From Adam Parker, Assistant Curator of Archaeology, York Museums Trust
The wonderful world of the museum archaeologist is many things – fascinating, engaging, geek-tastic, and a genuine pleasure to work in. The one word missing from this brief synopsis is ‘variable’. Such is the variety of jobs I undertaken and material I work with that no accurate description of any day in my life of archaeology could be complete without the word. Museum curation requires an appreciation, rather than a specialist understanding, of small (and sometime, huge) finds from the Palaeolithic to the Post-Medieval and the ability and confidence to work with this often mind-boggling range of material. We are all generalists, even if we have our own specialist research interests from our time before or outside of the Museum world. This short preamble introduces the idea of variability in museum archaeology, and this is what I want to talk about for my Day, but not without first contextualising this within this week of archaeology.
Monday morning was spent sorting out the weekend’s emailing and replying to and/or resolving enquiries sent to the museum regarding individual objects, the site, the history or archaeology of York and the afternoon identifying fragments of Roman, Medieval and Post-Medieval ceramics from an assemblage at Dalton Parlours, excavated in the 1970s. Tuesday was, primarily spent in the training of placement students in the ways of digital photography of museum objects for our permanent records and the use of a tethered SLR in combination with the Lightroom software package, whilst dabbling with some Anglo-scandinavian bone points. Wednesday started with an interview panel for our 2015/16 Research Scholar (an MA Art history student at York who will work for us for a day a week and run a year-long research project), followed by some proper curatorial activities; putting collections back on display in cases. Yesterday was spent in a warehouse documenting material and, most entertainingly, using a microscope to identify the species of several specimens of Anthraenus (carpet beetles) as part of our pest management system (carpet beetle larvae can be very damaging to museum collections so monitoring is hugely important). This data was then logged onto a national database of museum pest occurrences. Which brings us toFriday…
In a week of documentation, photography, training, teaching, and pest-managing my Day of Archaeology continued this theme of variability beautifully. The image here shows the general set-up for what I was up to today. I’d like to break it down a little bit and highlight the key features that represent what I got up to today:
1) Warehouse; Many people are astounded/horrified when they see the size and number of museum collections kept offsite. We, like the vast majority of museums, have neither the ability nor inclination to put everything we own on display.
2) Architectural stonework on a pallet; this is all Medieval stonework from excavations in York in the 19th and early 20th Century. The quality of documentation of this material isn’t great so I’m working on a project this summer to fix that.
3) Camera/Lights; digital photography is hugely important in our work now. All of our photographs of objects are uploaded to our online collections database and are free to use (http://www.yorkmuseumstrust.org.uk/collections/search/?CL=Archaeology), making the collection accessible. Pictures we take are used all over the world in books, articles, presentations, leaflets, blogs etc.
4) Vacuum Cleaner; all museum warehouses are dusty places. Good housekeeping is an important aspect of collections care. As well as fulfilling a hygienic and building safety function it also prevents potentially damaging pest species becoming established.
5) Fork Life Truck; One of my more bizarre museum skills is the license I have to drive this Pedestrian Fork Lift Stacker. Stonework is heavy. Really heavy. I was here on my own, so help was required.
Four hours in the warehouse documented 4 pallets of this material. It’s a slow process, there are 60 more to go this summer. When I was working there today thinking about what I was doing and how I could write about it here, a thought struck that should be beneficial to any upcoming archaeologist or museum professional and it was that I had learned all of these skills on the job. Before I worked with YMT I was a Roman archaeologist by training, not a generalist, and baulked at the thought of identifying a 12th century springer fragment over a 14th century blind arcade moulding. Before I worked here I had never used a digital camera on the scale I do now, I certainly had not driven at Fork-lift, trained students in photography or identified a carpet beetle. I hope that this is a cause for hope for the many students and graduates working long voluntary hours in order to break into the profession – to those I say work hard, take opportunities and good luck.