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MOLAS - Museum Of London Archaeological Service

In the UK there is a legal requirement for every building site where a depth of greater than 1.2 meters is dug beneath the soil, a minimum of 25% of the site has to be excavated by professional archaeologists. In London this requirement is rather demanding due to such a rich archaeological heritage that London holds and the constant development of one area or another. Primarily most of the archaeological excavations are carried out by the company Museum Of London Archaeological Service (or MOLAS).

Brief history of archaeology in London

Some might wonder why such a law was passed to require an archaeological excavation to be carried out on all building sites in the UK as surely this would slow down the project building developments. This is very true as the building contractors are usually time pressured and offered incentives to finish the building on sites early, yet caution needs to be taken as a rich archaeological deposit is underneath the current landscape one sees in London. After the second World War, London was recovering slowly as it was so financially crippled by debt, the cost of war, and the German Blitzes had taken a heavy toll on the buildings in London. It was many years until some sites were cleared and rebuilt upon, but for the first time huge areas of land was exposed and showed what lay beneath. There were sites where members of the public were discovering interesting medieval artifacts, burial grounds and other recognizable items of interest were found. The publics attention was being drawn to these by a series of higher profile sites and eventually a team of archaeologists organized themselves to argue a case for retaining the knowledge of sites that are buried beneath the current landscape, and their argument was one to protect our cultural heritage. The law passed in the 1970's and required a minimum amount of the site to be excavated when digging below 1.2 meters, and MOLAS was soon established afterwards to cater for the increased demand for archaeological excavators.

Recruitment

Being closely linked with the Museum of London MOLAS has had a large platform to launch itself off, but with University College London being rated as having the number one archaeological department in the country, there has always been a steady flow of fresh out of University students willing to get their hands dirty, or maybe needing to pay the rent!! The highest demand level for employees in MOLAS is at the level of Field Archaeologist, and this is usually the entry point for most of the archaeologists working at MOLAS. After a year in the field (used to be 3 years minimum) a Field Archaeologist can be promoted to a Site Supervisor, where the archaeologist can be the sole responsibility for the site on their own, or in charge of a team of 30+ archaeologists and the finds and records. Site Supervisors report to Project officers who manage and organize all the “behind the scenes” elements of the excavation, like liasing with the building contractors and having to explain why the excavation will take many weeks longer as a number of 18th century burials have been found!! Believe me it has happened and the contractors generally are NOT pleased. MOLAS also has to handle the cataloging and storage of the “finds” from the excavation site. They employ a team of archaeologists who clean and prepare the finds for storage. There are other archaeologists who are employed for the purpose of illustrating and digitizing the drawings off the archaeological site.

Storage of the archaeological finds

Off one archaeological site there can be literally truck loads of finds and archaeological samples taken, and there are many archaeological sites being dug at any one time in London alone. Storing and achieving all these finds is a mammoth task that really has no ideal solution. One can not be expected to archive all the samples and finds taken off of a site, but a large percentage of it is as it is realized amongst archaeologists that if the sample is not recorded and achieved then the piece of history is lost forever, and it would have possibly have been better not to excavate the find in the first place as maybe later in due course there may be more storage space and money available to archaeologists for such recording. Hence MOLAS's close ties again with the Museum Of London has served them well as any really important finds immediately will go on display in the museum and MOLAS has access to the museums storage facilities. This setup allows many archaeologists around the world to have samples and material that they can access if they are writ ting a paper on something in particular.

Example of some sites excavated by MOLAS

I was fortunate enough to excavate for MOLAS for two years (including both winters where I had to break the ice off the surface in order to begin to be able to excavate in the earth!!) and in that time I was fortunate to get to dig on a wide variety of sites. There were about four sites that were church burial grounds, all ranging from the years 1700 - 1890, these were primarily burial grounds that were used during this period as this was the period in time where the Industrial Revolution was really starting to kick off in the UK and there was a mass movement from the countryside into the city with people looking for work. However the increase in numbers did not mean that everyone had jobs and the cramped conditions encouraged the spread of illness and disease, hence in these burial sites we found many families all buried together one on top of the other, and one of the first excavations I ever did was that of an infant about 3-5 years old. Other sites that were common to excavate were the industrial sites in Eastern London as this was a major source of work recently with the Olympic stadium and East London Train line being build in the last 7 years. East London has always been a central location for the industry buildings and I was involved in excavations on Glass making sites, leather factories, brick making sites and other such industries. One of the most interesting sites that I excavated on was right in the heart of London just outside Bank Tube station. Here there was a truly rich deposit of archaeological material as the site had been built upon so much in the last 3000 years. There were initial investigation pits dug to a depth of 25 meters before natural bedrock was reached!! There was evidence of 1st century Clay and timber buildings with coins and other artifacts found giving a good guide to the date of these buildings, and most interestingly there was a 3 inch boar tusk that was found under neath the clay and timber buildings which means it must have been dropped or deposited before the buildings were erected in the 1st century. The boars tusk was potentially just discarded and could have been written off as potentially just a discarded bone from a butchery, yet it was carved and had a hole drilled in it so that it could be worn as a pendant. This shows us that the site was in use some 2000 years ago and a number of pits and other features found indicate that the site was used a further 1000 years prior to that.

MOLAS has since undergone a company reworking and is now known as MOLA and the website URL is http://www.museumoflondonarchaeology.org.uk/

Museum of London website - http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk archaeologist


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