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:


And the sun makes an appearance

London in the summer is glorious – although avoiding public transport becomes an ever more urgent game; the last bus I was on was pumping out heating full blast on a day of 27 degrees….
At work, things are hotting up – and not only because of the lack of ventilation. I had my contract extended and am being promoted (might finally end up above the living wage!). It is reassuring to know that, if I had changed my mind about Egyptology, I have the potential to survive in the real world; something that I was beginning to doubt in my stint of unemployment. I now spend my days filling in spreadsheets, printing letters, and training other people to do my old job. How exciting my life has become!
I have pinned job success down to 3 factors:
1) Getting a foot in the door. Anyway, anyhow.
2) Basically being a willing slave. And SMILING while you do it.
3) Getting bored quickly and doing everyone else’s job for them (always given a more professional slant in job descriptions and called something along the lines of ‘initiative’ ‘leadership skills’ etc.)
The relief of secure employment for the time being however is huge; and I can still stop my brain disintegrating by filling my spare time with researchy things. 
It is so much easier to be motivated once the days lengthen and you wake up to birdsong in a blue sky. This does however has the somewhat unfortunate side effect of meaning you take too much on! Deadlines are popping up left right and centre at the moment. The Inspired by the Crystal Palace Subway project has finished interviewing people who remember the subway in use, and the deadline next week for collating all these will be swiftly followed by heavy research and figuring out how to display everything we have gathered to the largest number of people. The exhibition, due to coincide with Openhouse weekend in September, is going to be unlike anything I’ve worked on before. It seems strange to work with audio and visual recordings; that’s certainly not something you get a chance to do often when working with ancient finds! 
The magnificent Crystal Palace Subway

The magnificent Crystal Palace Subway

It must be exhibition season as well as conference season, because I’ve also been invited to help design a tour and workshop for the European Day of Jewish Culture on 15th September, which will be converted to an exhibition. The theme this year is women in Judaism, and we plan for the exhibition to coincide with International Women’s Day on the 5th March. The three of us who volunteer at the Wiener basically get free rein to design and implement the tour/workshop, so it’s fascinating delving into the Wiener’s huge collection and pooling our experience to try and bring them to the attention of the general public. One focus of mine is to tell stories that are perhaps less well known; and to bring personal experiences across as belonging to people, rather than statistics in a book, which many cannot relate to. The Wiener’s work is still so relevant today, particularly in light of what is happening across Europe at the moment. 
But I am managing to keep in Egyptology through all this; and at the Petrie’s Festival of Pots on Saturday, I got to combine it with fun in the sun for once! 
A day celebrating all that is awesome and useful about pottery. Could I ask for more?! I was invited to take part by Sarah Doherty, an Egyptologist specialising in ceramic technology, who also makes and experiments with her own pottery, but there was a massive dedicated party of volunteers. We spent the morning demonstrating how to do technical drawings of ceramics; and it was quite strange having to actually think about what I was doing, and explain it logically for a change. Brought back a bit of nostalgia for the first time I learnt to draw too. Good lord I was terrible at it. One man confided that his entire family were artistic and yet he’d never been able to draw a thing; but after persuading him to have a go I think he was very pleasantly surprised at the wonders measuring everything can achieve!  
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The afternoon was filled with painting pots, colouring in paper flowers, and pretending I could remember how to read hieroglyphs properly. There were potters demonstrating firing techniques, and they even made proper ancient Egyptian bread – which strangely enough tasted like vinegar, even more surprisingly in a tasty way! Everyone who stopped by painted their interpretations of  on this huge pot we had out on the table, in red and yellow ochre. The high point of the festival was typically Egyptian… With a ritual pot smashing!

Sarah Hurling the pot with a ritual exclamation of “Life, Prosperity, and Health!”

I have a particular interest in foundation deposits and the ritual smashing of vessels; and it was great fun to recreate one. The whole crowd seemed to catch onto the excitement of the gathered Egyptologists; and we soon had everyone from children to passing UCL students picking up pieces of the smashed jar to turn into ostraca. 
One thing I have come to learn, is that there is never a dull day in London if you know where to look. I only wish I felt half as awake during my actual job as I do when working on my other projects…fingers crossed, they’ll soon be one and the same…

Pondering pottery

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. 


I think my excitement over pottery is obvious here

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!


Sitting looking innocent, hiding its secrets…


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!).


Tell me this isn’t just a little bit intriguing


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: This promises to be a fascinating series, with lots of specialists making an appearance! 


Flinders Petrie, the man behind the wonderful collection at the Petrie Museum as well as the creator of the first Egyptian ceramic chronology

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. 

Sprouting Glories

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 church cloaked in greenery; very appropriate!

The church cloaked in greenery; very appropriate!

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?

John Trandescant's tomb...well one of them anyway!

John Trandescant’s tomb

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!

Thumb pot

Thumb pot

Bit more familiar

Bit more familiar











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….

The knot garden

The knot garden

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!

Height of London fashion!

Height of London fashion!