Week 6 – Museum of London – LAARC – Context, a moment in time?

Question time?
Question time?

After the dizzy heights of my first archaeological dig (or should that be untrowelled lows?), I was worried what Week 6 would bring on my Museum of London volunteering project at LAARC (London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre). How could Week 6 possibly compare? What would I write about?

Food for thought came in the shape of Francis Grew, the Archive Manager at LAARC, who gave us an absorbing talk on our primary site of interest – the Roman villa at Keston, Kent. The aim of the morning was to set the site in the context of the Roman world; where the villa at Keston fitted in with Roman London and how Roman London played its part in the Empire as a whole.

Slightly distractingly we were given our talk in the Ceramics and Glass Store at the LAARC; such an Aladdin’s cave of treasures. It struck me when walking round the store before the talk that you get attracted to little gems like the one below, just as we have been attracted to star items from Keston like the skull shaped belt buckle from Week 3.

Little gem
Little gem

But in focusing on individual finds you fail to step back and see the item within the context of the  site as a whole. In the Glass and Ceramics Store my little hen is part of a chronological progression of items from pre-history to modern day. It is only when you see the hen in its place in the historical development of ceramics that you can begin to see patterns and themes, similarities in shapes, glazes, textures and decoration that rise and fall with the centuries and rise again as fashions change. An item on its own gives you much, but the full picture, the historical progression gives you the richer more detailed landscape.

Francis got us to think about the Roman villa at Keston in this way, taking a step back, looking again at what we know, what we think we know and what we can surmise. Is the villa the home of a Romanised local family who have lived in the area for hundreds of years? Is it a Roman who has moved out of busy cosmopolitan London to consolidate his fortune and future in an urban retreat? Or is he an absentee landlord a “David Beckham” of his era (as it was suggested), a kind of Roman property magnate, Keston just one of many properties in his portfolio?

In front of us during the talk we had a number and wide range of items, wall frescos, glass bottles and jewellery. We looked at and discussed these items, then Francis got us to take that step back which is so vital. To stop viewing the item in isolation, but place it in the context of the villa as a whole, this homestead where people lived, worked and died.

Where do we begin?
Where do we begin?

Two items in particular really highlighted the importance of looking at the finds in relation to how they sit in the Roman landscape of Britain at the time. Two fairly basic items, a deer antler rake and a limestone quernstone.

The antler rake, handmade, using local resources, an item not found in Roman London or Pompeii where iron would be used. So where has this item come from? It is found in a Roman context but it is an item that probably would have been used by a previous generation.

The quernstone, made from local limestone, in London such items would have been made from lava stone imported from Germany; again on our site we have an item sourced locally.

Purchased in London or the local Sainsburys?
Purchased in London or the local Sainsburys?

But we also have imported Samian ware at the site from Gaul. How have these items arrived at Keston? What can their journey tell us of the time and the people who lived then.

I began to think of my own home. If I flattened it right now and dumped a couple of feet of earth on top and in a thousand years some intrepid archaeologist got to work, what would he find?

Are all the items in my house of a specific date or time? What would they tell future generations of my life? – A house built in the 1920s, items of modern kitchenware from Ikea, plates and china inherited from a Great Grandmother. What is the span of years represented in my home- 100 to 200 years?

If I look at the Keston villa in this context I have a different view of the site and its items. A homestead, not just Roman, not just frozen in 200AD but an amalgamation of items and traditions. There are different times and places represented in that spot.

I had these thoughts in my head as we tackled the real work of the day, repacking glass and metal finds from the site. I began with metal, coins and tiny tacks.

Pocket money
Pocket money
Tic-Tac-Toe
Tic-Tac-Toe

I then swapped with a colleague and moved onto glass. I’ll let you into a little secret, I love Roman glass, as soon as you see it you want to touch it and pick it up. The colours are so vibrant, the blues and greens.

Roman window glass
Roman window glass

To hold them up to the light is to look back in time. I imagine just being able to glimpse the Roman World through their lustre as if through an historical microscope.

Roman time portal
Roman time portal

I thought about these items, packed individually, in isolation, once part of the villa at Keston. What if I put them together? I placed the metal window frame alongside the window glass….

Together again
Together again

Items reunited, they may not be exact or correct but the concept is there. Placing them together the context comes alive. I am taking that step back again, seeing not in isolation but seeing the bigger picture.

The finds from a site, their context, what it gives us is not just a snapshot of one place in time. Context is so much more than that. It is a thread that travels backwards into the past and forward into the future. It is not static, it is a world continually in transition. The thread pulses with energy and life, the finds discovered that we are repacking are alive with that energy, that history. They individually tell a story but together they create a vivid picture of our ancestors. They make the thread strong, our history can never be lost whilst we have archaeology to bring it to life.

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