pottery

A Day in the Life of an Archaeological Curator in West Virginia

Day of Archaeology 2012 finds me completing my fourth month as an archaeological curator for the West Virginia state research and curation facility at Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex in Moundsville, WV.   The day started at 9:00 am like most others do, with a long list of emails to check and lots (and lots) of coffee.  After catching up on business, the day shifts into what I love about archaeology: processing artifacts and preserving collections.  Currently, I am in the process of analyzing and inventorying ceramics from a large multi-component site in West Virginia.  As a lab rat, the rest of my day will be spent looking at box after box of ceramics, rehousing artifacts, taking notes, drinking more coffee, researching, and entering data into an Access database.

Today, I am processing ceramics; tomorrow is always a surprise.  I am thrilled to be employed in a position that not only helps protect archaeological collections for future generations, but also provides me with the opportunity to research and learn more about my field every day.

 

 

 

 

Unlocking the past – Festival of British Archaeology

Spent the day running an event for British Archaeology festival, at Corfe Castle in Dorset. We had our National Trust activities, environmental sort trays, mosaic making, spinning and weaving, etc. The Ancient Wessex Network, a group of archaeologists and artists/artisans with their activities – prehistoric pottery, wood carving, metal casting, art works, archaeological illustration and beads. Also Gerry the rope with his Victorian encampment and games. Along with the County council historic environment department and Finds liasion officer. Had some great feed back on our comment cards with one memorable one from a child under What have you learnt today, ‘that even a stone has a history’ Its great to spend time with young people with bright eyes and lots of questions so hope fully there is still a future for our past. Now time for bed, perchance to dream …………..

Ses Talaies

The entrance (facing west) of the Talaiot at Ses Talaies

On my route to the centre of the island I stopped by at a site I know since it crossed my way by chance several years ago. It’s one of the around five hundred Talaiotic sites known on Mallorca.

Ses Talaies in Google Maps

Ses Talaies is a wonderful place. The old cyclopic walls surrounding a circular Talaiot that has obviously been excavated professionally (trenches still discernable) are sticking out here and there in between the ‘modern’ rubble walls limiting the parcels of land.

Old and 'modern' stone walls at Ses Talaies

The fields close to the Talaiot are full of objects on the surface esp. pottery. One of the old walls is attached to the Talaiot providing ground for dense vegetation of wild olives and almond trees.

I spend about an hour in the shade at the foot of the Talaiot making up my mind on an abstract I submitted just before starting the holidays.

Why that?

I’m invited for a conference in Cairo in October to deliver a keynote on building archaeology and its methods that are supposed to be strongly influenced by modern technology. For many good reasons the organisers of conferences want to have a summary of what will be presented months before the actual event – this summary is also known as an abstract and it has strong implications for the authors. Mostly you have to summarise first and write the talk later. Not always easy especially when you’re asked to contribute something basic and well thought on the methods of an archaeological discipline.

I usually start with a mindmap. It’s a handmade drawing with keywords. The main topics show up early. This basic concept is then complemented with arguments also interconnected with arrows etc. In the end it doesn’t look good, but it’s sufficient to derive a summary.

I have this mindmap with me, so in very relaxed moments I take it out and look at it and bits and pieces of how to communicate the different arguments come into my mind being written down instantly.

People who know me might find in surprising, but it’s still all by hand. I tried to use mindmapping software tools , but it’s not really working out.

So at least I did something quite typical for an archaeologist today…

Please note: When I visit sites that are not prepared for visitors I

  • do not climb on walls
  • do not pick up anything (not even pottery from the surface)
  • and, of course, don’t take anything with me

To keep the archaeological record intact is extremely important. Ses Talaies might be subject of full archaeological investigations in several decades only. We have no idea about techniques applied in the future. The past twenty years most certainly only offer a glimpse on the changes to come.

Why I Love Pot

Hello, this is Alice Forward, PhD student at Cardiff, wrapping up the Cosmeston Archaeology contributions for Day of Archaeology 2011. We have had three excellent blogs today; Nicolle who started the day with photo scanning, Louise at lunchtime discussed how she was lured to archaeology by medieval dreams, and afternoon tea with Kyle, a Cosmeston old timer who is particularly familiar with the 2010 season of excavation. These three are part of a group of six students undertaking a post-excavation course on the material from Cosmeston. We will be bringing you blogs from each (Stuart, Sarah and Beth) over the next three weeks on our Cosmeston archaeology blog, so please check us out!

Post-excavation generally places archaeologists into two camps. Those who secretly enjoy organising things and those who are likely to start taking holiday time in order to avoid those rainy pot washing days. I most definitely fall into the former of these, but it isn’t the cataloguing that gets me going! Post-excavation enables you to directly engage with the archaeological record and analytical process. As Kyle said you understand so much more when you begin to bring it all together.

This week has involved initial work with the paper archive and, as all the finds had been washed and bagged on site, we moved straight to marking and sorting the pottery. The key principle for marking pottery is that it should be resilient but reversible, so that if necessary it can be removed. In order to achieve this we use Paraloid B72 (a non-yellowing acrylic resin) mixed with acetone (20% weight to volume). A thin band of this is painted on the object and, after it has dried, the site code and context number is written on in black ink. When the ink has dried a second layer of Paraloid is applied to seal the information. This can be removed without damaging the object using a cotton swab and 100% acetone (for more information see Collections Link).

As Louise also mentioned, marking pottery is necessary for a number of reasons. Firstly, boxes get dropped, mice can chew through plastic bags and plastic bags degrade. With pottery all marked up, there is no danger of losing context, enabling future generations to study assemblages. Secondly, particularly with pottery, interpretation of contexts can be helped if it is clear that parts of one vessel were deposited within a number of different features. To keep a record of this, and to enable reconstruction of the pot, you need to be able to know specifically where the sherds came from.

Sherd Nerd

Alice Loves Pot 4 eva

Alice Loves Pot 4 eva

Why do I have such a fascination and love of pottery?! I first began to find it particularly interesting when I was excavating in Leicester city centre on the High Cross development. The work there was bringing up massive amounts of ceramic material and I was particularly frustrated that I couldn’t identify the sherds (other than what was medieval and what was Roman). This lack of knowledge cultivated a desire to be able to know my way around a ceramic assemblage. I was lucky enough at ULAS to have a supportive manager, Nick Cooper, who began my formal training. Since starting the PhD at Cardiff University I have developed a good knowledge of South Welsh pottery. This saved me this week, as people were tired of just marking random bits of pottery, but once they were able to recognise what they were marking the job became far more interesting.

Reading the last paragraph back has slightly surprised me and made me realise how exciting my life must seem…

Finds in context

Pot sherds awaiting cataloguing

Pot sherds awaiting cataloguing

Hey, well I suppose I should start by introducing myself. My name is Kyle Young and I’m a second year (going into third year) student studying Archaeology at Cardiff University. I am currently taking part in the post-excavation archiving of the Cosmeston site, mainly dealing with the past three years of excavations. The past three digging seasons have concentrated on the area of the site marked as Cosmeston Castle on the Ordnance Survey maps, which refers to the manor house complex. The post-excavation work involves sorting through, and labelling the archaeological material (mainly pottery) that was excavated, along with creating the digital archive from the paper record sheets.

I was at Cosmeston for the 2010 season and the work I am currently doing with the finds from the site is enabling me to have a better understanding of what occurred there. Through working on the site I  could see and understood what it was, but it is through studying the finds that I am beginning to fully appreciate what actually happened within the manor house, and also during the post-medieval period when it was demolished.

The medieval pottery that has been uncovered at the site appears to be of quite fine quality. There are a large number of imports from France and large amounts of Bristol-ware. This suggests a high-status household. There are also examples of extremely fine locally made products, such as the ram’s head vessel (a possible aquamanile) found in this season’s excavations. The only other similar vessel from this area was found at Cardiff Castle during excavations in 2004-2005 by local unit GGAT, indicating that this was a high-status item.

The large quantities of post-medieval pottery excavated at the site – such as North Devon sgrafitto wares, Bristol tin glazed bowls and a Cistercian style lid (a 16th Century style of glazed pot) – are useful in dating the final phases of the manor. Found in contexts associated with the demolition of the manorial buildings and robbing of walls for building material, they help tell us when these activities occurred.

Applied clay spirals on the body of a medieval Saintonge jug.

Applied clay spirals on the body of a medieval Saintonge jug.

It is the job of archaeologist in post excavation to look at the assemblage from the site and attempt to sort it, which is currently what we are doing with the Cosmeston collection. Most of the previous seasons’ work has already been sorted and catalogued and merely requires each sherd to be labelled with the site code and context number (as Louise noted in her blog earlier). Currently we are dealing mainly with the 2009 excavations, so the site code is COS09.

The 2011 excavations, however, have yet to be fully sorted and catalogued and so require us to do this before we can label anything. So far we have sorted the pottery finds from the 2011 demolition layer and labelled the sherds accordingly. As we continue to work through the material we will bring you all the latest news on the Cosmeston blog.

So many sherds, so little time

The Cretan sun is shining, the olive trees are rustling in the breeze and the cicadas are chirruping incessantly. We, however, are sitting in the Stratigraphic Museum at Knossos looking at sherds. The Museum houses archaeological material excavated in the area by archaeologists working for the British School at Athens over the course of a century: from Sir Arthur Evans’s famous excavations at the Palace to material collected over the last few years. With its extensive comparative collection it makes it the perfect place to study pottery.

The Stratigraphic Museum at Knossos

The sherds we are looking at today were collected by the Knossos Urban Landscape Project in 2005-2008. The valley in which the Palace sits was divided into 20m grid squares and a collection taken from each one. This is how survey projects rather than excavations usually work: material is collected from the surface across a wide area. Rather than digging ourselves we rely on agricultural activities such as ploughing to bring material to the surface. Our job now is to make sense of what we have collected. After separating out the pottery and washing it we lay the sherds out on tables for a first look and divide them into periods spanning the settlement history of the valley (Prehistoric, Hellenic, Roman, Post-Roman).

Sherds laid out for sorting by Angeliki Karagianni (background)

The interesting sherds (relatively speaking – those with decoration or which are diagnostic of a particular type of vessel) are then scanned and given a unique number in a database.

Katy Soar scanning sherds

The specialists examine these sherds and enter more information about them. We are trying to establish what sort of vessels the sherds came from and whether they can be closely dated. We can then plot this information on the map of the survey area to add to the existing picture of how people occupied this valley for the last 5000 years and more: where were the central places, where did they bury their dead, did the settlement grow or shrink over time? I am looking at the Middle Minoan pottery; Antonis Kotsonas is in charge of the Iron Age sherds.

Andrew Shapland (foreground) and Antonis Kotsonas studying the survey material

Overseeing the project, and trying to keep track of over 400,000 sherds is one of the project directors, Prof. Todd Whitelaw.

Todd Whitelaw and his crystal ball

Today has been a normal day: sorting, scanning and studying sherds. The Stratigraphic Museum is part of the British School at Athens’s permanent base at Knossos, which also includes accommodation and a library. I’ll be off there shortly to work on my book and check my work emails. I’m on leave from the British Museum, where I’m Greek Bronze Age curator, and so this complements my day job perfectly. I’ve just finalised the programme for a Knossos Study Day at the Museum and will send that off for distribution today: ten archaeologists who have worked at Knossos will be describing their work; some of them are working on other projects here at the moment. No doubt the Cretan sunshine and food will seem far away on an inevitably rainy day in November but at least I won’t be surrounded by cicadas and scrappy survey sherds.

The next tasks…

So the flint finds are all done and placed in the archaeology store (why are archaeology stores often located underground?). Also took down another box that had been hanging around the office. This box contained the paper archive created by the Museum of London Archaeological Service when they carried out an archaeological survey during the redevelopment of Farnham Hospital.

When I came back up from the store I found some visitors needing a bit of help in our library. They were researching their family history and I located for them some microfilms of the local newspaper ‘The Farnham Herald’ which I set up on the microfilm reader. Hopefully they found what they were looking for.

From 1:00-2:00 I was recording on a Dictaphone the curator’s talk about the four new objects placed on display in the ‘A History of Farnham on 50 Objects’ exhibition. This week she was talking about medieval pottery, Farnham Greenware, a diorama of stuffed squirrels playing poker and a pastel drawing of William Cobbett.

The curator is adding a new object every week and gives a talk once a month. Most of the objects in the exhibition have been accessioned but many are not on the museum computer database yet. It is important to have a digital database of a museums collection’s as it acts as a back up to the paper records, is much more efficient than paper records for finding information about collections and the software can be used to place the collection online therefore increasing the collections accessibility. So I have photographed objects that have been recently added to the exhibition, including the pottery and some Roman roof tiles (from the Six Bells site), and will now add them to the database.

I feel very lucky to have found a job in a museum with an archaeological collection and I hope that in the future I will continue to work with material like this in a museum setting.

Arbeia Roman Fort

Washed and marked finds

13.30: There’s an on-going excavation on site so I look over the trays of finds that have recently been washed and marked to see if anything of interest has turned up. It’s all pretty standard stuff. There are some nice chunks of Roman pottery, and a few bits of good tile, but the animal bone is a bit fragile. We are digging just outside the fort here at South Shields, and it is surprising how different the bone preservation is here compared to a few metres away. I go out on site to have a look at the finds currently being dug up. More pottery, tile and bone.

Dealing with finds

9.00: I am involved in post-excavation working, writing reports on pottery and finds and gathering together other specialist reports for publication. We are working on a report on the finds from a Roman fort, so my first task of the day is to sit at the computer and write about some stone sculpture.

11.30: E-mail discussions about the small finds assemblage from another site, and the frustrating lack of parallels!

12.00: I move from Roman to medieval. I get to leave the computer for a while to check some pot drawings to make sure they are OK for publication.

Piecing togther our past in post-excavation

Hiya everyone, Louise writing here.

Archaeology and medieval history is something I’ve been interested in for years, but never really knew how to get involved with any projects and I was put off applying for a history degree by my careers adviser when I was in college. ‘Why do you want to do a history degree when your A level subjects are sociology, law and English? Best you apply for an English degree somewhere’. Rather disheartened by this negative response I decided that education wasn’t for me and I joined the world of full time employment. I tried my hand at many different careers, from care assistant and pharmacy technician to burger van and mushroom picker, but I never felt satisfied with the work, so as my 30th birthday was fast approaching I took the plunge and enrolled at Neath Port Talbot college to do an Access to Humanities course. It was brilliant. The lecturers were all very supportive and encouraged us all to go down which ever route we felt was right for ourselves.

Is it local or from Bristol?

As a result of going back to college I have ended up studying Archaeology and Medieval History at Cardiff University. Part of the course requires you to undertake work placement in an archaeological environment. I chose to do post excavation as it’s what I would love to do with my degree eventually, I find it fascinating how small fragments of pottery or bone can be dated and analysed to give us a better understanding of how our ancestors lived. I think that in post excavation more time can be taken to look at the finds and details from site that may have been missed in the field.

Kyle checking his fabrics

This week we have been labelling pottery, a very tedious but vital task and one which provides the opportunity to cross fit pottery from different contexts to try and piece together complete vessels. Each tiny sherd of pottery must be labelled with the site code and context number just in case a little bit gets misplaced. It was pretty dull but then Alice (Cardiff PhD student and Cosmeston finds co-ordinator) did a workshop on how to identify the pieces that we were labelling. Suddenly the bits of pottery began to mean something more to me. I can now tell the region that each piece would have been made in and how the complete item may have looked, which is making the essential job much more interesting. Post excavation is a long meticulous process but very rewarding as I know I am helping to preserve the archaeology for future generations to appreciate.