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.

Detail s

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.

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Through a glass (less) darkly

I made another visit to Emma at the Leeds Museums Discovery Centre to see how the glass from the University of Leeds collection is coming along. It’s certainly much easier to see the underlying condition and colours of the glass, now that the dirt of the last hundred years has been removed! In Emma’s view, the glass had been cleaned when first excavated, so any interesting content residues had probably been lost at that stage. What remained was black, sooty dirt – a reminder of the air quality in industrial cities such as Leeds at the turn of the 19th century, when this collection arrived in Yorkshire.

We can now see clearly the bluey-green glass of this unguent bottle, broken at the neck. One of the qualities of glass is that it’s near-impossible to tell whether breakages are ancient or modern, but it’s quite likely that the neck was broken in antiquity so the contents could be poured.

Unguent bottle after cleaning © University of Leeds

Unguent bottle after cleaning
© University of Leeds

It’s also possible to make out the air bubbles trapped in the base of this candlestick vase, an indication of its method of manufacture. This might be considered a flaw, but I prefer the view expressed by J.H. Middleton in The Engraved Gems of Classical Times:

‘A great deal of the superior beauty of ancient glass is due to the presence of these minute air-bubbles, each of which catches the light and radiates it out from the body of the glass, thus making it internally luminous, not merely transparent.’

Air bubbles in base of candlestick vase © University of Leeds

Air bubbles in base of candlestick vase
© University of Leeds

The objects also show the effects of their long burial in the earth. Surface layers are peeling away from the base of the second candlestick vase (delamination).

Base of candlestick vase showing delamination. © University of Leeds

Base of candlestick vase showing delamination.
© University of Leeds

This produces an iridescent effect, as can be seen in this tubular glass bottle.

Bottle with iridescent surface © University of Leeds

Bottle with iridescent surface
© University of Leeds

This is because alkali are leached from the glass, the rate depending on the warmth and acidity of the soil it is buried in. Silica is also lost, though in lesser quantities than alkali. This means that thin layers of silica are left behind, creating an opalescent appearance and increasing the opacity of the glass. (For a fuller explanation, see S.P. Koob, Conservation and Care of Glass Objects). These layers of weathering form part of the objects’ history, and help to tell the story of their journey from manufacture to use, burial, and eventual excavation.

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!