Michael Marshall (MOLA): looking at small finds from Cheapside, London

I’m spending this Day of Archaeology writing up the small assemblage of Roman and medieval small finds and Roman glass from a MOLA excavation on Cheapside in the City of London. It is a bit of a break from the Roman Walbrook sites which have really been at the centre of my working life for the last couple of years.

The Cheapside excavation is an interesting site overall but the finds assemblage is small and not terribly well-preserved and so it makes only a modest contribution to the wider story of the site. The Roman glass is fairly commonplace (mostly 1st-century cast ribbed bowls and 1st-/2nd-century jars and bottle glass) and there are only seven Roman small finds, again mostly common types such as bone hairpins and counters.

Roman glass bowl rim fragment.

Roman glass bowl rim fragment

See a complete example of a Roman pillar-moulded bowl  here.

These objects will help us date the stratigraphic sequence and can tell us a little bit about what was going on in the local area. But the careful records we make mean that these objects can be incorporated into wider projects of finds research based around London more generally and hopefully they will get a second chance to shine in the future. The two hairpins, for example, can be incorporated into a big project on the date, distribution and function of Roman hairpins from Londinium that is currently underway.

Roman hairpin

Roman hairpin

The medieval finds are mostly early in date, belonging to the Saxo-Norman period, the first centuries after the walled city was reoccupied. There is some interesting evidence for craft activity such as most of a hemi-spherical crucible with a pinched pouring lip. This is in quite a few pieces now but can be reconstructed by the conservation team to allow it to be illustrated.

hemi-spherical crucible

hemi-spherical crucible

See a complete crucible with a similar form but in a slightly different fabric here.

The star piece from the site though has to be a lovely bone ‘trial-’ or ‘motif-piece’. This is a section of rib with carved interlace designs typical of the period. The precise function of these objects is unclear. Some people have argued that they could be used as moulds or formers but it seems more likely that they are a way of practicing or working out designs which can then be executed in other mediums. Similar objects have been found in contemporary contexts at sites such as York and Dublin; there are plenty of other examples from London too but this is a particularly interesting example.

The new Cheapside trial-piece

The new Cheapside trial-piece

See some more examples here and here.

Writing in 1991, Frances Pritchard noted that most of the trial pieces  found in London seemed to come from a fairly restricted area in the western half of the city north of Cheapside. We’ve found a lot of new examples since then so this morning I spent a bit of a time plotting more recent finds in GIS to see if this pattern still holds true. It seems like the distribution has expanded a little to the area directly across Cheapside to the south and a little to the north in the area at Basinghall Street where there is a recent find and also another older find, not plotted here, from nearby at London Wall. In general, however, the pattern remains strong and more recent excavations near this area have produced large groups of these finds as at Guildhall Yard and No 1 Poultry. The outlier to the south along the waterfront is from a much later 13th century context and was probably redeposited during dumping to expand the waterfront. Overall, the evidence seems to suggest strong quite tightly focused evidence for Saxo-Norman craft activity around Cheapside and the immediate vicinity.

Preliminary GIS plot of Saxo-Norman bone trial piece from modern excavation

Preliminary GIS plot of Saxo-Norman bone trial pieces from modern excavations

Day in the life of an Inspector of Ancient Monuments

I have the greatest job title in the world, and deal with some of the greatest archaeology in the world (there are four World Heritage sites in London, and I have involvement in three) – something I never forget and never cease to be amazed about. I’ve been very fortunate – getting on in archaeology is about hard work, learning and reading everything, being passionate about the subject but also about luck and being in the right place at the right time. I’ve had more than my fair share of luck, and try very hard not to forget this. I deal with 157 ancient monuments in London, ranging from 18th century milestones to Hampton Court Palace, all of which need protection and interpretation. I always approve of an Occam’s Razor approach to life – simplifying down to key issues/messages, so I see my job as to Preserve and Present London’s Ancient Monuments. I try to interfere a bit in other things, and of course nominate new sites for scheduling where I feel there is real threat to outstanding archaeology. Sadly, the threat in London can be quite high, not just from development, but also neglect.

Fortunately I don’t have an average day, so what has this day held for me so far? It started at 8am, and actually conditions were quite average. It was raining, and I was holed up in a proper caff (Al’s on Bermondsey Street) having tea and toast. This is my touchstone across London – finding good caffs with quality tea and toast for less than two quid. Pleased to say that Al’s is still doing well on my grading, particularly astonishing given how Bermondsey Street is getting more and more chi-chi.

I co-incidentally bumped into my colleague Iain Bright (Assistant Inspector of Ancient Monuments) in the caff – we were meeting on site, but have similar tastes in caffs. Great start there. So suitably fuelled, we proceeded to site where our contact was 25 minutes late – it was a straightforward meeting to discuss the glass box over the medieval tower base of Bermondsey Abbey – it’s currently in a bar, and the glass occasionally gets broken (not fights, but generally someone dropping wine bottles!) – we chatted about how to improve the presentation, and to incorporate some interpretation into the display to try and help people understand this really interesting 11th century Cluniac Abbey which is otherwise completely buried and can’t be recognised in the streetscape.

Frantic zip back to the English Heritage office for a meeting with colleagues in London about Archaeological Priority Areas (one of many names) – these are zones used by planners and archaeologists to get a handle on whether proposed development will harm archaeology. London has a great range of these, many of which are out of date, not big enough, too big, in the wrong place, and generally in need of revision. We discussed a range of issues from what in fact to call them, grading them, whether all cemeteries are automatically of archaeological interest, brownfield/greenfield, industrial archaeology and so on. It’s a long term project, not least of which because they must be completely tied in with Local Authority policies. But it’s all making sure we recognise the significance of London’s archaeology and protect it as thoroughly as possible. We can’t learn about or interpret our archaeology unless we ensure it’s protected through the planning system.

After that I opened my countersigned performance development review for last year- fortunately I’m not being sacked, and a number of lovely things were said about my hard work (I suspect my managers don’t realise quite how fabulous this job is and how many people would like to do it). Got a bit of a wigging for being a little outspoken on some issues, but see above for the need for passion and enthusiasm in archaeology!

Another item this afternoon comes with some fieldwork on Hampton Court – this is one of the most amazing scheduled monuments I deal with, but of course it’s remarkably sensitive. Some fieldwork is taking place currently, and is taking a little longer than planned, which is course is not unexpected in archaeology. A certain amount of discussion was needed to ensure that enough fieldwork is undertaken to fulfil the brief, whilst not holding up the programme. In many ways, the predominance of email correspondence is a shame as sometimes getting the tone right for these sorts of discussions is difficult.

Iain and I have just discussed a new major planning case in Barking town centre- it has raised the knotty issue of setting. Most developments steer clear of scheduled monuments, but they do affect the context and setting. Barking Abbey is a super site – a nunnery founded in AD 666 (not a very good year, you’d think) and the remains, whilst heavily restored, are very good, and allow clear understanding of scale and form. Barking town centre is on the up and up, and unfortunately, this is literally the case, with quite tall buildings being proposed which may overshadow the Abbey. So we’re recommending a formal impact assessment here.

This is quite a good range of the elements of the job, from fine detail of fieldwork at Hampton Court, presentation of remains at Bermondsey, planning related issues with the Priority Area discussion and then setting at Barking. All important issues, and really interesting sites. A little more prehistory would be lovely, but I suspect that’s asking for the caster sugar on the cherry on the icing on the cake.

Space and identity research in Berlin

Topoi House Dahlem

Topoi Haus Dahlem. Photo: Bernd Wannenmacher / FU.

I am a lecturer in Roman Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL, but today I’m in the midst of a short research visit to the Topoi Excellence Cluster at Freie Universität Berlin. Topoi is a large research cluster dedicated to the study of space and knowledge in antiquity, and has a full programme of workshops and meetings which bring together researchers from many disciplines and institutions. I’m here as a Senior Fellow for a month, working with Dr Kerstin Hofmann and colleagues in the key topic group ‘Identities: space and knowledge related identification’. In addition to getting on with my own research on Roman Britain, it’s fantastic to have the opportunity to discuss various issues in the archaeology of identity with scholars based here. While there are many points of contact, there are also of course differences in the traditions of study into past identity in the UK/US and Germany, and it’s really interesting to learn more about these. So today is mainly a mix of research and discussion in the Topoi House in Dahlem, as well as keeping in touch with my postgraduate students in London. I should also say that it’s quite exciting to be in Germany when the national team is doing rather well in a certain global sports tournament!

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!

Architecture, Photogrammetry and Thoughts on a Friday

My day-to-day work in the Planning Services section of MOLA involves assessing planning proposals at various stages of development to ascertain whether, and to what degree, they would impact on existing heritage. However, on Wednesday though about twenty of my colleagues and I were able to leave our desks for a couple of hours and spend some time getting inspired by a talk on the ‘new photogrammetry’ and wondering how best we can fit this into our daily work.

photo 4

The talk was by Giorgio Verdiani from the Department of Architecture at the University of Florence who I invited to MOLA after meeting him and hearing about his and his colleagues’ and students’ amazing work with digital recording at a conference in Florence in June. I won’t bore with the technical details of the talk here (click on the link above for loads of info and images). Instead, I want to mention a few points that the talk has kept me thinking about right up to and through this Day of Archaeology.

Perhaps the most poignant stems from new photogrammetry being quick, using almost any camera and reliant on the user knowing exactly how to get the best digital data from their camera in the field. For this kind of rapid photogrammetry to be adopted widely in archaeology necessitates us to have good skills with a manual camera. Depth of field, shutter speed, the framing of a shot, getting all of these right is key to recording the data you need. Over the last ten years or so, archaeology has become reliant on point-and shoot digital photography to the point that that basic knowledge is not really part of the average archaeologist’s repertoire. Many new staff will have never even used a manual camera. In this instance, early adoption of digital cameras might have inadvertently increased the gap between us and the new technology. I think there’s a need for us to re-learn how to take good photos, sooner rather than later!

The second thing that struck me is the level of theoretical thinking behind photographic recording (or survey in general), sometimes forgotten in the details and data processing. Any survey taken from multiple points, whether with a camera, total station, drone etc., is an attempt to create structure from motion. Although the thing being surveyed and the record itself are generally static, neither can exist or be fully understood without movement. I think we can easily apply this notion to all thinking and looking in archaeology especially as we have the luxury of more than three dimensions to observe with and from. It sometimes feels a little as if we are too quick to take away our postcard image, our interpretation that fits our expectations, when maybe we need to spend a bit more time looking from multiple perspectives and using the overlaps to create ‘models’ instead.

Lastly (and quickly, sorry…) having an architect from Florence talking to archaeologists in London is an unequivocally good thing. I’ve rarely had an interdisciplinary conversation that hasn’t left all involved with new knowledge, new connections and inspiration to do new things, or old things in different ways. Of course, many of us provide particular, distinctly archaeological services, but we can still do that at the end of much more nuanced, exiting, collaborative processes, so don’t stop trying to find new ways to think about things. Every so often it’ll result in having a beer with a group of Italian architects by a canal, discussing future collaborations.

Anyway, that’s what’s going through my mind on Day of Archaeology. Can you tell I’m going on holiday tomorrow?

James Dixon, @James__Dixon


#ArchiveLottery – Intro

What will you find in amongst these boxes?

What will you find in amongst these boxes?

The Museum of London’s Archaeological Archive is the largest of its kind… IN THE WORLD!

And with our responsibility to store and share London’s Archaeology it’s a bit difficult to choose what to go for for the Day of Archaeology.

So instead, we play a little game.

Following on from the fun we had in previous years, we’ve brought back our interactive #ArchiveLottery. We have five major areas of the Archive to explore: General finds, Registered finds, Environmental, Metal and Paper Records.

Each hour throughout the day we will be exploring some of our archaeological finds interactively and completely randomly. But we need your help. Here’s what to do.

We’ll give you a range of numbers
You tweet us a random number from within that range
We head to the archive shelf that has the matching number
We show you what sits on that shelf

First up we’re exploring our General finds: artefacts that are normally treated as an assemblage – pottery, animal bone, building material etc. – the stuff making up the  bread and butter of London’s archaeological material. We have 6738 shelves of general finds in the archive, so what we would like you to do is suggest a shelf number between 1 and 6738, either by Twitter, tweeting @MuseumofLondon or @AdamCorsini using the hashtags #dayofarch or #ArchiveLottery, or by leaving a comment below, which we will then go to, photograph and blog about the objects we find there.

So get tweeting / commenting!


The copper hoard from the XIII century was discovered as a whole X.9.5.1, in a pit from Block: XXI, in the course of archeological excavations at the Skopje Fortress in 2009. It contained 50 copper coins, including 5 items of Bulgarian imitations (no. 1-5) and items presenting rulers, namely 2 items presenting Ivan Asen II (no. 6-7), 2 items presenting Theodore Comnenus-Ducas (no. 8-9), 2 items presenting  John Comnenus-Ducas (no. 10-11), 9 items presenting John III Ducas-Vatatzes with (no. 12-20), 4 items presenting Theodor II Ducas-Lascaris (no. 21-24), as well as the most numerous, 24 Latin imitations (no. 25-47). (more…)

Busman’s holiday?

Last year when I posted for the DOA I was on holiday and this year I am… on holiday again. This implies that I have a lot of time off but the reality is that this is just pure coincidence. Plus things have changed for me, a lot, in the past year. A year ago I worked jointly between local government and academia: now I am solely employed by the government heritage agency English Heritage. A year ago I mostly worked on archaeological sites; now I work on sites ‘across the asset range’ as they say, from prehistoric monuments to post-war office buildings, and everything in-between. A year ago I was also living a quiet [ish] life with my wife; now I have a lively and noisy 3 month old baby girl.

Anyhow, on this DOA I was actually on a busman’s holiday – i.e. a holiday that seemed a lot like work at times. My parents came to visit their granddaughter and we decided to go and visit the new Cutty Sark Museum in Greenwich, somewhere that I have long been meaning to visit since it re-opened in 2012 but had yet to get round to. It was a busman’s holiday because it touched upon many of the issues that I deal with daily in my job in English Heritage’s designation department: ultimately it involved questions of significance, authenticity and public engagement. The poor old Cutty Sark has had a hard time over its life – most recently, when a fire caused major damage in 2007. Since that time the vessel has been painstaking repaired and a new museum created around its dry-dock in Greenwich, to much public interest but intense critical debate. The historic ships people have questioned the ‘repairs’ to the old, and extremely badly damaged vessel – asking questions about its authenticity when so much of the original vessel has been lost and ‘repaired’ with new, and also asking questions about its new supporting latticework that lifts the ship to hang in mid-air and support its weight. Meanwhile, the architectural people have questioned the ‘greenhouse’ surrounding the lower decks of the ship, protecting it from the environment while allowing easier access and interpretation – their views have not been kind in many cases, comparing the new museum as akin to a suburban greenhouse at the gentlest and calling it cultural vandalism – this is within a World Heritage Site don’t forget – at the harshest. The museums people have then had a go as well, questioning every aspect of the display and interpretation of the ship, and especially its balance of use of space, airing, inevitably, worries about commercialisation – i.e. too much shop and cafe, not enough museum?

My opinion? Well, I went with trepidation, fearing that I’d dislike a lot of what I was about to see, hence the delay in visiting (I live less than an hour away so have little excuse), but I really enjoyed myself. Partly, this was the company: my wife and daughter and my parents. And I *do* take the points of the architectural critics on board: from the outside in particular the greenhouse protecting the ship is ungainly at best and makes it hard to appreciate the fine lines of the ship. But the pragmatist in me is aware that the ship *had* to be better protected from the elements or face total loss (something that at the time of the fire in 2007 I actually thought would be the best solution – let the poor ship ‘die’ in the fire after a long and dramatic life and be done with it). Moreover, once inside the museum, I was really impressed – a good balance of information for all ages and interests; a lot to see and do (i’ll be back once my daughter is older, 3+ at least, to have a proper explore with her); and a good balance of museum and commerce – including what has to be the most dramatic cafe in all of the London museums – and what’s wrong with a nicely air-conditioned museum cafe asks this new dad for one? And most importantly, as an archaeologist, I was impressed at how the ‘hanging’ of the ship on its supporting latticework really worked as an educational tool. You get to see inside and also right outside of the ship from all angles, something that no other historic ship museum that I know of currently enables. To be able to stand right under the keel and bows of this incredible racehorse of the seas and appreciate her impossibly fine lines – more akin to those of a racing yacht than a cargo vessel – is genuinely awe-inspring, and heritage needs to inspire all of the awe it can muster in these current troubling times…