On the power of objects

‘Did you find any treasure?’ is often the first question visitors will ask about an excavation.


We all know that the science of archaeology encompasses much more than the individual ‘find’ that reveals itself during excavation. However, the details of phasing and stratigraphy (analysis of the different layers found in soil sections) is much more difficult to grasp – literally – than solid objects. I overheard a recent conversation between a visitor and an archaeologist discussing an excavation. ‘Did you find anything?’ she asked. The archaeologist began an explanation of the various theories attached to the puzzling evidence thrown up by the trenches he had put in, but realised quickly, by the look on her face that this is not what she meant. She wanted to know about objects.

Humans are drawn to stories, and we can’t help being mesmerised by the idea that when we uncover an object in the soil we are, in a sense, reaching back to hold the hand of the person who last touched it. Reading the recent news on the Must Farm Timber Platform Project in Cambridgeshire highlighted for me the powerful insights into past lives that can be conjured up by the excavation of single objects. In an article on the discovery of a Bronze Age solid timber wheel at the Must Farm site, Mark Knight of Cambridge Archaeological Unit mused on the story behind the find (1). ‘The wheel was found lying on top of a massive floor timber and may originally have been hanging on a wall. Knight thinks it might have been brought in for repair. He says, “My hunch is that 3,000 years ago there was a cart parked up on the dry land, with a wheel missing.”’

Immediately. we imagine an ordinary human, like us, frustrated with the failure of the cart, trying to fit in its repair with other necessary tasks. And we can’t help wondering why he never got round to it.

In our current refurbishment of the Caistor Roman Town display at the Castle Museum (funded by Historic England) we are focusing on the numerous ever-day items that were found during excavation and which we can easily identify with – the combs, gaming counters, writing implements, a weaning cup, jewellery and coins. Such common place objects bring us closer to the real people that inhabited the Town nearly two thousand years ago. Equally, the stark contrast with our own lives is highlighted through other excavated objects – the curse tablet, the ritually broken pots. 

Such flashes of insight are, of course, not limited to excavated finds. I’ve been discussing with the NPS Archaeology project manager, Andy Crowson, his preliminary thoughts on the archaeological survey of the precinct walls at Burnham Norton Friary (of which more in the forthcoming Spring newsletter). He warned me that the walls look very much like a local project built by local people using locally sourced materials. But the possibility of the walls being ‘nothing out of the ordinary’ is surely as potentially interesting as something ‘special’. The story of their construction will take us right back into the everyday world of the people living and working in Burnham in the medieval period.

(1) https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/feb/19/archaeologists-excavate-bronze-age-wheel-cambridgeshire. See also http://www.mustfarm.com

Image: Game counter excavated at Caistor Roman Town (University of Nottingham)

News in brief


  • Ragwort control: can you help? The Great Yarmouth Green Gym and The Conservation Volunteers will be helping us to pull up the ragwort at Burgh Castle Fort on the following dates. If you can spare an hour or two on any of these dates, to come along and join in, we would be very grateful:Tuesday May 31, 13.00 – 16.00; Thursday June 2, 10.30 – 15.30; Thursday June 9, 10.30 – 15.30; Tuesday June 14, 10.30 – 16.00; Thursday June 16, 10.30 – 15.00. 

    We will also need to organise volunteer ragwort pulling sessions at Burnham Norton Friary and Caistor Roman Town in the early summer. If you live near either of these sites and would like to help (probably half a day), please get in touch!

  • Visitor surveys: As part of our Strategic Plan we want to find out more about who visits our sites, and why, and so we are looking for volunteers willing to carry out visitor surveys. The dates and times would be up to you – whenever it fits in with your calendar. We would like to focus on our most visited sites - Caistor Roman Town, Burgh Castle and St Benet’s Abbey - but if you’re also interested in carrying out a survey at one of our other sites near you we would love to hear from you: info@norfarchtrust.org.uk


  • Saturday 5 March 2.30pm The Sue Margeson Memorial Lecture: 'Landscape and Local Government in the Danelaw'. Prof. Andrew Reynolds, University College London  at the Town Close Auditorium, Castle Museum, Norwich. Lectures are free to all members; non-members are most welcome and are asked to leave a small donation. More info: http://www.nnas.info/lectures
  • Tuesday 8th March 2016 6pmCEAS lecture 'The Norwich Churches Project'. Prof. Sandy Heslop. Lecture Theatre 1, UEA. More info: https://www.uea.ac.uk/history/centre-east-anglian-studies/events  
  • Saturday March 19 2.30 pmNAHRG lecture 'Photographing Anything That Took His Fancy':The Wonderful Documentary Work of Hallam Ashley (1900-1987). Peter Hoare (Visiting Academic, Britain, Europe & Prehistory, British Museum) UEA (Room Arts 01.01). Non-members are welcome to try one or two lectures before joining. More info: http://www.nahrg.org.uk/lecture.php

If you are not already a member of the Norfolk Archaeological Trust, please join us! Annual subscription is only £15: