Week 2 – Museum of London – LAARC – Cow skull with added goop

Boxes and boxes
Boxes and boxes

Having left even earlier than the previous week to get up to the Museum of London’s archaeological archive (LAARC), near Old Street tube, I threw this organisational achievement away be going for a coffee. I spotted a fellow volunteer also arriving early and tempted her away for a cup of dark delight. This all sounds very mundane until I realised it was very hard to get my volunteer-in-arms to join me. Her reluctance was nothing to do with my company but all down to her impatience to begin another day with our Roman ancestors.

When we arrived, another of our two colleagues were already there (and had been for some time!). I spoke in my last post of the enthusiasm of the volunteers on this project and it seems Week 2 has shown even more of this willingness to learn.

I thought we would be thrown right into the hard work this week, but we were treated to a tour of where the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) process their finds. MOLA are a separate independent charity that share the same space at Mortimer Wheeler House and have close links to the LAARC.

Cow skull with added goop (brains?!)
Cow skull with added goop (brains?!)

We were shown stacks of tubs, bags and crates; items deposited straight from digs still covered in mud. Known but unknown in a way as the full detail has yet to be discovered. It was here we came across our cow skull and I think I can speak for all the volunteers when I say we were relieved repackaging this was not our next task!

Dem bones
Dem bones

The tour covered the various rooms, with experts working away. I think the element of this I found hard was the human remains. I think it is one thing to see a skull in a case in a museum, but thinking about ones that have just been dug up gives an immediacy to their death even though it may have been thousands of years ago. In the drying room there were trays of animal bone and pottery drying out, but also trays with human skeletons on. I found this unsettling in an undescribable way. I wasn’t expecting to feel uncomfortable with the sight. I think it comes down to our culture’s relationship and view of death. I came across the ‘Bone Church’  within Sedlec Ossuary (aka Kostnice Ossuary Beinhaus) in the Czech Republic, when writing this post. It is fascinating and giving me a new way of thinking about how we feel about human remains. Do you de-humanise them when using them in this way? Next week would we ‘ooh’ and ‘aahh’ over a piece of Roman bone the way we do a pot or tile?

It was with a certain amount of relief we returned to the comfort of broken pots.

Monster bag of unstratified finds
Monster bag of unstratified finds

Now we were processing bags at a fine rate of knots and being hit with the monster bags of unstratified finds. The Warbank Keson site had been excavated in two different ways because it spanned such a long time frame. The early digs were on a grid format with a letter and number to indicate location. The later work used single context recording. The LAARC team explained without a context the pots are just pots with no meaning or importance. I think this is quite hard for a ‘non-archaeologist’ to get their head round. You pull it up out of the ground and you have a great piece of Roman history in your hand. But without knowing where it came from the significance is lost.

The Keson site has a shaft with complete horse, pig, dog and sheep skeletons, the fact that these are whole skeletons laid in a particular way points to some sort of rite or sacrifice. But without knowing these bones were placed in this position the significe of this shaft would be lost. This is obviously a simplistic way of looking at it but it helps illustrate a point.

So we sort these large bags into smaller bags according to the type pottery. The photo below shows a particularly distinctive type of local pottery, it is coarser with shell deposits which make the job of sorting it easier!

Roman coarse ware
Roman coarse ware

I became quite attached to a small piece of pot with holes in pictured below, I assume this was some type of colander.

Pot o' holes
Pot o’ holes

But find of the day goes to…….. this little mystery.

Find of the week - weird pot
Find of the week – weird pot

A piece of pottery decorated with some sort of mythical creature. I wonder who brought this pot to Keston, was it a treasured family piece brought out for special occasions? The jigsaw enthusiast in me also wonders where the rest of it is? Just let me at the super glue.

So at the end of the day and another post what have we ended up with?

A box full of newly packed pottery, a little more knowledge, lots of unanswered questions and still enough enthusiasm to get in even earlier next week…….

Week 2 box o' bags o' pots
Week 2 box o’ bags o’ pots

Please excuse any inaccuracies they are purely my own and nothing to do with LAARC staff.

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