Worth every penny: a numismatist’s view

By Julian Bowsher, Senior Archaeologist and Numismatist at MOLA.

Roman coin (c) MOLA

Roman coin (c) MOLA

My day started with the arrival of a couple of boxes of coins from MOLA’s recent excavations of a riverside site, near the Tower of London.  And I know that more boxes are on their way!

There are usually more Roman coins than any others from London sites but those in front of me cover a wide spectrum, ranging from Roman Republican denarii to late Roman copies. One 1st-century AD coin is particularly rare, there is a late Anglo-Saxon penny and a couple of medieval coins, as well as numerous lead tokens and a fine sixpence of Queen Elizabeth I. There are also lots of Nuremberg jetons, usually interpreted as reckoning counters (for accounting) but probably also used locally as small change.

Among the post-medieval coins we find there is lots of 18th-century small change and these always feature a few foreign coins: from France, Holland, Spain, Italy and Portugal. The latest coin from this site is, curiously, a French 5 centime piece dated 1883, perhaps lost from a visiting French ship.

Before these coins reach me they travel from the site to the finds processing department here at MOLA, where they are given a clean to get the mud off, they then have record photographs taken and are given accession numbers.  The coins then head to the conservation laboratory where corrosion deposits are cleaned off, they are conserved and stabilised and, usefully, X-rayed.

The first thing I did today was make a list of the accession and context numbers, and then I weighed and measured each one before examining them in detail. I described, identified and dated both sides and these details were entered into our coin database. I made a judgement on which coins need further cleaning to help identification and which might even require chemical or metallurgical analysis. Certain coins need further research and I will discuss these pieces with other numismatists around the country or by popping over to the British Museum.

My next step is to write an assessment of the coins from this site. Firstly, I will arrange the coins by date and sometimes create a table or histogram. I will talk to the archaeologist running the dig to learn about the archaeological stratigraphy and also to other finds specialists in the department. This often determines where, how and when the coins came to be found at the site. Finally, after further research, a publication text will be created.

Such is the exciting and interesting diversity of my job!

Bits and Pieces

A day of many colours, it started with dark grey clouds and a blue green sea with white-topped waves, as I headed to a finds drop! I had to hand over a box of finds to a National Trust colleague,  from a dig we did on Brownsea Island so they can create a display for Festival of the British Archaeology event at the end of July. A drive through the glistening rain to the Warminster office, past lush green trees and between kamikaze birds jumping out of bushes! First another finds drop, this time a feely bag activity for another NT  colleague to use in Gloucestershire for FofBA. Then up the stairs past magnolia walls to my desk, first sort out more activities stuff for yet another FofBA event, this time  at Corfe Castle, spinning and weaving kit, colouring sheets, a notice to say we are closed for lunch (so my volunteers can get a break) and some pictures of mosaics. One thing I really wanted to get done was a photomontage in memory of ‘Gerry the Rope’, who passed away recently and we  will miss him so much at our event. He was a historical interpreter who had been coming to Corfe Castle for about twenty years doing rope making (both Medieval and Victorian), games, pole lathe demonstrations and candle making. He was a great communicator and friend.

As late afternoon approached I had to turn my mind to getting everyting ready for our excavations that start on Monday!  write and print risk assessment, get day volunteer form printed, and  go to the shed to sort the tools.  We are digging up the last of the mosaics at Chedworth Roman Villa; they had been re-covered by the Victorians. It’s the last part of a big Heritage Lottery Fund project to put a new cover building over the mosaics and the reinterpretation of the site. Three weeks of mosaic digging, Yay! Red, purple, green, yellow, blue ‘gorilla’ buckets, soft bruhses, hand shovels and a pick axe!  The last item is for prising up the tarmac path. Note to self ‘bring foot pump to blow up flat wheelbarrow tyre’

Nearly the end of the day,  just a couple of things to do before the weekend. One is to send a flint report, web link and finds drawing to an artist, Simon Ryder, who is making an art work for the ExLab project, part of he Cultural Olympiad down in Weymouth. He is getting a 3D scan and printed model of a Mesolithic Portland Chert microlith which we excavated from a site on the cliff edge near Eype in West Dorset, an exciting project. The final job was to check a newsletter article about a pottery grenade found at Corfe Castle and finally identifed 25 years after it was dug up!  Thanks to the Wessex Archaelogy  finds specialist for posting the pot on the Medieval Pottery Research Group facebook site, the wonders of social media.

So into my Red Berlingo and southwards to Weymouth, with the wheelbarrow rattling in the back.




Penn Museum Archaeologist; Part 2

My Day of Archaeology continues (for first half, click this link)

12:00 Lunch with my Research Associate, Ryan Placchetti, discussing our efforts and the closer and closer ties with our British colleagues; how to make the definitive version of the dataset. We have recorded all of the field catalogues at this point and are moving on to examining every artifact we have from Ur, starting with a small subset, that of cylinder seals. Those need to be updated in a unified database, but the unified (if still somewhat flawed) database won’t be up for another week or two according to our colleague, Birger Helgestad, in London.

Got a message from a friend who is a professional photographer that he will be available to help document the second half of my day (he took the picture in my first post, but months ago). My computer secretary file shows that the afternoon should be spent as most afternoons have been this week, writing entries for an artifact loan from Penn Museum to La Caixa Museum in Spain. Many of these artifacts were excavated at Ur and thus relate to my overall project. I have written 14 entries so far, but there are at least another 20 that need to be done. I’ve farmed a further dozen out to Phil Jones, a Sumerologist here at Penn, since they have lengthy cuneiform inscriptions. I have studied both Akkadian and Sumerian but am by no means a specialist in the languages.

Writing entries for artifacts going on loan; photos by Kyle Cassidy

Some of the objects we’re sending have been sent out on traveling exhibits before. I wrote entries for a few of them when they went to Beijing, but those were around 1,000 words each. These have to be only about 100 words. It’s good practice to be concise, but any archaeologist will tell you that every object is more complicated than it looks, and when you want to discuss the significance of a particular object, you are almost inevitably tempted to write and write and, well you get the point. Much like this blog entry, I could be more concise, so I’ll just get to the task of writing exhibit catalogue entries.

High prow and stern boat model is in the background; flat, decked boat is in the foreground.

3:30pm I’ve spent the past hour and a half in the Traveling Exhibits holding room, examining some of the more complex artifacts that I am writing about. The first is a pair of clay boats that seem simple enough, but one of them is expected, the other is not. As I write about these artifacts, I try to make sure that all of our info on them is correct, correlates with field records where available and with archaeological thought of the period, styles, etc. The boat from Fara with high, curved prow and stern is exactly what we would expect from southern Mesooptamia in the Early-Middle Bronze Age, a reed river or marsh boat, with bundles of reeds tied together at stem and stern. The other, said in our records to be from Ur in the Old Babylonian (Middle Bronze) period doesn’t quite fit. First of all, the excavator at Ur does not mention a model boat from this season or any season within four years of the accession date. Secondly, the flat form with partial deck at prow and stern is in the history of ship building usually seen to be later, typically the end of the Late Bronze Age. Essentially, this appears to be a sea-going, plank-built vessel, akin to those on the Mediterranean at the time of the Sea Peoples and beyond. Maybe this is an early occurrence of that type, but without good context, I can’t know. I can’t solve the issues right now, but I can mention the questions in the interpretation of significance in the brief catalogue entry.

Apart from boat models, I’m also covering stone statuary today. I look again at

Examining ED sculpture from Khafaje; notice the resemblance?

an example from Khafaje and wonder where the left eye came from. In early photos, it is missing, yet this statue has two eyes. The left (proper) is a replacement, but I’m not sure when it was put there or by whom. We are sending two similar statue heads to Spain as well and I take a look at them. I take notes on these and a few other pieces, formulating most of about six catalogue entries, though I still have to chase down references for the bibliographic sections.

Even though I’ve been working with artifacts for 20 years, I still get an extraordinary feeling when in the presence of something so old, something formed by human hands thousands of years ago. Even in a relatively clinical environment, the power of ancient artwork is palpable. This is the kind of inspiration that keeps me going in writing some of the entries that might otherwise seem mundane. It’s why I wanted to be in the holding area today rather than only in my office checking books. When working directly with the objects, I notice things I can’t possibly notice in photos, and the personal enjoyment I get at staring into the shell and bitumen eyes of a 4500-year-old stone worshiper, or feeling the curve of a 3600-year-old model boat is indescribable. I may be working on virtual recreations of the ancient city of Ur, but I still believe in the importance of physical museums and the power of seeing ancient things in person. We need digital collections for study and understanding, dissemination of information, teaching, and for many other reasons; but, we need the presence of antiquities in publically accessible institutions as well to promote that unusually motivating and inspiring connection with too-long forgotten people across millennia.

We are all people, and we all are part of history.

Objects, Advice, and a Bit of Thinking…

A day in my life as an archaeologist and finds specialist for English Heritage

As one of the small team of archaeologists within the Intervention and Analysis Division of English Heritage, based at Fort Cumberland, Portsmouth, and working 80% of full time due to the three young herberts who more than fill a million percent of the rest of time, my days are always full, and rarely the same. Technology, determination and flexible bosses enable me to cram a fair amount into a week.

My day starts at around 5am with a reading of emails, then the next couple of hours are given over to lunchboxes, breakfasts, hens, cats, dogs, hamsters, after a smidge of yoga before the madness starts. Throughout this time I also tend to listen to the radio or the reading or the violin practice, while catching up on my Twitter feed (@Nicola_Hembrey), which is great for archaeological news (and a little bit of gossip!). Once the school runs are done I dash to the office, and I’m usually sitting at my desk with a fennel and ginger tea by 9.15am. I have a super view out over Hayling Island, and on a clear day I can hear, Table 2, your lunch is ready, from the pub over the stretch of water! I’ve been at the Fort for thirteen years and I love working within such a diverse, committed and interesting group of colleagues, although the annual ten months of horizontal rain can be a something of a trial.

Fabulous office! Sharp eyes will note the obligatory boxes of finds and X-Rays. Sadly the shelves and stacks of books, and the lovely view, are out of shot…

Yesterday I was – unusually – able to give myself over to an almost entire day of concentrating on one thing; the middle poster above is taken from the site I project manage, the Roman settlement opposite Silbury Hill, which we evaluated in the late summer of 2010, and for which the report is almost complete, hence a day of reading all the specialist contributions, and polishing up my own! I have written the artefacts report, and together with my colleague Vicky Crosby, who led the excavations, I’m working on the overview. I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking and reading in recent weeks about any ritual aspect to the site. We hope to submit the report to the local journal, the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine,  in good time before the end of August deadline. The project team have been brilliant in getting this to publication so quickly – in archaeological terms at least! – while under considerable pressure and uncertainty from our recent round of restructuring.

Today, though, I don’t have the luxury of getting back to the Later Silbury report, as I have to finish off the list that I’ve been mentally carting around all week, to avoid next week spiralling away before I’m even out of this one. The illustrations need a final check. My mountain of library books needs renewing.  I’ve been asked to write a caption for a photograph for a colleague’s memorial event leaflet. I have to write the final section of my performance review. Timelog doesn’t complete itself. I desperately need to catch up on reading the Assessment Report for a project which I have been asked project manage following the redundancy of another colleague, a process which has been difficult for all of us, and the effects of which will be felt for a long while. I whizz down to our stash of outreach material, to find a few objects to donate to a project that wants to bury artefacts at sea for 25 years. I also reply to someone who is working on the update of the professional side of the EH website, after spending an hour writing comments on the pieces of text that he has sent me.

Current reading, mostly concerned with the theorising of artefacts. Books strapped up in the old-fashioned way make me very happy…

Last year I was able to write up the small assemblage of finds that came from our work as part of the Silbury Hill Conservation Project, and I was also lucky enough to revisit the finds from previous interventions in the area. The Monograph text is currently with our publications team. One of the most interesting objects was an unusual copper-alloy bracelet which came from the base of a Roman ditch, but was of Later Bronze Age or Earlier Iron Age date. This sent me off on a long thought process about the significance of heirloom artefacts – those old objects that are important to people because of their association with another person, or an idea, or a particular time in their life. It made me wonder whether getting to grips with this idea from a present perspective could illuminate our thinking about the importance of old objects in the past; something nigh-on impossible to get to grips with within the archaeological record. This led to the beginnings of a project that I’m hoping to get off the ground with a few colleagues; a public survey, with a large social media element, in which people can post details of their object, and from which we can analyse the data later. I made a phone call, to see if there had been any response yet to our proposal; nothing so far. Hopefully it will happen. Keep your eyes peeled for Objects Of My Affection.

Finally while in the office I had a quick look over my website. I’m secretary and web editor for the Roman Finds Group, a forum for all those with an interest in the subject (do check us out online; we’re really very good). I added the details of our forthcoming meeting at the British Museum in April 2013, in which attendees can visit the Pompeii exhibition as part of the very reasonable conference fee (sorry, ad over now!). I’m lucky that EH gives me a small amount of time in which I can sit on this committee.

I leave in time for the return school run, and spend the next couple of hours listening to stories of everyone’s day and making supper, while keeping my emails (and Twitter!) open from the iPad in the kitchen. It’s the best way to stay on top of things.

I then spend a while re-reading comments that I wrote earlier in the week, on a finds report within a site publication which we have funded through our grants programme, National Heritage Protection Commissions. The report had been a long time coming, but turned out to be really well researched, well thought out and well written. I can easily see it becoming a ‘go-to’ text for finds reports when it’s published. If I have the space within my deadlines I like to write my comments and then leave them a day or so before sending, just to make sure that I haven’t missed anything.

Working from home, commenting on a lengthy finds report. I don’t normally print out this much paper! Note the extremely hi-tech phone…

Finally, I respond to an email from the Activity Lead of the Ploughzone Activity Team, which has recently been formed as part of the National Heritage Protection Plan. He needs all team members to comment on a proposal. Almost all of our communication is by email to keep costs down, as we come from EH offices all over the country. I add it to my mental list for next week, and mark the email unread, to remind myself.

Later I’ll do some more reading, and thinking, if I don’t fall asleep first.

So, there it is, a typical day in the life of this (lucky) archaeologist. I seem to have got all the way to the end of this post without including a picture of either an object, or myself, which is probably something of an oversight (particularly the former!). Here’s a happy picture of me (at front, red shoes) with the gorgeous site team at Later Silbury, instead.


Nicola Hembrey, Archaeologist (Artefact Analysis), English Heritage  @Nicola_Hembrey

29 vi 2012

New Bronze Age finds from the British Museum: What…

So, a new find has ended up in a museum. Usually this is then studied by a specialist in the museum. But sometimes specialists like myself, who are also researching the same subject, are invited to look at these new finds and help make sense of them, and identify what they are. For those that weren’t able to follow my Twitter feed this morning, I found this waiting for me at the BM at 10am…

My job then is start identifying the different objects in the hoard. Some things are obvious, or appear so. Such as a sword or an axe. Simple common sense tells us what the object is and what they were likely used for. Sort of like when we travel abroad to another country: we see a large moving coloured metal object with wheels and people inside, common sense tells us that in all likelihood it is a car and is used for transport, in much the same way as it would be back home. But sometimes, it’s not that easy, such as in the case of this object from the new hoard… 

But we’ll come back to this later.

So, we think we know what some of our objects are. These axes from the hoard are a good example.

 Even though there are a startingly diverse array of axes available to us today, they are similar enough to us for us to be able to identify them as an axe, a cutting tool, particularly for cutting wood. Indeed, from timbers that have survived and been recovered, many have been found with blade marks from just these types of objects. That gives us our general category of object. Then we have to figure out what ‘type’ each one is… here’s where we play a game of snap.

So, we all know what a car is, whether home or abroad. But there are also brands of cars: Ford, Toyota, etc. An objects ‘type’ is sort of similar, telling us a lot about which region the object may have come from, in the same way that car brands often have regional or national associations.

We do this by looking at lots and lots of pictures of other objects, and trying to find ones that look the same: snap.

Often, specialist books or catelogues of these exist. So, I spent part of the morning looking through a book of axes looking for ones that look the same as the ones in the hoard. In the book, similar brands or types will already have been grouped together, and help discern the different meanings or significance that the types have.

The four axes from the hoard, in the photo way above,  are of  (L/R) 2 x Type Welby, a Type South-eastern and a Type Meldreth.

The last two are good examples of the differing significance of these types. Type South-eastern axes are found widely distributed in southern England but mainly in southeast England, hence the name. In this region they are often found in great numbers, in hoards that consist of nothing but other axes. They also occur in hoards that consist of mixtures of local and Continental material, as illustrated in the previous post. These hoards are often called Carp’s-Tongue hoards, connected to part of a cultural or specialised group distributed across northwst and northern France and southeast England, sharing certain types of objects. As our hoard was found in Nottinghamshire, representing the very most northerly point of the distribution of this type, it’s not surprising that there was only one.   The other axe, of Type Meldreth axe, however, is found widely distributed throughout the whole of Britain. It seems to have no particular regional emphasis or association, and only ever occurs in small numbers. This is not surprising either. Unlike the rather ubiquitous and not particularly well made South-eastern axe, those of Type Meldreth were well cast and well finished and, with their multi-facetted design, were a bit of a Mercedes…     

New Bronze Age finds at the British Museum

We have a morning mystery. I have no idea what to expect when I get to the British Museum at 10am, other than there will be two hoards, both from the Late Bronze Age, c. 950-800 cal. BC., that have recently been found, and I have to identify the contents and write a specialist report.

If any of you have ever watched Time Team, you’ll know that archaeologists come in all shapes and sizes, and do numerous different jobs. So, we don’t all dig. At least not all the time. Rather than putting trowel to dirt, I spend most of my time routing around in museum archives looking through collections of artefacts.

I’m a doctoral researcher at the Groningen Institute of Archaeology, University of Groningen, in the Netherlands. I am doing my PhD on the use of bronze weapons, that is rapiers and swords, of the Later Bronze Age in southern England, c. 1400-950 cal. BC.

I’m what they call a metalwork expert, specialised in the bronze artefacts of the Bronze Age, in my case covering what is known as the Atlantic Bronze Age, being the British Isles, coastal and Channel France, the southern Low Countries, and Iberia. I currently live in London, and am in the last 6 weeks of writing up my thesis.

However, I was asked on Wednesday evening by the British Museum’s Curator of European Bronze Age archaeology in the Department of Prehistory and Europe, Dr. Ben Roberts, if I would stop by the British Museum and have a look at two new Late Bronze Age hoards that have just been discovered. Upon discovery they were reported to their local museum, where a Finds Liaison Officer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme would have reported and listed the objects. They have subsequently come to the British Museum to be studied and a short, specialist report produced on them.

It’s these specialist reports, known as treasury Reports, that I’m going to be working on today, and blogging about.

I have no idea what to expect when I get to the British Museum, other than there will be two hoards, both from the Late Bronze Age, c. 950-800 cal. BC, and that there are fragments of sword and socketed axe in them…

Further details about the Portable Antiquities Scheme, your local Finds Liaison Officer and what to do if you find something that you may believe to be of historical and archaeological significance can be found on the Portable Antiquities Website (http://finds.org.uk). Elsewhere on the Day of Archaeology site you’ll also find members of the Portable Antiquities Scheme blogging about their days too.