London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre

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.

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!

At the LAARC…

London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre is buzzing with activity today!

We’ve already had two VIP tours (sadly soooo confidential I wasn’t allowed to take pictures and post them for your) but I can tell you about some of our fabulous volunteers.

Christie, Nathanial and Matthew are hard at work helping me to create a new, comprehensive and beautifully documented handling collection.

Here’s Christie with a beautiful mica dusted jug she’s registering:

Matthew and Nathanial are adding info about each object to a spreadsheet -that will all then go on our Mimsy database:

One of these flagons is pretending to be an amphora -so our ceramics expert tells us.

Once we’ve data crunched all our Roman finds we then move on to… Building material! Here’s a selection of some of the Medieval material we’ll be working on.

We’re all going to become peg tile experts. And floor tile experts.

Our volunteers say:

“I love the gold dusted beaker!”

“handling all these ancient artefacts is amazing!”

More from us later 🙂

Not much real archaeology, but loads of stuff to do..

A Day of Archaeology at the curatorial side of the Museum of London

 The Department of Archaeological Collections and Archive, which includes the award London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre (LAARC),  the curators of the early collections (up to 1714) and the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology.  It is a stressful and varied job, and sometimes a tad unsatisfactory as there is never enough time other than to skim over so many compelling things.

 The day started with e-mail on the train about getting resources in place for the London Archaeologist Association contribution to FoBA, then wrote a review about the Museum’s new iPhone app, feeling slightly aggrieved by a previous review on iTunes that said it was ‘unambitious’, felt the need to refute. As a lot of work has gone into getting the sponsorship and building it, then found out could not load my review because I have not downloaded the product, of course I still have the trial version, and now need to delete it and reload via iTunes, bummer, save that for home tonight as we not allowed iTunes at work. If you are iPhone or iPad enabled, do have a look, it’s a tip of the iceberg look at the Romans in London, it brings together content from the Museum of London Collections, the MoLA Londinium map, sparky little videos made by HISTORY floating on top of Google maps.

 The conditions are not great back of house at the Museum of London, heating and ventilation are poor, offices are cramped, although work is underway to improve the roof and insulation, but it was off putting to see another Head of Department spraying their armpits in advance of another steamy day. Me? I managed that before I left the bathroom this morning.

 Staff briefing meeting where, among other things, the separation of MoLA is spun and tempered by the Director telling us a little about ongoing commercial projects including Convoys Wharf and a site on Holborn that is a 16th century tavern and brewery. The Director also revealed a plan to build a mini Louvre-style glass pyramid within a void on the roof to create more office space, and apparently he travelled (in his own time) to Rwanda to name a gorilla.  He also said we would have no building works during the Olympics, …or leave (at the moment).

 Then sorted out a external enquiry about an identification of Post-Medieval earthenware vessel, curiously I thought it was North Devon Gravel-tempered ware, huge bits of gravel showing through the glaze.

 Correspondence with GLA about teaching classics and Latin in London schools, invitation to lunch at City Hall next week, the phrase ‘no such thing as free lunch’ running through my head.  Dealing with a request to borrow the Head of Mithras from Prof. Grimes excavations for an exhibition on the Livery companies, but the dates coincide with Londinium 2012, our Stories of the World exhibition, decide to consult with Junction the youth panel as co-curators of the exhibition.

 Trying to get my head around the Greater London Historic Environment Research Strategy, but actually mostly sorting out cock-ups with invoices to do with the project.

 Ensuring the catering is in place for the Finds Processing course being held at LAARC next week, great, a pile of receipts from M&S Lunch To Go to process.

 This afternoon meetings about how to fund Community Archaeology over the next three years, so cunning plans in the offing, although disappointed to have missed out on the CBA bursary scheme this week, is it because we are London? Or is it because I didn’t spend enough time on the application? Or a mixture of the two?  Then a super meeting about how to stop water getting into where we store excavated human bone, hoping it does not rain is not going to be a long term solution….

 Then bracing myself for a full on FOBA weekend, events at London Wall, and the Gladiator Games in Guildhall yard.  I think I get to spend quality time checking tickets and showing people to the seats, but it is a warm up to raising awareness about the forthcoming campaign to build new Roman Galleries at the Museum of London.

Roy Stephenson

Head of Archaeological Collections and Archive, Museum of London