Week 1 – Museum of London & Bromley Museum – What’s in a number?

Boring boxes of wonderment
Boring boxes of wonderment – I have just realised I really shouldn’t have left a cup of tea on them!

I am having déjà vu this morning. This all looks very familiar to me: Roman pot sherds, boxes, plastic bags, labels, pens and staplers. I am back working on the finds from the Roman villa at Warbank Keston. So where is Keston? A leafy tranquil spot in the borough of Bromley, some call it the South-East, or Greater London, it is also in Kent, the commuter belt, the suburbs, for today we shall refer to it as the Roman hinterland. So many names to help us understand a location!

The material we are working on has all come from one site, but the vagaries of land ownership and archaeological machinations has meant the historical finds from Keston, excavated from 1967 through to 1992, can now be found in two locations – the Museum of London and Bromley Museum.

Earlier in the year I spent time at the Museum of London archive, LAARC in Hackney, repacking and re-labeling their Keston boxes of pottery, bone, metal and glass. By repacking the material we created more space in the archive, helped preserve the materials, made them easier to find and research. A by-product of this process was widening my knowledge of how an archive works, how to care for ancient artefacts and the types of material you discover at a Roman villa.

I also discovered lots of random stuff too. I love handling really old things, I am really bad at getting rubber gloves on, I love taking lots of pictures, I don’t like bones and I could pack bits of pot till the cows come home.

So I guess it is no surprise that Day One of my 6 week mini project sees me spending 10 minutes getting a pair of latex gloves on and excitedly opening box after box to see more enticing pots, mesmerizing flints, strange lumps of metal and a few exquisite gems – gorgeous examples of coins and brooches.

What is different about this project is we are no longer in the LAARC, we are on my home turf – Bromley Museum. We have Museum of London guidance for our project. How we came to be round the table and more details on the Museum of London and Bromley connection can be found on my first blog about this project.

One of the other volunteers who joins us is also an old hand at repacking finds, we both completed the previous Keston project but on different days. We are both back for more, I am glad I am not the only one who is a bit pot obsessed. We have a new recruit too, she has only been volunteering at Bromley a short while and has gamely offered up her services on the promise that it will be ‘great fun’ and might also involve cake!

Looking again at the variation in site codes and context numbers for this site, we remind ourselves of grid references and single context recording.  The analogy of a cake is used again to explain layers and location. All I can say is it’s about time someone brought a real cake to explain archaeological methods and then it might sink in more. At least we would have more fun eating the layers to gain a more in-depth understanding.

I am sure I understood all this last time
I am sure I understood all this last time

It is only when you listen again to the explanation of how the site developed and how the different numbers have come about that you realise how complex and confusing this job can be. I sneak a peek at our new recruit, she looks a bit lost in our descriptions of what number goes where. I reassure her, once you have packed a couple of hundred bags you will have no problem at all!

You can see from the pictures below, we begin with boxes full of tissue paper, bubble wrap with many smaller bags inside, some of the artefacts in these bags are then also individually wrapped in tissue paper. The coins are a good example, to research these you would open each bag and unwrap each item. I have previously spent a few hours trying to find individual finds in a large box of items like this. The aim of the project is to have boxes full of new bags and labels, easy to find and research, creating more space in the process.

Before.......
Before…….
Carefully wrapped but what is inside???
Carefully wrapped but what is inside???
After........
After……..

We can also use this process to hopefully engage a few school children in half term, use some pieces for an object handling session one Saturday afternoon in the Museum and finish the project off with a day in Tesco. Yes, I said Tesco, engaging modern day shoppers with tales and objects from their Roman ancestors.

We are working off bags that contain all the numbers we need to write out new labels. An example below shows a site code, context number, Bromley Museum accession number, and a published finds number. The published finds number can be matched to the site publication, sometimes there is also the illustrators’ own number. It is great having illustrated items as you get to read up on your pot base, rim or decorated shard and set it into the context of its original Roman home.

Bingo, matched it!
Bingo, matched it!

We end up with labels like the one below, we are adding a site code and losing the illustrators’ number but the original information is kept in the new bag so no information is lost. Simple? Yes? – Actually, no it isn’t.

Numbers are the key
Numbers are the key

Sometimes there are other numbers that crop up, a KF59 or a KP27, an extra number WB3/7. Often you can match the numbers to the actual piece of pottery as the context number and the Bromley Museum number should always be present, written onto the surface of the item.

But to be perfectly honest there are some numbers we are not actually sure what they stand for or what they mean. They would obviously mean something to someone, but not us sitting here 40 years after the original dig.

I come across a piece of flint, it has 6 different numbers attached to it.

LWB67

WB69

Published number 956

Draw no 6213

KP 239

Label on item 16

The absurdity of this hits me. Take away our site publication and computers. What would these numbers mean to the average person on the street today, or say in 100 years if the online and print information is lost. These numbers would mean nothing, a Rosetta Stone of a puzzle. What does it all mean? What are the numbers trying to tell us?

We rely on these numbers so much, we use them to help interpret this object. But I can’t help feeling if we are not careful we are adding more layers of mystery to our object, we are blocking the path to the past.

When an item is first found there are no numbers attached, but we have so many questions we want to ask. Where was the object found? How was it made? When was it made? How was it used? Why was it used? What does it tell us of the people who used and made it?

The long list of numbers we attach to our discovery is an attempt to answer those questions. If we take the numbers away and we are left with a piece of flint or pot would it have less value? It is the same object.

I think what frustrates me is I spend more time looking at, writing and trying to interpret the numbers rather than enjoying the beautiful object in front of me. I open a box, take out a bag, inside another bag, inside wrapped in tissue paper a beautiful coin. The detail is stunning, I don’t know who it is or when it was made (I am ignoring the numbers). I love holding this wonderful thing in my hand, I think of all the other hands that have held this coin. Who needs numbers to interpret an object when you can use your eyes to see.

I know we need these numbers, I know how important they are, but sometimes if we are not careful they act like the bags and tissue paper my Roman finds from Keston are wrapped in. They interfere and form a barrier. These numbers need to be understood and used but they must never take anything away from the sheer power of the objects we have dug out of the ground.

I need no numbers to enjoy this
I need no numbers to enjoy this …

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