Max O'Keefe


Between February and March 2018 I had the great privilege of undertaking a finds secondment helping to conduct a location audit of some of the finds held at the Huntington collections store. I had already had the opportunity to work at the store once before, having previously been seconded to the Collections and Archives department between August and September 2016, and was thrilled to have been given the chance to come back again. What made this opportunity even more interesting was that this time I would be working in a different part of the store with a different set of artefacts; where before I had worked solely in Area 2 of the store with the Small Finds collection, I would instead this time be working in Area 1 with the Bulk Finds.

My task for this audit, which I shared with Emily Hansen, was to assess the condition and location of the collection of Bulk Finds within the store. This involved working through all of the boxes on the selected racks shelf by shelf and site by site, and noting down details of each box on a form we were provided with. These details included the rack the box was on, the site name and (where applicable) site code, box number, the context numbers of the finds held within the box and also the general condition of the boxes, changing form for each new site on each shelf. We decided to share this task by having one of us (usually me) read aloud the box details and condition whilst the other wrote these down. Once this had been done the information collected was then updated electronically, firstly by creating a database copy of each form we had written up, with a different form for each site on each rack, and secondly by updating the find details for each site on IADB (YAT’s collections database). The IADB update incorporated altering each individual finds Movement and Home record where needed, including changing the building location, area, rack and box number- that is, assuming the site was actually on IADB in the first place, which for Bulk Finds and especially for the older excavation sites was not always the case because of legacy systems. Updating online was also made more difficult in some cases by the labelling used on the boxes themselves; in some instances the boxes from the early days of the Trust displayed a much older or outdated labelling method which was difficult to decipher. Though challenging, I found this type of focussed work rewarding, especially when the secondment came to an end and I could look back on the sheer quantity of racks and sites we had audited- nearly every single rack in Area 1.

The sheer quantity of finds held within Area 1 was truly incredible, and beneath such non-descript titles as ‘Animal Bones’, ‘CBM’ (that’s Ceramic Building Materials) and ‘Samples’ you could never be sure what you might find. I distinctly remember one day coming across a very intact horse skull when looking through the Hungate animal bone assemblage, and another where we were asked to search for the bees found during the one 1970s excavation whilst in the samples rack (alas, the bees remain undiscovered).

Perhaps most surprising of all to me were the number of sites YAT had actually worked on, and even more so the large numbers of finds associated with some of the sites, many of which I knew by name but had never really thought much about. Sites in Hungate, Wellington Row, Lawrence Street and Heslington were all ones I had heard about before, but until I saw the racks filled with finds boxes I had never known how large in scale these excavations had been, nor how knowledge-rich their assemblages were or how many different periods of history they spanned. Even the well-known site of Coppergate came as a bit of a shock. I already knew that the Coppergate excavation had produced thousands of finds spanning many of the historical periods  of York, but it took the enormous volume of finds boxes and even greater number of contexts for it to really hit home that the Coppergate assemblage was so much more than the collection displayed in the JORVIK artefact gallery and had helped inform the very concept of JORVIK itself.

The experience of working directly with the finds in the collections store through this secondment has been truly wonderful, as I had found this to be my favourite aspect of archaeology when studying the subject at university. I am extremely grateful to have been given this second opportunity to work with the Collections and Archives department, and I hope that sometime in the future I might be extended such an opportunity again.

David Scott