Richard Mason, Assistant Curator of Collections at English Heritage, on his favorite object from the collection
My favorite object is the Office of Works 'finds book' from Whitby Abbey. It’s a notebook that was used in the 1920s to record objects that were found during the clearance and excavation of the site. In total there are 1,136 entries representing around 9,925 objects. Recording each object was the responsibility of James Souden - the foreman in charge of the site. We think that at the end of every day, each laborer would take their finds to the foreman, who would record what the object was and where it was found.
This book tells us so much more about the collections from Whitby Abbey. Over the last century, the original object labels have either disintegrated or been lost altogether. Using the information in the finds book is the only way to know where objects in our current collection were originally found on site, which is crucial as an archaeologist. If we know where material was being found, this can help us understand how different spaces were being used, or even how the site was abandoned. If we know what depth objects were being found, this can help us to understand the phasing and development of the site.
Without the book, the objects in the collection are just that, objects. With the book, the objects become an incredibly valuable source of archaeological information, helping us to tell the stories of the past.
What is particularly nice is that, in addition to listing the finds and their findspots, there are lots of extra annotations providing snippets of additional information. For example, the laborers were often given financial rewards for finding certain types of objects - at Whitby these were mostly coins and Anglian objects. The finds book records who the finder was and how much they were paid. So for example, we know that, on the 1st October 1923, H Smith found a ‘bronze ornament in 12 pieces’ and was later rewarded 10 shillings - that’s approximately a day’s pay. This sort of information gives us a unique insight - beyond archaeology - into the social history of the people who were working there.
This resonates with me personally because, as an archaeologist, I’ve written up lots of modern excavations, where we use very detailed records. But when trying to reassess the 1920s excavations at Whitby, it gets a lot more problematic as we don’t have the same level of information. So, for me, the finds book is the obvious starting point. It’s definitely a challenge, but developing new approaches to tackle the issues of ‘old archaeology’ is something that I find incredibly rewarding.