On the first real class visit, we journeyed to the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre (LAARC), which houses the archaeological artifacts found in London dig sites. A fraction of these artifacts are on display at the Museum of London, where we toured in the afternoon.
Set up in a nondescript wear house, a storage building converted and opened in 2002, LAARC is the largest archeological archive in the world. Of the 8,500 archeological dig sites in London, LAARC has collected artifacts from about half. The oldest artifacts are nearly 250,000 years old, but most are from the period after the ice age, when Britain was more hospitable, and less covered in ice. The earliest records go back to the 1700s, but most artifacts were collected after the London bombings in WWII, while the city was reconstructing.
Over the centuries, the ground level in London rose, burying artifacts under the streets of London. Because of this, building projects often unearth sites and new artifacts. Current planning laws include archeological assessment measures, but many artifacts remain preserved under current structures, i.e. Shakespeare's theater, the Rose.
The artifacts in LAARC are ordered not by type or category, but according to dig site. This preserves a sense of context and provenance when reconstructing the past. Although they are intellectually lumped together, metals and other objects are stored separately for preservation.
Among the 200,000 cardboard boxes are general and registered artifacts. General artifacts are prevalent items without unique properties. They are integral to building context, but can be extremely tedious. Registered artifacts are of more interest, having unique characteristics which help specify context further in terms of date and story. Most museum displays comprise registered finds.
As with many archives, the LAARC has run out of space and are currently repackaging in order to create space. Much of the older artifacts were not uniformly packaged; boxes were half-filled and containers were not necessarily archival.
This was an interesting visit, in terms of understanding the similar limitations of archives in the UK, as well as the unfamiliar issues associated with archeological collecting. However, the most memorable aspects were the artifacts. We were allowed to handle a brick from the Great London Fire, which was entirely blackened and quite sooty. Flint tools used by early men were also among the loot. Roman tablets with precise lettering and a tiny glass vial were present. And best of all, a leather shoe preserved by the thick Thames mud. The shoe was from the medieval period, and the formerly long toe had been severed. The prevailing hypothesis is that the shoe was confiscated because the wearer was not of a high enough class to warrant a long-toed shoe. The toe was then cut and the shoe was stashed. Surprisingly, this was a men's shoe. Most of us ladies agreed that we were quite envious of the style.
For more info, visit London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre online.