If you follow our #FindsFriday hashtag on social media, you’ll already have seen a lot of the fascinating artefacts we’ve uncovered in excavations around the country. With a lot of focus in archaeology given to the retrieval of these artefacts, we wanted to highlight a part of the process that often goes overlooked – what happens when they’re out of the ground?
We sat down to chat to Shannon, our post-excavation and archives supervisor, to find out more about this crucial aspect of archaeology…
What does post-excavation analysis involve?
Post-excavation is the consolidation, cataloguing, interpretation and analysis of the evidence collected during archaeological fieldwork. The evidence we collect presents itself in many forms. The digital data and written records are consolidated and interpreted to understand the story of the site – this element of post-excavation is mainly undertaken by our project officers. Our Post-Excavation team process the finds, osteological remains and environmental material so that it can all be reported on by a specialist for inclusion in the final project report.
The types of artefacts we see
We could uncover anything from a Bronze-Age funerary urn to 20th century marbles! Generally, though, the main types of finds we process on a regular basis are pottery, animal bone, ceramic building material (or CBM), and flint.
The process we go through when we receive material from an excavation
There are various questions we ask ourselves when material comes in for processing. One of the first being ‘how stable is this find? Does it require conservation?’ This question is directly linked with whether the artefact is non-organic, such as pottery or flint, or whether it is organic, such as a fragment of a leather shoe. Leather, more often than not, comes to us in a waterlogged state. At this stage I’m on the phone with an external conservator to discuss preventative conservation (what we can do to prevent further deterioration of the artefact) and how soon we can get it sent to them for stabilisation. A handy guide we have is David Watkinson and Virginia Neal’s (2001) First Aid for Finds. This is a ‘best practice’ guide for the care of all types of archaeological material in the field, right through to archiving.
Once we’ve established whether the artefacts are stable, we then start to process them. Generally, stable finds are washed gently with lukewarm water and a soft bristled brush, then left to air dry completely before being marked with their site code and context number, repackaged, catalogued and boxed up in our archive store ready for the specialists. Some particularly fragile finds may require special attention and further packaging, such as a cremation urn or a brooch. Following guidance in First Aid for Finds, these are packaged individually and cushioned to prevent breakage during transit.
When all of the finds have been processed, and if necessary, conserved, they’re looked at by specialists – both internal, and external. This helps us to establish what the artefacts are, their dates, and how they fit into the story of the site. Sometimes the specialist give us recommendations on further work – this could be illustrating pottery fragments, sending off finds to be x-rayed, or even scientific analysis. When we have all of this information and the specialists provide us with a report, we start thinking about archiving. Generally, the material produced during archaeological fieldwork will be archived with a local museum. So, the archive consists of all of the written data, the report, and artefacts. The digital data (site plans, digital photographs) is archived with the Archaeology Data Service – the digital repository for archaeology and heritage data accessible via the internet. Archiving is an important part of the archaeological process as it provides a record of the site prior to development. The material is also freely and publicly available for future research and analysis.
The issues we might deal with in post-excavation work
Ensuring the finds are in a comfortable environment to prevent any further deterioration is one of the key issues we deal with on a daily basis. We have to make sure the temperature and relative humidity in the archive unit is just right.
There are of course ethical considerations when handling human remains. Although we are looking at skeletons and cremations from an archaeological perspective to further our knowledge of previous human activity, human remains should always be treated with respect and dignity.
The most interesting artefact?
I’ve worked on so many beautiful finds. My favourite ever find is an Anglo-Saxon bone antler comb. This was found during excavations in Northamptonshire and came in to the finds processing centre in a really sorry state. This was sent off for conservation and came back following meticulous refitting beautifully packaged and ready for archive.
Another favourite find of mine is an Early Bronze Age food vessel found during excavations in Northumberland. The vessel was hand built, decorated with cord impressions and was almost complete. I loved working on this find as it was particularly fragile so I had to wash it very gently with cotton buds, then carefully piece it back together.
Getting into post-excavation work in archaeology
We all studied archaeology at university but I would say that you can gain a lot of experience on the job. To get a taster of post-excavation/finds processing, you could contact your local commercial archaeology company to do some volunteering and gain some valuable experience!