Have you ever wondered what happens to a find of any significance made on a Roman site like Arbeia? Once excavated how is that find recorded, cleaned, catalogued and then chosen for storage or display? I have asked myself these questions on numerous occasions in the past and never really got to know the full story. Now, with the help of curator, Alex Croom, and staff at Arbeia I can tell you exactly how this is done.
From the moment a find is made until the final step (storage or display) I will guide you through this process with as much accuracy as is possible with the aid of photographs and tables so hopefully you will be able to appreciate the hard and precise work that goes into this small part of archaeology. The find we will follow here is a piece of BB1 (Black Burnishedware 1). I hope you will enjoy this section of the site as much as I did researching it. The information and "rules" that follow are those used at Arbeia and will be extremely similar to those used at other sites. The photograph above shows excavators who volunteered through the EarthWatch scheme and came from Canada, USA, Japan and several European countries. The BB1 we follow from its initial find can be located in the link Our Find.
So, where does it all begin? Well, the first step is the decision to actually excavate a given area of a site and allocate what is called a context area. There is no actual size limit for the context area - it could be very small, like a room or wall, or other given area of particular interest. Once the decision is made and the archaeologists are on site they are given trays with the allocated context area number on them. This number will be of a standard format. For example, the number that was allocated to the piece of BB1 that we followed was SS03 26836. The identifiers in this number are: SS03=South Shields (Arbeia) 2003, meaning the piece was found in South Shields in 2003 - logical really - and the 26836 would be the context number of the area of the site the find was removed from. In this case the piece was found in the Praetoria in the plough soil. By plough soil we mean that the soil would have been churned up by ploughing after the item was originally placed when discarded and farmers would then inadvertently move the deposits around while actually working the soil. So, the possibility that the find could have moved is distinct, but nevertheless important.
Back to our context area... when an excavation is about to start and more than one area is to be investigated then each of those areas is given its own unique context area number. This is so finds from two or more different parts of the site do not get mixed up. However, the site code will remain the same. For our piece of BB1 we deal with one context area as if it were the only one on site to less complicate matters. Once the archaeologists are moved on site they take with them trays with the given context area number and site code printed on a label stuck to the tray. Any other numbers on the tray will be for recording purposes only. Records are kept along the way as any missed information could prove very costly and this is done via the excavation record sheet (detailed within this site). Any finds are now placed into those trays from that area. Subsequent trays are used when the initial one is full with the same number attached as the first and any finds are stored in those trays in the museum until the next process which is cleaning. The full process is followed in Our Find.