10 July 2013

Day 19 - London: Museum of London Archaelogical Archive

Every repository we visit quickly becomes one of my favorites, and that was definitely the case with this visit to the Museum of London Archaeological Archives (http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/Collections-Research/LAARC/) It was a bit more imposing on the outside than any other site we've visited yet, especially with the barbed wire fencing:
This site is the third location of the three Museum of London locations, and is not typically seen by the average person coming to visit. Everything that the Museum of London owns which is not on display at the two public locations is kept here. It is open to researchers by appointment, but you do have to make the case for why you want to see an item, so we were extremely lucky to be able to get a behind-the-scenes tour. Daniel Nesbitt, the Assistant Curator of LAARC took us around and explained to us both the history and what MOLA does. 

In London, every time a new building is going to be built, archaeological involvement is required to some degree - in some locations this is only a few weeks, and in others it is a few years. Anything discovered within the M25 highway radius belongs to the Museum of London. 

We began our tour through the Social and Working History collection - this collection is comprised of six themed rooms. We stopped in the Toy & Game room, where you could literally find any toy or game in the last 100 years, even including the more current ones, like a Furby! As Mr Nesbitt pointed out, someone has to save things for the future, so while it can seen out of place for a newer item to be in an archive, how else would it be saved for future generations?
There are only two collecting policies for this collection - 1)A connection to London and 2)If they don't already have it. 99% of the items are donated, and they only purchase items if they are unusual or exceptional in some way. One of the donated items is the Buckingham Palace switchboard, which is currently in a debate over whether it should be restored or kept in the current condition - until a decision is made about display, it remains here:
Next we were ushered into the Processing Area, where they receive archaeological items direct from the dig sites - we got to see things fresh off the van! The majority that we saw were from a site being called the "Pompeii of the North" due to the sheer number of Roman items. They've been working on the site for a few years and have found thousands upon thousands of really well preserved items, due to the flooding of a river which preserved things such as leather and wood which usually disintegrate over time. This picture is of animal bones found at that site - for human bones, they try to rebury them as close as possible to the original burial site, and occasionally have to bury them en masse - all are treated with respect. 
At the washing station, Graham was excited to show us some items he was cleaning from the 17th century - it was a nice change from all the Roman items!
After cleaning and drying, the best items (ones that could be used for future museum displays) are given an additional item number, and then all are eventually stored away. 

The final stop of our tour was the London Archaeological Archive Research Center (LAARC). This is the world's largest archaelogical archive, with excavation details dating back to 1830 on over 8000 excavations. Along with the archaelogical portion, the archive also contains books on the history of London, including old guidebooks. 
One thing I found interesting was the debate if everything should be kept - for example, Mr Nesbitt explained that they have over 1 km of rusy iron nails - do they really need to continue to keep each one pulled out of the ground? But one reason to keep everything is that science and technology keep advancing, so perhaps in the future there will either be a use for those nails or a new way to date items and the nails will help. It is also important to help establish the context for an item, knowing what else it was discovered with can help paint a better picture of the use for an item, or about the people who may have buried or used it. 

A side note - there were no dinosaur bones because as he pointed out, archaelogists only deal with items pertaining to people, while its the paleontogists who look at prehistoric life and dinosaurs. 

After our visit, I went over to the British Musem to explore. It was so very crowded, but I did spend a couple hours looking around until the heat and the crowds just got to be too much. Nothing is air-conditioned here, and its been pushing 80 most days this week, which is perfect weather if you are outside, not so perfect inside a building with thousands of people!

It was an early night for me because I knew the next day we'd have a long day ahead!


  1. It would be fascinating to see the things in the archives! Wow, what history! Your pictures are great! How many taken so far? Love you, Mom and Dad :)

  2. Why did that post twice? Silly anonymous people! M & D