Rachel Cutler

Rachel Cutler washing findsHaving worked for York Archaeological Trust for two and a half years, I was keen to develop my experience with archaeological collections. A Resilience secondment with the finds department was the perfect opportunity for me. I already had lots of experience in presenting YAT’s artefacts to the general public at Jorvik but was intrigued to learn more about the process of recording, conserving and storing objects.

I spent six weeks assisting with the post-excavation process of the Roman cemetery at Newington Hotel, just outside York’s city centre. I am always fascinated to learn about new historic sites being uncovered so was thrilled to find out more about the excavation first-hand. My main role was washing, packaging and recording the vast amount of bulk finds from the site. These mostly included human bones and pottery, in addition to a smaller amount of animal bones, glass, shells and clay pipes. The human bones were incredibly broken and dispersed over the site. I soon learnt that their damage was a result of the area being heavily ploughed over the last few hundred years and nothing to do with any injuries sustained during their lifetime. Some of the smaller bone fragments were also charred as a consequence of cremation. Dealing with so many bones was a fantastic opportunity to learn more about the human skeleton, which as a historian I had had no knowledge of since my school days! I also became apt at distinguishing between human and animal bones by their colour, shape and texture which has already proved helpful when leading tours at Dig: An Archaeological Adventure. The pottery was similarly shattered into small pieces but it was interesting to see a range of pottery sherds, ranging from plain Roman pottery to blue and white painted Victorian pottery in the same contexts. On one occasion when washing finds I was delighted to find a sherd of pottery with a line of red paint on it.

Rachel et al packing many iron nailsI soon became accustomed to the process of washing the bulk and packaging that which was dry with the correct information on the bags and the Tyvek labels. I also learnt how to accurately enter information onto the Collections database in the Trust’s Integrated Archaeological Database (IADB). In amongst the bulk there were also numerous iron nails which, after being left to dry out, were packaged as small finds with foam sheets with the humidity controlled by silica gel. These loose nails were assumed to be from the coffins of the occupants of the cemetery and I was interested to learn from the archaeologists that many were found stuck in the ground forming the outline of a coffin, often with the skeleton enclosed. When packaging these I thus had to ensure that they were kept in the right order and that this was accurately conveyed onto IADB along with their measurements. Other small finds from the cemetery at Newington Hotel included several intact clay vessels, which may contain cremations, two coins found in different skulls and a beautiful jet pin.

Rachel and Becky pack human bones

Another of my roles during my secondment was washing and packaging the skeletons from the site. Cleaning the skulls in particular required a great deal of patience and persistence – and it did feel strange to be carefully scooping soil out of a real human skull with a dessert spoon and cleaning its teeth with a toothbrush! Once dry after washing, it was crucial to ensure that the different types of bones were packaged separately and accurately labelled. Several of the skeletons were far from complete, often missing entire skulls, not to mention fingers, toes and other smaller bones. They were also a range of sizes as we identified the bones of individuals who were undoubtedly tall and well built, contrasting sadly with the tiny bones of infants.

My time based in the finds department at Aldwark allowed me to work alongside the other members of staff based there and volunteers who were all encouraging and keen to share their expertise. I am grateful for this wonderful opportunity to engage with another side of YAT’s work and to contribute to such an exciting project.