Penn Museum Archaeologist; Part 2

My Day of Archaeology continues (for first half, click this link)

12:00 Lunch with my Research Associate, Ryan Placchetti, discussing our efforts and the closer and closer ties with our British colleagues; how to make the definitive version of the dataset. We have recorded all of the field catalogues at this point and are moving on to examining every artifact we have from Ur, starting with a small subset, that of cylinder seals. Those need to be updated in a unified database, but the unified (if still somewhat flawed) database won’t be up for another week or two according to our colleague, Birger Helgestad, in London.

Got a message from a friend who is a professional photographer that he will be available to help document the second half of my day (he took the picture in my first post, but months ago). My computer secretary file shows that the afternoon should be spent as most afternoons have been this week, writing entries for an artifact loan from Penn Museum to La Caixa Museum in Spain. Many of these artifacts were excavated at Ur and thus relate to my overall project. I have written 14 entries so far, but there are at least another 20 that need to be done. I’ve farmed a further dozen out to Phil Jones, a Sumerologist here at Penn, since they have lengthy cuneiform inscriptions. I have studied both Akkadian and Sumerian but am by no means a specialist in the languages.

Writing entries for artifacts going on loan; photos by Kyle Cassidy

Some of the objects we’re sending have been sent out on traveling exhibits before. I wrote entries for a few of them when they went to Beijing, but those were around 1,000 words each. These have to be only about 100 words. It’s good practice to be concise, but any archaeologist will tell you that every object is more complicated than it looks, and when you want to discuss the significance of a particular object, you are almost inevitably tempted to write and write and, well you get the point. Much like this blog entry, I could be more concise, so I’ll just get to the task of writing exhibit catalogue entries.

High prow and stern boat model is in the background; flat, decked boat is in the foreground.

3:30pm I’ve spent the past hour and a half in the Traveling Exhibits holding room, examining some of the more complex artifacts that I am writing about. The first is a pair of clay boats that seem simple enough, but one of them is expected, the other is not. As I write about these artifacts, I try to make sure that all of our info on them is correct, correlates with field records where available and with archaeological thought of the period, styles, etc. The boat from Fara with high, curved prow and stern is exactly what we would expect from southern Mesooptamia in the Early-Middle Bronze Age, a reed river or marsh boat, with bundles of reeds tied together at stem and stern. The other, said in our records to be from Ur in the Old Babylonian (Middle Bronze) period doesn’t quite fit. First of all, the excavator at Ur does not mention a model boat from this season or any season within four years of the accession date. Secondly, the flat form with partial deck at prow and stern is in the history of ship building usually seen to be later, typically the end of the Late Bronze Age. Essentially, this appears to be a sea-going, plank-built vessel, akin to those on the Mediterranean at the time of the Sea Peoples and beyond. Maybe this is an early occurrence of that type, but without good context, I can’t know. I can’t solve the issues right now, but I can mention the questions in the interpretation of significance in the brief catalogue entry.

Apart from boat models, I’m also covering stone statuary today. I look again at

Examining ED sculpture from Khafaje; notice the resemblance?

an example from Khafaje and wonder where the left eye came from. In early photos, it is missing, yet this statue has two eyes. The left (proper) is a replacement, but I’m not sure when it was put there or by whom. We are sending two similar statue heads to Spain as well and I take a look at them. I take notes on these and a few other pieces, formulating most of about six catalogue entries, though I still have to chase down references for the bibliographic sections.

Even though I’ve been working with artifacts for 20 years, I still get an extraordinary feeling when in the presence of something so old, something formed by human hands thousands of years ago. Even in a relatively clinical environment, the power of ancient artwork is palpable. This is the kind of inspiration that keeps me going in writing some of the entries that might otherwise seem mundane. It’s why I wanted to be in the holding area today rather than only in my office checking books. When working directly with the objects, I notice things I can’t possibly notice in photos, and the personal enjoyment I get at staring into the shell and bitumen eyes of a 4500-year-old stone worshiper, or feeling the curve of a 3600-year-old model boat is indescribable. I may be working on virtual recreations of the ancient city of Ur, but I still believe in the importance of physical museums and the power of seeing ancient things in person. We need digital collections for study and understanding, dissemination of information, teaching, and for many other reasons; but, we need the presence of antiquities in publically accessible institutions as well to promote that unusually motivating and inspiring connection with too-long forgotten people across millennia.

We are all people, and we all are part of history.

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…

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.