Visual arts

Through a Glass Darkly?

pompAs the curator of a small museum, I’m on the front-line of the interface between objects and people. The Museum of Classical Archaeology is a university collection based in the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge. Although we have a fine collection of sherds and epigraphic squeezes, the stars of the show in our gallery are the 450 plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculpture on display. Our objects, then, weren’t dug up in a far-off field or found in a rescue trench – no, most were made especially for us and our collection. Still, they’re far from just fakes or poor shadows of their originals. Rather, they are historical objects in their own right: the oldest are well over 250 years old and began their lives in the private houses of wealthy aristocrats. Casts were used for the dissemination of new discoveries long before lavishly illustrated books, dig reports and press releases became the norm. So, while our objects are not original, their histories are tangled up in centuries of archaeological and art historical research and teaching.

I spend the morning dealing with emails and social media, making posters and producing some new display boards for a temporary exhibition – all while sitting on the front desk, so at the same time I’m engaging with visitors and dealing with questions. We recently took some objects out of the museum to a local cinema for the British Museum’s Pompeii Live event, where over 80 people got their hands on our objects at the cinema (don’t worry, we made them wear gloves!). Now, we’ve put them together in a temporary Pompeii-inspired display called Pompeiana. The stand-out piece is a bit of painted Pompeian masonry, which was too delicate to take to the cinema. Ultimately, the display will snake backwards around the gallery, picking out pieces of sculpture which were originally displayed in private Roman houses and gardens – but only when I’ve finished writing the content…

Today, I put together a rather lovely piece on the relationship between our two casts of Dancing Girls from the Villa and their original doppelgangers – it’s important that we engage directly with the rather unusual nature of our collection as casts and copies, rather than try to brush it under the carpet. Every cast tells two stories – one ancient, one modern. One of those stories, it turns out, is hiding in the storeroom. I discover we have a (cast of a) head of Dionysos from the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum languishing on a bottom shelf; actually, he turns out to be even more unusual because he’s made not out of plaster of Paris but of bronze. How unexpected! He’s beautiful, but heavy. I begin to make a cunning plan to liberate him and install him on the shop-floor.

P1000603At lunchtime, the Museum’s Education and Outreach Coordinator, Jennie Thornber, opens up a bulging envelope full of letters written by a group of children, thanking her for letting them handle some real Roman objects. We’ve both only been in post for less than four months, so reading these is a real joy. One child has drawn a version of a Hellenistic sculpture of a baby squashing a duck: the duck says, ‘Don’t squash me!’. We love it!

As the afternoon starts, visitors begin to arrive asking about the Curator’s Tour. We don’t really know what to expect; we’ve advertised this tour as part of the family programming and thought we might not have any takers. We needn’t have worried: we have 18 arrivals, ranging in age from about 2 years old to adult. I’m a little overwhelmed, but I have to think on my feet to make this work for all the different age groups. It’s certainly a challenge, not least since the Museum has gotten very hot in the sunshine. We put on iced water for our guests and end the tour by lying down in front of the huge Farnese Hercules, to see what he would look like if he were on a high base. Chatting to the families, it becomes clear we’re onto something here – there’s obviously a real appetite for family events which don’t assume kids need to be placated with crafts. Still, I’ll definitely think harder before jumping straight into next week’s tour!

My day ends where it began: checking emails, laminating posters and working on the Pompeiana display. Most of my days are as varied as this one, with my fingers in various different pies. Usually, I split my time between my office and the front desk, and it is a pleasure to spend so much time with visitors. Then the electric door pings shut and I’m left alone with my emails and the casts.

Loot Busters

What can we do about looting? Lots of people like to theorise, but I tend to prefer to be more practical.
I used to work on field projects, trying to prevent looting of archaeological sites on the ground. Partly because one project in Central Asia went very wrong – several archaeologists died, I was treated for PTSD – and partly because I realised that it was futile to try to police every square inch of land, often in war zones, I decided to try another approach.
Rather than trying to stop looting often done by poor people desperate to feed their families, I decided to try to identify the material and “burn” it at the art market, in effect prevent it from being fenced. My theory is that most (not all) art dealers and collectors are basically scrupulous people, who want to be able to collect but do not support looting.
So I came up with a very simple solution – to create a web site where all the material reported stolen could be listed and therefore identified. It sounds obvious, but no-one has done it before.  Rather than giving the site a long academic name I went for the catchier “Loot Busters” (and yes, it has been hard to resist adding the Ghostbusters theme tune to the web site):
Does it work? Surprisingly, yes. And most dealers are thrilled with the project, as it means they can identify the dodgy pieces. (Okay, a few are not happy with it). I keep thinking that, for example, Nazi loot has mostly been found by now, but a few weeks ago whilst going through the database of material stolen from Poland I noticed an 18th century piece which I happened to know was in a collection in London. Ditto a Venetian painting reported stolen by the Italians I’d seen with a London art dealer. And we’ve even found some antiquities!
There are various databases already of looted art, but most concentrate on one area – for example the exemplary Turkish Ministry of Culture web site which lists stolen Turkish material – or are hard to use. The Interpol Database only makes a couple of hundred of recently stolen items available to the public. The Art Loss Register makes no material available to unregistered users, and charges a great deal for searches – an academic wanting to look up a piece they spotted somewhere and think it stolen is unlikely to pay to check …  The Carabinieri Database is unwieldy, with very hard to use search parameters and more often than not returns this message:
These days there seem to the thousands of people working on cultural property, and dozens of conferences a year. Honestly, I don’t go to any of them – I hate theorising, and prefer practical projects.
I also don’t like the “gotcha” attitude of a lot of people who theorise about looting, so when Loot Busters find a looted piece we tell both the representative of the country from which it was stolen and whoever has it (dealer, collector or museum), so that they can sort it out – we also have a policy of confidentiality, so we can’t boast about our successes … sometimes frustrating, but keeping a low profile and letting whoever is returning the item take the credit works better in the long term.
This week I’ve been busy updating the web site, so it’s all sitting at the computer loading photos and typing … Plus we should send out another newsletter soon, so I’ll be working on that this week-end.
Most archaeologists’ main concern when it come to looting is Syria at the moment. We keep hearing reports of looting, but little precise information about pieces looted. We’ve posted photos of material that has been reported missing. Damascus Museum seems to be untouched, thank goodness, but Homs, Hama and Apamea have suffered badly. I found photos of the Hama and Apamea Museums on a web site, and the photographer, Dick Osseman, has kindly allowed us to re-post them.
This mosaic from Hama Museum is extraordinary, and pretty unique in showing women playing musical instruments – so it should be pretty easy to identify if it appears on the art market:
I’ve also been busy this week re-posting images from the Carabinieri Database of material stolen from Italy. It’s going a little slowly as I am trying to sort the material as I go into categories, and then sometimes I break them down further, but the material I’ve added can be accessed through the index here (lots more coming soon):
Some of the stolen material is so generic I doubt it will ever be possible to identify it (other material I wonder why anyone bothered to steal it, as the financial value probably won’t justify the crime). Other pieces, such as the mosaic above, is extraordinary – I was at a conference in Copenhagen in early May and several of the archaeologists were amazed at some of the stolen material, which they didn’t know about.
This Roman relief depicting a theatrical performance on the upper level and a horse race in a Circus below is pretty unique and would be easy to identify on the art market (see:
I try to make people aware of the more important pieces, so I often beg David Meadows to blog about pieces on his fabulous blog Rogue Classicism, which is on every archaeologist and Classicist’s must-read list. I’m hoping that he’ll blog this relief soon, just as he blogged this stolen Afghan glass vessel with a relief depiction of the Pharos of Alexandria (here):
I tend to downplay the excitement of dealing with looting and looted antiquities – it ain’t nothing like Lara Croft – because most of it is research rather than swinging from vines. One of the things I do love is going through the material and coming across items I probably would have missed, or which bear witness to history. This gold fibula, for example, can be very precisely dated to AD 306-7 by it’s inscription, and was owned by a supporter of Constantine in the years before he became the sole ruler of the empire (
This week has been quiet, just sitting at a computer, loading up information. Sometimes things are more exciting, for example when we find a looted item and trying amicably negotiate its return. I know collectors come in for a lot of criticism for buying looted antiquities, as do auction houses and dealers for selling them, but my experience has been that the vast majority of them co-operate when they are told they have looted items, and go out of their way to help.

Day of Archaeology – LAARC Lottery Part 3 (Registered Finds)

Here are the results from our registered finds shelf lottery

Shelf seven (suggested by Pat Hadley – thanks Pat) of our Registered finds section of the Archive is the start of a sequence of finds that were excavated before professional archaeology became existed inLondon, during the very early 1970s. At this time theMuseumofLondon’s forbearer – the Guildhall Museum– was undertaking excavations across the city. This object – a classic Roman oil lamp – was excavated on Gracechurch street in 1969.

Roman Lamp from GM69 site

Roman Lamp from GM69 site – and shelf number 7

This Roman lamp is known as a picture lamp, as the central ‘discus’ is decorated. It may be a Loeschecke (1919) Type IV, although difficult to tell as types are usually distinguished by the nozzle, which in this case is broken. It probably dates to the C1st AD and in particular the Boudican revolt as it was discovered in association with a major burnt strata with other C1st pottery.

A very similar lamp has also been discovered on a recent Archive volunteer project – VIP9 – although not in such a good state of preservation! Closer comparison may reveal if it was made from the same two-piece mould, as these objects were mass produced.

Shelf 342 (tweeted by our very own Adam Corsini while on holiday in Sardinia) of our Registered finds stores material from the 1980s, a point in time when archaeology withinLondonhad become highly professionalised – having a major impact on how we eventually archive material and records from excavation.

Our second lucky winner(s) are  fragmentary pieces of medieval window glass. Excavated on the site of the Royal Mint in 1986, this glass may have formed part of the medieval Abbey or Chapter House. By the C16th window glass such as this would have been found more commonly in secular buildings as opposed to religious buildings. Although extremely aesthetic, the array of colours this glass has produced are not intentional – this is actually the glass decomposing, or delaminating, as a result of being buried in the ground for hundreds of years.

Fragments of medieval stained glass from MIN86

Fragments of medieval stained glass from MIN86, and shelf 342

Next it’s our Metal artefacts – 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 using #dayofarch or #LAARC, or message us below, a number between 1 and 628 to discover, completely at random, what that shelf holds…


Chain Bridge Forge – Overview

Chain Bridge Forge: Preserving a 19th Century Blacksmith

It is situated on the east bank of the River Welland about one mile from the town centre, only four metres away from the river itself. The building dates back to the early 1800’s and in 1826 it appeared in White’s Directory and it shows that the Blacksmith was a Francis South. It then appears to have been sold to Edward Fisher who was general town Blacksmith and from his 1850–60 day books it showed his trade also included the servicing the boats that used the port of Spalding. In 1898 the Dodd Family took ownership of the Forge and were recorded as Spalding’s last Harbour Master. Three generations of the Dodd family worked the forge. George Robert Dodd originally from Heckington in Lincolnshire had learnt his trade at Newmarket and presumably it had paid well enough for him to get married and purchase the forge for £280. The Forge had to adapt with the times and in the 1950’s Geoffrey Dodd business almost ended but he turned his hand to making carnival floats for the Spalding Flower parade and this continued for another 30years. In 1989 the building was sold to the local Council and work was done to preserve it structure but sadly was not developed as a museum.

Today we hope to fulfil this vision and The Friends of Chain Bridge Forge has been formed to conserve the artefacts, tell the story of this historic building and build an educational programme which will involve schools and the community. The building is approximately 12.3m long and 6.3m wide. It is subdivided internally into three spaces, the largest of which contains the forge and main work space. The floor is mainly of hard packed earth, with large pieces of stone and slate covering some areas. The building has remained largely unaltered and retains its original contents and is a treasure trove of artefacts and documents which illustrates this wonderful building past and the Blacksmiths that have worked it.

The Forge has recently been awarded £50,000 of Heritage Lottery Funding and therefore the project has commenced. If you would like to follow our progress or would like to contribute then please view our website