Meet the Finds Liaison Assistant: Phil Hughes

Phil Hughes standing on top of Silbury Hill, Wiltshire, the largest prehistoric mound in Europe. Copyright Phil Hughes. All rights reserved.

Tell us about yourself.

I am a Finds Liaison Assistant for Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, having started this role in December 2017. I am assisting Alastair Willis, the Finds Liaison Officer for Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, for three days per week for six months on a placement as part of my doctoral research, being undertaken at the University of Leicester.

I have an undergraduate degree in Ancient History & Archaeology and a Masters degree in Roman Archaeology. My PhD research investigates Romano-British engagement with the prehistoric past in the East Midlands and the South-East of England with a focus on place and objects. In between completing my Masters degree and embarking on doctoral research, I worked as a field archaeologist excavating rural and urban sites from the Palaeolithic to the Medieval period.

In my spare time I can be found tripping over my own feet whilst attempting to play football, and plotting my next unorthodox soup recipe.

What does your role involve?

My role involves recording archaeological finds brought to the PAS by detectorists and members of the public at finds days and metal detectorist club meetings. In order to do this, I research the objects, photograph them, and produce clear edited images. I input the information about each object on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database so that it can be accessed by members of the public. I also ensure that finds identified as treasure are processed correctly in accordance with the Treasure Act.

What area of history/archaeology are you most interested in?

My main interest has always been in ancient Roman history and the archaeology of the Roman world, with an emphasis on Britain in the Roman Empire, investigating questions of continuity and change. More recently, I have developed an interest in British prehistory, and am able to combine the two as part of my doctoral research by investigating how material things of the past are always present, relevant and acting in a later period.

Why did you start working for the PAS?

Whilst I’ve always loved thinking abstractly about the past, and in trying to dig a giant a hole as quickly as possible, the main allure of archaeology has always resided in small finds for me. Since its inception, the PAS has transformed the information that is available to archaeologists and members of the public, giving us greater knowledge of the distribution of finds and the location of archaeological sites. Consequently, I really wanted to get involved to help cultivate the very positive relationships between these communities that the PAS has fostered and, of course, handle, deal with and think about the objects themselves!

What do you enjoy most about working for the PAS?

Most definitely the opportunity to broaden my horizons about the material culture of the British past. Whilst we all have our own favourite periods of the past and object types, I really enjoy researching objects I know nothing about from time periods I know little about. The other day I was examining and recording a post-medieval jetton, sending me down a welcome and unexpected rabbit hole of new knowledge.

What is the most exciting find from Derbyshire you have recorded so far?

Recently, I recorded a broken late pre-Roman Iron Age lip-shaped harness fitting made of copper alloy with red enamel (DENO-F5C2D6). Harness fittings, attached to chariots drawn by ponies, emerged in the 3rd century BCE and it is remarkable to think about how little these objects have changed through to the present day!

Late Iron Age Harness Fitting, from Foston & Scropton
Late Iron Age Harness Fitting, from Foston & Scropton (DENO-F5C2D6). Copyright: Derby Museums Trust. Licence: CC BY.

What is your favourite object recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database from Derbyshire?

Despite being a Romanist, with access to a plethora of metal items including an abundance of coinage, I retain a deep fascination for prehistoric flint tools, a legacy of charismatic teachers and excavation opportunities when I was a field archaeologist! DENO-60CCE4 is a beautiful Neolithic polished axehead unearthed in 2015/2016. It’s striking colouration, with tints of grey, beige and orange-brown transfixes. Whilst stone tool technological industries served functional purposes in prehistory in the hunting and preparation of game, by the Neolithic period the prevalence of polished tools served a clear dual purpose. Whilst polishing would increase the intrinsic strength of the axe, useful for the clearance of woods to make room for sedentary agricultural societies, their highly polished finish indicates social prestige and value as exchangeable objects. Further, they are frequently found in burial mounds indicating they were venerable objects infused with ritual significance.

Neolithic Polished Axehead, from Mort (DENO-60CCE4). Copyright: Derby Museums Trust. Licence: CC BY.