Model CITiZAN: archaeology outreach in miniature

Lara Band, CITiZAN Archaeologist for Training, takes a quick break from model building, while the MDF sealant dries and taking this opportunity to write a little bit about what she’s been up to on this Day of Archaeology….

I’m an archaeologist for CITiZAN, the Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeological Network, one of the two archaeologists for the South East region which stretches from King’s Lynn to Pagham Harbour. CITiZAN is an Heritage Lottery Funded community archaeology project with the remit to record and monitor at risk archaeology along England’s coastline and estuaries. We run training days for people to develop recording and monitoring skills and encourage people to add to and update our interactive map of coastal and intertidal archaeology via our website and app.

So what’s the model for? Well, as well our site based training days we can be found at various events around the region, talking to people and encouraging them to join us. We have a dig box and a planning frame for people to try and this model is to add a bit more hands on fun: if we can’t take people to the foreshore then we’ll bring the foreshore to the people. In miniature.

The base of the CITiZAN archaeological model with the sealant drying in the sun

The base of the CITiZAN archaeological model with the sealant drying in the sun.

The model is going to be a 6’ long rendition of a somewhat idealised section of coastline and estuary; people will be able to make their own archaeological feature in plasticine then record it with our app. So far today I’ve built the base, the frame and, at least in part, the banks behind the foreshore. I love small versions of big things as well as any chance to be creative, and I hope it’ll be a good way of introducing people to our app, and the types of archaeology they might find in the intertidal zone.

Lara starts to build up the landscape of her coastal archaeology model for CITiZAN

Lara starts to build up the landscape of her coastal archaeology model for CITiZAN.

We’re trialing it at Broadstairs Folk Week on 9th-10th August where thanks to Thanet District Council’s Coastal Communities Fund we’ll be sharing a space with the Trust for Thanet Archaeology and the Isle of Thanet Archaeological Society. We’ll be in Balmoral Garden all day both days so come and say hello. On the 1st September we’ll be taking it to the National Maritime Museum for our part in their late night event Treasures of the Thames. I’m really excited about that!

Well, the sealant will be dry, so it’s time to start putting the landscape in the frame, to  think about paints and finishes and to carry on wondering whether bits of the slightly manky looking sheepskin coat that’s been flytipped at the end of my road might make good saltmarsh, if painted green. Onwards!

Worth every penny: a numismatist’s view

By Julian Bowsher, Senior Archaeologist and Numismatist at MOLA.

Roman coin (c) MOLA

Roman coin (c) MOLA

My day started with the arrival of a couple of boxes of coins from MOLA’s recent excavations of a riverside site, near the Tower of London.  And I know that more boxes are on their way!

There are usually more Roman coins than any others from London sites but those in front of me cover a wide spectrum, ranging from Roman Republican denarii to late Roman copies. One 1st-century AD coin is particularly rare, there is a late Anglo-Saxon penny and a couple of medieval coins, as well as numerous lead tokens and a fine sixpence of Queen Elizabeth I. There are also lots of Nuremberg jetons, usually interpreted as reckoning counters (for accounting) but probably also used locally as small change.

Among the post-medieval coins we find there is lots of 18th-century small change and these always feature a few foreign coins: from France, Holland, Spain, Italy and Portugal. The latest coin from this site is, curiously, a French 5 centime piece dated 1883, perhaps lost from a visiting French ship.

Before these coins reach me they travel from the site to the finds processing department here at MOLA, where they are given a clean to get the mud off, they then have record photographs taken and are given accession numbers.  The coins then head to the conservation laboratory where corrosion deposits are cleaned off, they are conserved and stabilised and, usefully, X-rayed.

The first thing I did today was make a list of the accession and context numbers, and then I weighed and measured each one before examining them in detail. I described, identified and dated both sides and these details were entered into our coin database. I made a judgement on which coins need further cleaning to help identification and which might even require chemical or metallurgical analysis. Certain coins need further research and I will discuss these pieces with other numismatists around the country or by popping over to the British Museum.

My next step is to write an assessment of the coins from this site. Firstly, I will arrange the coins by date and sometimes create a table or histogram. I will talk to the archaeologist running the dig to learn about the archaeological stratigraphy and also to other finds specialists in the department. This often determines where, how and when the coins came to be found at the site. Finally, after further research, a publication text will be created.

Such is the exciting and interesting diversity of my job!

The Time Truck: getting archaeology out on the road

By Magnus Copps from MOLA.

My main role at MOLA is the management of the Time Truck project. The Time Truck is a mobile community engagement and event space that we use to share our findings and make the most of the research that we do with our development clients and independently.

Today, I am testing out our dig-boxes in preparation for an event at Earls Court on the 13 August. We use rubber gravel as a (slightly) less messy substitute to real dirt, and in this case, as we are looking at the post-medieval history of the area, this will be filled with animal bone, glass and ceramics from the 17th to 19th centuries.

Magnus Copps laying out a Time Truck dig-box (c) MOLA

Magnus Copps laying out a Time Truck dig-box

Our handling collections see a lot of use in dig-boxes, both at public events like Earls Court and as part of our schools programme. Along with Paige and Steve from our Time Truck Support Team I went out to Kender Primary in Lewisham last week to deliver our Cleaning up History session, sponsored by Thames Water.

Time Truck Cleaning up History workshop at Kender Primary (c) MOLA

Time Truck Cleaning up History workshop at Kender Primary

Repeated excavation and re-burying can be tough on the finds, especially given that for many of the children we work with this is their very first experience of ‘archaeology’, and it takes a while to learn how to dig carefully. Fortunately we can maintain a ready supply of post-medieval material for handling collections simply by visiting the Thames Foreshore once every few months to find as many tobacco pipes, ceramic fragments and bottle necks as we are likely to need.

MOLA's object handling collection

MOLA’s object handling collection

It’s not all hands-on work today, particularly with the busy job of planning the Time Truck events programme for the autumn. My desk-based work can be anything from securing sponsorship to finding a site for the Truck to pitch up for a particular event, or going through monographs, finds lists, and ADS reports to plan content and write captions for finds displays. Running the Time Truck is a really diverse job, and perhaps one of the best things about it is the way that I come into contact with the full range of specialisms that exist in a big archaeological organisation like MOLA, from the field team right through to post-excavation specialists. As well as the amazing finds we uncover, we try to showcase as much of the archaeological process as we can via the Time Truck.

A Day in the life of CITiZAN Community Archaeologists

CITiZAN is the Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeology Network. We’re Megan and Andy, the team’s Northern office. Between us we cover the English coast, running between the Scottish border and the Dee on the west coast and the border to the Wash on the east.1

Discussing coastal erosion with the Historic England’s inspector for the World Heritage site of Hadrians Wall on the coast of the Solway Firth

Over the last few days we have been travelling down the north-western coast of England from Cumbria to Lancashire; staying in Maryport and Morecambe. Along the way we’ve been stopping off to explore exciting intertidal and coastal archaeology. Our preparation for the Day of Archaeology started on Thursday with Andy whizzing off to the record office. Meanwhile, Megan went off to site for a reccy ahead of a guided walk around the 7th-century chapel.


The 7th-century St. Patrick’s Chapel on the dramatic coast of Morcambe Bay

Andy spent most of the day searching out historic records; seeking 19th century and early plans of the area for a community training session in map regression. Among the things he found was a list of fruit trees planted by the rector of St Peters (the successor of the early medieval chapel) recorded in the list of Birth, Burials and Marriages for 1773.

Meanwhile Megan was out at the site planning her tour. The guided walk started at Rectory Gardens Wood, looking at the terraces where the rector had planted his apple, plum, pear and cherry orchard. She then moved on to look at Mesolithic settlement sites and Second World War practice trenches on Heysham Head before heading to the early medieval St Patrick’s Chapel, a National Trust owned site with unique, enigmatic rock cut graves. She finished at the 10th century St Peters Church, where several medieval cross bases and a hogback stone nestle amongst Post-medieval gravestones.


Megan discusses the Mesolithic settlement of Heysham Head on her guided walk

The Day of Archaeology itself started with a big fry-up before heading to St. Patrick’s Chapel, to kick off a two-day building recording event. The 7th-century chapel overlooks the stunning Morecambe Bay and although it stands on a sandstone promontory, a good 10 metres above mean sea level, is at serious risk of erosion and destruction with several metres of the headland having disappeared since the turn of the 20th century.

The morning was spent teaching interested member of the public the theory of archaeology recording; off-set planning, buildings recording, taking levels and photographs. It was a lot of information for our novices to take in but everybody enjoyed themselves.

In the afternoon we put the classroom sessions into practice. There was a chance to plan the rock-cut graves; some with head sockets and others with indications of slab coverings. The graves proved a little bit challenging but our volunteers ploughed on. Next they moved on to drawing an elevation of the chapel, much of it ruinous, with the west wall completely gone. But a fantastic Anglo-Saxon doorway in the south wall remained. Intrigued by the arched door, with three similar doors reconstructed in St Peters Church, they discussed it with Paul Gwilliam, our building’s expert.  Debating whether the doorway was in its original position or whether it was moved during the early 20th century reconstruction of the chapel.


Our volunteers record the enigmatic rock-cut graves

All these processes are how a buildings archaeologist would go about recording a site such as St. Patrick’s Chapel. Our volunteers now have the skills to record their medieval church and monitor the erosion caused by Morecambe Bay.  The three CITiZAN offices, based in York, Portsmouth and London will be teaching archaeological skills on beaches, cliff tops and intertidal zones around England in the next three years.  Hopefully every training session will be as fun as today!

CITiZAN explores wrecks in the rain

CITIZAN South East has been having a wet and soggy day in Maldon at the start of a three day event for the CBA’s Festival of Archaeology.

The Small Unmanned Aircraft survey of the ‘barge graveyard’ was sadly curtailed by the rain, but an interesting conversation was held with a passing coastal geomorphologist. In the afternoon the Thames Barge Sailing Trust kindly gave us a tour of the barge Pudge, not just a barge but also a Dunkerque little ship. This was followed by a talk on the history of these fascinating vessels, “the heavy goods vehicles of the Victorian age”.

The tour and talk was especially interesting as we’ll be recording the remains of barges over Saturday and Sunday at the ‘barge graveyard‘and again later in September (dates and volunteer opportunities to be announced). Despite the rain it was a most successful  day!


Karen Stewart: A day in the life of an archaeobotanist

I was doing some botanising even as I walked to work this morning, when I spotted this on an acorn on my way through Shoreditch park –


As it’s a gall I hadn’t seen before I brought it into the office to see if I could find out what it is. A swift Google introduced me to Andricus quercuscalicis, a gall wasp which induces these ‘knopper’ galls. Mostly irrelevant to me as an archaeobotanist though, as apparently they only started appearing in Britain in the twentieth century!

My first actual job of the day is some charcoal analysis from a Bronze Age ring ditch site in Hampshire. The first sample I looked at was all oak, which can be quite boring, as it’s the easiest of all the woods to identify. On the other hand, that means I can absolutely tear through it and save some time for the samples that are more challenging.

My second sample of the day has been entirely oakless, and is thus taking much longer to work through.  It doesn’t help that all of the fragments are pretty small –


At the very end of my day of archaeology 2015 I had a quick look at a wall hook from a Saxon grave chamber, which has some mineralised wood attached to it. It’s part of an ongoing project that I’ve been working on since I started with MOLA in 2009, and is almost ready for publication. Of course, that means that there are a million things to check at the last minute. Having provided an answer (sort of!) to the finds specialist and editor, that’s me done for the day! See you in the pub next year!

First airing of conservators’ new toy at the Royal Academy

By MOLA archaeological conservators Liz and Luisa

Sometimes, we archaeological conservators get to do some non-archaeological related work. This week we have been helping the Royal Academy of Art pack their collection of human remains.


This collection is mostly comprised of articulated skeletons and limbs. And was probably used by art students to learn anatomy and help them draw accurately. The articulated nature of the objects presents quite a challenge when moving and packing the remains. So special attention has to be paid to fingers and toes, bouncy patellae and spring action jaws. We have been making acid free tissue mittens and socks to protect the hands and feet; and bandaging mandibles and joins to make sure they don’t shake whilst in transport.














Packing loose material

However the bulk of our work is archaeological; and currently quite a bit of it is the conservation of waterlogged organics, like leather and wood. In order to treat these types of objects we need a vacuum freeze dryer. Our very elderly vacuum pump for the freeze dryer finally decided to take a much deserved retirement (in a skip) a couple of months back. Today we finally received our brand new shiny vacuum pump and Liz could not be happier.



Proud mama looking her new baby for the very first time



It’s alive!

The rest of the day will be looking at our new toy every five minutes to check the vacuum pump is still working properly and filling up the freezer chamber to start drying leather again.

Core blimey! Jason Stewart and the Sediment Core Samples

The best thing about working as a geoarchaeologist at MOLA is the variety; one day I could be watching a machine ripping through the odorous remains of a 19th century gas works, the next day could find me wrestling with the implications of a newly returned set of radiocarbon dates.

Today however finds me in the lab examining sediment cores retrieved from an evaluation. The site is in Dartford within the Thames estuary and has early prehistoric peat forming on top of the cold climate landsurface with various phases of being mudflat, marshland or flooded.

The cores are carefully laid out with the top of the borehole at one end of the lab and the base at the other. As there is 16m of sequence and the cores are 1.5m long and filled with heavy sediment this can take longer than you would think.  The cores are then methodically cleaned and the colour texture, inclusions and nature of the boundaries are recorded.  This detailed cleaning and logging allows me to think about the depositional environment of the site and the nature and rate of the changes that occur.

The next task is to select the locations from which to take samples, we take samples for radiocarbon dating, this enables us to places the changes in environment in some kind of chronological framework allowing us to compare the developments onsite with other work we have done in the surrounding area.  We also sample for things which will tell us about the environment in the past (usually pollen, diatoms, ostracods and plant remains).  These are carefully sliced from the core and sealed in labelled bags to be sent off to the various specialists.  The cores are then re-wrapped and returned to their climate controlled environment, the lab surfaces cleaned and the results typed up.

Jason Stewart

Louise Davies: Not a typical archaeologist

If I have a pound for every time someone had asked me what the most exciting thing I’d ever found was, or which exotic places I’d been digging in, then I’d be very rich. The truth is I’ve never found anything amazing, and I’ve never worked outside the UK (unless you count a month training dig in Menorca in summer 2000, although I wouldn’t exactly call that work). I’m not a typical archaeologist, but it doesn’t mean I love my profession any less.

As part of the project management team at MOLA we are responsible for all the unglamorous aspects of archaeological excavations; the planning and preparation, the costings, the invoicing, the endless meeting about piling, but without us then the exciting work would never take place.

We have often been working on a project for years before excavation starts; negotiating with curators, meeting with planners, quantity surveyors, architects, and demolition contractors. Poring over plans for temporary works and figuring out how we can stop the pavement falling into the excavation area with sheet piles, whilst not destroying any archaeology in the process of inserting the sheet piles. We have to make judgements about time and cost of excavations based on sometimes scant information, trying to do the best for our clients whilst ensuring the archaeology is properly recorded. Archaeology is never straight forward, and we generally have no say in when we can go on site to start work, but we will do everything we can to fill gaps in the MOLA excavation programme and try to maintain constant employment for our hard working field team.

So today, as I sit at my desk sending out invoices and thinking about all the amazing artefacts I have never found, I am happy knowing that my work means something. Without archaeologists excavating and recording the remains left behind by an infinite number of lost Londoners before they are gone for ever beneath another glass sky scraper, then the world would be a much more boring place.

Jon Chandler: The day to day assessment of our cities

My name is Jon Chandler. I am Lead Consultant Archaeologist with the Heritage Consultancy team. I have various responsibilities, including quality assurance technical reviews of our archaeological desk-based assessments. Developers use these to support planning applications – anything from a residential development to major infrastructure projects. Recently this included the Thames Tideway Tunnel, Thames Water’s new sewer for London. For over two years I managed a team of up to 15 consultants and specialists in archaeology and buildings assessment, foreshore archaeology and geoarchaeology.

A broad range of archaeological, documentary and cartographic sources and geological information is consulted for our reports. We try to establish the archaeological potential of the site, taking into account factors compromising survival (e.g. existing basements, foundations, services and landscaping). The likely significance of any archaeological remains is assessed, along with the impact of the proposed development. We provide recommendations which the local authority planners will use to decide what must be done as part of granting planning consent.

This morning I am looking at a development site on the Isle of Dogs. This area is now heavily built over but in the prehistoric, Roman and medieval periods was all open floodplain marsh prone to flooding. Prior to rising water levels, the underlying topography would have comprised gravel islands suitable for prehistoric settlement, and deeper channels, crossed by timber trackways in the Bronze Age. Such remains are buried beneath a sequence of deep alluvium floodplain above which is a thick deposit of ‘made ground’ (artificial ground) dumped here from the excavation of the adjacent docks in the mid-19th century.”

We need to assess what depth the archaeology is likely to be at (possibly 3–4 metres down), and how the construction of the new building will affect any remains that might be present. We also need to know whether this is evidence of prehistoric activity or 19th century dockyard remains.

This afternoon I will start to review an early draft of our Portsmouth Harbour Hinterland Project, which is funded by Historic England. The Royal Navy established Portsea Island as its main harbour and base in the 16th-century. As a consequence, the surrounding rural hinterland was developed with an extensive supporting infrastructure, protected by a significant group of sea and land defences. Much of this survives today, but their heritage significance in relation to the docks is not always fully recognised. The aim of the project is to enhance understanding and heighten awareness of how the Portsmouth hinterland has developed as a result of the naval base. This helps to assist local decision making, planning, development and management of the historic environment.

As part of the project a survey toolkit and user-friendly guided will be created. This will help the local community and volunteers identify the presence of buildings, landscape and other heritage assets associated with the development of the hinterland. It enables the local community to further understand and add detail to the narrative.

Yesterday, the MOLA project team met with Historic England to discuss progress on the two-year London Urban Archaeological Database project. We are digitising, in a Geographical Information System (GIS), the location and extent of all past archaeological investigations in the historic centre of London. Thousands of investigations have been carried out (see the map). The information will enhance the data held by the Greater London Historic Environment Record.