What’s in a name? – Identifying individuals in archaeology

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By now we all know Richard III was buried under a carpark in Leicester. But not many archaeological discoveries can identify a person by their name and debate continues about whether it is right that this discovery overshadows finds relating to the lives of anonymous inidividuals we will never get to know.
But you can’t ignore the fact that finding a name is exciting, it enables a story to be created around finds that otherwise struggle to tell us about the secrets they hide. Context, stories and interpretation should be what archaeologists strive towards rather than just processing, cataloguing and storing.
Some years ago while on a work placement at Museum of London Archaeology (MoLA) I got to know John Hinton pretty well. We spent many months together – in the archives, in the storage boxes, down the local history museum and at his eating house at 96 Blackman Street, London. Although this eating house isn’t there anymore. It closed down in 1843 after 14 years of trading on the busy London road that is now Borough High Street. I can’t reconstruct John Hinton’s face, but I do know what the personalised plates he commissioned for his eating house looked like after they were excavated from a site at 220 Borough High Street in 1974 and I know the names of his family and neighbours.
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The plates give an insight into both the man himself and the the shops on Borough High Street (above) at this time – how at least one of these shops attempted to stand out from the crowd and show off with green patterned tablewear (below), perhaps to entice finer clientelle away from a plain slop-house down the road. It’s likely John Hinton was quite successful at this promotion as he was able to live in a town house with his wife, two daughters (pursuing occupations as milliner and teacher) and three servants.
Putting a name to the owner of artefacts that were dug up adds another dimension to the story and enables us to associate them with a specific person and place, while at the same time enriching the historical archive with associated objects, creating a deeper understanding of both than either could on their own.
Personalised plate from Hinton's Eating House

Personalised plate from Hinton’s Eating House

For more on this see – Hinton’s: a 19th-century Eating House in Southwark in London Archaeologist

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