Lost On A Fieldwork Gamble


Success and failure in archaeological fieldwork is a graded scale. I wrote about this in autumn 2008:

My excavation at Sättuna has taken an interesting turn. I'm not feeling particularly down about it, but the fact is that we're getting the second worst possible results.

The worst result would be to mobilise all this funding and personnel and find nothing at all. We're certainly not there.

The best possible result would be to find all the cool things the metal detector finds had led me to hope for, viz the foundations of a 6th century aristocratic manor. We're not there either.

The second best result would be to find other cool things than the ones I had expected, say, something with quite another date or function than I was looking for, but intriguing (and publishable) in its own right. No such luck.

What we have found is plentiful prehistoric remains, about one sunken feature per four square meters, quite labour intensive to document, and completely banal. And unpublishable. So I have the funding and the personnel to dig the site, I have the heritage-management responsibility to dig it, but I have no scientific motivation to do so. It's like winning a year's supply of something you have absolutely no use for and cannot sell.

I've spent the past two days metal-detecting and fieldwalking three Bronze Age sacrificial sites in the Lake Mälaren region with a team of up to eight skilled volunteers, and pretty much it's one second-worst possible result, one inconclusive and one worst.


At our Nyköping site we got lots of knapped quartz and fire-cracked stone, allowing us to posit a ploughed-out settlement site. But no pre-modern metalwork. This suggests that narrows in lakes such as the nearby finds-producing one were really important in situating sacrifices. Celebrants didn't stray much from them. 14 person-hours of metal detecting and 10 of field walking.

At our Gnesta site only a fourth of the surface was open to study due to remaining snow and meltwater. It's richly seeded with recent rifle cartridges, some so fresh that they aren't even verdigrised yet. 6 person-hours of metal detecting. I need to get back there.

At our Enköping site we found nothing. No pre-modern metalwork, little modern, nothing. 15 person-hours of metal detecting. The field's under stubble, so conditions aren't ideal. I'm coming back after harrowing in August.

Luckily, thanks to the interest and generosity of my collaborators, these two days in the field cost me only two tanks of gas and six person-nights at an affordable hostel. So unlike in the case of Sättuna, the lack of useful data isn't a big setback. My current Bronze Age project is much more of a high-risk game than the Late Iron Age one I did in Ãstergötland. Sites of the latter period are littered with metalwork and debris. Bronze Age ones are far more frugal, reflecting the period's relatively poor metal supply where every gram of metal had to be imported or recycled. We were at sites where major metal finds were made a century ago, and found nothing. I'm headed for sites were nothing has been found yet...

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Is "verdigrised" a word used in american english? I'm not very familiar with it. Corroded or patinated would be more common in my experience,

It's got 17,600 Google hits. Good enough for me.

"Corroded" means that the surface has been eaten away, not added to in the manner of verdigris.

"Patinated" suggests that it's been done intentionally.

I think "verdigrised" is a useful word.

And no morphological relationship between the three words.

Isn't English fun?

By Riman Butterbur (not verified) on 04 Apr 2011 #permalink

I defend my original comment, after getting motivated to check Google books. Corrosion can be termed the process that creates patina, or verdigris if you prefer. Patina is a stable surface oxide that is formed on cupreous metals. It can either be deliberately produced or form as the result of natural weathering. One can speak of "malignant patina" as a type of actively corroding and destructive patina. It is certainly not something one would induce deliberately. Patina perhaps is associated with the art world but can be used in other senses. Unless verdigris is commonly used in this sense in European archaeology, I still find it an uncommon word that I, a person of substantial vocabulary. had to figure out from context.

This kind of experience would drain the enthusiasm from me as thoroughly as a snowstorm would. Archaeology is clearly a job for the patient :)

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 04 Apr 2011 #permalink

"It's like winning a year's supply of something you have absolutely no use for and cannot sell",

Like it !

By nick williams (not verified) on 04 Apr 2011 #permalink

Tenine, would you agree that "it is patinated" suggests active agency, while "it has patina" does not?

I guess my terminology has something to do with the fact that Swedish has commonly used words for "verdigrised" and "verdigris", denoting the green stuff that accrues on copper roofing etc.

Whilst verdigrised may be a neologism, verdigris itself is common enough, at least in British (that is English) English and implies solely the green surface acquired by weathered copper or copper alloys.
Speaking as a cabinet-maker, however, patina is the glowing and complex surface that one gets on wood that has been lovingly polished and used for generations.
In the meantime, let us commiserate with the poor old Aardvark and his efforts-in-vain. Why doesn't he come here to Cyprus where all his copper came from?

The main reason is that I know zip about Cypriot archaeology. But get me a speaking gig and/or a week of fieldwork and I'll come!

Why didn't Cyprus (or Wales) become the Saudi Arabia of the bronze age? Surely they must have had some kind of polity organising society by then? No coins of course, but trade is trade. Cyprus was certainly big enough that sea raiders could not get to more than the coastal regions.

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 04 Apr 2011 #permalink

I learned the other day that the Sea Peoples, including the Philistines, may have come from Cyprus. They appear to have spoken Indo-European, possibly a dialect of Hittite.

Ok, so what you found was, completely banal. But unpublishable? As a historian (yeah, I know you think this stuff is pre-historic), what is banal is just as important as the "cool stuff" you thought would be found. In fact, in some folks' points of view, the routine, the every day, and the banal is much more important than the specacular (sp?--sorry).

So, publish your/their findings.

By Steven Blowney (not verified) on 05 Apr 2011 #permalink

Steven: Yes, history is NOT just a line of kings. In fact, the nobs who could afford fancy burial cairns were the least productive members of society (and some may argue it is the same today -just read Dilbert).

Martin: good luck tomorrow. The default setting of the border Nazguls is that everyone on a short trip is actually planning to stay and work without a permit. Try to look white, and avoid Ctulhu jokes [those who overhear may think he is some kind of ayatollah].

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 05 Apr 2011 #permalink

Steven, I believe you're envisioning a situation where there's a little documentary evidence for one "banal" person's activities in, say, King Alfred's day. It has huge interest because it's so rare.

With the quartz chips we found, it's as if every single peasant in 10th century England had written a surviving detailed autobiography. If you found one more of these autobiographies when you already had tens of thousands of them, historians would not take much notice and you would not consider your find publishable in its own right.

Birger, thanks, I'm debating with myself over whether to bring shaving foam.


I have a foundation of a 6th century aristocratic manor for you (or two).Can you move your funding to VG? (Skalunda, Tun)

Martin S

Martin: I'm not envisioning anything. I simply think that digs, no matter what the finds (or the lack thereof), should be published. It drives historians crazy to not have access to all the information, even if that info is a drop in the buck, so to speak.

Therein is the problem between archaeologists and historians.

Birger: Thanks, but I wouldn't say or post that until I had more information.

By Steven Blowney (not verified) on 05 Apr 2011 #permalink

(Completely off-topic) Is this Martin's store brand? http://amultiverse.com/2011/01/03/hot-chocolate/
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This may be a silly question, but has technology reached the level where "georadars" are as portable as metal detectors? And there is much news about breakthroughs with terahertz emitters (between IR and radio) -even if that frequency only can penetrate a shallow upper layer, it might tell if a site is worth returning to after harrowing. Just an idea.

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 05 Apr 2011 #permalink

Steven, you may be thinking of whether the data will be available at all? Not just whether they will be in the academic literature? All my fieldwork is reported to a number of public archives, and anybody who wants to know about this place will see in a public on-line register what we found.


2009. Nitenberg, Annelie. Skalunda på Kålland, Västergötland. Metalldetektoravsökning Skalunda by november 2008, Rapport, Lidköping: Vänermuseet.


As a native (Aussie) English speaker, I am familiar with the noun verdigris. I have never seen it used as a verb before. It is specifically the term for the green oxide formed on copper and copper alloys.

Patina is a far more general term and is applied to pretty much any object that has signs of wear or weathering, eg stone floors and walls, concrete, timber lintels and framing, tabletops, antique rugs, layers of paint, bronze statues...

Some years ago there was a trend for homewares (candlesticks, vases, etc)to be patinaed with fake verdigris.

By eleanora. (not verified) on 17 Apr 2011 #permalink