small finds

Picture perfect: a day in the life of an archaeological illustrator

By Hannah Faux, Senior Illustrator (specialising in finds illustration) at MOLA.

Hannah Faux, MOLA illustrator, works on some flint drawings (c) MOLA

Hannah Faux, MOLA illustrator, works on some flint drawings (c) MOLA.

Fridays are always very busy in the Drawing Office at MOLA, so we are starting the day with coffee and biscuits, as is required.

I often work on several projects simultaneously, but today I’ll just be focusing on the one. The finds from this London-based site range from prehistoric to medieval, and include pottery, small finds and flints.

One of Hannah's small finds illustrations (c) MOLA

One of Hannah’s small finds illustrations (c) MOLA

Today I’ll be preparing my pencil drawings for checking by our finds specialists. Those that have already been signed-off can be inked and scanned. We still use traditional pen and ink and combine this with digital methods.  I’m particularly looking forward to inking the flints!

An illustration of a prehistoric flint by MOLA illustrator Hannah Faux (c) MOLA

An illustration of a prehistoric flint by MOLA illustrator Hannah Faux (c) MOLA

We’re very lucky to have such a great variety of lovely objects pass through the Drawing Office here at MOLA and it makes the work most satisfying.


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

Michael Marshall: Assessing Small Finds from Roman London

Like any job in archaeology, working with small finds can be a bit of a mixed bag. For every box opened to reveal shiny ‘treasure’ there are countless others containing more prosaic yet interesting finds which are indicative of everyday life and activities in the past. These are really the ‘best bit’ of any assemblage but more numerous still on many urban sites are boxes full of highly fragmentary and corroded ‘dross’. Some of this is completely unidentifiable, fairly undiagnostic (such as fragments of iron sheet or wire) or else tantalisingly close to being a recognisable object leading to some speculative flicking through likely find’s books or trips around the office to bother colleagues.

Today I am working on a post-excavation assessment report for an interesting Roman site in Southwark and it is no exception. This morning I’ll be dealing with some more of the most corroded horrible bulk nails it’s ever been my misfortune to handle (don’t expect any terribly enlightening updates about these) but this afternoon I have some more nice Roman glass to round off the week so stick with me. There are lovely glass vessels in this assemblage and some evidence for glass working – probably the first evidence of this sort from south of the river.

In the meantime I’m off to grab some gloves and some more boxes of nails. At least it’s a bit cooler today. I grew up in Scotland and so anything above about 24°C is a bit on the warm side for me and it was horrible yesterday when it topped 31 degrees in the office. I was wearing gloves and a dust mask and had to close the windows and turn off the fan in my section of the office to stop all the dust, rust and muck from the nails choking the osteologists and finds specialists I share a room with. For the present here’s a photo of my rather generic desk in that room to contrast with all the lovely site photos that I’m seeing appearing on the website already. This is ‘where the magic happens’… or something like that. The sharp-eyed will notice the awesome (free and pretty accurate) BBC prehistory timeline above my computer.

Treasure ahoy!

Where the magic happens

Dealing with finds

9.00: I am involved in post-excavation working, writing reports on pottery and finds and gathering together other specialist reports for publication. We are working on a report on the finds from a Roman fort, so my first task of the day is to sit at the computer and write about some stone sculpture.

11.30: E-mail discussions about the small finds assemblage from another site, and the frustrating lack of parallels!

12.00: I move from Roman to medieval. I get to leave the computer for a while to check some pot drawings to make sure they are OK for publication.