Old pots, new technology

‘Day of Archaeology 2017’ finds me working on the final stages of a finds project with a difference. Instead of working my way through boxes of pottery sherds, I’m sat in front of my computer, updating and enhancing the Worcestershire on-line ceramic type series. This work builds on the strong tradition of ceramic research in the County, which is one of the few regions in the country to have a comprehensive pottery type series covering all periods. This physical type series is the work of a series of dedicated finds specialists based in the Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service, primarily Derek Hurst and Victoria Bryant. It provides all archaeologists working in the county with a standardised way of identifying and recording pottery.

The on-line type series first went live in 2003 and has been added to piecemeal as and when small amounts of funding became available. However, this year we were lucky enough to secure funding from Historic England as part of its Improving Sector Reference Resources initiative. This has enabled us to not only enhance and add to the information available on the website but also update the software so that the site not only runs more smoothly but is optimized for use on mobile phones and tablets. This has not all been straightforward! A lot of my time has been spent in dialogue with the web designer, identifying things that work well and trying to solve issues and bugs that have cropped up along the way. I have to admit that a lot of the technical stuff has gone over my head and I’m sure that a lot of the detailed pottery information has equally confused the designer, but now we are on the final straight we can see that the time spent sending emails back and forth has been well worth it!

I have mainly been focused on uploading our form series for locally produced medieval wares and more commonly found post-medieval fabrics (the composition of the clay) and forms (the type of vessel). For the forms, this involved selecting and uploading representative illustrations and writing a brief description of each form type. Medieval vessels were also cross-referenced with the MPRG (Medieval Pottery Research Group) type series.

In the case of the post-medieval fabrics, each type sherd has had a clean break photographed. Getting this clean break isn’t as easy as it sounds – it has to be as even as possible to photograph well and in some cases, it felt as if there would be next to no sherd left to photograph as I repeatedly snipped to try and achieve this! However, it has been well worth the effort, with the resulting images being of extremely high resolution, enabling the user to zoom in and out to focus on specific inclusions or fabric details.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of this project has been the addition of concordance tables for all medieval and post-medieval fabrics. This provides a link to pottery type-series from surrounding counties and is hopefully the first step to creating a truly regional resource.

With the end of this stage of the project in sight, my main task today is to go back through each fabric to make sure that the text is correct, that uploaded illustrations and photographs are displaying correctly and checking that all of the links work smoothly. Any last little niggles are being noted so that we can get everything smoothed out before this new, enhanced version of the site goes live in the last week of August. It’s an exciting time – my colleagues and I are looking forward to seeing all of our hard work come to fruition and hope that it will be a valuable research tool not only for other finds specialists but for the archaeological community in general.

For me personally, it’s the end of an extremely successful project! Not only have I enjoyed seeing our rather ambitious vision coming together but I’ve learnt a lot in the process. Working through the fabric and form data and using some of the knowledge I have gained through 18 years of working on pottery in Worcestershire has been particularly satisfying. However, perhaps even more useful has been to opportunity to revisit older reports and discuss content, ideas or issues with colleagues and fellow specialists from other organisations.

For those who are interested in the project, the old version of the website can be viewed at www.worcestershireceramics.org .  The new, enhanced version will be available to view at the same address from the end of the month.

Travelling in time

A day off. I’m heading down to the south coast of England for a wedding.

On the move: for us it’s a task, mandated by the need to get away, to see friends, or to work. For the people I’m taking a break from studying, it was a way of life.

I’m working on a project looking at human society, landscape and environment during the last Ice Age in Worcestershire, a part of the West Midlands long thought to have little to offer on the subject. But that’s changing: we’re starting to realise that the areas around the Severn and Avon valleys contain a rich record of the ebbs and flows of Ice Age life over the past half a million years.

At times, the area was under hundreds of metres of ice that probably topped even the mighty Malvern Hills. At others, temperate grasslands were grazed by hippos, their watering holes stalked by lion and hyaena. And for much of the period, a chilly, treeless, but fertile steppe supported huge herds of migrating mammals. The iconic Woolly Mammoth, Woolly Rhinoceros, and reindeer were accompanied by wild horses, giant deer, and my personal favourite: the mighty Steppe Bison (Bison priscus), an extinct giant whose bones abound in the gravel terraces of Midlands rivers.

Steppe Bison

Steppe Bison (Bison priscus)

The people who followed these herds ranged far and wide across a Britain still connected to the continent by the vast expanse of Doggerland. Now buried deep below the North Sea and the English Channel, inundated by post-Ice Age sea-level rise, the fate of Doggerland is a reminder of how precarious our treasured landscapes can be.

We arrive in Hampshire in the damp afternoon, to stay with family. I take the dog into the woods, a landscape of conifers similar to the young forests home to small groups of hunter-gatherers as Northern Europe emerged from the dusty chill of the Younger Dryas about 11,700 years ago, marking the transition from the Palaeolithic to the Mesolithic.

conifer plantation

These Mesolithic travellers faced very different challenges to their Ice Age predecessors, but in the forests of Northern Europe there were, at least, plenty of options for shelter. We often find Mesolithic flintknapping waste within the shallow irregular pits left by toppling trees. Why? Well, the tangled mess of root and earth swung skywards when a tree falls provides the perfect windbreak and the beginnings of a very cosy shelter.

As I walk up through stands of larch and pine, I come across a small clearing created by a domino toppling of a small group of trees. They came down a few winters back, and I’ve watched their progress ever since, imagining how they might have been used 10,000 years ago. For a while after they fall, ‘tree-throw’ pits are often filled with dirt and stagnant water – hardly an attractive prospect. But this cluster, undisturbed by foresters, has grassed over nicely. The sticky clay and tangled root have weathered to a perfect facsimile of a wattle-and-daub wall, and the light pours into the clearing from the hole in the canopy. It has all the appearance of a village of comfortable dwellings, and that – I imagine – is just how similar scenes would have appeared to my predecessors, travelling through on their own journeys all those thousands of years ago.

A village of fallen conifers

As I call the dog and turn to trudge up the slope, one final detail catches my eye, and breaks the spell. Poking out of one wall of clay and root is a car tyre, entwined decades ago into the root system of the growing tree, and now exposed once more. Tomorrow I continue my journey on tyres of rubber, and leave my stone age dreams behind.

Car tyre within tree throw

Rob Hedge


Friday Finds

My name’s Rob Hedge, and I work for Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service. Some of the time I’m a Community Archaeologist, helping the public find out about, and get involved in, the archaeology of their area. The rest of the time I’m a Finds Archaeologist – responsible for processing the finds that come in from our fieldwork, analysing them and writing assessments, and preparing them for archiving.

finds processing, archaeology

The finds processing room, shelves nicely filled with finds drying, awaiting marking and assessment

Today was one of my Finds days. I started off checking and logging the finds incoming from the field teams, and sorting out my correspondence, before moving on to reviewing and editing some recent assessments. A quarry site in Warwickshire has produced a pretty diverse range of finds, from beautiful Neolithic flint to medieval horseshoes, and a wide range of 17th/18th century pottery. Our senior project manager Derek Hurst suggested some edits to my report. With finds work, it’s important to be able to consult with others and discuss ideas/interpretations, and I’m fortunate to be surrounded by a hugely experienced and knowledgeable finds team, to whom I’m frequently turning for help!

Neolithic, knife, flint, Warwickshire

Neolithic flint knife from a Warwickshire quarry

post-medieval, slipware,

Less glamorous, but still important: 18th century plate with a trailed-slip decoration and ‘pie-crust’ edges, from Worcestershire

Some of our Finds Volunteers were in today, doing a great job assisting me in processing, marking and sorting finds; they’re vital to a lot of the important public aspects of our work. For example, last week a member of the public brought in a whole box of beautiful medieval floor tiles, which were probably taken from a local Abbey post-dissolution. With no core funds available for projects like this, the time and efforts of our volunteers will hopefully enable us to preserve the assemblage and display it for all to see.

One of our large community excavations last year took place at St Mary’s Church, Kidderminster. I spent some time this morning packing a selection of the finds up for an exhibition on the results of the dig at Kidderminster Museum of Carpet tomorrow, including some interesting pottery production waste hinting at a short-lived and little-known Kidderminster industry.

The exciting discovery of prehistoric wood in a Staffordshire quarry was next on the list. It’s rare that wood survives so long, but in waterlogged conditions it can remain beautifully preserved for thousands of years. These samples came from a pit, pre-dating a ‘Burnt Mound’ feature, so they’re likely to be Bronze Age or earlier. Careful hand-removal of the encasing silt revealed cut marks and worked edges. With wood, it’s important to keep it wet until analysis has been carried out, so the samples are placed in perforated bags, submerged in water and kept cool and dark.

wood, prehistoric, burnt mound

Prehistoric wood from a pit underlying a burnt mound in a quarry in Staffordshire, with toolmarks visible at top left

Once the wood was safely packaged, I headed across town for a physiotherapy appointment. About six weeks ago I fractured my elbow in a cycling accident, and the healing process is long and frustratingly slow. I’m lucky to have a sympathetic employer, and plenty of non-site work to keep me busy in my current role, but debilitating injuries like this can be a big problem for archaeologists. A few years ago, as a site-based field archaeologist on short-term contracts, reliant on physical fitness and the ability to drive, I took out personal injury insurance to give me a bit of breathing space in the event of injury/illness. It costs, but I’d encourage any field archaeologist to do the same.

After physio, back to the office to sort out equipment for a Worcestershire Young Archaeologists’ Club event. We’ll be at Croome on Sunday for the CBA’s Festival of Archaeology, excavating some small trenches to locate the course of a trackway that once ran through the ‘Home Shrubbery’ to the splendid Rotunda, so Learning & Outreach Manager Paul Hudson and I spent some time gathering and checking the necessary equipment.

Lastly, I put a short piece up on our Twitter and Facebook pages – I try to post ‘Friday Finds’ each week, focusing on something I’ve been working on during the week. This week, I’ve been spoilt for choice, but decided on the prehistoric timbers; it’s not every day you come across wood so perfectly preserved, and there’s something special about being able to see ancient toolmarks. It’s a tiny but evocative echo of an everyday task carried out hundreds of generations ago.