Museums

150th Birthday Research

Our museum, The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum, will be 150 years old in September. Originally known as the Albert Institute and later as Dundee Museum, the museum has been through a lot of changes over the years. One of the tasks we curators are undertaking is research into the archives to uncover stories about the museum and its objects. We are also finding out more about our predecessors and how our jobs have changed over the years. My current job title is ‘Curator of Early History’. I have also been known as ‘Heritage Officer’ in exactly the same post. Past staff have been known as keepers, assistant keepers and field archaeology officers. The museum used to have its own field archaeology unit and it looks like they had some interesting times, undertaking rescue excavations and getting called out to determine if some recently discovered bones were anything to worry about. Sadly, the field unit is no more and it is my job to look after the things they excavated, as well as the museum’s World Cultures and numismatics collections and also the collection of phrenology heads, the re-discovery of which in 1983 earned a mention in several newspapers.

Though our job titles have changed and sometimes there have been more of us or fewer of us (but never enough of us), our aims remain the same – to preserve the collections and to share them with as many people as possible. Let’s hope the museum has many more anniversaries to come.

Marvellous medieval tiles-public engagement at Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales

There really is no such thing as a typical day in my role as curator of Medieval and Later Archaeology. Recent days have involved dealing with treasure items, answering public enquiries about our medieval collections and sorting out a massive post-medieval pottery assemblage from the Herefordshire/Monmouthshire border, a project I’ve recently worked on with a brilliant bunch of Cardiff University archaeology undergraduates.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the Day of Archaeology falls during the Festival of Archaeology, and if you work in museums then the FoA is always an important date in the calendar! This year we have held a variety of events, celebrating archaeology at AC-NMW, such as behind the scenes tours exploring the hidden depths of the museum, talks on the Saving Treasures project (https://museum.wales/portable-antiquities-scheme-in-wales-saving-treasures-telling-stories/) as well as a (plastic) skeleton-sorting exercise! Fortuitously, my event happened to fall on the Day of Archaeology.

I like a challenge, and being a fan of all things medieval I wanted to design an activity that would make medieval floor tiles as exciting to everyone else as they are to me.  But could it be done??

So, this is what I did. I took the design from a set of fourteenth-century tiles from Neath Abbey (the tiles depict a hunting scene-see below), asked our illustrator Tony Daly to trace the outline design and blow up the image to make a giant tile puzzle. These ’tiles’ were printed onto paper, cut up into small squares where participants were asked to colour them  however they liked.

Ably assisted by Joel Curzon, a Cardiff University undergraduate we drew in a crowd of budding medieval artists to help complete our puzzle. Whilst we didn’t quite manage to complete the entire set by the end of the event, we certainly had quality over quantity in terms of colour and patterns used. Here is the final result.

The colouring element was really great fun but the best thing for me was the wide-ranging interest shown in these small but beautiful objects, in particular the meanings behind the motifs used on different medieval tiles. One of my most enthusiastic participants, a six year old girl who completed a couple of the tile pieces, quizzed me on the hunting scene and  was amazed by how dogs were used in the past. She didn’t reckon her pet dog would have much luck against a deer. Perhaps I achieved my objective after all.

 

A Day in the Life of an Archaeology Intern

This post is also available in Welsh here.

For the last two months I’ve been on a placement with Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales in Cardiff. This has served partly as work experience, and partly as a break from my PhD avidly studying Bronze Age metalwork.

A typical day at the museum begins as any good day should: with a cup of tea!

There’s no one thing I do on a standard day – part of the beauty of working in archaeology and in a museum is that you have to respond to whatever is going on at that time! Last week I was writing up a report for a Bronze Age hoard, yesterday I sifted through an excavation archive for a Medieval settlement, today I’m focusing on public outreach and social media for the History and Archaeology department, and next week… who knows!

This eclectic mix is part of what drew me to archaeology. Digging and discovering new things is only one element of the story. Beyond that there’s research, analysis, curation, conservation, illustration, outreach, and so much more.

My list of ongoing projects sits proudly on my desk

My time at the museum is helping me understand all these different facets and I’m lucky to be working with such a great bunch of people with a range of specialisms. Every conversation is a learning opportunity, and archaeology constantly challenges me. So whether it’s compiling databases of ancient gold, or sticking pots back together, my average day is never dull.

Some of the material I’ve been working on

And on that note, I now have to go help out with a behind-the-scenes talk on extinct animals in Wales!

 

Contemplating and Communicating the Palaeolithic landscapes of Wales

This post has been published on behalf of Elizabeth Walker at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.

I’m Elizabeth Walker, currently the Interim Head of Collections Management for Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales. I’m an archaeologist by background specialising in the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology of Wales. After a busy week attending meetings for the delivery of new displays at St Fagans National Museum of History, discussing the arrangements for bringing items in on loan and dealing with questions of collections management from all areas of the Museum I decided to have my own rare day of archaeology today.

So what have I been doing? The day began by planning a public behind the scenes store visit to see some of the remains from mammal species now extinct in Wales. As my bus brought me into Cardiff this morning I looked across at the city stretched ahead and I began to think how different the landscape of Wales was throughout the Palaeolithic. There were no roads or permanent settlements. People were mobile hunter-gatherers walking through their landscape, dependent upon the climate, the passing of animals and the fruits of the season for obtaining their food.

Reconstruction painting showing Cardiff as it might have looked 230,000 years ago

The Welsh caves have provided a wealth of evidence for Palaeolithic peoples’ lives and the Museum has been conducting excavations in caves to uncover and interpret them. Excavations have taken place at Pontnewydd Cave, Denbighshire where evolutionary early Neanderthal remains have been found associated with the bones and teeth of the animals that would have been around 230,000 years ago. These mammals include the cave bear, leopard, cave lion, narrow-nosed and Merck’s rhinoceros along with species still familiar to us today; horse, wolf, red deer, bison, voles and lemmings. On Gower, Bacon Hole has revealed evidence for straight-tusked elephants and hippopotamus during the last interglacial. A time when there were no people, as they didn’t get across the English Channel before Britain became an island.

A straight-tusked elephant tooth from Bacon Hole (c) Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

As the last ice advance began to take hold the land-bridge reformed and people entered Wales. At caves including Paviland Cave and Cathole Cave, Gower, mammoth and woolly rhinoceros remains have been recovered from excavations, along with hyaena, reindeer, bison and other large mammals. As the last ice advance retreated people followed the herds of horse and deer back into Wales and Museum excavations at Hoyle’s Mouth and Little Hoyle, Tenby, have generated ample evidence of people’s cultural debris; stone tools, debitage from making stone tools, butchered and cut-marked animal bones discarded after their meals and after removal of the skins and other resources necessary to sustain human life. These help provide an insight into the lives of the people who once lived in Wales 10,000 and more years ago.

Adult and juvenile cave bear teeth from Pontnewydd and Paviland Caves (c) Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

My behind the scenes tour this morning saw Museum visitors being excited at seeing a selection of these bones and teeth from the Museum collection close up. These mammal remains are kept in the Museum where anyone can arrange a visit to see them.

Photos from the Behind-the-Scenes tour

So after my day of archaeology what shall I do now? Despite the rain, rather than taking the bus I think I’ll spend the next few hours walking through Cardiff, across the Cardiff Bay Barrage and along the Wales coast path through Penarth on towards Barry. I’ll pass the findspot of the Lavernock Palaeolithic handaxe and I’ll think about the landscape and the mammals that once roamed South Wales and plan out my weekend gathering, picking some cultivated fruits. So in my own modern way I will continue some of the activities of the Palaeolithic people – but I’ll be wearing my technical waterproof clothing, rather than damp animal skins!

Lavernock Handaxe (c) Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

 

Paper to Plastic: 5 Organizational Steps Behind Rehousing an Archaeological Collection

By Jessica Clark, Archaeology Lab Intern, Virginia Museum of Natural History

The Cabin Run Mitigation collection comes from Warren County, Virginia, from a project dating to the  early 1980s. The artifacts range across material culture, including decorated ceramics, stone tools,  bones that show evidence of use both for food and as tools, and much more. The artifacts arrived at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in brown paper bags, contained within about 50 cardboard boxes, without any sort of inventory or catalog. It has been my task over the past few years (!) to work with these materials and get them ready for permanent storage in the museum’s collections.

1. Bags on bags

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The first step in this large project was to physically rehouse the artifacts from paper and cardboard into new, archival quality plastic bags. This process involved cutting out and keeping any notations that had been made on the paper bags, and transferring the artifacts into new bags. This was a bit of an adventure, because there was something new in every box—artifacts were stored in everything from cigar boxes to film canisters to 30 year-old plastic wrap.

2. Take stock

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Next, an inventory was created, listing all the materials that we had acquired so that there would be a record of the artifacts. This involved interpreting handwritten proveniences, counting all the objects, and recording their description and material type. Some bags of lithic flakes, for example, had counts numbering in the thousands, so this process took a considerable amount of time to complete. The catalog reached a final count of over 8000 entries representing 85,281 artifacts or soil/flotation samples.

3. Manage the data

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With a catalog of this size, data management became a critical next step. This collection was received and rehoused in no particular order, so the data had to be reorganized into an archaeologically relevant order based on provenience. To accomplish this, each artifact was given a temporary number (between 1 and 8000); simply rechecking the catalog and labeling each bag took an additional 2 weeks to complete. The data was then reorganized in the spreadsheet, placing artifacts with others of the same provenience (Feature A with Feature A, Test Pit B with Test Pit B, etc.). Artifacts could then be physically sorted into the new arrangement using temporary numbers as identifiers (each a discrete number) rather than using the entire provenience (which may not be entirely unique).

4. Coordinate with volunteers

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Sorting 8000+ bags of artifacts is no small task and could not have been accomplished without the help of some very willing and able volunteers. Through the combined efforts of museum volunteers and staff members, we were able to rearrange and store all the artifacts in less than 4 work days, moving approximately 4,000 bags of artifacts in one day alone.

5. Store material for future research

Now that all the artifacts have been sorted and put into Delta museum cabinets, their archaeological information and current physical location are now in a searchable document and much more accessible for people interested on conducting research using these materials. While data editing and some final curation processes remain to be done, this collection is now much more useful and available than it had previously been.

You might say it takes a village to successfully manage an archaeological collection of this size. From the first crinkle of brown paper to the resounding ring of the final drawer sliding into its storage cabinet, careful organization and teamwork were the hallmarks of rehousing the artifacts from the Cabin Run Mitigation project.

A day at the museum: #archaeobloggers explore the new rooms of Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, in Rome

One thing we often accuse our museum of—or at least, Italian museums—is that they rarely seem up to date with our modern tastes and, in some cases, they even keep that XIX century aura that it’s fascinating in its own right, but doesn’t really showcase the beauty of the treasures they guard. That’s especially true for archaeological museums, and quite a few of them still look like Wunderkammer, “Cabinets of Curiosities” stoked with random ancient objects, with little or none inclination to experimentation.

Luckily, that’s not always the case.

Palazzo Massimo alle Terme is one of the four branches of the National Roman Museum in Rome, directed by Dr. Rita Paris. Its opening dates back to 1995, which makes it a young museum, but even so, since 2005, its rooms have been continuously renewed and updated to modern exhibition standards.

This past week, rooms 2, 3 and 4 on the first floor, the ones displaying portraits and statues made under the Nerva-Antonine dynasty (early to mid II century CE), reopened to the public and we were invited to have a sneak preview of them and to meet some of the curators of the new exposition.

Needless to say, we jumped at the occasion, and that’s how we found ourselves wandering through the newly opened rooms, looking up in wonder at the immortal portraits of people who once upon a time ruled the world.

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Busts of Pompea Plotina, wife of Trajan, 110-120 and of Vibia Sabina, wife of Hadrian, 136-138

We were also dazzled by the beauty of the representations of the Roman Provinces as young women, originally from the Hadrianeum, the Temple of Adrian, located not far from the museum, and we could see the funeral relief of Apthonetus, a marble pedimental relief with a long epigraphy and Apthonetus’ portrait, displayed for the public for the first time and documented in every detail.

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Personifications of the Roman Provinces, from the Temple of Hadrian, built by his adoptive son and successor Antoninus Pius.

We admired the smoothness of their faces, and the details of their clothes and armours and we were surprised by the pleasant effect given by the contrast between the marble of statues and the dark colour of the supports. We enjoyed our visit very much, and as always, we used our smartphones to fixate in tweets and pictures what we were seeing and feeling, that incredible, eternal charm these ancient statues can have on us.

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Marble relief with with portrait and epitaph by Quadratilla for her father Apthonetus, from Colle Tasso, near Tivoli, 130-140.

We also had the pleasure to meet with Carolina De Camillis, architect and external consultant of Palazzo Massimo, in charge of the new lighting system of the rooms. She explained how lighting is an essential component of the new display: halogen lamps typically used in museums tend to give the surfaces of the statues an uniformed glaze, to flatten the differences of colour and in texture that are characteristic of the marble Romans used to make their statues.

The new lighting, created with special LED lamps, allows visitors to fully appreciate the traces that Roman artisans left on their works with their instruments, but also the natural veining of the marbles and, sometimes, even the single macro-crystal of the rock.

It is quite clear, then, that the new displays are the result of a common effort of a number of different professionals such as archaeologists, architects, lightening designers, specialised workers, who work behind the scenes to offer visitors new ways to enjoy the fascination of the ancient world.

Original post and pictures by Antonia Falcone (@antoniafalcone) and Paola Romi (@OpusPaulicium)

Translation from Italian and editing by Domenica Pate (@domenica_pate)

Archaeology from the depths of the Delaware River to high atop Philadelphia’s Skyline

Today, I coordinated the activities of two groups of faculty and students working on archaeological related projects at the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA USA. One project supervised by Erik Sundquist, Director of the Westphal Hybrid Lab and being produced by Riley Stewart, a Digital Media sophomore is an 11 ft. replica of a cheval de frise, an American Revolution era underwater weapon used to prevent British warships from sailing into Philadelphia. The artifact was recovered in the Delaware River in 2007 by maritime archaeologist J. Lee Cox Jr. and donated to the Independence Seaport Museum. Shortly after the artifact was recovered,  Craig Bruns, Chief Curator, Independence Seaport Museum, asked if my team of faculty and students could make a 3D scan of the cheval as part of the Museum’s effort to preserve it. Then Digital Media faculty member Chris Redmann and Digital Media sophomore Mark Petrovich scanned the artifact and produced a 3D model. Recently, Craig asked if we could produce a replica of the cheval from our scan data. Craig plans to use the replica as a proxy for the actual artifact as the Museum prepares to exhibit the cheval de frise. Before producing the full scale replica, Erik and Riley printed a miniature replica of the cheval to test the integrity of the scan data. Satisfied with the model Erik and Riley plan to produce the replica next week.

For the second project I reviewed storyboards for two Public Service Announcements (PSAs) that will be used in October to alert the public to two archaeology events. The first entitled, “Explore Philadelphia’s Buried Past” is a one day celebration where archeologists explain to the public ongoing archaeological work being conducted in Philadelphia. The free event is held at the National Constitution Center and is sponsored by the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum and Independence National Historical Park (INHP) Archaeology lab. The other PSA will announce that October is Pennsylvania Archaeology Month. The storyboards are being produced by Digital Media freshman, Ryan Rasing. Both PSA’s will feature 3D models of archaeological artifacts from the INHP’s archaeology collection. The artifacts were scanned last week at INHP’s Archaeology Lab by Digital Media graduate student Jonnathan Mercado assisted by Ryan. Both are working to produce the PSAs that will appear on the upper floors of the Pennsylvania Energy Company (PECO) Building high above the city of Philadelphia for all to see.

Ryan (left) Jed Levin, Chief Historian INHP (center) Jonnathan (right) examine 3D scan data at INHP’s Archaeology Lab

Ryan (left) Jed Levin, Chief Historian INHP (center) Jonnathan (right) examine 3D scan data at INHP’s Archaeology Lab


Archaeology 101 and ‘Reverse Archaeology’

I wear many hats, some of which are archaeological, and so a typical day for me can come in many different ‘flavours’.

Today, my day started on public transit.

Taking the subway

Taking the subway

And then more public transit.

And the bus

And the bus

But I finally arrived at the Markham Museum.

Markham Museum

Markham Museum

I work as a program instructor at the museum, giving tours and programs for groups that come, but this morning I was actually doing a special program for the museum’s own summer camp.  This week’s theme is Junior Archaeology, so I was teaching a group of seventy 4-8 year olds about Archaeology 101.

I had my tools:

Dirty dig kit!

Dirty dig kit!

And some artifacts:

Markham Museum artifacts

Markham Museum artifacts

And I spent a while talking about all the things that archaeologists learn from bones and stone tools and broken pots.  I also talked about how archaeologists don’t find dinosaur bones, and how we only find things that people have left behind – mostly garbage.

After Archaeology 101, I did some reverse archaeology – burying things for the campers to dig up later.  The activity I set up was Archaeology Bingo, laying a grid and burying everyday objects under some of the squares.

Archaeology Bingo

Archaeology Bingo

Archaeology Bingo

Archaeology Bingo

It was hot work, nearly 40C with the humidity.

But after I finished up, I headed home to put on my next hat.  That involved taking my youngest to a museum to enjoy some well-deserved air conditioning!

Archaeology-mommy

Archaeology-mommy

So while my day did not consist of excavation, or research, I was imparting the joy and excitement of archaeology to a great group of kids.  Archaeology catches the imagination, and where better to encourage that than in a day camp during the summer at a museum!

Archaeology in the Museum Stores

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Measuring a case from the inside, with colleague Mike

Measuring a case from the inside, with colleague Mike

 

A lamp?

 

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On the actual Day of Archaeology last Friday I was with my colleagues from Leisure and Culture Dundee at one of the museum’s industrial out stores. Regardless of our curatorial specialisms – archaeology, art, social or natural history we donned our steel-toed boots and worked together with the Museum’s Registrar and Conservator to undertake a week-long audit of the storage facility. We worked across the collections, a coal –powered fish fryer a stuffed walrus, marble sculpture, a log boat and everything in between.

We unwrapped each object, checked its condition and measured it, then recorded each object’s unique accession number and location before attaching a yellow tag and photographing the object before protecting it again. This information will be added to the museum’s digital records management system. Sometimes the information will confirm what is already on the digital record, sometimes the information will enhance the existing record and sometimes an entirely new record will need to be created.

Though auditing collections is core work for any curator, is a day spent in this manner a ‘Day of Archaeology’? I was as dirty and dusty as I’d even been on a dig

Recording, measuring and data entry may not be glamorous, but documentation is vitally important to both archaeology and museum work. Those accession numbers are the object’s context – they link to the object’s biography – what it is, where it came from, who used it and how. It is as important in archaeology as in a museum that the context of the object is retained. As visually arresting as an object may be, it loses something of its intrinsic value if it no longer has context. This is the information that is shared with the public and held on to for future generations.

The Restoration Department and the Bibat, Museum of Archaeology of Álava region show their daily inside work

To celebrate the Day of Archaeology we arranged guided tours to the to the collections storage rooms of the museum and to the Restoration Department.  With these visits we wanted to show the inside of our daily job and to explain the journey of an archaeological artifact from the site to the display cabinets.

In the Archaeology Restauration Lab, Isabel Ortiz took us through the process of scientific restauration, describing conservation criteria and used treatments in several examples such as a wooden chalice from the Old Cathedral of Vitoria-Gasteiz, an early medieval axe, and a bronze basin.

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At the Bibat Archaeology museum we explained to the visitors how in addition to be just a museum we also are the deposit centre for the archaeological material of Álava province (Basque Country, Spain) and that we are in charge of managing all the archaeological interventions in the region.

During the tour we also gave a short introduction about what archaeology is, highlighting the importance of the process and the context, not just the precious objects. Then we showed the laboratory and the research room. Finally we conducted our visitors to the secrets kept in our collections storage room.

It was a great and successful experience. It would be fantastic make this kind of tours more often to keep making people aware of the value of archaeological heritage.

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