Bulk finds packaging and…an introduction to small finds!

with thanks to Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library via Creative Commons

Bulk finds packaging

After an afternoon of digging in the rain we were swiftly swept indoors to try our hand at bulk finds packaging. It is an exercise which is so painfully simple that even a man with a PhD left the table weeping: i.e. you’re bound to get something wrong whilst doing it (I know I definitely did!). Bulk finds packaging is done to make sure that finds are processed systematically from individual contexts and stratified into bulk genres.

In our bulk finds sorting session we looked at glass, pottery, bone, metals, clay fired tobacco pipe and plaster (in our case, only if molded into a shape). These are then sorted into the relevent categories and placed into suitably sized bags with 6 holes (three poked along the top, three poked along the bottom).

These are then labelled with:

1) Site code (with time session)
2) Context number
3) Individual item code

These are then passed on to relevant finds experts who will either consider them discardable or pass them on for further research or museum display.

Items that are discarded or deemed unuseful are then sent to landfill with labels should future archaeologists dig up the landfill! In the UK about 5% of material dug up is used for research and/or display while the majority is thrown away.

After finishing our bulk finds packaging session we moved onto our introduction to small finds lecture with Nicky Roberts with the York Archaeological Trust.

First of all, what exactly is a small find?

It is an artefact that has been made by someone, small in quantity and looked at individually and given individual numbers.

These are usually made of:


  1.  Iron (all x-rayed)
  2. Lead alloy
  3. Copper alloy
  4. Silver (coins)
  5. Gold
  6. Tin, alloyed with lead or copper such as an Ampulla – a tin that was used to contain holy oil
  7. Slag – a bi-product of iron production that informs us of processing

Organic materials: (Note: Top three are all found on wet sites only or hardly ever found at all)

  1. Leather – shoe cobbling waste
  2. Wood
  3. Textile
  4. Bone (ivory – not found locally – elephant, hippo, sperm whale tooth – worked animal bone, medieval period -> Shambles area)
  5. Shell (buttons)
  6. Jet – fossilised free resin worked in York similar to shale – x-ray to ind difference in densities
  7. Amber – unworked Baltic amber
  8. Antler – used in Viking period – red deer antler usually worked
  9. Horn – made of outer sheath of horn, has to be removed – soaked in retting pits to remove outer sheath – bone cores found

Inorganic materials:

  1. Fired clay (ceramic) clay pipes
  2. Glass (beads for necklaces, windows) – crumbly, poor survival, roman vessel glass has higher survival
  3. Stone – very durable, reusable later on

The types of items considered to be ‘small finds’ fall under several categories:

Trade and exchange items such as:

  1. Coins
  2. Balances and weights (traders carrying personal sets)
  3. Jewellery (personal)
  4. Combs and other hygiene items (personal)
  5. Dress fittings and clothes (personal) – buckles etc
  6. Weapons (daggers, knives (difficult to assign knife purpose), shields, swords, armour, bows and arrows – arrowheads)
  7. Tools – Roman iron tools identical to modern
  8. Crafts
  9. Debris (from production)

Religious objects include:

  1. Ampulla
  2. Amulets
  3. Rosary beads

Domestic items include:

  1. Food preparation utensils

Structural and building work materials:

  1. Nails
  2. Hinges and brackets
  3. Keys and lockets

Writing utensils:

  1. Stylus
  2. Slate
  3. Pencils


  1. Game pieces
  2. Counters
  3. Dice

Musical instruments:

  1. Whistles (hollowed bones)
  2. Harp tuning – bones

Horse and riding accessories:

  1. Shoes
  2. Horse shoe nails
  3. Bridles
  4. Pendants
  5. Spurs

Source: York Archaeological Trust


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