Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Exploring the Archaeology Collections

What's in a box? In the vast and varied collections of Leeds Museums and Galleries you could find just about anything.

I am privileged to volunteer with the archaeology collection where I am helping to add object records to the computer database. I’ve catalogued everything from swords and arrowheads to brooches and coins. Currently, I’m looking at finds from a Roman site at Wattle Syke, excavated as part of the A1 Bramham to Wetherby upgrade work.

The site has been researched and published before being deposited at the museum. I’ve been working through the publication, pencilling in the new museum numbers and creating a record for each object on the database. As well as the identification, I’m typing in where on the site each object was found so they can be related back to excavation results. Digital record photos are also added.

This is a fascinating chance to open up the boxes and the bags and look at some really good Roman finds first hand. Reading the finds identifications and specialist reports is a great experience, teaching me what things are and what they can tell us.

The objects are made from a range of materials and cover all aspects of Roman life. Below are some favourites from my current box – the copper alloys.

Photograph of a Roman copper bracelet

The intricately decorated Roman brooch pictured above is in remarkable condition, despite dating from the 4th Century AD. The preservation of metal objects at Wattle Syke was very good, so much so that a lot of the metalwork was thought at first to be modern.  
Roman belt buckle decorated with horses' heads

Some of the objects need to be examined very closely in order to see the details. The picture on the right shows a belt buckle with horses’ heads decorating the frame. These features don’t show up very well on the object itself but were recognised by the researcher and have been highlighted in an illustration, which has been added to the database.

The object below is another good example of why having the specialist reports to hand is so informative. It was thought to be a pair of tweezers at the time of excavation but further investigation led to an expert identifying it as a clasp. An X-Radiograph of the object revealed two rivets between the arms which are not visible to the eye.

Illustration of a Roman copper alloy clasp

Roman copper alloy clasp

Finally this twisted Roman bracelet (below) is really interesting. It is broken, but here that is an advantage as it means we can see how it was made - by twisting two strands of copper alloy wire together.  We can say it was a right-hand twist because of the s shape the twist has formed, whereas a left hand twist would look like a 'z'.

Twisted copper alloy Roman bracelet

Objects from the past can tell us so much about the people who made and used them. I wonder what will be in the next box….

Monday, 13 April 2015

My Quest for Chinese Tigers at Leeds Museums

Objects do not easily give up their secrets, but for every secret they divulge many more are yet to be discovered. 

When I was asked to research an object in the Voices of Asia exhibition at Leeds City Museum, I was keen to find a small and little-known item, something that might have been previously overshadowed. I saw the small Chinese jade bowl and I was intrigued by it from the start.

I started reading up on Chinese jades, both online and in the reference library at Leeds Discovery Centre. I gained interesting insights in to the history of Jade carving in China, which dates back 6000 years, as well as a rough idea of when this particular bowl may have been made (Qing dynasty, somewhere between 1800-1880).

Researching jade carved characters
However, I soon noticed that insights were not answers. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the meaning of the bowl’s band of elusive carved characters. The more I researched the carvings the more ambiguous they seemed. I spent a long time examining the object in its case, and then looking around at other items in our collections or in the various books and online references on Chinese symbolism. This was all informative, but I was still no closer to finding out what those characters actually were.

In the end, I needed a closer look. The curator kindly let me take the bowl from its case. Carefully tilting the bowl this way and that, I saw that the figures seemed more muscular than the sinewy lizard-like forms I had imagined, with strong defined spines and large feet. 

Small carved lines on the base of the limbs and on the back of the head suggested fur, and not scales. There was something distinctly feline about the characters.

I took several pictures for our records, and prepared some hand-drawn sketches of the characters. What surprised me was that this act of sketching, which involved focussing in on certain seemingly insignificant incisions, revealed features that I had previously taken for granted. Two highly defined incisions on the top of each of the heads, and several incisions on the limbs, started to look too deliberate to just be a suggestion of fur. They seemed to be tiger stripes.

After some time, a cup of tea, and a bit more online research, I was finally brave enough to write the words ‘carved tigers’ in the object description. This discovery illuminated the meaning of the carving. 

In China, the tiger is appreciated for its beauty and savage power, and is an appropriate symbol for a military person of high rank. The tiger is king of all the animals and can drive away evil demons.

Despite this small victory, I can’t help but feel that there is more that those characters can tell us. If anyone knows more please do tell!

By Sarah, World Cultures intern