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.


How to Observe in Archaeology

Recently I came across this intriguing slim volume, a guide to amateur archaeology in the Near and Middle East, produced at the recommendation of the British Museum’s Archaeological Joint Committee and published by the Museum in 1920. It was edited by G.F. Hill, Keeper of the Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum, with individual chapters by experienced scholars.

Title page of How to Observe in Archaeology

Title page of How to Observe in Archaeology

It’s essentially a ‘how-to’ guide for travellers who fancied having a go at archaeology on their way through the Near and Middle East, or in the intervals of their duties in these regions (while it is not explicitly stated, a male traveller is clearly assumed, and indeed the joint authors are all men). The Committee appear to have taken the view that the energies of amateur excavators and collectors should be directed in order to minimise damage to archaeological sites, as well as adding to scientific knowledge. There is a sense of weariness in the description of what too commonly occurs:

‘The inexperienced traveller is apt to pick up a number of objects haphazard, without accurately noting their find-spots, and even, getting tired of them, as a child of flowers that he has picked, to discard them a mile or two away. If the first act is a blunder, the second is a crime’.

It’s full of fascinating period details; travel by camel is taken as a matter of course, and readers are advised to be firm in bargaining for the sale of antiquities, as ‘your donkey-boy will soon spread your character’. Magnifiers and pocket-knives are recommended as gifts, presumably to secure the help of local people in finding sites of interest. The section on photography in particular is a reminder of how much easier life is with modern technology; no more grappling with glass plates and bellows, or increasing the contrast of objects with charcoal, ink or chalk – a practice which would surely be frowned on these days. There’s a pleasingly make-do feel to some of the advice: ‘Tin-foil is very handy for squeezes, and may be saved from chocolate for this’, and ‘Lids of biscuit tins serve well’ for photographic reflectors. Clearly then, as now, chocolate and biscuits were essential for archaeological work.

There is a striking change in attitude from the previous generation of archaeological exploration, which was very much a free-for-all. The authors are keen to put down ‘those pests, the curio-hunting tourists’, and have strong words to say about the importance of observing local laws of antiquities and taking proper records:

‘The traveller who makes it his object to loot a country of its antiquities, smuggling objects out of it and disguising the sources from which they are obtained, does a distinct dis-service to archaeological science… Such action is equivalent to tearing out whole pages from a history and destroying them for ever’.

The chapter on Cyprus is written by J.L. Myres, who led the British Museum’s excavations at Amathus in 1893-94, the possible source of the University of Leeds’ ancient Cypriot collection. His advice is practical and down-to-earth, revealing his experience in the field:

‘Taking into consideration the utility of good building material to the present owners of such sites, active co-operation to preserve ancient masonary is not to be expected, unless local patriotism and expectation of traffic from tourists can be enlisted in support of Government regulations.’

His advice on recording tomb-groups shows the growing awareness of the importance of recording the totality of finds, as reflected in his own excavation notebooks:

‘Most of our knowledge of Cypriote arts and industries comes from this tomb-equipment, which should therefore if possible be preserved entire and kept together, tomb by tomb’.

The reader is particularly directed to be on the look-out for ‘Cypriote inscriptions’, which ‘are of great value and interest, and have been often overlooked among building material drawn from old sites.’

Bilingual inscription from Curium

Bilingual inscription from Curium

Arguably the most exciting chapter is that on Palestine, written by R.A.S. Macalister. His aim seems to be to depress the pretensions of the amateur archaeologist:

‘Study of the pottery… is an absolutely essential preliminary. Without an acquaintance with this branch of Palestinian archaeology, so thorough that any sherd presenting the least character can be immediately assigned to its proper period, no field research of any value can be carried out.’

‘A knowledge of the various Semitic alphabets is necessary for copying inscriptions… a good knowledge of Arabic is indispensable – not the miserable pidgin jargon usually spoken by Europeans…’

If the would-be archaeologist is not discouraged by his less than encyclopaedic knowledge of pottery, or his imperfectly colloquial Arabic, the author has further words of caution:

‘The explorer of rock-cut tombs must be indifferent to mud, damp, evil smells, noxious insects, and other discomforts, and he must be prepared to squeeze through very narrow passages much clogged with earth. He is recommended to be on his guard against scorpions and snakes.’

Macalister alludes with nonchalance to his own exploits in the field:

‘There are occasionally unexpected and dangerous pitfalls: and hyenas and serpents often shelter in the caves. The present writer has explored many of them entirely alone, but this is, on the whole, not to be recommended.’

He was evidently of the Indiana Jones school of archaeology.

Cover of How to Observe in Archaeology

Cover of How to Observe in Archaeology

The small volume has practical rounded corners, making clear it is intended to be used in the field. My second-hand copy is regrettably clean (as much as its near-century of age allows), and doesn’t appear to have seen active service. Perhaps it belonged to an armchair archaeologist, who dreamed of travelling through the East by camel, taking squeezes, and making measurements with a theodolite; but never quite made it.

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

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

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

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.