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Behind the Scenes at Shropshire Archaeology Lab
23 Mar 2023

Volunteers are in the process of cataloguing nearly 100,000 archaeological finds unearthed in Shropshire, like this lovely example of Roman samian ware (pictured above) found at Wroxeter Roman City. Katy Rink visits Shropshire’s new Archaeology Lab in Ludlow to find out how it works. 

Wandering behind the scenes at the Shropshire Museums Collections Centre at Ludlow Library, I was struck by just how many awesome archaeological finds are never seen by the public. Only so much can go on display in our county museums in Ludlow, Much Wenlock and Shrewsbury. 

Apparently, there are over 200,000 objects in storage, representing all eras of history, which have been acquired and curated since 1833, when the county’s first museum was opened by Ludlow Natural History Society. There are six different collections: Biology and Natural Science, Geology and Fossils, Decorative Art and Ceramics, Fine Art, Prints and Drawings and Social and Industrial History and Archaeology.

In my brief tour of the Archeology collection, I saw decorative medieval tiles, glossy Roman samian ware with intricate figures in relief, mysterious goddesses from ancient churchyards, knapped flints and stone tools, shiny bronze axe heads - and boxes upon boxes of more hidden treasures. And all of it found right here in Shropshire. 

Katherine Miller with finds

Collections Project Officer Katherine Miller with some of the finds at Shropshire Museums Collection Centre

The problem is, it’s hard to know what anything is - or indeed, where it came from - without first finding out which referencing system was used, then finding old books or records to get a match. 

That’s where the new Archaeology Lab comes in - volunteers are being recruited from across the county to help with photographing finds, database entry and research. The hope is to create a first class online record of the entire Archaeology collection (over 100,000 objects!). The new digital database will be searchable and accessible to all. 

“It’s a bit like having a library, only you’ve lost the catalogue,” says Roger White - a retired senior lecturer in Archaeology from the University of Birmingham and specialist Roman expert, who will be helping volunteers in the Archaeology Lab.

“The contribution our volunteers will be able to make is invaluable. Many hands make light work. For a single member of staff, it would be a lifetime’s work.” volunteers at the lab

Some of the volunteers in action at Shropshire's new Archaeology Lab in Ludlow

One of the first things volunteers will learn is proper handling skills, to enable them to touch and move ancient artefacts with confidence. Collections Project Officer Katherine Miller, who will be running the new Lab, let me choose any object I liked from the Roman collection to photograph and enter into the database. 

A molehill-kicker like me (if you’re one too, you’ll know exactly what I mean) is a kid in a sweet shop, given a chance like this. It’s the idea that every object has been touched by ancient hands and made by other civilizations that have come before us. 

Katherine loves communicating this excitement and is clearly great at her job: “If you aren’t excited about archaeology, these could be tedious tasks, but you’ll get to find out so much about the area we live in and the people who have come before us - archaeology is, really, just a fancy way of telling stories.”

Volunteers are currently working on cataloguing clay pipes, medieval floor tiles and seal matrices (used to make impressions on a wax seal), flints from Shropshire archaeologist Lily Chitty’s collection, metal detecting finds, brooches and bowls from Wroxeter Roman City and prehistoric cremation urns from Bromfield Cemetery, northwest of Ludlow. 

Roman finds from the collection

Behind the scenes at the museum - the shelves are stacked with bits of statues from ancient churchyards 

I selected a lustrous red pot, which Roger later told me comes from Central Gaulish samian potteries and would have been mass produced, finding its way to Britain in the 2nd century AD to be used as fine tableware. Katherine showed me how to photograph it from the top, sides and bottom - to show the original catalogue label and then logged it in the new system. From existing records, we learned it was found at Wroxeter Roman City (Viriconium) in the forum - where a great deal of pottery was discovered, having fallen into the gutter during a fire. The production date is estimated at c.60AD. 

Wroxeter, which lies just outside Atcham and was once the fourth largest city in Roman Britain, has seen many successive excavations, dating from the 1850s to Graham Webster’s digs (1955-85), which located the fortress beneath the city and revealed the bath complex. 

These have resulted in spectacular finds including, of course, the silver Wroxeter mirror which can currently be seen in Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery and the largest collection of Roman coinage ever found at a single site. The Shropshire Museums Collections Centre looks after one of two primary collections of artefacts from Wroxeter - the other is stored at English Heritage’s Wrest Park in Bedfordshire. 

Part of what the Archaeology Lab volunteers will be doing is finding out which objects come from which excavations. 

“The sheer quantity of material is able to cast a light on many aspects of Roman society - on the economy, manufacturing and recycling and all sorts of other aspects of Roman life,” Roger says. 

Roman samian ware

Samian ware from the Roman city of Wroxeter - there's lots of work for volunteers to do!

It was such a privilege to hold in my hand an object made nearly 2,000 years ago for a Roman dinner table by a potter somewhere in central France. And to feel that in the small act of properly recording the object - in a digital database - I was somehow helping to protect and preserve it, and to make it more accessible to future generations. 

I can see the appeal of getting involved in the Archaeology Lab. Katherine tells me that the Lab is also linking up with GP surgeries in Shropshire, working with social prescribing programmes to involve people with social or mental health programs - perhaps as a result of living with long term health conditions. 

Volunteering, and meeting like-minded people, knowing that you are contributing to a bigger picture, can be a great boost to wellbeing and perhaps even a stepping stone back to work for some.

“We’re not only teaching people new transferable skills, to help them with self-esteem and confidence, but they are also helping us protect and preserve objects better,” Katherine explains. “If we know what something is, where it was found and what condition it’s in, we can package and store it correctly. 

“Our volunteers will help us really understand what we have here, so we can look after it better.”

It is hoped that the Archaeology Lab project will also boost the prestige of Shropshire Museums and its online presence as it embarks on a new partnership with the British Museum to highlight the national and international significance of Bronze Age Shropshire. The new partnership gallery is due to open at Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery in the next few years.

The Archaeology Lab is across the Shropshire Museums Collections Centre, located on the first floor of Ludlow Library and is a friendly, welcoming space, where you’re invited to get hands-on with Shropshire County’s impressive heritage and archaeology. Sessions are held on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. If you’re interested in getting involved contact katherine.miller@shopshire.gov.uk

Look out for the Archaeology Lab’s ‘hands on’ drop in days too, for those who can’t make regular commitments and family sessions during the holidays. 

Archaeology lab students