One of the most frequent questions I’m asked isn’t about history or osteology. It’s “can you tell me what that thing is?” Many objects in the UCL Museums don’t have explanatory labels, so it’s understandable that visitors don’t know. However, it’s usually the case that we don’t know either! In archaeology, a number of excavated items are recorded with detailed descriptions of size, weight, material, but no conclusion as to the purpose of the object. The Petrie houses a number of smooth pebbles from predynastic-era graves. When those people had the technology to make wheel-thrown pottery and intricately carved stone vessels, why be buried with a simple stone? The anthropological answer is that it served a ritualistic purpose; the humanistic answer is that somebody saw a smooth stone they liked, one that felt good to keep in the hand and rub, and it became important to them. I have stones that remained in coat pockets for years, getting smoother and smoother from my touch. It doesn’t necessarily have to be “totemic”. Other artifacts are confusing because they look like modern items. One visitor asked me about a clay object that looked like a cog.
I had no idea what it was! We do have various sorts of cogs from ancient times, like waterwheels and the Antikythera mechanism, but in this case I thought I could solve the mystery quite easily. The object had a UC number, indicating its place in the Petrie catalogue. I looked it up on the web (the catalogue is open-access) and found out it’s actually an oil lamp: if you look closely, you can see traces of burning in the centre. The same goes for the Grant Museum’s catalogue – if you can find the specimen’s number, you can look up the name. Then it’s fun to Google the animal and see what it looked like with all its fur on – the tenrec is my favourite example. With only the skeleton it looks like any other small mammal, but when complete it’s like a cross between a hedgehog and a fiery caterpillar.
If you’d like to know what something is, please do ask! We may not know, but love to learn about all the amazing objects around us.