A Find or Not a Find?

Hello! Lauren here, ready to teach you all about the difficulties in identifying finds on site!

Now, when digging here at Vindolanda, one comes across all manner of objects in the ground. And, let’s face it, like 90% of them are just rocks. HOWEVER, many of those rocks often end up looking like other things (specifically, interesting Roman things), and we end up running over to Beth or Alex to find out what it is. Disappointment usually ensues.

In order to give everyone an idea of the difficulties of identifying actual finds, I have created this handy guide!

To begin with, here is a picture of a very average find, a piece of black burnishware:

As you can imagine, it tends to blend somewhat with the surrounding dirt. Here’s another typical type of find, a piece of colour-coated pottery:

Now, this is all fine and dandy. Pulling potsherds out of the ground, putting them in our context bags, awesome. Then you find something like this:

This, as all eight of us have learned after endless scrutiny of countless similar pieces, is sandstone. It has the colour and often the shape of a potsherd, but is just a rock. And it is absolutely EVERYWHERE.

But the best kind of non-find? This right here:

Oh-HO! What have we here?! Is this a Roman coin?!

Nope. A rock. I’m sure you get the idea.

One thing that we’re also starting to get the hang of is the difference between an ordinary find (an unmarked potsherd, bone or glass), which is just put into a context bag, and a “small find,” which gets put into its own little bag and surveyed in with the digital level. Small finds tend to be things like potsherds with maker’s stamps or graffiti, bits of metal, or, especially, coins. Now, of the next two pictures, which would you think is a “small find,” and which is just a crummy rock?

Would you believe that the perfectly round/cylindrical thing at the top is just a rock? Some kind of unique geological formation, apparently. The one on the bottom that looks like a weird chunk of rock is actually flint (so, okay, still a weird chunk of rock, but an IMPORTANT one). The flint has been worked with human hands, and anything that has been worked with human hands is sent to the lab for processing.

All eight of us are becoming quite good at recognizing the difference between finds and rocks masquerading as finds, but as you can see, it is still fairly difficult. Luckily we have Beth and Alex, as well as the rest of the excavation supervisors, here to help us with our finds!

3 thoughts on “A Find or Not a Find?

  1. Thanks so much for this post, Lauren! I don’t envy you trying to sort out the ordinary stones from small finds, and I can feel even from a distance how easy it would be to get one’s hopes up… only to have them dashed. Still, I’m grateful to all of you at the field school this year, since I haven’t yet had an opportunity to participate in a dig. I’m learning SO MUCH from your posts!

  2. I’m glad I don’t have to figure those things out. I’m with Debra–when you find that ablative absolute I’ll be able to identify it right away!

  3. Hello Lauren – just to say an excellent post. The dilemma of what is an artefact and what is not sounds all too familiar from an Aegean context as well. Keep up the good work.

    David Wilson

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