Bronze Age resources

While working on the Kent Collection catalogue, I noticed that various entries for bronze implements were accompanied by the cryptic phrase ‘Britt. Ass. Card Cat.’. Since I’m always looking for more information on the provenance of ancient Cypriot collections, I decided to try to track this reference down. This proved refreshingly straightforward, and led me down an interesting route with some familiar faces along the way.

Kent catalogue entry 171

Entry 171 from the Kent Collection catalogue ©Harrogate Museums and Arts, Harrogate Borough Council

The ‘Britt. Ass. Card Cat.’ turns out to be the British Association Bronze Implements Card Catalogue, a truly remarkable initiative begun in 1920 under the auspices of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The aim was to produce a card catalogue of “all the metal objects of the Bronze Age in the museums and collections in the British Isles”, in order to facilitate comparative research. One of the original movers in this enterprise was John Linton Myres, the ‘father of Cypriot archaeology’, excavator of Amathus in Cyprus and cataloguer of the Cesnola Collection at the Metropolitan Museum, New York. The work seems to have progressed on a voluntary basis, with museums, institutions, and private collectors providing basic information – and detailed drawings – of their Bronze Age implements, to be neatly recorded on index cards, filed, and made available for use.

Making information available is of course a different proposition these days, and I was hopeful that this Catalogue might have been digitised in a searchable format. It’s not quite there yet, but is well on the way to being so. In a fascinating project, part of the MicroPasts collaboration between the British Museum and UCL, the transcription of the cards is being crowd-sourced, with anyone with an interest invited to contribute to the task of translating the content of the cards into a digital format. As Neil Wilkin et al. point out in a very informative article on the project, this partnership with interested people from a variety of backgrounds fits well with the original compilation of the Catalogue, which relied on the contribution of time and knowledge from the owners of the objects, whoever they might be.

As far as I can tell, the fully functional, searchable database isn’t quite there yet, although the underpinning data is well on its way. However, vitally for my purposes, a key step of the project is to scan the original cards and make them available for transcription. This led me to Flickr and a wonderful treasure trove of original cards. These are arranged by the drawers in which the cards were stored; it didn’t take long to conclude that ‘Foreign Weapons’ might be a good place to look for a sword from Cyprus; and since the cards are ordered alphabetically by country, it was a mere matter of scrolling past Austria and China to arrive at Cyprus. It didn’t take long at all to find records relating to the Kent collection.

Kent 171 dagger

Index card for Kent Collection dagger

There are a number of helpful things about this record, beyond the satisfaction of having tracked it down. It’s not clear whether the object is still extant in the collection which survives today, but having a detailed technical drawing, as well as a written description, can only help to identify it. Most useful, from my perspective, is the information that it came from the collection of Cleanthes Pierides; as the entry above shows, this information is not recorded in the Kent catalogue, and so would have been irretrievably lost if not for this record. Cleanthes Pierides was a merchant and dealer in ancient Cypriot objects, and I’m trying to find out more about his activities and how objects made their way through his hands from ancient Cypriot tombs to collectors, including the Kents; this information provides a further piece of the jigsaw.

While looking through the other objects from Cyprus, I was pleased to come across a record relating to John Holmes, an influential collector and lecturer on Cypriot antiquity in Leeds from the 1860s onwards.

Holmes dagger cat no 235

Index card for Holmes Collection dagger

In this case, the card and the information we already have are mutually informative. Holmes complained bitterly that his collection was neglected after he sold it to Leeds City Council in 1882, so it’s interesting that someone at the Art Gallery was sufficiently concerned to log the bronze implements with the British Association. The catalogue number 235 allows us to link this spear to the following entry in Holmes’ catalogue:

Holmes cat 235

Holmes catalogue entry 235 © Leeds Museums and Galleries

This is not the most legible of entries, but the reference to ‘self’ makes it clear that Holmes himself obtained this spear on his visit to Cyprus in 1873, which potentially provides a lead about its area of origin.

Needless to say, I’m hugely impressed by the MicroPasts project and grateful for its contribution to my research. I’ll be watching with interest to see what forms the data takes in future; I will certainly be visiting again when it’s available in searchable format, to see whether I can track down more objects associated with the collections I’m exploring. However, there’s something about the original cards which has value over and above the data they contain; beyond the emotional charge of research artefacts from nearly a century ago, there’s also information such as the title of the Kent card pictured above. The original intention to describe the object as ‘Sword (short)’ has been changed to ‘Dagger’, and this reflects the hedging description in the Kent catalogue of ‘Short sword or dagger’. This tells us something about developing approaches to classifying Bronze Age objects, and I’m not sure how the cancelled information would be reflected in a transcribed card. In an ideal world, the images of the original cards would be available alongside the searchable transcribed information, and I hope this may be the case as the project progresses.



When is a whorl not a whorl?

I’ve written before about the spindle whorls in the Leeds City Museum collection, which come from the 1896 British Museum excavations at Enkomi. There are four disc-shaped whorls with a low conical profile, two made of stone and two of bone, as well as a further biconical stone whorl. The fact that they were included in tomb goods is intriguing; did they belong to someone buried there, or were they gifts for use in the afterlife? They would have been practical rather than prestigious objects.

Spindle whorls from Enkomi

Small objects from Enkomi shown on a lantern slide…


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…and the remaining objects today.

I’ve learned a lot from Lindy Crewe’s fascinating study of spindle whorls from prehistoric Bronze Age Cyprus. She explains that it can be hard to distinguish between a spindle whorl and a bead, pendant or toggle, which might be very similar in appearance. On arrival in Leeds in 1902, the four low conical spindle whorls from Enkomi were recorded by the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society as ‘disk-shaped ornaments’, suggesting some uncertainty about their function. I decided to revisit the whorls to see how the evidence stacked up.

Crewe sets out a number of criteria for determining whether an object is a spindle whorl. In order for a whorl to fit tightly onto a spindle, the hole through its centre must be straight in profile, or slightly conical. The hole  must also be central in the whorl, and its diameter should be no less than 4mm. The size and weight of the whorl are also factors; Crewe identifies a weight range of between 10g and 169g in the examined assemblage of Cypriot spindle whorls, and suggests that whorls would have a diameter of at least 20mm, most beads being smaller than this.

So how do the Leeds objects measure up to these criteria? All the holes are central, straight-sided or very slightly conical in profile, and between 5mm and 7mm in diameter – so far, so consistent with them being spindle whorls. The stone objects weigh between 12g and 16g, but the bone ones are around 9g, so a bit lighter than the suggested minimum; a whorl that was too light wouldn’t be able to act as a flywheel and help the spinning process. However, it’s possible that they may have lost density and weight as a result of the taphonomic processes they would have been subject to during their long burial in the tomb.

Identifiable usewear would have the potential to tell us something about the early history of these objects – were they used in ancient Cyprus for spinning, or were they destined to be funerary offerings from the point of manufacture? There are some small chips around the central hole and diameter of some of the whorls. These are hard to interpret – they could be the result of accidental damage at any point in the whorls’ history – but they seem consistent with the kind of usewear which would result from spinning.

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Possible usewear on the biconical spindle whorl…

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…and on one of the stone spindle whorls.

On balance, it seems fairly safe to identify these as spindle whorls, although there is a question mark over the bone objects due to their lightness. We can only conjecture about the identity of the people they were buried with; due to the lack of records from their 19th century excavation, we don’t even know if they all came from the same tomb. It’s conceivable that they might have been closely associated with the person or people buried with them – rather like burying a relative with the glasses they always wore – but we don’t have the evidence to go beyond speculation. It’s relatively rare for small, non-precious objects like these to be preserved from early excavations, so we are more than usually lucky to have them.


Archaeological Archives and the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Last month I had the opportunity to attend a one-day conference organised by the Chartered Institute for Archaeology’s Archaeological Archives group, with the thought-provoking title ‘Are archaeological archives relevant?’. If the papers from the day are anything to go by, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’ – a fantastic range of research was presented, from studies of historic grain samples to human cremations. I gave a paper on the University of Leeds’ ancient Cypriot collection and how the British Museum’s archives relating to the 1893-94 excavations at Amathus give vital clues to its origins.

There were a number of recurring themes throughout the day, including the issue of storage for these archives and how to make them accessible to a wide range of researchers, but what struck me most was people using archives in ways which their original assemblers couldn’t have foreseen, and hence the need to take a long view in determining what’s relevant and valuable now and into the future. Kath Creed from the Museum of London made an excellent point, that the most exciting thing about archaeology is discovery, and you can make discoveries in an archive – which is a great part of what I spend my time doing. All in all, a fascinating and wide-ranging programme with plenty to think about.

The conference was ideally organised from my perspective, being held at the Birmingham Midland Institute (a very interesting institution in its own right), just a short walk away from the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and with a long break for lunch. I’ve wanted to visit the BMAG’s ancient Cypriot collection for ages, but haven’t quite been able to justify the time and train fare, so to be able to combine it with the conference was perfect. The Museum certainly lived up to expectations; I would have loved to look round its extensive collections in more detail, but after a quick trip to the Edwardian Tearooms, which were as delightful as one would expect, I made my way straight to the gallery which houses the ancient Cypriot collection.

The gallery is fairly traditional in layout, with the objects ranged along the walls in glass cases. It includes a fantastic Bronze Age collection from tombs at Vounous, which came to the Museum via Sir Charles Hyde, the owner of the Birmingham Post, who part-funded the excavations. This mainly consists of stunning Red Polished ware vessels with incised decoration, some with animal heads and other objects added at the rim.

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   Red Polished vessels from Vounous.    © Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

There were many other highlights, including this Bichrome amphoriskos in characteristic Amathus style; an object which immediately proclaims its origins!

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Bichrome amphoriskos with Amathus style decoration. © Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

I really liked the approach of displaying objects by theme, such as these three exuberant horses and riders…

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Figurines of horses and riders. © Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

…and these three Bichrome vessels, which demonstrate the importance of birds in ancient Cypriot art.

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Three Bichrome vessels. © Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

I was intrigued by the amount of colour remaining on this votive figurine of a woman carrying a bird; there is a similar figurine in the Leeds City Museum collection, but much more worn, and it’s interesting to get an idea of what its decoration might have looked like.

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    Votive figurine.     © Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

So an extremely enjoyable trip, not least because of the blissfully lengthy train journey from Leeds to Birmingham, which provided a good opportunity to get some writing done. Next stop is Vienna, where my wonderful sister is taking me in May – I hear the Kunsthistorisches Museum has an excellent ancient Cypriot collection!

Six degrees of Cypriot separation

I had a wonderful time last Monday working with photographer Simon Miles to record the Kent ancient Cypriot collection at the Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate, for the Cyprus Institute’s digital archive project. This gave me the opportunity to delve into the collection and see objects I had previously only read about in Benjamin Kent’s handwritten register; it was fascinating to see the ‘cone-like projection’ and ‘horn-like scrolls’ in real life!

As well as incorporating diverse, beautiful and intriguing objects, this collection is particularly rich in hints and clues to the objects’ itineraries – their journeys through time and space that have ended (for the time being) in the Gallery. It’s not uncommon to find a label or a note tucked inside an object with tantalising information about its previous movements. This was my experience last week.

White Painted jug

White Painted jug © Mercer Art Gallery

A White Painted jug from the Cypro-Geometric period has a label reading ‘Amathus’, and also a label pasted inside its rim: ‘Painted Vase Early Phoenician [indistinct] From [?Gen.] Cesnola Collection [?obtained from] from excavations in Cyprus. From Park Hill.’ Benjamin Kent’s register also notes for this jug, ‘Lawrence/Cesnola; Sir Theo Fry’s collection’.


Label on the White Painted jug © Mercer Art Gallery

These labels and records provide a rich source of information for the jug’s collection history. The Lawrence/Cesnola reference is fairly easy; Alessandro Palma di Cesnola, Major di Cesnola, the younger brother of the more notorious Luigi, carried out extensive digging and collecting activity in Cyprus, with financial support from his father-in-law, E.H. Lawrence (hence ‘the Lawrence/Cesnola collection’).  Many of the objects thus obtained were sold at Sotheby’s in four sales from 1883 to 1892.

Sir Theodore Fry (1836-1912) is also easy to identify; a very interesting collector in his own right, who deserves further discussion on another occasion, he collected Greek, Etruscan, and Cypriot pottery. We know from helpfully annotated auction catalogues, and from the collating work done by the ‘Rethinking Pitt-Rivers‘ project, that Fry bought from the 1883 and 1884 auctions of Lawrence-Cesnola collection. His own collection was sold at auction in 1905, and many objects from it are now found in the Kent collection in Harrogate.

However, this leaves ‘Park Hill’ to be explained. A little research revealed this to be the residence of John Wickham Flower (1807-73), a lawyer, archaeologist, antiquarian and collector. His widow donated a huge collection of 1,500 pieces, including ancient Cypriot material, to Oxford’s University Museum in 1882 after his death, and this was later transferred to the Pitt Rivers Museum. Flower also bought from Cesnola sales, but those of the elder brother Luigi, General di Cesnola, on 1-2 May and 3 July 1871. These included objects from ‘Amathonta’, i.e. Amathus, where this jug is said to be from.

It therefore seems most likely, given the dates, that this jug was bought by Flower from one of Luigi Cesnola’s sales, then acquired by Fry – whether through a personal connection or at a sale – before making its way to the Kent collection. This would tie in with the label shown above, which claims the jug comes from ‘General Cesnola’s excavations’ – the younger brother would be described as ‘Major Cesnola’. Kent would then have been mistaken in attributing this jug to the Lawrence/Cesnola collection, the source of most of the other objects acquired from Fry – although given the multiple sales of Cesnola objects over a long period, and the interplay between the two brothers’ collections, some degree of crossed wires is almost inevitable.

A further degree of entanglement becomes evident when we consider the link between John Wickham Flower and Thomas Backhouse Sandwith, who had a huge impact on the dissemination of ancient Cypriot art in the Yorkshire area, as discussed at length on this blog and elsewhere. Sandwith wrote an important paper on his observations and deductions about ancient Cypriot material culture, which was published in Archaeologia, the journal of the Society of Antiquaries of London, in 1877. However, long before this, the paper was delivered at a meeting of the Society, on 4th May 1871. As the Society’s minute book notes,

‘In connection with this paper the following Exhibitions were laid before the Society:

Col. Lane Fox V.P. – Cypriote Antiquities from the Cesnola collection

J.W. Flower Esq. – Antiquities from the same collection.’

It seems likely that both of these Exhibitions were of the newly acquired antiquities from the Cesnola sale which had taken place just a couple of days earlier on 1-2 May 1871 (Lane Fox, who is of course Pitt-Rivers, also bought from this sale). There is a certain irony in the choice of Cesnola’s objects to accompany Sandwith’s paper, given the latter’s rather austere comments in his paper on Cesnola’s ‘untenable theory’ concerning the structure of ancient Cypriot tombs. Sandwith sent several batches of objects to Sheffield to be sold, and part of his collection was shown at the Yorkshire Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures in 1875, where it sparked considerable interest in collecting ancient Cypriot objects; including among the Kents, whose collection also includes some of Sandwith’s objects from the 1875 Exhibition.

So, the itinerary of this object gives us some sense of the flows of Cypriot antiquities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the networks along which they travelled. Excavated by one of the Cesnolas in Amathus in Cyprus, the jug was sold in London, probably to Flowers, and joined the rest of his collection, where it may have formed part of the exhibition accompanying Sandwith’s significant paper on 4th May 1871. It then came to Fry, whether by purchase or gift, and eventually, after his sale, it joined the Kent collection, alongside many other objects originating from the Cesnola and Sandwith collections. We see how interlinked these routes are, and how through different generations of collectors objects came together and were disbanded. It’s also interesting to reflect on all the journeys which are lost, because the information wasn’t recorded (even in cryptic ‘Park Hill’ format) or because sale catalogue descriptions are too broad to be reliably mapped onto individual objects. Although it’s not in keeping with modern curatorial practices, it makes me thankful that earlier generations of collectors felt at liberty to inscribe objects with their routes via people and places, and that at least some of this information has survived.


Among the Leeds City Museum ancient Cypriot collection are two juglets which are unlike anything I’ve seen before.


Two juglets with incised decoration © Leeds Museums and Galleries

They’re quite small, about 10cm high, and they both have a globular body and narrow cylindrical neck and foot, with a single handle. They’re made of buff clay with a pale pinkish-buff slip, and have incised and punctured decoration – three sets of concentric circles on one, and a symmetrical abstract pattern in a marked-off field on the other. There are traces of glossy black paint in alternate sections of the complex decorated panels, as well as around the rims and feet, so they must have looked quite striking before it wore away.


Incised and punctured decoration with traces of black paint. © Leeds Museums and Galleries

The thing is, they don’t look like any ancient Cypriot ceramics I’ve come across, in shape or decoration. This may of course be due to my limited experience, but so far I haven’t found any comparators from a Cypriot context.

The juglets provide us with one clue – they are both marked ‘Hs’ on the base, which is the identifying mark of John Holmes‘ collection.


John Holmes’ mark. © Leeds Museums and Galleries

John Holmes was certainly a notable collector of ancient Cypriot ceramics, many of which are now in the Leeds Museums collection. However, he was very interested in cross-cultural comparisons, and also had ceramics from Mexico and Peru as well as from the Classical world. A hand-written catalogue of his diverse and wide-ranging collection accompanied its sale to the Leeds City Council; it came to the Museum directly from the Council rather than via the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, as with the majority of today’s ancient Cypriot collection. Unfortunately the catalogue entries are very brief and imprecise (not to mention hard to decipher), and only rarely offer any opportunity to identify an individual object. These juglets could conceivably be the two ‘Painted Peruvian Vessels’ recorded there, but there’s no way of knowing if that description belongs to these objects.

I wonder whether we should be looking elsewhere for the origin of these juglets, and whether they belong in the Cypriot collection at all. Any progress on answering these questions will be reported here!

Fantastic days on Cyprus

What better solution to the post-Christmas blues than a visit to Cyprus? I’ve been lucky enough to have a few days at the Lemba Archaeological Research Centre near Paphos, being trained in identifying and recording ancient Cypriot pottery by Dr Lisa Graham. I can thoroughly recommend sorting sherds in the January sunshine; it was so enjoyable to spend some time looking closely at pottery, as a change from thinking about theory. It’s really helped me to develop my approach to the cataloguing part of my PhD project, and ways to streamline the recording work.


Pottery identification

I also enjoyed visiting the recreated roundhouses at the Lemba Experimental Village, a project run by Edinburgh University to understand more about prehistoric Chalcolithic buildings. These have been left to collapse under the pressure of environmental forces, to shed light on the formation of the neighbouring archaeological site. It was really interesting to see excavation sites in Kissonerga, currently covered over for the winter, and the pace of residential development in the area, often in close proximity to archaeological remains.


The experimental roundhouses at Lemba

We visited the Museum of the Mycenaean Colonisation of Cyprus at Maa, at the end of the peninsula near Coral Bay, one of the westernmost points of Cyprus. Designed by the architect Andrea Bruno, it’s a unique building, largely underground, with a copper roof and huge pivoted copper door. Its low, rounded profile is designed to reflect and blend in with the coastal landscape. Some information is presented inside about the Mycenaean impact on ancient Cypriot culture, but it’s mainly a space for reflection, pointing like an arrow towards the Aegean where Mycenaean settlers came from.


The Museum of the Mycenaean Colonisation of Cyprus


The museum at Kouklia was more conventional, although still very special, being housed in a 13th century Lusignan manor house. This included some wonderful artefacts from the surrounding area, including these fantastic zoomorphic rhyta, and a juglet which looked intriguingly similar to one from the Leeds collection. The site of Palaipaphos itself is also fascinating, with evidence of cult activity dating back to the Chalcolithic period.


Zoomorphic rhyta in the Kouklia museum


Juglet from the Kouklia museum…


…and from the Leeds City Museum collection.

We also visited the Paphos Archaeological Park with its Hellenistic and Roman mosaics, famous from countless reproductions but even more impressive when seen in person. I particularly liked this pomegranate, reminding me of the bone pomegranate ornament which was once in the Leeds collection.


Mosaic, Paphos Archaeological Park

I loved my time on Cyprus, and would only have wanted it to be longer; thanks to Lisa, I learned a great deal and saw some amazing places. I’m already planning my next trip!

TAG Southampton 2016

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about object biography as a way to explore and communicate the history of the ancient Cypriot objects in the Leeds collection. I’ve been inspired by academics who have developed the concept, including Dr Jody Joy, and the classic article by Prof Chris Gosden and Dr Yvonne Marshall, ‘The Cultural Biography of Objects’. Above all, I’ve found the work of Prof Rosemary Joyce hugely helpful in developing my thinking, especially the multi-authored volume Things in Motion: Object Itineraries in Anthropological Practice. This argues for ‘object itinerary’ as a modification of the concept of object biography, removing the constraints of a linear model of ‘birth, life and death’, and placing emphasis on movement through time and space.

So, when I saw a session advertised at the Theoretical Archaeology Group Conference in Southampton on ‘Following Things in Motion: Object Itineraries in Archaeological Practice’, organised by Prof Joyce and  Dr Marta Díaz-Guardamino, I was very keen to present my own work and, more importantly, to hear about other approaches. The organisers kindly included my paper in the session, and I had a pre-Christmas jaunt to look forward to!

The vagaries of Eastern Airways delayed my journey, but I was still in time to hear some fascinating takes on the concept of object itinerary, and to give my paper. Several particularly struck me, including Dr Díaz-Guardamino’s paper ‘Stones in motion: following the itineraries of Bronze Age decorated stelae in Iberia’, which included, among much else, an interesting and useful critique of museum presentations of these stelae which group them by object type in a way which tends to elide their differences and their relations with other material culture of the same period. Prof Chris Gosden described kurgans – large burial mounds in Eurasia – as ‘like little folds in space-time’, vividly evoking how they bring together material distant in space and time. Finally, Prof Joyce brought together some themes from the session; in particular, thinking about dynamism and flows of material in and out of object forms; decentering the human perspective so that we recognise movement taking place over geological time or on the atomic level; and moving away from linear narratives in favour of complex, recursive, overlapping stories. I came away with a great deal to think about.

One aspect of object itinerary which I’ve found particularly fruitful is the concept of representations of objects forming part of their itineraries; so that while the object itself may come to rest, albeit temporarily, in a museum or store, its image continues to travel and to create new connections. This is an interesting way of thinking about Henry Crowther’s lantern slides, which by all accounts reached thousands through his lectures to school parties; it would be fascinating to know what impression his audiences formed of ancient Cyprus through the images presented for their consumption.

This is the first time I’ve been to TAG, and I must say I was impressed by the sheer breadth of the subjects under discussion, and by the quality of the conference pack! It was a friendly and welcoming conference, and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on the programme in future years.


TAG bag