Post-excavation blues

… oh no sorry, that’s just the hue from all the sheets of permatrace stuck to the wall.

So 4 weeks ago we came off site (and of course the weather got better), but what have we all been doing since then, and what is the next step in the archaeological process? Well the diggers have gone onto bigger and better some other sites either with MoLA or other archaeological companies, but the supervisors and assistant supervisors have gone ‘back to the office’ to start wading through the paperwork we created on site.

On site nearly 7000 contexts and 3000 timbers were recorded; an estimated 15,000 plans and 120 sections were drawn;  over 2000 photos were taken; and that’s not including the 13,000+ finds and 600 samples retained! All of these were brought back to the office ready for the relevant teams to begin the post-excavation process.

For a team who have been on site for the past year (2 years in Mike’s case!) it is a bit of a culture shock being back in the office. For a start what is this ‘flexi-time’ you speak of… so I don’t have to be here at 8am! Lie in! And I get to sit down, drinking coffee and eating biscuits all day whilst working?! (although that’s not so good for the waist line) Also there is the ultimate question of ‘where do we start?!’ With that much stuff, it can be a bit of a daunting task.

Team biscuit tin

Team biscuit tin

So the first step is always to organise and file the paperwork… you can guarantee the last few weeks on site were hectic, and the packing up even more so. As such the plans and context sheets arrive back in various states. Once everything has been put into a folder, the first task is to start checking it.

Site archive

Site archive

Vicki, Lucy and Serena checking paperwork

Vicki, Lucy and Serena checking paperwork

Mike checking

Mike checking paperwork

You have to make sure that all the sheets and plans have been filled in correctly, and there is no information missing. You can guarantee there will be; those tiring days where it was just too much effort to find out which context was above the one you were digging; or that time you were asked to quickly jump in an area and finish off what someone was doing but without any information. Yep they all lead to a complex puzzle that has to be unpicked. Of course it’s not all like that!

Once the checking is done we start to create a matrix. Nothing like the film I am afraid; it’s a big spiderweb of numbers, boxes and lines that basically represents everything that was excavated on site, and tells you how any one context relates to another. Easier said than done? Probably not, to be honest. Describing a Harris matrix is just as tricky as creating the things. However when you have done it, there is an over whelming sense of achievement, and usually a pint.

Karl and his matrix

Karl and his matrix

The paperwork checked and a matrix created, it is time to start entering the information onto the database. Every context, every timber and every photo has to have a database record and all of the plans have to be digitised. All before you can start thinking about what it means!

When it comes to the finds, the initial processing was mainly dealt with on site, however any of the last few bits are washed and dried. As with the paperwork, the finds have to be entered onto the database; small (registered) finds are entered individually, and bulk finds are recorded together. Photos are taken of anything important, or that is likely to degrade. Then this is all sent off to the finds specialists to do their initial spot dating and identification. This is the same for any residues/remains (known as flots) retrieved from the environmental samples. Any delicate items that are in a poor condition or are likely to degrade are sent to conservation.

Spot dating pottery

Spot dating pottery

Archaeobotanist at work

Archaeobotanist at work

All of these are the initial stages of the Post Excavation Assessment. All archaeological projects will have some form of written document. Smaller projects may get a small report and a note written in one of the archaeological journals. However bigger sites like this will have various written reports, usually culminating in a lovely hardback monograph. The Post Excavation Assessment is the first phase of writing, which identifies what you have found on site, initial interpretations and what further work could be done. The post excavation process is set out in English Heritage guidelines, describing how best to deal with archaeological sites and the material they produce. If you find yourself with insomnia you can read the documentation here.

Any further analysis or deeper thinking is saved for what we call the publication stage. All in all, the supervisors are not really leaving the office for the next year or so…. i’ll go and get some more biscuits.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Over the coming weeks we will be meeting some of these specialists in further editions of Meet the Team, and we will be looking at the next stages of the post excavation process … interspersed, of course, with new and interesting  interpretations for the archaeology and finds as they come up!

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4 thoughts on “Post-excavation blues

  1. I’m really pleased that you’re continuing these posts. There’s potential to focus on the more glamorous physical digging (yes, I know it’s not glamorous to dig, but the finds make it so) and to ignore the grittier paperwork and analysis. Yet without them the finds lose much of their value, and the information gained on the dig would not be properly interpreted and recorded – and made available to other scholars.

  2. Everytime I walk down Walbrook and pass the site on my walks, I miss you folks. I only met a few of you over time on various occasions but miss your presence …. However, waiting in anticipation for the results of all your labours. Already subscribed to ‘Current Archaeolgy’ which is featuring the dig this month. Looking forward to the monograph …

  3. Hi, thank you for your comments. Yes hopefully we will have some interesting interpretations coming your way, and show you the whole of the archaeological process.

    Tina, keep a look out around site in July/Aug, you may just see a few of us back there for further work on site…

  4. Pingback: Jess Bryan (MOLA): Back to the Walbrook, sewer or later! | Day of Archaeology

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