Yes, They Had it… But What Was It?

One of the big problems that archaeologists deal with is finding things that they simply can’t identify.  For a number of years I was on an email list, conceived of and managed by Dr Dan Carlson, an Archaeologist working in Fröjel harbor in Sweden. Occasionally they would find something that they had questions about, and they would send a description and picture of the item out to the “hive mind” to ask for help. and often someone would have a clue. I remember one time in particular. I emailed this message:

“To me it looks like a tiny beater that could be used in tablet weaving or other narrow band weaving. I use something similar, made of wood, place it in the weaving shed and pull it gently towards the newly woven cloth to push the newly placed weft in place. I will be watching to see what other people think it is!”

The response from the archaeologist?

“You are obviously right! Most people have the same suggestions, and thinking of the pieces of thin plates of bone for tablet weaving at the sight, shows clearly that the technique was used at the site.”

The basic problem is that it is almost impossible for a researcher, or even a team of researchers, to have a complete knowledge of all of the equipment that was used in every art and craft, in any given culture. And now take even identifiable objects, and break them into pieces, and see if you can figure out what they used to be. And then take those pieces, and allow time and weather to corrode them and wear them away, and what do you have? Archaeology is often like a giant jigsaw puzzle where the box with the picture is missing, and the cat has eaten some pieces, and chewed up other ones.

And this problem does not become any less severe when we work during later time frames with more complex machinery. In about 1985 I was working in the Archaeology Lab at the University of Houston, as a grad student. One project involved a house that was burned because the inhabitants had died of Yellow Fever. (In the 1800’s people did not know that Yellow Fever was a mosquito borne disease, they thought it spread by contact, like Small Pox.) The head of the department suggested that I look at the finds because I “had a knack” for identifying odd pieces of metal. (I have always loved machinery and used to regularly take things apart and put them back together when I was a child.) They thought they were dealing with the daughter’s room, but could not be sure, and one of the other grad students poured out a bag of very rusty pieces of iron. And I knew what she had.








It was broken into about a dozen pieces, and had a different style frame than the one in the picture, but what she had were the pieces of a music box. The spring, the frame to hold the roller, the holder for the comb, and the comb to “plink” on the roller, were clear as day… to me. She had never seen the inside of a music box before, and had never even thought about how they worked.

So when you are busy looking through a museum’s digital collection, take a good look. Watch for mistakes (we all make them!), and if you think that you know what something is, do not hesitate to contact the museum. You could help them solve a mystery, or simply point out inadequate information on an old entry. And some, like the MET, may even send you a thank you email!

Lies My Docent Told Me: Part 3

Last time we talked a bit about museum labels and digital collections. Tuning in to the details of a museum’s digital collections can really help you with your research. This record for a body chain from the Hoxne Hoard in England is an example of the best of the new British Museum artifact records. The record has good quality digital photographs, actual research data with references, and a history of the piece at the museum, including when it was purchased and when and where it has been exhibited. Unfortunately there are still many artifacts that have not been photographed, or that are represented by “old style” artifact entries. This entry is fairly typical of one of the artifacts  that does not have a picture available. And this entry is typical of one of the older records. There is no photo, only an “artists rendition” and the amount of information about the artifact is minimal. This is also an “old style” record for a Roman coin that contains really minimal information about the artifact.

It is important to be aware of what the “new” verses “old” entries in a museum data base look like. The new ones may have mistakes, but they are much more likely to be more accurate and have good photographs and references associated with them.

And lest you think that I am picking on English Museums, let me tell you about my adventures in Boston. I was in Boston on business and I had a few minutes to waste before I had to be to a meeting. I noticed that a nearby office building had small displays from the Harvard Museum collection, so of course, I went to take a look at them. The displays were in nicely lit Lucite cases on the landings of the building. There were multiple cases with collections of ivory pieces from Rome – hair pins, writing stylus’s, and small carvings. I was thoroughly enjoying looking at the well lit pieces until I noticed a carefully labeled piece – “ivory hairpin”. And there before me sat a perfectly lovely top whorl ivory spindle. It was almost completely intact, with only a tiny piece broken off of the very bottom of the shaft of the spindle. And it was labeled as an ivory hairpin. So I went to the lobby and asked who I could contact about the display of Harvard artifacts. They easily gave me a name and phone number. A couple of days later I started trying to actually track down a real person to talk to. To cut a long story short, I probably made at least 20 calls over the following month and a half, and left a couple of dozen voicemails. I called the number that I had been given, and I went online and called other numbers. I never received a single call back, and I finally gave up. I decided that if Harvard wanted to look stupid, I guess they were allowed to. And believe it or not, I found a picture on the Harvard Art Museums website – of a top whorl ivory spindle, the very one that I had seen. And it is listed as a top whorl spindle.

top whorl roman spindle

Next Time: Where Do We Go From Here?

Lies My Docent Told Me: Part 2

Last time I mentioned a “docent fumble” and then promised some insights into looking at museum exhibits.

While I am picking on the Victoria and Albert Museum, let me bring up an issue that all museums deal with. Your labels and information about artifacts are only as good as the people who make those labels. At one visit to the V&A I was scrounging through the old Bronze gallery (the gallery has since been redone). The labels in the gallery had been typed on a typewriter, heaven only knows in what year. (This is a giant “red flag”.) The label on one of the large bronze jugs stated. “There are letters on the jug, but we don’t know what they mean”. The letters? “A M G P”. Probably one of the most common magical incantations of Medieval times – Ave Maria, Gracia Plena (Hail Mary Full of Grace). And to make it worse, some of the other jugs correctly identified what “AMGP” stood for. Consistency folks, consistency. Here is one of my old pictures from the Bronze Gallery – note the wrinkly old typed card.

V&A Jug

If I go to a digital online museum collection, almost all of them now have a “let us know that there is a problem with this record” link. Several years ago I started noticing some very serious clerical mistakes at the British Museum website. What I mean by “clerical” is that there might be six pictures associated with a specific artifact, and five are correct, but picture number six is a picture of a different artifact. Sometimes it is super obvious, the item in the picture has a different number on it than the artifact number in the record, or the artifact record is for a piece of pottery and one picture is a piece of jewelry. But sometimes both of the artifacts are of the same type. I remember discovering several clerical mistakes and trying to figure out how to contact someone. Sometimes I found some sort of contact person and sent them an email, and sometimes I finally gave up in frustration. I never received a single reply to any of my emails, not even an auto-responder message.

It really bugged me to see mistakes, so I kept sending messages. My one and only reply came from the Metropolitan Museum Of Art. I was looking at Middle Eastern beads online and I discovered a record for a “necklace”. One look told me that it was a Subha – a prayer bead strand. I found a random contact name and wrote a polite note about the piece. And about a week later I received a very nice email back, thanking me for pointing out the information and assuring me that I was correct, and that the museum was in the process of updating a bunch of records and that this one would be updated to reflect the additional information. It felt so good to know that I had actually reached a person and that the record would be updated!

It was not long afterwards that I started noticing what I think of as “Ooops” buttons, on a lot of museum sites. Links that let you report mistakes to museum staff. I am sure that I was not the only one out there to notice mistakes. I like to think of these buttons as “crowd sourcing corrections”. The more eyes that see a piece the more likely mistakes, or additional information is likely to be discovered.

Next time: Tuning in to Your Museum’s Listings