Part 1 was the more organized portion. Now you get to see the really random bits fall from my brain. Some help you understand the finds, while others help your FIND the finds.
If your goal in reading archaeological reports is to be told exactly how to make an item, you will probably be disappointed. Sometimes the report writers make conjectures about construction. But experimental archaeologists (aka living historians) often know better how to make the item. The report just fully describes the find.
If you are researching European finds, start working exclusively with the metric system. All the finds are reported in mm or cm. If you DON’T convert to inches, but just work with them, you will develop an understanding of metric measurements that the US educational system has failed to teach. For a lot of the dress accessories, I use a sewing gauge, that has both inches and centimeters on it, as well as an adjustable sliding marker. I set the sliding marker for the mm size I am aiming for on a bead, and can hold it near the bead while making it.
On one hand, you should trust the descriptions written by the museums: After all, they have the objects in their hands. On the other hand, you need to questions those descriptions. There HAVE been instances where museum descriptions have been updated after queries from reenactors. The key question is WHEN was the description written. Older descriptions may be imprecise, or were written by some who didn’t focus in that area, or simply haven’t been analyzed with modern technology. For example, there are a LOT of dress accessories labeled as bronze, which is the name for the alloy of copper and tin. Modern casters often use brass, which is the name for the alloy of copper and zinc, and are sometimes dinged for not being properly “authentic.” But in recent years, various museums have started using new technology to test their material, specifically x-ray florescence, which is non-destructive, and have discovered that their settled understanding of historic metalwork is flawed. Items from the “Bronze” age and later vary a lot – some are brass, some are bronze, some are leaded bronze. It is a continuum. It is frequent that the copper-alloy finds in a particular area have the same metallic composition, which might be different from the town 50 miles down the road. So now, museums and archaeological reports tend to use “copper-alloy” in most cases, and only use brass or bronze when XRF testing has given the result.
If you are researching English finds, Google is more likely to give you useful results from locations in Europe if you use British spellings. Jewellery, Colour, Catalogue, Armour, and especially Artefact. The people in Britain writing archaeological reports and graduate theses are going to use artefact.
Google will NOT give you the best stuff. Nearly every really amazing resource is a database where you have to click through several steps to get to the search screen. So instead, learn to ask Google to find you those databases. Use the name of the culture, like Anglo-Saxon; the word database, or alternatively, scheme; and uk (because most British web addresses include that.) Archaeology, or archaeological trust are also helpful modifiers. If you are looking for a real, bricks-and-mortar museum, put the name of the museum into Google, along with the word “official”, to avoid all the tourist sites, and get the main museum. Once inside the museum, look for the digital collection area. Try browsing a bit, to find out how they name and organize their collection. Use the advanced search. Often, instead of doing a keyword search, you will be more successful using a drop-down menu box to select material (like silk) and culture.
It is important to learn what the archaeologists are calling the thing you want to research. Sometimes, they will call it a name that is based on the typology, like a Type-D Bracteate. The type designation often has NOTHING to do with the design of the item. But if you call it a pendant, and the archaeologists call it a bracteate, you will have difficulty searching.
Typologies are often created by whomever is the first and most obsessive about organizing and analyzing a specific type of object. By comparing many different examples of similar objects, they create a list of types. Each type should be aesthetically different, although some may differ only in construction details. Each type is also associated with a particular date range. There are typologies for many different objects, which have been accepted by the archaeological community. Later archaeological reports may only say that the object was a Type D Bracteate, and not give any further descriptive details. You have to find the sources and authors of the typologies. They often are not clearly identified, even when referred to. People are just expected to know what they mean. But just because someone was first, doesn’t mean someone else can’t come in and redo the analysis, and gain the honor of people comparing their finds to that second typology. Which can make for a very confused SCA researcher. But the key purpose of a typology is to describe WHAT is found WHEN.
Sometimes, the typology will tell you what was most common where. Sadly, not always.
Every archaeological report will have a description of the various context phases. This is NOT the same as the excavation phases, but is related. By using evidence from objects with a widely accepted typology, like ceramics, along with evidence of disturbed ground and construction, the excavation report will divide the finds into groups that were deposited at approximately the same time. If you are looking a the description for a dress accessory in the catalogue, it will mention what phase it belongs to. You’ll have to go to another section of the report to read about the various context phases, to get the approximate date.
Archaeological books are EXPENSIVE. I recommend you not buy any, until you have closely read several, perhaps with an experienced guide. There are a number of common features, like distribution maps and listing of context phases which will seem to be taking up too much of your expensive book, and not leaving enough space for images. Once you understand how to interpret those common features, it isn’t wasted space. But if you purchase a $60 book expecting to see lots of pretty photos, and instead get a typology with just a few images, it can be disheartening.
Read a LOT of archaeological reports, and your understanding will grow. Don’t read just to find out about a specific item, but read to learn the pattern of the reports.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask questions. There are trained academics within and without the SCA who can help you decipher a tricky report.