Thursday, 16 June 2011

Washing the smalls...

It is a brave fieldwork manager, of any archaeological unit, that has to inform a digger that they are between sites at the moment and "wouldn't it be nice to do some pot-washing". Being shy types diggers are not prone to profanities, but this can try the spirit of even the most dedicated archaeologist. Perhaps even turning them to drink instead of returning to hearth and home to read some Jane Austin at the end of a hard day. For, although a vital and neccessary job, pot-washing can be just this side of tedious, especially after the first few seconds or so. Meeting a digger that has been scrubbing away with a toothbrush at yet another bag of Roman tile after days and weeks, the staring eyes and whispered "kill me now" are an indication of the level that these wretches have sunk.

So I had my students pot-washing this week.

I am teaching archaeology for Love Learning in Dorset, The Olive Tree, Bridport (see the website at And do you know, I think they enjoyed it. It has been my experience that many people are glad to just be able to touch the past in this way. Us 'old lags' forget just what an exciting feeling that is. Because the unique thing about archaeology is the immediate contact every one of us has with the past. We are not just reading about it but are in physical contact with it. It involves the senses as well as the brain. People have asked me what is the most interesting thing I have found? My answer is... a smell. I was digging on a site in the City of London and we hit a burnt layer, quite thick and containing 17th century material. I took a pinch, as one did with snuff, and the smell of burning was there - the smell of the Great Fire of London in 1666.

One of my students had such an experience. Washing a piece of floor tile he noticed some marks on the surface. There were three unmistakable fingerprints. They were made by someone nearly 2,000 years ago. A good example of artefacts being only a means to an end - to be in contact with real people and find their stories.          

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