Conserving the finds from Caerau

Excavation Finds Officer Johanna blogs about how we look after the finds from the dig…

My name is Johanna and I am one of the finds officers at the current excavation of Caerau Hillfort. Being a finds officers means I don’t do a lot of digging, but I take care of anything the archaeologists find after it has been taken out of the ground. I clean and pack the objects, make sure they are properly marked and taken to a room in one of the local schools where we lay them out to dry safe from rain or the heat of the sun. Some of the finds, for example iron age pottery, are very fragile and can  become crumbly from too much water, and materials like bone can get cracks when it dries too quickly in the sun, so I look after all the objects while they are being excavated and after.  I have studied for three years at Cardiff University to become a conservator, and I graduate this summer. Being a conservator means that I am professionally trained in handling and preserving archaeological objects, and understanding their decay mechanisms and how to prevent them from further decay after excavation.

During the first week of the dig we found this spread of a pot which is probably from the late Iron Age. It was a rainy day, so I was on site with the archaeologists who found it to help them lift the fragile pieces out of the ground and protect them from the rain afterwards.

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The pieces are a little bit difficult to see in this picture because they are muddy, but after I cleaned some of them they turned out to be dark brown, almost black.

The excavation has produced some prehistoric pottery, but the majority of the pottery we find is Roman.  The Iron Age has to be cleaned carefully introducing a minimal amount of water, but many of the Roman finds can be cleaned using regular tap water and a soft toothbrush. This is something I do with my colleague Vicky on site every day, and we also pick out pieces which are sturdy enough to be cleaned without any training so visitors can join us and get a feeling for what we do. We have also cleaned a lot of the Roman pottery with the help of groups of children from the local schools when they are visiting us on site, and we have found some very nice pieces with decorations on. It is always fun cleaning the pottery since we never know what we will find under the layer of soil.

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I train up local volunteers to help us wash the finds

Another part of my job is to decide which objects we can’t clean on site and need to send to a professional

with access to a proper conservation lab. Last week this beautiful glass bead was found, and I decided it needed a more delicate treatment than scrubbing with a toothbrush.

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Late Iron Age glass bead

I have always wanted to try doing archaeology, and the first few days, before there were any finds for me to work with, they allowed me to take part in the digging. It was very hard work, and an experience which I am happy to have. It has given me a new understanding of the archaeology profession and the process which brings the finds out of the ground and into my care. I am enjoying all aspects of the job, the beautiful nature around the hillfort, the close connection between the history of the site and the local community, and all the interest we are getting from visitors, and working on site in close collaboration with the archaeologists. I am now looking forward to two more weeks, and I’m very excited to see what more will come out of the ground at the Caerau Hillfort!