Catriona Haigh

In May 2017 a secondment in the YAT Finds department was advertised internally, with the specification that those who had not yet had the opportunity to work in this area would be prioritised. Working primarily front of house at Jorvik engaging with visitors, and having never studied or worked in archaeology, I jumped at the chance.

My time was split between two locations: the finds department in the Aldwark offices and the YAT warehouse. The Finds department is where objects come into from an excavation initially, for washing, approximate identification, packaging and recording. In this case, it was finds from a site in York, at the location of the old Newington Hotel on Tadcaster Road. Along with various other items, there were nearly 60 burials uncovered, some accompanied by near pristine pots. Each material has to be treated according to its requirements. For instance, medieval glass cannot be washed in the same way as modern glass, therefore care is required when checking through bag contents before washing. Iron objects are recorded as small finds automatically, and these require a slightly different form of packaging from bulk finds. Human skeletons were the most intriguing items to work with: it is a very strange feeling brushing teeth that are not your own with a toothbrush! Neat handwriting is a must and very quickly I could hear my primary teachers voices’ telling me how to shape my letters.

In the warehouse, we were looking at the other end of the archaeological process. Once objects have been conserved, analysed and packaged appropriately, they are stored in the warehouse. They require careful management, with humidity around metal objects a key concern.  Therefore, one of the tasks was to check all the metals boxes’ humidity strips and replace any silica gel which had come to the end of its working life. The object data also needs maintained, with everything recorded on the Integrated Archaeological Data Base (IADB). Many of the objects were still listed as being located in the old warehouse, so a major task was to confirm the presence of the objects in the correct place in the new warehouse and then update IADB accordingly. This required checking through various projects and boxes, some of which came from the Coppergate dig, which was fascinating to see in detail.

I also worked with the Archives team, Adam and Louis, tackling the “vinegar syndrome” which had started to occur in the photographic negatives collection. This is a catching chemical reaction within the negatives themselves which produces a strong vinegar smell. If left unchecked, the process would end in their complete destruction. Each negative had to be transferred from its old, paper case into a new, plastic one, and the negative number written on the exterior. They will then be packaged together, desiccated and stored in a deep freeze, which will arrest the chemical reaction.

This experience enabled me to learn about, and actively take part in, the archaeological process. This will help me explain the process in greater detail to visitors, as well as aid my learning going forward. I am grateful to all my colleagues who were so welcoming and answered all my questions!