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:

http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/museums/2014/06/10/petrie-pottery-project-guest-blog-reinventing-the-potters-wheel/

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….
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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!
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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. 

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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!

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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!).

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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: 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! 

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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. 

Forward strides!

It’s fascinating to see how often archaeology has been appearing in the news in the past few weeks; with important new discoveries not only cropping up on the archaeology sites I follow on Facebook but also the National and International news.

In the midst of so much negative press coming out of Egypt, two recent discoveries at Giza have put a welcome positive spotlight on the country.They have transformed the way we envisage 4th Dynasty Egypt, and developed some vital context; all too often the pyramids are seen as striking World Wonders rather than apexes of a working community. Excavations by the Ancient Egyptian Research Associates, led by Dr. Mark Lehner, have uncovered the remains of a bustling harbour and a 21-room elite house. The harbour, including a large basin dug over 1kms from the nearest Nile channel, would have been used to move stone for building the pyramids as well as rations for workers and other luxury items. Lehner’s team have come across evidence for far-ranging trade links, with granite from Aswan, Levantine wood including cedar and juniper (now reduced to charcoal) and a style of pottery known as combed-ware jars, also hailing from the Levant. While this basin is located near a satellite town, a larger city served as home to many of those involved in the mammoth project, with large rectangular buildings once thought to house ordinary workers. However recent research has thrown up evidence that these may actually have housed soldiers or sailors, thanks to the finds of cedar charcoal and a hippo hip; fancy items not usually available to ordinary folks!

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Possible reconstruction of the barracks housing sailors or soldiers (Courtesy of AERA).

The house has thrown up the most interesting finds. Aside from the obvious assumption that such a large house must have belonged to someone in the upper echelons of society, archaeologist Richard Redding observed that all cattle bones (and there were over 100,000) belonged to animals under 18 months. They was also no evidence of forelimbs, the traditional offering to the gods. Evidently these people lived high on a diet of gods’ leftover veal! Additionally, 4 leopard teeth were found, probably from the leopard skins priests wore in this period.

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View of the magnificent 21-room villa overlooking the pyramids (courtesy of AERA)

The pottery obviously has intrigued me the most, as a type I came across frequently during my undergraduate years. Combed-ware storage jars become hugely popular in the 4th dynasty and are thought to have contained a liquid (wine for all those priests partying on veal!). At this point in the Old Kingdom, these traded vessels are found only around Giza and at a few other select royal sites, indicating that their import was very closely regulated and is a classic example of elite groups controlling resources as a mark of power. Take a look at ‘Egypt in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Old Kingdom. An archaeological perspective’, published in 2009 by Sowada, for more information on the changing patterns of trade in the Old Kingdom – I have to say, it is one of my favourite books. No dry academic treatise here!

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Just had to put one of these in… beautifully preserved combed-ware jar (Courtesy of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts)

These findings have fascinating repercussions for our understanding of Ancient Egypt in general. Almost like redeveloping a blurry photograph, life in the Pyramid age is becoming more and more vivid. Rather than a sandy, empty plain, something akin to the hustle and bustle of the London Docklands is appearing, and you can almost hear the shouts of sailors as they unload beautiful smelling cedar and huge jars filled with Levantine wine, delivering them to sem-priests on the quieter surburban fringes who are parading round in leopard fur cloaks, with the head left on in all it’s glory.

It just goes to show how little we know even about some of the most studied monuments in history. It should be no surprise then that we are still discovering startling things about the human past which are even further back through the mists of time.

I have been following the recent furores in the news about our human ancestors with interest. Human evolution has always been an interest of mine, and it have always been pretty mournful that I was never able to take modules in it at university. The discovery that between 2% and 4% of the genetic blueprint of modern non-Africans came from the Neanderthals pretty firmly puts the flag in the camp of those who always supported the idea interbreeding must have occurred. Although it seems they gave us some not-so-nice genes – such as those causing type 2 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, and, strangely, smoking addiction – it’s thanks to them that those of us up north have the more handy benefit of thicker skin, nails and hair to keep us warm in precisely the kind of weather we’re currently suffering. Hot on the heels of this news was the subsequent announcement by te same research team that Neanderthal genomes have been found present in the Khoisian tribes of South Africa, groups that speak in a unique clicking language and were previously thought to have genetically split from other human groups long before any others. According to David Reich from Harvard University, this indicates a back-to-Africa migration about 3000 years ago. Evidently, all over the world we share a slight Neanderthal heritage.

My favourite of these archaeology announcements, however, I think is the discovery of ancient footprints on the Norfolk coast last week. The footprints, which were found by Dr Ashton of the British Museum, are 800,000 years old and the oldest such found outside Africa. Study of the foot sizes suggests a family group, with one adult male and several smaller individuals, young males or perhaps females. 

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Looks just like the imprints you make on the beach (Courtesy of Martin Bates)

The prints were revealed by a rough tide washing away layers of gravel which had preserved them ever since they were made. Within two weeks these fleeting links to the past were washed away, with archaeologists racing against the clock in freezing conditions to record them before they vanished forever. 

What I find draws me to this find is the snapshot it provides of one moment. It flashes up in my mind so vividly, this group making their way barefoot across the landscape to -where? What were they thinking as they walked? Perhaps, like many families travelling today, they were having a big argument with Dad about whether they were going the wrong way and had got lost. 

Sentimental, perhaps, but it is this feeling that history is somehow linked to the present that intrigues and fascinates so many people. These are just a tiny selection of the new discoveries popping up in the news weekly, and it is nice to see that this year, academia is all guns ahead for announcing these important discoveries as much, and as publicly, as possible.

My old trowel.