Rådhuspladsen, Copenhagen

Lea and Birgitte use trowel and total station to document Copenhagen’s former western gateway.

Its another typical day for the crew at Rådhuspladsen (Town Hall Square) in Copenhagen, where the Museum of Copenhagen ( has been conducting a major excavation since January 2011. Soon to be completed, the excavation – conducted in advance of the construction of a new Metro station – has seen remains of perhaps the earliest urban activity in this area, from the 1100s, as well as fragments of the city’s medieval and post-medieval western gates, city moat, bridge remains and a host of later archaeological structures including a seventeenth century mill building and even some World War 2 bomb shelters. Amazing organic preservation is one of the key features of the site, with textiles, leather shoes, book covers and a host of other everyday items from the late medieval and post-medieval periods surviving in excellent condition, particularly in the waterlogged moat deposits.

With barrow and shovel.

This site is one of four major excavations being carried out by the Museum of Copenhagen as part of the advance works of the new Metro City-Ring Project. The others included Kongens Nytorv (The Kings New Square) where the city’s eastern defences and former gate structures were revealed, Assistens Kirkegard cemetery excavation, and the ongoing excavation at Gammel Strand (Old Beach) where part of the citys old harbour area is being uncovered.

Break Time

The crew enjoying a well earned morning coffee at 9 – work starts at 7 a.m.

With a crew of c.40, this is one of the largest archaeological excavation projects carried out in Denmark to date, and has seen the Museum of Copenhagen expand its archaeology section greatly, with the assembly of an international crew including English, Swedish, Norwegians, Polish and Irish members to compliment the Danish core. By the time all of the excavations have been completed in 2013, a wealth of new knowledge about the birth and growth of Copenhagen will have been gained. In the meantime, information about the ongoing excavations are being shared with the public on a regular basis on the museum’s interactive website

Loot Busters

What can we do about looting? Lots of people like to theorise, but I tend to prefer to be more practical.
I used to work on field projects, trying to prevent looting of archaeological sites on the ground. Partly because one project in Central Asia went very wrong – several archaeologists died, I was treated for PTSD – and partly because I realised that it was futile to try to police every square inch of land, often in war zones, I decided to try another approach.
Rather than trying to stop looting often done by poor people desperate to feed their families, I decided to try to identify the material and “burn” it at the art market, in effect prevent it from being fenced. My theory is that most (not all) art dealers and collectors are basically scrupulous people, who want to be able to collect but do not support looting.
So I came up with a very simple solution – to create a web site where all the material reported stolen could be listed and therefore identified. It sounds obvious, but no-one has done it before.  Rather than giving the site a long academic name I went for the catchier “Loot Busters” (and yes, it has been hard to resist adding the Ghostbusters theme tune to the web site):
Does it work? Surprisingly, yes. And most dealers are thrilled with the project, as it means they can identify the dodgy pieces. (Okay, a few are not happy with it). I keep thinking that, for example, Nazi loot has mostly been found by now, but a few weeks ago whilst going through the database of material stolen from Poland I noticed an 18th century piece which I happened to know was in a collection in London. Ditto a Venetian painting reported stolen by the Italians I’d seen with a London art dealer. And we’ve even found some antiquities!
There are various databases already of looted art, but most concentrate on one area – for example the exemplary Turkish Ministry of Culture web site which lists stolen Turkish material – or are hard to use. The Interpol Database only makes a couple of hundred of recently stolen items available to the public. The Art Loss Register makes no material available to unregistered users, and charges a great deal for searches – an academic wanting to look up a piece they spotted somewhere and think it stolen is unlikely to pay to check …  The Carabinieri Database is unwieldy, with very hard to use search parameters and more often than not returns this message:
These days there seem to the thousands of people working on cultural property, and dozens of conferences a year. Honestly, I don’t go to any of them – I hate theorising, and prefer practical projects.
I also don’t like the “gotcha” attitude of a lot of people who theorise about looting, so when Loot Busters find a looted piece we tell both the representative of the country from which it was stolen and whoever has it (dealer, collector or museum), so that they can sort it out – we also have a policy of confidentiality, so we can’t boast about our successes … sometimes frustrating, but keeping a low profile and letting whoever is returning the item take the credit works better in the long term.
This week I’ve been busy updating the web site, so it’s all sitting at the computer loading photos and typing … Plus we should send out another newsletter soon, so I’ll be working on that this week-end.
Most archaeologists’ main concern when it come to looting is Syria at the moment. We keep hearing reports of looting, but little precise information about pieces looted. We’ve posted photos of material that has been reported missing. Damascus Museum seems to be untouched, thank goodness, but Homs, Hama and Apamea have suffered badly. I found photos of the Hama and Apamea Museums on a web site, and the photographer, Dick Osseman, has kindly allowed us to re-post them.
This mosaic from Hama Museum is extraordinary, and pretty unique in showing women playing musical instruments – so it should be pretty easy to identify if it appears on the art market:
I’ve also been busy this week re-posting images from the Carabinieri Database of material stolen from Italy. It’s going a little slowly as I am trying to sort the material as I go into categories, and then sometimes I break them down further, but the material I’ve added can be accessed through the index here (lots more coming soon):
Some of the stolen material is so generic I doubt it will ever be possible to identify it (other material I wonder why anyone bothered to steal it, as the financial value probably won’t justify the crime). Other pieces, such as the mosaic above, is extraordinary – I was at a conference in Copenhagen in early May and several of the archaeologists were amazed at some of the stolen material, which they didn’t know about.
This Roman relief depicting a theatrical performance on the upper level and a horse race in a Circus below is pretty unique and would be easy to identify on the art market (see:
I try to make people aware of the more important pieces, so I often beg David Meadows to blog about pieces on his fabulous blog Rogue Classicism, which is on every archaeologist and Classicist’s must-read list. I’m hoping that he’ll blog this relief soon, just as he blogged this stolen Afghan glass vessel with a relief depiction of the Pharos of Alexandria (here):
I tend to downplay the excitement of dealing with looting and looted antiquities – it ain’t nothing like Lara Croft – because most of it is research rather than swinging from vines. One of the things I do love is going through the material and coming across items I probably would have missed, or which bear witness to history. This gold fibula, for example, can be very precisely dated to AD 306-7 by it’s inscription, and was owned by a supporter of Constantine in the years before he became the sole ruler of the empire (
This week has been quiet, just sitting at a computer, loading up information. Sometimes things are more exciting, for example when we find a looted item and trying amicably negotiate its return. I know collectors come in for a lot of criticism for buying looted antiquities, as do auction houses and dealers for selling them, but my experience has been that the vast majority of them co-operate when they are told they have looted items, and go out of their way to help.

Anglo-Saxon CSI: Sittingbourne (Conservation Science Investigations)

CSI Volunteer Richard Senior's raw gold and garnets

Investigative conservation of Anglo-Saxon grave goods

The X-raydiograph shows copper, iron and bone - decorations sewn onto a tunic perhaps?

Conservation volunteer Pat at the microscope

Today I have been supervising some of my volunteers and speaking to visitors at our shopping mall conservation lab. We have been running for nearly two years and have just reached 5,000 volunteer hours for investigative conservation of several hundred artefacts from 65 graves. We are on the last grave for this project – but there is still the finds from the other half of the cemetery to be worked on. Tomorrow we close our doors for fundraising for that project. fingers crossed that we’ll be open again soon! For general info on our community conservation project see a great video made on our opening day – and/or visit our website – you can also ‘befriend’ us if you like as we just set up a facebook page too. Volunteer Pat Horne says: ” Today I am working on an object that is really perplexing. It is a ‘blocklifted’ assemblage of finds from a woman’s grave. I am trying to discern the different materials it is made from (we have found mineral preserved bone and textile, possibly leather iron and copper alloy). It has become very fragile, so I am repackaging it to make it more secure before continuing to work on it. this artefact has to be looked at along with others in this grave. There are several with the same ‘figure 8’ copper alloy shapes. so imagination is working overtime trying to puzzle it out – great stuff!” .

Janice Monday is also working on a find from a woman’s grave: “I am working on a small object which, from the X-ray, appears to be minute thin pieces of wire bundled through a loop possibly of bone. there are three more baffling pieces associated with the main part.”

Both Pat and Janice have been volunteering at CSI: Sittingbourne since we began in Oct. 2009 (2 and 1 days per week). We have recently begun training a new group of volunteers (there were 80 on our waiting list!) – one of our new recruits has just returned from panning for gold in Northern Scotland… he popped in to show me some of the gold and garnets he came back with. I didn’t know that garnets were sometimes found alongside gold, when panning – we decided we should look out what is known about the sources of gold and garnets in the Anglo-Saxon period and I encouraged Richard to join the Historical Metallurgy Society to find out more about those iron age camps located at his ‘gold hot spots’ that he was wondering about. We also discussed him posting up his photos to our facebook page and staying in contact while we are closed for fundraising.

– Another day draws to a close at CSI, now on to other tasks, like writing a reference for a past conservation student intern and submitting a paper for publication in the proceedings from PARIS4, Copenhagen… that’s about my conservation work on an early Christian monastery on Sir Bani Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, but that’s another story…

Dorothy King’s Day …

I grew up watching the Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark movies. Then later came Lara Croft the Tomb Raider – Lloyd Levin is an amazing film-maker and storyteller, but I’m sure he wouldn’t pretend they have anything to do with reality* … and the ‘reality’ of archaeologists’ days is what The Day of Archaeology is about.

We know that digging up old tombs has been going on forever – the Abbott Papyrus in the British Museum deals with tomb looters, and several Roman legal texts deal with the looting of tombs and sanctuaries. In the Medieval period Western Europeans thought the ground mummies were a magic cure-all, so there first developed a thriving trade in real mummies being bug up and shipped, and then mummy faking in Egypt (the Muslims were slightly repulsed by this European penchant for cannibalism, but if Francois I of France wanted to wear a purse with ground mummy around his neck for emergencies, then they were happy to take his cash)+. The ancient Egyptians were looking for loot to sell off for cash, the Romans were more interested in collecting. Collecting and archaeology went hand in hand for much of the modern period, with excavations undertaken in Rome during the Renaissance, then around the bay of Naples in the 18th century, as much to find relics of the past as to understand it. Nowadays archaeologist hunting for relics and tomb raiding in the manner of Indie and Lara is frowned upon.

I first ‘dug’ in the summer of 1981. My brother had just been born and I was sent to cousins in the country. Aged 8, I got them to excavate their garden and our ‘finds’ are now in the storeroom of the local museum. (At French schools, we had learnt about the Gauls and Romans, so this seemed normal). My first ‘real’ dig was at Sparta, where the team worked on the theatre. I’m still proudest of my personal find there: the remains of the Augustan theatre built into the foundations of the later stage buildings (I was meant to be drawing an elevation, tied away the ground to even it out at the bottom, and hey presto out popped some finely carved marble fragments). These days I have links with a few excavations, but tend not to dig day to day.

I had originally planned to study History of Art, but seriously fluffed my Courtauld interview due to pneumonia, so I thought I’d study Classics instead since that was the Renaissance education and would give me insight into their mind-set. I tried a few other jobs, but I did post-grad partly because I was raising my baby brother, and I’d managed to schedule my undergrad courses around his school runs, and a PhD seemed easier to work around that than a job at an investment bank. I’ll never make as much money at archaeology as I would have at Fleming’s but I love what I do, and nobody that chooses to do archaeology can be all that interested in money. I did a post-doc at the ASCSA generously funded by the Onassis Foundation, then went on from there.

The two themes of many of the posts that make up The Day of Archaeology seem to be about emails / paperwork and children. I managed to combine the two this morning thanks to my trusty Blackberry, without which I couldn’t have answered hundreds of emails from colleagues (academics love to cc each other) about a few exhibitions that might or might not happen in the future, working with three museums on two continents. I also love Twitter ( and last night, for example, ended up discussing women gladiators with and Other recent Twitter discussions have included annoyance at portraits of random women being labelled Cleopatra and assorted other topics.

The “children” part is that … this photo of me I took at lunchtime might suggest khakis and archaeology, but … the dirt is the result of dogs and children, and a nanny failing to turn up … although Ellie the Jack Russell is proving rather fond of “her” trowel …

I’ve been blogging for years, as it’s a handy way of sharing ideas and research, and the Blackberry is also handy for that: … I keep track of info through links, so that version of this post on my blog will have lots of links to others’ work. Maybe I should have followed the more traditional career path, but these days I am a Fellow of or on the Board of assorted projects / institutions.

The main project keeping me busy these days is trying to set up a database of looted archaeological material to help track antiquities that went missing in wars or the looting of sites or museums. At the moment photos of some objects are available various places, but there is no central place on the web where someone can look up an item they see and suspect is dodgy to see if anyone has reported it missing. Previous attempts to create such a database have failed, so this may all turn out to be a house of cards but I feel I have to give it a go. I’m talking to museums, universities, governments, law enforcement agencies, and we’ll be looking for volunteers to help with it – so if you want to get involved, just drop me a line.

Jesper Jensen and Peter Schulz have organised a conference in Copenhagen next May, and kindly invited me to speak, so I’m also working up my paper for it: Kings, Tombs and Ruler Cult Before Alexander: new evidence from Vergina and Caria. I’m re-examining the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus based on the monuments that copied it, and on the newly found sarcophagus in the Tomb of Hecatomnus his father at Mylasa. I also think I’ve identified Mausolus’ mother as a woman named ABA, based on an inscription.

So anyway, that’s my day of archaeology on a typical summer holiday day … dogs, children, answering emails, chatting with colleagues, trying to do some research, trying to get people to collaborate on projects – no tomb raiding or fighting Nazis.

Dorothy King

* = I was thrilled to read that not only does Michigan State grad student Kathryn M. Meyers blog at Bones Don’t Lie, but she also works on video games to make the archaeologists more “real” … (if she’s interested in research, I’ve done high kicks in four inch wedges, so that bit is very possible)
+ = I wrote more about the mummy trade in my 2006 book, The Elgin Marbles

Digging in Denmark

In brief, I’m Joss, and I’m a field archaeologist from the UK, who, due to the financial crisis etc. etc. has failed to find work in that country, and has been forced (kicking and screaming mind you) to relocate to Denmark to get a job.

I’m kidding of course!

I’ve been here in Copenhagen for the last three months, and have one month to go on the project. We’ve been gradually working our way down through layers of the city’s past in one of the major squares in the centre, which seemed to mostly consist of wooden water pipes for quite a while! On one edge of the site we have the foundations for the 16th century city wall and the moat outside it, and last week we finally finished recording it and removed the last of the huge boulders.

Yesterday, underneath where the boulders had sat, I found the remains of a reasonably well preserved wooden structure which appears to be a wattle fence – small stakes situated 30 to 40cm apart, with long thin twigs woven around them, some short thorny twigs amongst those, and a layer of brown organic material mixed with bits of straw surrounding the twigs. This smells quite strong, so our current theory is that it might be a daub made partially from manure!


We’ve still been uncovering the full extent of it today, and I feel like a bit of a fraud actually – most of the time I’m used to using a mattock and shovel, or at the very least a 4 inch pointing trowel (the standard tool of the trade), but right now I’m living up to every cliche by picking gingerly around the fragile remains with a tiny leaf trowel and a paint brush.

We’re coming up to our deadline on this part of site soon, and the contractors want us gone, so I will probably be working this weekend too. A digger’s work is never done… (until the contract expires…)

A day in the life of a zooarchaeologist – playing with bones at the Natural History Museum

This week I have been at the Natural History Museum in London collecting data for my PhD project.

My project is looking at the size and shape change of the Aurochs across Europe over time. The Aurochs was the ancestor of domestic cattle, it appeared during the Middle Pleistocene and went extinct in Poland in 1627AD. In Britain they went extinct during the Bronze Age. This animal was quite commonly hunted by humans until domestication took place. The Aurochs was very similar to our modern day cattle, but larger. Some of the males were massive – often over 2 metres tall. Below you can see a couple of pictures of what they look like. You can imagine the amount of meat that you would get from one of these if you successfully hunted it, and you can see the size of the bones that I’m dealing with! My data collection consists of visiting Aurochs assemblages and taking measurements from the postcranial (limb bones) and teeth, as well as from the skulls.

Me with an Aurochs at the Zoology Museum in Cambridge


The data collection part of my work has taken me to various places across Europe. So far I have visited Portugal, Denmark and Poland, and later this year I will also visit Italy and France. This summer I am concentrating on the British material. This will take me to a number of museums, including the Natural History Museum in London and the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.

This blog post will talk about what I have been up to over the whole week, because then this gives you a sense of the different material I have been working on.

I had visited the NHM very briefly before so I knew pretty much what to expect, however you never know what you might find in hiding away there, so I was pretty excited about my visit. At the start of the week I was booked in to look at material held by the Mammal Group, then later on in the week I visited the Palaeontology Department too. The general rule is that the Palaeontology Department deals with anything up to the end of the Pleistocene, and then the Mammal Group keeps material from the Holocene (the Mesolithic onwards), with a few exceptions.

An Aurochs displayed at the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen

When you first arrive at the NHM you have to go through a number of security checks and they issue you with a security pass so that you can get ‘behind the scenes’ so to speak. I arrived at the Fleet theatre entrance on Exhibition road with a lot of stuff – I had all of my equipment, and other stuff to keep me going for the week. The security guard wanted to search all of my bags and was especially intrigued by the metal implements that I had with me. These included two pairs of callipers. One smaller pair for taking smaller measurements, and a larger pair curved callipers which I had brought in order to take measurements from massive skulls. In the end he seemed satisfied that I wasn’t going to try and kill anyone with them and let me go through.

Next I met up Roberto Portela from the mammal group who organised my security pass. Only then was I allowed loose on the bones. In the mammal group you aren’t allowed to take any bags or food down to the stores, you have to take everything you need down in a plastic box, so this always takes a little while to sort out. Then we went down to the basement. I was given a desk in the centre of the mammal collections surrounded by tall cupboards full of bones, and glass cases with articulated skeletons. There was no one else down there and it might have been a bit scary if it wasn’t for the fact that I was thoroughly distracted by the bones.

In the mammal group I was primarily interested in material from the site of Star Carr, a Mesolithic site in Yorkshire. A lot of aurochs were excavated from here, along with a large amount of Red Deer, and other wild animals. I was given access to the appropriate cupboards and then it was up to me to have a rummage through to see what I could find. Often it takes longer to find good bones to record than to actually record and measure them. Every museum (or even museum department) has a different system and many museums do not have an electronic database so you have to check things manually. This can be annoying, but also exciting because you could always randomly come across things that you weren’t expecting.

I managed to track down all of the material I needed and by the end of the day I had made a good start on it. On Tuesday I was able to get going a lot earlier because I didn’t have to deal with so much security and working was much faster once I had got into a rhythm.

The way that zooarchaeologists record bones can differ depending on their project. Some people try to identify every piece of bone if they can, but this can be very time consuming, especially if you have a very large number of bones. One way of getting round this is to decide on specific parts of bones that you will record. Because primarily I am interested in measurements, my protocol focuses on the parts of bones that will be able to provide me with that information. For example the distal end (the bottom end) of long bones, because these provide very useful information. I record all of my bones in an access database which, along with excel, I will later use to do my statistical analysis.

By the end of Tuesday I had finished recording most of the aurochs bones from Star Carr and a few other sites with less material. These included Thatcham, and East Ham. On Wednesday morning I only needed to come back to measure 3 skulls – these were in great condition, and absolutely massive. This may have something to do with the fact that they were much older than a lot of the bones I have been looking at – they were from the Pleistocene.

By Wednesday afternoon I was finished in the Mammal Group so I phoned Andy Currant in the Palaeontology Department and went over there to see what stuff they had. I spent the remainder of Wednesday afternoon and the whole of Thursday there.

The Palaeontology department had material from a site called Ilford in Essex. This material has been dated to the late middle Pleistocene so is much older than the Star Carr stuff, and much bigger! Surprisingly, considering it’s age, this material was also in much better condition than that from Star Carr, with many complete bones. Complete bones take longer than partial bones to record because there are more measurements to be taken so it actually took me a fair while to record all of the bones. There were a number of skulls found at Ilford, some with complete horncores. These were neatly packed into a cupboard but were extremely heavy and difficult to get out. We spent a long time figuring out what was the best way of moving them.

After I had recorded all of the bones from Ilford I had a hunt around to see if there was any other material that could be useful. The staff in the Palaeontology department were extremely helpful, and provided me with a list of potential sites, and cupboard numbers. Still, I had to hunt through quite a few cupboards and drawers before I eventually found another assemblage that would be useful. The material was from a site called Grays Thurrock. This stuff was less complete than that from Ilford, but there were an awful lot of teeth, which took a while to record.

Finally at 4pm on Thursday I finished with all of the material in the Palaeontology Department, and treated myself to some tea and cake in the museum cafe (I recommend the lemon drizzle – a real treat!).


So that brings us to the end of your whirlwind tour of my time at the Natural History Museum. If you have been inspired by zooarchaeology and want to find out more about the kinds of things that we do, then go here to the webpage of my research group:


I would like to thank the NHM Mammal Group, especially Roberto Portela, and the Palaeontology Department, especially Andy Currant and Spyridoula Pappa for their help with access to the collections and their general enthusiasm during my week at the Natural History Museum.