Ur Digitization Project: November 2013

Father Legrain’s Records
Spotlight on travel sketches
Trip back from Ur, 1925

In both the 1924-25 and the 1925-26 seasons, Father León Legrain was the epigrapher at Ur–the person whose expertise was in cuneiform script and whose duty it was to investigate the clay tablets as they were found. Father Legrain was curator of the Babylonian section at the Penn Museum throughout the Ur excavations, and even when he was not in the field with Woolley he was often working on artifacts from Ur at Penn, assisting with the division of finds between London and Philadelphia, and assisting with publication of Ur material.

Father Legrain working on cuneiform tablets at the Ur Dighouse

Father Legrain working on cuneiform tablets at the Ur Dighouse

Many of Legrain’s records are stored in the Penn Museum archives and we at the Ur project have been scanning them. Not only have we found his notes on figurines, sealings and other inscribed pieces, but we have also come across his personal photos and drawings he made in his trips to the site of Ur itself.

Around 40% of Legrain’s photos cover his travels to and from the site. Many are difficult to identify precisely, but he also sketched many places he visited and labeled them. Several of these drawings have place name and date, providing us with a tangible look at a particular trip. They were all done in March or April of 1925 as Legrain was coming back from Ur at the end of that season (dig seasons tended to run from Oct or Nov through Feb or Mar, so as to avoid the severe heat).

Google map showing places sketched by Father Legrain in 1925. Click for link to interactive Google map.

Google map showing places sketched by Father Legrain in 1925. Click for link to interactive Google map.

The link on the above image takes you to a Google maps page that shows the places named and the order in which Legrain traveled to them according to the dates on the drawings. The exact dates are (click on any of the links to see the drawing of that place; use the browser back key to return to this text):

March 1, 1925 — Ur Ziggurat — Iraq

March 18, 1925 — Samawa — Iraq

undated — Baghdad (unlabeled but identifiable as Katah bridge)

March 23, 1925 — Sabkha — Syria

April 3, 1925 — Sausset les Pins — France

April 6, 1925 — Marseille — France

April 8, 1925 — Bouzaria — Algeria

April 13, 1925 — Biskra — Algeria

April 20, 1925 — Tunis — Tunisia

It appears he was traveling mostly in French controlled or at least partly French speaking areas and visiting archaeological sites before returning to the States. Some of the 5s in his writing of the year 1925 look like 6s, but all of the drawings are made on similar paper and were likely done in succession in the same trip. The fact that they make a clear line of travel also supports this hypothesis. Legrain would have traveled to Samawa, thence to Baghdad, perhaps by car (though there was a train depot at Ur Junction by 1925) and on to Syria, likely by train. From the coast of Syria he probably caught a boat to Marseille, spent some time in France and then to French North Africa.

Discovering the places Father Legrain visited is an interesting aside to the excavation, showing the amount of time needed to travel between places (though he was likely visiting at least in the latter half of the trip, and so the dates don’t always represent travel times). Though the trip itself has little to do with the archaeology of Ur, the Ur project is not solely documenting the specific artifacts, buildings, and excavation progress of the site; we are also recording as much as we can about the people who were on the dig, gaining insight into their lives and work and the modern history surrounding Ur.


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Archives Photo of the Week: Remembering John F. Kennedy

June 12, 1964 Philadelphia Inquirer Article Regarding the Penn Museum’s Exhibition of the John F. Kennedy Library

As the nation remembers John F. Kennedy today on the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination, the Penn Museum Archives looks back to an exhibition of the late president’s library. From June 9 to 12, 1964, the Penn Museum hosted a collection of JFK’s doodles, writings, papers, furniture (including his famous rocking chair), photographs, and other mementos as part of a twenty three city exhibition. Attendance for the stop in Philadelphia was extraordinary: lines wrapped along outside of the museum with throngs of visitors waiting to glimpse a peak into the life of a beloved president. Many of the objects inside the exhibition were eventually accessioned as part of the collection of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

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Mysteries of Kourion Revisited: a Mystery Solved!

Front view of 49-12-664

Front view of 49-12-664

Awhile back I wrote a post, Mysteries of Kourion, about an unusual object from Kaloriziki Kourion (an archaeological site on Cyprus), which rattles when moved.  Last week I got to revisit the question of what exactly is making that noise, as this object along with a number of objects from the Egyptian section were taken on an excursion for X-radiography and CT scanning.  Although this object was not CT scanned during our trip, it was X-rayed using a system similar to what we will have as part of the soon to begin renovations of the conservation labs here at the museum.  You can learn about one of the Egyptian artifacts and the CT scanning from the Artifact Lab Blog post, Looking Inside our Falcon Mummy.


X-rays can be used not only to reveal internal structure, but also to draw inferences about the materials used to make an object.  This is because to make an x-ray an object is exposed to radiation of a known energy level and the X-rays that pass through the object hit the detector (for digital anyway, it used to be film) that is placed under the object.  How well the X-rays penetrate the object depends on the material it is made of.  Areas on the X-ray that appear white are areas where the X-rays do not penetrate.  This property is known as radio opacity.  The X-ray below shows very clearly that there are spheres of roughly equal diameter on the interior of the object, which are responsible for the rattling noise.   These spheres are made of a material that is blocking the x-rays more than the ceramic.  We took a second X-ray of this object at an even higher energy level and because the spheres remained white, they are most likely made of lead.


This X-ray also shows details revealing how the object was made.  Highlighted in blue below are thinner areas on the ceramic body that make a spiral pattern.  This type of pattern is made when an object is made on some sort of wheel, although not necessary a fast wheel.


For more about Cypriot ceramics see this recent post on ceramics from Lapithos.

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It Was All Quite Different: the Friendship of Lisa Lyons and Vicki Baum

“Dear Elisabeth, If you had known what a nuisance I’m turning out to be you wouldn’t have started this correspondence, or would you, in spite of it all?” (4/10/1958)


Vicki Baum, 1950s, Penn Museum Image #243434

The Penn Museum archives received Vicki Baum’s letters at long last and quite by chance. When Lisa Lyons died, she left her records to the Museum, which were duly filed in the archives. We knew Vicki and Lisa were closest friends in the last years of Vicki’s life, but only one letter from the author came with the collection. In August 2013, the rest of the letters were found behind a filing cabinet in the office of the Ban Chiang project.

Lisa Lyons was not in the habit of keeping copies of her letters, so in all of her correspondence she is silent, except for what can be inferred by the answers she elicited. This is frustrating to the extreme, especially when those in her acquaintance treasured her friendship so dearly. In the wise words of Vicki, “We didn’t discuss you, other than saying you’re a rare, fine girl and we’re glad to know you, and your letters to me are a shining delight” (10/12/1958).

Vicki Baum and Elizabeth Lyons enjoyed the kind of female friendship that some claim does not exist, formed largely through correspondence. Vicki Baum, 70 years old when she began writing to the young academic, Lisa Lyons, clearly found an invaluable companion in her pen pal. Vicki wrote almost daily letters at some points to her friend, making up for the fact that 3000 miles separated them.


Lisa Lyons in Thailand, 1960s, Penn Museum Image #194918

Vicki resided in California while Lisa stayed on the east coat. Both women traveled a great deal. The two women drew strength from one another. In this Mad Men era, Vicki was a fiery elder Austrian author, with strong opinions and a dirty sense of humor. Lisa, on the other hand, was an intelligent woman who refused to be pushed to the side in the male-dominated world of academia and museum studies.

Vicki Baum, or Hedwig Lert, was a prestigious female novelist. She originally trained as a concert harpist in Austria, but quickly her writing overtook her musical career. Her most famous novel, Menshen im Hotel or Grand Hotel, was an international success; it was made into a Broadway play and then a Hollywood production with a star-studded cast. Her writing was never taken seriously as literature, but was rather seen as popular fiction. However her work now is undergoing a renaissance as Vicki Baum becomes recognized as an early feminist. Vicki moved to New York and then California with her husband, Richard Lert, and two children in 1931, riding the success of Grand Hotel. Vicki worked as a screenwriter and her husband, an established conductor, became conductor of the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra.

As part of the intellectual sphere in Los Angeles, Vicki had many contacts in the museum and university circles. She met Lisa Lyons at a lecture series run by her friend Barna,[*] and struck up an unlikely friendship. The young Asian art expert and the elder Austrian author connected first over East Asian statues, and then went on to discuss a myriad of other topics. Vicki writes about her garden forever, her Asian poppies and orchid tree and frangipani. Lisa sends descriptions of her surroundings to her friend, of windy skies, dawn over the Brooklyn Bridge, and her travels. Vicki writes about her tiresome daughters-in-law. Lisa writes about her frustrations with her art collection and her teaching job.

Vicki speaks often about her displeasure for the role of housewife and frustration at the men in her life; she lived a life confined by the expectations of an older generation. Her entire extended family seems to barge in on her life at unexpected times, unannounced, and with little respect for their talented matriarch. She comes off as the cliché of the unsatisfied 1950s housewife with the multiple roles expected of her:

“What do you mean how I am when I am working? I hope I’m exactly as I always am. I’m a seasoned wife, mother, grandmother, auxiliary secretary, cook and gardener- I never let my work interfere with my life.” (10/8/59)

Vicki Lert sounds like a Deborah Spar of her time, seeing the futility of juggling her multiple roles. Baum is atypical in every way, and especially for her time. She acted in ways that would be eccentric in our time but seemed positively outlandish in hers. Talking about her frustration with her friend Carl:

“I can see you chuckle about my grim and embittered ways of acting like the kind and helpful matriarch I’m supposed to be. It’s not the mask and costume I chose for myself, life forced it upon me. It pinches and slips like your size 12 tights” (6/16/1958).

I think this is the point from which Lisa and Vicki’s friendship really stems. Lisa, who was battling her way through male-dominated academia, really spoke to Vicki, who also seemed to swim against the current in social expectations. Vicki calls Lisa, “my dear darling non-conformist” (3/16/1960); this is high praise from a woman who makes a mosaic of pelicans eating their young and writes about the sex lives of her art objects.

Letter from Vicki Baum to Lisa Lyons, April 1958

Letter from Vicki Baum to Lisa Lyons, April 1958

It seems that Vicki brought out the wordsmith in Lisa during their correspondence. Lisa Lyons sent her manuscript of the murder mystery The Bangkok Case (housed unpublished in the Penn Museum archives) to Vicki, who gave pointers and pulled no punches with her recommendations to her young friend. In turn, Vicki also discusses her struggle with her own writing.

“I found it occasionally a relief to find me work as far removed from my vocation… And use my spare time for real work. That way nobody and nothing can hurt one. But, of course, I’m a writer and everything is grist for my mill; I’d dearly love, for instance, to get a job at Chin Lee’s noodle factory, wouldn’t you?” (3/16/1960)

While they are corresponding, Vicki is working on her autobiography, It was all quite different, (Es war alles ganz anders). Vicki writes about her writing, the frustration she feels with her biography and having to relearn German after years in the States. She saw herself as funny and odd, out of place in glamorous Los Angeles. “I just can’t seem to take myself serious. Where ever I essayed a little self portrait in any of my books, it’s always a funny, very small part. Sort of like Hitchcock, just passing, fat and sly, the screen in his films” (10/8/1959). Vicki was a writer at heart, as is clear in her letters. Her commentary is always apt and entertaining. Her descriptions are wonderful and she knows how to tell a story. But whether it was her subject matter or her gender, her books were dismissed by more serious writers, despite her international following. It’s no wonder she felt frustrated with her work and resented her profile as an author.

The most touching exchanges however, come about in 1959. Lisa, suffering from what she thought to be a flu, went to see her uncle, a doctor, and was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time. Vicki suffered from leukemia for most of her adult life, going through cycles of remission and reoccurrence. She had much empathy for her young friend, with the black humor of a survivor. When the doctors first took samples, Vicki sent Lisa a magic ring she received from a Balinese priest for good luck;”My dear, of course you may wear the ring wherever you wish, through your nose, if you’re in the mood” (4/22/1959). Memorably, when she was informed of Lisa’s operation, Vicki sent back a telegram stating: “MY DEAR NOTHING WRONG WITH AMAZONE BEAUTY” (6/17/1959). Vicki tried to keep Lisa entertained in the hospital and even counseled her through her worries on how her stay might appear: “And don’t kid yourself, nobody will think you had piles, but they will all be sure you’re having an abortion” (4/22/1959). But despite her cutting jokes, Vicki’s concern is real. She writes, “If there’s a moment when you’d like to hold on to my hand – it’s stretched out to you across all the miles and waiting” (6/12/1959). It is here where you see the true depth of their friendship. Vicki is sincerely concerned for her friend, but still cracking jokes, trying to cheer up her friend in the best way she knew.

Telegraph from Vicki Baum to Lisa Lyons, June 1959

Telegraph from Vicki Baum to Lisa Lyons, June 1959

Vicki has an acid wit and this is most wonderfully expressed when dealing with the bigger names in her social circle. Vicki was no beauty, but she had an intellect that was unrivalled when surrounded by the Hollywood celebrities of the time. What follows is my favorite:

“And for the first of my Mammoth Hollywood parties, at Marion Davis’ palace at the beach, I wore what I still consider a stunning number from Klein’s. Terribly expensive, 30 bucks, white silk with huge blue flowers, long and low cut and a little train and a little cape, oh so beautiful. And in marched Joan Crawford in the same dress, frock or gown or what have you, and I bet hers was 200 dollars, and her great entree and her evening was spoiled while I didn’t notice until they brought me next day’s gossip column.” (10/15/1959)

Sometimes Lisa encounters people she has heard about from Vicki. She apparently recounts running into Agnes de Mille, the famous choreographer, at a New York party. Vicki responds, “I giggled as I imagined you facing Agnes de Mille, as to which (whom?) there is no more monumentally self-centered and out-of-proportion woman within my ken. But such a great choreographer and so articulate in her writing” (3/16/1959).

So it’s no wonder that Vicki didn’t take to the Los Angeles/Hollywood scene. Perhaps this is why she sought intellectual friendships, even across long distances. Vicki had been a boxer when she was in Austria and effectively supported her whole family. She had little to no patience for the phonies of Hollywood:

“[F]ake, pretense and pretensions are the things hardest to bear up with for me. Give me a good soundly drunk streetwalker, a colony of lepers, a bunch of head hunters (who are the most formal and polite people, as you know) or a ward full of madmen – I’ll get along fine and we’ll soon find that we’ve got a lot in common, worthwhile to chat about. But heavens save me from fakes and phonies, amen.” (1/4/1960)

In writing about art Vicki claims an affinity for the ancient artisans; “as a rule I understand primitive people better than those of Madison Ave” (9/22/1958). When discussing Lisa’s possible move to California to look for museum or teaching work, Vicki strongly warns against it. She cautions: “The mental climate of this town is godawful, and I don’t mean Hollywood, but this whole octopus of Los Angeles” (10/27/1958).

The friendship between the two women is palpable. I feel that each found a kinship in the other. These women were ambitious and brilliant in a time when that was not often recognized in women. Though they could not visit much, they missed one another dearly. Vicki writes about Lisa’s trip to Bangkok, “I don’t think you’ll be by far away because, as you know, on clear days I can see the pacific from my lanai, and what’s an ocean between friends, after all?” (5/21/1960).

Letter from Vicki Baum to Lisa Lyons, May 1960

Letter from Vicki Baum to Lisa Lyons, May 1960

Vicki Baum’s last letter to Lisa Lyons is dated two weeks before her death from the persisting leukemia. She does not mention any suffering. She worries that her letter is not going to reach Thailand, and Lisa. She suggests wearing no underwear on hot days. She compares writing to being a brood sow, being used for litters and milk. She signs off, “Please, be happy” (8/4/1960). It’s best to think of her writing in her garden or in her study, looking out across the Pacific Ocean, thinking of her young adventurous friend whose travels had only just begun.


Lisa Lyons in Thailand, 1960s, Penn Museum Image #243433

Elisabeth Lyons (1912-1989) was a scholar of Asian art.  Her work with the US State Department took her to Asia in 1955, and in Thailand she found a second home, where she also assisted with the creation of the National Museum in Bangkok.  She came to the Museum in 1968 as Visiting Lecturer, and helped establish the Museum’s project at Ban Chiang, Thailand.  She eventually became Keeper of the Asian Section, a position she held until her death in 1989.


[1] “Our relationship is based very simply and successfully on letting Barna talk until I drop with exhaustion. My, what a bitch I can be, can’t I?” (5/29/1958)


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An ancient eye for design: Bronze Age ceramics from Lapithos, Cyprus

Black polished juglet

Black polished juglet

Prehistoric potters from Cyprus had a keen eye for design. Concentric circles, diamonds, and zig-zag patterns make some of the tiniest vessels come alive. I am Sara Levin, Kress Fellow in conservation, performing a condition survey of artifacts from Lapithos Vrysi tou Barba. This site in the north of the country is home to Bronze and Iron Age tombs that were excavated by the Penn Museum under the leadership of Bert Hodge Hill from 1931-2. The majority of finds are stored here at the Museum, although some remain in Cyprus.

Many of the vessels are red and black polished wares, which were principal techniques during the Early and Middle Bronze Age on the island (2300-1650 BC). They are handmade, covered with slip (a suspension of clay in water), and often incised with designs. Burnishing gives the surface a fine lustre. Some vessels are dual-colored, with exteriors that are red, a black rim, and black interiors. This dual-colored technique may have been accomplished by firing the vessels upside down in sand, allowing the exterior to oxidize to a red color during firing and the interior to fire black. Many of the incised designs were filled with white material after firing to make patterns stand out, like the juglet above and bowl below.

Red polished III black-topped bowl.  http://www.penn.museum/collections/object/170214

Red polished III black-topped bowl.

Some vessels resemble animals, like this bird-like askos below with zig-zags, lines and dashes accentuating its form.

Zoomorphic vessel

Zoomorphic vessel

Although there are well-known examples of terracotta figurines on Cypriot Bronze Age pottery, such as one which was exhibited at the Smithsonian in 2010, anthropomorphic examples in the Lapithos collection are few. However, I came across a fabulous one recently. It is a jug that features a tiny face emerging out of its bulbous body!

Detail of the incised face and surrounding decoration.

Detail of the incised face and surrounding decoration.

With its high eyebrows, wide eyes, and what appear to be two hands next to its cheeks, I like to think of this little lug as The Scream of the Lapithos collection.

Linear and geometric patterns remained dominant throughout the Bronze Age. In a later characteristic type of pottery, white painted wares, decoration is painted with a dark pigment on a pale surface rather than incised. Here is a fine example with criss-crossing, cross-hatching and snake-like patterns, not to mention a beautiful form:

White painted III juglet

White painted jug

I hope you’ve enjoyed taking a peak into the Lapithos collection. If you would like to read more about Cypriot motifs here at Penn, see this blog post by Tessa de Alarcon from September about artifacts from Kourion. And if you would like to see more examples of Cypriot ceramics, a website from the Harvard Semitic Museum allows you to search objects from the Cesnola Collection by type.

I am now moving on to surveying metal artifacts, so stay tuned for ancient daggers and swords from this prehistoric necropolis.

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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To Hold in the Heart & Live from the Archives!

kintner laos f16-0126 still frame
Pang Yang Her, a student at the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee got in touch with us in the Archives about footage from the Watson Kintner collections, Thailand/Laos 1957.

She is in the midst of cutting what is becoming a beautiful short film, narratives of Hmong women and their escape from their home country toward the U.S. Her mother is one of the three ladies who tell of hardships and toughness getting from one side to the other.

From the filmmaker: I never knew that reaching out to a museum for rights of footage would lead me to having the chance to share the story I grew up hearing outside of Wisconsin. It makes me really excited and thankful for all of the help I’ve been given. I hope people will feel the same courage and bravery that I feel when I listen to these stories of the Hmong women.

We hope to show this affecting film, tentatively titled To Hold in the Heart, in our Live from the Archives! occasional series.

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A New Narrative for the Glass Lantern Slide

"Hindu Lady" leans against a table in a house with a bouquet of flowers by her side. This is one of the many glass lantern slides in the Penn Museum archives collection. (Museum Image No. 215377)

“Hindu Lady” leans against a table in a house, with a bouquet of flowers by her side. This is one of the many glass lantern slides in the Penn Museum archives collection. (Penn Museum image No. 215377)

Although I have only been working in the Penn Museum Archives for a couple months, I have become completely enveloped with the aura of historical narrative in the photos and documents we work so hard to preserve. Over time, however, there are many objects that become obsolete in the presentation of this narrative. The glass plate lantern slide is one such outmoded item that has largely come into disuse due to advances in photo technology, and the archives possess approximately 25,000 of them. These plates were once projected by professors in lectures for classes or for public entertainment from the late 1880s to the early 1930s (even after they were no longer made, they were still used at the museum through the 1950s, and one professor was still using them in the 1990s).  As a precursor to the 35mm film slide and our modern day PowerPoint presentations, the images on these slides were developed on a small glass surface, usually 3×4 inches, and covered by another glass pane and taped shut. Predating color photography, many of the slides are hand-painted, with some being duplicates of other images (original museum photographs, copies of drawings, or pages from books) as well as rare or unique images, for which neither negatives nor prints survive.

This hand painted lantern slide shows an orangutan in Dutch west Borneo, taken during the Furness, Harrison, and Hiller Expedition to Broneo in 1896. (Museum Image No. 216299)

This hand painted lantern slide shows an orangutan in Dutch west Borneo, taken during the Furness, Harrison, and Hiller expedition to Borneo in 1896. (Penn Museum image No. 216299)

Over the years, the archives have received a number of slides from outside the museum and from other departments at Penn. While some of these additions have been integrated into the archives’ collection, many fall outside of the scope of our photo collection. The question then developed of what to do with these slides that do not belong in the collections but still hold aesthetic value and speak to a sector of art that has altogether disappeared. My solution to this dilemma is what I like to call the “Lantern Slide Re-purposing Project” as reconciliation between the uselessness of outdated technology and a narrative we can still derive from it.

I began this project with the simple intent of making lantern slides relevant. Putting on my crafting cap, I got to work trying to create a function for these items that highlighted the value of their structure.  What I came up with was two fairly basic projects that turned these obsolete lantern slides into a unique home decoration. With a little craft glue and some basic geometry, I was able to construct mini lantern slide lamp shades and window pane displays, both encompassing the essentiality of light in capturing the true beauty of the photos.

A new use for the lantern slide includes this mini light shade created with craft glue. It is a simple project that illuminates the photos of the lantern-slide.

A new use for the lantern slide includes this mini light shade created with craft glue. It is a simple project that illuminates the photos of the lantern slide.

I put my inventions to the test during the museum open house on October 23, and I offered starter kits for these two projects to anyone who wanted to take some lantern slides and create their own crafts. Many people sifted through the boxes of slides we had to offer, looking for photos with certain themes for their projects. Some visitors even intended to give their creations to family members who might be interested in a particular subject, such as Roman statues.  There is no doubt that friends and family who see the slides will be curious about them and their history. Throughout this process more ideas were formulated for re-purposing the slides including: coasters, pencil boxes, and mobiles. Most of these products are things we have in our homes anyways, so instead of buying them mass produced from a department store, why not give them their own unique character? The dust-collecting lantern slides finally have an opportunity for new life, and there are still loads of them available in the archives for anyone who wants to embark on their own re-purposing journey.



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Archives Photo of the Week: Fun Find


Photo Album
Image taken by Eric W. Schnittke

Every so often, you stumble across an oddity in the archives. This week, I found something that piqued my interest. A researcher was visiting the archives, looking through records from Erich Schmidt’s expedition to Persepolis, Iran. Part of this particular collection is a set of photo albums containing prints that Schmidt had collected  during his travels across Iran. One of the albums had a page from a musical score stuck to it. Being something a musical theatre geek, I recognized what the music was from right away. The page is part of the score from the 1927 musical Show Boatparticularly from the song “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine”. As you can see, someone at one point had tried to remove the page from the cover, but I’m glad part of it remains. Though we don’t know how the page happened to become stuck to the cover of the album, it adds an interesting touch and story to a part of our collection.

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Archives Photo of the Week: Halloween


Scarecrow with cow’s skull
Penn Museum Image #83373

Halloween was yesterday and the Penn Museum Archives wanted to leave you with one last treat for the holiday. One of the spookiest images in our collection, this photo is of a cow’s skull mounted on a stick to act as a scarecrow in Damghan, Iran. Damghan is near the site Tepe Hissar, where the Penn Museum excavated from 1931-1932. The excavation was under the direction of Erich Schmidt (no relation to the Google founder) who had dug throughout Iraq and Iran during that time period.

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The Salty Pots of Ur and the Desalination Station

In July, I joined the Ur Digitization Project.  As a part of this project, I have been working on a condition assessment of the ceramics from Ur.  In doing the condition assessment I am looking at, measuring, and evaluating the stability of every ceramic vessel in the Museum’s collection from Ur.  So far I have examined over half of the ceramics, and found that the main issue is soluble salts.  I know when we all hear salt we think table salt.  This is not too far off as table salt, or sodium chloride, is a soluble salt.  This just means that the salt is soluble in water and in many cases is also hygroscopic (a big word for “absorbs moisture from the air”).  We have all seen how salt clumps in salt shakers and won’t shake out nicely when it’s humid.  This happens because the salt is hygroscopic.

The salt in this shaker has clumped because the salt is hygroscopic

The salt in this shaker has clumped because the salt is hygroscopic

You are probably wondering “Why this is a problem for ceramics?”  Archaeological ceramics can absorb salts through moisture in the burial environment, and once they are excavated and dry out, the salts crystallize.  If they crystallize inside the pores of the ceramic they can cause damage.  If the ceramic is then exposed to changing relative humidity, these salts can go through cycles of dissolution as they pull moisture from the air and re-crystallization when they dry out, causing even more damage over time.

The pot on the left shows spalling.  This happens when the salts pop off circular patches of the surface.  You can see a spalled area in the front with the white salt crystals in the middle.  The pot on the right is delaminating.  This is also caused by the crystallization of salts.  In this case they crystallize in a single plane, pushing off thin layers of the ceramic.

The pot on the left shows spalling. This happens when the salts pop off circular patches of the surface. You can see a spalled area in the front with the white salt crystals in the middle. The pot on the right is delaminating. This is also caused by the crystallization of salts. In this case they crystallize in a single plane, pushing off thin layers of the ceramic.

To stabilize the salty pots from Ur, I have been working on setting up a desalination station.  This involves setting up an area where the pots can be safely soaked.  Because these salts are soluble, they can be removed by soaking the object in water.  The images below walk through the process I have been using to stabilize objects like the ones shown above.

Consolidation of a ceramic from Ur

Consolidation of a ceramic from Ur

Because the surfaces of the ceramics are so unstable, these objects have to be consolidated first with a dilute adhesive that is not soluble in water (otherwise the consolidant would be removed during desalination along with the salts).  I have been using Paraloid B-72™ in acetone that I apply drop-wise so that I can control where it goes and how much is applied.

Ceramic vessels soaking in deionized water

Ceramic vessels soaking in deionized water

After the pots are consolidated and the adhesive has fully dried (I usually wait a few days after consolidation to be sure), each object is weighed and placed in a known volume of deionized water.  The pots are weighed and the water measured so that I can calculate when they are ready to come out of the water and compare the data from pot to pot.

Checking the conductivity of the water during desalination

Checking the conductivity of the water during desalination

I use a conductivity meter to record how much salt is being extracted from each object.  Every time I take a reading, I note the date and time as well so that I can plot the data on a graph.  The length of time each pot soaks depends on various factors (weight, volume of water, how salty it is), but to give you an idea, they can stay in the water for a week or more.  Once each pot has been desalinated I pull it out of the water, rinse it off, and let it dry.

Ceramics drying after desalination

Ceramics drying after desalination

If the surface is unstable after the pot has dried, I do some final consolidation.  Once the treatment is complete, I take the final treatment pictures and the pot goes back to its home in storage.

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