Back to the University

Over the last few months I’ve been having a great time working with two Classics undergraduates, Jess Matthews and Hannah Webbe, to produce a new display of the University’s ancient Cypriot collection, previously on temporary display in the Leeds City Museum. This blog has charted my progress in researching this collection:

So the next step was to bring the objects back to the University of Leeds, where they came to light in a cellar in 1913. Thanks to generous support from the Footsteps Fund, and from the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, Classics at Leeds were able to purchase a new custom-built display case, which is now housed in the Ullmann Foyer in the Michael Sadler Building (Michael Sadler, of course, succeeded Nathan Bodington as the second Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds).

Jess and Hannah have worked hard to explore the objects and their histories, and I’ve really enjoyed working with them. We’ve had a lot of fun with this project over the last few months:

Getting a closer look at the objects and deciding how to group them:

Objects

Specifying and ordering the brand new display case!

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Deciding on the mounts for the objects, and the all-important numbering cubes:

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Turning the plan for the display into reality:

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Getting the objects grouped just right!

The objects installed

The collection installed.

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The final display in situ:

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The launch on Tuesday 12 June – a lovely way of celebrating the interns’ achievement, and introducing colleagues to the new display.

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Jess and Hannah have put together a great display featuring a selection of the objects, and focusing on themes of the collection’s origins; trade and imports; damage and restoration; and modern interpretations. The display has already been greatly admired, and helps to highlight the breadth of research that goes on in Classics. From my point of view, it’s amazing to be greeted by ancient Cypriot objects every time I visit the building! Many people have helped in many ways to make it possible, and we are very grateful for all their support.

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Project: Redisplay

It’s been great having the Leeds University ancient Cypriot collection on display at the Leeds City Museum. I have really enjoyed giving a couple of gallery talks, and sharing my enthusiasm for the collection with a variety of visitors. But all good things must come to an end, and it’s nearly time for the collection to take a trip back up the road, to a new display case at the University.

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Display at the Leeds City Museum

Thanks to support from the Footsteps Fund, we’ve been able to take on two interns to work with me on designing the new display. I’m thrilled to be working with two talented and enthusiastic undergraduate students, and hope they enjoy the experience of putting their research into practice, and setting up a new display for the benefit of staff, students and visitors. I’m very intrigued to see where their research leads them, and what themes they want to prioritise; the ancient and modern history of the collection opens up a number of avenues to explore, and there’s plenty of scope for creativity in interpreting and presenting it. Supporting their work will be a priority for me in the New Year, and definitely something to look forward to.

From the cellar to the museum… and beyond

Thanks to the Leeds City Museum, the University of Leeds’ ancient Cypriot collection is finally on display for a larger audience – something I’ve wanted to happen for a long time. Until around December, a selection of the objects are being displayed in a new case in the Ancient Worlds gallery at the Museum. It’s been so interesting and educational for me to help the Museum’s curators to put together the display, from deciding which objects should be included, to designing leaflets, writing the interpretative panel text and labels, and placing the objects in the case. It’s great to see my Masters research put to practical use!

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Display of University of Leeds’ ancient Cypriot collection at the Leeds City Museum

As long-term blog readers will know, this collection emerged from obscurity in the University’s cellars in 1913, shortly after the death of Sir Nathan Bodington, first Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds. His widow, Lady Eliza Bodington, went to some trouble to ensure that the objects were assessed and appropriately placed, and the bulk of the collection has found a home in the Classics department ever since (a further portion was donated to the Leeds Girls’ High School, but its current whereabouts is unknown).

Thanks to the generosity of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, conservation work was carried out by the Leeds City Museum’s conservator a couple of years ago, revealing details unseen for a very long time, and stabilising the objects for the future. It’s great to see the collection now on display, so the results of this conservation can be seen by museum visitors, and something of the objects’ history – known and conjectured – can be explored. I’m planning to give a gallery talk on the collection and its background, and generally to make myself available for any questions – so if anyone wants to know more, do get in touch!

Leaflet front

Front page of leaflet accompanying display

The display is generously supported by the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities, and as part of this it’s accompanied by a leaflet with background information for adults, and one with activities for children. I’ve really enjoyed exploring different ways of looking at the objects and thinking about them.

Children's leaflet cover

First page of children’s trail

I’m hopeful that this is just the start of the collection’s public engagements. After its stay at the Museum, it is due to move to a new home on display in the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the University of Leeds, where Classics is now located. This will offer further opportunities to explore the objects and their history, working with Classics undergraduate students.

I am reminded again of Eliza Bodington’s wishes in donating part of the collection to the Classics department in 1913, that ‘it might encourage a taste for archaeology in which my husband was so interested.’ I hope its current location among the archaeological collections in the Ancient Worlds gallery, and its future display at the University, will help to honour and fulfil this wish.

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!

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.

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!