Storing, handling, recording and transporting

The discovery of any artefacts are split into two categories; either bulk or small finds. Each category follows its own meticulous process, in order to preserve the integrity and journey of the find, which we discuss below.

Bulk finds

A bulk find is anything which can be classified as an ‘artefact’ and does’t need any special treatment or conservation. This can include: pottery, animal bone, glass, worked stone/flint, building material, nails, charcoal and shell.

From left to right: A photo of a student on site and a photo of a student washing some finds

Processing bulk finds

  • Collection: Bulk finds are collected on site and placed into a tray labelled with the context number.

  • Washing: At the finds hut, the finds are washed (with the exception of metals, glass and anything which might be too delicate to wash, such as prehistoric pottery or painted plaster; another exception to this is charcoal which is kept intact to be sent to specialists). Below is a guide we often use on site.

Do wash Don’t wash
Animal bone and teeth—as long as the bone isn’t crumbly, then this can be washed safely. If the bone is very porous, then place to one side of your clean finds tray. The only other time we don’t wash bone is if it is articulated. Metal—it will start to corrode or rust.
Pottery—every surface can be washed, paying special attention to the sides of the sherds, as this is the diagnostic feature of the pottery that the specialist looks at. The only time we don’t wash pottery is when there is the potential for organic remains, eg residues, concretion or whole pot bases. Plaster—it will disintegrate.
Ceramic Building Material (CBM)—make sure you take the worst of the mud off the CBM, but mainly concentrate on the flat surfaces of the tile, as it is here you may find animal or human prints. Shell—it will disintegrate.
  Opus Signinum—this is a type of concrete, and again will disintegrate if introduced to water.
  Glass—there is a safety issue here, where you may cut yourself if you are not careful. Also there may be some form of coating on the glass that will be destroyed if it is washed
  Use your common sense. If you think it will be destroyed by washing, DON’T wash it.
  • Drying: Once washed, the finds are left to dry, and must be completely dry before more work can be done to them.

  • Bagging: All the bulk finds are bagged separately by context and find type and recorded in bulk finds recording sheets. This will usually involve weighing and sometimes counting each individual piece to get an idea of exactly how much of each find type there is in a context.

  • Specialists: These are eventually sent to the relevant experts for further study and interpretation

From left to right): A photo of a tray of bulk finds drying, a photo of students bagging and recording finds at the hut, and a photo of finds stored away in boxes


Small Finds

Anything which is not a bulk find will be classified as a small find (sometimes also called registered finds). Small finds usually have different conservation requirements (specifically metals), but they can also be labelled as small finds because they are of special significance to the site/context.

Processing small finds

  • Numbering: When a small find is discovered on site, the first thing to do is give it a unique, small finds number.

  • On Site Recording: The small find has to be 3-D recorded, this means that levels and coordinates are taken of the location where it was found.

  • Finds Hut recording: In the finds hut other details such as weight and measurements are also recorded in the individual Small Finds Recording Sheets.

  • Bagging/boxing: Those finds that can be washed are washed in the finds hut, then bagged or boxed separately from the bulk finds.

  • Conservation/specialists: The small finds are kept together by materials, and sent to the relevant conservation or finds specialists for further research.

From left to right): A photo of detailed sketch of a skeleton that was discovered, a photo of a student holding a small find and a photo of a student holding a tray of small finds


After the excavation

Once the finds leave site, they are stored in specially made cardboard boxes of the appropriate size and shape to suit the museum which will eventually house them.

There are some exceptions to this, for example metals which are traditionally kept in plastic containers, but this is generally up to the museum and their archive and conservation team.

To make it easier for researchers in the future to find what they are looking for, the finds are split by materials and the boxes are labelled. Depending on the project, these can also be sent straight to the specialists before going to the museum.

Splitting the objects into the appropriate boxes and labelling them correctly also makes it easier for the museum to store them in conditions which are appropriate to their conservation requirements. This is the final step in the transition of the finds from site to the museum.

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This article is from the free online course:

Archaeology: from Dig to Lab and Beyond

University of Reading