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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The Penn Museum Collection – Past and Present

The Penn Museum Collection consists of archaeological and ethnographic materials from most regions of the world. The majority of the collection was formed in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century through hundreds of archaeological and anthropological expeditions.

On April 1, 1970, the Penn Museum fundamentally changed the Museum’s acquisitions policy by issuing the Pennsylvania Declaration, which states that no object be purchased unless accompanied by a pedigree, including “information about the different owners, place of origin, legality of export, etc.” Several months later, UNESCO adopted the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Since 1970, archaeological materials uncovered at foreign excavations, typically stay in their countries of origin. The Penn Museum Collection, however, continues to grow, primarily through donations, institutional exchanges, and the occasional purchase.

In the past two decades, the Penn Museum has accepted an average of 15 to 20 donations (including from bequests) each year, totaling more than 35,000 objects and photographic prints. Institutional donors, including The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the American Philosophical Society, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Commercial Museum (Philadelphia Civic Center Museum), have transferred approximately 30,000 objects to the Penn Museum, many of which had previously been on long-term loan. In addition, individual donors, who often collected objects while travelling or during their field expeditions, or inherited materials from earlier collectors, have donated about 5,000 objects and photographic prints to the Penn Museum.

Some of the objects acquired by the Penn Museum have travelled interesting journeys prior to entering the Collection. The Penn Museum gradually hopes to add to each of their stories as they help us to fulfill the Museum’s mission to transform understanding of the human experience.

Clockwise from left: 87-41-5 Hair Comb, Tonga Islands / 87-39-966 Hand Axe, France / 87-41-3 Bag, Tahiti. Over 2,600 objects were on long-term loan from the American Philosophical Society (APS) for several decades before being donated the Penn Museum in 1987. The donation was split into five subgroups, based on the collectors that originally donated the objects to the APS.  Some of the original collectors include Benjamin Franklin Peale and Titian Peale, the sons of Charles Wilson Peale. Others include Joel Poinsett (namesake of the poinsettia flower) and William Keating, who collected while they were travelling in Mexico in the 1820s. Poinsett was the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico and Keating was a geologist from the University of Pennsylvania who prospected for American mining interests.

Fig. 1 Clockwise from left: 87-41-5 Hair Comb, Tonga Islands / 87-39-966 Hand Axe, France / 87-41-3 Bag, Tahiti. Over 2,600 objects were on long-term loan from the American Philosophical Society (APS) for several decades before being donated the Penn Museum in 1987. The donation was split into five subgroups, based on the collectors that originally donated the objects to the APS. Some of the original collectors include Benjamin Franklin Peale and Titian Peale, the sons of Charles Wilson Peale. Others include Joel Poinsett (namesake of the poinsettia flower) and William Keating, who collected while they were travelling in Mexico in the 1820s. Poinsett was the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico and Keating was a geologist from the University of Pennsylvania who prospected for American mining interests.

Clockwise from top left: 96-10-14/ 96-10-15 / 96-10-19 / 96-10-16, Huipils, Guatemala. These cotton huipils are embroidered with colorful silk in registers depicting humans, animals, flowers, and geometric designs. These objects were collected by Williamina and Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee during a trip to Guatemala in 1934, and include 19 textiles. The group was donated to the Penn Museum in 1996 by their children, Maude de Schauensee and Mrs. Howard Lewis, in memory of their parents.

Fig. 2 Clockwise from top left: 96-10-14/ 96-10-15 / 96-10-19 / 96-10-16, Huipils, Guatemala. These cotton huipils are embroidered with colorful silk in registers depicting humans, animals, flowers, and geometric designs. These objects were collected by Williamina and Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee during a trip to Guatemala in 1934, and include 19 textiles. The group was donated to the Penn Museum in 1996 by their children, Maude de Schauensee and Mrs. Howard Lewis, in memory of their parents.

Clockwise from top: 97-12-5, Child’s ceremonial jacket (Tong), China / 97-12-7, Men’s jacket panel (Tong), China / 97-12-6, Women’s jacket panel (Tong), China; all made by Tongying Wu’s mother.  Shown above are three textiles from a group of seven Miao textiles purchased from Tongying Wu in 1997. The collection represents three generations of textile artistry from one family, with textiles created by Tongying Wu, her mother, and her grandmother.

Fig. 3 Clockwise from top: 97-12-5, Child’s ceremonial jacket (Tong), China / 97-12-7, Men’s jacket panel (Tong), China / 97-12-6, Women’s jacket panel (Tong), China; all made by Tongying Wu’s mother. Shown above are three textiles from a group of seven Miao textiles purchased from Tongying Wu in 1997. The collection represents three generations of textile artistry from one family, with textiles created by Tongying Wu, her mother, and her grandmother.

Clockwise from top left: 97-123-25, Statue (Attic), Syria, Baalbek / 97-120-493, Fan, Fiji Islands / 97-84-483, Mask (Inupiaq), Alaska, Cape Blossom / 97-84-2022, Earrings (Shoshone), Utah, Weber River / 97-84-1058, Moccasins (Sioux), South Dakota, White River. In 1997, over 20,000 objects previously on long-term loan from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia since 1936 were donated to the Penn Museum. These objects were collected from across the globe. The largest lot (97-563) consists of over 11,000 objects from the Americas.

Fig. 4 Clockwise from top left: 97-123-25, Statue (Attic), Syria, Baalbek / 97-120-493, Fan, Fiji Islands / 97-84-483, Mask (Inupiaq), Alaska, Cape Blossom / 97-84-2022, Earrings (Shoshone), Utah, Weber River / 97-84-1058, Moccasins (Sioux), South Dakota, White River. In 1997, over 20,000 objects previously on long-term loan from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia since 1936 were donated to the Penn Museum. These objects were collected from across the globe. The largest lot (97-563) consists of over 11,000 objects from the Americas.

Clockwise from top left: 2004-21-9 (detail) / 2005-19-13 (detail) / 2006-18-2, Huipils, Guatemala.  The Penn Museum’s Guatemalan textile collection, one of the finest in the country, has been further enhanced by several gifts from Theodore T. Newbold and Helen Cunningham, over the course of several years. Many of these textiles were collected in the late 1980s and through the 1990s.

Fig. 5 Clockwise from top left: 2004-21-9 (detail) / 2005-19-13 (detail) / 2006-18-2, Huipils, Guatemala. The Penn Museum’s Guatemalan textile collection, one of the finest in the country, has been further enhanced by several gifts from Theodore T. Newbold and Helen Cunningham, over the course of several years. Many of these textiles were collected in the late 1980s and through the 1990s.

From left: 86-35-53 Saddleflask (Roman) / 86-35-87 Flask (Roman) / 99-21-3 Necklace (Etruscan), Italy. George Vaux III and Henry J. Vaux donated over 350 objects to the Penn Museum in 1986. An additional 20 objects, found in the Vaux family attic, were donated by Katharine Vaux McCauley (daughter of George Vaux III) and Mary James Vaux in 1999. The objects in these donations were collected by three generations of the Vaux family: William Samsom Vaux [1811–1882], George Vaux [funded an expedition to Egypt in 1901–02], and George Vaux, Jr. [collected Roman glass from 1905–15].

Fig. 6 From left: 86-35-53 Saddleflask (Roman) / 86-35-87 Flask (Roman) / 99-21-3 Necklace (Etruscan), Italy. George Vaux III and Henry J. Vaux donated over 350 objects to the Penn Museum in 1986. An additional 20 objects, found in the Vaux family attic, were donated by Katharine Vaux McCauley (daughter of George Vaux III) and Mary James Vaux in 1999. The objects in these donations were collected by three generations of the Vaux family: William Samsom Vaux [1811–1882], George Vaux [funded an expedition to Egypt in 1901–02], and George Vaux, Jr. [collected Roman glass from 1905–15].

From left: 2001-15-41 / 2001-15-42, Tiles, Iran. A group of more than 50 objects, 70 photographs, and two maps were gifted to the Penn Museum in 2001 by William G. Warden and Sally M. W. Stone. The donors are the children of Nancy and Clarence Warden, Jr. Several decades prior, Nancy had taken a trip around the world, stopping in Iran to visit her sister-in-law, Mary Helen Warden, who was married to Penn Museum archaeologist, Erich Schmidt, who conducted fieldwork in Iran from 1931 to 1939 and was director of the Museum’s excavations at Tepe Hissar and Rayy. The material in this donation is a mix of objects purchased by Nancy Warden, material given to her by Erich Schmidt, and photographs of her time spent in Iran.

Fig. 7 From left: 2001-15-41 / 2001-15-42, Tiles, Iran. A group of more than 50 objects, 70 photographs, and two maps were gifted to the Penn Museum in 2001 by William G. Warden and Sally M. W. Stone. The donors are the children of Nancy and Clarence Warden, Jr. Several decades prior, Nancy had taken a trip around the world, stopping in Iran to visit her sister-in-law, Mary Helen Warden, who was married to Penn Museum archaeologist, Erich Schmidt, who conducted fieldwork in Iran from 1931 to 1939 and was director of the Museum’s excavations at Tepe Hissar and Rayy. The material in this donation is a mix of objects purchased by Nancy Warden, material given to her by Erich Schmidt, and photographs of her time spent in Iran.

Clockwise from top left: 2003-39-5, Man’s Jacket, China / 2003-31-27A, Sheath Ornament (Bagobo), Philippine Islands / 2003-43-46, Blouse, Siberia / 2010-10-36, Basket, Senegal. A selection of more than 5,000 objects was transferred from the Philadelphia Commercial Museum (also known as the Philadelphia Civic Center Museum) in 2003. Of these, many had travelled to World’s Fairs, such as the more than 334 objects from the Philippines that were exhibited at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis and the 139 objects from New Caledonia and 562 African Section objects that went to the 1900 Paris Exposition.

Fig. 8 Clockwise from top left: 2003-39-5, Man’s Jacket, China / 2003-31-27A, Sheath Ornament (Bagobo), Philippine Islands / 2003-43-46, Blouse, Siberia / 2010-10-36, Basket, Senegal. A selection of more than 5,000 objects was transferred from the Philadelphia Commercial Museum (also known as the Philadelphia Civic Center Museum) in 2003. Of these, many had travelled to World’s Fairs, such as the more than 334 objects from the Philippines that were exhibited at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis and the 139 objects from New Caledonia and 562 African Section objects that went to the 1900 Paris Exposition.

Clockwise from left: 2004-23-15, Spirit Mask made by Justus Mekiana (Nunamiut) / 2004-23-30, Pot (Acoma Pueblo), New Mexico / 2004-23-31, Pot (Acoma Pueblo), New Mexico. In 2004, Frederica De Laguna, Honorary Curator in the American Section, passed away at the age of 98. She was a renowned anthropologist of Alaska’s Native peoples and led several expeditions to Alaska’s Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound, and Yukon Valley for the Penn Museum’s American Section in the 1930s. De Laguna bequeathed a collection of 68 North American objects, including Hopi katsina dolls (tithu), Tlingit carved wood bowls, and pottery from Acoma Pueblo.

Fig. 9 Clockwise from left: 2004-23-15, Spirit Mask made by Justus Mekiana (Nunamiut) / 2004-23-30, Pot (Acoma Pueblo), New Mexico / 2004-23-31, Pot (Acoma Pueblo), New Mexico. In 2004, Frederica De Laguna, Honorary Curator in the American Section, passed away at the age of 98. She was a renowned anthropologist of Alaska’s Native peoples and led several expeditions to Alaska’s Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound, and Yukon Valley for the Penn Museum’s American Section in the 1930s. De Laguna bequeathed a collection of 68 North American objects, including Hopi katsina dolls (tithu), Tlingit carved wood bowls, and pottery from Acoma Pueblo.

2008-10-1, Stela Fragment, Egypt. This object was excavated by Sir Flinders Petrie at the site of Dendhereh in 1898 and is roughly from 2350–2130 BCE. This fragment is from the stele of Uaru-Kau and shows a seated wife and husband. A servant, shown in a smaller scale, offers a drink to the husband. Hieroglyphic text is found above the scene. The fragment is a gift from Mrs. Eleanor T. Fischer, wife of archaeologist Henry George Fischer, who had purchased the object at auction in 1965. As a result of the division of archaeological finds between financial supporters of the Egypt Exploration Society, artifacts from Petrie’s excavation were dispersed to many institutions. This fragment went to a museum in Scotland prior to being purchased by H.G. Fisher. The Penn Museum also received material from this excavation, therefore this stela fragment joins other material excavated from Dendhereh.

Fig. 10 2008-10-1, Stela Fragment, Egypt. This object was excavated by Sir Flinders Petrie at the site of Dendhereh in 1898 and is roughly from 2350–2130 BCE. This fragment is from the stele of Uaru-Kau and shows a seated wife and husband. A servant, shown in a smaller scale, offers a drink to the husband. Hieroglyphic text is found above the scene. The fragment is a gift from Mrs. Eleanor T. Fischer, wife of archaeologist Henry George Fischer, who had purchased the object at auction in 1965. As a result of the division of archaeological finds between financial supporters of the Egypt Exploration Society, artifacts from Petrie’s excavation were dispersed to many institutions. This fragment went to a museum in Scotland prior to being purchased by H.G. Fisher. The Penn Museum also received material from this excavation, therefore this stela fragment joins other material excavated from Dendhereh.

Clockwise from top left: 2011-14-3A, Sculpture of Monk, Burma / 2011-14-1, Sculpture of Temple Dancer, Thailand / 2011-14-6, Bust of Buddha, Burma / 2011-14-13, Lacquered bowl, Burma. These objects are from a 2011 gift from Kathryn Smith Pyle. Pyle’s aunt, Aileen Pyle, and uncle, Robert Porter Sechler, had collected the objects while living and travelling in South and Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 1960s. This acquisition complements the Museum’s existing collection of Southeast Asian Buddhist and ethnographic materials.

Fig. 11 Clockwise from top left: 2011-14-3A, Sculpture of Monk, Burma / 2011-14-1, Sculpture of Temple Dancer, Thailand / 2011-14-6, Bust of Buddha, Burma / 2011-14-13, Lacquered bowl, Burma. These objects are from a 2011 gift from Kathryn Smith Pyle. Pyle’s aunt, Aileen Pyle, and uncle, Robert Porter Sechler, had collected the objects while living and traveling in South and Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 1960s. This acquisition complements the Museum’s existing collection of Southeast Asian Buddhist and ethnographic materials.

Clockwise from top left: 2012-25-72, "Man and Dog" by Lucassie Echalook (Inuit) / 2012-25-110, "Muskox" by Barnabas Arnasungaaq (Inuit) / 2012-25-46, “Polar Bear” by Henry Evaluardjuk (Inuit) / 2012-25-86, "Drum Dancer" by Axaquyak Shaa (Inuit). In 2012, the Museum received a bequest of 130 sculptures, 6 prints, and 5 photographs from John P. Doelman III (University of Pennsylvania alumnus 1956). The sculptures in this collection were carved by Inuit artists between 1960 and 2006. Thanks to Mr. Doelman’s diligent and enthusiastic record keeping, we know the names, villages, and cultural affiliation of most of the artists, in addition to the year he collected them. This acquisition enriches the breadth of contemporary artistry represented in the Penn Museum’s American Section collections.

Fig. 12 Clockwise from top left: 2012-25-72, “Man and Dog” by Lucassie Echalook (Inuit) / 2012-25-110, “Muskox” by Barnabas Arnasungaaq (Inuit) / 2012-25-46, “Polar Bear” by Henry Evaluardjuk (Inuit) / 2012-25-86, “Drum Dancer” by Axaquyak Shaa (Inuit). In 2012, the Museum received a bequest of 130 sculptures, 6 prints, and 5 photographs from John P. Doelman III (University of Pennsylvania alumnus 1956). The sculptures in this collection were carved by Inuit artists between 1960 and 2006. Thanks to Mr. Doelman’s diligent and enthusiastic record keeping, we know the names, villages, and cultural affiliation of most of the artists, in addition to the year he collected them. This acquisition enriches the breadth of contemporary artistry represented in the Penn Museum’s American Section collections.

Clockwise from top left: 2005-10-25, Buddha Parinirvana figurine, Thailand / 2005-10-17B, Standing Buddha statue, Burma / 2005-10-15, Seated Buddha, Thailand / 2005-10-13, Statue of female attendant, Burma/Northern Thailand / 2005-10-14, Statue of male attendant, Burma/Northern Thailand.  Gift of Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection. Thirty-seven Southeast Asian objects, originally part of the “Thai Village Project” collection, were assembled by Doris Duke, heiress to the American Tobacco Company, around 1960. She amassed a large Southeast Asian decorative art collection with the aim of recreating a Thai village that would be on public display in the United States. Although this never came to pass, following her death in 1993, The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation donated most of her museum-quality collection to several museums including the Penn Museum.

Fig. 13 Clockwise from top left: 2005-10-25, Buddha Parinirvana figurine, Thailand / 2005-10-17B, Standing Buddha statue, Burma / 2005-10-15, Seated Buddha, Thailand / 2005-10-13, Statue of female attendant, Burma/Northern Thailand / 2005-10-14, Statue of male attendant, Burma/Northern Thailand. Gift of Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection. Thirty-seven Southeast Asian objects, originally part of the “Thai Village Project” collection, were assembled by Doris Duke, heiress to the American Tobacco Company, around 1960. She amassed a large Southeast Asian decorative art collection with the aim of recreating a Thai village that would be on public display in the United States. Although this never came to pass, following her death in 1993, The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation donated most of her museum-quality collection to several museums including the Penn Museum.

 

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Archives Photo of the Week: Baseball

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Baseball team from an Indemnity School in China
Penn Museum Image #216128

With baseball’s World Series starting this week, it’s fitting to pay tribute to the Fall Classic with the Photo of the Week. Featured in this image is a baseball team from an indemnity school, most likely Tsinghua College in Peking, China. Tsinghua College (now Tsinghua University) was created as a preparatory school as part of the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program. The program was a scholarship program to send Chinese students to the United States for study. As a part of the program, students that were being sent to study in America could attend a preparatory school to ready them for the trip. What better way to prepare than to learn about America’s pastime?

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Zheng He: Great Voyages Lecture

During three decades at the beginning of the 15th century, China dispatched a series of naval expeditions to Southeast Asia, India, the Persian Gulf and East Africa. These expeditions were on a huge scale, involving hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of men, and were intended to assert the prestige and political dominance of the youthful Ming dynasty among its Asian neighbors.

They were led by a remarkable group of eunuchs – men who had risen to power as castrated palace servants – of whom the best known and most celebrated is Zheng He. Though born into a Muslim family like several of his eunuch colleagues, Zheng He left a number of monumental inscriptions at Buddhist temples, and at shrines to the Chinese seafarers’ goddess, expressing thanks for divine assistance in the success of these ventures. The texts of these contemporary inscriptions, together with written accounts from the Ming court, and detailed maps of the routes taken by the Chinese navy, allow us to reconstruct Zheng He’s voyages and their impact on world history.

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Archives Photo of the Week: Mummy Bundles

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Two mummies from Uhle excavations, with a workman.
Penn Museum Image #18588

This week’s photo of the week comes from Pachacamac in Peru. The Penn Museum excavations at Pachacamac were led by Max Uhle, a German philologist and archaeologist who was continuing the work that he had undertaken for the Ethnological Museum of Berlin. Uhle’s explorations of South America lasted from 1895 to 1897. Featured in the image are two Incan mummy bundles excavated from the site. The Incas mummified their dead in multiple layers of textiles and leaves, creating a large bundle. They then placed a false head atop the bundle, usually made of carved wood or pottery.

Additional reading about the mummies can be found here:

The Mummies of Patchacamac by Stuart Fleming

Peru’s Mummy Bundles by Jarrett A. Lobel

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Archives Photo of the Week: Sphinx

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Sphinx of Ramesses II en route to Cairo
Penn Museum Image #243700

You may have to squint, but this week’s archives photo of the week is still important. This image is the only known photograph of the Penn Museum’s Sphinx en route to Cairo for shipping to Philadelphia. The photo was sent by Flinders Petrie to then museum director George Byron Gordon. The 15-ton statue of Ramesses II sailed to Philadelphia 100 years ago and the Penn Museum became home to the largest Sphinx in the Western Hemisphere.

In honor of the Sphinx’s arrival, the museum is celebrating it with Hijinks with the Sphinx. Come join us in celebration and you can see the Sphinx for yourself. Trust me, it’s less blurry than in the photo.

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Entering a New Phase of Life: 2012 New Acquisitions

This is the third entry in a series of posts on Collecting and Acquisitions.


For over fifty years, the Penn Museum was home to renowned anthropologist Igor Kopytoff (1930-2013), Consulting Curator in the Museum’s African Section.  I was never personally acquainted with Igor, however, I, like many other young anthropologists, came to know him by his innovative approach to consider the life of an object: Where does it come from and who made it? What has happened in this object’s life so far? What is a normal life for an object like this? (Kopytoff 1986: 67).

Briefcase (2012-29-2): When was this briefcase made? Was it ever used?

Briefcase (2012-29-2): When was this briefcase made? Was it ever used?

A quarter-century later, Igor’s words resonate as I catalog this year’s new acquisitions.  As a Registrar, I help record the ‘biographical’ information of objects and prepare them to enter into a new phase of their lives: the life of a Museum accession.

This is the story of an object that joins our permanent collection:

  • It gains a new identity: a unique Museum accession number is given to each object, so that we can identify it.
  • Its biographical information is entered into our Collections Database: birthplace, cultural affiliation, material, measurements, life events, important people (maker, collector), etc.
  • The object gets physically numbered: think of it like a semi-permanent tattoo.  We want the number to last a long time, but also be removable if necessary.
  • Has its picture taken: many objects in our collection are not photographed, but new accessions get the red-carpet treatment.
  • Moves into a new home: objects are stored in the Museum by geographical section and each Section Keeper is responsible for finding a place for incoming accessions to live.  Some objects are selected for our New Acquisitions display case.
  • Begins social networking: the object record is pushed to our Online Collection. Now, anyone with access to the internet has the potential to form a relationship with the object: to study it, become inspired, create knowledge, and add to the object’s biography.
Upper left: the museum accession number on the base of an object.  Upper right: object photography. Bottom: the New Acquisitions display case.

Upper left: the museum accession number on the base of an object. Upper right: object photography. Bottom: the New Acquisitions display case.

In 2012, we had more than 400 new accessions.  A number of objects provide glimpses into the world-views of Inuit artists, others are tied to the career of a well-known ethnomusicologist, and others yet, illuminate the history of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition hosted by St. Louis in 1904.  Last year’s acquisitions are highlighted online, where you can browse through photographs and flip through the biographical details we have recorded.

However there are some new acquisitions you won’t find online.  Those include photographs that were accessioned into the Archival collection, which are not yet on a public database; primate specimens accessioned into the Physical Anthropology department (for reasons of sensitivity the entire PA collection is off-line); and items accepted into the Education Collection, which are used by the Museum’s Community Engagement department.

Clockwise from top left: Swatow bowl (2012-17-1), Model of Barge (2012-28-1), Teapot (2012-30-2), and Mask (2012-29-1)

Clockwise from top left: Swatow bowl (2012-17-1), Model of Barge (2012-28-1), Teapot (2012-30-2), and Mask (2012-29-1)

We are currently working on a webpage specifically about new Museum acquisitions, which we plan to update yearly.  But for now, check out some of the highlights from 2012, and while you do, consider the life these objects lived before coming to the museum, the life they live now, and the social lives they have on the internet.

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Lantern Slide Salon: The Adventures of Furness, Harrison, and Hiller in Color

In its 125-year history, the Penn Museum has sent out anthropological and archaeological expeditions throughout the world.  Between 1895 and 1903, three young men affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania undertook several expeditions to the Far East.  Their principal destination was the island of Borneo, to traverse the interior of the island and collect ethnological objects and natural history specimens for the Museum.  But the travels of William Henry Furness III, Alfred C. Harrison, Jr., and Hiram M. Hiller did not stop there.  In five long trips over seven years they made their way around the world twice and visited at least twenty countries, mainly in East Asia, including India, Japan, China, Burma, Thailand, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and Russia.  They made ethnographic studies of the Dayaks in Borneo, the Naga in Assam, India, and the Ainu of Japan.  Upon their return they turned over to the Penn Museum their object collections, as well as a set of hand-colored lantern slides from their many travels.

Ainu young women dancing.  Hokkaido, Japan, 1901.  Photograph by Hiram M. Hiller.  Penn Museum image 216442

Ainu young women dancing. Hokkaido, Japan, 1901. Photograph by Hiram M. Hiller. Penn Museum image 216442

Now there is a chance to view these beautiful hand-painted glass slides at a Lantern Slide Salon presented by the Wagner Free Institute of Science in their famous auditorium, on the evening of October 10, 2013.

The Penn Museum’s portion of the show will include pictures from the travels of Furness, Harrison, and Hiller, as seen at Museum lectures in the 1890s and early 1900s.  Please attend.

Tegang, a Dayak from Borneo was the guide of William Henry Furness III, Alfred C. Harrison, Jr., and Hiram M. Hiller on their trip to the interior of the island, 1896-1897.  Photograph by Alfred C. Harrison, Jr.; hand-colored by Katharine Gordon Breed.  Penn Museum image 216350

Tegang, a Dayak from Borneo was the guide of William Henry Furness III, Alfred C. Harrison, Jr., and Hiram M. Hiller on their trip to the interior of the island, 1896-1897. Photograph by Alfred C. Harrison, Jr.; hand-colored by Katharine Gordon Breed. Penn Museum image 216350

 

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Archives Photo of the Week: Bhutia Girl

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“No. 53 Bhutia Girl” Tibet.
Penn Museum Image #151008

This week’s photo features an image collected by William Furness, III., Alfred C. Harrison, Jr., and Hiram M. Hiller. Between 1895 and 1901, the three men traveled across Oceania and Asia, collecting substantial amounts of ethnological, archaeological, and skeletal materials. Included in their collecting were many photographic materials, including this week’s photo of the week. This photograph shows a girl from the Bhutia people, a people of Tibetan ancestry. The image is attributed to Th. Paar, a photographer based in Darjeeling, India.

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Ur Digitization Project: September 2013

Excavation of the ancient city, 1930-31 Season
Spotlight on Domestic Area AH
Reconstructing original house numbers and the process of their excavation

One of the great accomplishments of the Ur excavation was the large extent of domestic architecture it revealed. Many early archaeological efforts focused almost exclusively on monumental structures and grandiose tombs. Woolley certainly uncovered his fair share of these, but he also looked into the mass of the city itself, the more common abodes and day to day activities.

A view down Straight Street (Division Street) in the 1930-31 season. UPM Archive photo 191883

A view down Straight Street (Division Street) in the 1930-31 season. UPM Archive photo 191883

In the 1930-31 season, Woolley uncovered nearly 8,000 square meters of domestic space in an area he dubbed AH, which stood for Abraham’s Housing. This was a reference to the biblical connection of Ur of the Chaldees with the patriarch Abraham, though no real evidence of anyone of that name or similar was found. If Abraham had lived here, though, it would likely have been in the early second millennium, the approximate period of the best preserved houses in AH.

When Woolley published the houses, he numbered them by their doors onto streets, which he named after contemporary English streets for the most part (see my blog post on street naming and domestic areas at Ur). Yet, the field notes show the excavation designators Woolley assigned as he went. Such house numbers are not always recorded, however, and many different pieces of evidence have to be used in the attempt to overlay them on the published map.

The best anchor point is AH House 3, which was later designated No. 1 Church Lane and No. 1 Straight Street (it has two entrances, one on each street). House 2 is nearby, at No. 3 Straight Street as indicated by field notes, but House 1 is not directly correlated in the notes. Instead, there is a mention of a clay tablet, U.16087, found on the street between House 2 and House 1, which locates House 1 pretty well. In fact, in the original excavation area of those three houses, the street was called Division Street. It is yet another point of confusion when reconstructing the original work that not only houses, but also streets were often renamed. It makes sense, however, that the only street they’d found at that point early in the AH dig, one which split their houses neatly, would be called Division. The realization that Division Street is Straight Street helped to place other numbers back in their correct positions and to show that the original Shop Street is not the same as the published Store Street. It is Niche Lane, as shown by its relation to Division Street.

Much of the renumbering is due to further analysis and understanding of the architecture prior to publication, which is clearly an important step. The original numbers were meant to be temporary, not necessarily cognitive units. When we have a correlation, such as House 27 = No. 1 Broad Street, we can’t be sure that the original designator covered exactly the extents of the walls of the published house. The location of doors and true extent of walls of the OB period were often not discovered until trenches were dug more completely, and what we end up with is 27 original house numbers covering 53 final publication houses, or on average 2 published houses to each original number.

In another case, two original numbers fell into one final published house number. The evidence shows that both House 8 and House 13 refer to No. 15 Church Lane, in the far north of the excavation area. It seems unlikely that two early house designators would cover one later one, but the reason becomes clear if we follow the numbers. Woolley and his excavators initially proceeded in two parallel swaths, one west of the other, both heading north, and the ends of these swaths converged on the same building.

The following animated gif files show the progress of excavation. Numbers in red are securely located (within the general region) by evidence in the notes or catalogue cards. Those in blue are less secure due to lack of evidence, but the red anchor points tend to show that the blue points do belong where they are placed (Note: you will need to click on the image to see the animation).

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Area AH published map with animated progress of house numbers 9-13

Area AH published map with animated progress of house numbers, Houses 1-8

Area AH published map with animated progress of house numbers 1-8

House 8 field notes indicate some excavation farther north of the north wall, probably in another house that Woolley did not completely excavate and did not report in the final publication. There are, however, a few graves from that area that are on maps. In fact, it appears that House 8 was known as Dead House due to the number of graves there.

Indeed, Woolley and crew often used other designators, like Rail House, Doll’s House, and Dead House, to designate certain areas of the excavation. It is not often clear which particular houses these refer to except in the case of the so-called School House, which is House 27, No. 1 Broad Street. The Khan (No. 11 Paternoster Row) may be House 22, but that is unconfirmed. In fact, most of the numbers 20 and higher are almost never documented so as to be at the moment impossible to locate accurately. We can only say with certainty that they are in the south of area AH. They appear on the last image below in an order that may be close, moving from anchor points like House 18 and 19 over to another anchor point at House 27, but cannot be taken as accurate. They are shown in light blue because there is so little evidence for them.

Area AH published map with all house numbers; those in light blue are particularly uncertain.

Area AH published map with all house numbers; those in light blue are particularly uncertain.

So why is any of this important?

The Ur project is reconstructing Woolley’s excavation process in order to understand his work more completely and in order to visualize the uncovered objects in their original locations wherever possible. We can’t reassess Woolley’s work or Ur itself without evidence of his thought process and work progress, and that evidence is to be found in his field notes and early reports. This material is vital for researchers who wish to delve more deeply into the site and come to a better understanding of it through its excavation. And without a correlation of original House numbers to published numbers, artifacts and other evidence from the original notes cannot be placed back into their mapped contexts.

 

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