Emptying one of the Ancient Worlds cases (April 2013)
Shortly after the opening of the new Ancient Worlds last October, the curators and all the other staff who worked on the project, could have been forgiven for thinking that now they could get on with the rest of their lives. Only it didn’t quite work out like that. In any project, there are always what are euphemistically referred to as ‘snagging issues’ that have to be sorted out, in the weeks following completion.
Ancient Worlds is no different. Some of the shelves needed consolidating and we picked up a number of annoying errors in the labels that had evaded our proof-checking. We also received a number of comments from frustrated visitors who had struggled to read some of the labels. For all these reasons we emptied the first gallery of objects last week to sort out the snagging.
Curatorial placement Anna Garnett and student volunteer Suzanna Haddow working in the archaeology gallery
I must admit I feared it would take a lot longer but fortunately we had some really wonderful support from volunteers and placements and members of the conservation team. Within a day or so we had emptied the cases.
The empty archaeology gallery
That was the week before last. The contractors came in and sorted out the shelves. Meanwhile I was sorting out the labels. We have switched to a card based system rather than using transparencies. Some visitors struggled to read the transparencies and printing them on card makes them more legible. Not only is it easier to read them, it gives us more flexibility if we want to change exhibits. With transparencies we would have had to empty the case and ask a contractor to come in and install the labels. With card labels we simply remove the card and have another printed.
Student volunteers Jamie and Suzanna talk to visitors about flint and obsidian tools.
The Manchester Museum’s Big Saturday event on 9th February was about skills in archaeology. My job was to show visitors how to draw Roman pottery, whilst Jamie Skuse and Suzanna Haddow from the Archaeology Department (who both kindly gave up their Saturday to help) talked to visitors about flints and obsidian.
A whole family of budding pottery illustrators!
Meanwhile in the foyer area Rachel from the Botany Collection had arranged for Geoff Killen to do a wood-turning demonstration. This is part of a project to explore trees and the use that we make of different kinds of wood and other materials that come from trees. It transpires that the equipment Geoff uses is very similar to that used in ancient Egypt. Yigal Sitry, a researcher who lives in Israel, visited the Museum in November 2011 to see some pieces of iron of Assyrian date that were excavated at Thebes in Egypt. There are two of them and they look a bit like snakes. The long shank was embedded in a wooden block and two were used to hold a length of wood or some other material (perhaps ivory?) that rotated around the point of the head of each bracket.
Wood turning tool from Thebes in ancient Egypt
Yigal kindly sent us photos of him and his son using the reconstruction he made.
The reconstructed wood turning lathe in operation. Yigal’s son Uri is pulling on the ropes to make the lathe turn.
Close-up showing the wood turning. You can see the iron brackets at either end of the piece of wood being carved. Each bracket is embedded in a block of wood
Yigal also kindly sent copies of an ancient Egyptian tomb painting showing wood turners. You have to remember that the image is showing something happening in the horizontal plane rotated through 90 degrees so it looks as though it’s vertical. The image is from Lefebvre G., 1924 (or 1932) Le Tombeau de Petrosiris Vol 1,2 (Cairo).
Ancient Egyptian wood turning
We filmed the wood-turning to use in an exhibition about trees that will be held at the Manchester Museum. As we now know – thanks to Yigal – that we have ancient Egyptian wood-turning equipment of Assyrian date we could display the objects and perhaps commission a reconstruction to be used in the exhibition. We often find – and this was very much the case last Saturday – that visitors are fascinated by how people in the past made things. Often we can only replicate those objects by using industrial machinery. Of course these lathe brackets are machinery. The wood to which they were attached has long since rotted away but the iron has survived thanks to the dry climate of ancient Egypt. It’s brilliant when research on the collection comes together with a collecting proposal and an exhibition to create something that has cross-disciplinary appeal.
Curatorial tour of the galleries for the Visitor Services Assistants
Just picked up an email from Ailsa Strachan who manages the Manchester Museum’s team of Visitor Services Assistants asking if I would lead some tours or talks relating to particular topics in the Ancient Worlds galleries next year. The idea is to familiarise the staff who work with the public on a day-to-day basis with the galleries so that they can answer any questions and make suggestions, thereby improving the quality of the visit. This isn’t just for Ancient Worlds but for all the collections. Spread across the collections team as a whole it isn’t onerous because a curator’s turn comes up once every six weeks or so. However, I have been asked to suggest some topics to talk to the VSAs about next year.
Ailsa’s request reminded me that we took some photos of an earlier tour – that is before the pace of Ancient Worlds speeded up in the summer and things simply got too busy. The eagle-eyed among you will recognise one or two old friends, such as Rania and Suzie, who have since left the Museum. It is also a bit of a museum piece in itself because it shows the third gallery (now ‘Exploring Collections’) when it was the Mediterranean Gallery.
In the photo we are standing in front of what is now the large screen that shows 3D photos of star objects from the collections, scans of ancient Egyptian mummies and collections in private ownership.
With Christmas almost upon us I’ve been looking for objects related to the Roman mid-winter festival of Saturnalia in the archaeology collection, although it can be difficult to find things that are directly associated.
Perhaps predictably when I searched on the documentation system using the term ‘Saturnalia’ I got no responses. Instead I tried to find out what actually happened at Saturnalia. All I could remember was that the masters swapped places with the slaves and the slaves became masters for the day. But what about objects? I found out that people exchanged gifts of wax or fired clay figurines called sigillaria, decorated their houses with garlands and generally indulged themselves with food, drink and good cheer.
The usual prohibition against gambling was relaxed at Saturnalia but many of the Roman gaming pieces from Manchester are on display in the Ancient Worlds archaeology gallery. However, we do have some leg bones from fighting cocks complete with spurs that the label says are Roman (or is this a spoof?)
The Emperor Augustus apparently was a great fan of what would now be referred to as ‘joke or gag-gifts’: the equivalent of our kitchen aprons with breasts on them, whoopee cushions, fake poo and the like. Which must have made the first Roman emperor’s Saturnalia parties an absolute hoot, if you like that kind of thing. Personally, I’ve always been more of an Antony fan. The closest I can get to a ‘gag gift’ in the collection is a terracotta apple of uncertain provenance.
I also searched the documentation system for the fired clay figurines that were exchanged at Saturnalia using the term ‘sigillaria’ but this didn’t take me any further so I went into the store to look at the collection of terracotta figurines. The head of a woman wearing a garland and an Eros riding a goose seemed like reasonable candidates, more because of their panto associations (Norman Collier and his chicken act or Rod Hull and Emu). But we don’t know they are definitely related to Saturnalia.
I also tried the lamps drawers and sure enough there are lamps depicting garlands and cornucopiae or horns of plenty. Doesn’t the second spirit in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol turn up with a cornucopia? Again they seem to do the job, even though I cannot be sure they are necessarily linked to Saturnalia.
Liberalitas holding a cornucopia
Talking about A Christmas Carol, it turns out that that Charles Dickens’ famous tale, which did so much to establish Christmas as we know it today, was inspired by a Roman story. Classicist Daisy Dunn noticed a similarity between Dickens’ description of the ghost of Jacob Marley and a story recorded by Pliny the Younger about 2,000-years-ago. In the story a man called Athenodorus thought he’d got himself a bargain when he bought an old property in Athens. He soon found out why the villa was so cheap: on his first night, he heard the rattling of chains and saw the ghost of a man shaking his shackles over his head. Athenodorus followed the ghost to the courtyard of the villa here it disappeared. The next day Athenodorus had the courtyard dug up and found the remains of a slave in chains. The skeleton was given a decent burial and the ghost was never seen or heard again. In an article in The Daily Telegraph (22nd December 2020), Daisy Dunn suggests that Dickens was probably inspired by this story. She says that Dickens could have come across it in W.C.Dendy’s The Philosophy of Mystery which was published in 1841, two years before A Christmas Carol. Daisy Dunn’s article also featured in the Editorial Comment section.
Further evidence that the origins of Christmas may be traced back to Roman times can be found in accounts of Saturnalia. There is a reference to This mid-winter festival when the Roman legions were about to embark to invade Britain in the reign of Claudius in AD 43. The nervous soldiers were not very keen about voyaging over the Channel so Claudius sent one of his freedman, Narcissus, to inspire them. When the influential former slave turned up on the rostrum with the soldiers’ commanding officer, a man called Aulus Plautius, one of the legionaries couldn’t help shouting ‘Yo Saturnalia!’, this being the traditional greeting during the Roman mid-winter festival when slaves swapped roles with their masters for the duration of the celebrations.
I tried out this classical ‘joke’ when I was asked to be the stand up comedian at a student evening held at the Museum a few years ago and discovered it was way past its shelf-life. Talk about tumbleweed moment. I died out there as my good friend Louise will tell you. Talk about taking one for the team.
During Saturnalia, people wore a distinctive floppy cap known as a pileus or cap of liberty (see photo above) or Phrygian cap. It was worn by ex-slaves to symbolise their freedom. The custom of slaves and masters swapping places made the pileus the customary head ware during the Saturnalia festivities. The pileus presumably is where Santa’s cap comes from. The next time you see revellers wearing the red and white Christmas hat think about the ancient Romans and their slaves.
Another link between our Christmas customs and ancient Roman times is putting coins in food. There’s nothing so quintessentially Victorian as putting a silver sixpence in the Christmas pudding you might think but there is a painted fresco at Herculaneum clearly showing Roman coins inserted in fruit in a glass bowl.
Several Roman emperors extended the Saturnalia holidays but Claudius cut back on the number of days. Funny, I never had Claudius down as a Roman Oliver Cromwell and all-round party pooper. I don’t remember Derek Jacobi behaving like that in I Claudius. In the same way that British Industry always complains about the number of working days lost over Christmas and New Year, the ancient Romans felt that there was too much time spent celebrating. Which all goes to show once again that there really isn’t anything new under the sun…
Walk like an Egyptian: Chloe Morley at the Student Social
There are times when the job of museum curator is more like that of a stand-up comedian. Not that I’m claiming to be an archaeological Peter Kay or Michael McIntyre I hasten to say, but I did find myself in the uncomfortable position of doing a stand-up routine last Friday evening when there was a student social at Manchester Museum.
Organised by Naomi Kashiwagi, Student Engagement Coordinator at Whitworth Art Gallery and Manchester Museum, my job was to show the students around the new galleries for half an hour. I agonised in advance: this was an event for young people on a Friday evening and some of them would have had a drink or two at the temporary bar in reception. Something unduly formal was not likely to go down very well. A light touch and an injection of humour were called for.
I consulted Louise, one of the Visitor Services Assistants at the Museum. Louise took a dim view of my suggestion that I tell some funny stories, complaining that the last time I tried to tell her a joke it had taken her a week to understand it. Admittedly there’s probably a niche market for archaeological jokes because inevitably something always gets lost in translation but these were archaeology students so in theory they ought to ‘get’ the jokes.
I tried out a humorous anecdote about how when the Roman legions were about to invade Britain, the soldiers took fright and the Emperor Claudius had to send his Greek freedman Narcissus from Rome to give them a pep-talk. Narcissus and the commander of the expeditionary force, Aulus Plautius, mounted the rostrum to address the troops. Seeing the commander and the Greek former slave standing side-by-side, one wag shouted ‘Yo Saturnalia!’ as an ironic reference to the Roman mid-winter festival of Saturnalia during which slaves swapped places with their masters and the masters became slaves.
I don’t think Louise was very impressed with the Saturnalia joke but Christian, another Visitor Services Assistant, offered to go with me and laugh at the funny bits. For the next thirty minutes I was on very thin ice as I guided the visitors around the galleries trying to tease out humorous anecdotes from the exhibits. In the second table display case there is an ancient Etruscan votive offering clay model of a woman’s womb. That was a great prompt to tell them about the ancient Greeks and their completely mad theory about the wandering womb. The Roman Manchester display provided an opportunity to talk about coy references to Roman soldiers’ off-duty activities in 1970s excavation reports. In the Egyptian gallery an entertaining mnemonic helps you remember which bit of the human viscera goes in which pot in the set of Canopic jars and which of the Sons of Horus looks after it.
The student social tour of the galleries (photo courtesy of Naomi Kashiwagi)
I fear there were more than a few ‘tumbleweed moments’ but everyone clapped when I’d finished so I was relieved to go and get a beer afterwards. About a hundred people attended and the first indications are that they enjoyed it. If we do it again I’ll be sure to dust off some more archaeologically themed jokes. On second thoughts maybe that’s not such a good idea….
The Student Social – tour of the new Ancient Worlds galleries
Over the last few days the Museum has been hosting the Society of Museum Archaeologists conference. The society promotes museum involvement in all aspects of archaeology, especially the contribution that museums make to public understanding of the past and campaigns for acceptance of museums as guardians of this aspect of the national heritage. It made sense to invite the society to hold its annual conference in Manchester following the opening of the new Ancient Worlds galleries on October 25th. At the conference a number of papers are given and there is time for discussion. It is something of a tradition to offer a field trip so that delegates can see something of the archaeology at, or close to, the venue.
So it was that on a rather chilly Wednesday morning I led a short walking tour of some of the places of archaeological interest. As the field trip was scheduled to last for two hours on the programme I concentrated on the earliest sites along Deansgate. I took a small party of society members to Castlefield, where we saw the partially reconstructed Roman fort founded about 79 AD. Many of the best discoveries relating to Roman Manchester are now on display in the Ancient Worlds galleries such as altars, sculpture from the Temple of Mithras and the Manchester wordsquare.
Walking northwards along Deansgate we stopped off at the John Rylands library and had a quick look around. It’s a beautiful building and we were thrilled to see a fragment of the Gospel of St Mark dating from about 125 AD.
At the north end of Deansgate we saw the Hanging Bridge, a number of medieval stone arches dating from 1350-1500, popped into the Manchester Cathedral and then called in to see Chetham’s Library. Although there was some filming going on, the librarian, Michael Powell, kindly met us and showed us round, pointing out some of the antiquarian volumes in this historic collection.
Where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels once sat: SMA Conference 2012 visit to Chetham’s Library
It has become something of a custom for visitors, to see where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels did their work. With a little cajoling I managed to take a group photo of our party as a lasting souvenir of their short visit to Manchester. Then it was back to the Museum on Oxford Road to start the conference.
Bronze figurine of the god Mithras in the Manchester Museum collection
Over the last week I’ve done a number of object handling sessions for 1st year Classics students at the University. A group came over this morning with their tutor Dr Roberta Mazza, who is a Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History. I focused on the Manchester word square , the five word puzzle in which the letters PATER NOSTER and the letters A and O have been detected.
Word square or palindrome from Manchester (photo by Alan Seabright)
The Latin for ‘Our father’ from the Lord’s prayer and A and O for Christ’s ‘I am the beginning and I am the end’ appear to be deliberate. We discussed whether the word square should be regarded as the earliest evidence of Christianity in northern Britain or whether it is just a doodle or piece of graffiti scratched onto the side of a pot.
Dr Roberta Mazza and students looking at the wordsquare and related objects
The word square is on display in our new Ancient Worlds displays so I got out a replica for Roberta and her students to have a closer look at. We talked about the different interpretations and explored other evidence for Christianity in Roman Britain. I mentioned how previous research had attributed the destruction of temples dedicated to the god Mithras to Christian communities. So, if what looks like a deliberately damaged Mithraic temple is found, one might infer the presence of a Christian community nearby, which is a more negative form of evidence of adherents of the religion. This can be found in Charles Thomas’ book on Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500 (Batsford, 1981). Early Christians found Mithraism’s similarity to Christianity too close for comfort (both have as a central figure a man who undergoes a trial or an ordeal that symbolises the wider struggle between good and evil).
By chance we happen to have a rather interesting bronze figurine (see the photo above) depicting Mithras with an inscription. Sadly we don’t know where it comes from but it was great to get out the figurine as a tangible piece of evidence of the Mithraism.
It is interesting that remains of a Mithraeum was found at Hulme in Manchester in 1821 but we don’t know enough to say whether it had been destroyed by a Christian mob or not. Perhaps if we did have that evidence – as apparently survives on Hadrian’s Wall and at the Walbrook in London – we might have another tentative piece of evidence for Christianity in Roman Manchester.
Of course if the word square is simply the result of someone with too much time on their hands, it is a huge coincidence that the words PATER NOSTER and the letter A and O can be sifted out of the 25 letters that make up the 5 word palindrome. But then an American commentator has noted that Ronald Wilson Reagan is an anagram of ‘Insane Anglo Warlord’. The letters of ‘President Clinton Of the USA’ when rearranged give you ‘ To Copulate he finds interns’! I mean, you couldn’t make this up could you?
The rearrangement of the letters that make up his name must be just coincidence. So extracting PATERNOSTER out of the word square is just another seemingly unlikely coincidence, though I suspect conspiracy theorists might beg to differ.
Samian pot from Manchester about to undergo conservation
The pace of work is really hotting up now that we’ve entered the last few weeks leading up to the opening of Ancient Worlds on 25th October. As well as checking proofs of the text and the layouts of the displays, we have been taking delivery of loan objects for the new displays and gathering in objects that, in some cases, have only recently been excavated.
The photo above shows a fragmentary Roman samian bowl that was found on the former Tom Garner Motors site at the junction of Great Jackson Street and Chester Road. It was found with a rather nice Roman altar dedicated to the Mother Goddesses back in 2008. The altar is on display in the Museum’s Manchester Gallery. The kind people at Pre-Construct Archaeology kindly got the pot to us, together with a flagon, about ten days ago. They are being worked on by two conservation students who are doing a placement with the Museum, Shiree Roberts and Gabby Flexer from University College London and the University of Durham respectively. Both are studying for a Masters in conservation.
The next photo shows the pot reconstructed.
Shiree working on the Roman samian pot
When I called in earlier today to check on progress Shiree was busy in-filling joins and matching the in-fill to the colour of the samian bowl.
Maximus Factor? A cosmetic job on the samian bowl from Manchester.
It’s a work of art as much as it is a science and you really have to take your hat to the dedicated students who come and work on placements here and make the material presentable to the general public.
Samian pot nearing completion of its makeover
The Roman altar was found by Sarah Duffy of Bolton who was working for Pre-Construct Archaeology on what was only her second dig. It would be great if we could establish contact with Sarah to record an interview about what it was like to discover these Roman antiquities. If you’re out there Sarah and reading this do please contact us at the Manchester Museum.
Sam cleaning the Assyrian cuneiform inscription (she is not holding a blow-torch by the way!)I was sitting in front of my computer in my office yesterday afternoon when Sam our Senior Conservator came in and asked for my advice about cleaning the Assyrian cuneiform inscription that is going in the Ancient Worlds displays. The Museum acquired the inscription during the 1920s. It shows a winged Assyrian deity. The cuneiform inscription is formulaic and honours King Assurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) .
Detail of cleaning the cuneiform inscription
This reminded me that back in 2006 a smaller cuneiform inscription was cleaned as part of an event to celebrate the Festival of British Archaeology at the Museum.
Bryan cleaning small cuneiform inscription with younger visitors
Thanks to Professor Alan Millard of the University of Liverpool we can offer a translation of the inscription:-
“[Palace] of Ashurnasirpal, great king, strong king, king of the universe, king of Assyria, son of Tukulti-Ninurta (II), great king, strong king, king of the universe, king of Assyria, son of Adadnarari (II) (who was) also great king, strong king, king of the universe, and king of Assyria; valiant man who acts with the support of Assur, his lord, and has no rival (5) among the princes of the four quarters, the king who subdued (the territory stretching) from the opposite bank of the Tigris to Mount Lebanon and the Great Sea, the entire land Laqu, (and) the land Suhu including the city Rapiqu. He conquered (11) from the source of the River Subnat to the interior of the land Nirbu. I brought within the boundaries of my land (the territory stretching) from the passes of Mount Kirruru to the land Gilzanu, from the opposite bank of (15) the Lower Zab to the city Til-Bari which is upstream from the land Zaban, from the city Til-sa-Abtani… Good heavens somebody’s actually reading this! To the city Til-sa-Zabdani, (and) the cities Hirimu (and) Harutu (which are) fortresses of Kardunias. (20) Finally, I have gained dominion over the entire extensive lands Nairi…
This translation is taken from A.Kirk Grayson Assyrian Rulers of the Early First Millennium BC I (1114-859 BC). The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia Assyrian Periods Vol.2, University of Toronto Press (p.300). The Manchester inscription is one a series of very similar inscriptions set up in the palace by Ashurnasirpal. Numbers in brackets refer to the line of the inscription. Our inscription stops at word a-pel on line 20.
Archaeology is the study of the past through looking at material remains. Blogging goes one better by enabling us to get even more mileage out of jokes from the past.
Our special thanks to Professor Millard and to Dr John Healey for helping us with the inscription.
Susan Martin & Suzanna working on Predynastic pots
Work on the new displays continues as we rapidly approach the opening in late October. Over the last few weeks we’ve had a couple of placements from the university’s archaeology department working with us. In this image Susan our curatorial assistant is arranging some Predynastic Egyptian pots with the help of Suzanna, one of the placements. This is a trial arrangement for one of the displays in the 1st gallery of Ancient Worlds.
In the new displays we explore various aspects of archaeology and on the first table we look at Manchester’s contribution to the story. Right from the start we wanted to show that archaeology and Egyptology, though separate collections in the Museum, are part and parcel of the same discipline.
The first table with its focus on Manchester allows us to highlight the fact that the fieldwork of famous Egyptologist, William Mathew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) was financed in part by Manchester businessman Jesse Haworth (1835- 1921). We’re also trying to show how people find out about different aspects of life in the past and our rich collections allow us to show Petrie’s serial or sequence dating technique. You can get an idea of what we’re trying to do by looking at the diagram on the Petrie Museum’s website
Petrie knew that the style and frequency of the objects he found in graves changed over time. His seriation technique enabled him to chart those changes and to tell whether any given grave group came earlier or later in the sequence. At the time he was working there weren’t techniques like radiocarbon dating so this relative dating method was useful, especially if the sequence was anchored by a later date.
In the case of the Predynastic pottery the material changed over the thousand years leading up to the unification of Egypt about 3100 BC. By laying the pots out in advance as an example of Petrie’s sequence dating we can test whether everything fits and get an idea of how things will look. Our thanks to Suzanna for helping us with this work.