Mycenaean terracotta figurines

Just a few days after the study of the Roman mosaic, another consultant dropped by the NCMA to look some early Greek material. Bryan Burns’ visit was very short–a few hours–because we only have three Mycenaean figurines.  They are small, but they are adorable! Not only that, the figurines are some of the oldest artefacts in the Graeco-Roman collection (they date to circa 1400-1150 B.C.E., way before Classical Greece.)

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Tile after tile

There was a flurry of activity related to the research on the classical collection during last week of August.  Normally, the objects under observation are removed from the galleries so that we can study them in either the conservation lab (Corey) or the Scholars Room (the visiting consultant and I).  However, it was the Roman mosaic that was the subject of the study session… and it could not be moved! So mosaic specialist Debra Foran, objects conservator Corey Riley and I worked in the galleries.

The study took place on Monday because the museum is closed to the public.  We could work quietly and also study every single little tessera (tile) that makes up the lovely floral and geometric design of the mosaic. We all felt a little weird kneeling or sitting on blankets on the edge of the mosaic so that we could look at the middle of it closely! Tiles were counted, no loose ones were found, we looked at the colour of the glass and stone tesserae with the Munsell chart… every little detail was studied.

 

Metal Heads! (The archaeological kind.)

Last week, the objects under study for the classical catalogue were the ancient metals (bronze statuettes and gold finger rings). Ancient bronze specialist Carol M. visited the NCMA to examine our (very lovely) pieces and Corey was there as well for the conservation assessment. However, Noelle, our very tech-savvy conservator of record for the research project, had all the fun!

Some of the statuettes were x-rayed and the fabulous Head of a Woman in the Guise of a Goddess was zapped in the eye with the XRF (to obtain the composition of the silver used for her eyes).  Noelle also brought the Head to the mail room this morning so it could get weighed!

Cue whatever heavy metal band you’ve got on your playlist and take a look at these cool pics!

 

La vie en rose

Earlier this morning, the classical galleries were closed for ‘research and conservation.’  Bill, our chief conservator, and I were there to take samples of the bright pink pigment found on the South Italian ceramics.  We have a good idea of what this pigment might be but we’ll send samples to a colleague in Italy for scientific confirmation.

Sampling is always a delicate procedure because it is destructive.  Bill had to scrape some of that fabulous pink off the four vessels that use it in their decoration. We picked locations on the vessels that are less visible when you’re visiting the galleries and viewing the pots.  You shouldn’t notice where the pink pigment was scraped off.

The results will be published in the NCMA’s upcoming catalogue of classical art.

 

VENI, VIDI, VICI

Last week, the study of the classical collection continued when Laurel Taylor came to the Museum to look at the other Roman artefacts (not the Roman marble statues that have already been studied). Corey Riley was there as well, taking care of the conservation assessment. The collection of Roman ceramics is rather small and not of good quality compared to other ceramics we have from elsewhere in the ancient Mediterranean.

Two of the objects were not even Roman and two others were probably forgeries!  The rest were cute if not spectacular. Although we had fun, I guess our Roman study session was more like  VENI, VIDI, SED NON VICI.

Artifact Investigation

I love those artefact conservation posts! Here is one from Carrie at the Kelsey about a bowl from Karanis covered with some mysterious white stuff. (And I love a good detective story as well!)

Kelsey Museum

CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

I love a good mystery, and nothing (save a really good crime novel) is better than an artifact mystery. I love the thrill of investigating an object, identifying its agents of deterioration, and nabbing those culprits one by one. I also really enjoy teaching new conservators how to use investigative tools to make their own observations. I recently spent a day looking at an object with Ellen Seidell, a U of M junior who is interning in our lab. The ceramic bowl – excavated at Karanis in 1929 – was covered with feathery white crystals, as well as a drippy, peeling surface coating. I had my suspicions as to what these were, but wanted Ellen to learn for herself how to identify unknown materials.

To do this, we examined the bowl under longwave ultraviolet light. This is a useful tool not only for…

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Ethics of Acquiring Cultural Heritage Objects

On Thursday and Friday, I was in Virginia–specifically at Washington and Lee University in Lexington–to attend a conference on the Ethics of Acquiring Cultural Heritage Objects.

It all started on Thursday evening with a keynote lecture delivered by Neil Brodie, archaeology professor at Oxford whose research concentrates on  the illicit antiquities trade. In his talk, Dr. Brodie mentioned that the network and system of laundering antiquities has changed significantly in the last 10-20 years. The old system, which comprised rare and spectacular objects, suave art dealers, famous auctions houses, wealthy collectors and large museums, is dying out. The heart of the new system continues to be stolen antiquities, but these are much smaller, portable and easily concealed (which makes them easy to miss by authorities). Promotion of these illicit objects is made via social media and traffic occurs on the websites of small, unscrupulous  merchants  or via eBay.  Prices are much lower, but the quantity of available artefact is much greater. Unlike big auction houses whose reputation is at stake in looted antiquities claims, smaller merchants simply reinvent themselves after paying a piddly sum if caught, and continue their illicit business under another name! (Seriously, something needs to be done about this!)  What a fascinating lecture that was!

Friday’s programme offered several lectures by specialists in various fields such as archaeology, anthropology, art history as well as economics and criminal justice.  The focus was primarily the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria, the prey of various types of looters and terrorists. I would have liked to see more presentations concerning unprovenanced objects that have been in museum collections for more than 30-40 years, acquired when lack of provenance was not an issue. These objects are the ones that conservators of my generation have to contend with on a daily basis. These objects bought on the art market are found in most museums, especially those that have never conducted archaeological excavations in the late 19th or early 20th century and benefited from partage (the division of finds between the host country and the excavators).  Only the presentation by James Cuno mentioned the merits of partage (which he believes should be reinstate with various modifications and for a variety of reasons); he also talked about the continued role of the museum in the protection cultural heritage.

Working away from work is always fun, especially when participating in great discussions of relevance to today’s chaotic world.