Near East

Meetings, Musings and misplaced virtue

Here is me hugging a pot from the collections

Here is me hugging a pot from the collections

I’m Keeper of Collections at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL, a job I juggle with my role here as a lecturer and Near Eastern archaeology specialist. This can make my day-to-day tasks both varied and unpredictable, as no matter what the diary says, you can never tell what you might be called on to do.

Some objects from the Institute of Archaeology Collections - how lucky am I to work here?

Some objects from the Institute of Archaeology Collections – how lucky am I to work here?

My day begins in soggy London Town, striding across a string of parks in my daily walk from Holborn to the Institute in Gordon Square. Today I’m wielding my second best umbrella, after a disastrous gust of wind demolished my rather fine Book of the Dead parasol yesterday. There’s a brief encounter with a former colleague en-route, during which we admire each other’s rain protection gear, then I arrive to see what the day holds. (more…)

Digital Magic for Magical Texts

It has been a grey damp day here in London. Glad to be tucked in working from home with the cat on my lap and a fresh pot of the black stuff.  I have been beavering away on a pile of image data for Magica Levantina, a University of Cologne project on magical texts from the ancient Near East.  Although I am a Research Associate at the Cologne Center for eHumanities, I have spent a good portion of my time working in museum collections far beyond Cologne, including the Princeton, Philadelphia, Paris, Naples, and soon (all being well) Jerusalem. But for now I have been working at the British Museum, which happily is not far from home and is giving me a bit of a break from the travel.

Gypsum tablet

Part of a gypsum tablet with a magical Greek inscription from Amathus, Cyprus (1891,0418.50 + 59,  © Trustees of the British Museum).

This week I have been conducting Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) on inscribed tablets fragments in the Department of Greece and Rome. The tablet fragments are made of selenite (gypsum), and were found at  the site of Amathus and date to between 100 CE-300 CE.

The almost complete tablet above bears a curse written in alphabetic Greek. However, the technique used to make the inscription, combined with its small size and the translucence of the material, make it very challenging to read or discern other potentially significant physical features.

RTI specular enhancement detail of Greek inscribed selenite tablet from Amathus, Cyprus. (1891,0418.50 + 59, Kathryn E. Piquette, courtesy Trustees of the British Museum)

Detail from the upper left of the above, visualised using the RTI specular enhancement mode  (1891,0418.50 + 59, Kathryn E. Piquette, courtesy Trustees of the British Museum)

BM staff very kindly took the tablet off display* yesterday so I could image it using RTI. The  detail to the right does not really do justice to the results I processed today since it is not possible in this context to have the relighting and other functionality of the RTIViewer. Nevertheless, the text is now vastly more readable.

Thanks to the magic of modern tablets, this ancient one, or at least its visual surrogate, is currently making its way through the ether to my colleagues in Cologne.

* The tablet was put promptly back on display today I am told (Room G72/2), so do pop down to the British Museum and take a closer look.

On the Polychromy of Ancient Palmyra and on Nomads and Networks in Ancient Kazakhstan in Washington DC

Many greetings from the Smithsonian!

With Syria and its UNESCO world heritage sites in the news these weeks, it is time to look at one of those sites described as one of the surviving wonders of antiquity: Palmyra. Also, we are in the preparation of an exciting exhibition with a wide array of objects from yet another fascinating part of the world, ancient Kazakhstan, that will open soon to the Sackler Gallery here in the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.

We are  in the first week of July 2012. First thing Monday morning, was catching up on the latest news from Kazakhstan for our upcoming exhibition highlight Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan. One of our colleagues, Claudia Chang, in Kazakhstan had reported earlier this week on this blog and we will continue to run a parallel blog on our exhibition and ancient Kazakhstan on our website starting soon before the exhibition opening in August here in Washington, DC.

Also this Monday, before a meeting with our colleagues from the embassy of Kazakhstan, I presented some current research on pigments and paints on ancient near eastern stone monuments to a wider public in the Smithsonian Institution’s Smithsonian Congress of Scholars Research Tent on the Mall. Despite some heat waves, a good number of visitors came to some twenty presentations from units in the institution, and asked also many questions about the role of pigments on stone monuments in the Ancient Near East. By studying materials that still contain much of the pigments, we can learn more about the aesthetics of the ancient world. Palmyra, “the Place of Palms” as it was known to the Romans, in modern Syria, flourished as a colourful caravan oasis on the trade route linking the Mediterranean with West and Central Asia. Most of the monuments visible on the site today date from the first three centuries CE, including the large colonnade streets and the extensive cemeteries around the city.

In 1908, while on a trip to Aleppo, the rich Detroit business-men Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919), see himself above, acquired a lime stone relief from the site from the dealer Joseph Marcopoli (F1908.236). Originally, reliefs like this one would have marked the tombs of wealthy Palmyrene citizens, either in tower-tombs or complex hypogea below ground. According to an Aramaic inscription, it is the portrait of Haliphat, daughter of Oglata, son of Harimai. This stele is dated 543 of the Seleucid era, which corresponds to the year 231 in the Christian calendar. The stone relief is one of many from Palmyra still preserving traces of the original polychromy. Some of these can be even seen with the naked eye, like the jewellery on the left hand or in details of her necklace.

Microscope images would make painted details much more visible and a red colorant on the statue has recently been identified by scientific analysis. Qualitative elemental analysis of a small sample taken shows the presence of Al, Si, Ca and Fe with a strong presence of iron.

The Freer|Sackler – Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Art also houses also a collection of archival materials related to the modern exploration of Palmyra, among them a plan of the ruins, donated by Ernst Herzfeld (1879-1948). The plan was made shortly before Freer acquired the stone relief from Palmyra, with the ancient cemeteries indicated around the citywall, together with a series of glass negatives related to an expedition to Palmyra, carried out by Herzfeld’s colleague Moritz Sobernheim (1872-1933) in 1899. Sobernheim had photographed and made squeezes of some of the inscriptions, which later became part of Herzfeld’s collection and are available for research, documenting the very early stages of archaeological fieldwork in the ancient Near East.



A day with the UCL Institute of Archaeology Library: 29th July 2011

Books, books, books. Journals, conference proceedings, technical reports,  e-resources. And lots more.

Institute of Archaeology Library

Institute of Archaeology Library

You might wonder why a library wants to contribute to the Day of Archaeology and what our relevancy might be. But libraries, especially specialist libraries like the UCL Institute of Archaeology, are vital for archaeological research and have been part of archaeology since the beginning – the Society of Antiquaries Library was founded in 1751!  Researchers – students, academic staff, commercial researchers and even interested members of the general public – come to libraries to  find the factual information and the theoretical frameworks that drive and structure their work. It’s also here that the final published results of excavations and fieldwork – site reports – end up!

So if you want to find out a little bit more about what we do and what our customers use our facilities to research, read on!

 Our day…

My day starts at 8.30 a.m. I have an hour before the library opens and I usually take this time to open up, sort out the ‘reshelving’ (books used in the library or returned during the previous day) and have a look round for any problems, potential areas of work or to get ideas about how to improve our working space and collections. Ian, one of our shelvers, has been working on periodicals (journals) ‘weeding’ and created some extra space for both the periodicals and the

Egyptology shelves

Egyptology shelves

Edwards Egyptology Library.  I work through the Egyptology collection, assessing where we need to shift the books to leave space for growth – I estimate we have space for 3-5 years’ growth overall that can be distributed amongst the shelves. Most humanities and social sciences research libraries have space problems and we’re no exception. Because so many of our books and journals are used for research as well as teaching, we can’t send older material to Stores, as it needs to be on the shelves for researchers to consult. We’re trying to make space where possible by sending journals that are also available electronically to Stores – ‘weeding them’. Electronic access means that we can still provide access to key resources, but we don’t have to have them physically on the shelves.

Yu-ju Lin and Paul Majewski, two of our library assistants, arrive and the library opens at 9.30 a.m. Paul starts work on the virtual exhibitions page we’re building to accompany a Friends of the Petrie Museum exhibition that will be opening in the library in September.

Yu-Ju Lin

Yu-Ju and the missing book

Yu-ju goes out to look for missing books. In a library with over 70,000 books and 800 periodical sets (I’ve no idea how many actual individual volumes of these we have!) books can easily become mislaid. So shelf tidying and looking for books reported missing to us each week is a vital part of our work. It’s a good day – she finds an important missing book needed by the Ancient History department straight away.

I look through my emails and answer any enquiries. These can be from our current students and staff about their library records and our collections, but also from other researchers asking about our archive material (which is held by UCL Special Collections), staff and students from other universities asking about using our collections or from members of the public who just want answers to archaeological questions. There aren’t too many today, so I start working through our Accessions List (the list of new books that have arrived in the library that month) highlighting some for our Ancient World/Archaeology blog. Once I’ve done this, I continue some on-going work with free online journals. I have a long list of free electronic resources from AWOL (Ancient World Online) that I’m working through looking for digital duplicates of our paper resources. Where possible, we try to always provide digital access to resources – students and staff can get to the 24/7 and pressure on our paper copies – both in terms of use and preservation (general state of repair) – is lessened.

Ricky Estwick

Ricky Estwick

Ricky Estwick comes with our delivery of mail from elsewhere in UCL Library Services. Although we’re a library in our own right, we’re also part of UCL Library Services and our work flows and patterns fit in to the larger structure of the organisation. We don’t for example, do our own cataloguing. This is done in a central cataloguing unit to ensure standardisation across UCL’s library collections and so our material is in line with global information standards. Ricky brings books and periodicals that have arrived for us from different libraries, as well as materials from cataloguing, acquisitions and Stores.

Scott Stetkiewicz comes to the Issue Desk to ask about obtaining materials from Scottish excavations for his MSc dissertation on slag analysis. We have a look through the resources available in the library and online through English Heritage, the Archaeological Data Service and Heritage Gateway.

Stuart Brookes comes in to borrow books for his project ‘landscapes of governance: assembly sites in England, 5th – 11th centuries’.  (more…)

Archaeology Summer Schools

Spent the day running annual summer schools on Ancient Egypt and the Near East for Bloomsbury Summer School at University College London. My passion is public engagement and lifelong learning. We run six different 5-day summer courses every year, open to anyone with an interest in Ancient Egypt and the Ancient Near East, of all ages (16 up) and backgrounds. Friday was the last day of this year’s summer schools – the final day of ‘Lofty Places and Sacred Space: archaeology in the Ancient Near East’ and a course on Ancient Egyptian literature. At UCL we are privileged to house the extraordinary collection of archaeological material in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. Our summer courses often include object-based learning in this very special museum, and gallery talks in the grander galleries of the British Museum. Now it’s time to start thinking about which archaeologists/curators/academics to invite to teach next year’s summer schools. We also have our winter course taught in Egypt to look forward to – a week in Aswan with visits to archaeological sites in the mornings and lectures in the afternoons – can’t wait!


Well worth a visit ...

Tells of space and time….

I’ve always always loved learning and reading about the ancient world. It seems to me to be full of unsolved mysteries and puzzles, tantalizing enigmas about who-done-what and what happened where. Definitely by the time I got to University, I knew I really wasn’t even interested in anything else other than the distant past. I am currently researching for my dissertation in MSc in Web Science at the University of Southampton, and I’m looking at how to represent ambiguities in the spatial and temporal elements of the ancient cities of Mesopotamia.

red pen on line drawing of Code of Hammurabi (Old Babylonian)My path to this MSc has been long and winding. During my undergrad years at Birmingham University I focused on studying Mesopotamia and the cultures of the Early Bronze Age in the Near East. I learnt to read Sumerian cuneiform, as well as various dialects of Akkadian – I’d say that Sumerian and Old Babylonian remain my favourites, and in the course of my current research I’ve got the opportunity to again engage with these elements from my academic past.


A Freelance Archaeobotanist’s day

I’m an environmental archaeologist specialising in plant remains.  These are plant macrofossils ( not microfossils like pollen or spores). I look at the larger items -seeds, grains, chaff, wood, some tubers, other surviving plant parts. My lab is my spare room. I don’t need to use chemicals in my work so this is safe to do. The room where I work has the same sort of equipment and manuals I used while was employed by the Museum of London Archaeology Service. What I miss is the experience and guidance of John Giorgi and Anne Davis with whom I worked straight after my MSc in 1996 during my ‘apprentice’ archaeobotanist years.

Now I’m a freelance ‘journeyman’ I make up for lack of colleagues by making use of the Jiscmail Archaeobotany Mailing List (with many experience archaeobotanists on it from all over the world) and attending archaeobotany workgroups.  I have also visited the English Heritage archaeobotanists (Gill Campbell, Ruth Pelling and Dr Zoe Hazell)  atFortCumberlandto use their reference collection and ask advice. They’ve been extremely helpful and have a unique set up that I hope survives the cuts. I’ve also appreciated the advice and support of EH regional science advisor for the South-East, Dr Dominique DeMoulins. As a UCL alumni I’ve been able to arrange to use the seed reference collection built up over the years by many researchers, one being  Prof. Gordon Hillman who I was fortunate enough to be taught by for my MSc in the 1990s. I’ve enjoyed building up my own seed collection and herbarium. I have seed and wood anatomy manuals but nothing is a good as having a modern specimens to compare with an archaeological one.

Today I have ‘flot’s to sort for an assessment. This is good news as I had a three week gap in May/June and not enough money to go on holiday with during the heatwave. But I completed my 2011 tax return and cleaned out Thanet Archaeology’s flotation system during that time with plans to use it.

I work from home so the first thing I’ve done today is take a mug of triple Expresso to my study and login to my gmail account and switch on the radio.  I’m currently fond of Radio 5 Live -for the talk rather than the sport. The radio and gmail  will stay on all day unless I’m writing up a report.  BBC Player has become a good friend too. I do drop in on facebook. It makes up for some of the laughs and chat I miss from my employee days. It also reminds me what a unique thing I’m doing for a living today.

Today I’m assessing some English ‘flots’. ‘Flots’ are the light material that float into a fine mesh sieve when and environmental bulk sample is processed. These come to me in plastic sample bags in a box by post.  I very rarely get asked on site while samples are being taken. I would like to be as it would be good to see the preservation conditions and chat with the field team about the features and their sampling strategy. I’m also rarely the one processing my samples but I’m ready , willing and equipped to make site visits, take and process samples myself.  If I were on site or in the processing shed I could double-check labelling and record keeping. A hard dug sample is useless if the labels fall off  bucket or the bags split. I could also see evidence of bioturbation on site that I can only infer from the flot contents at present.

Assessment is the first stage of analysis of the plant remains in a sample.  I’m looking for abundance, species diversity and quality and type of preservation. This information will help me recommend which samples should be studied in more detail at analysis stage and estimate time and costs for that.

When I open a bag of flot I pour it into a measuring jar and if it’s very large and diverse I’ll sub-sample it through a riffle box. Whole or sub-samples of flot I pour through a stack of geological sieves. This makes it easier to see the plant remains. Sometimes I can just pour the flot from the measuring jug onto my petri dish. I use glass jars and dishes because plastic creates static electricity and items then to ‘stick’. I won’t have to sub-sample the flots I have today as many are too small to need sieving and a detailed count isn’t necessary for assessment.

First archbot-related email of today is from the Archbot Mailing List. It’s a message sharing an article about flora in the Near East. I’ll save it to read later. TheNear Eastisn’t my area but I can learn something from methodologies and you never know I may get the chance to go there and staff a flotation tank there one day.

What I’m seeing in these flots are fragments of roots, flecks of charcoal, terrestrial snails  and the occasional charred or uncharred seed or cereal grain. I’m recording these onto paper record sheets using a black biro ( I’ve heard the ink lasts longer on paper than pencil but I’ll look into that as there’s the plastic waste problem) while listening to Radio 4’s ‘Cabin Pressure’.  I don’t know much more about these samples yet as I’m waiting for strat and phasing info. This doesn’t always come at the same time as the flots but I’ll need them to write up the report next week.

11.55am -Yes! Some bread wheat grains in one of a series of pretty sterile flots so far. Negative evidence is as useful as positive evidence but it feels good to report back with some archbot finds – I hope it encourages the diggers to feel their sampling efforts were worth it. I’m starting to get samples from the area of England that my paternal ancestors came from – all agricultural workers so I have a kind of stakeholder link with these plant remains.

12.00 noon- nipping out for fresh air, daylight, human interaction and a quick lunch

1.05 pm -had a quick lunch at the Moonlight cafe reading the ‘I’ paper. Back home to hang up my shortie wetsuit (pool training for Sports Diver with Canterbury BSAC- I’ve dreams of taking my archaeobotanical skills to submerged cultural landscapes and shipwrecks via NAS and love aquatic wildlife anyway). Radio 4 ‘World at One’ and another flot to scan and record.

1.55pm -Just told a cold caller to leave me alone I’m working. Glanced at my emails – one from the IFA MAG group about the draft planning framework -will have to get my head round that soon- lots of worries there – developer funded arch hasn’t been perfect but has given me a job on and off for 14 years. Something a about assessments of arch from offshore windfarms (my ears prick up) and a wonderful PhD  with funding…in Orkney though (ears droop). Another from my Google search set-up telling me there’s something on ‘submerged prehistoric’ I could look up. But back to the flots for now. Radio 5 Live – the Murdoch empire.

2.37pm – Radio 5 – President Obama talking about the US debt crisis- I’ve just realised that this time last year I’d have done my archaeobotany for kids ‘pongs and potions’ Archaeological Detectives outreach with AMTeC co-op Ltd for Medway Children’s University.  It was cut.  My study should be smelling of remnants of pomander bead ingredients now.

4.00pm – cuppa tea …. Flot sorting’s going well. Next job will be data entry. I’m stopping at 5pm to go to a Kungfu class at Fighting Lions Martial Arts Academy in Whitstable. As I do a sedentary, solitary job I need to exercise regularly and it’s fun to do it with other people. Swinging a Chinese broadsword keeps my mattock muscles ready should I get the chance to go and dig.

So, that’s my day. When I first heard about the Day of Archaeology I wasn’t sure I’d be doing any archaeology on this day. I’ve no idea where I’ll be this time next year. I’ve no idea how I’ll be earning a living this September! I may go back on the supply teaching list for a bit if they’ll have me back. While I have work I’m looking for ways of keeping going in archaeology if I have gaps between projects of more than a couple of weeks – maybe funding to write a few papers in my own name and to help out in community archaeology projects. As it is you can’t preserve archaeologists in situ – but, to keep solvent I may have to put dust covers my microscopes and earn a living another way for a while. I hope not.



A day of archaeology: a PhD student’s perspective

I don’t know if I have a typical day as an archaeologist. I am not sure if there is any such thing in the world of archaeology! I am a PhD student, working on the phytolith analysis of several Early Bronze Age sites in the Near East (Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq). I am also the mother of an almost two year old, and I do some freelance work (editing and phytolith analysis) to earn a little extra money.

So, a ‘typical day’ means first getting my daughter ready so that my mum can pick her up and take her out for the day. (Thank God for mothers!) Then I have a few precious hours to research, analyse, write, procrastinate, clean the flat, etc etc. Right now, I am working on a report for a pilot phytolith study for a Bronze Age site in Sardinia. We weren’t sure if there would be any phytoliths preserved in the sediments, so we decided to start with five samples. Fortunately, there are a lot of phytoliths, both single cells and mulitcells, which should give some good palaeoecological information on the site. I have counted the phytoliths on the five slides, so today I will be analysing the results to see if there are any trends between the phytolith morphotypes and contexts. After compiling some statistics and pretty graphs, I will write up a short report to send to the director of the site. Hopefully, this will encourage her to send me the rest of the samples.

Then it’s quality time with my daughter, followed by dinner and bedtime (for her!). The quiet hours that follow will be dedicated to my PhD — my nose will be buried in some article or other, or I will be looking down my microscope to study more pretty bits of silica.