Guidance on recording finds

The initial finds record is a product of finds processing.

In most cases recording should take place only after finds have been cleaned, dried and marked.

Exceptions include registered finds that require remedial conservation or specialist cleaning, or plotted finds that are initially recorded in situ.

All finds have two attributes, their substance (material type) and their form (eg object type, bone type). The accurate and consistent identification and documentation of those will facilitate the interpretation of assemblages, comparative studies between assemblages and the dissemination of finds reports.

Accurate identification of either material or object types is not possible at every stage of a project, and cleaning, conservation and/or analysis may be required before a conclusive result can be obtained. However, objects should always be recorded as fully and accurately as the known information allows, while records must be updated when more precise information becomes available.

Early identification of at least the category of material is important for sensitive finds such as wood or textile because that will govern how they are packed and treated and could prioritise urgent intervention by a conservator – if not on site then as soon as possible thereafter. Site personnel need to be aware of the requirements for particular materials and be in communication with off-site finds personnel if necessary (for further guidance see First Aid for Finds in References and resources).

There are several potential stages in finds recording:

  • A basic record is made soon after collection and will include preliminary information on material and object types and their quantities
  • An appraisal record will include more specific (and possibly more accurate) definitions of material and object types, designed to inform an understanding of the significance of a category assemblage
  • Analysis will characterise materials and objects in greater detail, leading to as full an interpretation of a category assemblage as is possible/appropriate

During processing, a finds assemblage will usually be separated into bulk finds, registered finds and finds from samples. After completing the basic record, those groups will be recorded differently, in line with the standards applicable to different categories, but at the basic recording stage, the same broad approach can generally be followed.

Recording materials

An archaeologist surrounded by finds writes on clear plastic finds bags at a desk.
Recording key site information during finds packaging (image: Archaeological Projects Team, Historic England)

Categorisation into even the broadest class of material will ensure proper treatment at an early stage. For example, identifying an object as metal will ensure that it is handled appropriately from the point of recovery onwards.

Categorisation will also allow the relevant specialists to be identified and contacted in advance of appraisal.

It is therefore important to record correctly the material types of all finds, at least at some basic level.

Material types should be identified as soon as possible during processing and it is important to use a consistent terminology for recording them. This will facilitate subsequent searches of recorded information, which would be less accessible if different terms were applied to the same material type.

Materials word list

A system for classifying and recording material types is shown in the Materials word list , which is offered as a universal terminology that will enable access to finds records for all projects that utilise this toolkit. Use of the terms in the list is recommended by the CIfA Special Interest Group for Finds, the CIfA Special Interest Group for Archaeological Archives and the Society for Museum Archaeology. There are other thesauri of material types (see References and resources), developed principally for use with objects that have not all been collected archaeologically, and therefore not always structured in the most helpful ways. The list presented here was developed in consultation with FISH (Forum on Information Standards in Heritage) and will form the basis of an established thesaurus of archaeological material types within the FISH terminological sequence.

The list is structured hierarchically, dividing materials into Material class, Material category and Material type. A more precise classification of Material type would be Material detail (eg Stone – Chalk; Pottery – Earthenware; Wood – Oak). Different specialists will have different terms for this subdivision, or more detailed levels such as pottery ware type, and such variants are not set out here. That level of detail will usually be determined by specialists at appraisal or analysis.

The order of the terms in the list is designed to progress from naturally occurring mineral materials, ie stone, through artificially altered natural minerals, ceramic, glass and metal, to organic materials such as human, animal and plant remains, but any order can be applied as desired.

Using the materials word list

It is not intended that all the terms included in the list should be marked on bags or boxes. The structure is that of a thesaurus, enabling the organisation of records rather than physical objects. Guidance on how to use the list in relation to finds processing is given below.

The list uses the following terms:

  • Material ID code: a numeric string that can be used to order records in digital formats. If marked on boxes, it can also be used to order them in storage
  • Material class: enables a broad classification of an assemblage record. Does not need to be marked on bags or boxes
  • Material category: allows the extraction of general information from the record, for example, where it is important to know the total quantity of metal finds. Will not always need to be marked on bags or boxes, although there may be exceptions where specific material types are stored together (eg glass, artificial materials).
  • Material type: with material type (common usage) the most frequently applied material terms. Will usually be marked on bags and boxes unless common usage terms are applied.
  • Material type (common usage): alternative terms commonly used by archaeologists. Will usually be marked on bags and boxes instead of Material type.
  • Material type description: an explanation of what material type terms are applied to.
  • Material detail: terms to be applied to specific materials that usually have been identified by a specialist during appraisal or analysis. May be marked on bags or boxes, as appropriate to the contents

The list is organised into Material categories that can usually be used to ensure that similar materials are packed and boxed together, and boxes are ordered consistently. Material ID codes have been introduced with the aim of simplifying the ordering of finds catalogues and for ease of reference. If boxes of material archive are ordered by Material ID, Category and Type, then receiving repositories will be able to accession them much more efficiently and locate them more easily for future research.

That does not mean to say that packages (eg bags) or boxes should be labelled with additional information, against current accepted practice. The hierarchical structure of the Materials word list is designed to facilitate the retrieval of information from the record (usually now in digital form) rather than the labelling of containers. It will also make it easier to align with any thesaurus that emerges from FISH as the current materials version is reviewed.

Use the relevant terms in the Materials word list to label packages and boxes in ways that ensure consistency and that the contents are identifiable, according to the requirements of the archive repository. A box of worked flint can be marked solely with the term ‘Worked Flint’, if that is your common practice and acceptable to the archive repository, although ‘Modified lithic’ is preferred here.

The Materials word list can be used to order and number boxes. If finds records include the Material ID code then a spreadsheet/database of, for example, the bulk finds record can be ordered by code and boxed in the same order, with box numbers issued accordingly.

Boxes of finds could therefore be marked with the Material category, the Material type and the box number, as well as the site identifier and details of the contents (eg context or registered finds identifiers).

Composite objects

For composite objects all material types present should be recorded, but one of them should be identified as the defining material in order to determine which category assemblage it belongs in.

This may be based on

  • how the object is primarily characterised (is it an iron knife or a bone handle?)
  • what particular specialist will assess it prior to analysis (an ironwork specialist or a worked bone specialist?)
  • how it will ultimately be packed and/or stored (eg to maintain low or high humidity)

The significance of individual objects will vary and no recommendation for how to make that decision can be made here. It is important to consult with specialists, conservators and the repository curator, as appropriate, to determine an agreed course of action.

Unidentifiable materials

The term ‘Unidentifiable’ has not been included in the Materials word list because it is not actually a material type; it cannot appear in a taxonomy. It is, however, acceptable to use the term ‘Unidentifiable’ in instances where the material type is unknown at the time of recording. If the material type is determined after finds processing it is important to update the initial finds record.

Recording objects

There are of course many more types of object than there are materials, so no list is offered here. There are reference works and classifications available that describe various objects; see Reference and resources. The same principle of consistency that applies to materials also applies to objects – the same terms should be used for the same objects throughout the course of a project.

Objects can be classified within a hierarchical system (eg coin – penny – Edward III issue; large mammal bone – sheep tibia – left tibia) and it is often well into the analysis stage that a definitive identification can be made. For finds management purposes, broad terms (eg coin; large mammal bone) will usually be sufficient throughout and it is only in the stages of specialist analysis, interpretation and reporting that more detailed identification is necessary. Applying those broad terms in the initial stages of recording will ensure objects are given the appropriate treatment and that they are sent to the correct specialist.

Recording category assemblages

From the moment of recovery, finds are categorised and cleaned, packaged and analysed according to their material type or object type (eg coins may be treated differently to other metal finds). Fragile materials will be treated differently to more robust types, so it is important correctly to identify all objects at the earliest possible stage.

In finds processing, bulk finds will usually be cleaned, dried, marked and/or labelled, then following recording, they will be sorted and packed (usually in bags) and boxed by context and category/material type.

Registered finds will be sorted by material/object, then cleaned, marked/labelled, packed and boxed as appropriate for the material type and their condition. It should be noted that many materials that usually occur as registered finds (eg metals, textiles) should only be cleaned by a trained specialist, usually a conservator, and often following a conservation assessment stage. Prior to appraisal, as part of the initial identification process, metal finds will also be x-rayed (with some exceptions, such as lead).

Three types of finds record will usually be produced during processing: a bulk finds record, a registered finds index and a sample finds record. Those records may be updated following appraisal of the finds assemblage, when a more detailed identification and/or quantification might be produced by a specialist. Analysis will lead to a definitive record of the material types and sub types (eg pottery fabrics) and object types (eg baluster jug).