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.

IMG_20170322_124532753 s

   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!

IMG_20170322_124839361 s

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…

IMG_20170322_124959162 s

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.

IMG_20170322_125033447 s

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.

IMG_20170322_125208059 s

    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

The Society of Antiquaries

Last month I attended the annual Postgraduate Open Day at the Society of Antiquaries of London – a great opportunity to admire the stunning architecture of Burlington House on Piccadilly, and to hear all about the Society’s history, collections and archives.


The Society of Antiquaries of London

The Society played a brief but significant role in the history of Cypriot archaeology. As I’ve mentioned before, in 1871 Thomas Backhouse Sandwith, British Vice-Consul on Cyprus from 1865-1870, presented a paper on his research to the Society, titled ‘On the different styles of Pottery found in Ancient Tombs in the Island of Cyprus’. This was eventually published in the Society’s journal Archaeologia, along with lithographic plates illustrating the objects under discussion. Some of Sandwith’s collection came to Yorkshire, and was exhibited and sold, creating interest in ancient Cyprus which spread through the region. (In fact, I’ve just had a paper published on this!).

I was delighted to have the opportunity to do a quick bit of research in the Society’s library at lunchtime, with help from the expert librarians – quite apart from the research opportunities, it’s an amazing place to work!


View of the library, Society of Antiquaries

I drew a blank in finding out any more about the lithographs that accompanied Thomas Sandwith’s Archaeologia paper – I think it’s destined to be one of those minor but niggling research questions that don’t find an answer. However, it was thrilling to see the record of the meeting at which he presented his paper.


Minute book entry © Society of Antiquaries

I was able to find out a bit more about another collector of ancient Cypriot objects, Mr Benjamin Kent, whose collection is now in the Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate. I knew that Benjamin Kent had been a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and thanks to the Society’s admirable record-keeping, I was able to locate his nomination for Fellowship in 1939. This helpfully includes a list of those who nominated him, which is really interesting in helping to analyse the circles he moved in and the contacts he made.


Certificate of Candidate for Election, Benjamin Kent © Society of Antiquaries

None of the names are immediately familiar to me, so there’s more work to be done in tracing them. Under ‘Qualification’, the form cites his ‘valuable excavation work among Barrows in the West Riding of Yorkshire and on Roman sites’. This very much fits with my perception of Benjamin Kent; he was more of a hands-on explorer than an armchair antiquarian and collector, and interested in ancient objects mainly for what they could tell him of the past.

Both Benjamin Kent and his father were also Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, so I’m hoping there may be similar records available there. In addition, some of Kent’s papers have recently been accessioned into Special Collections at the University of Leeds library, as part of the Yorkshire Archaeology Society collection. I’m really looking forward to finding out more about the background to his ancient Cypriot collection, other research projects permitting!

The Legion of Honor, San Francisco

I love visiting museums on holiday, so couldn’t miss the opportunity to see the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco this summer. The Museum has an excellent collection of ancient art, particularly from the Mediterranean area, including some fascinating objects from ancient Cyprus. Louise Chu, the Associate Curator of Ancient Art and Interpretation, very kindly showed me round the collection, including a visit to the Museum’s storeroom – it’s always a treat to see behind the scenes!

The California Palace of the Legion of Honor – to give its full title – opened in 1924, and was founded by the philanthropists Adolph and Alma Spreckels as a museum of fine arts and a memorial to the Californian soldiers fallen in the First World War. The building is modelled on the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris, and is beautifully situated overlooking the Pacific Ocean, though rather foggy on the day of my visit.

Legion of Honor s

The Legion of Honor, San Francisco

The ancient Cypriot objects on display are in the Ancient Art gallery, and include several pieces that were given to Alma Spreckels by the Queen of Greece in the 1920s, including this Late Cypriot bull askos.

Bull askos s

Bull askos © Legion of Honor

Also on display is a Cypro-Archaic Bichrome amphora with lotus-flower decoration, the gift of Dr Morris Herzstein. This bears a close resemblance to the amphora from Thomas Hollings’ collection on display in the Leeds City Museum, said to be from Amathus. The two are not identical – the shapes are different, especially the foot, and the decorative schemes vary – but it’s tempting to trace some family resemblance.

Amphora s

Bichrome amphora with lotus-flower decoration © Legion of Honor


Bichrome amphora from the collection of Thomas Hollings © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Down in the store, I very much enjoyed seeing more of the collection, including a delicate Black on Red juglet with an almost lustrous burnished surface – a technique which reduces the porosity of the clay, and therefore slows down evaporation of the juglet’s contents, possibly expensive perfumed oil.

BoR juglet s

Black on Red juglet © Legion of Honor

The highlight was this Red Polished zoomorphic jug, with incised decoration picked out in white, with a long spout, raised loop handle and a perky little tail. It seems to me somewhere between a duck and a pig, with its short legs and full-bellied shape. Unlike some fantastical ancient Cypriot vessels, this would have been quite sturdy and practical for holding and pouring liquids, as it stands firmly on its four splayed legs.

Red Painted jug s

Red Polished askos © Legion of Honor

I had a wonderful time at the Legion of Honor, and am very grateful to Louise for arranging my visit. I hope to return some day!