It’s only a box, what’s the worst that could happen?

Eleanor Wilkinson, Collections Assistant for Archaeology, MAA writes:

As the Collections Assistant for Archaeology at the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology (MAA), Cambridge I am lucky enough to have my time split between projects so, for me, there is never a dull day in the archaeology workroom. Frustrating, intriguing, but never dull.

Today is a ‘Matmar’ day. I am trying to create some semblance of order to a medium-sized collection of material excavated by the British Egyptologist Guy Brunton at Matmar in the 1920s and 30s. Many of the objects don’t appear to have been looked at or studied since they arrived in the 1930s. This has led to a number of issues such as poor documentation, loss of context, unknown locations and poor packing. The major issues of today, however, are trying to find enough room in our limited store to rehouse properly packed ceramics, and thinking through the processes needed to get the salt encrusted pottery back to looking like pottery and not fuzzy lumps.


What happens when you innocently open a box - Matmar material in a very bad way.

What happens when you innocently open a box – Matmar material in a very bad way.


I have, very stupidly, opened a box. Not the best move I have made today as it holds some truly awful packing. How the 16 objects could fit in this box is a mystery. The sorting of these is especially daunting as most of the objects are not down on our Collections Database as being located in this box. In some cases they are not even listed as being in the museum. I have pulled out ceramics wrapped in newspaper from the 1970s, bubble wrap, corrugated brown paper, acid free tissue paper and cotton wool. As you can imagine, properly packed these objects will not all fit back into the same box. I am therefore attempting to rejig the store to try and create space for another large box. Along with this I am updating the Database with new locations, a simple but unbelievably time consuming task. I’m also making a note of previous locations before correcting them or creating new box lists so the history of the movement of objects can be tracked. The most satisfying part of this process – giving a ‘missing’ item a location. Win!

On to the salt problem. Due to the type of clay used in some ceramics there is a tendency, under certain conditions, for the salt to leach out. We have the best conservator here at the MAA who I have dragged down from her conservation lab to take a look at what needs to be put through the process of desalination. Salt can be removed from fired ceramics by soaking them in a water bath of purified water, thereby dissolving the salt. Some of our ceramics from Matmar may only need a few days soaking, however there are some really bad examples. These take much longer as the water has to be replaced regularly. This brings me back to the packing problem. I now have to make sure there is enough room left in boxes for the ceramics up in conversation. Nightmare!


Some of the MAA's Matmar material has become very damaged by the leaching of salts.

Some of the MAA’s Matmar material has become very damaged by the leaching of salts.


I often seem to come across boxes like this within the Egypt collections. I think to myself ‘I’ll just get this task done before I go to lunch’ and then peer inside a box and realise the next two days will be spent sorting out the calamity inside. But then next week I’ll see something new, and it is this diversity that makes me love what I do.

I am writing a blog to accompany the project to repack and re-catalogue the Matmar material. It is called Store Stories and you can read about it here. Which reminds me, I need to start my blog post for that too this afternoon!


One thought on “It’s only a box, what’s the worst that could happen?

  1. “I have, very stupidly, opened a box.” …I have thought this to myself so many times in my repository work! I wish more archaeologists had the experience of working in a repository; it would definitely encourage all of us to take better, more careful notes, and not put off packing or labeling things correctly immediately instead of putting it off to deal with “later.” Thanks for writing! I’ll definitely follow along on Store Stories.

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