watching brief

Phil Jeffries (MOLA): a hybrid job is never boring

I hold a hybrid job role within MOLA, being both an Archivist and a Senior Archaeologist for watching briefs. Combined, these provide me with a variety of different tasks and settings in which to spend my working days.

Within the MOLA Archive team I am principally responsible for preparing all the finds and finds records from sites, in readiness for their deposition into the relevant accepting public repository. Much of the material I handle relates to excavations from within Greater London and therefore is ultimately to be deposited into The London Archaeological Archive and Resource Centre (LAARC) run by The Museum of London, which has its own standards to which the prepared material must conform.

So many rows - he's getting data vertigo...

Phil in Archive-mode, checking finds data tables

Whilst having several small – medium sized finds projects currently on the go, I am also overseeing a long term finds archive project which has been opened up for the public to get involved with. This volunteering opportunity is concerned with preparing all the finds material from the excavation of the Guildhall Yard in the City of London during 1992-1997 (Site Code GYE92).

GYE92 is perhaps the largest finds archive to be prepared by MOLA and also one of the largest ever to be received (eventually) by LAARC. To give you an idea of the scale of the project, there are some 2339 boxes of finds/environmental remains stored on 157 shelves across three bays of the building we occupy, plus larger objects yet to be discovered off site. There are over 20,500 Accessioned Finds, some of which are on display in the Guildhall and others already noted as missing in action. In order that the material is archive worthy, the finds must be packaged and labelled according to LAARC’s standards and these must then run in numerical sequence within boxes of material type. The boxes are then stored in material and numerical sequence on the shelves. All the finds must be checked against and systematically logged onto the finds or environmental inventory spreadsheets which have an initial combined cell count of over half a million cells. Where appropriate, errors, omissions, additions and amendments noted must also be updated on MOLA’s primary Oracle database and a running Archivist’s Note of un-resolvable errors/omissions kept to accompany the final archive deposit.

We currently have a pool of 6 members of the public volunteering on the project two days per week and for the last few months they have been processing the bulk animal bone from the site, (all 924 boxes of it)! Typically the volunteers can come in and once settled, get on with the day’s tasks with minimal direction, however I’m on call to assist with queries as and when they arise. This might be concerned with relocating non-bone material that has incorrectly made its way into the animal bone boxes or resolving discrepancies with context numbering or packaging policies. The information that the volunteers collate is then updated onto the final Excel finds inventory which is growing by the day as new discoveries not captured on the original database are brought to light during re-packaging.

Whilst not preparing finds or chasing up their present whereabouts in a building the size of an aircraft hanger or overseeing the volunteers, I might well be involved with other archive duties such as checking field records or converting digital files into archive storable versions. Alternatively, I may be dealing with one of the fieldwork watching brief projects I have been assigned to look after in the capacity of a Senior Archaeologist within the Field Team. Two of these projects are what can be described as long term and intermittent in nature and involve me monitoring certain key ground works on infrastructure projects that span several years. A watching brief is usually undertaken on sites where the proposed construction works do not require an archaeological excavation to be conducted or follow on from earlier evaluation trenching or archaeological excavations close by and are usually undertaken by one attendant experienced Field archaeologist.

Be Safe!

Phil with his Archaeologist Hat on now (c) MOLA 2013

The job essentially requires a high degree of observation under less than ideal circumstances, where a few minutes may be all the time permitted to make quick records of archaeological features and natural strata as they are removed by the machines at work. My projects require me to remotely monitor complex construction schedules via phone and email with lead engineers on the sites and organise myself to be on site when the latest sequence of excavations for new foundations, utility trenches, shafts or general ground reduction is due to begin. The sites I visit are varied and fall in numerous London boroughs, from public spaces such as the streets of The West End and central London parks to industrial sites of former power stations or basements of residential and commercial properties. Generally, schedules rarely stay on track and an anticipated site visit might be put back on the proposed day as problems arise with anything from a break down of a machine to discovery of asbestos or particularly reinforced concrete. In this case I have to be pretty flexible with my diary and be accommodating to working on several separate pieces of indoor archive work which will ultimately be interrupted. As well as actually creating the primary field records during my on site monitoring, I am also responsible for producing reports based on these observations, this brings me into contact with several other departments such as the Drawing Office, Photography Studio and Geomatics/Survey team. All in all it’s rare that I get two successive days that might be described as repetitive!

Mission Impossible: Making sense of Iron Age field boundaries

For the last 3 weeks we have been excavating what was supposed to be a very simple site with pretty much only a big Iron Age enclosure ditch….. It turned out instead that the site was criss-crossed with small linears, ditches and gullies partially overlaid by what I can only describe for the moment as an activity area of probable Anglo -Saxon date. So we spent most of the 3 weeks trying to understand their nature, period and their relations. This was made even more difficult by the almost total absence of finds, and by the scorching hot weather.  As it happens the developer wanted his site back, so we did all possible in the time allowed and then we had to pack up.  I remained on site for a week of watching brief which, in spite of the weather suddenly turning rainy and stormy, turned out to be much more pleasant then what expected as the workers kept me supplied with hot coffee and doughnuts!

During the breaks I kept going back to the excavation area to see if, after the rain, the situation might have become  clearer, but to no avail…

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Today though, just one hour before I was due to leave the site, the mechanical digger started working on the area we had excavated, cutting a long section all along the bulk. Even though I was not meant to check while they were going thorough the already excavated area, I took the occasion to have a look. Amazingly the digger exposed several of the intersection of the ditches, making clearer what cut what, and eve more amazingly uncovered a large deposit which contained a conspicuous amount of burnt pots, one of which was still intact before the “gentle” hand of the mechanical digger got in to it. The workers were very kind and decided to stop the digging and give me time to clean and record the sections and to take pictures. They also helped me to collect the pieces of the large pot that can now be put back together and can be used for dating!!! So I guess tomorrow the coffee and doughnuts will be on me!

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Friday in the Office. Jake Streatfeild-James, Field Archaeologist, AOC Archaeology Group – North

I was in to work early this morning.  The sun was out as I headed around the bypass to the office. As soon as the key is in the door it starts to tip down outside, so I’m glad that, whereas I’m usually in the field, today I am helping out the conservation department process a large assemblage of Roman ceramics.  The finds come from Roman fort in central Scotland, near the Antonine Wall. During the last four days I’ve been labelling pot, some of which I remember from last summer’s excavation.

I will have worked for AOC in their Edinburgh office for a year this July, first as a site assistant and now as a field archaeologist.  In my first year I’ve learnt a lot: what it means to do a ‘watching brief,’ what to look for during an evaluation and the art of report writing, even picking up some experience of community archaeology along the way.

Carrying on from where I left off yesterday afternoon, I’m continuing to excavate the material left inside a Roman bowl.  The bowl was lifted from ground in one piece, and was discovered in the backfill of a pit which contained other Roman material. On Roman sites, pots like this often contain human or animal remains- burials or ritual deposits, but in this case there is only the backfill of the pit, suggesting that the bowl had outlived its use and was discarded.

Next there is a collection of Samian, high status pottery from Roman Gaul.  This group of sherds was discovered in a concentrated area of the site, and might make an entire vessel: time to break out the adhesive! This is a first for me and my only comparable experience is gluing a mug back together.  This is a tad more complicated.

It nearly goes back together, and I don’t have any bits left over. The conservators agree it’s a success. Would they lie to protect my feelings?

Finally there’s some preparation to do for a watching brief on Monday morning. My site box, spade, and personal protective equipment all need gathering together and checked before I leave for the weekend.


Hope it doesn’t rain on Monday.

Contracts Department

My name is Jon Burton, I work in the contracts department of GGAT. I normally spend a fair amount of time out in the field, dealing directly with clients, carrying out watching briefs, evaluations, and on occassions full scale excavations.

Most of this week I’ve been working on post excavation reports, related to watching briefs carried out in the Glamorgan and Gwent area.  These include watching briefs carried out in the Caerleon area, related to the line of a former roman road, and another watching brief in the Port Talbot area along the line of a new road scheme which, has uncovered a number of features related to former industrial activity.

Today I had hoped to continue with the writing up of a small watching brief, carried out this week in Cowbridge.  However, another fieldwork project has come up in Merthyr which, requires cover next week, and so now I’ll have to produce a risk assessment, and gather some background information in preparation for this new work.

Day in the life of an archaeological planning officer 11am

The good news is that we have sorted the potential beach of condition matter. The work that is being carried out is covered by a previous planning consent so the approval of a programme of investigation is not required for the on-going work, although they are meant to have an archaeologist present carrying out a watching brief and Richard has sent one of his team to the site to do it. Hopefully the results of the watching brief will assist in the preparation of a better programme of investigation when it is produced. It is amazing how much time can be spent sorting out possible breaches of conditions, but it must be done if we are going to ensure that the archaeology is protected.

Small, but (almost) perfectly formed

Today is a mixture of post-excavation, research and reporting. The first item on my ‘to-do’ list is to download and catalogue the records from my site visit earlier this week. This was a watching brief on restoration work at the former Stirchley Station. This is located in Telford Town Park and is part of a series of works to improve public access and interpretation. (Read about some earlier work at the Stirchley furnaces site here).

The station was on the London and North Western Railway’s Coalport Branch, which opened in 1861 and closed in 1964. The railway largely followed the route of the Shropshire Canal, which was completed in 1792. All of the stations were built by the owner of the ‘All Nations’ Pub in Madeley. The line of the railway is now the ‘Silkin Way’, a footpath and cycleway that runs through Telford.

For many years the platform has been overgrown, but is now being cleared and restored (left-hand photo below). During the course of this work contractors discovered a chamber which was at first thought to be a well.

After cleaning, it turned out to be a simple drainage sump, with water from the platform and trackbed being fed into it. So, nothing very exciting, but a very tiny piece of information which somehow adds to our collective understanding. Such is the nature of most archaeology!