An ‘Archaeological Anneka Rice’: A treasure hunt at the Museum of London archive

Dig for Victory

Dig for Victory

It feels a bit strange writing a post for the ‘Day of Archaeology’ when I am not an archaeologist. I am a volunteer, I am not studying to become an archaeologist and I am not in training to become an archaeologist, I have had a trowel in my hand once for a couple of hours and all I came up with was a worm, some stones, sore knees and a bad back. I don’t think I am cut out to be an archaeologist. But I do occasionally volunteer at the Museum of London archaeological archive – LAARC (London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre) and today was one of those days.

My own unsuccessful attempts at a 'dig'

My own unsuccessful attempts at a ‘dig’

I guess a lot of posts on this website are about a typical day, but this has been far from a normal day for me, it has been a glorious, busy, fun filled abnormal day. I have been helping out Adam Corsini with the ‘Archive Lottery’, a magical random archaeological day of discovery. Members of the public, via Twitter, tweet a shelf number and Adam tweets back a picture of an item from one of the boxes on that numbered shelf in the archive. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Unless of course you are the person running around getting the boxes (that would be me). I won’t write any more about the lottery here, you can read about it in more detail in the posts Adam put up on this site along with the results of all those uncovered boxes.

I will write about my day as an archaeological archive treasure hunter, my thoughts on a day of volunteering surrounded by archaeology. When I first came to the archive to volunteer in 2013, I worked on repackaging finds from a Roman villa site in Keston, south-east of London. My days were spent putting old objects in new bags with new labels, packaging and boxes. Caring for the objects, making more room in the archive, learning about my Roman ancestors. I would spend ten minutes on one bag, I would ‘oooo’ and ‘ahhh’ over one small sherd of broken pot, a box would take me an hour, a slow, thorough, measured process. It was a new experience handling archaeology, dirty broken pots and I loved every minute of it.

Today has seen me running around like an ‘Archaeological Anneka Rice’, a list of shelf numbers in my hand, up and down the aisles, on tip toe and on my knees, boxes grabbed, whipped open in a flash, iPad out to take a picture. Hardly any time to recognise and appreciate the amazing things I re-discovered; axe heads, Roman shoes, china dishes, Roman glass. Then on to the next, barely time to find all the shelves and photograph all the items before the next round began.

Boxes and numbers, numbers and boxes

Boxes and numbers, numbers and boxes

It was weird to think I would spend five minutes looking at one unremarkable piece of pottery before today, I would contemplate who made it, who used it, who broke it, how it got left behind. Yet here I was, spending no more than a few seconds looking at the most remarkable objects. I enjoyed the day so much, it went by in a blur, a frantic, rushing, whirling blur. I feel I know the archive much better now, I am intimately acquainted with the shelving, particularly rolling shelves that like to roll back and crush me, I snooped inside the metal store and enjoyed the solitude of the paper records room.

I loved being able to share the items that sit on shelves with people sitting out on the ‘Twitterverse’. Some may well have had an archaeological background, some knew the archive, but equally for some it was a new wonderfully intriguing experience to see a Saxon knife blade or a beautifully preserved Roman coin ‘fresh out of the box’. I hope it has inspired them to come and visit this amazing place. One thing hasn’t changed, my fascination of the people who dig these things up, I wonder what it must have been like to peel back the earth and scrape away at the dirt, the years that separate us from our ancestors falling away with each gentle movement.

When I started my day as the ‘Archive Lottery Volunteer’, the one part I wasn’t that excited about was the paper records. They are alien to me, these shelves and shelves of boxes, the folders of paper, the site diaries and indecipherable lists. Trying to pick out something to share and tweet was hard, these pages of contexts, the scribbled handwriting, the dirt stained notes and rough sketches. Then I came across a site diary with a shopping list, things to buy – gloves, ear defenders and lights. This was fab window into understanding these strange archaeologists that felt so far removed  from me standing in a cold storage archive.



I began to no longer see the objects I had looked at earlier in the day in isolation, these paper records felt like the voices of all those archaeologists and volunteers, the moments of discovery hidden in these pages just as the objects had been hidden in the ground. In these papery leaves I could see the hardwork and passion, I could see the dirty knees and bad backs. The real surprise for me was realising these paper records are as important as the artefacts. They are another piece in the puzzle of discovering not only the history of the objects, but the history of those who had the passion and commitment to find them in the first place.

It felt strangely intimate to hold those notes in my hand, to listen to those voices. I spent a special day sharing the objects of archaeological discovery with the ‘Archive Lottery’ but what will stay with me for much longer is that hour at the end of the day spent with those paper records. The quiet voices siting on shelves, a room full of invisible archaeologists, it was my own jackpot and a real treasure trove of discovery.

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