We believe that volunteering for the Portable Antiquities Scheme is an interesting and rewarding experience. As well as the social aspect that comes with being part of a team, our volunteers also gain knowledge, experience and new skills. Many of our volunteers have gone onto careers in the heritage sector – in fact, several of our Find Liaison Officers are former volunteers!
The best way to learn about what it’s like to volunteer with us, is to hear from the volunteers themselves. So, we’ve collated links to all of the “Meet the Volunteer” blog posts below. If you’re inspired then check out the Get Involved section of our website for further information.
Since the Portable Antiquities Scheme began, over 1.3 million objects have been recorded on the Database. But what happens to the information once an object has been recorded? What does it all mean?
There are currently over 600 registered research projects using PAS data, from largescale AHRC-funded efforts to A-level projects, desk-based assessments, magazine articles and more.
The PASt Explorers conference 2018 will explore some of the many ways in which the PAS data is being used. From broad narratives to local research projects, it will celebrate how the work of our volunteers and self-recorders is helping to shape our understanding of the past.
The conference is at The Key Theatre in Peterborough on the 13th September 2018.
The conference is free to attend but booking is essential. Please book through our Eventbrite page: https://bit.ly/2uZckcF or call 0207 323 8293 to book a place. Lunch is provided and PAS volunteers can claim back their travel, subject to the PASt Explorers Expenses Policy (please contact us for further information).
11:00 The Importance of Research, Andrew Rogerson (Norfolk Museums Service)
11:30 Iron Age Hoards on the PAS Database, Rachel Wilkinson (British Museum)
12:00 Bridge over troubled water? Interpreting the Romano-British finds from the River Tees at Piercebridge, Philippa Walton (University of Reading)
12:30 Lunch and workshops
14:00 Disc-on-pin buckles: using the PAS database for personal research, Tom Redmayne (PAS)
14:30 PAS finds in the north-east, Des Murphy (PAS)
15:30 Small finds, bigger picture: recovering lost meaning in late medieval England, Malcolm Jones (PAS)
As well as talks, this year we have a series of mini-workshops taking place over an extended lunch-break. These include searching the database for research, improving your object descriptions, and looking after your finds.
So why not join us in September and take a look at The Bigger Picture.
PASt Explorers is a five-year project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Welcome to Part Two of our round-up of the PASt Explorers Conference, which took place on the 18th November 2017.
Suitably refreshed after lunch and a wander round the fabulous galleries at National Museum Cardiff, we jumped straight back into the stories. This time, the story of how lead cloth seals led Stuart Elton (PAS remote volunteer) to volunteer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme and ultimately write a book on lead seals. Stuart emphasised the power of finds to turn a casual awareness of history into a desire to know more about the lives of our ancestors, who have suddenly become real through this interaction with an artefact. A feeling of obligation to record and share what he finds is what drew Stuart to the PAS, and he is a model of best practice. All finds have an accurate findspot taken using GPS to ensure geographic validity, and each is bagged and filed with a copy of its PAS record, as well as being recorded on Stuart’s own database. So why cloth seals? Lead seals are a common find but, unlike coins, there was very little information available for them, despite the fact that they contain a wealth of information about our post medieval industry and its trading routes. And so the “Bag Seal Junkie” was born! As well as distilling all of his knowledge into a book, Stuart helps to improve the quality of lead seal data on the PAS database by reporting errors, so you see there is more than one way to volunteer for the PAS.
Next up, Steve Guy-Gibbens (PAS volunteer, Hampshire) took us on an investigative journey to uncover the story behind a Roman phalera – or is it? Phalerae are sculpted discs of gold, silver or bronze that would have been worn on the breastplate of a Roman solider during parades. They were awarded as a kind of medal for valour and often depict iconography that emphasises bravery and victory. As such, they can tell us many things, from stories of individual acts of bravery to Roman attitudes towards the military. So what about this example? The first challenge was identifying who or what it depicts. Some see a Roman goddess, others a lion. Who is right? The second puzzle that arose during Steve’s research was whether it was even a phalera at all. It is rather large compared to other examples, but it does have attachment holes suggesting it was mounted on something. There is no conclusive answer to either of these questions as yet but, as Steve found, this process of investigation and research is all part of the appeal. We can only work with the information and parallels that we have available and perhaps providing one definitive answer isn’t the key aim. What really matters is that we record each find as fully and properly as possible so that the information is there for people to write the stories they choose to write. The PAS database leaves space for alternative interpretations and we can update records when new information comes to light. And who knows? Perhaps another example like this one will turn up to help complete the picture.
From the story of a single object to using objects to tell multiple stories, Simon Nicholson (PAS volunteer, Derbyshire) took to the stage to entertain us with a selection of tales from Derbyshire and how he uses PAS finds to bring these stories alive. Like all of the speakers today, Simon’s passion for the past was sparked by archaeological finds and the local stories they can tell. By volunteering for the PAS he has ben able to work with these finds and weave them into his local history talks, some of which we were treated to at the conference. From a notorious 17th century forger to the tough and reliable pottery that lifts the lid on an early manufacturing industry, each tale was an example of how using finds from the local area can make a subject so much more engaging. Placing it in a local recognisable context can help to bring the history alive. The best example of this is the ‘Cromford Dollar’. These were Spanish silver coins counter-marked with a trade stamp that were used by tradesmen to pay their workers at a time when few silver coins were being minted in Britain. Most local people will have heard the term ‘Cromford Dollar’ but few will have seen them before. Using examples recorded on the PAS database, Simon is able to provide some background and colour to this local story. His listeners can literally hold history in their hands. The power of objects indeed.
Finally, what better story to bring the day to a close than a story that became a media sensation? Emily Freeman and Evelyn Curl (PAS volunteers, Shropshire) lifted the (piano) lid on a Treasure find that captured the interest of the whole country, and beyond. In late 2016, a piano tuner in Shropshire was carrying out a routine job on a piano that had just been donated to a local school. The keys were a bit sluggish so he lifted the to take a look and found a stash of carefully wrapped packages. On further inspection each was found to contain a cache of gold sovereigns. The coins weren’t particularly old or special but they had clearly been packed away with great care by somebody. For reasons unknown that person never retrieved them leaving us with the threads of an intriguing story. The potent combination of gold and mystery caught the public’s attention and sparked a frenzy of media interest. The team at Ludlow Museum found themselves thrust into the limelight – it certainly was not the normal PAS volunteer experience! Now that the media furore has died down, we’ve been left with an incredible story of one of the more unusual finds on the database. It’s another great example of how there is much more to an object than first meets the eye, and a suitable point on which to bring this thought-provoking conference to a close.
Throughout the day we heard many, many different ways in which the finds on the database have inspired people to get involved with their local history. Behind every object is a story, sometimes many. With more than 1.3 million objects (and counting) recorded on the PAS database there are endless stories waiting to be discovered. Perhaps the purpose of the database is not to tell the stories but to provide the information from which the stories can be drawn. And we’re not just talking about official academic narratives here. There is more than one way to write about the past. What matters most is that the stories produced continue to engage people with their past. The database is for everyone, after all. What stories will you discover?
On Saturday 18th November we were welcomed to the National Museum Cardiff for our annual PASt Explorers conference. Battling rail replacement services, inclement weather and hordes of rugby fans, attendees arrived at the museum ready for a day of engaging and thought-provoking talks. This year the theme was ‘Telling Tales’ and we explored the multitude of stories contained within the PAS database.
We had tales of discovery and tales of inspiration; familiar tales with a new twist, and new tales that are being unlocked through PAS data. We even had tales of tales! At the heart of each were the finds themselves, and this was the key theme that emerged throughout the day. We heard about finds that had sparked a passion, finds that brought communities together, finds that challenged existing narratives and finds that captured the imagination of the whole country.
We kicked things off by laying a theoretical foundation for the day as Lauren Speed (PASt Explorers) explored the nature of objects and storytelling, asking us to ponder why we find these objects so fascinating. What is their power to engage us and why is this important? Some big themes to sum up in a short space but it really comes down to the link between ourselves and our material culture. Objects are a direct and very tangible link to the past. Like people, they have a chronology, biography and life-span. They carry not just the physical marks of their past use but also the meanings and values given to them throughout their life. Storytelling is an engaging and powerful way to unlock this information as it prompts us to look beyond the empirical data and think about the people behind the objects. Who made it and why? Adding some humanity to the way we talk and write about the past is vital for engaging as many people as possible and this is what we’re all about, after all.
Next up, we were treated to some examples of these ideas in practice as Dr. Rhianydd Biebrach (National Museum Wales) introduced us to the Saving Treasures; Telling Stories project. This is a 5 year Heritage Lottery Funded project that is helping local museum to acquire treasure finds for their collections and provides funding for local community archaeology projects to help people tell the stories of their local areas. Lots of examples were discussed but the story of the Trevethin Hoard probably best demonstrates the impact of the project. This is a hoard of Bronze Age axe- and spearheads found by a local detectorist. With the help of the Saving Treasures project, the hoard was acquired by Pontypool Museum where it is now on display. As well as being important archaeologically, the hoard has had a significant impact locally in an area more known for its industrial history. In fact, Bronze Age activity was previously unknown in this area and so the hoard is a source of immense local pride.
From new local stories, we moved onto the long-established narrative of Boudica and the Iceni uprising as Natasha Harlow (PAS volunteer, Nottinghamshire) revealed some of the results of her doctoral research into personal belongings recorded on the PAS database. We have plenty of images and stories of Boudica but archaeological evidence is lacking – her ‘costly’ chariot burial has yet to be found and the finds we have don’t support the image of Boudica passed down to us by classical writers. The ‘Iceni war of independence’ has left us a trail of destruction and hoards but not the harrying with fire and sword described by Tacitus. Instead, small finds recorded on the PAS database point to continuity in settlement and material culture in Iceni territory. Densities of brooch finds suggest manufacturing and workshop sites that continue through the revolt period, whilst the appearance of Latin text on votive items show an adoption of certain incoming beliefs mixed with old practices. What we seem to have is a story of resistance, selectivity and connectivity during the Iron Age to Roman transition. And what of Boudica herself – real-life warrior queen or an invention of Roman propaganda? For now, the answer depends on which story you prefer.
We rounded off the morning session with a surprising story from a field that wasn’t meant to have anything in it, as Dominic Shelley (PAS self-recorder, Cambridgeshire) showed us the find of a lifetime. After a quick scene-setting canter through the Dark Ages, we were quite aware that this sleepy corner of Cambridgeshire was pretty quiet during this period of history. Nevertheless, Dominic went out, permissions granted and detector in hand, to explore a local field and happened across an unexpected find: an early medieval gold Visigothic tremissis, minted in Spain and in very fine condition, just slightly worn. So not just unusual but hardly used. What then is the story behind this coin? It would have been worth a lot to its owner – 3 tremisses would buy you 70 litres of olive oil or 67 litres of wine, and if you stole a cow you’d be fined 2 tremisses. Is it evidence of a wealthy Visigoth living in Cambridgeshire? Probably not, but it does represent an interesting story. Somebody was bringing this coinage into the area and beyond, as shown by similar finds recorded on the PAS database. It does show us that Britain was not isolated in the 6th and 7th centuries and it is also a good example of how PAS finds are helping to change long-established ideas and stories. Previously it was believed that these coins had a purely symbolic function because they were known only from burials – money to pay the ferryman in the afterlife. Thanks to the PAS and finders recording their finds, we now have examples of these coins from non-burial contexts and can show another side of the story; that these coins were part of the economy too.
So a jam-packed morning! After a chance to see the fabulous tremissis in the flesh, we broke for lunch, and this is where I will pause this post. Join us next time for part 2.
Following user research carried out earlier this year, the Finds Recording Guides section of the County Pages website has been revamped to provide easier navigation and an improved user experience.
The Finds Recording Guides are technical guides aimed at helping people record objects onto the PAS database. They contain a wealth of information on how to record, including which object type to use, what to call various object parts and how to write an effective object description. You can now browse the guides in a variety of ways and even see which ones have been most recently added!
We currently have 19 guides available, with many more to be added in due course, so please do check in regularly to see what’s available. The online nature of the guides means that they can be updated so they will always contain the most up-to-date information on recording practices for the PAS database.
The Finds Recording Guides are the result of months of hard work by the PASt Explorers team, with particular mention to Rob and Helen for writing them, and to Mary for conducting the user research and doing all the back-end computer wizardry to make the guides look so fantastic.
A landmark has been reached this week with the addition of the 20,000th record on the PAS database recorded under a PUBLIC- prefix. The facility to record your own finds directly onto the PAS database has been around since March 2010, and to have reached this total in just over six years is remarkable. I would like to use this post to thank the hundreds of volunteers who collectively have contributed to achieving this total. I hope that you are enjoying some of the training and support offered by the PASt Explorers project since we began in late 2014!
Although many volunteers support their Finds Liaison Officers in the reporting of their own finds, many others have helped out on specific projects. Among these projects, the Clodgy Moor Environs Lithic Recording Project in West Cornwall accounts for much of the stunning total of Mesolithic and Neolithic flints recorded by PUBLIC recorders. More recently, a trio of self-recorders have been helping London FLO Kate Sumnall to document the findings of this year’s Greenwich Foreshore Survey, organised by Historic England on a Scheduled Ancient Monument in their care. Amongst the 100 or so finds recovered this year is this stunningly delicate foil pilgrim badge depicting St George and the dragon (PUBLIC-48C99B), while many other discoveries “reflected the everyday life of the area”, Kate reports.
And so to the 20,000th record itself. As things stand it is a sixpence of Elizabeth I, which is just the sort of record which really helps the FLOs with their huge workloads. Why not take a look at some of the records being created by our volunteers; a proportion are still being worked on and will be available for viewing in the future. If you would like to be involved yourself please get in touch with your local FLO to find out more.
We are delighted to announce that the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s 2015 conference celebrates the launch of PASt Explorers, the Scheme’s five year Heritage Lottery Funded project to recruit and train volunteers from local communities, increasing the capacity of the PAS to record archaeological objects found by members of the public.
This conference aims to illustrate how volunteers have contributed to archaeological knowledge, and asks how we can better demonstrate the impact and celebrate the value of involving volunteers in archaeology on individuals and society as well as understanding our shared past.
The conference takes place in the BP lecture theatre at the British Museum on Monday 23rd November 2015 and is open to all PAS volunteers, staff and researchers. Refreshments (tea/coffee) will be provided free of charge. Lunch can be purchased from one of a selection of restaurants and cafés in and around the British Museum.
Admission to the conference is free but advance booking is essential. Please see the provisional programme and reserve your place on the Eventbrite webpage here: https://past-explorers-2015.eventbrite.co.uk/ Registration closes at 12:00 noon on Friday 20th November 2015. We look forward to welcoming many of our colleagues, volunteers and supporters to our conference at the British Museum later in the year.
In future years, a PASt Explorers volunteer conference will be organised separately to the PAS annual conference and this will be held in a different region and venue each year.