I am a Roman pottery specialist and have been working in the commercial archaeology sector for nearly 20 years. I have a degree in Archaeology and a Masters in Archaeomaterials (a combination of archaeology and materials science) and am interested in all aspects of ancient technology. My current role is 'Archaeologcal Archives and Finds Officer' for the Surrey County Archaeological Unit. I am a Member of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (MCIfA) and tweet for the Study Group for Roman Pottery (@TheSGRP).

Rock, Paper…Serpentinite: a day of ceramic analysis

My Day of Archaeology is far from a ‘normal’ one this year. School may be out for summer here in the UK but this archaeologist has returned to University, if only for a week.
I have worked as a ceramic specialist in UK commercial archaeology for over 20 years. When I wrote my last Day of Arch post (2015) I had just started a new role as Finds and Archive Manager – which has evolved into less pottery report writting for me and more engagement with other specialists and editing of other people’s reports, archive compilation and deposition. I love the varied natured of my work but I do miss pots! So when I saw an advert for a 6 day ‘Intensive course on compositional analysis of ceramics’ at UCL I booked straight on.
The course is led by Dr Patrick Quinn and in order for me to participate it  has involved my fantastically supportive husband taking a weeks leave,  and a total abandonment of any work/life balance for me. So why am I doing this? Here is what I have been doing today.
7.48am A train commute to Londonh copious coffee. I spent the journey finalising the small finds report that I have written for one of our community excavations, with guidance from our county Finds Liason Officer (www.finds.org.uk).
9am En route to the Institute of Archaeology,UCL – via Oxford Street for emergency dress shop for my daughter. As no doubt every working parent will agree, when you have any change to normal working hours you may think you have all bases covered but a child can manage to throw you a curve ball!
10.30am We start the day with a lecture on ‘reconstructing ceramic technology in thin section’. In ceramic petrology, the composition of ceramics are studied using a polarised light microscope. A common use of this technique is to work out the provenence of the ceramics being studied – the theory being that there will be a compositional relationship between the clay used for the pottery and the local geology.   All week the format has been lecture followed by a practical session each morning and afternoon.  It certainly is intensive!
12 pm More coffee followed by a practical session in the lab making thin sections from pottery sherds. This involves slicing a fragment from a sherd of pottery, mounting it on a glass slide and grinding it to a thickness of just 0.03mm. This can then be viewed under the microscope and (hopefully) the minerological composition determined. Earlier practicals in the week involved looking at various minerals and then rock fragments in ceramics (hence the Serpentinite).

1pm Lunch with my colleagues. I am the only UK based participant; my fellow attendees are all based in academia and engaged in ceramic projects in Alaska, Mexico, Poland, Italy and Israel.

Just a few course resources!

The obligatory course group shot

2pm Another lecture – more on reconstructing technologies. Basically we are moving beyond working out where there the pottery may have been made, to trying to work out  how to distinguish human decision making and interaction with materials (for example selection of raw materials, manufacturing and decorative techniques and so on). Despite the global nature of our studies we are united over one question….’Why did they do that?!’
3pm Practical session- UCL have access to a huge research collection of ceramic thin sections. We are are able to look at examples of different ‘temper’ (material added to clay by potters) such as sand, crushed rocks, bone, shell and even sponge spiccules, plus  different forming methods and surface finishes. Not all practicals are petrography based, during the week we also looked at geochemical analysis such as NAA, LA-ICP-MS, SEM, XRD and used a portable XRF machine.
5.30pm home time!
They say a change is as good as a rest- this week has had its challenges but it has defiantly been worthwhile to step out of my normal routine and dip a toe back into the academic world. I am left wondering what a shame it is that those in the commercial world don’t have to the option of a short sabbatical every 5 years or so to research the vast amount of information they collate. Also I am struck by the disparity between the application of scientific techniques in the environmental sector versus finds work in UK commercial archaeology, possibly a seperate discussion! On  a personal level my head is buzzing with ideas for incorporating what I have learnt today (and all this week) into future projects.
Kayt Marter Brown @Kayt_MB
Surrey County Archaeological Unit

A day of archaeological finds

Having followed Day of Archaeology since it started I thought it finally time I participated and shared some of the fun from the finds room. Yes the finds room can be fun, with the advantage of being dry (a big benefit today!) and having a plentiful supply of cake. As the Archaeological Archives and Finds officer for the Surrey County Archaeological Unit (SCAU) I love the variety my role now encompasses, today’s activities being a good example.

The day started with a shout out from Sara Cox on radio 2 – I was hoping she would mention our volunteers excavating the World War 1 camp at Witley but that didn’t quite go to plan! Most of the morning then involved liaising with external specialists over the post-excavation programme for a large medieval cemetery that we recently excavated, followed by me yet again covering the office desks in pottery – this time selecting examples for illustration for a publication report. I then delved into the specialist world of clay tobacco pipe manufacturers in Surrey. Who would have thought so much could be written about clay tobacco pipes! Love it. Another day in the library lined up for next week.

clay pipe

Clay pipe



Archaeological Archives are currently in a state of crisis with many museums full and contracting units faced with the prospect of having to hold onto material indefinitely. The situation has received much attention within the profession over recent years, although little progress has been made to resolve the problem thus far. The situation is also true for Surrey, with most museums no longer able to accept any archives. Rather alarmingly the news broke this week from Guildford that the Surrey Archaeology Society has been given notice to leave Guildford Museum following over a 100 years of collaboration. It is still unclear what the future holds for the substantial archives held by the Surrey Archaeology Society, and indeed the future of the museum. We are working closely with colleagues in Surrey to improve our own and local museums storage space and we may have secured a new store to start alleviating some of the pressure to house archives currently curated by contracting units, ourselves included. Hence this afternoon was spent measuring up the prospective store and obtaining quotes for racking. An innovative new use for redundant prison cells, although possibly with less cake.