Becoming a finds specialist

Freddie and I are artefact specialists and we both followed similar paths. I did a PhD that allowed me to study Iron Age glass beads and other artefacts, which allowed me to gain an in depth understanding about how dress was constructed during the Iron Age and Roman period. I did my research by reading hundreds of excavation reports to build an artefact dataset from published and unpublished reports and I visited collections that were mostly held in museums. A couple of the collections I recorded were from recent excavations and had not been deposited at a museum yet and were still in the care of commercial archaeology units. I think recording these collections well and truly set me on the path to becoming a finds specialist, because I sent the archaeology companies each a report on their assemblages. This was a good learning experience, as I had never written an artefact report before and didn’t know anyone that could guide me. I had read plenty of finds reports by that stage, both published and commercial grey literature reports, so I at least had an idea of what I was aiming for, but no real way of knowing whether what I was writing was correct.

Iron Age glass bead (LON-041951) © Museum of London (CC BY-SA)

Freddie had a similar path in that he completed a PhD, but his was on Palaeolithic hand-axes. His study involved understanding knapping strategies through deduction from studying the flake scars on hand-axes and the flakes (‘debitage’) removed during the knapping process. Through reading for his own research and teaching practical sessions to undergraduates he gained a broad lithic technology background covering the changes in tool types and forms throughout prehistory. Freddie got his first contracts to write lithic reports for commercial archaeology companies after I recommended him. Lithic identification and report writing is fairly standardised and he taught it in the practical sessions, so he already had a good idea of how to do this.

Replica hand-axe © Frederick Foulds

When I had finished my PhD, I sort of already identified as an artefact specialist. I had studied artefacts after all. But that didn’t mean anyone else knew who I was, which meant that I probably wasn’t going to get any work as a freelancer. To be honest, although I had a good idea of how to go about doing the identification work through research, I didn’t really know how to write it up.

The difficulty is that there is no clear route to becoming an artefact specialist and there is very little guidance on doing this.

In the end, I made the decision to work in a commercial archaeology company. I successfully got a role as a Post-Excavation supervisor and the company was in the middle of a huge infrastructure project. I wasn’t actually hired to write reports on finds at this point, but I did supervise the team that did all the finds processing as it came off site. This hugely benefitted me, because I was able to see everything from ceramics to iron, and all the fancy exciting stuff (check out the first two monographs available here and here). I also had the opportunity to read the reports that the external specialists were writing about those artefacts. Eventually I started to pick up writing the occasional report, while also assisting more and more with project management until ‘Small finds specialist’ became part of my job title in the company (I even had business cards!).

One of the issues that I have really struggled with is the lack of information and guidance on doing finds work (specifically meaning writing reports that meet the needs to commercial archaeology clients to write their assessment and analysis reports). There is also very little in the way of training opportunities (although the Roman Finds Group have been working to change this). Many finds reports are full of technical terms and jargon that makes the whole field somewhat esoteric.

I do feel a bit justified in my struggle because the Cattermole report (2017) suggested that there can be a huge amount of variability in reporting standards anyways.

In retrospect, there are opportunities out there for people to learn about artefacts, or even to become an artefact specialist. Yes, a university degree (or degrees) is often the starting point, but this doesn’t always have to be the case. What you need is a curious mind and some determination. It requires an awful lot of reading, studying illustrations and visiting museums (or even studying collections if you can), making contacts with other researchers and specialists in the field. The benefit of the academic route is access to libraries because the books are often expensive and/or difficult to get hold of, as well as the benefits of being a part of a research community. However, there are often volunteer options with local museums or the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which may allow you to develop an interest in artefacts and curators might be able to help suggest further reading material.

Since there is no formal route to becoming a finds specialist, or even a way to know whether you are a full-fledged specialist, I have put together a resources page on this website that I hope will help others learn where to start. Currently, there are only a couple of documents, which I hope will be helpful, but I do want to continue to develop this. Please comment or email us if you have any suggestions for content in the resources you would like to see. 

I am also happy to answer questions about learning to become an artefact specialist and provide advice. I am listed on the Mentoring Womxn in Archaeology website as a mentor, if you think that would benefit you.

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