What Does It All Mean?

As you know, the Portable Antiquities Scheme hit a rather large milestone this month by recording the 1.5 millionth object onto the database. This number is impressive by itself, of course, but what does it actually mean? It’s a lot of objects but what do they actually tell us? In a recent Twitter thread, John Naylor (Finds Adviser for Medieval coinage, based at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford), highlighted a number of research projects that have successfully used PAS data. These projects demonstrate the research potential of the data behind this massive milestone. We have collated John’s Tweets into this blog post so that you can explore these research projects and perhaps be inspired to carry out your own!

Interpreting early medieval society and economy through metal-detected finds

Between 2004 and 2007, John worked with Julian Richards (of the Archaeological Data Service) on the Viking and Anglo-Saxon Landscape and Economy (VASLE) project, which explored PAS data for early medieval England and Wales. At the time of the project (and it may still be true), more was known about the location and density of settlements of this period through metal-detecting activity than through archaeological fieldwork. Interpretation of this data therefore held enormous potential for helping to understand the landscape, economy and identity of early medieval England and Wales. The VASLE project analysed, interpreted and evaluated PAS data in relation to information from other sources, and was an important step for understanding what could be done with PAS data. To learn more about the VASLE project visit their website here and read John and Julian’s paper here. To see all early medieval objects recorded on the database click here

A selection of early medieval objects recorded on the PAS database (Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY).

Finding local meaning in Lincolnshire

Ten years later, our former Finds Liaison Officer for Lincolnshire, Adam Daubney, used PAS data to write about long-term settlement in Lincolnshire. His book explores the significance of PAS data for Lincolnshire and how the finds enhance the known archaeological record for the county. It shows how powerful the PAS dataset can be, especially when used with archaeological and other evidence. The book can be read online here. To see all finds on the database from Lincolnshire click here.

A selection of finds from Lincolnshire recorded on the PAS database (Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY).

Small finds, big picture

PAS data isn’t all about the big landscape either. Several studies have been done on specific object types, such as that by Eleanor Standley (Ashmolean Museum) which looks at the social and economic contexts of lead spindle whorls. Excavated finds of spindle whorls are dominated by ceramics, baked clay and stone, whereas the PAS examples are predominantly lead and lead alloy, presenting an exciting new corpus of material to study. The full study can be found online here or as a free text-only download here. To see all examples of spindle whorls recorded on the database click here.

One of the almost 6500 lead or lead alloy spindle whorls recorded on the PAS database. Record ID is NCL-6760B8 (Copyright: Tyne & Wear Museums, License: CC-BY).

Coinage and collapse?

We couldn’t talk about research using PAS data without mentioning Roman coins! A great example is the study of coin use and the end of Roman Britain by Philippa Walton and our very own Sam Moorhead (Finds Adviser for Roman Coins, British Museum). Their research looked beyond chronology to explore what hoards and site finds can tell us about the nature of coin use in Britannia and its apparent collapse in the 5th century AD. To read the full paper click here. To see all Roman coins recorded on the database click here

A copper-alloy Roman nummus of Honorius (AD 395-423). Record ID is DENO-784AB4 (Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY).

Helpful “hot spots”

Finally, PAS data provided an important part of Professor Helen Hamerow (Oxford School of Archaeology), Chris Ferguson and John Naylor’s research exploring the origins of Wessex in the 5th-8th centuries. By digitally mapping PAS and other data they were able to identify new “hot spots” of activity from the period AD 400-750, as well as gaps in the distribution of Anglo-Saxon material culture that could point to a British presence. To read the full paper click here. To see material on the database from the period AD 400-750 click here.

An early medieval gold and garnet pendant dating to AD 675-750. Record ID is DOR-1B7E81 (Copyright: Somerset County Council, License: CC-BY).

This is just a small selection of the research that has been carried out using PAS data. PAS data has been increasingly important in archaeological research and is a standard part of most major projects these days. It’s available to all and can be used to study the past from one parish to the whole country. So why not head to the database and see what you can find? For help and advice on how to search the database check out our handy finds recording guide to searching the database