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.

#ArchiveLottery – Part 1: General Finds

Wow! What a start to LAARC Lottery! Big thanks to all of those that have been suggesting shelf numbers. Here’s a selection of the the results:

@jasonmarkwebber went for shelf 1 and it produced this lovely complete vessel from Brentford excavations

Spot the Elephant

Spot the Elephant

There were a few nice bits of animal bone that @PhaseSI, @lizcwhite & @fond_ras picked:

Toothy grin

Toothy grin





A nice decorated pipe for @GiraffeCorner

Charles was 'ere?

Charles was ‘ere?

Some stone ware for @lisamarieprints and @MattArnold2009:

English Stoneware

English Stoneware

German stoneware

German stoneware


And several people interested in shelf 666 – which brought up a modern demonstration pot that was made when they dug up the Roman kilns in Highgate Wood 🙂

Pretending to be Roman

Pretending to be Roman

Next up it’s our Registered finds: objects assigned an individual number (akin to an museum accession number) because they are of particular interest.  Tweet @MuseumofLondon or @AdamCorsini using #dayofarch or #ArchiveLottery or message us below, picking a number between 1 and 546 to discover, completely at random, what that shelf holds… – and we’ll post back our results around 1pm

Natasha Powers and Charlotte Bossick (MOLA): A visit from the Archaeological Survey of India

This week we are really excited to have met archaeological and museum colleagues from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), India’s foremost organisation for archaeological research and protection of cultural heritage. Dr B. R. Mani and his party are spending a few days in London on a trip coordinated by the British Museum and were accompanied on their visit to MOLA’s offices at Mortimer Wheeler House by Professor Michael Willis and Rachel Brown. The visit involved a tour of MOLA’s London office and our neighbours the Museum of London’s Archaeological Archive, whose status as the largest archaeological archive in the world definitely impressed.

Dan Nesbit of the LAARC

Dan Nesbit of the Museum of London’s Archaeological Archive explains how the collections have been acquired and displays a few special objects

MOLA Roman pottery

Fiona Seeley, MOLA Head of Finds and Conservation, shows Dr B R Mani and colleagues how MOLA record and analyse Roman pottery.

There was a great deal of practical discussion: how we plan archaeological features, what pro-formas we use, how we digitise our data and how we store objects efficiently.

Admiring the loading bay

Admiring the stone from St Mary Spital priory – and the expanding racking system which enables us to load pallets using a forklift.

This was all followed by a Q&A session with MOLA Chief Executive Taryn Nixon and Professor Willis from the British Museum which focused particularly on comparing the planning process and way in which projects are funded and sites protected in Britain and India. We also heard how objects from Britain’s colonial past turn up on Indian archaeological sites and are looking forward to helping to identify some recently uncovered ceramics and glass manufactured in London. And of course enjoyed some goodies!


East meets West – Brick Lane’s finest Indian sweet selection and British cream buns!

Day of Archaeology – LAARC Lottery! part 4 (paper records)

We’ve got the most important section of our archive coming up now as we’ve been using the numbers you’ve been tweeting us to check out the shelves in our paper records store:

First up we went to shelf 4 chosen by @ElenaPapagia whose shelf came up empty in the records. Shelf 4 contained records from 1949’s excavations at Ironmonger lane, where amongst other things they discovered this amazing roman mosaic. Here’s a photo from the site found in the records:


In the same box was also this amazing envelope containing site notes from Wallside excavations in 1932


Then to shelf 5 for @TinctureOfMuse’s daughter’s suggestion. Again coming up trumps, we’ve got these original drawings recording wooden timbers:


Not just any wooden timbers though. These are the ribs of the Roman ship that was dug up at County Hall in 1910!


Then to shelf 305 at the suggestion of Mr @m_law (who’s very kindly been approving loads of posts today) Matt, your shelf gave us this rather polite letter of correspondance relating to the coins already mentioned in part 3 of #LAARCLottery – the ones from St Thomas Street


Finally, (and it’s worth the wait) @mikimoo9 suggested shelf 364. This shelf has records from excavations in 1988 at Bethel Estate and it had what I was hoping for. A site diary!


First page that opened, a gem: Poor old Dave with his bad back (we’ve all been there), Emma finding barrel wells, Steve not in because he’s sneezing too much, and correct me if I’m wrong but was there a darts match on Tues 21st?


Told you it was good (and if anyone attended that darts match please leave a comment and let us know who won!)

One more to go. Our last major store section holds our Environmental finds. These are typically extremely small objects that take up little space (hence the small shelf range) and include objects such as seeds, pollen and small animal bones etc. Tweet using #dayofarch or #LAARC, or message us a number below, between 1 and 44 to discover, completely at random, what that shelf holds…

Phil Jeffries (MOLA): a hybrid job is never boring

I hold a hybrid job role within MOLA, being both an Archivist and a Senior Archaeologist for watching briefs. Combined, these provide me with a variety of different tasks and settings in which to spend my working days.

Within the MOLA Archive team I am principally responsible for preparing all the finds and finds records from sites, in readiness for their deposition into the relevant accepting public repository. Much of the material I handle relates to excavations from within Greater London and therefore is ultimately to be deposited into The London Archaeological Archive and Resource Centre (LAARC) run by The Museum of London, which has its own standards to which the prepared material must conform.

So many rows - he's getting data vertigo...

Phil in Archive-mode, checking finds data tables

Whilst having several small – medium sized finds projects currently on the go, I am also overseeing a long term finds archive project which has been opened up for the public to get involved with. This volunteering opportunity is concerned with preparing all the finds material from the excavation of the Guildhall Yard in the City of London during 1992-1997 (Site Code GYE92).

GYE92 is perhaps the largest finds archive to be prepared by MOLA and also one of the largest ever to be received (eventually) by LAARC. To give you an idea of the scale of the project, there are some 2339 boxes of finds/environmental remains stored on 157 shelves across three bays of the building we occupy, plus larger objects yet to be discovered off site. There are over 20,500 Accessioned Finds, some of which are on display in the Guildhall and others already noted as missing in action. In order that the material is archive worthy, the finds must be packaged and labelled according to LAARC’s standards and these must then run in numerical sequence within boxes of material type. The boxes are then stored in material and numerical sequence on the shelves. All the finds must be checked against and systematically logged onto the finds or environmental inventory spreadsheets which have an initial combined cell count of over half a million cells. Where appropriate, errors, omissions, additions and amendments noted must also be updated on MOLA’s primary Oracle database and a running Archivist’s Note of un-resolvable errors/omissions kept to accompany the final archive deposit.

We currently have a pool of 6 members of the public volunteering on the project two days per week and for the last few months they have been processing the bulk animal bone from the site, (all 924 boxes of it)! Typically the volunteers can come in and once settled, get on with the day’s tasks with minimal direction, however I’m on call to assist with queries as and when they arise. This might be concerned with relocating non-bone material that has incorrectly made its way into the animal bone boxes or resolving discrepancies with context numbering or packaging policies. The information that the volunteers collate is then updated onto the final Excel finds inventory which is growing by the day as new discoveries not captured on the original database are brought to light during re-packaging.

Whilst not preparing finds or chasing up their present whereabouts in a building the size of an aircraft hanger or overseeing the volunteers, I might well be involved with other archive duties such as checking field records or converting digital files into archive storable versions. Alternatively, I may be dealing with one of the fieldwork watching brief projects I have been assigned to look after in the capacity of a Senior Archaeologist within the Field Team. Two of these projects are what can be described as long term and intermittent in nature and involve me monitoring certain key ground works on infrastructure projects that span several years. A watching brief is usually undertaken on sites where the proposed construction works do not require an archaeological excavation to be conducted or follow on from earlier evaluation trenching or archaeological excavations close by and are usually undertaken by one attendant experienced Field archaeologist.

Be Safe!

Phil with his Archaeologist Hat on now (c) MOLA 2013

The job essentially requires a high degree of observation under less than ideal circumstances, where a few minutes may be all the time permitted to make quick records of archaeological features and natural strata as they are removed by the machines at work. My projects require me to remotely monitor complex construction schedules via phone and email with lead engineers on the sites and organise myself to be on site when the latest sequence of excavations for new foundations, utility trenches, shafts or general ground reduction is due to begin. The sites I visit are varied and fall in numerous London boroughs, from public spaces such as the streets of The West End and central London parks to industrial sites of former power stations or basements of residential and commercial properties. Generally, schedules rarely stay on track and an anticipated site visit might be put back on the proposed day as problems arise with anything from a break down of a machine to discovery of asbestos or particularly reinforced concrete. In this case I have to be pretty flexible with my diary and be accommodating to working on several separate pieces of indoor archive work which will ultimately be interrupted. As well as actually creating the primary field records during my on site monitoring, I am also responsible for producing reports based on these observations, this brings me into contact with several other departments such as the Drawing Office, Photography Studio and Geomatics/Survey team. All in all it’s rare that I get two successive days that might be described as repetitive!

Day of Archaeology – LAARC Lottery! part 3 (metals)

We’re loving the response we’re getting. Again a massive thanks to everyone that’s been tweeting us numbers. Here’s what we found when we rummaged in our metal store:

There are loads of Iron nails in the archive and I’m pleased to announce that shelf 42 as suggested by @UniRdg_MusStudy gave us some nasty looking ones from Merton Priory Excavations


There was also a massive bit of iron slag that we found on shelf 57 as suggested by @El_dwyer This from 1981 Swan Lane excavations


And then from Facebook some lovely coins! My friend Rachel from my student days suggested Shelf 2. This brought up a couple of coins, very aptly with the heads of George II & George IV


And next a forgery! Part of a hoard of coins faked in the medieval period and discovered at St Thomas Street. Thanks Jo for suggesting shelf 5


Sorry to say that @ElenaPapagia shelf suggestion of shelf 21 also was empty 🙁


Next it’s our Paper Records. Again, segregated and stored in a controlled environment, this store is humidified to preserve these important documents. Tweet using #dayofarch or #LAARC, or message us below, a number between 1 and 431 to discover, completely at random, what that shelf holds…

Day of Archaeology 2013 – LAARC Lottery! part 2 (Registered Finds)

On to the Registered Finds, those objects with something a bit special about them.

First reg find comes from our lovely Museum of London curator @MerielJeater. Her suggesting of Shelf 45 produced this piece of wood, probably part of a table leg, found in 1974 at Angel Court


Then one of our favourite object types in LAARC – A roman dog footprint as suggested by @Helena_S and found during the redevelopment of Guys Hospital in 1982


Next we had a suggestion from an old school friend of mine via Facebook. Cancio suggested shelf 221 and we found a piece of a post med tortoise shell fan from Foster lane


And then there was a fab manganese wall tile with two dudes just chilling out – suggested by MoLA Roman pottery specialist Amy Thorpe (523) and from excavations at Albert Embankment


Finally @Heatherfeath39 suggested shelf 313, which produced…


An empty shelf! Well it is a lottery!

Next it’s our Metal artefacts – these objects are stored separately. A dehumidified store, sealed boxes and silica gel help us maintain these objects to a high degree of preservation as they’d slowly degrade in normal room conditions. Tweet using #dayofarch or #LAARC, or message us below, a number between 1 and 631 to discover, completely at random, what that shelf holds…

Day of Archaeology – LAARC Lottery Part 6 (Environmental Finds)

And so we’ve reached our last section of the Museum of London’s Archaeological Archive. Thanks for playing the LAARC lottery and here are our last two objects for the Day of Archaeology.

The Environmental section of our Archive is the smallest – representative of the small size of the flora and fauna that are processed by flotation through large-scale tanks with small-scale sieves. If you want to see what a raw sample looks like, check out Sarah Matthews (MOLA) ‘dirty’ blog.

First up, our lucky lottery player chose shelf number 43 and our ecofact is a selection of seeds from site archive PRY91, an excavation that took place on the outer reaches of London in the borough of Kingston Upon Thames. This site produced a total of 61 sediment samples and the ecofacts date to the late Iron Age/Roman period. What we have here are cereal grains of wheat/barley. Our Archaeology Collections Manager, Glynn Davis, blogged about a similar ecofact from the City of London. These environmental ‘objects’ are extremely important for understanding cultivated foodstuffs as well as the nature of settlement itself.

Wheat grains from the Iron Age/Roman period

Wheat grains from the Iron Age/Roman period, and from our shelf 43

And so, our last ecofact from a long day’s blogging. So what did shelf 36 have amongst its boxes…of course, it’s a coprolite!

This sample, excavated from site BUF90 – Bull Wharf, Upper Thames Street, was accompanied by a note stating it was ‘hand collected’…archaeologists are known for their odd sense of humour. Need we say more!

Coprolite from BUF90

Coprolite from BUF90 – and shelf 36


And so that brings us to the end of our Day of Archaeology LAARC Lottery. We hope you enjoyed it, we certainly did, and a big thank you to everyone who took part – we couldn’t have done it without you. Apologies also to anyone who suggested a shelf number but didn’t get their object shown – we simply couldn’t do all of them in the time we had – but we hope you found the blogs and posts interesting too.

Day of Archaeology – LAARC Lottery Part 5 (Textile Finds)

Day of Archaeology: Blog 5 – Textiles

Moving onto and into our Leather & Textile store, we have two classic objects chosen by you, completely at random.

Our first randomly selected object, from shelf number 876, is a Roman leather shoe, excavated from site BUC87 – once the heart of Londinium. The LAARC holds over 5000 Roman and medieval shoes (we are the largest Archeological Archive in the world after all) and this artefact is a fine example of its type. The leather sole of the shoe has been preserved through waterlogged conditions but once exposed would quickly dry and shrink. Luckily the Museum ofLondon’s conservation department owns a magic machine called a freeze-dryer which, through the process of sublimation, leaves these leather objects in a very stable condition.

Roman leather shoe

Roman leather shoe from BUC87 – and shelf 876

 A common comment on archaeological Roman shoes is that they always seem very small. The leather may have shrunk somewhat after two millennia in the ground and the freeze-drying process may add minimally to this, but on the whole our Roman Londoners seem to have small feet…Perhaps a comparative study should be conducted with the many Roman skeletal remains held at the Museum’s Centre for Human Bioarchaeology!

Our second object is a piece of post-medieval textile from site EAG87  (and shelf 809), excavated by the Department of Urban Archaeology (DUA) back in the late 1980s. Archaeological textiles suffer from damage to both their texture and colour; however, our Curator of Fashion & Decorative Arts gets particularly excited about brown bits of wool!

Post-medieval cloth

Post-medieval cloth from EAG87 – and shelf 809

Again our textile much like other organics and inorganic, such as metal, has survived through waterlogged but anaerobic conditions. This fragmentary piece was probably part of the C18th backfill of a well excavated on this site.

Our last major store section holds our Environmental finds. These are typically extremely small objects that take up little space (hence the small shelf range) and include objects such as seeds, pollen and small animal bones etc. Tweet using #dayofarch or #LAARC, or message us a number below, between 1 and 44 to discover, completely at random, what that shelf holds…

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!