Things I’ve learned working in a museum (part IV)

That you don’t learn as much from Time Team as you think you do…

You watch Time Team, and you think you’re learning everything you need to know about archaeology. You watch Phil knap a chunk of flint into a hand axe, and you think ‘I could do that. It looks easy’. You watch him pull a piece of Roman pottery out of the ground and proclaim “‘Ere, Tony, I’ve got a lovely bit of pot for you ‘ere” (to be read in a strong West Country accent), and you think it looks simple. Pottery is just pottery, after all. But no, it’s really not. It could be samian ware, black burnished ware, coarse ware, slip ware (red or black), it could be a fragment of an amphora, a cooking pot, a cup, a bowl, a mortarium (a mixing bowl – think ‘mortar’, not ‘mort’), or any number of other things. And then you quite often find Medieval green-glazed pottery mixed in with the Roman, too, and it all gets quite complicated.

So I look at a drawer of Roman ceramics in the museum, and my incisive Time Team-trained mind says, “It’s a drawer of Roman pottery”. And my archaeologist colleague sighs and says, “Yes, but what type of pottery?”. And my incisive Time-Team trained mind shuffles its feet in embarrassment and says, “Erm…dunno”.

And much the same thing happens when we come across a drawer of stone tools. I see a pile of rocks, my archaeologist friend sees hand axes, arrow heads, scrapers, choppers, burins, points, blades, microliths, pounders, hammerstones, whetstones…the list goes on.

So the last few weeks have been a bit of a steep learning curve for me. I hate to admit that I don’t know much about anything (because I’m a smartarse, and I like to know everything about everything!), but it turns out that I know a hell of a lot less about archaeology than I thought. My knowledge of Roman history is pretty good (late Republic and early Empire, anyway), and I naively thought that pretty much equated to knowing something about archaeology. Oh, how wrong I was! I have learned a lot very quickly, and can now identify my Roman pottery and stone tools much better than I could 3 weeks ago (not hard to achieve!), however, I think I’ll leave the archaeology to the archaeologists in future. It’s interesting, but it’s not my area of expertise! I’ll take a dinosaur over a pot any day of the week!