A Day On Two Sites

Hello I’m Cornelius, one of the partners at L – P: Archaeology. I’ve been doing commercial archaeology for 25 years now, and I know that the following short story will be very familiar to a lot of you, but anyone who has never been involved in a trenching evaluation be warned- this rollercoaster ride of thrills, despair and elation is not for the faint hearted. Some images may contain brickearth.

As described in my earlier post, we are currently conducting a 5% sample evaluation below a car-park in Egham, Surrey. First thing this morning we broke the tarmac on a fresh new trench, full of possibilities. We started to machine away the modern overburden deposits below the surface, taking care to avoid the large water pipe we knew to be in the trench. As our very skilled machine driver was doing this I got a call from another site.

51 miles away to the south lies the lovely house of Brambletye in Keston. An extension is currently being built on the house, which involves digging some small but deep footings. As the house lies next to the Scheduled Ancient Monument of Keston Roman Tombs, even very small scale work needs to be watched closely, so I leave the trench in the capable hands of my colleague Mike and zoom off down the M25.

When I get to Brambletye the crew have a small 3-ton digger ready, and have soon dug the footing. There is absolutely nothing in it but natural clay, with not even a stray sherd of Roman pot in the topsoil. My disappointment is offset by a very fine cup of tea, and then back to Egham to look at the trench.

In my absence Mike has cleaned and recorded the trench beautifully. A single linear feature in the trench has been sectioned, and is clearly a wall footing of early 20th century origin- possibly the wall of the doctors surgery we were told about by the very helpful staff at Egham Museum, who were kind enough to show us their collection of old maps. There is no other archaeology visible in the trench, so I survey it using a Smartrover GPS system and we fill it back in. I lock up the site and head home to write up the days results. Which are that I have driven about 150 miles, shifted a few hundred tons of earth and found nothing of archaeological interest whatsoever.

But it was mostly sunny, and I was out in the fresh air, and I got a close look at a very cool Roman tomb complex. And the tea was very good.

Altogether a fine day.

Photos copyright L – P : Archaeology

Burst of Creativity

Did some good reading on young people’s engagement with heritage this afternoon and was inspired to write a few paragraphs for the report I’m working on. I can see more clearly now where archaeology needs to be more aware of its wider context in working with young people. That was quite fun.

Now it’s tea time. Time to make my pigeon breast omelette!

More reading this evening I think.

A Day in the Life of an Archaeobotanist

8AM: As an archaeobotanist I can have a bit of variety in my work schedule. I can be called on to go on site at very short notice, but generally my base is in the office, doing assessments and analysis on any plant remains retrieved from site.


I arrive at the office (Museum of London Archaeology) around 8am. First order of business is usually making a cup of tea and eating breakfast while I wait for my computer to boot up. Then I check through any emails that arrived overnight before starting on my current project.


The practical work I’m doing today is part of an environmental assessment for a large waterfront site in London. Around 250 bulk environmental samples were taken during excavation at the site. We processed these in flotation tanks and now it’s my job to scan through the clean remains under a low powered microscope to see if they’re archaeologically interesting, recording very broadly what’s present. Once I’ve finished scanning all the flots, I’ll produce tables of the remains and write a report with recommendations for the next stage of work. This might include anything from recommending further archaeobotanical work on certain samples, to beetle analysis or wood species identification.

Cups of tea: 1.


where the magic happens

My work space

10 am: I’ve assessed two flots so far this morning – I could easily have spent much longer on them, but keeping to deadlines and budget is very important in commercial archaeology. Both samples contained lots of stems, some meadow type taxa, bran (the outer layer of cereal grains) and some fruit remains like fig seeds and apple endocarp (the tough bit around the seeds). At this stage I’d suggest they might be mixed dumps of stabling waste and household waste, but I’ll leave it to the analysis stage to really investigate.

Cups of tea: 2

Flots assessed: 2


12pm: Not much to report I’m afraid. I’ve assessed two more flots, one with quite a lot of wood chips in it, which might suggest woodworking at the site. At least all the flots have lots of plant remains though! I’ll often have to slog through loads of samples with nothing interesting at all turning up.


I’ve also been reminded of one of the perils of being married to another archaeologist – I have been tasked with carrying a metal detector home on the bus so he doesn’t have to come in to the office on Monday morning to collect it himself.

Cups of tea: 3

Flots assessed: 4


12.30pm LUNCH!

Cups of tea: 5

Flots assessed: 4.5

Lunchtime conversation topics: Tim Burton movies, Start Trek TNG, cheese fondue.


2pm: Still plugging away at the flots, and am now assessing one that’s full of charred wheat chaff as well as waterlogged wood chips. A pretty odd mix, but then all sorts of things float up on a river bank, as anyone who’s taken a walk along the Thames foreshore could tell you. I’ve also fielded a few tech queries from one of the less IT literate of my colleagues here, and a phone call about flotation tank meshes. Ah, the adventurous life of an archaeobotanist.

Cups of tea: Still 5

Flots assessed: 6


3.30pm: Had a good chat with our timber specialist about exotic wood timbers (exotic for us being anything not native to the British Isles). Working in London, which has been a trading hub since the Romans founded the city in the first century AD, means that we get woods from all over the world turning up in excavations, particularly in postmedieval deposits. Wood species ID is another one of my jobs at MOLA, so we often work together on assemblages.

Cups of tea: 6

Flots assessed: 8


3.30-4pm: For the last half hour of my working day I’ll be replying to emails, tidying up my workspace and washing my lab ware, and filling out my timesheet for the week.


And maybe I’ll squeeze in one last cup of tea.

Mount Vernon Interns

At Mount Vernon, we have reached our final day (sad face) of an 8 week internship program devoted to different aspects of the Archaeological Collections Online initiative.  Our interns came from prestigious universities around the country to take on individual research projects pertaining to the material and social worlds of planter elites like George Washington and the enslaved community upon whose labor these genteel lifestyles were based.

Here’s what our interns have to say about their work!

Katie Barca: Today I am in the process of entering decorated or marked pipes from the South Grove Midden as Objects in the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS). In the future, images of these pipes will be posted on the  Mount Vernon’s Midden website.

Joe Downer: Today I am transcribing store accounts from an 18th century Virginia merchant, Alexander Henderson.  By transcribing Henderson’s ledgers, researchers are better able to understand what colonists were purchasing in Northern Virginia before the Revolution, and have a greater insight into pre-revolutionary material culture.

James Bland: I’m also transcribing the Henderson store accounts, but for Alexandria instead of Colchester.  Henderson worked for John Glassford and Company, who together were the Scottish Tobacco Kings of the Chesapeake region.  Their records show an emerging class of non-elite consumers that didn’t exist in the early colonial period.

Page from Henderson's store account, 1763.

Leah Thomas: I am currently writing the report for my summer project, which involves research on 18th century dining objects as represented in museum collections.  I am also looking into the possibility of a connection between dining vessel and utensil form variety and the Rococo art movement in the American colonies.

Sophia Farrulla: This day of archaeology has been packed with thoughts of items related to tea, coffee, and drinking chocolate.  Twinnings tea in hand, I’m finishing a final write up on exotic beverages amongst the 18th century elite.

Tea cup decorated with Aesop's fables found in the midden.

Julia Kennedy: Squirrels and Bamboo and Grapes, oh my! I’m working on drawing a small rodent decoration that appears on Washington’s (George’s or perhaps his elder half-brother Lawrence’s) Chinese export porcelain plates. Each plate was hand-painted, therefore making each curious critter unique.

Squirrel, tree shrew, or other googly-eyed rodent on Washington's Chinese export porcelain.

Jennie Williams: I’m researching George Washington’s purchases from England between 1754 and 1772.  Eventually, these data, gathered from Washington’s orders and invoices, will be available to the public through an online, searchable database.

Anna Dempsey: Today, I am working on my paper for the research I’ve done on lead shot in the archaeological and historical record. I’m also writing an entry about picking 1/16” material, including lead shot, for our blog.

Interns ponder how their projects will appear on the Mount Vernon midden website!