Environmental Issue

Karen Thomas: A Day in the Life of an Archivist – The Musical!

A DAY IN THE LIFE  – 29 June 2012


1.  Today we are supposed to be depositing a bunch of site archives with LAARC and need to put the finishing touches to a few of them to get them ready.  We have to check the microfilming, make sure all the digital records are in the right format, compile bibliographies and metadata, prepare deeds of transfer and get them signed and complete the special checklists required by LAARC.  There are 26 sites in all so better get on with it!!!!!!


2.  Part of the process is to prepare a pdf/A version of the site reports (including desk top assessments and project designs).  For older sites we have to convert the original Corel Draw report figures into pdf/A images and then combine them with the text to make the finished report.  The conversion process can be a bit slow, especially when your original figure is on the large size so finding other things to do whilst waiting for something to happen is always a good idea.  I chose to eat lunch ……


3.  It’s the afternoon now and we are rapidly approaching 4 o’clock when we are due to take the boxes downstairs (at least we haven’t got far to go!).  Still got a bit to do so better get a move on.  The temperature in the office today hasn’t quite reached the heady heights of 31.8 degrees that we had yesterday but at 29.2 degrees it’s still warming up in here.  Ideal for rushing round like lunatics!


4.  We did it!  Twenty-two sites have gone down and we’re going to finish off the last 4 on Monday morning and sneak those in too with all the finds (Thanks Andy!).

A trolley-load of archives!


In between all this activity we’ve been answering queries, helping our colleagues to find records and books, doing some OASIS training, responding to emails, chasing people again for things that we’ve been waiting for, testing new software, finishing off the last of the outstanding site summaries, and, of course, Steph’s been co-ordinating all your Day of Archaeology entries too.  Next week we’ll have to start looking at the next lot of records to get ready .  Here we go again!


All the lovely skeletons!

Just finished recording a juvenile skeleton with lovely skeletal preservation, which meant a range of pathological changes were clear. The most obvious change was destruction of the bone at the base of the tooth root for the second deciduous molar in the mandible, with the bone destruction surrounded by a layer of porous new bone formation. The tooth crown had been destroyed by caries (cavity) and it seems likely that a secondary bacterial infection had developed into an abscess, which had drained into the surrounding gums. This is quite a severe change considering the pattern of tooth eruption suggests the child was only aged about 4-5 years when they died.

This particular child had also suffered from previous episodes of disease; their leg bones, particularly the femora (thigh bones), showed marked bending most likely indicating a vitamin D deficiency rickets. We need to form vitamin D either in our skin following exposure to the sun or from our diet, oily fish and eggs containing natural sources of vitamin D. A poor calcium intake in the diet may also be an important factor influencing the onset. It’s likely that a range of factors such as poor living and working conditions, limited diets and increased air pollution during the post-medieval period contributed to cases of rickets. There were also plaques of bone formation over the inside of the cranial bones, with prominent outgrowths forming in the occipital bone at the base of the skull. The deposits were thickened and formed of a long-standing remodelled bone layer, which suggests they had survived with the cranial inflammation or non-specific infection for quite some period.

Bone destruction at the base of the tooth roots and porous new bone formation caused by infection from a dental abscess in a child’s mandible. Copyright AOC Archaeology

Osteology at AOC Archaeology Group

I’m very lucky to have a job that I absolutely love doing. My role is to excavate and analyse the human remains that we find across our archaeological sites. It can be a diverse role – last week I looked at an Early Bronze Age adult cremation burial, next week I’ll be looking at some medieval burials found underneath a chapel floor. But today I’m studying one of my favourite groups – post-medieval burials fromLondon! The bone surface preservation is usually really good in post-medieval burials, which means we can see a great range of things on the skeleton, whether it’s a slight developmental anomaly or a more severe pathological change.

The skeletons I’m looking at are from a former burial ground dating from 1840 to 1855 from Bethnal Green. The ground was privately owned by a pawnbroker – he clearly saw an opportunity to make some money from the high mortality rates in the parish and surrounding area! We excavated the burial ground over six extremely muddy months last year, prior to the building of a new nursery school on the site. As you can see in the site photo, we’ll uncover and clean the coffins before recording and photographing them. We recovered just over 1000 burials; some of the graveshafts contained up to 54 burials and were up to 7.5m deep.

When back in the office, having cleaned the skeletons, I’ll start by laying out all of the remains and then producing an inventory of which bones are present or missing. Post-medieval burials w

Excavating and recording post-medieval burials from Bethnal Green, London. Copyright AOC Archaeology Group.

ere often placed in vertical stacks in graveshafts, which sometimes collapse over time. So I’ll look for any possible mixing between the bones (if I have three skulls for one burial there’s a problem!) and I’ll check the site records, which will indicate if a coffin was damaged or had collapsed. I’ll then assess the bone preservation and estimate the age and sex of the individual as well as taking a host of measurements – for this site I’m particularly interested in seeing how well the juveniles were growing compared to other groups or compared to modern studies.

The best bit of the job, for me, is to determine how healthy individuals were in the past. I’m a true geek and I’m fascinated by how the skeleton can respond to disease processes and how, by recognising and recording those changes, we can help to reconstruct a bit more about what life was like in the past. I admire fieldwork archaeologists – how they can look at a hole in the ground and work out what activity had taken place on the site – but I love that my work has a more personal aspect by looking at the evidence from the people themselves. It’s a very emotive subject, but hopefully by trying to ascertain as much as about them as possible, as carefully as possible, we are gauging a respectful and fascinating insight into their past lives.

Right – ready for the first skeleton of the day. I’ll complete a paper-based record for each skeleton, which forms part of the site records that are archived with the relevant museum when the project is finished, in this case the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre, so if anyone needs any further information they can directly access the records. We also have a specific osteology database for generating our report data, which can get big depending on how many pathologies there are on a skeleton or how long-winded I’m being. I’ll update the blog later on to show you what I’ve found. I can already see traces of a nice cranial infection on this individual!

Dis Manibus Sacrum…

Lloyd Bosworth: Archaeology Technician, Classical and Archaeological Studies, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK.

My day started like any other day for me. Wake up at 7:30am (ish), make a coffee, put the Today programme on the radio and shamble about the house until the caffeine kicks in. The morning is also when I catch up with the US archaeology blogs that I follow.

Arrival at Work

First order of business is to turn on my workstation and, while that wakes up, make another cup of coffee.

I check my emails.

I’m waiting for a reply from English Heritage to my request for a license to carry out a geophysical survey at Bigbury Camp Iron Age hillfort, near Canterbury. It seems like I’ve been waiting ages for a reply, but it’s really only been two weeks.

This being Friday, my whole day is set aside for working on Professor Ray Laurence and Dr. Francesco Trifilò’s Leverhulme Trust funded research project on age across the Roman Empire.

A Little Background for the Uninitiated

Because Roman law forbade burial within settlements, the roads leading to and from Roman cities were lined with tombs and cemeteries. What may strike us as unusual, or at least unusual to our understanding of modern burial practices, is that the deceased’s age at death was not always recorded on their memorial. This is not to say that this practice was rare, just far from standard across the Empire.

What Ray and Francesco are doing is looking at the ages recorded on memorials and picking up patterns in the overall distribution of the range of chronological age at specific archaeological sites.

My Part In This

This research has produced a unique database containing around 24,000 entries. That’s 24,000 individual burials from across the Roman Empire; each entry recording many different pieces of information about the deceased, including their name, age, memorial inscription, and, in many cases, their social status, too. But this is not the only information recorded, as there is often the same detailed information about the person who erected the memorial.

My part in this is to prepare the database for analysis within GIS (Geographic Information System) software, which can be used to plot density and distribution patterns in the data and display this visually over a map of the Roman Empire.

The database as it stands isn’t suitable for using within GIS, because each entry represents an individual. To be able to plot density based on ages, I’ve been combining entries that share the same age and sex. For example, if there are ten entries from Carthage for females aged 9, it will become one entry for females aged 9 from Carthage, with a total count of ten.

Once the database has been prepared, it’ll be time to start querying the data and plotting density maps to see what the data says about chronological age across the Roman Empire.

While I’ve been working on the database, I’ve also created a website that will host the GIS and tabular data. The GIS server will be able to draw maps based on a user’s query, so that anyone can view the patterns in the data for themselves.

What Does the Data Show

Well, there’s not much I can say about the findings of the study, because, one, it isn’t finished yet, and two, I can’t just spill the beans about it. What I can say, however, is that age data from memorials is not a credible demographic tool. The declaration of age on the memorials appears to conform to the set of key ages which were considered of crucial importance to Roman society. A contemporary example could be the age of retirement as an indicator of the beginning of old age, or the age of 21 as a common indicator of a person’s entry into the world of adulthood.

Children are also poorly represented in the data. But, within this under-representation, there are greater and smaller numbers which may mean something. Roman Law explicitly stated that a child under three years was not permitted a proper funeral, (although simply having a tombstone didn’t necessarily mean that you had had a proper funeral, either). This may sound harsh to us, but, as infant mortality was much higher than it is today, they would have been more used to child death, and so there would be a certain desensitisation over an event that today would be horrific to experience. However, before we condemn Roman parents as monsters, there is a peak in the data for the age of three, which could be showing instances in which the parents lied about the child’s age in order to provide a proper funeral

Final Thoughts

So, working my way through data on 24,000 burials may be quite repetitive and a little morbid, but this kind of information is the bread and butter of archaeology. The repetition does allow time for an inevitable reflection upon life and death, though. I doubt there is an archaeologist who isn’t moved to these same reflections when dealing with data derived from burials. When data like this are analysed, what gets thrown out the other end are impersonal numbers; the reduction of 24,000 lives to a single statistic can’t really get much more impersonal!

But I think it’s impossible to forget that these were real people, as I think this one, randomly selected inscription shows:

[quote style=”boxed”]To the spirits of the dead. Lucius Annius Festus [set this up] for the most saintly Cominia Tyche, his most chaste and loving wife, who lived 27 years, 11 months, and 28 days, and also for himself and for his descendants.[/quote]

Is this really any different to what you’d find on a gravestone today? Lucius was obviously devoted to his wife, and he must have grieved at her passing. You or I would feel no different.

There’s still much work to be done, so I’ll finish this here. Thanks for reading!

A note on the title of this entry:

The phrase ‘Dis Manibus Sacrum’, (often shortened to D.M.S.), is found on many Roman graves. The Manes, to which it refers, were the spirits of the dead, so it can be translated as “Sacred to the Spirit-Gods” or, more loosely, “To The Memory Of…”.

ArchaeoSpain project in Clunia, Spain

A team of students worked this past July on an archaeological dig to unearth the remains of a 9,000-seat Roman theater in the former Roman metropolis of Clunia (in the
present-day province of Burgos, Spain).

The Clunia Team

The Clunia Team

Students, all of whom study Archaeology at various American, Australian and European Universities, joined a team of archaeologists and archaeology students from Spain uncovering important information about how the Romans built and used the theatre. Our scope also included layers of post-use looting, which can tell us what happened to the theater after the final curtain-call. The daily tasks included the excavation and mapping of the site, in addition to extracting and cataloguing artefacts.

Clunia is widely considered by archaeologists as one of Spain’s most fascinating Roman cities, having served as one of northern Hispania’s capitals during the 1st and 2nd centuries. ArchaeoSpain teams consist of between around 10 participants from around the world who join Spanish crews of 10 to 20 more people.

Shannon and the other students have learned not only how to conduct an excavation, but also how to interpret the archaeological clues discovered,

said ArchaeoSpain director Mike Elkin.

Over the past few years, our joint Spanish-international crews have uncovered priceless information about Spain’s ancient past.

In recent years, teams of students joining the ArchaeoSpain fieldschool have assisted in major discoveries at various sites in Spain and Italy. In Valladolid, teams are excavating the necropolis of Pintia, an Iron Age burial site that has revealed important clues about warrior classes from the 5th century B.C. In Pollentia on the island of Mallorca, the high-school group – one of the few archaeological programs for high school students in the world – has been uncovering sections of that city’s Roman Forum. At Monte Testaccio in Rome our team is helping unearth clues about Roman trade throughout the empire. And in Son Peretó, also in Mallorca, we are excavating a Byzantine settlement dating to the 6th century.

Interviews with the project team


Steve and Shannon

Steve and Shannon




Joan (in Spanish)












Aixa (in Spanish)



Norton Community Archaeology Group investigates a suspected formative henge

For five weeks, we are investigating a site on the edge of Letchworth Garden City, between the historic village of Norton and the A1 motorway. Originally thought to be a ring ditch (ploughed-out burial mound), reinterpretation of aerial photographs and a geophysical survey suggested that the site might instead be a henge.

Last year, the group cut a trench across the centre of the site and it became apparent that it was very unlikely to have been a burial mound. There was no trace of a central burial (or any other burials, for that matter), while the deposits towards the centre indicated that they were the result of discrete activities, including burning, depositing Grooved Ware potsherds and flint knapping. There was little time last year for thorough investigation, so this year we’ve returned for five weeks, opeining up a second trench at right angles to the first.

The group consists largely of amateurs who want to find out more about the archaeology of where they live. Many of them have been involved with the group since it formed in 2006 and have built up a considerable amount of experience. I’m their professional advisor and the summer excavation is my main research project. This year, we have a professional supervisor, Caoimhín Ó Caoileáin, and my paid intern, Siân O’Neill, providing professional support.

We stripped the topsoil on Wednesday 27 July and have been cleaning the trenches since. One of the student archaeologists, who worked with us last year, has begun planning the new trench, so we will be able to begin excavation later today. This is obviously the part that most of the people who join the group are interested in! As well as digging, though, I make sure that everybody learns how to draw plans, to record the contexts on which they are working and how to recognise the different artefacts they may encounter.