After the finds are born triumphantly back to the dighouse, they are cleaned up (endless happy hours of washing potsherds!), sorted into categories and then decisions made as to what will be formally inventoried – individually listed, conserved if necessary, described and recorded in drawings and photographs, and stored for future reference.
And that’s where we come in. Working in inventory, or finds registration, is a bit like a mad hatter’s game of post office. The finds come to us from the specialist archaeologists who know their pottery (or marble or stone tools or whatever) and we allocate inventory numbers and dispatch items as required for photography or illustration. We also retrieve them as required from storage for further study or processing.
Now all this sounds nice and simple – perhaps even boring - but the reality is seldom so straightforward or so tranquil. A typical day can go like this:
7.00 am Pick up nondescript potsherd left on desk and reach for the inventory book to record its details.
7.01 am Archaeologist A slopes in to ask where you’ve put her Very Important Find from 2 seasons back, which she wants to compare with something found yesterday. Put down sherd and go into store room to search.
8.30 am Emerge from store room, slightly shell-shocked but clutching Very Important Find. Try to find A, who has by now gone back to the site muttering darkly. Place Very Important Find on desk with note to self. Pick up original potsherd, which has by now fallen under desk. Try to find inventory book under 15 items which have been placed on desk by Archaeologist B with note requesting they be photographed immediately for pending publication.
8.45 am Start processing 15 items for photography (now ahead of the 45 items already awaiting photography). Random student rushes in to ask if you know where Dig Director is. After searching dig house, phone Director, who is out buying milk for breakfast. Meanwhile Illustrator, slightly the worse for wear after long night discussing serious archaeological issues at local bar, arrives to ask if you have items to be drawn, otherwise he’s going back to bed.
9.00 am Light cranky stove for breakfast cooks and resume processing items for photography. Frantically process some items for illustration so Illustrator won’t go back to bed. Archaeologist C arrives to complain that his important stuff wasn’t inventoried and processed last season and he really needs priority this year so he can complete his PhD.
9.30 am Breakfast time, so C finally leaves. Field team returns and troops through to wash hands etc before breakfast. Leave rest of items for drawing in bowl on desk, grab some breakfast and sit down to eat, after bargaining with field Trench Leaders for students from field team to help search store room after breakfast for items not located yesterday and urgently required for Archaeologist D. Feed dighouse cat.
9.50 am Clutching mug of tea, return to desk and resume processing items for drawing.
10.00 am Emergency trip to local Archaeological Museum store to retrieve boxes of inventoried finds for further processing.
11.15 am Return to dighouse, with two key boxes missing. Unload boxes. Resume processing items for drawing and find inventory book after mug of cold tea has been upset on it. Place inventory book out in sun to dry. Students emerge from store room to report complete failure. Direct them to second store room, which they have somehow not noticed. (It is after all their first year on the dig, and they are still trying to work out the geography of a dighouse which closely resembles the hotel in The Shining.)
12 noon Finish processing items to go to Illustrator, who has now woken up again. Conservator drops by to look at potsherds with major incrustations on them, and recommends soaking in vinegar after preliminary washing in water. Conservator sets items to soak in vinegar on inventory shelves, on top of D’s items from store room. Locate the 15 items to process for photography, which by now have been covered by items located by students in store room and items soaking in vinegar. Congratulate students on success. D arrives and passes on an email from Archaeologist E (back home in Sydney) who is writing a major article with pending publication date and urgently needs drawings and photographs of 10 key pieces of marble cornice. Unable to locate D’s items from store room. D leaves muttering darkly. Crawl round floor searching through boxes of marble. Team Architect wanders through to ask if you’ve seen dig Director. Locate Director, who is holed up in office trying to sort out dig accounts so far.
1.00 pm Lunchtime. Field team troops through again with buckets of finds and cheerful comments about the quiet morning you’ve surely had, working in the cool of the dighouse with constant access to tea and coffee. Bargain with Trench Leader for extra student to search for marble items still not located. Make hasty sandwich and eat. Take piece of fruit and get student started searching. Give Very Important Find to A, who has now solved her problem and can’t remember why she asked you to find it at all.
1.30 pm Resume processing 15 items for photography. Student searching for marble drops large piece of cornice on toe. Locate first aid box (under kitchen sink) but, after due consultation with Conservator and Photographer, decide injury may be major. Ring dig Director (who is out on site with important visitor) and arrange for student to be taken to local hospital.
2.30 pm Crawl round floor again to find last pieces of marble, after washing blood off offending cornice. Process pieces of marble to go to photography. Item soaking in vinegar is by now bubbling occasionally like a semi-dormant volcano and vinegar fumes are getting repellent.
3.45 pm Remove items found by students in store room from heap under desk, where they were placed while processing marble for photography/drawing for E, and put in box for D to assess. Notice that sky is getting darker outside. Resume processing B’s items for photography.
4.10 pm Ominous thunder and downpour starts. Rush outside and help Sorting Tables supervisor load finds on the sorting mats into bowls and boxes and haul indoors to spread out on bedroom floors. Retrieve inventory book, which is once again damp, and lay out on inventory shelves to dry. Run round building unplugging computers and closing windows, in course of which run into C, who emerges from bedroom (where he’s been working because of lack of space) with a box of items which absolutely have to be processed this week. Make wild promises and escape, bearing box. Find buckets and old towels to mop up leaks.
4.40 pm Shove C’s box into back of inventory shelves and resume processing items for photography for B. Pottery soaking in vinegar still bubbling ominously and smell is even more pungent. Find uneaten and now squashed lunchtime piece of fruit in marble box. Dispose of fruit. Students and Illustrator drop by to announce that they are going to the bar. D returns to collect items located earlier in store room by students. Search for box of items, which has mysteriously disappeared again, and eventually locate behind boxes from Museum. D mutters darkly.
5.30 pm Finish processing items for photography for B so Photographer can start on them first thing tomorrow. Recheck E’s email and discover that student has written down wrong inventory numbers for two pieces of marble cornice. Pull wrong pieces from Illustrator’s tray. Crawl round floor again checking through marble to find correct pieces and replace. Injured student returns, limping, to proudly display bandaged toe.
6.00 pm Check that Illustrator has enough work to keep busy tomorrow. Conservator drops by to check potsherd soaking in vinegar (still bubbling from time to time) and sets mended pot to dry on inventory shelves as well, in amongst items for photography.
6.15 pm Check that inventory book now dry and reach for original potsherd to allocate number. Potsherd missing. Finally located, after frenzied search behind C’s box of items.
6.40 pm Decide to allocate inventory number to potsherd tomorrow. Close up, feed dighouse cat and join students and Illustrator at bar.
Believe it or not, it’s endlessly entertaining and interesting. Moreover, it’s a key part of the whole process.