From the Editor

New Word, Ancient World

By: Quinn Russell Brown

Originally Published in 2023

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When I became the editor of Expedition in April 2023, I spent a few days thumbing through decades of back issues in the magazine archives. Story after story, I found myself stumbling over the same word: sherd. There were sherds from Mesopotamia, from Turkey, from Guatemala. Sherds come from all corners of the earth, but what on earth are sherds?

To an archaeologist, sherd is a foundational word—one that has no replacement. But like many of you, I’m not an archaeologist, or an anthropologist, and I have no expertise in ancient history. I’m here because I’m a writer and editor who has worked with hundreds of academics and researchers to tell their stories to the general public, most recently as an editor of University of Washington Magazine in Seattle. I’ve also been a journalist for 10 years, freelancing for publications such as WIRED, The Wall Street Journal, and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Thanks to Penn Museum’s YouTube channel, I quickly learned the definition of sherd from one of our curators, Megan Kassabaum: “It’s a broken piece of pottery found at an archaeological site.” Like its more common cousin, “shard,” it’s a piece that has broken off from a larger object, as fragile things tend to do over thousands of years. Ancient cups, bowls, and containers often come to us as scattered sherds. Buried in centuries of sediment, they are ceramic echoes of lost civilizations.

To learn more about this, I went to see Katherine Blanchard, the Fowler/Van Santfoord Keeper of the Near East Section (p. 10). Blanchard spends her days surrounded by shelves upon shelves of ancient clay. “A sherd is a fragment of everyday life,” she told me. “It’s a beautiful and hidden fragment, and you can tell so much from a single piece.” Sherds have what Blanchard calls “extra secrets” that whole objects don’t have. Those broken edges let us peek inside the object: We can see the material it’s made from, if the clay is local or imported, and if it’s been fired or left outside to dry. A sherd can also be used to mark and measure time, based on the style it was made in. For these reasons, sherds represent the process of history: They come to us in pieces, which we can arrange to tell different stories. We know that there will always be more pieces, that our stories will always have missing chapters.

This issue’s cover story is about the Museum’s return to southern Iraq (p. 18). You will read about Holly Pittman’s trailblazing effort to reopen a historic dig site. While our team will continue to lead this excavation, these days the sherds they find, like almost everything else, will remain in the host country. What our people will bring back are the stories, and you will always be able to find them in this magazine.

Quinn Russell Brown signature.


Cite This Article

Brown, Quinn Russell. "From the Editor." Expedition Magazine 65, no. 1 (September, 2023): -. Accessed April 17, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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