The Archaeological Metallurgist

A great number of archaeologists lack professional experience in excavating and interpreting artefacts or ancient activities involved in metalworking. To avoid any potential difficulties that this may cause, field archaeologists will often consult a metallurgical specialist either on the digging site or later when assessing the evidence.

Archaeometallurgical contributions can be highly beneficial on archaeological projects. Firstly, the metals expert can identify evidence for metalworking as the excavation project is underway, which might include features such as furnaces or hearths as well as smaller items like slags, moulds, crucibles, and scrap metal. This ‘real time’ reporting will assist the site director to best use his archaeology assets. Secondly, they may contribute to describing the compositional analysis and structure of metal relics that can increase understanding of conventional data. This is most likely done post-dig as it often requires large scale equipment for analysis.

There are three main stages whereby the archaeo metallurgist is employed.

  • Excavation Preparation and Planning
  • On Site Excavation
  • Assessment and Analysis

Metal objects are frequently found on archaeological digs. However, as numerous as they are, they are yet to be included in the planning stages of many archaeology projects.

Where metal artefacts or manufacturing procedures relating to mining or metalworking can be realistically predicted, it is indispensable for an appropriate expert to be involved at the pre-dig, preparation stage. An archaeometallurgist can create a research plan that will include all archaeo metallurgical objectives, and especially develop an appropriate excavation and sampling strategy customised to the dig.

Site Excavation

Should any field staff discover features or artefacts that lead them to conclude that the area could once have been industrial in nature, (for example where very large quantities of slag are present – more than 100kg), an archaeometallurgist should immediately be invited on site. Their role will be interpretative of the features or elaborate on the artefacts so as to co-develop an ongoing strategy with the site director for further sample collection. Early consultation of unexpected finds will minimise destruction or the inability to observe and gather data productively.

However, most archaeology sites do not yield vast quantities of metal or metal by-products. Most sites will only have small metal artefacts or perhaps some micro-residues. The latter will not be recognisable to the non-expert and it is important, on significant projects, that a technical specialist is resident with the academic staff.

Assessment and Analysis

The archaeological metal specialist can contribute in a number of ways after the fieldwork is completed. As well as assessing the potential for further excavation, the archaeo metallurgist can advise on the interpretation of features that were recorded during the digging season.

Outcomes, at this stage, could include the chemical analysis of artefacts, decisions as to what items warrant additional investigation, and lectures to field staff in order to update them on the relevancies of the finds. Finally, the archaeometallurgist’s work is not completed until many reports are written and new information is disseminated to other professionals. This last task should not be under estimated as it forms the springboard to higher education and research.

By cooperating together, archaeologists and their archaeometallurgist colleagues can discover more about the metalworking processes once undertaken on ancient sites, and thereby enhance the explanation of such sites and add to the global knowledge base of historic metalworking practices.

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