A Lego Colosseum and Other Stories

I am a Classical Archaeologist at the University of Sydney in Australia, and work as the Manager of Education and Public Programs at the Nicholson Museum, Australia’s largest collection of Old World archaeological material.  So my ‘Day of Archaeology 2012’ is spent like most others – trying to balance between museum education and archaeological research on the project I am working: excavations of a Hellenistic-Roman period theatre site in Paphos in Cyprus.

It has been a flurry of activity at the Nicholson Museum in recent days as we are setting up for a new exhibition on the Colosseum and first century AD Roman daily life.  There is a slight twist however.  We aren’t able to move the real Colosseum to Australia for a temporary exhibition.  So instead ours is made from Lego-bricks.  It is the largest ever Lego construction of an ancient Roman structure so the project has generated considerable media attention in the Australian press, and the telephone has been running hot from interested members of the public (both kids and kids-at-heart) who are keen to see the exhibition when it opens on Sunday.  The actual piece has only arrived today and the museum installation team have been busy all-day installing the Lego itself on its plinth, as well as the exhibition panels which give it context (if you read the panels on Commodus and Titus – they are mine!).  Its one of the great aspects of museum education – finding ways to present historical narratives using museum collections.  And while you could argue that the Lego display is not a ‘real’ exhibition, I would argue the opposite – it will generate excitement amongst visitors, but ultimately it will be the genuine antiquities that will steal their thunder.

My tasks today have involved my usual co-ordination of guided school tours through the museum – it is the last day of the Australian school term and if that wasn’t already exciting enough for our visitors today the noises coming from the room where the already near-mythical lego-Colosseum is being set up has all heads turning.  While I am not teaching the students directly myself today (our able team of Education Officers are at work), it is one of the perks of my job – sharing the joys of archaeology with school students anywhere between the ages of 5 and 18, and finding appropriate ways to use our museum collection to explain how the past can be read.  So while the guides are showing eager students through our collections today, I am instead focussing on some of my other administrative and preparation tasks.  I have been compiling the monthly e-newsletter that is sent to all of our followers, updating the museum facebook page and twitter account and taking some photos of the Lego exhibition for the university’s media unit.  In addition I have been working on some educational resources for our guides to use when school visits resume in a fortnight.  The Lego-built Colosseum will be an amazing resource but we want to use it not as a gimmick but as a genuine teaching resource, so using it as a model of the real building what can students learn.  I’ve had some fun with my colleagues too working out some historical anachronism that the builder has added to the model (some deliberate, some we are not so sure!).  Banana sellers in 80AD?

Its going to be a fun way to teach!  Bring on the kids I say!

Its not all fun and games though – today I have been engaged in some more intellectual and academic pursuits as well (although perhaps not as much time as I would have liked – but hey, there is a new giant lego toy to play with today!).  I am the co-director of the University of Sydney’s fieldwork project at Paphos in Cyprus, where we work under the auspices of the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus.  The project was initiated in 1995 by my mentor Emeritus Professor Richard Green, and we have been excavating and studying the theatre of Paphos and its environs ever since.  The theatre itself was constructed sometime around 300BC and used until the late 4th century AD (albeit having undergone several phases of renovation and reconstruction).

People are often surprised to discover the level of activity by Australian archaeologists overseas.  Obviously both contract and research work in Australia (both Aboriginal and historical period sites), but there is a long tradition of Australian archaeologists working in the Mediterranean region and the Middle East.  This includes Cyprus, where a previous professor at the University of Sydney James RB Stewart ran excavations of Early Bronze Age cemetery sites in the 1930s and in the post-war period.  Many of his finds now decorate the Nicholson Museum, and as 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of his death I will be curating an exhibition on the history of Australian archaeological research on Cyprus at the Nicholson Museum to open in November this year.  No Lego in that one!  But still some fascinating stories, and some incredible artefacts, some of which haven’t been on public display for decades.  Although I am not working on the exhibition today, thoughts of it are never too far from my mind!

Instead, I have spent a little bit of time today thinking about Paphos.  We have our next field season in October and I have recently accepted student positions, so quite a few of my emails today have been from members of the team with various logistical questions (airfares, accommodation, tasks and so on).  Less an archaeologist and more a travel agent some times!

One of the most exciting emails has been from the team architect with a preliminary hypothetical reconstruction of a nymphaeum near the theatre that we have been excavating over the past three seasons. Of course much of it is conjectural at this point, and based upon architectural features that have been found in the rubble of the building (we are arguing over semi-circular niches at the moment!), but it is exciting progress.  I have spend some time developing some questions for him for our next meeting and will probably spend some time on the weekend thinking about it.  This is particularly exciting as I am currently mid-way through writing up a preliminary report on the building for the Report of the Department of Antiquities, Cyprus – the main journal for the archaeology of Cyprus.

So a day of Lego, school kids, a reconstruction of a nymphaeum, and planning appropriate air tickets online.  And I get to do it all again on Monday!

3 thoughts on “A Lego Colosseum and Other Stories

  1. Craig – you have to put some of The Colosseum images up! Too good not to share …

  2. Craig Barker says:

    Sorry I didn’t get the chance to add some photos on the blog on the actually Day of Archaeology – but there are now some on our Nicholson Museum facebook page:

  3. Adam Corsini says:

    I can’t stress enough how much I love the Lego colosseum. Fantastic idea folks. You’re going to have so much fun with this. 🙂

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