I am an Irish museum archaeologist, currently working in the Irish Antiquities Division of the National Museum of Ireland - Archaeology. I began my archaeological career in excavation following a B.A. in Archaeology and English, and an M.A. in Landscape Archaeology, both at the National University of Ireland, Galway. My excavation experience led onto wider experience in the post-excavation sector of commercial archaeology, where I specialised in working with archaeological finds and all stages of their processing, identification and recording. I later retrained and specialised with an M.A. in Museum Practice & Management from the University of Ulster, while at the same time gaining a wide range of practical experience in a number of areas in the museums sector, in which I work today. I also work as a Heritage Expert with The Heritage Council for their "Heritage in Schools" programme, where I deliver educational workshops on Irish archaeology and the work of the archaeologist to primary level schools across the country.

Why Archaeological Archives Matter: Preserving the Pieces of Our Past at the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology

On the 2015 Day of Archaeology, I am working with the reserve archaeological collections in the Antiquities Division of the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology as a member of the museum’s Inventory Project. This work involves the identification, organisation and documentation of a vast quantity of varied archaeological artefacts, which are mainly stored in wooden drawers in the basement storage area below our exhibition space – an area commonly known to us as ‘the crypt’.

The storage crypt of the National Museum of Ireland - Archaeology

The storage crypt of the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology

We document the collections from the crypt by the process of each team member working on one drawer of material at a time. Any individual drawer can contain a varied and eclectic mix of artefacts, often unrelated by chronology or provenance, with sometimes the only shared connection being that they were acquired or accessioned by the museum in the same year. Following the post theme of “Why Archaeological Archives Matter” suggested to us members of the Society for Museum Archaeology, I decided to share my work with the museum reserve collections in order to discuss this subject.

Artefact storage drawers in the crypt of the National Museum of Ireland - Archaeology

Artefact storage drawers in the crypt of the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology

Of the last few drawers that I have documented, the artefacts have ranged widely in type and age, with some recent examples including Neolithic pottery, a bronze spearhead, a stone spindle whorl, a copper alloy seal matrix, a clay pipe stem, and some post-medieval glass and pottery sherds.

A sample artefact drawer from the reserve collections

A sample artefact drawer from the reserve collections

The museum’s reserve collections may often be mistakenly underestimated in value by the public due to the fact that they consist of objects which are not on permanent view in the exhibition galleries, but the worth and importance of these collections cannot be overstated. The placement of objects in the reserve collections can often be due to their inability to match the themes displayed in the institution’s current exhibitions, or simply due the lack of space to display such an enormous number of artefacts. A number of unusual and unique artefacts from the reserve collections have been re-discovered and re-assessed during the work of the Inventory Project, a number of which have been detailed on our Documentation Discoveries blog.

The museum reserve collections span all archaeological chronologies and typologies, and offer a physical timeline of the development of material culture, seen within the changes and advances of material choices and the design of objects. As an example, seeing a flint javelin head, a bronze spearhead, and a collection of musket balls all in the same storage drawer clearly shows some of the development in weaponry throughout thousands of years of the human past.

A sample artefact drawer from the reserve collections

A sample artefact drawer from the reserve collections

A large section of the reserve collections consists of domestic material uncovered during archaeological site excavation – items such as pottery sherds, samples of shellfish and butchered animal bone, and waste material from craft and industry. While perhaps not aesthetically arresting or unique, objects such as glass sherds, clay pipe stems and metal slag samples offer us valuable and extensive information on everyday life and practices in both the near and distant past. The reserve collections also offer an extensive base for archaeological researchers and students to study specific artefact types or groups, or the complete physical results of an archaeological excavation.

A sample artefact drawer from the reserve collections

A sample artefact drawer from the reserve collections

The artefacts hold further valuable information in their detailed documentation in the museum’s paper and digital records, which can consist of topographical files, accession registers, object archives and collection databases. These sources record important supplementary information relating to the object provenance, find circumstances, typology, associations and acquisition – all of which provide researchers with an improved and necessary understanding of the full story in the life of the artefact. Overall, the archaeological archives of the museum reserve collection are held in trust for a number of reasons – for conservation and security, for potential future display, as well as for their use as a research base for the future. Work with these collections constantly educates me on our sizeable and impressive national material culture, and the continual need to conserve and collect these important pieces of our past.

 

 

Documenting the material past in the National Museum of Ireland

A very late entry from the museum archaeology sector! On the Day of Archaeology this year, I am working as a Documentation Assistant in the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, Dublin. I work as a team member of the museum’s Inventory project in the Irish Antiquities Division of the institution.

The National Museum of Ireland - Archaeology in Kildare Street, Dublin city

The National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology in Kildare Street, Dublin city

This project involves the documentation of the entire collections of the museum – a vast amount of objects amassed over a hundred years of collecting and conserving the Irish past. Documentation involves the organisation of information relating to all objects within a museum collection. When an object enters the museum collection, its details are recorded – e.g. object type, origins, dimensions and features – and it is assigned a unique museum registration number for future identification. The object is then placed in storage, and its details, registration number and current location are added to the museum database. If the object is taken out of storage, placed on exhibition, or loaned to another museum, the database record for the object is kept updated in order to monitor and track its location. A database of this nature also allows curators and researchers to search museum databases for specific object types, and to record secure curatorial and conservation information regarding a specific object. The National Museum of Ireland collection totals over four million objects, so without stringent documentation procedures, it would be impossible to maintain the required level of information, control and identification of their collections.

The Inventory Team documents the contents of hundreds of wooden drawers of artefacts from the storage crypt of the museum. The contents of the drawers can vary widely, and generally contain a mixed collection of artefact varieties and materials from several different chronological periods. Day to day, we can encounter a huge range of artefact types. These can consist of bronze swords, bone pins, flint scrapers, stone axes – and everything in between! We also deal with the more everyday domestic material unearthed from archaeological excavations, such as animal bones, organic samples and lots of pottery. Following a previous day of documenting a drawer of butchered animal bone, charcoal samples and clay pipe stems, I am rewarded today in my drawer of artefacts. I deal with a number of varied objects from an a donated antiquarian collection, which includes stone cannon shot, stone lamps, copper alloy dress pins and stone moulds used for casting jettons and bronze axes.

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Stone moulds used for casting a bronze axe and jettons

Each artefact is identified, entered into our database with information on its find place, donor, distinguishing features and habitat. It is then given a new label and storage bag, and if necessary, repackaging for conservation needs.

The work can be challenging, with the former recording and storage standards of artefacts differing significantly over time, but this role gives me the opportunity to work hands-on with an amazing artefact collection. Each day gives me the chance to encounter and handle a previously unseen piece of our past, and gain an expanded knowledge and appreciation of our material culture.

To get an idea of the range of objects encountered during the National Museum of Ireland Inventory Project, a number of our most interesting and unusual artefacts are profiled on our Documentation Discoveries blog .

 

Education, Documentation and Administration in The Viking Triangle

I am an Irish museum archaeologist, currently working in the historic centre of Waterford city, known locally as The Viking Triangle due to its heritage relating to the founding of the city by the Vikings in the tenth century. I work within a complex of three city museums, known collectively as Waterford Museum of Treasures ( www.waterfordtreasures.com ). The collections of the three museums range widely in chronology, beginning with Viking artefacts from the founding of the city, through the Anglo-Norman, ecclesiastical  and English monarchical influences of the medieval period, the Georgian period, and extending right up to the modern social history of the city in the late twentieth century.

As is common in most museums today, I wear many hats in my current role, which can range in tasks and content from day to day – including artefact documentation, marketing, customer services, curatorial assistance and museum education.

Documentation, one of my main responsibilities, refers to the organisation of information relating to all objects within a museum collection. When an object enters the museum collection, its details are recorded – e.g. object type, origins, dimensions and features – and it is assigned a unique museum registration number for future identification. The object is then stored in an appropriate location, and its details, registration number and current location are added to the museum database. If the object is taken out of storage, placed on exhibition, or loaned to another museum, the database record for the object is kept updated in order to monitor and track its location. A database of this nature also allows curators and researchers to search museum databases for specific object types, and to record secure curatorial and conservator information regarding a specific object. Considering that museums possess collections of thousands of objects, it would be impossible to maintain the required level of information, control and identification of their collections without the use of the documentation process.

In my documentation responsibilities, I deal with a wide and varying range of artefacts and chronologies on a daily basis, and today I am documenting a local donation of three large vintage leather suitcases into our collection. Our museum’s collection policy allows for the collection of contemporary and historical objects in order to preserve these items into the future, and the museum is extremely lucky to continually benefit from ongoing donations by Waterford citizens with a sense of civic pride for their museums.

I am currently compiling new education packs and activities for use by primary schools visiting our museums during their school terms, and that has formed the bulk of my day’s work. This will be a work pack which we will provide to visiting schools, which will provide them with worksheets and activities related to the museum exhibitions to carry out during their visit.

Due to school budget constraints relating to participation in off-site activities, it is imperative that our museum can offer a valuable, curriculum-based learning experience in order to validate the educational worth of the school visit. It is therefore vital that the questions and tasks in the education packs relate directly to necessities within the outlined curriculum targets for particular age-groups and subjects. My work trawling the primary school curriculum guidelines over the past month has given me a new-found respect for the work of school teachers! The museum provides a unique learning environment, and I hope that our work packs will reflect and enhance this advantage, and help achieve the absolute highest potential of the school visit experience. Children are a wonderful audience for archaeology, and my work in education is a great opportunity to try and pass on my enthusiasm and passion for the subject to the next generation.

I spend the morning going through our Medieval Museum in order to test the suitability of my current worksheet questions and tasks with the practical aspects of our exhibitions – such as eye levels of display cases, gallery orientation for activity trails and case lighting levels for clear observation. This involved the task of me lowering myself to a child-friendly level in front of the exhibit cases, and, understandably, I receive a number of confused looks from visitors, who quietly wonder why I am kneeling in front of the display cases!

Also to be done today is a number of administrative tasks relating to our upcoming renewal application for the Museum Standards Programme of Ireland (MSPI). This is a standards programme which aims to improve all aspects of museum practice and levels of collections care and management. Our museums currently hold full accreditation to the programme since 2009, which we will maintain by renewal application later this year. The programme is important as it helps the museum to maintain management focus and paramount collections care, and is a display of our museum’s commitment to best professional practice and management.

The day is over before I know it, and although I still have a lot of work left to do in the near future, I feel as though I’m making positive progress with it all….fingers crossed!!