From Mud to Stud: How to Wash Your Pot

The only thing better than having a small find here at Vindolanda is washing “ordinary” (2000 year old) pottery, and claiming someone else’s. Keep in mind that we’re all a team, and that I mean this in the least vindictive way possible. It’s amazing to see what a little T.L.C. can bring out on many of the pieces that we don’t expect to be extraordinary after we send them to the shed.

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Pot lid with the beginning of a maker’s stamp on the right corner.

The grand scheme of processing finds has a number of steps, and I’m here to share just a few of them with all of you. What you’ll need is:

  • Two washing basins
  • Water
  • A toothbrush
  • A pan scrubber
  • A toothpick
  • Some newspaper
  • A crate
  • Labels and a marker
  • Cookies, tea, music (optional)

Does this all sound a little makeshift to you? I promise it’s not. A little goes a long way with most of these finds. They didn’t survive for this long without a little pressure. Those that are damaged or disintegrate in the process are all usually well on their way to the same outcome before we pluck them out of the ground. This can be especially true with bones, though I promise we do our absolute best and work cautiously.

Step 1: Crate Training

Careful prep work for post excavation is imperative so that we don’t mix contexts or forget the particular locations of the finds. Take your crate and put a good layer of newspaper at the bottom to absorb the water after they’re washed. Take your labels and make sure to write one for the outside of the crate (visible on the shelving units later), and another tag for the inside. Both tags should include the context number, and the date of washing. This ensures that if one of them falls off, you have a backup plan in place.

Step 2: Scrub

No not the popular TLC song, though we love music while we work, but a good old-fashioned scrub with that toothbrush. Most of the artifacts will become surprisingly more distinguished and clean as soon as you dip them in the full water basin. For the more stubborn dirt a light brushing usually does the trick. The pan scrubber is used for larger pieces of pottery and bone, while the toothpick is used to take out dirt that is stuck in the smaller crevices of bone (and sometimes the rims of pots).

Step 3: Dip them in the second basin

I think this one explains itself. Better to rinse them off in cleaner water, than leave them coated with murky scrubbing water.

Step 4: Grouping 

After giving your newly cleaned artifacts a good look-over, place them on the prepared crate and give them time to dry. Here’s a fun and helpful tip from our very own Professor Greene: place the first artifacts on top of the labels inside the crate to prevent them from blowing away. It works. If you can, also place like items together (bones with bone and pottery with pottery) in order to have a better visual representation of how much of each material came out of a given context.

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Standard setup

Step 5: Hang them out to dry

Okay so we don’t hang them, but we do dry them, and the refreshing English air takes over the work from this point on. We can’t do much with wet artifacts, but the rest of the processing takes place once this step is complete. Feel free to stack your crates with care if you run out of room. That’s all folks! I hope you enjoyed this tutorial and that all your finds looks good as new!

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Artifacts being dried after washing

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