Basket case

After the MOLA Christmas party this week, I was dangerously weaving in the middle of the road – and then I thought it would probably be safer to make the basket at home…

… I then remembered I didn’t need to make one at all, as we had a very fine example here in the office. (Ah a seamless, loosely festive link).

So not necessarily a festive item, but something interesting that has been happening this week in the MOLA office; basket cleaning and recording!

Towards the end of the excavation, in one of the early dumps on site, a basket was found beautifully preserved in those damp Walbrook conditions.

The ‘Roman slinky’ (or unraveled Roman basket if you want to be technical) Note: not actually from the basket below, but found on top

Due to the late stage of the excavation, time was pressing; as such we thought it best to block lift the basket rather than uncover it fully on site. This turned out to be the right choice.

We had to poke at the top though, just to make sure it was a basket of course…

Mike and Ben use all their strength (and skills)

The soil around the basket was cut into a block, using a spade; the soil underneath was cut, and the whole block slipped onto a wooden board and wrapped in clingfilm, labeled with the site code and context number of course. The basket was then sent back to the office where it sat until now. And just in case you were wondering, as the basket was encased in soil it was perfectly fine being left, and would not dry out or become damaged; one of the reasons why block lifting is useful.

Back in the office excavation could begin. The work was carried out by one of MOLA’s volunteers Yuriko Sugaya.

Yuriko Sugaya excavating the basket

The mud was carefully removed from the basket with tools and careful washing. It could be seen at this point the basket was collapsed, but almost complete. It was exceedingly fragile, and had we excavated it on site it may not have survived the trip back to the office in the van and storage until there was available time to process it.


Nice job!

Extreme close up!

Unfortunately now the basket was too fragile to move, so it had to be recorded as it lay. Photographs were taken, and a 1:1 tracing was made using clear acetate. This would record each woven part of the basket, and could be looked at in the future to study the manufacturing techniques without have to look at the basket itself. The basket was a large item, with a fine weave of willow. The vertical stakes or spokes were made of thicker, flat pieces of wood, suggesting this may have been a sturdy item. A very similar basket has been found by Oxford Archaeology, and you can see their research here.

As today, baskets in the Roman period are thought to have been used for many different tasks. Storage and ritual uses often appear in interpretations, as with the Oxford Archaeology basket. However our basket was found in a large bank of material that was purposely built up to form a boundary. As such, our theory on site, and my personal favourite, is that this basket was used to carry soil to the bank whilst they were constructing it. Much like many of the MOLA wheel barrows though it just couldn’t cope with the work load and broke. The worker then discarded the basket along with its contents of soil and went off to find a new one. Of course the basket could have been used for many other things; perhaps it was a Christmas hamper – from Fortnumus et Masonicus?!

Either way its a fascinating item, with a good story to tell.

At MOLA and the Museum of London we have a great team of volunteers doing amazing work in areas such as finds processing and archive. For more information about volunteering with us, you can find the contact information here, and you can read about some of the work they do in the ‘News’ section of our website.

Oh, and if we don’t see you before have a merry Christmas!


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