Week 7 – Museum of London – LAARC – A sense of history

The task in hand
The task in hand

No messing around this week at the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre (LAARC) at the Museum of London. The end of our 9 week volunteer project is in sight and I think they have realised we still have many, many boxes to repack from the Keston Roman Villa in Kent. They are cracking the whip this week with only the promise of a Hobnob at break time and a bit of Wimbledon on the telly at lunch as an incentive.

Pots, pots and more pots, great big bags of broken history. Bits and pieces of another world, another time, another life. Repacked, relabelled, and back in a box, who knows when they will see the light of day again.

Pots before the eyes
Pots before the eyes

It makes me chuckle to myself how my colleagues groan when another giant bag is pulled out of the box. No star finds here, no jewellery or delicate glass and yet only a few short weeks ago we were in raptures over one sherd and spent 10 minutes examining and sharing it. Are we now so inured to their charms?

What is different this week is a new face at the packing table. A colleague from the Tuesday team who missed her slot and with all the signature enthusiasm and eagerness of the whole project couldn’t miss a moment and came to join the Thursday team. It is lovely to have a new recruit and by the end of the day it feels as if she has been with us since the start.

We compare our respective experiences, what we have enjoyed, how we felt about animal bones in Week 4, moments that have made us laugh. I love the noise of the pottery being laid out on the table, the chatting and the laughing. There is something about hands on work that lends itself to conversation. I feel like we are adding our own history to the pots as we pack them.

Our new recruit tells us of a member of her team who likes to sniff the pots as she works. We have a little smile at this, we dismiss this idea, why would you sniff them? What would you hope to smell on a 2,000 year old piece of pot? Then all of a sudden I pull out this tiny sherd with flaking burnt carbon like material on it.

Olfactory temptation
Olfactory temptation

I can’t resist trying it out, I touch the blackened surface, it crumbles, I sniff (surreptitiously). Wow, I can smell something. It is a charcoal smell, burnt and earthy, it is the Roman world trying to reach me. My senses are striving to understand this Roman world, touch and sight, so relied upon to understand and comprehend have been enhanced by sound (the Roman bell from Week 2) and now smell (don’t worry I draw the line at taste!)

I think about how much I rely on sight and touch, what I have realised over the last few weeks is that I am trying to learn how to really use these senses. There is a gaping divide between looking at something and really seeing it. I talked with a pot buddy in previous weeks about how we are text based history lovers, we are used to words, paragraphs and pages, interpretation using our brains. This is new, this is more visceral. We still rely so much on labels and words. I have watched the staff at LAARC when you ask for help with identifying some mystery object, they really ‘see’ the item. They turn it over and look at all angles, they contemplate. There is no instant dismissal of identification (maybe they are not sure what it is!). They look for bumps, grooves, raised surfaces, bevelled edges, hints and clues to a past use or function.

The team may be a little tired of large bags of pots, but it is teaching us to really see what we have in front of us. I open a large bag of pots, it has its gems if you take your time and use these newly honed senses.

Look and see
Look and see

Pots scratched with diagonal lines, pots with marks made by tools and fingers, pots of different textures and consistencies. Pots of different shapes and sizes.

So .....
So …..

The lovely piece below with a wavy line is the first I’ve seen with this type of pattern.

Wave of recognition
Wave of recognition

I have put all these photos together to show the variety and richness to be found it you can look past the quantity and the task in hand.

We move onto flint in the afternoon….

Flinty flint
Flinty flint

The excitement is palpable, senses to the fore once more. Flints are lovely to touch, smooth and cool, different colours and sizes. I love the moody grey ones, they remind me of a wet London skyline. They are sharp too, I scratched the ubiquitous LWB (Lower Warbank – the site code) on the label below to show you just how sharp.

LWB LWB LWB never forget LWB
LWB LWB LWB never forget LWB

I think I actually love the sound of flint more than the touch and sight. They make a magical noise when they clink together in the bag. They would make a great historical wind chime.

I have realised now I reach the end of my post, I don’t have a picture of the day or a star item to share with you this week.

I wish I could send you a sensory time capsule, you could shut your eyes and listen to the chatter and clink of pots, the laughter and click of staplers. The wonderful burnt smell on my little pot sherd. I hope you might begin to understand what I am trying so hard to achieve. To use my eyes to really see, to listen to the echoes of history and occasionally if you are really lucky sniff a world so far away and yet tangibly close when you free your senses as a guide.

With thanks to Adam Corsini for the Vine video clip.


  1. I love that you are immersing yourself in the material, only in this way the stories about the past can flow. You could approach it in a rigorous ‘scientific’ fashion and the pot sherds will bring forth date ranges, places where they were made, what shape the pot was and how it was decorated. Allowing the imagination to free reign you can get to the people who might have raged when they burnt their dinner, or people who gobbled it down and did not pass a word of comment to the maker, crushing them in the process.

    In addition with Keston in good order and tidy researchers will be able to tell the technical stories, compare and contrast other Kent villas, postulate about the trade relationship with Londinium, and so many other things.

    Well done and keep up this vital work

    • Thanks so much for your comment. The blog began mainly for me (because I didn’t think anyone would read it!), just to crystallize my thoughts and sum up an amazing experience I didn’t want to forget. I didn’t realise how much I would enjoy writing them or how the ideas would just flow each week inspired by the work we are doing. I am so pleased it has been worth the neglected husband and children.

      I hope it encourages others to volunteer, whatever their back ground. I see the enthusiasm every week of the LAARCVIP team and it is addictive, we are all having a ball.

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