We are nearing the end of our 9 week volunteer project at the Museum of London’s archaeological archive LAARC ( London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre), I am surprised how the weeks have flown by and I don’t want to think too much about how I will fill my Thursdays after next week. How do you compete with having your hands on 2,000 year old pots?
Roman life, dirt and dust, clinging to you at the end of the day, you leave Mortimer Wheeler House where the archive is housed, and it is like leaving a time capsule. None of us want the outside world to intrude into our archaeological musings. The downside of having mobile phones by our sides to record and capture every moment is they link us to teenagers with broken internet connections, over tired toddlers and harassed grandparents.
I love looking through the windows of the archive onto the Regent’s Canal just behind, the windows give the outside world a misty white haze. It feels as though we are in a chronological ‘no man’s land’. Not quite in the Roman world with our mobile phones and talk of movies and television comedy shows and yet not in the here and now with hands on objects made, held and used by Romans and Saxons.
We settle ourselves into an easy rhythm, we are old hands at this now, boxes, pots, bags and labels. Large bags of pottery holds no fear for us now, we are a production line, as much as we don’t want to leave the project we want a job well done and the Keston Warbank site repacked ready for the next generation.
The afternoon we are treated to repacking Roman wall plaster, this is a new, fabulous experience. The colours are gorgeous, a cool green, a majestic mauve.
We play jigsaw and match sections to the site report, we carefully repack the plaster as flat as possible. Some pieces are treated to preserve them but some are not treated and have a fragility about them, I treat them like precious jewels.
The irony is not lost on me that the box has a piece of newspaper inside from 1977, it is an advert for B&Q of all places, with great prices for discount ceiling tiles. Here we are with the remains of Roman interior decoration, it seems the tunnel of time does not separate as much as we think.
I love the plaster, it is an individual, personal statement. A desire to impress, a choice of colour and design. I am decorating my own bathroom, I wonder if I can get them to colour match my Roman green for the walls.
Everything we do today reminds us the end is near, we admire the last box of Roman pottery from the Keston Warbank site, we cheer the last bag. We heavy sigh our last label written, last bag stapled. Satisfaction for a job well done and sadness for an experience soon to be finished.
Circumstances have tricked me of my final morning session at the LAARC next week. I have another commitment and must join my pot buddies at the main Museum of London site at the London Wall in the afternoon.
I suddenly realise I am not coming back, my last visit, I look at the boxes and boxes, shelves in every direction. I am sad, not just because I am leaving this behind. I am sad that there are treasures in these boxes, waiting to be held and rediscovered.
I want to open all the boxes, deliver them to every school in the country. Can the objects not be held and felt and sniffed?
Much work goes on by the LAARC to engage the general public in archaeology and London’s history, they carry out amazing work. I have experienced and seen them at work with volunteers, I have also seen them in the community, in local museums, even in shopping centres and the local Tesco! So much is being done, it is brilliant, but I think more, more, more.
I have run a couple of hands on sessions for children at my daughter’s school. They held Roman tiles with finger prints in, their reactions were unforgettable. I see the children regularly and they now all give me the biggest smiles, we have a Roman connection. I know they won’t forget.
I think of this and I look at boxes on shelves. Of course I can hear you shout at me, the items are fragile and delicate and must be preserved and studied. I only see a fraction of the research and work that goes on at the LAARC, I am only there one day a week for 9 weeks. We can put so much on line now, photographed and catalogued. The problem is now I have spent so much time handling real artefacts I can’t help feeling a digital screen is the glass box of the 21st century. It still says don’t touch.
I am not thinking of the real gems of archaeological discovery, the Mildenhall Treasure, the Cheapside Hoard, but the thousands of everyday objects that are excavated. No one ever says “Oh, I must see those 32,000 pottery sherds they dug up at Keston”.
So how to use this collection? As I pack the pots away in a box that will sit on a shelf it is like burying them all over again. Can we not use them? But how? As art? Balanced, beautiful, an exhibition taking the everyday Roman world and making us view in in an entirely new context.
I would love to see a giant wall of Roman pottery sherds, each one chosen, selected by a member of the public, a child, a mother a grandparent. They learn its origins and history, its use and demise; their name added to its record, a journey of rediscovery redisplayed for all to see. There is a power in a display of this kind, I have seen it at UCL’s Grant Museum – The Mircrarium, 2,000 slides wall to ceiling, the wall of breastplates at the Tower of London. Why not Roman pots?
They may not be beautiful or rare or unusual but they have a power. They begged to be touched, they would speak of a powerful Roman world, a spread of integration in this country. They would never be lost in a box, on a computer, in an archive.
I love Mortimer Wheeler House, I am sorry to say goodbye, but I am more sorry I can’t take your treasures with me to share with the world.