Ur Digitization Project: January 2014

Personal Records, 1926
Continued Spotlight on Legrain’s travels
through his Letters and photos

We have now completed scanning the curatorial records of Father León Legrain, or at least those that most directly concern the ancient city of Ur. I have now read through many of them, particularly those sent to Penn Museum director George Gordon, and have begun placing them on UrCrowdsource.org for primary transcription by volunteers.

First page of Legrain letter to Gordon, 30 March 1926

First page of Legrain letter to Gordon, dated 30 March 1926

My last blog post covered photos and drawings by Legrain, claiming the ones in the post were made on his trip back from Ur in 1925. In fact, there are several letters in archives that prove that they were drawn in the following season, coming back from Ur in 1926; it is Legrain’s handwritten number 6 that looks like a 5 and not, as I had assumed, the other way around. A series of letters with clear dates cover the places he visited, the same ones he drew plus a few others, and they provide details on the modes of travel he used to traverse the distances.

So, apart from correcting my mistake in the previous blog, I want to share a bit more about this most interesting journey through Legrain’s words, and discuss one or two of the legs of the journey itself.

In a letter dated February 16, 1926, as the field season at Ur was winding down, Legrain mentions heavy rains that flooded the dig house. He says that after the storm, the house looked “a mess like the day after battle. We seat where we can, smoking, drinking liquor to get a little warmth, and writing home.” He mentions that the Victrola (78rpm record player) Gordon sent to them had gotten wet, but they wiped it dry, then “put on some of the best Jazz to cheer up a bit.”

By March 30, 1926, Father Legrain had boarded the S.S. Pierre Loti, a ship sailing from Beirut to Marseille. On board, he wrote again to Gordon explaining his journey thus far. He had left the site with Woolley and crew on March 18th. On the 19th, he was in Baghdad and “learned that a Nairn convoy was leaving the following Monday over Palmyra and Tripoli for Beyrouth.”

This statement intrigued me, so I set about to learn what a Nairn convoy was. It turns out that the Nairn Transport Company was a car (and later bus) service set up by Gerald and Norman Nairn, New Zealanders who had served with the British in WWI. After a failed attempt to sell cars in Beirut, they set up a kind of taxi service that became very successful, ferrying people across the desert. Their business expanded, and by 1923 they were taking on important customers like the British consul, and carrying mail (even at times gold bullion) in record time. The 550 mile trek from Baghdad to Damascus was made in convoys of cars over the course of three days. For an excellent article on this service, see this link.

Legrain Photo of the site of Palmyra in Syria, 1926.

Legrain Photo of the site of Palmyra in Syria, 1926.

Some troubles arose in 1926, the year Legrain took a Nairn convoy, with tribal uprisings being the chief concern. By the end of that year, the Nairns had to change the route they took. But Legrain describes his journey as successful: “We were a large party of four cars including a 7 passengers Limousine and Wednesday 24th we arrived at Beyrouth for lunch without the least trouble.” He seems to have enjoyed the stop at Palmyra, a Roman site in the Syrian Desert. Several of his photos show this impressive place, as does one undated and unlabeled drawing.

Legrain drawing, probably of Palmyra's colonnaded street.

Legrain drawing, probably of Palmyra’s colonnaded street.

The three-day trip cost thirty pounds, a substantial sum in those days. The boat trip to Marseille cost him almost exactly the same at thirty-one pounds. The exchange rate reported on the accounting Legrain made shows that one pound was equivalent to $4.86, making these trips each around $145. To put this in perspective, the trans-Atlantic ship back to the States was $225.

Legrain had about six weeks’ time off, which he was going to spend visiting family and traveling to other ancient sites: “My intention is to visit North Africa on my way but I will cross again from Marseille, which we reach tomorrow April 1st,” he said, and the drawings confirm that he did cross to Algeria and Tunisia. Legrain’s final report, dated June 8th, 1926, written when he was back at Penn recaps the journeys through the desert and across the water: “A three weeks trip enabled me to visit North Africa from Algiers to Tunis.” He then went on to London on April 26th to talk Ur publications with the British Museum. He left there on May 9th to return to New York and then Philadelphia.

For the updated map of Legrain’s travels in March-May of 1926, see this link.

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Archives Photo of the Week: Dreaming of Warm Weather


Yoni, Sherbro Island, Sierra Leone, 1937.
Penn Museum Image #24909

Philadelphia is cold. We were just hit with a snow storm, temperatures aren’t supposed to be above freezing for another week, and the thought of waiting outside for SEPTA just fills one with dread.

Let’s think some better thoughts: warm sun, beaches, swimming in the ocean. This week’s photo of the week lends itself perfectly to those thoughts.

Taken in 1937 in Sierra Leone, the image depicts a man demonstrating casting a net (usually deployed from a canoe) on a beach. The scene was captured by Henry Usher Hall, a curator at the Penn Museum from 1915 to 1935. During his time at the Museum, he led several expeditions in the field, including Siberia and Africa.

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Weapons and Fiber ID: Lapithos Survey Update

 The condition survey of artifacts from Lapithos, Cyprus continues. In my first post, I introduced the intricate lively designs on ceramic vessels by potters from the Bronze Age.

I recently took a break from pottery and turned to the handiwork of Cypriot metalsmiths. 320 pieces in the collection are comprised of metal. These include bowls, jewelry (which I will feature in an upcoming post), pins, tweezers and a series of tanged weapons. Most of the metals consist of copper or copper alloy, although some are made of iron, lead, silver and gold. Cyprus was famous for copper in the ancient world, which was mined in the Troodos Mountains (the blue marker on the map below) and exported across the Mediterranean.  The word copper itself is derived from the Greek name for Cyprus, Kupros. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a nice short article on the subject, here. Tombs excavated by the Penn Museum in Lapithos (red marker on the map below) had numerous copper weapons that are characteristic of the Early and Middle Cypriot Bronze Age (c. 2300 B.C.-1550 B.C.). British archaeologist Hector Catling was the first to classify these kinds of weapons as “swords, dirks and daggers with rat-tail tangs.”

Map of Cyprus

Map of Cyprus

Illustration of “rat-tanged weapons” in Cypriot Bronzework in the Mycenaean World by H.W. Catling (1964).

Illustration of “rat-tanged weapons” in Cypriot Bronzework in the Mycenaean World by H.W. Catling (1964).

According to Catling, these weapons would have been hammered from a rough casting. The manufacturing process—casting, annealing and hammering—was confirmed in later metallographic analysis of some of the Lapithos weapons. Here is a look at three examples of the tanged weapons:

sword, dagger, knife

A ”sword” (left), “dagger” (middle) and “knife” right, classified according to their size.

Luckily for us, these artifacts have not been highly cleaned, and some retain fragile evidence of organic binding on the tangs. The binding material, narrow strips and threads wrapped around the tang, would have been part of the original hafting, connecting the handle of the weapon to the blade. Below is a detail of binding material that has been preserved. In some cases the binding is preserved in the form of a pseudomorph, or “false form,” which occurs when copper corrosion forms around or replaces organic material. Even if the organic material completely deteiorates, its form can be  preserved in the corrosion. In other cases, the original organic material is still extant.


Binding on the tang

One of the daggers, which has heart-shaped shoulders and a hooked tang, has very well-preserved white thread. Below is an image of the dagger, and the area with the thread magnified under the microscope. The magnified image shows the preserved thread (with a notable “S” twist) embedded in concretions and corrosion on the surface.

Dagger 23-27-419, and preserved thread at the base of the tang, magnified 10.6X.

Dagger 32-27-419, and preserved thread at the base of the tang, magnified 10.6X.

Unexpectedly, a small sample of the thread was found mounted on a glass slide in storage with the object. Unfortunately no record of analysis of the sample appears to have been kept with the object. So curious to know more, I took the sample to our Artifact Lab and examined it under the polarized light microscope.  And this is what I saw…

Fiber sample in plane-polarized light, 400X

Fiber sample in plane polarized light, 400X


Fiber sample in crossed polarized light, 200X

Fiber sample in crossed-polarized light with full-wave fixed compensator.

Fiber sample in crossed polarized light with full-wave fixed compensator, 400X.

Polarized light microscopy is a key tool used in fiber identification. The dagger sample was examined in plane polarized light (top), crossed polarized light (middle) and crossed polarized light with a full-wave fixed compensator inserted (bottom). These different settings can highlight descriminating features of a fiber and aid in identifying what kind of plant or animal it comes from. For example, morphological features of this fiber are that it has a small lumen (tubular cavity) and nodular markings along the length of the shaft. An important optical feature is that the fibers are anisotropic–or shine brightly when viewed under crossed-polarized light and rotated. I was able to use polarized light microscopy to determine that the threads are made of a bast fiber, a classification of plant that includes hemp, flax and jute among others. Of the many bast fibers, the sample closely resembles known examples of flax. Flax has been used since antiquity to produce linen, and was highly common in the Mediterranean, so this possibility appears to be consistent with the object’s context. Flax is also the same fiber identified by Molly Gleeson, in a sample of wrappings from a falcon mummy.

Although not incredibly surprising, this fiber sample is a great example of what can be learned about an artifact if even only tiny traces of its original materials exist.

My work on the Lapithos collection is the focus of a Kress Fellowship. This Fellowship is supported by a grant from the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation, funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation

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Archives Photo of the Week: Bicycles, Horses, and a Golf Club


Nippur party
Penn Museum Image #184826

The excavations at Nippur, Iraq are some of the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s most well known explorations. The seasons at Nippur resulted in numerous important artifacts and a plethora of new data and knowledge. Very serious work, however, calls for very serious party time. This week’s photo captures some downtime somewhere between 1899 and 1900. Featured in the image are three bicycles, one tricycle, one horse, and one gentleman carrying a golf club. These archaeologists certainly knew how to have a good time.

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Archives Photo of the Week: Happy Holidays From The Archives


Eskimo children playing in the snow at 50 degrees below zero.
Penn Museum Image #11328

This week’s image really makes you feel the cold that December and January bring. This photograph features Eskimo children playing in the snow at 50 degrees below zero in Point Barrow, Alaska, 1917-1919.  Point Barrow is the northernmost point in the United States. The image was taken by William Van Valin, who led an expedition to Alaska, funded by John Wanamaker. Van Valin conducted archaeological excavations on mounds found in Point Barrow, but also collected artifacts and undertook ethnographic research.  Van Valin was also an avid photographer and amassed a large collection of photographs, which are now housed in the archives.

On behalf of the Penn Museum Archives, Happy Holidays!

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Syrian Archaeology

727px-Taller_Buddha_of_Bamiyan_before_and_after_destructionWe are all familiar with the images of the Buddhas of the Bamiyan region of Afghanistan as well as the heartbreaking image of the looting inside in the Baghdad Museum in 2003.

All political statements aside, Syria has joined this list of destruction and devastation in the midst of its own civil war. Friday’s UNESCO statement about illicit digging in and around Syrian archaeological sites comes as no surprise to those that are following the story; and it comes within a month or so of the UNESCO red list of Syrian artifacts.
The Penn Museum sponsored an excavation in Syria that many members of the museum’s Near East department excavated at, myself included, for many years. Tell es-Sweyhat afforded many of us a chance to visit many of the six UNESCO world heritage sites in the country: Aleppo, Bosra, Dmascus, the “Dead Cities,” Krak des Chevalier, and Palmyra. The images of looting become reminiscent of what we saw in Iraq during the last decade; most notable the site of Apamea.

As part of its first excavations, representatives of the Museum stopped in Palmyra in 1888, a desert oasis famous for its rebel queen, Zenobia, and purchased several pieces of what are known as Palmyrene Reliefs. Most museums have them, and they are once again appearing on the antiquities market, most recently in Beirut.

We have two such reliefs on display in our Roman Gallery (http://www.penn.museum/collections/list.php?id=1063). Why the Roman gallery, if these objects are from Syria? Because they date to height of the Roman Empire. Of the two on display, I really love B8904, a single figure of a woman. You can see all of her jewelry, you can see her clothing, you can see her intricately woven hair—there is something wonderfully personal about her, and when you come to visit her, and stand in front her, you will see it, too.

The country of Syria, for those of us lucky enough to have been there, is so much more than the civil war that is going on right now. It contains the history of the world, pieces you don’t expect, to marvelous architecture that has lasted through to today. I invite you to look at our pieces, to see the Syria that was, and to help us preserve the world’s history.

For more information read Palmyrene Funerary Sculptures at Penn.

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Archives Photo of the Week: Hi!


“Hi!” (Tikal, Guatemala). Drawing by Alfred Bendiner, 1960. Pen and ink on paper.
Penn Museum Image #148901

This week’s image is an illustration by Alfred Bendiner, a Philadelphia cartoonist. He received his Bachelor and Master of Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania. Later in his career, Bendiner served as an artist-architect for the Museum’s archaeological expeditions to Tepe Gawra and Khafajeh in Iraq in 1936 and to Tikal in Guatemala in 1960. His drawings while in the field were donated to the Museum by his late wife, Elizabeth Bendiner. Bendiner also served as a newspaper caricaturist for Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Sunday Bulletin Magazine, Philadelphia Record, and Washington Times Herald.

This particular drawing, entitled “Hi!”,  was done during the 1960 Tikal Expedition using pen and ink on paper. The drawing depicts two arms holding up a statuette from a hole in the ground, while archaeologists and photographers gather all around (hanging from trees and peering over rocks) to see what has been found. Alfred Bendiner himself and his wife, Elizabeth, are drawn seated next to the statue.

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Archives Photo of the Week: Rain


Farmer with Rain Coat and Daikons
Penn Museum Image #182131

It’s a rainy day in Philadelphia, so an umbrella and rain gear are a must today. This week’s photo features a farmer who is ready for the rain. The image is a studio portrait of a Japanese man wearing a palm-fiber rain coat, with a hoe over his shoulder and a bunch of daikons (white radishes) on it. He holds a wooden bucket in his other hand. The daikon greens are hand-colored. This particular image was taken in 1890s as an albumen print and was donated  to the Penn Museum Archives by Dr. Hilary Conroy.

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Contests of will between “task master” director Gordon and his artist M.L. Baker

George Byron Gordon, Museum Director, 1910-1927, "a good chief." Penn Museum image #19134

George Byron Gordon, Museum Director, 1910-1927, “a good chief.” Penn Museum image #19134

University Museum artist (1908-1936) M. Louise Baker, acclaimed for her archaeological illustration of Mayan pottery and Nubian and Ur excavation finds, considered Museum Director Dr. George Byron Gordon to be “a hard task master but a good boss, appreciative and withal, most likable.” However, Gordon had a well-deserved reputation for being tight with money, except for new acquisitions, and he and his strong-willed, very accomplished staff artist had their differences of opinions.  Baker submitted her bill for 91 hours at one dollar per hour in a letter of September 27, 1920.  She admitted that this was an advance over her former wage, but added that her museum work had taken years of training, therefore “I am quite sure that thee will agree that… I am, at least, worthy of a wage equal to that of a coal wagon driver.” (Baker was from a staunch Quaker background.)

M. Louise Baker painting the "Luna" Vase (Chama, Maya), Guatemala City, 1931. Museum image #176327

M. Louise Baker painting the “Luna” Vase (Chama, Maya), Guatemala City, 1931. Museum image #176327

In her unpublished autobiography, Louise Baker wrote that “when I was available he [Gordon] would have no other artist.  But he was at times most exasperating and twice I fired myself furious at his attitude.”

Maya Chama pottery vase, painted by M. Louise Baker, 1933. Penn Museum image #165148

She related that Gordon would not tolerate visiting during business hours, and on one occasion evicted a restless intern from her office and locked her door from the outside to prevent repetition.  “My office was small, the day exceedingly hot, the electric fan I had requested weeks before had not arrived.  The sum total was too much.  In a trice I slipped from my stool, donned my hat and started for home; unfortunately I had to pass his office door.  Looking up and sensing revolt, he sprang to his feet and demanded the cause of this early departure.  I replied curtly –‘I have never been locked in my office and I’m not going to begin now and in this heat!’ To my amazement, he promptly agreed ‘You are quite right Miss Baker’ and before I realized it I was being personally returned to my office with apologies and solicitations en route. His electric fan was transfered to my room with in the hour.”

The Throne Room in the Palace of Merenptah, Memphis, Egypt, watercolor reconstruction by M. Louise Baker. Penn Museum image #150556

The Throne Room in the Palace of Merenptah, Memphis, Egypt, watercolor reconstruction by M. Louise Baker. Penn Museum image #150556

Gordon’s death from a fall on January 30, 1927 “was a hard blow,” Baker wrote in her diary.  “He was always so aggressive and dominant that I can’t see myself at the Museum without his presence filling the whole place.  A tremendous loss all along the line.” She added on February 3, 1927, when “the gong rang,” the gates were locked, and everybody at the Museum went to his funeral, “we lost a good friend.”

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Archives Photo of the Week: Happy Turkey Day!


No. 30. Vue panoramique de Constantinople et Pont de Galata [Panoramic view of Constantinople and the Bridge of Galata]
Penn Museum Image #166866

Happy Turkey Day!

What, you expected an actual turkey?

This week’s photo is a view of Istanbul (then Constantinople) and the Galata Bridge. The Galata Bridge spans the Golden Horn, an inlet of the Bosphorus Strait, the waterway that separates Europe and Asia. The Galata Bridge is now in it’s fifth build, with this photograph showing the third iteration. The image was taken circa 1890 by the photographers Jean Pascal Sebah and Policarpe Joaillier. Jean Pascal Sebah was the son of famous photographer Pascal Sebah. The Penn Museum Archives houses a large collection of prints by both generations of the Sebah’s.


On behalf of everyone at the Penn Museum, we wish you a very happy Thanksgiving.


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