Posted: 11th August 2016
We’ve been working on an Historic England funded project at the Hull and East Riding Museum, documenting objects from Garton Slack and Wetwang Slack. It’s been 12 months and now the documentation phase of the project is complete.
Over this period of time thousands of objects have been counted and recorded on our museum database. Each object record can include multiple ‘items’, for example a pottery record can include over 500 potsherds – all from the same vessel!
During this process objects we have improved the consistency of the records, ensuring they contain as much information about the object as possible. For archaeologists this means including information from the excavation such as where the object was excavated from within the site. This involves studying the site plans, and locating the object to the site grid using trench and section numbers, as well as listing the feature it is from (e.g. a house).
In archaeology, the context of an object is very important. Its position in the ground can help to provide a date for the object or the objects close by (known as relative dating). Its position can also provide clues about what the object might be or how it was used. For example, a metal rod with evidence of burning on it, found near to an area of burnt stones and charcoal could be interpreted as a fire poker. A metal rod with evidence of burning on it found with food waste could be interpreted as a fire poker which has been thrown on the rubbish heap.
In addition to this we’ve successfully linked objects to their references in publications and the paper archive (site plans, reports, illustrations etc.) which makes it easier for researchers to find them on our database. This also means that information about the object is easily found when museum staff research the object for displays or enquiries, as it is already connected to the object record – so it’s just a case of reading!
We’ve photographed many of the objects, not only so they can be viewed on our collections website but also so that researchers can see if the object is relevant to their studies before visiting the museum. This provides a useful record of the object’s condition at present, so if the object’s condition deteriorates the photograph provides a marker for when that process might have started and also shows what the object looked like previously.
This leads on to another purpose for documentation: monitoring the condition of the objects. As each object is recorded its condition is checked to make sure it has not been damaged in storage and to ensure it is being kept in adequate conditions for its material. This is noted on its object record, so museum staff can monitor any change to its condition over time and interventions can take place if needed.
Over the 12 month documentation period we have edited and created around 5600 object records which can be viewed on our public collections website. Many of these objects will now be studied, researched and conserved by a team at the University of Bradford, providing new insights and interpretation of the sites at Garton Slack and Wetwang Slack.
Documentation might not be glamorous or that visible to the public, but it is vital to the work of a museum. It allows us to provide access to our collections and to care for them as best we can. Without the information that surrounds an artefact (its context) it’s just another object.