I recently spent four weeks, in February and March 2018, on secondment to the Finds department, helping undertake a location audit of the bulk finds held at the collections store. Having a background in history rather than archaeology, and a very limited knowledge of what archaeologists actually did with the finds once they were excavated, I thought the secondment sounded like a chance to learn something new.
This location audit involved going through all of the boxes of bulk finds rack by rack, and confirming that what was labelled on the box actually matched what was in the box. It was very methodical work: there was a table to be filled in, noting down the box number, and the context number for the finds contained therein, as well as the condition of the cardboard box itself. Then this information was transferred to a spreadsheet and updated in IADB (the collection’s database), filling in the building, area, rack number, and box number, for every context number for a particular site – provided, of course, that the IADB had a record of the site, which was not always the case. This could also be a bit challenging if the boxes hadn’t been labelled properly in the past, or if the site codes weren’t written on the box. A lot of the work involved writing down numbers, or reading them out so they could be added to the spreadsheet and the IADB. I enjoyed this type of work, which required a lot of focus and accuracy.
Most of the bulk finds were things like animal bones, or pottery – probably the two largest categories – as well as things like shells, building materials, slag, and even residues found in the soil. There were even boxes of human bones to record, a fascinating yet slightly unsettling finds category: whoever those bones had once belonged to would never have imagined that their skeleton would one day be inside a cardboard box on a shelf in a store for academic study. There was not too much in the way of unusual artefacts to look at, as we were mostly concentrating on bulk finds (I do recall a horse’s skull, however), but it was interesting to see how much was found from a particular site: the number of boxes for sites like Coppergate and Hungate, for instance, was most impressive, bringing to life the scale of these excavations and the archaeological richness of these sites in a way that might otherwise be difficult to fully appreciate.
This secondment experience gave me a very different perspective on archaeology, through seeing what archaeologists do when they are not excavating, conserving, or directly studying the finds: now I have a greater understanding of the way in which finds are organised, the distinction between bulk finds and small finds, the conventions for how the boxes are labelled, stored, and organised rack by rack, and how the IADB works, something I had never used before but picked up fairly quickly. It was all so intriguing, and the hands-on, practical, approach was such a valuable way to learn. I knew there was some way of classifying objects as they were found and stored but had little idea as to how that worked: there were site codes, context numbers, and find numbers (in the case of small finds) to keep track of, as well as the box numbers and rack numbers; then there were all the abbreviations for the types of finds: it was interesting learning to navigate this system of numbers and codes. I had never even thought about the way in which everything would be sorted and stored, and divided into bulk finds and small finds, but it all made a lot of sense once we actually got into doing the work.
Something else I hadn’t realised was just how many different excavations and watching briefs YAT has undertaken in York and the surrounding area: it was fascinating to find these projects recorded on the IADB and to work out whereabouts in the city they had taken place. When the snowy weather made it difficult to get to the warehouse one day, we worked from Aldwark instead, where there was an unexpected opportunity to learn more about these digs when I was given the task of updating a spreadsheet with information from the York Archive Gazetteer, listing the periods recorded at each YAT excavation site. I will look at familiar areas of York now and know for certain how full of history they actually are, because I have now seen the boxes of finds and seen the records of what was found there.
Upon returning to Jorvik, I was able to decipher the numbers on some of the items in the handing collection – I can now recognise a site code and a find number – and worked out that a couple of the objects I had always thought were Coppergate finds were actually excavated from Hungate. I also hadn’t known until now that there were also Roman objects found on the Coppergate site, in addition to the more well-known Viking-age remains. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to work in the Collections and Archives department, to have learned more about the work YAT does, and to have gained some practical experience in one important aspect of archaeology.