Archaeology 101: Small Finds

Today acting finds supervisor, Kirstie Watson, explains the small finds process.

Small finds come in all shapes and sizes, from the huge chunk of Amphora found in Trench 1 to the exquisite piece of gold recovered from Trench 3 earlier this week, but the one thing they all have in common is that in one way or another they are unique. Each small find is recorded individually (that is unless we are lucky enough to find another horse harness or styca hoard!), and their exact location is found to build up an exact picture of these finds within the trenches. Small finds individually contribute to our knowledge of the site, whether it be datable pottery fragments, or prestigious decorative objects, they help build up our knowledge of the history of Bamburgh Castle and the people who lived here.

The first thing to happen with small finds is someone has to find it! Hopefully we find it in the trench, which means we can get an exact 3D location for the find, but even if we find them in the sieve we record approximate co-ordinates to help us map their locations in the trench. A lot of our finds are recorded in situ by the media department, so we often have a comprehensive account of the find from the moment it comes out of the ground. After recovery, the finds are brought to the windmill for initial processing. The students record its context, location, material and a provisional identification before carefully bagging the find. All finds are left to dry, so that in storage they do not degrade from exposure to moisture, and then they move on to further processing.

Big T and Jeff bagging and recording small finds

After the finds have been initially recorded, they can undergo a number of different post-excavation processes. Des Taylor takes professional photographs of all of our small finds shortly after they have come out of the ground, and slowly we are building a catalogue of pictures of all of the small finds recovered during the excavation. We also aim to produce illustrations of our finds and lucky for us this week, we’ve had the amazing Natalie and Claire come and do some spectacular finds illustrations. Between them and a few eager volunteers we now have illustrations of a copper brooch, the decorated gold plate, one of the more well preserved stycas, a quern stone fragment and a piece of bone comb. Using a microscope to examine the intricate details, they have produced illustrations that demonstrate details that are too small for the naked eye to examine effectively, and the illustrations that have been produced give us a detailed examination of these extraordinary finds.

Nat and Clare illustrating finds using the microscope
The small finds sheet on which we write all the information associated with each small find and draw an accompanying illustration 

The final stage of the small finds process is to re-examine the finds: sometimes we might revise the identification, we might assess the finds as needing further conservation or specialist analysis. For instance, we have in previous years sent a number of stycas to be x-rayed, revealing the text hidden beneath the corrosion. Metals specialist David Simm has examined a number of our iron finds, from the seaxe recovered in 2008, to hundreds and hundreds of iron nails! Many finds, particularly metals, will be conserved and analysed in preparation for their continued storage here at the castle. The more exciting finds will end up on display in the castle museum, or as we’ve seen recently with the gold plate, might even end up on the news!

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