As a volunteer at The Manchester Museum you are faced with numerous challenging and interesting tasks, and each week offers a new experience. In the past few weeks myself and a fellow volunteer have been working on a large, diverse group of objects for Bryan Sitch, Deputy Head of Collections and Curator of Archaeology. The objects include Roman tile fragments, pieces of glass, mortarium fragments, nails and even the handle of an amphora.
Unlike other artefacts in the museum collections these items only have partial or non-existent accession numbers. An accession number is the unique number assigned systematically to individual (or sometimes groups of) objects. The accession number and object details are recorded on the Museum’s documentation system Ke Emu and older collections are recorded in the accession registers.
These objects came from an old education handling collection, but there were no records or lists of the objects used. Often the accession number was either completely absent or only visible in part. The task was to recover all the numbers. This involved using the old record books, the Ke Emu database and some of the Roman Manchester publications which have illustrations of the material. We quickly established that the majority of the objects came from two excavations – Deansgate in Manchester (1970s) and the Gayton Thorpe Roman villa in Norfolk (1920s).
As some objects had clearer accession numbers than others they could be immediately identified, labelled and added to the computer records. I double checked by trawling though the large accession register volumes. This process was particularly useful for the Gayton Thorpe Roman villa collection, but for pieces from the Deansgate excavation the accession number was not written on the object. Instead the date of the dig (e.g. MC’72) and a set a numbers relating to the site stratigraphy or layers was written on the objects. The site stratigraphy numbers were listed under the accession number entries in the accession register. I found it was easier to add the stratigraphic reference I could see on the objects to the on-line database, so that I could then search on the computer using the specific site stratigraphy numbers, which then gave the accession number. Think of it as a kind of concordance. This was a successful method even if manually adding all the numbers to the online system to begin with was laborious!
Finding the accession numbers was a long process, particularly as many of the objects were found to be lacking a number. It would appear they were either part of a group of items like broken pieces of pottery under one accession number or they were parts of objects which had got broken during previous handling.
It is incredibly satisfying to find an object with only a partial or non-existent number. For example the handle of an amphora or storage jar was found by looking in the publication of the Deansgate excavation. We recognised it by its maker’s stamp; this then lead us to a context number which we could search for on the database, which then gave us an accession number. When we looked the number up in the accession register we found a sketch of the stamp and we knew we had correctly identified the number of the amphora. Following a scattered paper trail in this way was rather like ‘documentary forensics’, or ‘forensic documentation‘. In its way it’s as exciting as any episode of CSI.
The objects are still being identified and will subsequently be photographed, weighed, measured and re-labelled. All this work is creating a more complete archive and there is now the possibility of some of these fascinating objects being used in the new displays or as handling objects in the new galleries. Now we have numbers on everything protected with varnish it should be much easier to keep tabs on what the Museum has in this collection.
Volunteer at the Manchester Museum