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 (
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