Rendlesham behind the scenes: starting post-excavation processing

Two volunteers processing samples

Featured image: Processing environmental samples to extract finds or ecofacts.

Having finished the first season of excavations at Rendlesham this summer, our volunteers have started the post-excavation work on the excavated material at the Cotswold Archaeology warehouse in Needham Market, as part of our community archaeology project Rendlesham Revealed.

The post-excavation process involves several different tasks, which our volunteers have been undertaking throughout November. First, the remaining muddy finds from site are washed and then marked. This requires keeping the objects from each archaeological context separate, so we know exactly where each object was found and can eventually map their distribution. This can then help us understand how the site was used to build up a picture of what Anglo-Saxon life may have been like at Rendlesham.

Washing is a delicate process. The volunteers use toothbrushes, wooden picks and soft brushes to gently remove the soil from the objects revealing the detail underneath. With the acidic soil conditions at Rendlesham, the excavated animal bone is very fragile and requires a very gentle touch and lots of patience.

Once washed, the objects are dried overnight in a drying room set at 29 degrees Celsius. On these cold, rainy days, the volunteers occasionally need to warm up in the room as well!

After drying, the objects are then marked with the context number. For this, our volunteers need to have a steady hand and small, neat handwriting. Using a nib and ink pot, the volunteers carefully number each piece of pottery on the back side along one edge and mark a percentage of the animal bone discretely. The objects are then quantified and boxed up by material type to be sent to specialists for further analysis or for archiving.

Soil samples are also processed at this stage. A soil sample is washed through and sieved allowing us to collect ‘flots’ or floating organic material, which will be examined by an environmental expert. The heavy, non-floating residues are laid out onto trays to dry, after which, our volunteers pick through the dried residues collecting any artefacts or ecofacts that may be present; this is done through a series of sieves and any objects recovered are then sorted by type to be examined later.

Throughout November, the volunteers have also been recording and packaging the Registered Artefacts (RA’s), which includes any unique object, metal objects, or objects that might require special attention. These are not washed immediately, as they will be sent off too a specialist conservator who will x-ray them before they are cleaned. Before these artefacts leave the building, a digital record is created, with measurements (taken with digital calipers) a photograph, and a brief description and interpretation. This requires a keen eye and some knowledge of British archaeology. Fortuitously, within our volunteer cohort we have some extraordinarily knowledgeable individuals. This includes a former museum curator, an expert of wetland archaeology, as well as many individuals with years of combined experience. Their ability to identify and speculate an interpretation about these objects is always helpful.

Volunteer cataloguing finds
Making a preliminary catalogue of the RA’s and re-packaging them ready to go for x-ray and conservation

The post-excavation phase is still ongoing, so keep an eye out for more updates.

Volunteer spaces for post-excavation are full. If you are interested in volunteering for the next season of fieldwork, you can join our e-newsletter mailing list to receive updates.

This fieldwork is part of the community archaeology project Rendlesham Revealed: Anglo-Saxon Life in South-East Suffolk, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. We are very grateful to our many local and national partners who have made this project possible, and for the support of our volunteers and of the landowners and farmers who work and manage this historic landscape.

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