University of Cambridge

Nimrud for Museums and Mobiles

“Just as this bug stinks, so may your breath stink before god, king and mankind!”
— one of the chilling curses invoked in the treaty between King Esarhaddon of Assyria and his vassals in 672 BC.

I’m curator of cuneiform collections in the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum. No two days are the same for me. One of the more predictable parts of my schedule is project work. Today I’ve been working on a collaborative project called Nimrud: Materialities of Assyrian Knowledge Production, funded by the AHRC and directed by Eleanor Robson at the University of Cambridge.

The Nimrud project explores how scientific and historical knowledge is made from archaeological objects. We’re tracing the biographies of inscribed artefacts from their manufacture and use to their current locations in museum collections and their virtual representations on the web. As part of the project, we’re assembling online resources related to the ancient Assyrian capital city of Nimrud (Kalhu/Calah), especially the finds from excavations by the British Institute for the Study of Iraq in 1950’s and 1960’s. We’ll also be hosting several related events throughout 2013.

Our resources are designed and licensed for re-use by museums in mobile gallery guides. The technical focus is on the development of Linked Data, to encourage meaningful connectivity between previously isolated resources, and to bridge the gap between the museum case and the online world.

Today I’ve been writing web pages about the “Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon”. King Esarhaddon drew up a remarkable treaty to ensure that his chosen son would succeed him on the throne. His own experience showed that a smooth succession could not be taken for granted. My biography of this object will go live on the Nimrud website in August. In the meantime, you can read the text – and all the fun curses – on the SAA website (it’s no. 6).

BM 132548. The treaty between Esarhaddon and Humbaresh.

The treaty between Esarhaddon and Humbaresh, ruler of the city of Nashimarta. BM 132548. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum.

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.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

I worked at the Museum of Zoology at the University of Cambridge from February – May 2013 as part of an AHRC Connecting with Collections internship.  I loved every second I spent here, and the museum and staff were fabulous.  The museum is now closed for refurbishment, but I wanted to share with you my experience of a very special space and an incredible collection – one used regularly by zooarchaeology researchers worldwide.

You need to have the sound turned on for this.

Hamhill 2011

On this day, the 29th of July Cardiff University and the University of Cambridge are currently one week in to an excavation field season at Ham Hill hillfort.  This is in advance of quarrying by the Ham Hill Stone Company but is also an important training dig for the Cardiff Students.  It is a typical training dig in that we are all staying on site and living and working together for the 8 weeks of this year’s season of project. 

Around 7.30am students and staff alike begin to emerge from caravans and tents, making their way across the long dewy grass to the toilet block and large mess tent.  Breakfast is a generally quiet affair with everybody helping themselves.  The kettle is always on.

Boots, suncream and hats are then donned for work on site at 9.00am.  We are extremely lucky here in that our trip to site is only a two minute stroll! Camping on site has its disadvantages but also advantages!

Today we are digging test pits.  Overlying the archaeology is a soil deposit that we are trying to understand better by digging the test pits.  We are looking to see if there are any artefacts in it, which will hopefully tell us when it formed.  Everything is sieved.   Once this is complete we will remove the rest of this layer with a machine and will then be able to see and plan the archaeology (this will take more than a day though!).  Adam the site director is usually wandering around, sometimes talking to himself, planning the next stage of digging, but more often is joining in and helping to teach the students.  Andy, the Cardiff Supervisor, is watching our big yellow machine during the removal of the top soil.  This is one of the most important jobs on a site, if you take off too much soil you will remove the archaeology, if you don’t take off enough you won’t see the archaeology!  It can be quite stressful but he does get to see the archaeology first as it emerges from the ground. 

Lunch is a simple affair with bread, ham and cheese.   There are many different people on site; we have students and staff of different levels from Cardiff University.  A real mixture of backgrounds is making for interesting conversations!   Members of Cambridge Archaeological Unit are teaching the students, we have a machine and a truck driver and many members of the public that keep wandering over to see what we are up to.  The quarry manager has popped over to see how things are progressing and I’m sure we’ll get many other visitors. 

We are also processing our finds on site (well, close to site in a shed that the quarry have lent us).  This is also where the environmental processing will occur.  Selina is our finds manager for the site and has things running smoothly.  We have a finds bucket on site, where once bagged and labelled, finds are put.  She then collects these and with a couple of students spends the morning, tooth brush in hand, cleaning and then letting them dry before identifying them.  This can then be instantly fed back into our understanding of the site as we are excavating.  Our find of the day is the tip of a flint arrowhead/dagger.  It has yet to be identified properly.

Selina is also our site ‘mother’.  The group on duty for cooking dinner provide her with a list of ingredients so that they are ready prepared to cook for 25.  Looking forward to tonight’s tuna pasta J.

This project, although we are only a few days in is revealing some important things.   Archaeologically it is very exciting, digging on the top of a hillfort is cool, there’s no doubt about that.  We have already found some interesting artefacts and features but I think the most important things to have come out have been summarised by Joe, one of the students. 

‘I’d be a liar if I said the thought of excavation didn’t worry me. As someone who has never been on a dig- let alone camped before I had horrific expectations and ridiculous hopes.’

It was no secret that I looked forward to learning practical skills  the most, camping was definitely my biggest worry but the first thing I learnt was just get on with things – go with the flow.  I came to excavating a few days ago with no practical knowledge and already I’ve learnt about dumpy levels, sieving, and the importance of paperwork (yeah, you even escape it in a field…) I also learnt that the people you don’t talk to in class or never heard speak before will become the best people in the world when you live together for weeks.  But practical skills weren’t the only thing on my excavation wish list.  I wanted to (hopefully) find something- and here lies an important lesson: don’t get your hopes up and be patient instead.  You can work and work for hours on a test pit whilst it seems like the world and his dog are finding things but you’ll find the camaraderie makes the rewarding feeling a shared experience.  You are, after all, a team.  As of yet I’ve not found any of the interesting or significant things I wanted to find but there is still time and plenty of it, so I have to be patient. 

And the other thing I have learnt so far this week?  Getting messy is rewarding!’