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Categorising small finds

Though armour and pieces of weaponry are attention grabbing and important sources of information in military contexts, and can reveal much about soldiers’ military identities, they represent only a small proportion of the artefacts discovered on sites along Hadrian’s Wall.

Archaeologists use the term small finds for those that are not environmental evidence (for example pollen samples) or bulk finds (for example pottery, which is often found in very large quantities on Roman sites). Small finds are considered important by archaeologists because they can reveal a great deal about the wider society under investigation, rather than just soldiers, and they can indicate the ways in which a site upon which they were excavated was used.

A pioneer in the field of small finds studies, Nina Crummy, grouped them into 18 functional categories in her 1983 publication on the small finds recovered in excavations at Colchester:

Crummy, N. (ed.)(1983) Colchester Archaeological Report 2: The Roman small finds from excavations in Colchester 1971-9. Colchester: Colchester Archaeological Trust Ltd.

You may find the following list useful for reference, as some categories can be somewhat open to interpretation and some objects could arguably be attributed to more than one category. Also, whilst some objects may appear familiar, having changed little over the centuries, others are quite culturally specific and therefore appear rather alien to modern viewers with no experience of them.

Many colleagues have found Crummy’s classification system useful, and you will be encouraged to apply them to a selection of small finds in the quiz that follows. The 18 categories established by Crummy are:

  1. Objects of personal adornment or dress
  2. Toilet, surgical or pharmaceutical instruments
  3. Objects used in the manufacture or working of textiles
  4. Household utensils and furniture
  5. Objects used for recreational purposes
  6. Objects employed in weighing and measuring
  7. Objects for, or associated with, written communications
  8. Objects associated with transport
  9. Buildings and services
  10. Tools
  11. Fasteners and fittings
  12. Objects associated with agriculture, horticulture and animal husbandry
  13. Military equipment
  14. Objects associated with religious beliefs and practices
  15. Objects and waste material associated with metal working
  16. Objects and waste material associated with antler, horn, bone and tooth working
  17. Objects and waste material associated with the manufacture of pottery and pipeclay objects
  18. Objects the function or identification of which is unknown or uncertain

Detailed work on Roman small finds is an important field of expertise at Newcastle. If you want to learn more about this subject we would strongly recommend a book by the former Director of Newcastle University’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Artefact Studies:

Lindsay Allason-Jones (2011) Artefacts in Roman Britain: Their purpose and use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

We would also recommend the excellent database developed by the Portable Antiquities Scheme

Now try using the Crummy classification yourself in the next step.

Before moving on, you might like to have a look at the Portable Antiquities Scheme database and think about the Crummy classification system in relation to some of the finds catalogued there, before you attempt the quiz which comes up next.

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This article is from the free online course:

Hadrian's Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier

Newcastle University

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