Interpreting Archaeological Finds.

15 Oct


The main reason for pursuing archaeology is to find out as much as possible about how remote societies lived.

The desire to discover can take many different forms, depending on of course on a persons knowledge. Archaeology can answer many of these questions especially in the case of good preservation, for instance when bodies are found such as those discovered in peat bogs, often gives a good idea of what people actually looked like in previous times. People buried in peat  bogs were exceptionally well preserved such as the case of Iron Age Tollund Man from Central Jutland.

The Tollund Man from Denmark The Tollund Man

The Tollund Man 2 as he appears todayThe Tollund Man as he appears today.

The ruins of houses and peoples possessions  when found give an idea of their lifestyle, also their tools can show what work they did. Archaeology is about digging it up and writing it down and there are many spin-offs to choose from to study. For instance some people prefer to study ancient flint implements, another may choose bones whereas another environmental studies. In my case I chose ancient pottery from the Iron Age and Roman to the Medieval periods. All these are classed as finds from any given archaeological site


The majority of finds consist of objects or more often fragments of objects that have been lost, thrown away or deliberately buried. However, these may not be human made objects since finds include items such as animal bones and insect remains. Rubbish from a household was often buried in pits and would have included worn out broken objects as well as food debris such as animal bones and oyster shells, oysters were a delicacy in Roman times.  Discarded fragment objects are the most common type of find on archaeological sites,therefor it is the rubbish from the past which provides most information about the site and the people who used it.


Excavated finds are given an identification code number to record the layers in which they were found. Most finds are sufficiently strong enough to withstand washing in clean cold water with brushes such as, tooth brushes, then left to dry. However other more fragile objects such as wood, leather or metal objects or fragments from garments require laboratory conservation to prevent further decay. Building material like floor and wall tiles, fragments of mosaic floors ,broken window glass etc., all provide information about the site, giving clues as to what a roof may have looked like on a Roman Villa.


An example of Archaeological Stratigraphy (layers)

Many aspects of an archaeological site, including dating are revealed by its finds with those discovered elsewhere and it is often the most common finds such as shards of pottery that prove the most useful for dating a site. Seeing as the pottery is my chosen study I will proceed by explaining more on this subject.


With shards of pottery, groups are made initially according to the colour of the pottery and any other indicators,  such as the way the surface of the pot is finished, any distinctive  lines  ,inclusions  in the clay such as quartz or rock fragments, as an example, small fragments of malvernian  rock would indicate the pot came from the Malvern region in England.

These fragments are then sub-divided by sorting shards into rims, from the top of the pot, base shards from the bottom of the pot and handles and body shards from other parts of the pot.

All this examination of the pottery is done mostly by eye but sometimes a hand lens or microscope is needed. Next a detailed examination and cataloguing of each fragment of the pottery is carried out and a record is made of details observed such as, where on the site a shard or shards were found, its colour and fabric type and decoration if any. Sometimes shards will be selected for illustration for a report ready for publication. Any joins would be looked for which may seem to go together as such joins will add significantly to the evidence. When the pot has been identified and dated the specialist points out the parallels which have been used.


A Roman Severn Valley Ware Tankard. possibly used by the Roman soldiers on Hadrians Wall.


Two Shards of Iron Age Pot. The close up show rock inclusions which are Malvernian Rock Indicating that this pottery came from the Malvern Hills area in England and was hand made.


Once the cataloguing is written the specialist calculates the quantaties of each type of pottery that has come from each archaeological layer.

All this detailing and cataloguing  of the pottery and a written report forms part of the archive for the excavation, after which the specialist produces a report for publication. The same basic approach of identification, sorting, grouping, quantification, comparison examples from elsewhere and conclusions from the evidence is used in the study of most finds and environmental samples.



Posted by on October 15, 2014 in Archaeology


6 responses to “Interpreting Archaeological Finds.

  1. Silver in the Barn

    October 15, 2014 at 5:00 pm

    The face of Tollund man is absolutely fascinating. I wonder how old he was. His face looks so careworn. Oh the questions!!!


    • ritaroberts

      October 15, 2014 at 5:52 pm

      Hi Barbara, There have been many of these bog people found but Tollund man is the best preserved example. I always think his face has a gentle expression despite the fact he had been deposited as a sacrifice to the powers that ruled men’s destinies and was found with a noose around his neck .He now rests in the British Museum looking at peace. He is one of my favourite subjects.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. dorannrule

    October 19, 2014 at 3:50 am

    A haunting face for sure of Tollund man. I can see why he is one of your favorites Rita. He almost looks like someone I know. The story of his death is horrific of course but the preservation of his remains is amazing.


  3. ritaroberts

    October 19, 2014 at 9:13 am

    I agree with you Dora, His is an amazing story indeed. I did go to see him in the British Museum some years ago. I was amazed at how peaceful he could look after such an horrific death. He almost seemed to just be asleep. Being that close I could almost feel his presence. Something I will never forget.



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