Corfe have certainly been undermined, but there’s no clear evidence for the use of gunpowder, despite the claims on a number of panels that the site was ‘blown up’. The surviving unused sap at the base of the keep’s latrine tower is a simple horizontal rectangular slot, which I think argues for the use of the ‘burnt timber prop’ method of undermining – i.e. using timbers to prop up the wall as the sap is excavated, and then burning them out to bring down the mass of masonry above. Drawings of near-contemporary saps used for explosive undermining, e.g. in Vauban’s work, show that these saps tend to be hollowed out behind a small opening in the outer face of the wall, to contain the blast and thus maximise the effect of the explosion on the masonry.  A bit anorakish, but it keeps me happy.

Possible sap at the base of the Keep's latrine tower, The masonry at the right hand corner is, I think, relatively-modern underpinning.

After that, I enjoyed a much faster and prettier drive home by avoiding the main roads. So there you have it – two days for the price of one, and I got to see some archaeology on one of them.

Brian Kerr, Head of Archaeological Projects, English Heritage


Busy day!

It’s been a busy day so far. The meeting with AAI&S has now finished, and was very successful. Look out for a press release about the merger. We’ve also been making some exciting plans for next year’s Conference (which will be in Oxford 18 – 20 April).

I’ve organised an inspection panel for a organisation that’s applied to become Registered with us, and we’re continuing to write up the benchmarking reports for those of our current Registered Organisations who need to reregister this year (they do so every two years, to make sure they’re still operating as we expect them to). I’m also getting some last minute nomination forms in from people eager to be on the Buildings Archaeology Group’s committee, and rounded up what training courses our groups have done this year for Alex, who’s writing the Annual Report at the moment. I’m currently typing up the last edits on the text of The Archaeologist for our designer, as that will go to press next month. This issue is the conference round-up. A copy of the new ‘Londinium’ map has just arrived on my desk for review (in the following edition I suspect). It’s very good, Kirsten’s just showed me the iphone app. I like the one-finger excavation technique!

Earlier today we released an exciting statement about the new Scottish government planning advice note. We are particularly pleased with the stipulation that archaeological work required through the planning process should conform to the relevant IfA Standards and guidance, and the emphasis that work should be done by ‘a professionally competent organisation or consultant’, with IfA is identified as having a Register of professionally accredited organisations.

The phone’s been busier than it has been all week, which is unusual for a Friday. I might need some more coffee….


Not much real archaeology, but loads of stuff to do..

A Day of Archaeology at the curatorial side of the Museum of London

 The Department of Archaeological Collections and Archive, which includes the award London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre (LAARC),  the curators of the early collections (up to 1714) and the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology.  It is a stressful and varied job, and sometimes a tad unsatisfactory as there is never enough time other than to skim over so many compelling things.

 The day started with e-mail on the train about getting resources in place for the London Archaeologist Association contribution to FoBA, then wrote a review about the Museum’s new iPhone app, feeling slightly aggrieved by a previous review on iTunes that said it was ‘unambitious’, felt the need to refute. As a lot of work has gone into getting the sponsorship and building it, then found out could not load my review because I have not downloaded the product, of course I still have the trial version, and now need to delete it and reload via iTunes, bummer, save that for home tonight as we not allowed iTunes at work. If you are iPhone or iPad enabled, do have a look, it’s a tip of the iceberg look at the Romans in London, it brings together content from the Museum of London Collections, the MoLA Londinium map, sparky little videos made by HISTORY floating on top of Google maps.

 The conditions are not great back of house at the Museum of London, heating and ventilation are poor, offices are cramped, although work is underway to improve the roof and insulation, but it was off putting to see another Head of Department spraying their armpits in advance of another steamy day. Me? I managed that before I left the bathroom this morning.

 Staff briefing meeting where, among other things, the separation of MoLA is spun and tempered by the Director telling us a little about ongoing commercial projects including Convoys Wharf and a site on Holborn that is a 16th century tavern and brewery. The Director also revealed a plan to build a mini Louvre-style glass pyramid within a void on the roof to create more office space, and apparently he travelled (in his own time) to Rwanda to name a gorilla.  He also said we would have no building works during the Olympics, …or leave (at the moment).

 Then sorted out a external enquiry about an identification of Post-Medieval earthenware vessel, curiously I thought it was North Devon Gravel-tempered ware, huge bits of gravel showing through the glaze.

 Correspondence with GLA about teaching classics and Latin in London schools, invitation to lunch at City Hall next week, the phrase ‘no such thing as free lunch’ running through my head.  Dealing with a request to borrow the Head of Mithras from Prof. Grimes excavations for an exhibition on the Livery companies, but the dates coincide with Londinium 2012, our Stories of the World exhibition, decide to consult with Junction the youth panel as co-curators of the exhibition.

 Trying to get my head around the Greater London Historic Environment Research Strategy, but actually mostly sorting out cock-ups with invoices to do with the project.

 Ensuring the catering is in place for the Finds Processing course being held at LAARC next week, great, a pile of receipts from M&S Lunch To Go to process.

 This afternoon meetings about how to fund Community Archaeology over the next three years, so cunning plans in the offing, although disappointed to have missed out on the CBA bursary scheme this week, is it because we are London? Or is it because I didn’t spend enough time on the application? Or a mixture of the two?  Then a super meeting about how to stop water getting into where we store excavated human bone, hoping it does not rain is not going to be a long term solution….

 Then bracing myself for a full on FOBA weekend, events at London Wall, and the Gladiator Games in Guildhall yard.  I think I get to spend quality time checking tickets and showing people to the seats, but it is a warm up to raising awareness about the forthcoming campaign to build new Roman Galleries at the Museum of London.

Roy Stephenson

Head of Archaeological Collections and Archive, Museum of London