Fighting for our Finds from Discovery to Display

Fighting for our Finds from Discovery to Display

Vanessa Oakden (Museum of Liverpool,

Dot Boughton (Oxford Archaeology North,

This session will focus on artefacts, and their journey from discovery to display. We invite papers that discuss this journey and the biases affecting finds and how they are interpreted, used and/or displayed. Practical frontiers are encountered when caring for our artefactual past as curators, while finds specialists often encounter the interface between the hobbyist and the archaeologist, the recorder and the researcher.  Biases can also be inherited: our approach being strongly influenced by past methods of collection, past interpretations, political discourses, and earlier research goals. We are also part of the artefact’s journey, as we add our own use and interpretation of those objects. Bias also affects how we collect and what we store or choose to discard. Moreover, excavations, metal-detecting and sometimes chance discoveries produce more and more materials and the finder can be keen to donate their finds to museums (as they are encouraged to do), but we often forget that our museum space is finite. Will our finds slot nicely into display cases, stores or boxes labelled for disposal and should they?  The session invites submissions addressing the life-histories of artefacts and the practical and interpretative challenges faced through archaeological and museum practice.

Keywords: bias; collections; finds; research



Dissertations and Detecting: Using PAS Material for Further Analysis

Kathryn Z Libby (University of Sheffield,

The presentation discusses ongoing PhD research using the Portable Antiquities Scheme as its primary source of data, principally, dress accessories from Viking-Age Lincolnshire to provide new insights into the production of Early Medieval copper alloys. Many of the items after being recorded on the PAS are then returned to the metal detectors. Therefore most research can be done using the entries on the PAS database. Closer analyses of the items, such as XRF, has required researchers, such as myself, to be in contact and work closely with the metal detectors. This continued research leads to a reliance on the positive relationships cultivated by archaeologists and museums in the area and overcomes other biases the occur in the PAS database. Overall, this presentation will discuss the vital role metal detecting has played in archaeology and the issues with ownership over these items using my PhD research as a case study.


Big Data – Does Bias Matter?

Vanessa Oakden (Museum of Liverpool,

The Portable Antiquities Scheme has recorded over a million objects from England and Wales found by members of the public. How can we be sure we are getting an accurate picture of activity in the past when we use this data in our research? Many metal detectorists will detect on land that is accessible with suitable parking. Blank spots on maps can be due to the landowner refusing permission to detect or restrictions on the land rather than a lack of activity. Often finders will show the FLO what they believe is important or of interest rather than scrappy bits of metal which could still tell a story. FLOs with a heavy workload covering vast areas often need to prioritise some finds over others in order to manage their work load. Bias therefore is represented in a number of different ways within the scheme, this talk will discuss how we can address that bias or indeed if we need to.


‘The Whole Business is Rather a Nightmare …’: The Trouble with Forgetting Problematic Finds

Martyn Barber (Historic England,

Some artefacts never get to be seen by the public, not because of the stories that archaeologists want to tell but because of those they’d perhaps rather not, especially when those objects bring to the fore aspects of archaeology’s methods and history that some would prefer to ignore. In this paper, I want to look at the history and circumstances of two near-identical objects found in Wiltshire in the autumn of 1928, one of them very close to Stonehenge. Both were given to museums, but were never put on show – in fact, one of them (the Stonehenge one) was never accessioned and its whereabouts are now unknown. No notice has been taken of them for over 80 years. What are we missing by failing to address the interpretative challenges such objects offer, and in continuing to ‘forget’ that they exist?


Too Much Evidence: A Modern Conundrum of Space and Time

Dot Boughton (Oxford Archaeology North,

The archaeological evidence that we collect and store (in both units and museums) keeps growing alongside the number of methods applied to the evidence. This is true for both artefactual and paleo-environmental finds. This is to say – if we didn’t have microscopes and computers, would we bother keeping the fine and coarse residues to search for fish bones, grain husks and metal-working residues? Furthermore, we keep ‘stuff’ for potential future analysis. Science keeps developing new tools and new methods to analyse residues, ceramics, metal- and stonework. We can now look deep into ceramics and metal and find out more about where the clay came from and how the metals were alloyed. We feel it would be bad practice not to keep this evidence – even if we cannot analyse it now, but maybe, possibly, hopefully, theoretically at some point in the future. However, both museums and units run out of space: some collections have over 200 boxes of ceramics, metalwork needs conservation basically from the moment it comes out of the ground, and environmental sample tubs need (A LOT OF!) storage space – but when is ‘enough’ enough? When is the final report written and if there is a report, what evidence do we need to keep and what can be discarded – risking the possibility for future generations not to be able to ‘double-check’ our analyses or results?


Finds Processing: A Community vs. Commercial Perspective

Sam Rowe (Salford Archaeology,

Finds processing is an essential part of archaeological investigations. However, methods of collection, processing, recording and reporting can vary greatly depending on resources available and the nature of projects. This paper aims to present some of the different approaches applied and the challenges faced by units, museums, and those responsible for reporting archaeological finds.

On community-led projects 100% collection policies are often instigated in order to instruct volunteers, resulting in a greater need for post excavation processing. On commercial-led projects, material is often not retained and post excavation budgets are tight. This can lead to biases in the analysis of assemblages, with certain materials receiving greater attention. There is a need for greater standardisation of finds reporting across the sector.

The increasing pressure for museum space is also leading to more material being discarded, bringing into question the long term future of archaeological archives. How can we make better use of our archaeological collections?


Do we Sell our Integrity to Sell our Site?

Kevin Cootes (Poulton Project,

Archaeology has and continues to be well represented across British media on account of a continuing public interest. This exposure has certainly benefitted the discipline, but to gain national coverage usually requires an important find or headline grabber. Do we therefore need to ‘talk-up’ our site to bring it to public attention, even when the results themselves are nationally important? This paper focuses on one such example at Poulton in Cheshire and the contrasts encountered in advertising our discoveries. This long-term research project has revealed an extensive lowland Iron Age/Romano-British settlement, in addition to the remains of a medieval chapel and associated secular graveyard. Both periods have huge implications nationally, but the press has been far more interested in the human remains. This paper discusses why that is so.


Gender Bias: from Discovery to Display

Elsa Price (Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery,

From archaeologists to audiences there is an intent desire to know the sex or gender of inhumations. Our inherited societal bias has, until recently, assumed the existence of only two genders which correlate to biological sex. Burial goods have, therefore, become gendered to represent the sex of the inhumation as either female or male without necessarily confirming these assumptions through scientific analysis.

Using a case study from Tullie House this talk will examine how the self-perpetuating cycle of ‘male’ objects and ‘female’ objects represented in the Vikings Revealed exhibition has affected audiences understanding of sex and gender in this period.

Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery opened its Vikings Revealed exhibition in February 2016 which displayed key finds from the Cumwhitton, a Viking burial site. Cumwhitton was excavated following the discovery of a brooch by a metal detectorist who reported it to PAS in 2004. Overall 6 graves were identified and sexed based on their grave goods.


Archaeological Embroideries: Their Post-Excavation Journeys

Alexandra Makin (Society of Antiquaries;

Due to a renewed interest in medieval England during the nineteenth century, embroideries discovered during archaeological excavations were given more weight, with some being deposited in museums.  It was not until the twentieth century, however, that greater scientific understanding led to improved storage and conservation, which in turn came to influence their access, handling and study.

With the emergence of textile archaeology as a distinct sub-discipline, the study of archaeological embroideries became associated with the knowledge and forms of analysis developed in this field. The study of these embroideries is now shaped by conservation, storage, and technical ideas and assumptions developed by textile archaeologists.

This paper will demonstrate that, while developments in the conservation and study of archaeological embroidery have been positive, these objects can be studied as a distinct field, both technically and as material culture.  It will also consider possible implications this might have for their future management.


Audley End, Artefact Biography and the English Country House

Cait Scott (University of Sheffield,

This paper explores the potential of archaeological materials for the research and interpretation of the English post-medieval country house. Country house excavations are rare, yet large quantities of material from projects in the 20th century sit forgotten in the archives of heritage bodies and private trusts. A good example of this is Audley End (Essex), a Jacobean mansion, royal palace, and ultimately an English Heritage property. Its garden was excavated in the 1980s, revealing successive structural alterations and an incredible array of ceramics, organics, and building materials, yet this project has never been published and does not inform how the house is displayed. This paper explores how research into the archive, including the biographical study of the original project, could change understanding of the country house, with wider implications for how we could use archaeological archives when interpreting heritage buildings for the general public.