Wednesday, August 05, 2009

How to be an Archaeologist: Codes of Conduct Regarding Small Finds

There are certain Dos and Don’ts when it comes to small finds (otherwise known as Portable Antiquities) that might be worth mentioning. Some are more obvious than others, but we’ll run the gamut nonetheless.
Firstly, never remove a small find from a trench until it has been properly photographed, drawn up, sniffed, analysed, tasted by the local sheep, recorded and catalogued.

Small finds should be stored somewhere dark and dry (in the room over the top of the museum in our case, the floor of which is nowadays starting to bulge downwards with the amount of worthless rubble we’ve hidden up there over the years) in separate, sealed plastic bags, clearly labelled.

Said bags need puncturing with air holes. Objects that are unable to breathe tend to sweat profusely (imagine Lee Evans stuck in a greenhouse) and, in more fragile cases, turn into the sort of mushy gloop you’d find if you bit into a chrysalis. Obviously don’t make the holes too big, otherwise all the stuff might drop out. (I said some of these were obvious. Bear with me. The subject needs covering regardless.)

All portable antiquities bags should contain the following information on them (written clearly and precisely) for reasons that would be clear to slime mould or even the average Fleetwood jet-skier: Site Code, Trench Number, Date, Context Number, Catalogue Number and a brief description of what the object actually is.

This same information should be included on any scans produced for the excavation report, along with a clearly visible rule/tape measure so that the county archaeologist can see at a glance how large the artefact is. (We wouldn’t want him straining his eyeballs having to read the actual report.)

In the case of bones and/or wooden artefacts, these should be preserved in water. (Sounds great in theory, but it’s a bugger in practice. Nobody wants their storerooms full of leaky buckets with bits of mouldy old wood and cow hooves floating around in them. Inevitably, most small finds of this nature end up back in the trench when the excavation’s finished.)

With regards specifically to bones, should human remains come to light (especially if digging under somebody’s patio) the police and the county archaeologist need to be informed immediately; the police because officially and until proven otherwise the site will now be classified as a ‘potential crime scene’, and the county archaeologist because dealing with murder suspects and/or the CID is a job best left in somebody else’s hands.

Small finds such as pottery can be cleaned on site using a large bottle of water and a toothbrush. (And before any American readers decide to make the usual joke, yes, we do know what a toothbrush is in Britain and, yes, it is about time you employed a less racist, more-than-one-predictable-joke writer to produce the scripts for your increasingly tedious and unrelenting sit-coms/cartoons.)

Do not, however, attempt to clean rusted metal or coins. Rusted metal needs electro-magnetic rust removal techniques (which we’ll be covering at some future date no doubt) to prevent them from crumbling away, and coins require their patina to be left in place. (Don’t ask me why, they just do.)

Coin hoards themselves do not belong to the excavator who discovers them. Officially they are the property of the landowner or the crown and anybody attempting to hide them in their pockets for later retail on the black market is breaking the law. All coin hoards, therefore, should be handed to the site supervisor who, no doubt, will put them in his pocket for later analysis at the museum…honest.

Do not attempt to remove small finds from trench walls with the point of your trowel. Let somebody else do it, and if the artefact snaps in half then it’s their fault.

Also, do not attempt to insert small finds up your nose regardless of how much alcohol you might have consumed.

On a more personal note, if any excavator discovers a black flask and a butty box containing a half eaten steak and kidney pie and two packets of prawn cocktail flavoured crisps, could you please let me know because I’ve no idea what’s happened to them.


Jayne said...

Is it that 7 or more coins found in one dig (or is that trench?) is regarded as a hoard and is property of the Crown?

JahTeh said...

Jayne, I saw that on TimeTeam as well. Wasn't it the programme about the island pilgrims? You wouldn't have caught me going over in one of those teeny boats. Druids had the right idea, stay in the trees and off the water.

Fleetwood's right about objects sweating. That fossil of yours was originally in a specially made glass case and it was amazing how much it fogged up until I took to it with a chisel and scientifically levered the top off.

Jayne said...

Yep, that's the one, J, though I've heard it mentioned before with downcast locals being told by Corenza they have to hand their hard-won hoard over to the Crown.
Those piddly boats were designed for wee children and kittens not grown adults ;)
LOL Science and chisels, does that make Jimmy Barnes an honourary Prof? :P

Brian Hughes said...

Witchy and Jayne fossil swapping....sounds like swingers night at the Fleetwood Glee Club.

John said...

MISter Hughes,

Placing old wood in water sounds perfectly ridiculous, unless said water is perfectly sterile, or kept cold enough for bacteria not to funciton. Pure poppycock, that is.

As for human remains, what if you find a crime scene that's centuries or millenia old? Does the CID still have to try to solve it, when the perps are all mulch and plant food themselves by now?

Still awaiting words of thanks, praise, or at least a 'bugger off'. Your silence is hurting my feelings.

JOHN :0)

Jayne said...

We had a crime scene investigation set up on a Sydney beach when a 700 year old skull turned up.

John said...

that IS a mystery! There's just too many weird factors about that one to even comment. Please let us know what they find out.

I'm guessing someone broke up with their rich boyfriend, and threw his favorite skull in the ocean for being such a @#@$!#, or some rich guy was taking his favorite skull out for a boatride, and got ship-wrecked.

Or maybe the local museum has really large pipes, and some kids flushed a nearby exhibit to see what would happen.

See? Too many factors....

JOHN :0)

Jayne said...

I'm plumping for a ship's passenger/slave upping and dying inconsiderately while sailing out in the middle of nowhere, stumbled over the NSW coastline, they've done a quick burial near a cliff with the soil recently collapsing and the skull tumbling into the water.
Or someone has so many skulls in their collection at home that they haven't even noticed that one is missing!

WV =tumbul...says it all, really.

John said...

Excellent point, Jayne...

I never thought about beach erosion, and it's effect on ancient burials. I just think it amazing that it washed up after a few days in the water only... which could mean that the burial is nearby, with more bones to follow?

Now's the time to start the rumour that the beach is haunted... you just know they'll be talking about this decades hence!

Cheers, JOHN :0)

JahTeh said...

Don't worry John, there'll be no praise. It's just an 'young handsome/old fogey jealousy thing.
I mean you're putting up fantastic posts and have two of the most beautiful women on earth hanging on every written word so it's bound to get up his nose and lord knows there's room enough there for all of us.

I'll give him Fleetwood Glee Club.

John said...

Jah Teh, I'm blushing and gushing! Well, gosh golly, is all I can say!

Maybe I will be back this weekend, but if I return, it will probably be more humorous than preachy.

Brian... Glee club... hmmm, I'm not sure those words were ever linked together... except in an old police report, perhaps? :0)

JOHN :0)