National Museum

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 .

 

Penn Museum Archaeologist; Near East

I love being in the field, but this year I’m not excavating. My work is museum related for now, an important part of what we do. So, here’s my Day of Archaeology so far:

Got up around 6:30am and checked my email through my Blackberry. Found that our subcontract to the British Museum has gone through (much of what I do these days is done jointly with London and they are five hours ahead of me, so they have already begun work when I get up).

Got to the museum around 8:00am. I live nearby, which I like because I can walk to work. My computer is my secretary, so I checked on my ‘to do’ file. Yes, if I were more up-to-date I’d just use Google Calendar or some such, but I like having individual files for each day on my hard drive. I looked through the previous day making sure the most pressing things got done, deleting those items and assigning most pressing for today. I had a committee meeting for the Ur Project yesterday; I have to write up the minutes today for distribution to others on the project, that gets the most pressing mark for the morning.

 

Brad Hafford in his cluttered office, 524 Museum

 

Our project is taking legacy data, excavation material from 1922-1934, and modernizing, that is, recording it all digitally and uniting it in one place — the interweb. The excavation was a very important one, that of the ancient city of Ur in southern Iraq and was conducted jointly by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Under laws of the day, artifacts collected were divided between the nascent state of Iraq with its newly founded National Museum and the two excavating institutions. Thus, half the artifacts are in Baghdad, the other half are split between Philadephia and London. But there is much more to an excavation than artifacts. There are also field notes, photographs, catalogues, letters, telegrams, receipts, drawings, watercolors, and so much more. We are digitizing and uniting all of this material. We want to create a site where anything and everything concerning Ur and its excavation can be accessed, researched, and gazed upon in wonder; all in open-source, freely accesible and linked data form.

Creating it takes time, patience, and money. It takes access to the artifacts and archives which are not solely spread among the three museums mentioned, but objects also secondarily sent to many smaller museums around the world, paricularly the Commonwealth at the time. There are Ur artifacts from our excavations as far afield as Australia and New Zealand. And many more in the UK: Almost 1000 artifacts are in the Birmingham Museum and Art Galleries. Not only that, but reconstructing the original numbering system for artifacts and photographs, and connecting that to the modern museum numbering systems, linking objects back to their original field records is not as easy as one might think. Our work is quite complicated. But also most worthwhile.

Museum cafe opens around 9am. Armed with coffee, and organized on my computer daily to-do list, I can face the rest of my day in confidence.

10:00am Eastern: Skype conference with British Museum colleagues. We’ve been trying now for some weeks to establish dates and room reservations for a project meeting near the end of the calendar year. Since this one needs to include funding agency, high-level museum administrators, principle investigators, other museum representatives, etc. it’s been difficult to mesh schedules. It’s also difficult to get space in the British Museum since it is in high demand.

Next we discussed the state of the merger of datasets between our two museums concerning Ur. It’s going slowly because we created our digital data from two sets of records divided by decades and the Atlantic. These records have to be meshed so that a unique identifier refers to each and every object. Then we have to get it all on a server so that both museums can access, update, and correct it. As I have probably already noted, re-unification is not easy. But we have great people on both sides of the pond working on it. Birmingham is on board and we’re starting the process of contacting the other institutions that have subsets of the Ur material. And of course we’re still trying to get the Iraq National Museum on board, but politics has gotten in the way for now.

More emails and arrangements have placed me at about the half-way point of my Day of Archaeology. More in part 2…

Festivals, Shoes, Maps and Beer in Galway, Ireland

Some rights reserved by Mikenan1 (http://www.flickr.com/photos/mikenan1/) used under a creative commons licence

Moore Group is based in Galway, on Irelands rugged, windswept, wet west coast, and today marks the beginning of festival season in the City. So, despite the dreary weather, we’re all in festive mood here. The Volvo Round the World Yacht Race is due to finish in the harbour over the weekend, the Galway Arts Festival follows the week of festivities around the Yacht Race and the famous Galway Races follow that. Then, in early August we’re hosting our small boutique ‘Archaeology of Beer’ Festival in Headford, Co. Galway (Headfest). It’s been described as Ireland most boutique, boutique festival. This year, due to a lack of funding, we’ve downsized the gig, so it’ll be even more boutique!

This morning I’ve been focused on beer. I’ve been researching ancient recipes and brewing methods for a ‘wild’ beer. A wild beer is a beer which is fermented using windblown or other wild yeasts, and is something we’ve never really tried before. It could (and probably will) turn out awful… We’ve brewed two beers so far. One, a bog myrtle (Myrica Gale) and malt ale with some yarrow flavouring (Gale Ale), the second a simple hopped ale (so that people can taste the difference between a modern hopped ale and an ancient non-hopped herbal ‘gruit’ ale). We’ve already tasted our ‘Gale Ale’ and, it’s really nice, if I say so myself…. We had separated it into three batches – one is a ‘lighter’ ale of about 6% ABV, the second is stronger and is around 8% ABV and the third is a really strong 9.5% ABV ale. We’ve one more beer to brew and I’m trying to work out a recipe for next weeks brewday. On Headfest day we’ll be demonstrating our brewing in a replica fulacht fiadh using hot rocks to get our liquor to the right temperature. You can read more about our hot rock experiments on our blog

Unfortunately beer doesn’t pay the bills so we have other more mundane duties to perform today as well. I’m currently completing a constraints study on a large electricity infrastructure project. Essentially this entailed mapping and describing the existing, known, cultural heritage of the study area, using existing data sources and information. We’ve mapped all these data and today I have to review the mapping to ensure that it’s correct. It sounds dull, but there are some interesting diversions. For instance, comparing the first edition OS Maps with the second editions gives a picture of a remarkably changed landscape which mirrors the economic history of the 19th and early 20th centuries in Ireland. Despite the intervening famine there was huge development in the West of Ireland, with the construction of roads, railway lines, bridges and the introduction, and eventual dissipation, of large demesnes and designed landscapes. Whereas the early maps (surveyed in the 1830s and 1840s) depict remote clusters of houses and small landholdings in many cases reachable only by tracks, by the 1890’s or early 1900’s these remote locations are served by roads and other services.   Much of this growth in the latter part of the 19th century is down to the Napoleonic Wars when Ireland experienced a huge surge in economic circumstances (an early Celtic Tiger period) and the passing of the Land Acts in the latter part of the 19th century and the early 20th century which eventually dissipated the power of the Anglo-Irish landed gentry and created a large sector of small landowners throughout the country.

My colleague Billy, meanwhile, is busy preparing finds for deposition in the National Museum, cataloguing and boxing… He’s currently looking at shoes.

A shoe from post medieval Galway

The shoe pieces (44 in all) were retrieved from the Market House excavation (for more on the excavation see here) during the course of the Eyre Square Re-enhancement Project in the middle of Galway City in 2004. Most of the fragments were retrieved from a rectangular test pit excavated across the centre of the site representing successive metalled surfaces and dump deposits pre-dating an 18th century building at the north end of Eyre Square. The majority of the pieces come from post-medieval contexts consisting largely of footwear fragments and off cuts. Shoes are fascinating (I’m serious)… Here’s an excerpt from Billy’s report:

“The shoe styles found share similar characteristics with comparative urban excavations in Cork and Waterford and more locally from Barrack lane, Galway. The most common shoe type of the medieval period was the turnshoe, made as the name suggests by stitching a wet and inside out leather upper to a sole and then turning it rightside out so that the sewing is protected. The upper would then be wrapped around the foot and secured by either a strap, latched or using a thong. This simple template evolved through time for utilitarian purposes or simply as fashion dictated. Heels were initially made by sewing stiffeners inside the shoe to prevent wearing.

From the sixteenth century onwards heels developed into a series of separate “lifts” (“built heel”) stacked and pinned or sewed together. Similarly the upper changed from a simple wraparound piece to an overshoe consisting of a ‘vamp’ or toe covering, quarters covering the inner and outer sides of the foot, the tongue, a piece of leather to the front placed between two sides of a tied opening and the back strap. Another common shoe feature was a welt (sometimes called rand) or strip of leather stitched along the lasting margin between the upper and the sole to protect the seam and make the shoe watertight. Common shoes of the second half of the eighteenth century were the heavy brogue and the knee length boot. The native brogue (after the Irish bróga, meaning shoe) was a low heeled, heavy shoe of un-tanned leather with laces along the instep and no tongue with small perforations on the toe puff and quarters. This hardwearing footwear was practically designed for country men as a shoe that would drain water and dry quickly due to the lack of a tongue, and not get stuck in the mud because of their laces above the ankle. Knee length boots were an English introduction and were more expensive and associated with the landed gentry, given the restrictive laws for horse ownership during the penal law era.

Concerning leather as a raw material, cow hide was generally used in the manufacture of most shoe soles, welts and binds – it being the strongest and most resilient of the available skins. For the uppers, calf, goat or sheep skin were the preferred choices for reasons of flexibility and comfort.”

See – I told you, Shoes are fascinating!

As archaeologists it’s the ordinary things we find which inform our discourse with the past and which give me most satisfaction. The big finds and the big sites are, of course, part of the process, but it’s the archaeology of the ordinary that keeps me interested – the shoes, the nails, the bottles and pot sherds, all of which tell us a story and fill in the gaps in our knowledge.

Colouring the Past

It’s a gray and rainy day in Reykjavík and I’m thinking of colour. Arrayed before me in the National Museum’s collections storage center are an array of jasper fragments from an excavation at Reykholt, an important regional center in western Iceland. Founded in the late 10th century, Reykholt became the center of a polity forged by Snorri Sturluson, Iceland’s wealthiest and most powerful chieftain of the early 13th century. I was involved in the first years of the Reykholt Project in the late 1980s and was there briefly in its last days, in 2007. Excavations that I undertook at a small, non-elite farm about 10 kilometers away and at the site of one of Snorri’s rivals, a bit farther out, led me through a circuitous route to think about jasper, an iron-rich form of SiO2 that, like flint, chert and obsidian can be easily flaked into stone tools or used with steel to strike sparks for lighting fires. It’s this latter use that attracted the Vikings and their Norse descendants to collect, use and discard jasper at most sites. A quotidian and visually boring class of material culture, jasper fire-starters were, nonetheless, the matches in the pockets of Norse men and women and their distribution, use wear and trace element chemistry can be used to monitor the movement of people over both short and long distances (we’ve used neutron activation analysis to trace Icelandic jasper to the site of L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, for example).

But arrayed before me today is a puzzle. Due to its high iron content, jasper is most commonly red or ochre-yellow. Far less common are black, blue, or green colours. And yet here, from the ruins of a medieval church built at the site around 1150 and demolished around 1550 is a sea of green and greenish-blue jasper. More to the point, the wear patterns on it indicate that hardly any of these green and blue-green fragments were used for striking fires, although the few red jasper fragments in the assemblage- and all of the obsidian pieces-were used to make sparks. The question is, why were these green pieces brought to the site and why were they treated this way? Or, better, what did it mean to be “thinking green” in medieval Iceland? So far, the answer is looking far more complex, and far more interesting, than I’d expected.

Of these green stones, roughly 10% form a coherent assemblage of desilicified, soft pieces, light blue-green in color, that have been scraped and faceted with files, knives, or abrading stones. The actions taken on them are deliberate but their forms are each different, random and seemingly accidental. Their most likely explanation is that the objects in my hand are end-products of actions taken to obtain blue-green powder, and that was most likely intended for the production of blue-green or green ink, as Reykholt was a center of literary production through the Middle Ages. These humble pieces may, therefore, be our best material evidence for the action of clerics and secular writers at Reykholt, whose products include those of Snorri Sturluson himself, among them Heimskringla (the earliest history of the kings of Norway), the Poetic Edda (a manual of skaldic poetry and one of the main sources on Nordic pagan cosmography), and Egills saga (an important foundation of the Icelandic Family Sagas). Finding illuminated manuscripts in a collection of colored stones was the last thing I expected.

However, the majority of the other stones found in the fill and under the floors of this church are united simply by being green. Many are achingly beautiful jasper, like Song dynasty porcelain in color and texture, but were simply smashed into fragments to reveal the green interior and then discarded without any other traces of use. Another large group consists of small green pebbles, some of jasper and others of white chalcedony with a green surface rind formed from contact with iron-rich basalt in a reducing environment. From their surface contours, it is clear that some of these were collected from river or stream beds, others were obtained from eroded landscapes where they were faceted and worn by Iceland’s strong winds, still others were plucked directly from the roots of ancient volcanoes with basalt still adhering to their outer surfaces. An extensive survey of the region around Reykholt has shown that jasper of any kind is extremely rare there and nearly impossible to find in riverine, terrestrial or bedrock contexts. At Hestfjall, the nearest well-known jasper source, 30 km from Reykholt, red jasper is abundant. Although blue, green, and blue-green are present, obtaining it may require long searches, scrambles up vertical cliffs, or dangerous transects across steep and loose scree slopes. Bringing these simple objects to Reykholt, then, represents a considerable number of separate actions, undertaken in different places and variable settings, over a prolonged period of time, and potentially through a series of dangerous or at least difficult actions. Why? What was important about being green?

The answer may lie in the symbolic meanings of green and of jasper itself within medieval thought. Jasper was one of the twelve stones on the breastplate of Aaron, described in the Old Testament, and was among the foundation stones of the Celestial Jerusalem described in John of Patmos’ Revelation, and formed that metaphysical city’s walls. Numerous sources, from the Venerable Bede in 8th century England to Richard of St. Victor and Bruno of Segni, writing in 12th century France and Italy, make it clear that the term “jasper” itself was used to describe an opaque green or blue-green stone, not the more common red color that we associate with jasper today. Jasper was the symbol of faith and belief during this life, that, like green plants, grows and returns to life after hardship, never truly dying despite the troubles of earthly existence. Jasper was used, at times, as a symbol of Christ and, more frequently, as one of the symbols of Saint Peter…and the church at Reykholt was dedicated to Saint Peter.

An hypothesis starts to form. Are these green and blue-green pieces of jasper, gathered with difficulty from a potentially wide-spread landscape and deposited here in greater numbers than known anywhere else in Iceland, accumulated symbols of personal devotion? Are they materialized prayers to St. Peter, tokens of belief…or perhaps supports for belief under strain and supplication for his believed ability to turn away fever, to cure foot problems, to provide longevity, to aid harvests and harvesters, to provide support for fishermen, or to guide the souls of the deceased into heaven?

Two classes of stone objects, one used for pigment production and the other unused except for its acquisition, intentional destruction and sequestration within a church, are both joined primarily by color. Together, they suggest new approaches for understanding the pragmatics of religious practice in medieval Iceland, on the one hand, and the practice of illumination, on the other, in ways that could not have been expected from such humble remains.

Well, back to it! The rest of the assemblage awaits and with it opportunities to refute this emerging hypothesis or to find additional examples that may support it. Some days archaeology takes place in the field, others in the lab. This is one of those days. This weekend may have me scouring the landscape in search of new jasper sources…

Working on the Scottish Archaeological Research Framework (ScARF) pt 1

Tea: Key ingredient to working life

Good morning from a summery Edinburgh, Scotland! ‘Summery’ in Edinburgh often means driving rain though today we’ve got a lot of cloud with some sunshine poking through.

My name is Jeff Sanders and I am the Project Manager for the Scottish Archaeological Research Framework (ScARF). ScARF aims to provide a review of what we know about Scotland’s past through archaeology and related disciplines, and to consider what promising areas of research we might pursue in the future. We run a series of nine panels of specialists to explore different aspects of Scotland’s past (Palaeolithic & Mesolithic; Neolithic, Bronze Age; Iron Age; Roman Scotland; Medieval; Modern; Marine & Maritime; and Science in Scottish Archaeology).

Each panel produces a report which will be available online early in 2012 and we have a number of other resources that will be available on the website. A lot of my job entails co-ordinating the work of the panels and developing the panel reports, which is a fantastic way of getting to know all the exciting research that is being undertaken across Scotland.

Opening of the refurbished museum!

Today I’m working on three of the reports, but before that, it is something of a celebration at my workplace! I work for the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (SoAS), an organisation that is based in the National Museums Scotland (NMS) on Chambers Street (more about the SoAS later). The National Museum is effectively two museums in one, a modern museum and a Victorian building (previously known as the Royal Museum). The Victorian building has been closed for over 3 years to have a massive refit and it opens to the public today.

The street outside was closed for the opening celebration involving a T-Rex, drummers, abseilers, fireworks and a reproduction Carnyx. There were a lot of people there and the atmosphere was incredible. It was good to move among the crowd and see so many really keen to get into the building (work colleagues included!). Inside, the museum is spectacular and I’ll include a few photos in the next posts. Before that, I need to check my email and sort out some of the work in my in-tray.

 

My work desk