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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Getting plastered

By Rachael Sparks, on 18 October 2012

Term started a few weeks ago; new students, fresh with the mud of PrimTech on their boots have finally managed to locate their various lecture rooms and labs, and now the serious work of becoming an archaeologist can begin. For the Institute of Archaeology Collections, this means that our objects are once again in high demand for teaching.

Clay slingshots from Arpachiyah in Iraq, a cheap but effective weapon in the right hands. Hundreds of these were discovered, only going to show that sometimes neighbours are after more than a cup of sugar

This is just a sample of the objects I’ve been getting out for a new course on Near Eastern Material Cultures. The idea is that students learn about the region through a series of intensive object handling sessions.

Replica cast of an iconic sickle haft from el-Kebara in Israel. The original dates to the Epipalaeolithic, or Natufian period. Our version is somewhat more recent.

While we use original material whenever we can, we also have a handful of replicas to let students get a better understanding of rare objects held by other museums or show exactly how something worked.

This sickle haft is a classic example. We’ve lots of flint sickle blades to show, but hafts are few and far between. This plaster replica lets students feel the groove that runs down the inside of the handle, and see how the blades might fit inside. Its kind of cute too; the head has been carved in the shape of a gazelle. Nicely representative of two of the staples of Natufian diet; meat and grain.

Some of the finely textured detail on the back of the replica sickle haft.

I don’t know when this replica was made, but the craftsman involved did a good job of recreating the original; even though it is made of plaster, the textured surface recreates the spongy appearance that you sometimes get with objects made from bone.

By now you’ve probably noticed the flaw in our lovely teaching aid: the damaged areas where the stark white of the plaster has been exposed, to reveal the twisted wire core on which the piece has been built. Once replicas like these become chipped, the white of the unpainted plaster tends to overshadow the object and it becomes much less appealing.

The damaged plasterwork, showing a twisted wire core

Plaster problem? No problem! Having used this object in one class, it’s now moving straight on to a new teaching experience – as a training piece for one of our up-and-coming conservators.

In the next few months, it will be assigned to a student, whose task it will be to repair the damage and restore the replica to its original state. This will include recreating the colour of the original pigments, as well as the surface texture. Once it has been made good, it can then go back into the teaching pot.

Ironically, plaster and sickle hafts are old friends. While bitumen was the adhesive of choice for the Natufian period, later groups often used plaster to hold those tricky little sickle blades in place.

Apologies, by the way, to those PrimTech students who read this post in the hope that it would be about beer. Its not only sickle blades that can be tricky.

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