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!

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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

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.

Mirror, mirror

Emma Bowron, the Conservator at the Leeds City Museum, has now finished conservation work on the University of Leeds ancient Cypriot collection. The final objects to receive her attention were the two bronze mirrors. The first is half of a ‘case’ mirror, probably dating to the Hellenistic/early Roman period. It’s a disc with a raised rim, decorated with concentric circles on the outside.

Bronze case mirror decorated with concentric circles. © University of Leeds

The inside would have been highly polished to create a reflective surface. The other half of the mirror would have had its outer surface polished, and have fitted inside, so the two reflective faces would be in contact for protection and storage. This mirror has cleaned up nicely, with its patina intact, and the raised concentric circles of decoration clearly visible.

The second mirror is larger, broadly circular in shape with a rounded capital and a short straight tang which would have fitted inside a handle or stand, perhaps of ivory or wood. Emma discovered some plant roots preserved in the corroded layer, but nothing else organic, so we can only hazard a guess at what the handle material would have been. The date is hard to determine, since mirrors of this style seem to have been made over a long time; it may perhaps be from the Cypro-Archaic or Cypro-Classical period. This mirror had a bare patch in the patina, probably the result of an earlier cleaning attempt (perhaps when the collection came to Leeds around the turn of the 20th century), since the bronze there is darker than the newly cleaned area.

Bronze mirror with tang for handle - before cleaning. © University of Leeds

Bronze mirror with tang for handle – before cleaning.
© University of Leeds

Bronze mirror with tang for handle - after cleaning. © University of Leeds

Bronze mirror with tang for handle – after cleaning.
© University of Leeds

Emma’s work around the handle has revealed some beautiful engraved decoration, a scroll or volute design with a fan shape in the middle. As the photos above show, this was previously completely hidden beneath a thick layer of corrosion, so it was very exciting to see it emerge. The decoration fits neatly within the rounded capital, with the scroll following the curve of the outer edge. It brings the craftsperson closer to see the elegant design they traced on this mirror; it’s meticulously executed, with a slight unevenness which shows that it was done by hand, lacking the sterile symmetry of a machine-produced design. The decoration emphasises that this mirror was a luxurious item, designed to adorn someone’s living quarters as well as assisting them in adorning themselves.

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Detail of bronze mirror showing engraved decoration. © University of Leeds

Interestingly, the shape and decoration of this mirror may have a bearing on the question of whether this collection originally came from Amathus. Many mirrors with these rounded capitals and volute-style engraving have been found in tombs at Amathus, although examples are also known from other areas. This particular mirror is near-identical to one in the British Museum which is securely linked to Amathus. As ever, the evidence is inconclusive, but this mirror provides a further clue to the origins of the University of Leeds collection.

Amathus in Nottingham

As well as Leeds (if my theory is correct – see previous post), the British Museum sent objects from its excavations at Amathus to a number of other museums, public schools and colleges in 1895. According to a minute by A.S. Murray, these were:

Over the last few months I’ve been trying to track down these Amathus donations, with help from the organisations’ curators, who have been very generous in taking the time and trouble to further my research. I’d love to visit more of the collections in person (in particular, Dublin and Manchester are high on my list), but I was lucky enough to have a day trip to Nottingham last month to see the Amathus collection, kindly hosted by Rebecca Arnott, Collections and Access Officer.

First I made a visit to the Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery, impressively situated overlooking the city, and set in beautiful gardens – well worth climbing all the steps!

Nottingham Castle Museum

Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery

I really enjoyed the Ancient Greek gallery, which was both fun and educational and got the maximum value from the Ancient Greek objects on display. But my favourite was the  ‘Every Object Tells a Story’ gallery, an inspiring ‘celebration of decorative art objects’ examining the stories behind them. This has much in common with my approach to the ancient Cypriot collections in Leeds. I loved the juxtaposition between a beautiful vase made by potter Magdelene Odundo, and three ancient Cypriot juglets and a figurine, which encourages new ways of looking at both the modern and the ancient objects, given more resonance by being displayed together.

Display of ancient and modern ceramics © Nottingham Castle Museum

Display of ancient and modern ceramics
© Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery

But the main purpose of my visit was to go ‘behind the scenes’ and look at the objects from Amathus, which are not currently on display. My aim was to see if there was any correspondence between these and the objects in the Leeds University collection, which would tend to support the theory that they were originally from the same source.

There certainly were a few parallels. For example, both collections include small juglets of Black on Red ware, with neck-ridge and decorated with black bands on glossy red slip.

NCM 1895-23 Black on Red juglet © Nottingham Castle Museum

NCM 1895-23
Black on Red juglet
© Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

UNIV.1913.0011 Black on Red Juglet © University of Leeds

UNIV.1913.0011
Black on Red Juglet
© University of Leeds

They also both have pilgrim flasks, of similar shapes and sizes:

NCM 1895-36 Pilgrim flask © Nottingham Castle Museum

NCM 1895-36
Pilgrim flask
© Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

UNIV.1913.0001 Pilgrim flask © University of Leeds

UNIV.1913.0001
Pilgrim flask
© University of Leeds

This isn’t particularly surprising; both of these are very common types of objects, and probably feature in many collections of ancient Cypriot artefacts. One object I found more intriguing was this fairly crude clay bottle:

NCM 1895-39 Bottle of red clay © Nottingham Castle Museum

NCM 1895-39
Cylindrical bottle
© Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

UNIV.1913.0016 Bottle of red clay © University of Leeds

UNIV.1913.0016
Cylindrical bottle
© University of Leeds

As the photos show, it’s not dissimilar to a bottle/jar in the Leeds collection, with a narrow foot, small, flat handles, and deeply incised scores at the neck. The Nottingham example is currently in several pieces; the neck (not shown) has roughly the same dimensions, and the same slight flare, as the Leeds bottle’s neck. I haven’t yet managed to identify the Leeds bottle; it’s not a typically Cypriot shape, and may well be an import. The presence of similar ceramics, slightly outside the mainstream, in the two collections may perhaps indicate that they come from the same source; or it could equally well be coincidence!

I really enjoyed my time in Nottingham and am looking forward to going back again – not least to further explore the Museum and Art Gallery, and quite possibly the café. My thanks to Rebecca for arranging my visit, and to all the other curators who have helped with this project.

Where did it come from? Part II: An Amathus connection?

As previously mentioned, the Leeds University ancient Cypriot collection came to light in the University’s cellars in 1913, where Lady Bodington supposed it had been overlooked since her husband, Sir Nathan Bodington, ordered it for a University fundraising event.

This may well have been the case; but there’s an alternative explanation, which might also help to account for another mysteriously overlooked collection. The British Museum sponsored excavations at Amathus in Cyprus in 1893-94, led by J.L. Myres and A.H. Smith. In 1895 the Trustees agreed to a proposal from A.S. Murray, Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities, to donate objects from these excavations to a range of museums, colleges and universities around the country. These included the Yorkshire College, Leeds, of which Nathan Bodington was the Principal. A letter from Nathan Bodington accepting the offer on behalf of the College survives in the British Museum’s archives.

The trail then goes cold; there is no record of the collection arriving in Leeds, or trace of it in the College’s annual record, although this generally gives full details of all donations. The Museum of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society was often used by the Yorkshire College’s students, but again, the Society’s annual report makes no mention of any donation. This contrasts with the treatment of a further gift of Cypriot antiquities from the British Museum in 1902 to the Museum of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, which is written up in full in that year’s annual report.

Given this silence in the official records, it seems at least possible that the University’s collection is this same donation from the British Museum’s excavations in Amathus. There’s no way of knowing for sure; but there are a few factors which tie in with this theory. The collection covers the right timescale, from the Cypro-Geometric to the Roman period. Also, some of the pottery is decorated in a style typical of Amathus, with freely applied red and brown stripes and circles on a background of buff slip.

UNIV.1913.0013 Bowl with decoration typical of Amathus © University of Leeds

UNIV.1913.0013
Bowl with decoration typical of Amathus
© University of Leeds

There are also some parallels between surviving objects in the University of Leeds collection, and those of other museums and colleges who were sent donations from Amathus by the British Museum in 1895. That said, there are plenty of objects in those collections which aren’t reflected in the surviving University collection; for example, there are no figurines. However, Lady Bodington intended to give part of the collection to the Leeds Girls’ High School, and this may well have filled in some of the gaps.

The British Museum possesses Myres’ notebooks from his excavations in Amathus, which provide brief records of tomb contents, and illustrations of unusual pieces. These raise a number of tantalising possibilities; could the University of Leeds jug marked 292 be one of the ‘2 small painted jugs’ recorded by Myres in the tomb of that number?

UNIV.1913.0002 Jug marked '292' © University of Leeds

UNIV.1913.0002
Jug marked ‘292’
© University of Leeds

And could the unusual Punic one-handled jug, probably an import from Carthage, be the ‘jug of red clay’ illustrated by Myres from Tomb 291?

UNIV.1913.0033 Punic jug © University of Leeds

UNIV.1913.0033
Punic jug
© University of Leeds

Myres notesbook, Tomb 291 - '1 jug of red clay' © British Museum

Myres notesbook, Tomb 291 – ‘1 jug of red clay’
© British Museum

On the face of it, it seems unlikely; the British Museum donated duplicates, i.e. common items, to other institutions, rather than anything out of the ordinary; but there is certainly a similarity between the shape of the Leeds jug and Myres’ sketch.

Whether or not this collection originated from Amathus, it merits research and a higher profile, not least to honour Nathan Bodington’s contribution to the study of the ancient world in Leeds, which prompted Lady Bodington’s donation. Just over a century after its rediscovery, the collection is entering a new phase of its existence with new opportunities to ‘encourage a taste for archaeology’, in line with her wishes.

Exploring the British Library

Recently I had a great day out in London – not at the Olympics, but my first ever visit as a researcher to the British Library. I remember when I first arrived at university we were told that the Bodleian Library was like a venerable musical instrument which needed some practice to get the best out of it. The British Library is not dissimilar, but when I’d mastered the intricacies of the online catalogue it all went fairly smoothly.

British Library reading room

I finally got hold of the Colonial Office reports on Cyprus from the 1920s, which shed some light on the background to the Wembley Exhibition, from which some of the Leeds Museums Cypriot collection came. I’ve also made a little progress on the subject of amphora handle stamps. The Leeds Museums and Galleries collection includes an amphora handle with a stamp which is described in all the accompanying documentation as reading ‘ΦΙΛΑΙΝΟΥ’. The problem is, it doesn’t:

Amphora handle
© Leeds Museums and Galleries

So I’m trying to track down what this means and how it can help us date the amphora fragment. I also read up on the Amathus style – which confirmed that none of the Leeds University collection is decorated in this style – but that’s helpful in a negative kind of way, and there was some useful bibliography.

I enjoyed looking through Mr James Boyd Glenhead’s self-bound annotated volume of sale catalogues from the late 19th century. Unfortunately it didn’t help much with tracking down the origin of the two vases in the Leeds Museums collection which are said to have come from the Lawrence-Cesnola collection (more on this another time). However, I remain hopeful that the missing piece of the jigsaw is out there somewhere.

So a mixed day in terms of progress, but at least I was able to see everything I’d planned, and to enjoy a cup of tea in the cafe, surrounded by books, which is a very pleasant experience. Can’t wait to go back again.

View from British Library cafe