Remains of the past for the future: politics of the present

It’s on rainy, soggy miserable English summer days like this that I am delighted to be a museum archaeologist. As a curator responsible for some 80,000 artefacts here in UCL’s Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, there’s plenty to keep me busy indoors (as I talked about last year). It does not, however, mean I’m insulated from the outside world, its problems and politics. And it is not all blue skies out there.

Sunshine. An Amarna royal around 1350 BC. Excavated by Flinders Petrie's teams (UC040)

Sunshine. Image of Nefertit around 1350 BC. Excavated by Flinders Petrie’s teams (UC040)

Today I’ve been thinking a lot about the legacies of what we, as archaeologists, do. For instance, one our fundamental principles is that it is essential to record what is found and from where, since once you dig something up, you’ve destroyed its context. Museums are then often the caretakers of such discoveries and their related archives, supposedly to be held in trust for future generations. But for how long and why? We look to the past a lot in our profession, but we rarely look more than a few decades into the future. Yet here I am, surrounded by the legacy of more than a century of archaeological fieldwork in Egypt. I hope it will remain safe and accessible for centuries (millennia?) to come.

Displays in UCL's Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

Displays in UCL’s Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

The why is because archaeology is not just the moment of discovery. Although we endeavour to publish fully, what we present is always to some degree subjective and affected by our own social, intellectual and political contexts. Archaeology is never-ending project of interpretation, questioning and re-interpretation. The objects we recover are therefore important resources for further research, teaching, outreach and engagement. They will mean different things, to different communities. We also need the archives not just as a historical footnote, for amusing anecdotes or to add a nostalgic flavour to exhibitions. They’re also archaeological objects, documents for further enquiry and resources for examining how we come to know what we know about the past.

Hilda Petrie directing her husband on excavations at Abydos, Egypt in 1922.

Hilda Petrie directing her husband on excavations at Abydos, Egypt in 1922.

For how long do we hold things? Well, that also depends on social, intellectual and political contexts. Most museums in the UK can de-accession objects, but there are clear ethical guidelines on doing so. I spent much of today reviewing these following a workshop last week where I met with curators, journalists, professional museum organisations, academics and campaigners to discuss two cases where those ethical guidelines were clearly contravened. This included the financially-motivated sale of an ancient Egyptian statue by Northampton Borough Council. It was sold at Christie’s auction house to a private, anonymous buyer for an exorbitant sum. Amongst the many reasons why we should be angry is the fact that such actions simply fuel powerful market forces that ultimately encourage looting of archaeological sites and the destruction of the past.
I made similar arguments last year when the St Louis Branch of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) put objects excavated by Flinders Petrie’s teams in 1914 on the Bonhams’ auction block. That an archaeological organisation would reduce archaeology to an economic value is, to me, shocking and they were rightly admonished by the central branch of the AIA. These were just a few of the hundreds of thousands of objects excavated in Egypt that were sent to institutions around the world. It is a huge legacy that we have an ongoing duty of care for, as I’m currently investigating through an AHRC-funded project. As stewards of the past, we archaeologists have a professional responsibility to act ethically, to be politically aware of our actions and to be cognizant of the wider social context in which we work. Otherwise I don’t believe you can consider yourself an archaeologist.

Transitions in slavery in the Virginia Piedmont

Excavations a Wingos

Six graduate, one undergraduate, and two recent graduates in Anthropology from the University of Tennessee are working, with the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, to study transitions in slavery in the Virginia Piedmont during the 18th century. We’re comparing three sites, all associated with members of a single enslaved community that were relocated from the eastern to western piedmont in the 1770s. The North Hill site at Poplar Forest in Bedford County, Virginia, was excavated in the 1990s, and the collection is being compared to artifacts from two sites currently under investigation: Wingos, also a quarter farm at Poplar Forest, and Indian Camp plantation in Powhatan County, about 85 miles to the east. Enslaved members of the community lived there from the 1730s-1770s before being moved west.

One part of our team came close to wrapping up work at Wingo’s quarter today. In 2009, we found two subfloor pits associated with one of the houses at the quarter; this summer we’ve been looking for additional structures and samping the yard, seeking evidence of how enslaved residents shaped the spaces surrounding their houses. Today started with backfilling and a run to the local farm supply store to buy straw. We backfilled completed units and planted grass seed on them, and finished troweling, photographing and mapping what were supposed to be our last two units. At about mid-day, as the temperatures soared to nearly 100º F, we discovered a large feature running into the south wall of one of the last units. We spent the remainder of the afternoon opening a new unit in an attempt to expose its edges. We’ll have to return Monday to continue working to define it. Luckily, we have the resources to extend our excavations for a few more days. (more…)

A Day at the Department of Historic Resources

Welcome to the Department of Historic Resources in Richmond, Virginia!  My name is Maura Stephens, and I am an intern here at the DHR.  The Department works alongside many museums and organizations across the state in order to preserve and promote Virginia’s fascinating and important history.  Our facilities include a conservation laboratory and a study collections room.

Our study collections room

This is the DHR's study collections room. Here, visiting researchers can view and study artifacts from our collections.

The artifacts housed in the collections room are just a small sample of what we have.  In our large storage area, we have over 7000 boxes and millions of individual artifacts from archaeological sites all over Virginia.

The DHR storage room

This is just one of dozens of rows in our storage room. Boxes as far as the eye can see!

A typical day for me includes washing artifacts, bagging and labeling them, storing and sorting boxes of artifacts in the storage room, and doing research.  Today specifically, I and a couple of high school volunteers are washing artifacts that were delivered to the DHR earlier this week.  They are from a clay smoking pipe factory that operated during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Pamplin, Virginia (44AP01).

Volunteers washing artifacts

Here are two of our volunteers washing artifacts from the clay smoking pipe factory in Pamplin, Virginia.

I have been researching the Pamplin pipe factory this summer, and I have also been designing an exhibit that will be on display in the Department.  We have hundreds of the pipes in many styles and colors in our collections, and I have grown quite fond of them over the past couple of months!

Two Pamplin smoking pipes

Here are two examples of Pamplin smoking pipes. The style of the pipe on the left is called "Ole Virginny Shaker" and the one on the right is an "Akron Hamburg."

As well as washing pipe and sagger fragments with the volunteers, I am sorting washed and dried pipes by style and bagging and labeling them for storage.  I also bag other artifacts from the site, such as brick fragments and glass shards.


I have learned a great deal while working at the DHR this summer, and I look forward to more experiences in the wonderful field of archaeology!