Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Winning Students Over, One Artefact At A Time

Imogen Gunn, Collections Manager for Archaeology, MAA writes: This past week at the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology (MAA), Cambridge, has been proved to be an excellent example of why I love working in museum archaeology – convenient that it should so happily overlap with the Day of Archaeology!

As the Collections Manager for Archaeology, no two days are ever the same and this is one of the (many) joys of the job. One day I will be getting collections out for a researcher visiting from overseas, another day I’m tracking down a letter in the archive relating to a specific artefact in our collection, and often I find myself re-packing boxes and cursing whoever used cotton wool to pack ironwork. Another aspect of my post is facilitating education and engagement using MAA’s reserve archaeology collection, whether it be teaching Cambridge undergraduate practicals or hosting hands-on sessions with local community groups.

This week, the archaeology workroom at MAA hosted the Sutton Trust Summer School for Archaeology and Biological Anthropology. The aim of the Sutton Trust Summer Schools is to give bright students from non-privileged backgrounds a university experience, with the aim of demystifying elite universities and encourage them to apply. On Tuesday, ten extremely bright Year 12 students from all around the UK arrived at MAA to experience what it would be like to read archaeology and biological anthropology at the University of Cambridge.

Imogen leading an object handling session for the Summer School

Imogen leading an object handling session for the Summer School

Over the course of the week, the students attended such lectures as Bodies of Evidence: How Human Skeletal Remains Help Us Explore the Past, Science & Archaeology and Material Culture: Secret Agents of the Past. After attending a Handling Museum Objects practical, each student chose an artefact for his or her Object Report. In between lectures, they spent time in the archaeology workroom studying, measuring and bonding with their artefact and in the Haddon Library researching it.

This morning the summer school culminated with the students presenting their artefact (to which most had grown quite attached) and their reports to the group. Each student tackled the assignment slightly differently: some focused on how the object was produced and used, others elaborated on the religious context or symbolic importance, and one student managed to date her artefact based on manufacturing technique. I certainly learned a great deal!

The Sutton Trust Summer School students

The Sutton Trust Summer School students

I enjoy (almost) all facets of my job, but this week was particularly rewarding. I’m hoping to see a few familiar faces from this week in my undergraduate practicals next year.

It’s only a box, what’s the worst that could happen?

Eleanor Wilkinson, Collections Assistant for Archaeology, MAA writes:

As the Collections Assistant for Archaeology at the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology (MAA), Cambridge I am lucky enough to have my time split between projects so, for me, there is never a dull day in the archaeology workroom. Frustrating, intriguing, but never dull.

Today is a ‘Matmar’ day. I am trying to create some semblance of order to a medium-sized collection of material excavated by the British Egyptologist Guy Brunton at Matmar in the 1920s and 30s. Many of the objects don’t appear to have been looked at or studied since they arrived in the 1930s. This has led to a number of issues such as poor documentation, loss of context, unknown locations and poor packing. The major issues of today, however, are trying to find enough room in our limited store to rehouse properly packed ceramics, and thinking through the processes needed to get the salt encrusted pottery back to looking like pottery and not fuzzy lumps.


What happens when you innocently open a box - Matmar material in a very bad way.

What happens when you innocently open a box – Matmar material in a very bad way.


I have, very stupidly, opened a box. Not the best move I have made today as it holds some truly awful packing. How the 16 objects could fit in this box is a mystery. The sorting of these is especially daunting as most of the objects are not down on our Collections Database as being located in this box. In some cases they are not even listed as being in the museum. I have pulled out ceramics wrapped in newspaper from the 1970s, bubble wrap, corrugated brown paper, acid free tissue paper and cotton wool. As you can imagine, properly packed these objects will not all fit back into the same box. I am therefore attempting to rejig the store to try and create space for another large box. Along with this I am updating the Database with new locations, a simple but unbelievably time consuming task. I’m also making a note of previous locations before correcting them or creating new box lists so the history of the movement of objects can be tracked. The most satisfying part of this process – giving a ‘missing’ item a location. Win!

On to the salt problem. Due to the type of clay used in some ceramics there is a tendency, under certain conditions, for the salt to leach out. We have the best conservator here at the MAA who I have dragged down from her conservation lab to take a look at what needs to be put through the process of desalination. Salt can be removed from fired ceramics by soaking them in a water bath of purified water, thereby dissolving the salt. Some of our ceramics from Matmar may only need a few days soaking, however there are some really bad examples. These take much longer as the water has to be replaced regularly. This brings me back to the packing problem. I now have to make sure there is enough room left in boxes for the ceramics up in conversation. Nightmare!


Some of the MAA's Matmar material has become very damaged by the leaching of salts.

Some of the MAA’s Matmar material has become very damaged by the leaching of salts.


I often seem to come across boxes like this within the Egypt collections. I think to myself ‘I’ll just get this task done before I go to lunch’ and then peer inside a box and realise the next two days will be spent sorting out the calamity inside. But then next week I’ll see something new, and it is this diversity that makes me love what I do.

I am writing a blog to accompany the project to repack and re-catalogue the Matmar material. It is called Store Stories and you can read about it here. Which reminds me, I need to start my blog post for that too this afternoon!