Yes, They Had it… But What Was It?

One of the big problems that archaeologists deal with is finding things that they simply can’t identify.  For a number of years I was on an email list, conceived of and managed by Dr Dan Carlson, an Archaeologist working in Fröjel harbor in Sweden. Occasionally they would find something that they had questions about, and they would send a description and picture of the item out to the “hive mind” to ask for help. and often someone would have a clue. I remember one time in particular. I emailed this message:

“To me it looks like a tiny beater that could be used in tablet weaving or other narrow band weaving. I use something similar, made of wood, place it in the weaving shed and pull it gently towards the newly woven cloth to push the newly placed weft in place. I will be watching to see what other people think it is!”

The response from the archaeologist?

“You are obviously right! Most people have the same suggestions, and thinking of the pieces of thin plates of bone for tablet weaving at the sight, shows clearly that the technique was used at the site.”

The basic problem is that it is almost impossible for a researcher, or even a team of researchers, to have a complete knowledge of all of the equipment that was used in every art and craft, in any given culture. And now take even identifiable objects, and break them into pieces, and see if you can figure out what they used to be. And then take those pieces, and allow time and weather to corrode them and wear them away, and what do you have? Archaeology is often like a giant jigsaw puzzle where the box with the picture is missing, and the cat has eaten some pieces, and chewed up other ones.

And this problem does not become any less severe when we work during later time frames with more complex machinery. In about 1985 I was working in the Archaeology Lab at the University of Houston, as a grad student. One project involved a house that was burned because the inhabitants had died of Yellow Fever. (In the 1800’s people did not know that Yellow Fever was a mosquito borne disease, they thought it spread by contact, like Small Pox.) The head of the department suggested that I look at the finds because I “had a knack” for identifying odd pieces of metal. (I have always loved machinery and used to regularly take things apart and put them back together when I was a child.) They thought they were dealing with the daughter’s room, but could not be sure, and one of the other grad students poured out a bag of very rusty pieces of iron. And I knew what she had.








It was broken into about a dozen pieces, and had a different style frame than the one in the picture, but what she had were the pieces of a music box. The spring, the frame to hold the roller, the holder for the comb, and the comb to “plink” on the roller, were clear as day… to me. She had never seen the inside of a music box before, and had never even thought about how they worked.

So when you are busy looking through a museum’s digital collection, take a good look. Watch for mistakes (we all make them!), and if you think that you know what something is, do not hesitate to contact the museum. You could help them solve a mystery, or simply point out inadequate information on an old entry. And some, like the MET, may even send you a thank you email!

A Note to People Everywhere Who Run Events or Attend Them

As some of you may know, we are currently at an event. And as often happens, the event, and the things that have happened here, reminded me of running events myself. It has reminded me of the need to say thank you to all of those who give their precious time and energy so that we can have a wonderful place to go to be with our friends. And it has reminded me of the affect that bad behavior, premeditated, or not, can have on people.

To me, one of the most important things that we can do at events is to reward good behavior. The person who follows the rules and cooperates should be rewarded, by at least civil behavior, and perhaps even a thank you. That is not to say that we expect all people to be perfect all of the time. Have I ever forgotten to pre-register for an event? Yes. Have I ever left my membership card at home? Yes. But it would never have occurred to me to harass the people at gate because of my mistakes. I remember leaving our membership cards home many years ago at Pennsic. The people at troll were apologetic that they had to charge us the non-member surcharge, because this was before you could pull up memberships on line. I said it was my own darn fault and that they should not feel bad. They breathed a sigh of relief. What would being mean to them have accomplished?

And then there are the unintentional goofs. A poorly marked boundary line for a camp or shop that causes confusion. People are not mind readers. If we ask for clarification, because we are trying to follow the rules, do not be short with us. We are simply trying to follow the rules. If we assume that we are setting up our shop in the same way that we have for five years, and it is not what you intended, admit that the markings may not have been clear.

My favorite events have the boundary lines for encampments and shops so clearly laid out that there is never any question. That is what I have always tried to do when I laid out merchant areas. I wanted to make sure that every merchant got every inch that they paid for, and there would be no confusion, or difficulty, for merchants who came in later.

In the case of households, they are always free to renegotiate boundary lines with their neighbors, but the bottom line is, you asked for a specific amount of land, and that is what you get. Do not tell me on the day of the event that you have an additional twenty people coming. I may not be able to accommodate you.

And finally, if you screw up, no matter how “important” or “unimportant” you are, say you are sorry. We are all human beings, and we all make mistakes. A simple, “gee, I am sorry if I was crabby” can make all the difference in someone’s experience at the event. No one is too “important” to say “I’m sorry”.

Play nice and help everyone have a good time!

Finding My Peeps! (Sorry I Couldn’t Resist!)

In between some of my longer blog series I often like to do a blog about something that I think might be helpful to folks who are doing specific research. I was recently contacted by a person who was interested in finding out more information about Bohemia. She said that she was of Bohemian ancestry and was having problems finding good information on the area.

I admit, my knowledge of the old Soviet Bloc nations is considerably less than western Europe and other areas. So I looked it up online, and found myself immediately comparing a bunch of obscure and annoying maps of the general area. Many of the maps had no modern city names on them, and the use of different names for the same geographical locations made it more of a challenge. I found myself using the Baltic, Mediterranean and Black Seas as major landmarks. What I realized after a few moments of fumbling was that I had studied portions of the general area, but that I had approached it from a different angle than she was. I did not look for Bohemians, I looked for information on Slavs. I was aware that this was a tribal area, which probably had a much greater sense of “tribe” than Slav or Bohemian.

The tribes inhabiting the Baltic Sea VIII-IX c...

The tribes inhabiting the Baltic Sea VIII-IX century (Slavs, Balts.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The research that I had found previously pointed me to Moravia and the Moravian Empire, and a rereading of the original request for help did mention an interest in the Slavs. Checking the dates associated with the area showed that Moravia existed between the time of the great Slavic Migration, which occurred between 450 and 550 AD and the annexation of the area by the Bohemian Empire in AD 973. And that explained everything! Most of the previous requests for information and temple rings that I had had were for earlier Slavic materials. Most of my later Slavic research (13th through 16th century) has been in the areas of Kiev and Novgorod. Then I went looking for information on the exact dates for the creation of Bohemia. Well, I found several sources that agreed that the Duchy of Bohemia was created in 870, but the contradictions between sources about the exact progression of political entities in the area reminded me that this was really NOT something that I was interested in, and had nothing to do with the point of this blog.

If  you are interested in a particular group of people, figure out what the name of their ethnic group is, and skip as much of the later political designations as possible. When archaeologists study groups, they look at their ethnicity, not what country they lived in, and that is how their material will generally be catalogued. If you are looking for archaeological information you can then search for the nearest large museum online, and see if there is any information available. National Museums often have pages available in English, just look for the British Flag at the top of the page.

If you need a basic class in online research, I have an eleven part blog series on my website, called “Researching on the Cheap”. Just go to and choose Nov 2014 in the drop down “Blog Archives” menu in the right column. You can easily reach all eleven episodes from there!