X Close

Museums & Collections Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Archive for the 'Institute of Archaeology Collections' Category

So how was your day?

RachaelSparks30 July 2011

There was a bit of a buzz in the archaeological community last Friday, as an ambitious project known as the Day of Archaeology took place. Well, there’s lots of days out there: International Days for Peace, Mother Languages, Biological Diversity, Midwives, or World Days for Water, Mountains, Human Rights, and strangely enough, Television (Does it need its own day? Hasn’t it already taken over the world?). Not to mention the International Day of Awesomeness. So why not one for us archaeologists?

A curator's office - think of it as a work in progress.

The event was scheduled to coincide with the Festival of British Archaeology, and encouraged archaeologists from all around the world to write blog posts describing their day. A perfect solution, perhaps, to those people who ask –  ‘So you’re an archaeologist? But what exactly is it that you do?’. Well for one day, the answer was clear, with the chance to shadow some 400 archaeologists across all kinds of careers.

My own day centred around assisting researchers who had come to the Institute of Archaeology Collections to look at pottery, seal impressions, fakes and pastiches and Ptolemaic jewellery, while I wrestled with reboxing archives and European flint – you can see the full details of it all here.


Pandora’s Boxes

RachaelSparks7 June 2011









Field archaeologists are experts in recycling – give us a random selection of old bits of string, nails, cardboard or whatever and we’ll transform them into some terribly useful bit of kit that costs next to nothing. Or failing that, a spectacular costume for the end-of-dig fancy dress party. My personal highlight was the year I morphed into Princess Leia, accompanied by R2D2 (the dig vacuum cleaner with a few judicious additions. I had to make the noises myself).

But the most common and recognisable piece of recycling would have to be the small finds boxes. Objects come in all shapes and sizes, so there is always a scramble in field work to find the perfect container to keep that bone pin from breaking as it makes its route from registrar to photographer to illustrator. Then comes the moment when objects need to be shipped abroad, and another scramble is on to find packing materials to keep everything safe in transit.


Can we talk about jewellery?

CelineWest11 May 2011

Conversation is an art, so they say. How to start a good one with someone you don’t know but want to? How to get going and increase momentum to the point where your partner in art starts butting in, can’t help it, has something they just have to say right now? “The thing is,” they say, “the thing is…” There we’ll leave them for now, in midflow, poised at the point of launching their urgent thoughts at you, about to spin you and them in a whirl of ideas and words.

We’re calling our new outreach experience “The thing is…” I’ve posted before about how we’re working with some excellent designers to create a space in which to engage people in conversations about an object. Recently I’ve been working with our curators to select objects around which we can have conversations with people.

First up is a bead necklace from Petrie’s Palestinian Collection, similar to the one pictured here.

Carnelian necklace, Institute of Archaeology Collections EVI.22/38











I have a lot to learn about the necklace we’ll be taking out to meet people. Some basics: it is from a tomb at Tell Fara, a site on the Wadi Gazzeh along the southern boundary of the region of Palestine known as Philistia. It was excavated by Petrie’s team in the 1920s. It is from the early Iron Age, making it over 3000 years old. Aesthetically it is eye-catching, made with beautiful carnelian beads.

There will be a lot more to say about this object and its history and my hope is that we will entice people into conversations around it. Conversations, debates, discussions about the history of the region where it was found and the history of its provenance, the history of personal adornment, being buried with your jewellery…the thing is, there is never just one way to look at anything, even a simple string of beads.

From Archaeological Glamour to Museum Mundanities

RachaelSparks3 May 2011

Archaeology sounds so glamorous – well, it’s an ‘ology’, after all, and it’s got an impressively archaic diphthong in it (unless you go for the tragically dull American spelling of the word). The word conjures up images of exotic, far-flung places where on tossing your rugged Akubra hat to one side, you need do no more than lay down a few well-placed trowel strokes before uncovering the long-lost secrets of time itself …. or something of the sort. Those clumsy archaeologists are always stumbling over something. But you know it’s not all Time Team, right? That one moment of instant fame, on discovering something über-cool, comes at the end of a couple of decades of hard slog, discovering many things that seem interesting to you but may not sing to the rest of the universe in quite the same way. To be followed by months of equally hard slog, dealing with all the subsequent work that object generates. Cataloguing it. Researching it. Publishing it. Publicising it. Correcting all the erroneous things that people go on to write about it, because they didn’t pay attention to what you said about it in the first place. And so on.

The most visible archaeologists are those that are good at the publicity thing. You may not know who they are, but they and their often impressive facial hair become like old friends in your living room. Sir Mortimer Wheeler, who founded the Institute of Archaeology, was a dab hand at dealing with the media. He used to make regular appearances on Animal, Vegetable or Mineral, a TV quiz show in which archaeological experts were asked to identify random objects, to the entertainment of their studio audience. Not only was he a superb archaeologist; he also bore a world-class moustache; a sort of Terry Thomas pantomime villain at its best.


Ode to a Grecian box – some thoughts on the multiple histories of our Ancient Greek handling collection

CelineWest11 April 2011

We have several boxes of stuff that we lend to schools. Not any old stuff of course, these are boxes containing some great objects from the collections, including one box that contains 15 objects from Ancient Greece that are part of our Archaeology Collections. There are metal animals and figurative pieces including a ceramic woman; there are decorated potsherds – broken pieces of pottery – as well as a couple of whole jugs.

These objects are roughly two and a half thousand years old and were used in a variety of domestic circumstances in different parts of the Grecian world, by people who we can imagine had not the slightest inkling of where that old jug that Daddy broke when he’d been at the retsina would end up.

The objects have this history, the history of their creation and use in their original context, and they have the history of their discovery and excavation, followed by their journey into our collection. They were brought together as a teaching collection about ten years ago, with the purpose of using them to help Primary School teachers when their class is learning the History topic What was life like in Ancient Greece?

Scribbles and skulls

RachaelSparks31 March 2011

From a public perspective, objects are what a museum is all about. Yet behind every object is a story, built up from a range of sources and evidence, that enables us to contextualise that artefact and give it some form of meaning. This meaning may change as scholarship advances or audiences diversify. But without that level of research, we would have little more than a lot of nice ‘stuff’ on display.

A crucial link in this chain of information comes from archival sources. The Institute of Archaeology is fortunate in having a range of original field records to support its collections, allowing us to learn more about the circumstances in which material was originally excavated. These also provide a window into the methods and practices of seminal figures in the development of archaeology as a discipline. The tomb cards written by Flinders Petrie and his staff are a classic example.

Pop culture meets ancient icon

RachaelSparks20 February 2011

Museum storerooms are by their very nature elusive creatures; the demands of finding space for the sixty-plus thousand objects in the Institute of Archaeology collections means that objects often lie cheek to jowl with one another fighting for both room and attention. For the curator, exploring a busy storeroom means that every now and again you will encounter the unfamiliar, the exciting, and sometimes the downright bizarre. Like this recently rediscovered object, known officially as 46.10/22.

I first met 46.10/22 in an overcrowded drawer, mixed in with pottery from former excavations at the site of Jericho, from the modern-day Palestinian Autonomous Authority. Jericho itself is the stuff of legend – notorious for its trumpet-sensitive walls in the Book of Joshua (Joshua 5 – 6), from which account we derive the desire to ‘wish someone to Jericho’. But it has taken on other resonances in modern culture: as a tourist destination, the theme of a song by legendary 70s band Stray, or reinvented for television as a spy thriller and now an American town at the centre of a post-apocalyptic drama. Its also been the home of a few archaeological ‘discussions’, including a rather entertaining debate in 1990 between Manchester Museum’s Piotr Bienkowski and biblical archaeologist Bryant G. Wood (“Jericho was Destroyed in the Middle Bronze Age, not the Late Bronze Age”, Biblical Archaeology Review 16.5, 45-6, and “Dating Jericho’s Destruction: Bienkowski is Wrong on all Counts”, Biblical Archaeology Review 16.5, 45-9). (more…)