Archaeological Finds: a guide to identification by Norena Shopland
A Finds Manual: excavating, processing and storing by Norena
In the introduction to Archaeological Finds, Norena Shopland correctly points out that while archaeological artefacts are well represented in the available literature, there is no single publication which draws together information on the full range of artefacts to give a comprehensive guide to identification. This is an issue which has long exercised those of us who are active in the study of archaeological artefacts, and who doubtless possess bookshelves groaning under the weight of a plethora of books, monographs, academic journals and file upon file of photocopied articles. Likewise, in the introduction to A Finds Manual, she notes the absence of a book solely dedicated to the care of finds.
Are these two books, then, destined to become ‘essential handbooks for anyone interested in archaeology and keen to learn more about identifying artefacts’? Well intentioned they certainly are, and contain some useful information, but they certainly do not deserve to become indispensable companions. For one of the prime reasons why, we return to the introduction to Archaeological Finds, in which Shopland explains that, while employed as a finds processor on a large London site, and lacking any guidance from colleagues, she began to amass photocopies of useful reports and articles which she then ‘condensed into notes and illustrations which would serve as a quick reference’. And this is just what this book is – it is a conglomeration of facts gleaned from a multitude of different publications, but filtered through one person’s personal reference system.
The difficulties of collating a large amount of information on a wide range of artefact types should surely be apparent to any experienced practitioner in the field – it is a task I would not lightly undertake myself, with over 20 years’ experience of finds work, and I certainly would not attempt it without other specialist input. Unfortunately this is exactly what Shopland has done, and it shows.
Archaeological Finds starts off with a guide to materials – how to recognise them, how they survive in various conditions, and how to treat them during processing. This is reasonably sound – much of the information can be gleaned from First Aid for Finds or Henry Hodges 1964 volume (still one of the best of its kind) on Artifacts: An Introduction to Early Materials and Technology. There are, however, points of concern – the caveat over using toothbrushes on earthenware pottery (which would apparently restrict finds washers to stonewares), the instruction to secure plastic bags containing organic materials in water with staples, and the rather dangerous suggestion that lead should be cleaned by brushing once dry (Health & Safety information is prominently quoted elsewhere in both books, but there is no mention here of even washing one’s hands after handling lead).
The next two chapters are devoted respectively to Flint and Pottery (why are these not ‘Materials’?), and are designed more as an aid to identification of types and forms. It is in these chapters that the shortcomings of Shopland’s personal data-gathering system (and experience) are most apparent – she is quite patently not a specialist in either material, and the elementary errors in each chapter are embarrassing in their frequency. Olduwan stone tools are named after the type site of Olduvai Gorge (not Olduvia). The ‘trenchet’ axe is a type hitherto unknown to my flint specialist colleagues, who have been wont to describe it as a tranchet axe. A flake is defined as ‘more than twice as long as it is broad’ (where does that leave Late Neolithic and Bronze Age flint specialists?) and the classification of scrapers (which are described twice, once as flake scrapers and again as blade scrapers) as ‘round’, ‘carinate’ and ‘nose’ is certainly not in regular use.
The pottery section is likewise muddled and inaccurate. Definitions of vessel forms try to be all-inclusive, and it just doesn’t work. A dish doesn’t always have a ‘rim diameter always greater than the base’, and a vase is not necessarily ‘a very ornate jar’. There are apparently ‘three general types’ of drinking vessels – in fact, four are listed (beaker, cup, tazza and mug/tankard). The class of ‘beaker’ includes prehistoric Beakers, which might explain why they are described as occurring in ‘many sizes and shapes’ (not very helpful for identification); the ‘tazza’ as described and illustrated is a Roman form and cannot be regarded as the same as prehistoric cups which are also included in this category. Jugs are not necessarily ‘divided into three forms’ (slender, medium and squat) – this is presented in the classification of medieval pottery forms (MPRG 1998) as just one method of defining jug profiles. The MPRG classification has been plundered several times in this section, not least for its illustrations (a point to which we will return later), but not to any great purpose – it certainly does not classify all medieval vessel forms as ‘based on ... jugs, jars and bowls’, nor does it contain ‘dipping dishes’ (‘dripping dish’ is the correct term).
The chronological descriptions of pottery give further cause for concern; this is regurgitated information that has been poorly understood and badly assimilated. There is little apparent understanding of the technology, regionality or development of British ceramics. Errors are so numerous as to make listing them wearisome, but I should just point out the terminally confused section on Middle and Late Bronze Age ceramics. ‘During the Middle Bronze Age … The principal form was a collard [sic] urn’ (which is illustrated, although the label appears instead under a drawing of a Bucket Urn which, admittedly, is at least of the right date range). The ‘collard urn’ was apparently replaced in the Late Bronze Age by the bucket urn, which ‘went on to become the dominant vessel in [the] Iron Age’. Jumping ahead to the post-medieval period (which is not to say that the intervening periods are acceptably presented – they are not), basic misunderstanding of technological processes is much in evidence. Tin-glazed pottery did not ‘result from the race to imitate Chinese porcelain’, since its manufacture in Europe predated the first significant imports of porcelain from the Far East, although Chinese influence can be seen on the 17th and early 18th century wares. The statement that ‘tinglazed ware was not strong enough for everyday use’ is inexplicable in the light of the large quantities of chamber pots and drug jars, for example, in use in the 17th and 18th centuries. Slipwares are not ‘dipped in tinted lead glaze’ – the glaze takes its colour from the clay body. Slip coatings on sgraffito wares are not cut away after firing, but before, and so on, and so on. As a pottery specialist, I found this section profoundly painful.
The final chapter (‘Domestic Materials’) includes all other finds types, although there are some obvious omissions, such as amber, shale and Roman glass, while Roman metalwork gets a rather selective treatment. Some of this chapter is satisfactory – there are short sections on specific finds types such as clay pipes, drinking glasses, thimbles, etc, for which there are good sources and for which the information is adequately presented here. There are, however, still many howlers. Roman building material includes a description of the ‘imbrix’ [sic] roof tile. Plain peg tiles were not made at Clarendon Palace (there is no indication as to where this is – it is in fact just outside Salisbury in Wiltshire) in the late 12th century, although decorated floor tiles were made there a hundred years later. Marks on clay pipes in the late 17th and 18th centuries were not more commonly seen on the sides of the bowl (although they might be in London). The close dating of spindlewhorls by shape is misleading; they are rarely chronologically distinctive.
Overall, Archaeological Finds clearly betrays its author’s background and level of experience – this is an individual who has worked as a finds processor in a large urban centre where Roman, medieval and post-medieval finds are quite common (and where an interest in small finds, in particular, can be easily followed up by perusal of a small number of good publications), but where prehistoric material is rarely encountered, and where pottery is largely the domain of the experienced specialist.
What is perhaps most worrying is that this book has been published with apparently little or no editorial intervention. Elementary spelling mistakes abound throughout the text, and the illustrations give particular cause for concern. These comprise a mixture of photographs and line drawings. Many of the line drawings are worryingly familiar – comparison with a random selection of well known publications (of one of which I myself was one of the principal authors) reveals that a large proportion have been, if not directly lifted, then copied very exactly. This is not only lazy, but gives a very inconsistent, ‘ragbag’ appearance – some are, quite frankly, appalling. But the most obvious omission is that of specialist input, which could surely have remedied many of the shortcomings listed above.
Is A Finds Manual any better? Well, yes and no. It at least has the advantage of discussing a subject largely within the author’s own experience. Essentially, this book is intended as a practical guide for finds processors working on site, and gives advice on the recognition and treatment of various materials (which to a large extent duplicates the initial chapter in Archaeological Finds), and a step by step guide to washing, marking and recording finds. Much of this information is sound, although it is augmented by what might be considered not entirely relevant digressions, for example on the production of leather, and the identification of Roman, medieval and post-medieval bricks (duplicated in Archaeological Finds).
My main quarrel, however, lies in the slavish adherence to the London system of dealing with finds. Advising would-be finds processors to avoid gripseal bags in favour of stapled, unsealed bags seems not only perverse, but directly contradicts the advice given by most other museums in England and Wales, who would refuse to accept such finds packaging. The use of a layer of varnish above and below ink marking is likewise not universally recommended. The on-site collection policies are designed for large urban assemblages – the injunction not to collect any sort of shell except for ‘large samples’ (‘large’ is not defined) would surely dismay those who regularly use even small quantities of oyster shell to demonstrate, for example, the presence of preparation and/or consumption waste; while the collection of non-artefact wood can have a value in examining past landscapes. These categories certainly should not be dismissed out of hand.
Yet again there are a multitude of errors, some repeated from Archaeological Finds. The ‘imbrix’ makes an unwelcome reappearance, as does the advice to dry brush lead. Shale is again ignored (presumably it is rarely found in London), but there is once more a strange fascination for gunflints, never a particularly common archaeological find even in source areas such as Salisbury. A clear understanding of the technology and development of pottery is still lacking – the statement that ‘in order to make earthenware, non-porous glazes were added’ is a nonsense, while 19th century English ‘majolica’ has nothing to do with the earlier tinglazed ‘maiolicas’ of Italy and the Netherlands. None of this group is referred to as ‘tin plate’ or ‘tin ware’, nor does it always have an ‘opaque white finish’; the relationship with Chinese porcelain is again misunderstood.
All this is deeply depressing. What could have been useful publications for those interested in archaeological finds at many levels are in fact profoundly flawed, the primary reason being lack of experience on the part of the author, combined with an editorial approach which can at best be described as laissez faire. It is too easy to pick holes in both books, and this, I am afraid, does not reflect well on the publishers, who have hitherto commanded respect for their wide range of well targeted and well presented archaeological publications. More worrying is the fact that many inexperienced readers, knowing no better, may be using these as ‘indispensable handbooks’. They deserve better. As the finds manager of a large archaeological company I do not recommend these to any of our staff.
Review Submitted: November 2006
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those
of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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