How to look 3,000 years younger

One of the most exciting outcomes of my research into the University of Leeds’ ancient Cypriot collection is the opportunity to give the objects some conservatorial TLC. They have now been transferred to the Leeds Museums Discovery Centre, where Emma Bowron, the Museum’s Conservator, is based. This has the added advantage of keeping them safely out of the way while the Department of Classics moves home over the summer, to join our colleagues in the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies in the Michael Sadler building.

Emma has now cleaned several of the ceramics, and I’m really pleased with the results. The colours of the clay and paint have come up clean and bright, and give a much better sense of what they must have looked like when newly made. Emma’s achieved these results using a steam cleaner, and it’s amazing how the accumulated dirt of centuries has lifted away.

Steam cleaner used by Emma to clean ceramics

Steam cleaner used by Emma to clean ceramics

The delicate banding on this alabastron is much more evident now, and it’s easy to see how the craftsperson who made it has worked with the features of the natural material to enhance its rounded shape with rings of colour.

Alabastron after cleaning © University of Leeds

Alabastron after cleaning
© University of Leeds

These two plates, which were already striking, are even more so after cleaning. Their colours are fresh and bright, and the difference in the base colour of the plates is much more obvious.

Plate after cleaning © University of Leeds

Plate after cleaning
© University of Leeds

Plate after cleaning © University of Leeds

Plate after cleaning
© University of Leeds

One issue which I hadn’t anticipated is that the cleaning has revealed the restoration work done on some of the objects, such as the second plate above and this Punic jug, where the white infills are now clearly visible.

Punic jug after cleaning © University of Leeds

Punic jug after cleaning
© University of Leeds

This raises the question of whether to paint the infills to mask the restoration, or to leave it as it is (or to add a new layer of grime to make the issue go away!). On balance, I think I prefer to leave the jug as it is. There is no surface decoration that the repairs might detract from in aesthetic terms; on the contrary, they are part of its history and it seems right that they are visible.

There are still some strange accretions on some of the objects, which look as though they have been lying in water at some point. Emma commented that these look like accretions from seawater, which is intriguing, as it’s not at all clear when or how this might have happened. This is one part of their history which will have to remain unknown.

Jug with accretions © University of Leeds

Jug with accretions
© University of Leeds

The next step is to clean the glass objects, which I’m really excited about. Further photos to follow!

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How to Observe in Archaeology

Recently I came across this intriguing slim volume, a guide to amateur archaeology in the Near and Middle East, produced at the recommendation of the British Museum’s Archaeological Joint Committee and published by the Museum in 1920. It was edited by G.F. Hill, Keeper of the Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum, with individual chapters by experienced scholars.

Title page of How to Observe in Archaeology

Title page of How to Observe in Archaeology

It’s essentially a ‘how-to’ guide for travellers who fancied having a go at archaeology on their way through the Near and Middle East, or in the intervals of their duties in these regions (while it is not explicitly stated, a male traveller is clearly assumed, and indeed the joint authors are all men). The Committee appear to have taken the view that the energies of amateur excavators and collectors should be directed in order to minimise damage to archaeological sites, as well as adding to scientific knowledge. There is a sense of weariness in the description of what too commonly occurs:

‘The inexperienced traveller is apt to pick up a number of objects haphazard, without accurately noting their find-spots, and even, getting tired of them, as a child of flowers that he has picked, to discard them a mile or two away. If the first act is a blunder, the second is a crime’.

It’s full of fascinating period details; travel by camel is taken as a matter of course, and readers are advised to be firm in bargaining for the sale of antiquities, as ‘your donkey-boy will soon spread your character’. Magnifiers and pocket-knives are recommended as gifts, presumably to secure the help of local people in finding sites of interest. The section on photography in particular is a reminder of how much easier life is with modern technology; no more grappling with glass plates and bellows, or increasing the contrast of objects with charcoal, ink or chalk – a practice which would surely be frowned on these days. There’s a pleasingly make-do feel to some of the advice: ‘Tin-foil is very handy for squeezes, and may be saved from chocolate for this’, and ‘Lids of biscuit tins serve well’ for photographic reflectors. Clearly then, as now, chocolate and biscuits were essential for archaeological work.

There is a striking change in attitude from the previous generation of archaeological exploration, which was very much a free-for-all. The authors are keen to put down ‘those pests, the curio-hunting tourists’, and have strong words to say about the importance of observing local laws of antiquities and taking proper records:

‘The traveller who makes it his object to loot a country of its antiquities, smuggling objects out of it and disguising the sources from which they are obtained, does a distinct dis-service to archaeological science… Such action is equivalent to tearing out whole pages from a history and destroying them for ever’.

The chapter on Cyprus is written by J.L. Myres, who led the British Museum’s excavations at Amathus in 1893-94, the possible source of the University of Leeds’ ancient Cypriot collection. His advice is practical and down-to-earth, revealing his experience in the field:

‘Taking into consideration the utility of good building material to the present owners of such sites, active co-operation to preserve ancient masonary is not to be expected, unless local patriotism and expectation of traffic from tourists can be enlisted in support of Government regulations.’

His advice on recording tomb-groups shows the growing awareness of the importance of recording the totality of finds, as reflected in his own excavation notebooks:

‘Most of our knowledge of Cypriote arts and industries comes from this tomb-equipment, which should therefore if possible be preserved entire and kept together, tomb by tomb’.

The reader is particularly directed to be on the look-out for ‘Cypriote inscriptions’, which ‘are of great value and interest, and have been often overlooked among building material drawn from old sites.’

Bilingual inscription from Curium

Bilingual inscription from Curium

Arguably the most exciting chapter is that on Palestine, written by R.A.S. Macalister. His aim seems to be to depress the pretensions of the amateur archaeologist:

‘Study of the pottery… is an absolutely essential preliminary. Without an acquaintance with this branch of Palestinian archaeology, so thorough that any sherd presenting the least character can be immediately assigned to its proper period, no field research of any value can be carried out.’

‘A knowledge of the various Semitic alphabets is necessary for copying inscriptions… a good knowledge of Arabic is indispensable – not the miserable pidgin jargon usually spoken by Europeans…’

If the would-be archaeologist is not discouraged by his less than encyclopaedic knowledge of pottery, or his imperfectly colloquial Arabic, the author has further words of caution:

‘The explorer of rock-cut tombs must be indifferent to mud, damp, evil smells, noxious insects, and other discomforts, and he must be prepared to squeeze through very narrow passages much clogged with earth. He is recommended to be on his guard against scorpions and snakes.’

Macalister alludes with nonchalance to his own exploits in the field:

‘There are occasionally unexpected and dangerous pitfalls: and hyenas and serpents often shelter in the caves. The present writer has explored many of them entirely alone, but this is, on the whole, not to be recommended.’

He was evidently of the Indiana Jones school of archaeology.

Cover of How to Observe in Archaeology

Cover of How to Observe in Archaeology

The small volume has practical rounded corners, making clear it is intended to be used in the field. My second-hand copy is regrettably clean (as much as its near-century of age allows), and doesn’t appear to have seen active service. Perhaps it belonged to an armchair archaeologist, who dreamed of travelling through the East by camel, taking squeezes, and making measurements with a theodolite; but never quite made it.