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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Archive for the 'Institute of Archaeology Collections' Category

Talking the talk

By Rachael Sparks, on 23 April 2012

Behind each dig and archaeological display is a dilemma. Just how do we translate a distant and unattainable past into a recognizable product for present consumption? When somebody sees an object, their first reaction is usually ‘what is it, and what is it for?’ It’s our job to try and answer those kinds of questions.

Giving something a name is easy enough; its the second part that provides the challenge. To be perfectly honest, we don’t really know why figurines of fat naked women were all the rage in prehistoric Europe. Is there any real reason to argue for their use as ancient fertility symbols over pornographic aides, other than the desire to seem professional rather than voyeuristic?

The Venus of Willendorf. Perhaps the most famous fat naked female figurine of them all. Mother-goddess or the first mother-in-law joke?


Flinders Petrie: His Life and Work in an Hour

By Debbie J Challis, on 29 March 2012

How do you do an overview of one of the most famous archaeologists responsible for 60 years of ground breaking techniques in Egypt, Palestine and Britain for a general audience in an hour? Well, last night’s The Man Who Discovered Egypt at 9pm on BBC4 did it pretty well. Of course, you can quibble and point out all the great things Petrie did, the people he knew, the sites he worked at etc etc, but it is difficult to get a documentary about Flinders Petrie, ‘a Victorian Brit of whom I’d [the Guardian critic] never heard’, right for the larger audience of television.

I will admit to having a vested interest in this documentary as a small section of it was filmed at the Petrie Museum and Institute of Archaeology, and obviously myself and the other colleagues involved in helping with photographs, information and more, want to see it succeed. Despite the title, which would annoy me if I was Egyptian, as a documentary explaining Petrie for the non-expert it did succeed.  It helped that the presenter was Chris Naunton, director of the Egypt Exploration Society and an archaeologist himself, who explained Petrie’s interests and discoveries with enthusiasm. The locations in Egypt and Palestine helped too and the cinematography was impressive. It was great to see Petrie’s work in Palestine given almost equal billing with his work in Egypt.

The range of experts involved also conveyed the scale of Petrie’s work; from our very own Stephen Quirke and Rachael Sparks to the Palestine Exploration Fund to the Quftis Omar and Ali to curators at the Cairo Museum and Rockefeller Museum and archaeologists in the field at some of Petrie’s sites.  The documentary did not shy away from Petrie’s eugenic thinking or the differences between him and his wife Hilda with younger archaeologists towards the end of their working lives. Overall it was a rounded picture of Petrie, the man and archaeologist.

And Petrie would so have an iPad if he worked in Egypt today and would have created an iMeasure app!

The documentary will be repeated over the next week but is also available to view on BBC iPlayer here.

Magic numbers

By Rachael Sparks, on 19 March 2012

Marking each object with its accession number

Marking objects with accession numbers

There is a legend that when every object in a collection has been given a unique accession number, its curators will be freed of the shackles of performance indicators and documentation plans and finally achieve a state of nirvana. There’s lots of self-help guidance out there, of course (deep breathing exercises optional) to help us achieve this goal, including information on how and when to number objects. The sensible way, according to the Collections Link’s subject factsheet, is to give objects a running number, or, if you must, a number representing the accession year and then a running number. So surely that’s what everybody does, right? Wrong! (more…)

Crimes against curators

By Rachael Sparks, on 13 February 2012

It’s a Monday, which is always a tough day, as the emails have had all weekend to pile up and all the things you didn’t manage to do last week now need to be done even more urgently this week. So maybe this is a good day to share some of my personal candidates for a museums’ version of Room 101. (more…)

Outreach Image is a Winner

By Celine West, on 18 January 2012


This great photo of our outreach pod has just won Runner Up in the UCL Graduate School ‘Research Images as Art / Art Images as Research’ competition.




Every year the Graduate School asks students to submit images associated with their research that have aesthetic appeal and an exhibition is held in UCL in January. This photo was taken by Chee-Kit Lai of Mobile Studio, the designers of the outreach pod, who are also tutors at the Bartlett School of Architecture.

In case you haven’t read about it before, this special space for hosting conversations about a single object is called “The Thing Is…” and was launched at the end of October. We have used it with general public audiences and in UCL and have had many great conversations so far.

In this photo, you can see a remarkably happy group of people considering it was the end of a 10 hour day at the Bloomsbury Festival in Russell Square. The museum staff offered everyone a playing card with a question on it and we were discussing “What does the word ‘Philistine’ mean to you?” in connection with a Bronze Age necklace from UCL’s Archaeology Collections.

A passage from India

By Rachael Sparks, on 12 January 2012

The mysterious ‘Saxon’ pot

Let me introduce you to one of the more unusual pieces in the Institute of Archaeology Collections. I first met it last year, when it was returned to us from the Museum of London from an extended and unintentionally long period of loan. It has a convoluted history with an unexpected punch line. (more…)

Relight my fire

By Rachael Sparks, on 2 December 2011

Ancient vessels have usually gone through a lot before making their way into a comfortable museum store. First they have to survive the dangerous business of production and come out of the kiln intact and as intended. If they pass muster, they then have to make it through being packed up and shipped off to market, near or far. Then there are the ministrations of their new owners to be borne, with all the risks of having chips come off here and there through rough handling. Sooner or later, every amphora knows some clumsy owner is going to end up knocking its handles off. And then into a pit with it, where its carcass suffers further indignities as rubbish is thrown in on top, or into a tomb where the ceiling might fall in and inflict yet more distress. Only to be in danger once more from the swing of the excavator’s pick. (more…)

A box, an object, several hundred conversations

By Celine West, on 11 November 2011

After months of design meetings, discussions about materials, worries about portability, and hiccups during fabrication, our new outreach “pod” is finished. The designers call it a portable gallery, and that’s probably the best description. As you can see from the photos here, it has a mirrored interior, creating the feel of an infinite space. It’s 2.2mx2.2m inside but does feel much bigger. At the same time, it does what we wanted and creates an intimate and immersive environment, where people come in and immediately forget what’s going on outside.


Listening to what objects say

By Rachael Sparks, on 31 October 2011

The university term is now in full swing and lecturers are starting to prowl around the Institute of Archaeology Collections looking for a few nice objects to keep their students awake once winter sets in. So it’s been a busy couple of weeks down in the artefact store, getting material ready for handling classes.

Cuneiform tabletsI like to teach with objects. No, let me correct that – I absolutely love it. Even the most hardened student shows a spark of interest when faced with some small but significant piece of the past. That’s ancient dirt, right there. The ghost of another era. You know you want to touch it, go on, have a go …

So here’s some of the object handling classes that have been going on behind closed doors of late: (more…)

Morbid Reflections

By Rachael Sparks, on 26 September 2011

My father-in-law recently died, and as the funeral approaches I find myself looking at archaeology’s preoccupation with death and burial with somewhat different eyes.

Roman Inscription 2010/207

I’ve faced the remnants of death before, while excavating ancient Near Eastern tombs, but its been an old, dusty, archaeological sort of death where the individual is reduced to a collection of different bones, carefully labelled and bagged. Their humanity is long gone, and any traces of personality linger only around the objects found in their grave.

The fact that this was someone else’s ancestor, somebody’s mother, father, sister, brother, daughter or son doesn’t really register, because after all, it’s nobody you know. It’s easy to retain a sense of scientific detachment when the past is far distant and geographically removed from your own personal sense of ancestry.