Labels, Labels, Labels

We always tell students and visitors that archaeology has way more paperwork involved in it than you see in popular culture portrayals. In addition to myriad paper forms and their increasingly digital counterparts, we also rely heavily on labels and labelling conventions that are used in every department on site.

Tools of the trade.

Our trusty Sharpie is always on hand for label emergencies. (Sharpies are also like currency on a dig, you protect them and hand them over only occasionally and with great suspicion of those you loan it to.) What may seem like normal paper beside it, however, is a little bit of high-tech stationary: it’s known colloquially as Tyvek, which is technically a trademark in the United States, but has become a generic name for the type of material our labels are made from. This phenomenon is known as “generification,” where a brand becomes a generic term, thus putting the brand’s legal right to their name in jeopardy. For example, plasters in the UK are called “band-aids” in the US, named for the brand “Band-Aid.” It happens sometimes with the word Sharpie in place of other permanent markers too! Even words like elevator and zipper were once trademarked, but they became the word everybody used for those inventions.

Tyvek is a synthetic material made of high-density polyethylene fibres spun together and trademarked by Dupont. HDPE used in things like plastic bottles, and they can be recycled: they are labelled as number 2 with the little recycling logo to ensure they are processed in the proper recycling stream. Tyvek is commonly seen as house wrap on construction or renovation projects, but it can be used for things like PPE (personal protective equipment) and packaging as well. The way the fibres are smushed together and not woven makes the material water-repellent, and thus weatherproof. It also means you can’t rip the material with your bare hands; you need sharp scissors or a utility knife. They can be written or printed on, but, as you can imagine, with the amount of labels we are writing every day, it makes more sense to just use a Sharpie.

We use these labels in finds trays at the trenchside and as-yet-unwashed at the washing station, in the blue plastic drying trays for washed bulk material and wet environmental samples, on the sorting trays of bulk material, and in the environmental samples themselves.

Environmental samples that have been floated drying in blue trays.

The finds trays at the trenchside have two bits of information on them: the site code and the context number. The site code includes the letters BC for Bamburgh Castle and the last two digits of the year the material was excavated; everything we find this year is labelled BC22. Our context number is written in a circle or in parentheses to represent an area of activity or occupation within the trench. This same information is copied onto new labels when the material is being washed to denote where the drying material has come from and when it was found. When the material is dry and ready to be sorted, the label is kept on the sorting table or tray and copied onto bulk finds bags (more on that in a mo).

Bits of animal bone excavated in 2019 in the middle of sorting.

Environmental samples also have that same information, but with an added number written in a diamond denoting what sample it is. When we take a sample of a context, we assigned the sample a number. We put multiple labels in each bucket or bag of sample, as well as labelling the bucket or bag directly. When we separate the heavy material from the flot (which is collected in a little mesh bag), each of those are labelled too! The sheer quantity of labels is unending! In the picture below, you can see an old sample that was in storage was also marked with how many total buckets of sample were taken, here “2 of 3.”

An environmental sample that has not been floated yet.

When we are dealing with bulk finds that have dried and are being sorted, we write the site code, context number, brief identification, number of pieces, and weight in grams. It goes on a little label AND on the plastic bag.

Sorted animal bone.

For small finds, which are the more unique or unusual artefacts we find, we do the same process for labelling a bulk find with one more added number: a small finds number. These numbers are taken out consecutively from a register during the season and written in a triangle. Here’s the bone toggle with all the information required to track and analyse it.

A small find and its bag.

Is that too many numbers and letters for you on a Sunday evening? I understand. To settle down, have a bowl of soup.

Way Back Wednesday: Glass Beads

The weather this morning was a bit ugly, so some of the students went into the archive annex in the castle to organise small finds from years past. We were reconciling information in our database and the physical storage containers and shelf-marks. As we nosed around the different boxes, we came across two blue glass beads excavated in 2012 from Trench 3. (It was a weird blast from the past for Constance and Lauren, who were both students at the time.)

9th-century blue beads.

Both beads came from the eastern half of the trench at a level pretty securely dated to the 9th century. The bead on the left, a globular bead, was from the northeast corner where a very compact, stony context was located. The bead on the right, a barrel bead, was from the southeast corner, where we found a large area of burning and evidence that suggested it was possibly the site of a stable.

Most of our knowledge of early medieval beads actually comes from surveys of grave goods. Between the 5th and 7th centuries, much of the glass was recycled from Roman material; when new beads were made, their chemical content suggested they came from raw glass from the Near East. The period of the beads we’ve found are not associated with graves, as furnished burials were less common in Christianised communities. This unpublished thesis from James Robert Nicholas Peake talks a little bit more about early medieval bead production via a case study from RAF Lakenheath assemblages. It’s only in the 8th and 9th centuries that we have on the ground evidence for production in Britain becomes available. Things like beads would have likely been produced by travelling artisans, rather than as a household industry. The 9th century is also a time when the fluxes (material that lowers the melting point of silicates) used to stabilise the batch of ingredients were purposefully richer in potash (potassium oxide) instead of natron (soda ash), which protected the glass from water damage. The blue colour of our beads was probably due to the addition of cobalt, but could have been exacerbated by Roman cullet (leftover broken bits added to fresh glass) during the 9th century.

There’s a really great open access book that talks all about early medieval beads in English contexts you can read here.

To Scrub-a-dub, or Not to Scrub-a-dub?

A major part of finds processing is cleaning the material that has come from the trench, because you can’t identify something if it’s covered in mud! Many artefacts are washed with clean, detergent-free water, while others that can’t get wet are brushed off dry.

Brushing a bit of long bone.

We place a tray of dirty finds next to a basin of water and place the cleaned finds in a blue tray with newspaper to aid with drying. Both trays must be labelled with year and context number to keep track of where things were found

The most common tool we use is a toothbrush with synthetic bristles, and instead of scrubbing the artefact while submerged, we bring the water on the brush up to the artefact. This prevents the artefact from soaking up too much of the water and becoming unstable and falling apart.

The toothbrush is a pretty gentle tool, even with vigorous brushing for example on very muddy animal bone. Sometimes, however, you’ll find areas you can’t quite reach due to the toothbrush head’s size. In those instances, we use more pokey tools, but start with the softest (wooden skewers) before using something more heavy duty (metal dental tools). This is similar to the process professional archaeological conservators will use in a lab: you always start with the gentlest tool and work your way up to something harder. Conservators also use more unusual tools before they reach for the dentist’s kit, for example, using rose thorns or porcupine quills to scrape off stubborn bits!

But before you even get to sit down in front of your basin set-up, you’ll need to know what can get washed and what needs to be kept dry.


Animal bone (including horn cores and antler) is almost always perfectly suited to washing unless you find something super unexpected like preserved flesh (but this is not really an option in our soil environment). This category also includes worked bone, but if there are incised lines, you’d want to be particularly careful not to damage any decoration.

Human bone can be washed, but only extremely carefully, and it should be handled outside of view of the public. It is important to note any areas of discolouration due to contact with metal objects and not wet those areas. For example, if a green stain appears on an arm bone, the individual may have been wearing something made of copper alloy that eventually rested directly on the bone in the burial. Similarly, an orange stain could suggest an iron implement was nearby. We hope to do a future blog post on corrosion, but these two are the most common examples that leave a trace on human bones.

Animal bone.


Prehistoric pottery can be extremely delicate and friable, crumbling even as you excavate it in moist soil, and thus may need to be left alone for a few days to dry naturally. Then it can be gently dry brushed to determine if it should be wet again at all. You may also use a sponge to clean these early earthenwares. Most historical pottery, in general, is a robust material in that it survives in the archaeological record, regardless of being in pieces. Glazed pottery can be washed, but not scrubbed vigorously on the glazed surfaces. Painted pottery surfaces should not be washed, as the pigments could easily be lost. When we find Samian ware, a Roman ceramic type from Gaul (modern France) (hyperlink), we do usually wash it, but without the scrubbing tools. We do this to preserve the surface, but still be able try to identify the pattern and any maker’s mark. If pottery seems to have food residue on its surface, we do not wash it, and, if possible, can send it away for further analysis to learn about the diet of the community that used it.

Green glaze (13thC)

Clay pipes

Pipe-stems and pipe-bowls, can be washed fairly easily, but you must take care when clearing out the borehole so as not to send a crack down the whole stem. Pipe-stems were often broken during use, and anywhere you find British influence after the commodification of tobacco you find broken bits of clay pipe.

19thC clay pipe stem with edge of bowl and spur.


Ceramic building material like fired bricks or tiles can be washed, while unfired clay, mud bricks, and daub is brushed while dry.

Ceramic building material.


We don’t wash charcoal, as it will crumble easily. Instead, we dry-brush it gently and bag this separately. In special cases of large charcoal deposits, they will be taken as a sample rather than collected with bulk finds. Environmental archaeologists can then examine the sample to try to ascertain wood species and possible dendrochronological (tree-ring) data.

Charcoal fragment.


Glass can be washed if it is not iridescent—that is, if it doesn’t have gold flakes on the surface or rainbow-coloured patches. These are ways glass corrodes, where the layers of glass pull apart from each other allowing air in between. The bouncing around of light in these tiny air gaps leads to the beautiful colours visible.


On our site, we used to wash all shell that we found, all molluscs but from gastropods (like snails) to bivalves (like oysters). We no longer wash oyster shells because they often simply fall apart when brushed.

Snail and oyster.

Stone and mortar

While we don’t find a vast quantity of stone artefacts on our site, we have in the past found tools and debitage (waste flakes) of flint. Flint, along with other worked stone, can be washed, unless painted or covered with mortar. Mortar clumps and mortar spreads on stone are brushed while dry.

Stone with mortar.

Metal and slag


8thC iron knife blade.

It’s not the end of the world if you do start washing something and suddenly realise it’s heavier than it looks or reveals a metal surface. Just stop brushing immediately and allow it to dry. If it is dry, you may dry-brush it gently. We just want the soil off the surface because it’s within the skillset of the professional conservator to best decide how to handle the corrosion. We also do not wash slag (metal byproduct comprised of impurities).

A Day in Archaeology: the CBA’s Digital Festival of Archaeology

A Day in Archaeology twitter card people

Have you ever wondered what archaeologists really do?  Do they just dig or are there other aspects to their work? A Day in Archaeology showcases “a day in the life” of archaeologists from all over the UK. It also explores pathways into the profession and, this year, the impact of the C-19 pandemic on individuals and organisations. The day is part of the Council for British Archaeology’s ‘Festival of Archaeology‘ and one of our Director’s, Jo, happens to work for them, so she has put together a blog post focusing on her time with the BRP and the impact C-19 has had on the project.

You can read the blog here: Jo’s ‘A Day in Archaeology’ Blog 

Way Back Wednesday: Week 6

Today’s artefact from the archives was set aside for one of the project’s very dear friends to take a look at, and his conclusion was a possible bombshell. Zooarchaeology is one of the strengths of our staff this season, but there’s always more to learn, so we invited David Constantine, zooarchaeologist and specialist in bone-working, to look over some of our more curious cases. There was a small unassuming bit of cow rib with linear incisions on it, but it didn’t quite look like butchering or de-fleshing, and it came out of a high medieval (11th-13th centuries…ish) layer. We played around with the lighting, as changing the angle of the light source can help both etching and carvings in relief stand out a bit better. And suddenly, these lines started to look a little bit more purposeful. Are they tally marks? Or something else?

After much back and forth, we may…just maybe…have some runes on this little bit of bone! Runes used in Germanic languages tend to be very linear, making them more easily carved on stone, bone, and wood. The question then becomes, whose runes? The likely answer is the runic system used for Anglo-Saxon writing known as the “futhorc” or “fuþorc.” (Click here and scroll down to the fifth paragraph for a reminder on how to pronounce that weird-looking letter!) This rune system is intrinsically tied the runic system of the Viking Age as both are descended from an earlier corpus known as the Elder Futhark (roughly beginning in the 2nd century). The futhorc is used in Frisia, one of the Anglo-Saxon homelands, and makes its way to Britain during the 5th-7th centuries; its displacement begins due to the rise of the Roman alphabet employed by the arriving Christian missionaries. Anglo-Saxon runic inscriptions, however, are still used into the 12th century! There are only about 200 surviving futhorc inscriptions, so if these are proper runes we’ve got something pretty cool in our archive.

Did you notice how “futhorc” and “futhark” sound similar? Both words are literally just an elision of the first few sounds of the rune alphabet. By the way, the word “alphabet” is just the smushing of “alpha” and “beta” from the first two letters of the Greek writing system (itself descended from the Phoenicians) that heavily influenced the Roman alphabet allowing you to read this very blog post.

Carved bits and bobs have been found in northern European contexts of both the futhorc and Viking Age Younger Futhark (9th-12th centuries) on small portable items like bits of wood and bone known as runesticks, but also on large carved runestones. The well-known (and beloved here at the project) Franks Casket contains numerous runic inscriptions carved into whale bone panels and likely originated here in Northumbria in the 8th century.

Whale ivory box with low-relief carvings of various well-known tales and Anglo-Saxon runes.

The 8th-century Franks Casket depicts a variety of scenes from the biblical to the folkloric. Photo courtesy of the British Museum.

Runes were clearly a major part of early Germanic writing culture, and they feature prominently in several of the Exeter Book riddles, as well as a poem known as the “Old English Rune Poem” whose original has since been lost but describes 29 Anglo-Saxon runes. The runic alphabets employed from the 2nd century get revamped over the years and become associated with magic and mystery. Authors like Tolkein and the creators of other intricate fantasy universes have seized on this popular image of runes, and it doesn’t seem they are disappearing any time soon from our collective consciousness.

Chart of Anglo-Saxon runes, transliteration, and phonetic value.

Rune chart from user aldomann on Deviantart.

The chart above shows the rune, transliteration (meaning the letter image for the sound we would write it as in modern English), and International Phonetic Alphabet phonetic sound. The IPA uses symbols to represent the different sounds humans have the ability to articulate, so you can match the symbol in the right columns to this interactive chart here so you can hear the sounds they each represent.

Fresh from the Trench: Week 6 – Two for the price of one!

Within minutes of each other, we found two very curious artefacts, and admittedly we are a little confused by both.


The first was a bit of glazed pottery from the very bottom of a late medieval pit in the north of the trench. It is quite unlike most of the pottery we find anywhere in the trench, and initially the chocolate-y brown on beige caused some unwanted ceramic flashbacks for some of us to a particularly hideous slipware (pottery decorated with creamy clay that turns a different colour when fired, often with browns on yellows and vice versa) we see in the 17th-18th centuries (so we guess you could call them flashforwards?). We of course don’t think the pottery is that recent, but it is certainly giving off some major post-green-glaze vibes that suggest the very end of the medieval period. A tinge of green-glaze is still there, but the dark smears on the light background give the whole fragment the appearance of a sundae stirred as it melts. This sherd is curved but rather thick, but if it is part of a rim, we can place it on a chart of ruled concentric circles (or get out a good old-fashioned mathematical compass to measure the arcs and use a little maths) to determine how wide the mouth of the vessel it came from was. We are thinking it more likely might be a piece of a handle. Rims, bases, and sometimes handles can help us deduce vessel type or even a possible date range! We are still scratching our heads on this for now.


The second artefact is even more mysterious, and we are absolutely stumped. It’s worked stone, but for what purpose? The two prongs are reminiscent of our leather hole-spacer, but the short circular tab is not really ergonomic enough for getting the same kind of leverage to actually punch a hole as the bone tool as it can only be grasped and pinched between the thumb and forefinger.. This is something we need to experiment with and brainstorm further. The object was excavated from the very weird northwest corner of the trench that never dries and sometimes produces Roman material. This little stone thingamabob was inside a pit abutting the bedrock. Any ideas or guesses are welcome!

Way Back Wednesday: Week 5

Orange-red potsherd with raised tree and bird decoration.In keeping with our Roman theme from yesterday, our Way Back artefact is this lovely bit of Roman pottery. It is known as Samian Ware or terra sigillita, an orangey-red often slightly-shiny type of pottery found throughout the western empire from around the late 1st century BC to the 3rd century AD. Samian refers to island of Samos, a Greek island where is supposedly originated, while the Latin name means “sealed earth.” Much of the Samian Ware we find was actually imported from manufacturers in the southern parts of Gaul, a region that corresponds to modern France and the western Rhineland of Germany. Some Samian ware is made on a potter’s wheel but the decorated type, like our piece, is made in a mould; either way they are then dipped in a fine slip (watery clay, kind of creamy to the touch, used to decorate vessels or bond ceramic parts) before being fired in a kiln.

Line drawing of Roman pottery sherd.

Illustrated by Finds Assistant Kennedy Dold.

We at Bamburgh sit between two walls…the stone forts and milecastles of Hadrian (started in 122AD) and the turf of Antoninus (started 142AD). This is truly a frontier zone for much of the Roman presence in Britain, so we can’t say for sure that our artefact belonged to a Citizen of Rome (capitalized as such because that was a strict legal status that afforded certain rights) or one of the Celtic-speaking peoples that lived in and around what became Bamburgh. There was certainly interaction, which we know from both archaeology and Roman primary sources, but the extent of the Roman presence and/or Roman merchandise diffusion at Din Guaire/Din Guayrdi (which is the name derived from Brittonic that scholars have projected back onto the site before it was named for Bebba around the turn of the 7th century…the origins of the Welsh-ish name is a whole other can of worms, to be honest) is still a bit of a mystery.

Fresh from the Trench: Week 5

Today one of our students was working in the very weird northwest corner of the trench. He was taking down the last quadrant left to excavate when he discovered a small, chunky bit of glass. It was his first day in the trench, and found this:


The glass is bluish, with pale yellow striping on one side. The thickness and curve suggest it was probably a bangle or bracelet. How can we date it since we find artefacts from multiple time periods in that weird part of the trench? The composition (as evidenced by its color) and form all suggest we are looking at a Roman object. Whether it belonged to a Roman citizen or a Celtic-speaking Iron Age inhabitant of the settlement site presently encircled by the Castle is unknown. What we do know however is that it’s likely from after the 1st century AD, when Roman glass production become more efficient both technologically and economically and its presence became more widespread.


Roman glass was made from sand and natron (to help the silica of the sand melt at a lower temperature). The lime found naturally in the sand actually prevented the finished glass from dissolving in water. The natron, known as soda ash or sodium carbonate, is the very same natron the Egyptians used in mummification, maybe even from the very same source they used that the Romans later appropriated for their glass industry, Wadi El Natrun in Egypt. The Romans began making clearer glasses as their technology improved, but many fragments show us that their glass would retain a bluish-green hue if untreated with other elements and minerals.

We are quite lucky that this small fragment was never recycled as “cullet,” or the broken glass melted down to be reused in glass furnaces. Had the Anglo-Saxons found it, it might have been melted and worked into a bead. Maybe that’s what happened to the missing pieces? Instead, it survived as a little piece of personal adornment of a person who lived over 1,500 years ago. What a life it must have led!


Way Back Wednesday: Week 4

Today’s Way Back artefact was certainly a bit of a head-scratcher for a while! It’s a worked bone object that was discovered in 2006 in a late medieval midden (rubbish heap). Bone and antler are very common for hand-tools going back over (at the very least) 1.5 million years of human evolutionary history, because they are quite hardy and may be sourced as a byproduct of subsistence (eat the animals, use the bones!). There is also evidence, however, that some species were not used in early tool-making communities, perhaps due to a societal taboo rather than availability. We would have to do more invasive tests to get what species this tool was made from, as there are no diagnostic shapes or blemishes that could hint at what animal it once was.

Small rectangular bone tool with two stubby, triangular prongs. Carved with a sharp knotwork pattern.

We previously looked at our blundered or practice knife handle, but this object is of a different quality of craftsmanship entirely. The object below has carving on both flat sides as well as along the edges.

Small rectangular bone tool with two stubby triangular prongs.

The other side.

Side view of bone tool with incised dots.

Incised dots running down the sides.

Its size and shape suggest it is also a craftworking tool, fitting neatly in one’s hand, but from what industry? Our best theory is that it’s for leather-working, as small metal tools of the rough dimensions has been used for pricking leathers and skins. Bone awls are known from sites around the world, used to work hide and even wood, so perhaps this is in a similar vein. Other uses could be associated with basket-working or thread-twisting (lucets/chain forks for knotting long cords etc), as double-pronged bone has been used in those crafts, but the scale of the prongs on our piece seems to rule out these uses. Microscopic examination could reveal more about the wear-patterns on the surface of the tines, but even from cursory examination the curve in the piece probably came from use in a stabbing or thrusting motion. There is no visible sign of twisting or torqueing, or even the constant flipping in one’s hand of a lucet. The stubby prongs also support the poking or pricking theory.

This illustration by Finds Assistant Kennedy really brings out the detail of the carving in a way that a simple photo couldn’t!



Anyway, we also cannot rule out 100% that it’s not a chip fork from an Anglo-Saxon chippy…okay we can rule that out or the Finds Team will be cross with us.

Fresh from the Trench: Week 4

Light brown latch with a loop at one end and a very shallow hook resting in someone's cupped palms.

Right at the end of the day yesterday, one of our new students was working in the extended sondage near the trench entrance ramp. She found this iron object in the southwest corner of the mini-trench, abutting the edge of the cobbled yard in the southeast part of the trench. We think it looks like a latch, with a suspension loop at one end and a tapered, very shallow hook at the other end that might catch an “eye,” or loop/U-shape hammered into a surface. Even though it is corroded, it still retains the probable shape of the object rather well.

This isn’t always the case! Iron is particularly difficult to work with when it corrodes. Much of the iron we excavate are small objects completely covered in corrosion, sometimes identifiable as nails or tacks but other times just oblong lumps. On other sites, we have all seen iron concretions that reveal nothing of the original object until they are x-rayed! On another site, for example, something vaguely like a scotch egg appeared, and when x-rayed was shown to be multiple links of a chain that had rusted together. Iron corrosion is also very cheeky in that it often consumes or cements the iron object to nearby objects in the findspot, making them corrode as well. Think back to the image in our riddle solution post to see what iron and copper rivets look like corroded together: pretty unidentifiable at first glance. We have all seen iron corrosion pick up soil and sand, and sometimes even bits of bone and pottery!

How do we know it is iron? Many of the common metals we find archaeologically are fairly readily identifiable by their corrosion! Other clues like weight could be used but examining the corrosion allows you to simply observe particularly vulnerable metal objects without handling them. Iron commonly forms oxides, in an attempt to stabilize itself, and that’s how we end up with rust. Ferric oxide and ferrous oxide, brown and red/orange respectively, are what we find most often. Another metal that we have found on site frequently are copper alloys, which in our particular archaeological environment tend to turn green and pale green depending on the electrochemical changes; these colors represent the presence of chlorides rather than oxides. Lead, in addition to being much heavier than it looks, usually corrodes into carnbonates, giving it a white or grey appearance. Silver is most often affected by sulfur, leaving a black tarnish. And what about the shiniest-of-shinies? Gold doesn’t corrode hideously at all, it just becomes a purer form of itself!