Check out the new blog post on the UCL Museums and Collections blog: in it Sarah Doherty, who invited me to join the Petrie pottery festival as discussed in the last blog post, discusses miniature vessels from the Old Kingdom and what they reveal about the changing nature of society:
When I pick up little shards of pottery, I feel like I’m lifting up tiny snapshots of history. Which is odd, given that pottery is typically seen as the least romantic element of archaeology.
Ceramic remains are the most common find on archaeological sites, often appearing in terrifyingly large numbers. These huge amounts of shards found are typically divided into diagnostic and non-diagnostic pieces, diagnostics being rim, base, handle or decorated parts, or anything perceived as unusual and potentially important ( in Egypt and Sudan, this also includes shards made of foreign clay). The rest tend to be counted, weighed, and discarded. Planning how to take the ceramic evidence on board without becoming too overwhelmed by millions of red sherds, often all looking the same, is something which always has to be taken into account prior to an excavation.
This link with numerical analysis is probably the reason many people don’t see them as very interesting. Even complete vessels tend to be considered only as chronological tools. But these hunks of clay have so much more to tell us than the date of the context they are found in.
Change in vessel shape can reveal the different things people were eating and the way they were cooking; the cultural identity they felt a part of; the people they traded with and whether they married into local communities when they were stationed abroad; correct dining etiquette and fashion interests. To me, there’s nothing more fascinating than a pot!
So I’ve set up this section of my blog to post on the non-cake related aspects of my life; a slightly more serious but infinitely more obsessive side! Here I’ll aim to share news on ceramic research and upcoming exhibitions, explore interesting vessels from various cultures and share fun little factoids (yes, they are fun, and there are plenty of them too!).
This decision coincides with the start of the ‘Festival of Pots’ at the Petrie Museum, a series of blog posts by various scholars discussing their favourite items in the pottery gallery, and discussing the reasons why studying pottery is so important for archaeology. Catch the first introductory post by curator Alice Stevenson here: http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/museums/2014/02/04/pondering-petries-pots/. This promises to be a fascinating series, with lots of specialists making an appearance!
In other news, the schedule for the Current Research in Egyptology 2014 conference is out, and I’m due to speak on the 9th April on ‘Precious deposits: new interpretations of infant jar burials in Egypt and Sudan’, as well as presenting a poster entitled ‘Deliberate drips: developments in ceramic decoration at the end of the New Kingdom in Nubia’ discussing the supposedly careless nature of red rims on bowls in the late New kingdom. This being my first conference, I alternate between excited and petrified, not least because the last poster presentation I did was for GCSE History and I think THIS one might need to be a tad more professional…
Keep your eyes peeled for more pot ponderings, but that’s it for now. Over and out.
I don’t care what anyone says; archaeologists like digging, and we like getting dirty. How else could we handle 12 hour days in muddy holes or sandstorms? It’s one reason we’re all so afraid of suits….
So it’s really no surprise that I love gardening, although I must admit it took me a few years to get over my irrational fear of worms! The recent weather quite literally puts a dampener on getting out in the soil very often at the mo, so I indulged my gardening craze with a trip to The Garden Museum recently.
Can you even believe there is a garden museum?! My friends all thought I’d lost the plot a little (well, a little more than usual anyway) for being so excited, and excised deep pity on my fiancee for being obliged to come with me. Such things are definitely part of the relationship contract.
The museum is housed in the old St-Mary-at-Lambeth church, where the Trandscendents, the original gardening family, were buried. The church and the small garden around it, a tiny bemusing oasis in the centre of one of the busiest parts of London, was actually part of their family estate, and was saved from destruction in 1977 by the museum organisation. It has really only begun to develop its museumness since 2008 however, and to be honest, by the look of it at the moment, it is undergoing significant development. It is an absolutely brilliant example of the melding of heritage and modern needs discussed in my previous post however. I have a distinct soft spot for church conversions. Why knock it down to rebuild something not nearly as interesting architecturally?
The museum has a permanent exhibition on the history of gardening, as well as a current temporary exhibition on gardens and gardeners in art. It was particularly interesting to see how the perceptions of gardeners themselves changed as gardening became a ‘gentleman’s hobby’, and the plain but practical tools used in the early periods give way to funny little things like walking sticks with hoe attachments and long lace-up wellies to keep his Lordship’s snazzy trousers clean. And now, in my opinion, until you get high up into fancy landscape gardening, basic pottering about and planting has become an old lady activity. Probably another reason my friends’ think I live the life of a retired person….
As usual, my eye was drawn to the ceramics in the museum. Two in particular caught my eye; early watering cans!
The thumb pot dates to the end of the 16th century, although it bears a remarkable resemblance to a faux-Roman glazed pot I once bought in Spain as a child and somehow carried back as hand luggage….back in the day when it wouldn’t be regarded as some sort of crafty weapon. The idea, apparently, is to submerge it in a pool of water and place your thumb over the top when full. Slowly releasing the pressure would make the water come out of the holes in the bottom, like a hand-held sprinkler hose. Ingenious!! I suppose the latter one was created when they realised how much easier sprinkling could be made by attaching a side bit, sometime in the 17th century. I bet the older gardeners felt like prize idiots….
These are my favourite types of pots; the ones not meant to survive. They were practical, everyday items for someone, and reflect society and activities more clearly than those meant to carry a message. As much fun as it is unravelling that message, it is also nice to see things that flesh out the background of someone lost to time.
The few photographs, drawings and references to gardening throughout the ages which survive also bring to the forefront individuals often lost or overlooked in archaeology; women and children. Now I certainly don’t want to come over all gender studies here, but early archaeological reports and literature were typically more reflective of Western society than those they were supposed to be studying. Any body with a sword was a man, any with a grinding stone a woman, that sort of thing. It gets rather amusing (and foolish!) when against all 19th century sense the occasional body proven to be female was accompanied by great riches or weaponry, at which we are loftily informed that these reflect not her wealth, but her husband’s/brother’s/father’s. Of course, the most complex interpretation must be true….
The same goes for children. Their experience of life was little talked about, and only now are studies beginning to emerge which demonstrate the vital economic role even very young children often played in society.
So what was interesting is that according to museum research, there was never much segregation in the gardening world; men and women worked side by side and both achieved a lot. Children were trained in the trade from a young age and were often drafted in groups for large projects! It was quite nice to know that a 19th century me could have also got involved in the garden.
If you’re ever in the vicinity of Lambeth anyway, pop in; they also have a small knot garden designed by the Marchioness of Salisbury, which was the main draw for me. There’s something very beautiful in the idea of transferring what looks like an intricate drawing to plants. I especially like the earlier, pre-box hedge knot gardens, which I think would fit very nicely in a modern garden as a draw to butterflies and bees, something constantly being drummed into us at the moment. Lavender and rosemary for the chunky design and lemon balm and sage for ground cover. Mmmmmm. One day…..somehow I don’t think my landlord would appreciate me digging up his entire garden quite yet to have mini hedges springing up all over the place….
My appetite nicely whetted for planting yet again, I potted up my window box in its winter dress finally, and it does look beautiful. I did notice on another day walking past the snazzy hotels and fancy houses of London, that a lot of them had purple/white tipped heather, and white cyclamen decorations – exactly what I’d done! Perhaps I do have a fashionable bone in my body after all!