People imagine archaeologists having sharp eyes and deft hands. Perhaps they imagine them carefully brushing sand out of a dinosaur’s eye socket (we don’t do that), lifting pots out of the ground whole (we very occasionally do that), or recreating the layout of a cavalry fort from a few fragments of bridle fitting and a beamslot (we only get to do that on telly). What they probably don’t imagine is people lifting a lump of mud and corrosion from the ground and asking ‘Anyone know what this is? No? Ok, I’ll let Finds sort it out’.
But before you get too disillusioned, we have good reasons for this. London river deposits are thick, heavy and sticky; not the sort of thing you can make a dent in with a small trowel and toothbrush. Attempting to clean up fragile finds in this environment will most likely damage them, if not completely destroy them. And whilst all archaeologists know the difference between Roman and Victorian bricks, the variety of sites we work on means that there is little point in learning the subtleties of 2nd century pin-head typology.
Luckily we have people on site who do know their metacarpals from their metatarsals, and their red slipware from their samian: the Processing Team!
The Processing Team (‘Finds Monkeys’ to their friends) carry out the preliminary stages of artefact analysis; washing, drying, sorting, and bagging finds in their dedicated processing area.
They also manage finds-related affairs on site, such as making sure that things are being recorded and labelled correctly in the ground, and keeping everyone abreast of what is coming up and how it is best treated.
We are lucky enough to have two of the little critters scuttling about; Mike and Rich.
Mike works primarily with artefacts, a field in which hands on experience and identification skills often serve better than formal education. Sitting in the processing hut surrounded by relics from Roman London, Mike is often forced to reflect that alongside the months he spent as a finds assistant at English Heritage and the four years he has spent as a commercial archaeologist, that Masters degree in Egyptology was probably a waste of time. He got into finds by accident, but has never looked back (except perhaps when checking his bank balance).
As well as washing and sorting finds, Mike is also responsible for carrying out preliminary accessions on important small finds. He divides most of his time between digging down in the trenches and processing in the finds area, but also has duties away from site in the main MOLA office.
Like all archaeologists, Mike is motivated by a desire to protect the heritage of Britain (and the world) for posterity in the face of destruction by redevelopment, and if that can be done whilst playing with a power hose, then so much the better.
Rich, meanwhile, has more of an environmental bent. He’s been working in commercial archaeology for just over a year, and unlike Mike has been putting his Masters degree (this time in Osteology) to good use. Whilst Mike deals primarily with artefacts, Rich is in charge of the animal bones and environmental samples on site, and can often be seen wet-sieving bulk samples with a power hose, or sorting animal bones into identifiable and unidentifiable fragments.
Mike and Rich also both work as regular field archaeologists, digging and recording with the rest of us down in the trench when there is nothing to be processed. Maybe it’s the thought of a warm drying room to return to, but they don’t seem to mind. Rich says that he loves ‘not having to work in an office, as this is more fun even when it’s inclement*’
They both share a great love of artefacts (‘shiny things’ according to Rich), and this job is the best way to see them all and pick up some new skills along the way, as you’re confronted with new types all the time. And, of course, it helps that they’re working on a site with some of the most exciting archaeology either of them has ever worked with, or even heard about!
*Actual dialogue may vary.