Museum Archaeology

#ArchiveLottery 2016 part 2: Registered Finds

Now it’s time for the sexy objects, selected at some point in the past to have their own individual finds number.

To get us going how about this tip top medieval shoe from 1982’s Billingsgate  excavations. @ImAnitaSharma helped us find this by tweeting us shelf 170

shoe

This incredible piece of medieval ship was generated from shelf 352. thanks to @OldLadyBedtime for this. It comes from 1988 excavations at Gun & Shot Wharf

ship

Also this hour we’ve had a creepy Victorian doll

doll

and how about this tiny saxon bead

bead

Not forgetting this doughnut shaped saxon loomweight

weight

Thanks to @DominikaErazmus, @@bolshie_walshy, & @Kath_Creed for selecting these

Next it’s our Environmental Finds Archive. These are typically extremely small objects that take up little space (hence the small shelf range) and include objects such as seeds, pollen and small animal bones etc. Tweet me @AdamCorsini using #ArchiveLottery & a number between 1 and 40 to discover, completely at random, what that shelf holds… who’s going to be the first to get a coprolite?

#ArchiveLottery 2016 – part 1: General Finds

It’s great to be back and what a start we’ve had to this year’s #ArchiveLottery.

Our first object was from @lornarichardson and their choice of shelf 397 generated this amazingstoneware bottle

stoneware

Also in the past hour we’ve had some flint from shelf 310 (thanks to former Archive digital records office @andyfev for this)

flint

And one of our favourite items has been this roman strainer from Brockley Hill (shelf 4). Thanks to @Colmuseum’s @Jess_Dowdell for this one

strainer

Next up it’s our Registered finds: objects assigned an individual number (akin to an museum accession number) because they are of particular interest.  Tweet @AdamCorsini using with #ArchiveLottery and a number between 1 and 500 to discover, completely at random, what that shelf holds… – and we’ll post back our results around 1pm

#ArchiveLottery 2016 part 5 – paper records

To wrap up the day it’s time for my favourite section – the archaeological records.

In among our items this hour have been:

A photo of The head of Serapis from the Temple of Mithras excavations

serapis

A nice photo of an archaeologist’s backside

bum in air

A skeleton recording sheet from the Royal Mint site

skelton recording sheet

And a great graffiti covered front cover to a small finds notebook from Aldgate excavations

small finds

A massive thanks to everyone who offered a number today and joined in with our #ArchiveLottery.

Have a great #DayOfArch and hope to see you on a visit to the Archive store soon 🙂

#ArchiveLottery 2016 part 4: metals

We’ve having fun and hope you are too. Here’s the metal objects that your random shelf numbers have found for us.

Lead-ing the way is this fantastic pilgrim badge from shelf 253. Thanks to @Lucinda_Dixon for picking this number.

badge

Check out this finger ring from excavations at Hay’s Dock which was chosen via @the_deku_scrub’s shelf number, 365

ring

There’s obviously been this – Iron nails feature heavily in our metal store but really, our own @Kath_Creed should have known better

nails

And how about this to get you excited….

jigger

We’re still uncertain whether it’s a potter’s tool (It is from Lambeth close to the area’s pottery workshops…) or whether its a pastry jigger. What do you think? Either way, nice one @amelia_dowler for selecting shelf 300 to get this one.

And of course how could we do a metal store #ArchiveLottery without some unfortunate person getting this:

slag

Metals were fun (lots more if you search for #ArchiveLottery on twitter), but stick with us as it’s time for the most important bit of the archive – the paper records!!! Tweet me @AdamCorsini using the hashtag #ArchiveLottery with a number between 1 and 431

#ArchiveLottery 2016 part 3: environmental finds

One of my favourite #ArchiveLottery sections, it’s time to go small.

Included in this hour has been some fish bone

fish bone

and then there was some fruit seeds

fruitseeds

and we’ve also seen some nut shells

nut shell

Fire up the barbie as we also had some charcoal

charcoal

and thanks to @BodCons we also picked a coprolite! Poop!

poo

And they were very pleased 🙂

poop praise

Time for the metals! These objects are stored separately. A dehumidified store, sealed boxes and silica gel help us maintain these objects to a high degree of preservation as they’d slowly degrade in normal room conditions. Tweet me@AdamCorsini using #ArchiveLottery & a number between 1 and 500 to discover, completely at random, what that shelf holds…

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.

 

 

Remains of the past for the future: politics of the present

It’s on rainy, soggy miserable English summer days like this that I am delighted to be a museum archaeologist. As a curator responsible for some 80,000 artefacts here in UCL’s Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, there’s plenty to keep me busy indoors (as I talked about last year). It does not, however, mean I’m insulated from the outside world, its problems and politics. And it is not all blue skies out there.

Sunshine. An Amarna royal around 1350 BC. Excavated by Flinders Petrie's teams (UC040)

Sunshine. Image of Nefertit around 1350 BC. Excavated by Flinders Petrie’s teams (UC040)

Today I’ve been thinking a lot about the legacies of what we, as archaeologists, do. For instance, one our fundamental principles is that it is essential to record what is found and from where, since once you dig something up, you’ve destroyed its context. Museums are then often the caretakers of such discoveries and their related archives, supposedly to be held in trust for future generations. But for how long and why? We look to the past a lot in our profession, but we rarely look more than a few decades into the future. Yet here I am, surrounded by the legacy of more than a century of archaeological fieldwork in Egypt. I hope it will remain safe and accessible for centuries (millennia?) to come.

Displays in UCL's Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

Displays in UCL’s Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

The why is because archaeology is not just the moment of discovery. Although we endeavour to publish fully, what we present is always to some degree subjective and affected by our own social, intellectual and political contexts. Archaeology is never-ending project of interpretation, questioning and re-interpretation. The objects we recover are therefore important resources for further research, teaching, outreach and engagement. They will mean different things, to different communities. We also need the archives not just as a historical footnote, for amusing anecdotes or to add a nostalgic flavour to exhibitions. They’re also archaeological objects, documents for further enquiry and resources for examining how we come to know what we know about the past.

Hilda Petrie directing her husband on excavations at Abydos, Egypt in 1922.

Hilda Petrie directing her husband on excavations at Abydos, Egypt in 1922.

For how long do we hold things? Well, that also depends on social, intellectual and political contexts. Most museums in the UK can de-accession objects, but there are clear ethical guidelines on doing so. I spent much of today reviewing these following a workshop last week where I met with curators, journalists, professional museum organisations, academics and campaigners to discuss two cases where those ethical guidelines were clearly contravened. This included the financially-motivated sale of an ancient Egyptian statue by Northampton Borough Council. It was sold at Christie’s auction house to a private, anonymous buyer for an exorbitant sum. Amongst the many reasons why we should be angry is the fact that such actions simply fuel powerful market forces that ultimately encourage looting of archaeological sites and the destruction of the past.
I made similar arguments last year when the St Louis Branch of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) put objects excavated by Flinders Petrie’s teams in 1914 on the Bonhams’ auction block. That an archaeological organisation would reduce archaeology to an economic value is, to me, shocking and they were rightly admonished by the central branch of the AIA. These were just a few of the hundreds of thousands of objects excavated in Egypt that were sent to institutions around the world. It is a huge legacy that we have an ongoing duty of care for, as I’m currently investigating through an AHRC-funded project. As stewards of the past, we archaeologists have a professional responsibility to act ethically, to be politically aware of our actions and to be cognizant of the wider social context in which we work. Otherwise I don’t believe you can consider yourself an archaeologist.

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.

20140717_090927

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 .

 

Managing the Past as a Site Manager in West Virginia

I’m David Rotenizer, site manager for the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex (GCMAC) in Moundsville, West Virginia.  This facility is situated in the northern panhandle of West Virginia, half way between Pittsburgh, PA and Columbus, OH.  I have held the position just shy of four years.  Archaeology has been important to me for most of my life since as least middle school, so we are looking at nearly four decades.  I am passionate about archaeology and its contributions and value to society.

GCMAC is a seven acre archaeological park featuring the Grave Creek Mound.  We are a historic site operated by the West Virginia Division of Culture and History.  It is called a complex because we consist of three separate, but related components:  mound, museum, and research facility.  The Grave Creek Mound is one of the largest known conical earthen burial mounds associated with the Adena culture and has been dated to around 250 – 150 BCE.  The mound was saved from destruction by concerned citizens and elected officials when it became a state property in 1909.

Aside from the large earthen mound, a focal point here is the Delf Norona Museum.  This Brutalist architecture styled facility opened in 1978 and consists of 25,646 square feet.  It features various exhibit galleries, an auditorium (currently being renovated), an activity room for educational programs, and a gift shop.  Outside on the grounds is one of our newest “exhibits” – an interpretive garden.

Adjoining the museum is a 9,600 square foot addition completed in 2008 that houses the West Virginia Archaeological Research and Collections Management Facility.  This state-of-the-art wing serves as West Virginia’s first official repository for archaeological collections.

We are open five days a week (Tue – Sat) and currently have a staff of five full time employees and are blessed with regular and occasional volunteers.  Some of our volunteers come to us through RSVP (Retired Seniors Volunteer Program).  We also work with volunteer student interns.  The past two years, we have been the host site for community service learning volunteers from the Native American Studies Program at West Virginia University, which was supported by a West Virginia Humanities Council grant last month.

From a day-in-the-life perspective, I can truly state that no two days are the same!  Rather than write out what happened during the Day of Archaeology 2013, I thought I might take a different approach.   For the past two days, I walked around the complex with my camera to document a Day of Archaeology at the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex.

Grave Creek Mound as viewed from the roof of the Delf Norona Museum.

Grave Creek Mound as viewed from the roof of the Delf Norona Museum.

 

View of Grave Creek Mound from within the Delf Norona Museum.

View of Grave Creek Mound from within the Delf Norona Museum.

 

View within gallery of the Delf Norona Museum.

View within gallery of the Delf Norona Museum.

 

Accountant /Gift Shop Manager holding replica Adena pipe that is available for sale in gift shop.

Accountant /Gift Shop Manager holding replica Adena pipe that is available for sale in gift shop.

Maintenance Supervisor must constantly observe climate controls for museum and research center to maintain acceptable temperature and humidity levels.  Collections management program follows 36 CFR Part 79 - the federal curation guidelines.

Maintenance Supervisor must constantly observe climate controls for museum and research center to maintain acceptable temperature and humidity levels. Collections management program follows 36 CFR Part 79 – the federal curation guidelines.

 

View toward Interpretive Garden with museum in background to right.

View toward Interpretive Garden with museum in background to right.

 

Curators moving boxes from old collections.  Eventulay these will be rehoused into archival standard containers.

Curators moving boxes from old collections. Eventually these will be rehoused into archival standard containers

 

Ohio University - Eastern Campus Intern vewing microfilm for early historic references to the Grave Creek Mound.  Volunteers and interns are provided with a variety of learning opportunities.

Ohio University – Eastern Campus Intern viewing microfilm for early historic references to the Grave Creek Mound. Volunteers and interns are provided with a variety of learning opportunities.

During the evening before Day of Archaeology, we hosted an installment of the 2013 Lecture & Film Series.  This month we had 28 in attendance.  The series is into its fourth year.

During the evening before Day of Archaeology, we hosted an installment of the 2013 Lecture & Film Series. This month we had 28 in attendance. The series is into its fourth year.

 

View of archaeological lab from the public oberservation room.  Image taken one month prior.

View of archaeological lab from the public observation room. Image taken one month prior.

Recently labeled and processed Native American ceramic sherds.  The facility has large backlog of old collections requiring rehousing that will processing.

Recently labeled and processed Native American ceramic sherds. The facility has large backlog of old collections with materials requiring various levels of processing such as labeling and rehousing to archival standards.

 

During the day, our intern from Ohio University - Eastern Campus was viewing microfilm at the Moundsville Public Library for historic references to the mound.  I stopped by to check on intern.  I could not help but take note of the front door to library....upper right is a flyer for upcoming presentation to summer reading program by our facility educator.  At bottom of door is large poster for current national summer reading program "I Dig Reading."  This all helped give special meaning to the day.

During the day, our intern from Ohio University – Eastern Campus was viewing microfilm at the Moundsville Public Library for historic references to the mound. When I stopped by to check on him, I could not help but observe the front door to library – at upper right was a flyer for upcoming presentation to summer reading program by our facility’s educator. At bottom of door was large poster for the national summer reading program “Dig into Reading.” This all helped give special meaning to the day.

Program Educator standing next to the Interpretive Garden.  This is the fourth year she has maintained the "living exhibit."

Program Educator standing next to the Interpretive Garden. This is the fourth year she has maintained the “living exhibit.”

 

On Day of Archaeology, contractors completed installation of new pipeline in auditorium that is undergoing renovation.  The excavated trench had to be refilled with cement.

On Day of Archaeology, contractors completed installation of new pipeline in auditorium that is undergoing renovation. The excavated trench had to be refilled with cement.

 

Example of items for sale in the gift shop.

Example of items for sale in the gift shop.

For a very brief period, visitors to the complex were witness to an emergency scene.  Someone walking down the street had experienced a seizure.  They were later ok.  Never a dull moment.

For a very brief period, visitors to the complex were witness to an emergency scene. Someone walking down the street had experienced a seizure, but they were later determined to be ok. Never a dull moment!

 

At the end of the day on the Day of Archaeology, the bottom line for most of us is simply making our finds and discoveries available for future generations.  Shown here are boxes of artifacts in the collections storage area – Grave Creek has 51 shelving units (each about 8m/26 ft long).

At the end of the day on the Day of Archaeology, the bottom line for most of us is simply making our finds and discoveries available for future generations. Shown here are boxes of artifacts in the collections storage area – Grave Creek has 51 shelving units (each about 8m/26 ft long).

 

Museum Archaeology in North Hertfordshire

Iron Age display in Letchworth Museum

Iron Age display in Letchworth Museum, June 2012 © North Hertfordshire District Council

Letchworth Museum, with its displays of local archaeology, will be closing to the public in September 2012. For once, that’s not one of these all-too-common tales of woe from a public sector that is cutting its soft targets to balance its books. It’s all to do with investment in a new district museum that will tell the story of North Hertfordshire, which is due to open in 2014.

In the meantime, I am working on understanding the objects in our collection that will best illustrate that story. Currently, we do not have a complete catalogue of the hundreds of thousands of archaeological objects held by the Museums Service. True, we have an Accessions Register stored in four ledgers that go back to the opening of Letchworth Museum in 1915 (and, fittingly, the first entry is for a collection of sixteen English silver coins that are curated as part of the archaeological collection). However, they are only partly computerised and, for the earlier entries, the information they contain is minimal. To compound matters still further, there has been no systematic entry of excavated material (much of it excavated by the Museums Service itself from the 1970s to 1990s), most of which remains unaccessioned.

As a compromise solution, I decided to create a stand-alone database detailing everything that is in our collection. Working on it for one day a week for several months, I have now reached 2761 objects, the last entry being a small jar from a Romano-British cemetery in Baldock, excavated in 1928 (and accessioned on 15 May 1928). At this rate of progress, I ought to be finished in about thirty years! Thankfully, with help from our dedicated band of volunteers, it ought to be finished before the new museum is opened.

It is a truism that only a tiny fraction of a museum’s collections can ever be displayed at any time. With the archaeological objects from North Hertfordshire, it’s well under 1% of the collection. Most of the material will never be displayed because it consists of seemingly unpromising potsherds, broken tile, animal bones and so on. Of course, we need to keep this material for further research, usually carried out by outsiders from research institutions such as universities. In this way, the service has contributed parts of a Bronze Age collared urn for lipid analysis (it had formerly contained a milk-based substance), human vertebrae with evidence for tuberculosis (of six samples submitted, four tested positive for TB) and a collection of material excavated at Ravensburgh Castle in 1964 that has been borrowed for analysis and publication.

Museums Resource Centre, Burymead Road, Hitchin

The outside of the Burymead Museums Resouce Centre, Hitchin

Most of our archaeological material is stored at the Museums Resource Centre at the Bury Mead industrial estate in Hitchin. This is where I am based much of the time, although I also work in Letchworth and Hitchin Museums, where I am available to give advice (including identifying artefacts) to members of the public. The service moved into the buildings in 1990 as a temporary measure and, twenty-two years later, we seem to be here more-or-less permanently. A purpose built bulk store (for non-sensitive archaeological material) was constructed in 1991; it has twenty-seven bays of roller racking and four bays of fixed shelving, which are full to capacity. Archaeological small finds were also moved here temporarily in 2003, but will be moved into better storage shortly.

Over half of the archaeological collection comes from excavations in Baldock. This is as a result of three large campaigns of excavation: the excavation of an extensive Roman cemetery site by Percival Westell of Letchworth Museum from 1925 to 1930, the excavation of several large areas of the Roman town by Ian Stead of the British Museum from 1968 to 1972 and numerous excavations in advance of development by Gil Burleigh of Letchworth Museum from 1978 to 1994. The site has yielded some spectacular finds, including the earliest Welwyn-type burial ever found (it dates from no later than 100 BCE). There is also a large collection of material from an important but sadly poorly known prehistoric settlement at Blackhorse Road in Letchworth Garden City, excavated by John Moss-Eccardt of Letchworth Museum from 1957 to 1974, where there was extensive Late Neolithic and Iron Age occupation as well as the only Anglo-Saxon cemetery excavated in North Hertfordshire. Recently, the Museums Service acquired the material from Guy Beresford’s excavation of the deserted settlement of Caldecote from 1974 to 1976, which has a good range of medieval pottery (including a complete St Neots Ware cooking pot of probably tenth-century date).

I find it a real privilege to curate such an extensive, diverse and important collection of objects. There are enough display worthy Iron Age and Roman brooches to fill a museum with them alone; the same goes for Iron Age and Roman coins or for prehistoric flint artefacts. Much as a specialist would appreciate this sort of display, it wouldn’t help us tell the story of North Hertfordshire. True, there are challenges. A lot of the material acquired in the early days is poorly provenanced or not even from the area; there are even some exotic objects (we have a small collection of Ancient Egyptian artefacts, for instance) that we are no longer part of our collections policy. In a way, this stuff is part our local story: it tells us about Victorian and early twentieth-century collectors and about what was thought appropriate for local museums to hold. As work progresses on determining exactly which stories the new museum will tell and with which objects, we will be blogging about it on our own dedicated museums website.