Week 9 – Museum of London – The Final Week – I’ve been to LAARC and back – a volunteer’s journey

What comes after? Onwards and upwards!
What comes after? Onwards and upwards!

The final week, the final blog, my final thoughts of a volunteering expedition to LAARC and back again. 9 weeks ago I began at the Museum of London’s archive (London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre), excited and apprehensive. What would the coming weeks bring? Would I be up to the job? Would I like the people on the project?

Now the end is here, it is evaluation time. I have had a stern talk with myself to be more analytical this week. No wandering off point, extolling the virtues of sniffing pots! I am going to attempt to marshal my thoughts into coherent points, I have been contemplating what I have gained from this experience. I will try and save the emotions for the last paragraph (or two), then at least you won’t see the digital tracks of my tears.

First, what did the final day have in store? Unfortunately, much to my disappointment I missed the final morning session at the LAARC. But in the true spirit of engagement I have coerced one of my pot buddies Jenny to write a piece for me…..

I’m not used to this blogging LAARC…..
An invitation to a Court Masque has trumped the humble Roman pot. Our volunteer blogger is savouring the Renaissance splendour of the Banqueting House and has asked me to contribute my thoughts on our final morning volunteering at LAARC.
Arriving in the common room I was intrigued to see a collection of artefacts laid out across the table – fragments of red Tudor brick/pottery, shards of Georgian glazed stoneware and Victorian glass, a piece of preserved rope and the ever popular animal bones. Had we been set a final identification challenge? No, more amazingly this was the personal archive of a fellow volunteer discovered on guided explorations of the Thames foreshore just below the Royal Naval College at Greenwich; an area rich in archaeological and historical associations. Was this a first for the VIP (Volunteer Inclusion Project)? Suffice to say we examined but resisted the temptation to package and label in accordance with the standards of current collection care!

A very personal collection by a very enthusiastic volunteer
A very personal collection by a very enthusiastic volunteer

Our final task was logistical. Arrayed on trestle tables were the fruits of our labours – meticulously packaged / labelled bags of Roman pottery. Once sorted into chronological and context order the bags could be re boxed for storage. The familiar bags passed through our hands for a final time – from the smallest fragments to coarse chunks, from the decorated to the utilitarian – all now allocated their correct place in the narrative of the Keston (sorry LWB67) excavations.
We were given some impressive statistics ; in summary the two groups re packaged a grand total of 4245 bags comprising general/illustrated pot, animal bone, flint, iron, Samian, mortarium, registered finds, shell and wall plaster. Both groups were equally productive – Tuesday’s supremacy in Samianware being challenged by Thursday’s expertise in Roman painted wall plaster!

What comes after L? Working hard again!
What comes after L? Working hard again!

Talking of wall plaster I am drawn back to the newspaper from 1977 which had been used to package wall plaster fragments (see last week’s blog). It suggests that these finds had probably remained undisturbed since being deposited in the Archive some 36 years ago. What is inspirational about the VIP is that although the immediate tangible benefit of the project is the repackaging of finds to current standards and the rationalisation of much needed storage space within the Archive pristine packaging is not an end in itself. Over the last 9 weeks we have learned the importance of engagement and outreach and as volunteers we are the direct and fortunate beneficiaries of this policy. My hope is that these fragmentary insights having been made more accessible will be examined, handled and discussed. Maybe they will assist academics researching the relationship between Roman London and its villa farmstead hinterland or stimulate further educational/community outreach programmes telling the stories to a wider audience of everyday life almost 2000 years ago.
Reluctantly we left LAARC for the last time as volunteers and headed to the Museum of London for an afternoon of behind the scene insights…..

As you can see, I haven’t been making up my blogs over the last few weeks, the enthusiasm and enjoyment is genuine, thanks Jenny!

I met up with my fellow volunteers at the Museum of London in the afternoon for an amazing behind the scenes tour.

Museum of Wonder
Museum of Wonder

We hit archaeological conservation, bones at the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology and a tour of the Roman galleries with the Museum’s Roman curator. We got to see a jewellery box from the Cheapside Hoard, a section of stunning Roman leather from the Bloomberg Walbrook site. We learn why and how materials are conserved, how every item presents its own challenges, an adventure waiting to happen.

The latest thing in archaeology conservation - Chest freezer!
The latest thing in archaeology conservation – Chest freezer!

We move on to bones, I get to stand at the back and not touch anything which ticks all the boxes in my book. We get to see the rich pickings from the 20,000 skeletons in the Museum of London collection. The differences between male and female, how a cyst can punch through jaw bone, pathology of bones, breaks, mends and disease. I am almost converted again to the wonderful panoramic historical view that London bones can offer.

Last stop (well, penultimate stop, the last stop for us was tea and cake in the café) the Roman galleries. A picture is painted of Roman London, our ideas of what it is to be a Roman in London are challenged. We are made to think about how we interpret objects, how are the stories told? The challenge of connection, us to the objects, 21st century to Roman London, how do we smooth the path? how do we light the way?

I could write a post on each talk, I must stop myself.

I wasn’t allowed to take lots of pictures of behind the scenes. In a way it was a relief, I could concentrate on the people and the oral gifts they had to give. It made me realise the true treasures we beheld at the Museum were the people. Their knowledge, their passion, happy to share and glad to answer questions. I was really blown away by these people who spend their life discovering who we all are and where we come from.

They want you to know what they have found, they want you to join them on their journey of discovery.

So as a volunteer, as a Mum of 3 kids, a lover of history, a one time librarian, what have the last 9 weeks been about.

1- We are doing an actual job Hard to believe sometimes when I waffle on about pots, but Jenny put it succinctly at the start. We are preparing finds for the future, ready to study, well conserved. We are making space in the archive for more boxes and making Adam (space obsessed) Corsini, Collections Manager very happy in the process.

Beautiful boxes
Beautiful boxes

2- We are learning I have really glossed over how much I have learnt in this process. I can’t begin to tell you, I just can’t fit it all in. But the most important thing is I live in Bromley, our Keston Warbank Roman villa is on my doorstep. Over the weeks of this project I have been inspired to visit more local Roman sites, I have even met a lady who worked on the original dig in the 1970s. I volunteer in my local museum in Bromley where some of the finds are kept. I have really learnt about my ancestors, I have learnt about the people who walked my streets.

I met the lady bottom left !!
I met the lady bottom left !!

3 – Engagement Everything we have done has been about engagement, not just with the objects, with our history, but with each other. All those kind of things you take for granted on a project like this, meeting people, communicating, listening, working as a team, encouraging each other, having a laugh together. We are like minded people, but we are also very different to each other. The LAARC prides itself on inclusion and we are indeed a varied bunch (no insult intended!) but we have all worked together for 1 day a week for 9 weeks. I can’t believe it was only 9 days, it really feels more like a full 9 weeks we have been together. I will miss my pot buddies, but don’t worry we have planned our next meet up to the Cheapside Hoard already. You can’t keep us away from the Museum of London now!

My lovely pot buddies and cake
My lovely pot buddies and cake

4 – Self belief and self confidence I know this sounds a bit wishy-washy but I believe we all have our reasons for being on this project and I don’t mean a love of museums and history. We are here for our own personal reasons, I know I am. I need to prove to myself I am good at something, I need to be valued, I want to learn, I want to be a part of something bigger. I have been surprised by a number of things on this project, my reactions, other people’s reactions, it has been kind of wonderful and something I really needed.

Sorry this has been so long, thanks for sticking with me!

Final thought goes to Week 5 – the dig! At the end of the day with our trays in hand we celebrated our achievements with many photographs of beaming faces and dirty knees. I commented that the last time I had so many pictures taken it was at my wedding. My pot buddy Lance quipped we were now wedded to archaeology. You know what? He wasn’t far from the truth, if not a marriage (I already have a husband and 3 kids that keep me busy!) we have certainly had a serious love affair with archaeology. The kind of affair you never forget, one where you keep the love letters and memories in a box on top of your wardrobe. The treasured memories you will never forget, that on rainy days you hold in your hand and remember.

Here comes the bride.....
Here comes the bride…..

So I implore you to give it a go yourself, come and seek out LAARC, come for a visit, stay for a volunteer project. Don’t expect anything, come with open eyes, open ears and an open heart. You will take away far more than you every imagined.

With massive thanks to Adam Corsini and the LAARC – Museum of London. Thanks to the Arts Council for funding VIP12.
And the biggest thanks of all to my lovely husband, 3 kids and Mum and Dad. With out all their help and support I would never be able to do all this cool, fascinating and wonderful stuff.

Thanks for reading, I hope you have enjoyed the ride!

Museum of London – London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre is open for tours you can find out more here http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/Collections-Research/LAARC/

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