A brief update

There’s been so much going on lately that I thought it was time for a quick update here. I’ve been using every spare moment to write my Masters dissertation – not easy during the school holidays! It’s on the University of Leeds’ ancient Cypriot collection, and is due at the end of August. Work in progress has been posted on here from time to time, tagged ‘University of Leeds‘. I’ve really enjoyed pulling all my research together, and attempting to produce a catalogue has been very good experience.

I had a great morning a few weeks ago visiting the newly cleaned objects at the Leeds City Museum’s Discovery Centre, and taking their portraits for the dissertation.

Photographing pots at the Discovery Centre

Photographing pots at the Discovery Centre

A few additional glass objects from the collection have recently come to light, in fragments. I took some photos of those too, at the University – rigging up a photography studio on a coffee table!

Glass bowl in sherds

Glass bowl in sherds

Broken unguentarium

Broken unguentarium

I think the small glass bowl, in several large pieces and many tiny fragments, may be too far gone to rescue; but another of the ‘candlestick’ vessels, and a small unguentarium, are really not too badly damaged and could possibly be repaired. I’m having to talk sternly to myself about cost/benefit and available time, at least for the moment.

I’m also beginning to put arrangements in place for my PhD, starting this autumn, which will focus on local ancient Cypriot collections and their reception. I’m thrilled to be funded by the Arts and Humanities Council (AHRC) via the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH), which will enable me to study as part of a supportive cohort, with access to further training and funding opportunities. Much more to follow about this as plans develop.

I’ve been working with colleagues to put together a panel proposal for next year’s Classical Association Conference, on objects and materiality, which would allow me to spend some time thinking about object biographies and the ways in which archaeological objects can convey meaning without secure provenances. This is a fascinating subject, and I’ve only scratched the surface so far. I particularly like the idea of applying methodologies and approaches from other disciplines to the Cypriot objects, and seeing where it takes me.

There are a couple of one-day events on Cyprus coming up, just to add to the excitement!

  • The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge is hosting an event titled ‘Re-approaching Cyprus: A day devoted to recent research in Cypriot archaeology and Cypriot collections’, on 23rd October. There’s a great line-up of speakers, and it looks like a really valuable day.
  • The London Metropolitan Museum is also holding a ‘Cyprus Week’ in October, including a conference on the 30th, ‘Cyprus: Its Archaeology and Heritage – Effects on Politics, Identity, Tourism and Education’. I’m planning to attend, to give a very brief overview of my work and to meet people working on Cyprus from across the UK. It’ll be good to have a break from drafting at the laptop!
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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!