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Researchers in Museums


Engaging the public with research & collections


The End of Art is Peace

By Mark V Kearney, on 2 August 2018

The title of this blog refers to a favourite line from Seamus Heaney’s The Harvest Bow, a poem that explores the humanity of the writer’s father as he crafts a decorative knot made of woven straw reeds, a traditional Irish custom strongly linked with courtship and marriage (you can see my own example below).


Since beginning the role of Student Engager earlier this year, I have found myself thinking of this poem more frequently; one reason for this is that the Petrie Museum holds in its collection an example of a woven basket, in front of which I always stand during my shifts. The similarities of form between two objects separated by both thousands of years and miles has made me wonder just how universally pervasive the skill was.

Woven basket which is on display and the inspiration for this blog post (Petrie Museum, 7494).

Let me just mention one other important fact about all this… I’ve a background in physics and my current PhD research is based on the decay of modern materials like plastics in museums. Basket making — especially the ancient form — is a little out of my comfort zone!

It therefore came as a shock to me that the weaving skills I learnt in the classroom (as every Irish child does) can be traced back to before the use of pottery. As Carolyn McDowall mentions, many weaving techniques reflect the geographical location of the many and varied culturally different groups”. The beauty of traditional skills such as these is they can offer a connection, via our hands, to the past as little has changed in the way we construct them over thousands of years.

From a personal viewpoint, I’ve always been drawn to geometric objects such as these; its possibly the physicist in me attracted to their symmetry (or in certain cases, lack thereof). My research trip down the rabbit hole for this blog lead me to some interesting reading about the mathematics of weaving. One thing is for sure, that the resulting patterns are pleasing to the eye, and the inclusion of dyed, or painted elements into the structure elevates a simple commodity into a piece of folk art. It’s also clear that the resulting symmetrical patterns are universally pleasing – why else would we find decorative patterns in weaving in Egypt, southern Africa, and from the peoples of Native American tribes.

My research also led me to a theory about something that have always wondered – if you walk around the pottery displays in the Petrie Museum, you will notice that many of the objects have geometric patterns baked into them. I’ve never understood why they would go to the added trouble of imprinting the pattern. If, however, you acknowledge that patternation is a universal trait, and that basket weaving pre-dates pottery then the herringbone patterns found on some pottery could be the makers attempt to copy the form of woven baskets. I asked fellow engager Hannah, who’s PhD focuses on sub-Saharan African ceramics, about my theory recently. Hannah told me that “some academics have suggested that in these cases these decorated ceramics can imply that vessels made from natural fibres were also made and used in these time periods”. So it seems I’m onto something with the theory!

An example from the collection showing a herringbone pattern that Hannah says would have been applied with a stick or pointed object which the clay had been air-dried. (Petrie Museum, 14165)

The Petrie Museum has other examples of weaving skills. There are examples of sandals –

More examples of weaving from the Collection (Petrie Museum, UC769 Above & UC 16557 Below).

And Rope –

(Petrie Museum, UC7420).

One thing that stuck me is that these products must have created trade between the groups, promoting both an early economy and the spread of their technologies. Could this be why some of the patterns are common to all or could the base mathematics of weaving be a common universal trait somehow hardwired into our brains? Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to answer this question during my research. I’ll have to keep digging for the answer, but in the end, I am left with an even deeper understanding and connection to the past, and an object that as Heaney says, “is burnished by its passage, and still warm”.

Add Like an (Ancient) Egyptian

By uctzcbr, on 12 October 2017

As student engagers, we work in each of the museums no matter how far from our own disciplines they are. I study cybercrime which is not clearly related zoology, art, or Egyptology; as a result, I have received many looks of surprise from visitors when they discover someone working in the museum is not an expert in the subject matter. To be a better student engager, I have learned a lot about the history of each museum and researched many objects so that I can answer questions and provide useful information to visitors, but I also like to talk about subjects related to my discipline. For the Grant Museum, this means talking about a study which looked at the trade (or lack thereof) of endangered animal souvenirs on the Dark Net; for the Art Museum, I talk about an art exhibition displaying objects purchased at random from Dark Net Markets. However, I have always struggled to link my research to Archaeology and the objects at the Petrie.

Instead, I like to talk about my undergraduate degree: Mathematics. There is evidence that the Ancient Egyptians had not only a counting system but prolifically and pragmatically used Mathematics. Records show that they used maths for accounting, architecture, and astronomy, amongst other things. Their techniques enabled a complex tax system and were even adopted by Greek mathematicians such as Pythagoras.

Papyrus showing mathematical calculations in Hieratic script.

Papyrus showing mathematical calculations in Hieratic script.

However, Egyptian mathematics was very different to that which we use today. Whilst they also used a base 10 system, at first they only had symbols for the numbers 1, 10, 100, 1,000, 10,000 and 100,000. This made writing numbers sometimes laborious – to write the number 7, you would need to write the hieroglyph for the number 1 seven times. The numbers 2-9 were added later after they began writing on papyrus using the Hieratic script instead of Hieroglyphs.  Fractions were denoted using a specific symbol and could only be of the form 1 , with a 1 as the numerator. This system made addition and subtraction simple but other tasks, such as multiplication, much more complex.

To do these more complex computations, the Ancient Egyptians would combine addition and subtraction in brute force methods that would provide approximations of the answer. For example, to multiply two numbers together, they would add the first number to itself the second number of times in a process of doubling not unlike the way computers are now programmed to do. As an illustration, to calculate 3 × 4 they would double 3 (that is 3 × 2) and then double 3 again (that is 3 ×(2+2)=3 ×4.

They would also rely on pre-calculated times tables to increase the speed of their work and prevent them from having to repeat the same problems again and again. This is believed to be the case because some of these tables have survived to today. For example, object UC32159 is a section of papyrus that displays division tables containing the answers to 2 being divided by the odd numbers from 3 to 31.

Remains of papyrus showing the division of 2, written in Hieratic script.

Remains of papyrus showing the division of 2, written in Hieratic script.

The collections in each of UCL’s museums are so large and varied that there will always be something relevant and of interest to anyone who visits.