Greek and Roman Gallery Project from June to July 2009
Kate and I have been working with Karl, the designer, on the layouts of the individual cases. We supply Karl and his assistant with lists and digital images of the objects to go in each case. Karl then sends us scale drawings of each empty case plus images of the objects to the same scale, 1:15. We carefully cut round these often tiny images and stick them (with small blobs of blue-tack so that we can change our minds) where we think best. We scan the result: here is the first version of Case 7:
...and then we send it to Karl, who comes back with a much more plausible-looking product:
Sometimes working in two dimensions just isn't enough and we have to go back to the objects themselves. This happened with Case 6, where exchanging images with Karl made it increasingly clear that this case just wasn't working. I was keen to display a representative selection of material from the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia in this case and when Christina and I assembled the material it looked (we thought) varied and attractive in terms of types and materials, but it took up far more space than Kate and I had originally allowed. We also weren't sure how high up in the case some of the small objects would be visible; so Christina took a lot of photographs and is working on the production of life-sized images of each group of objects so that we can stick these to a board and try viewing it at various heights.
Clearly the arrangement of objects has to be aesthetically pleasing, and objects that need to be seen in detail must be placed as near to (average) eye level as possible. But the arrangement also has to work in terms of getting the information across, so that where individual objects are placed needs to relate to the plans for information provision.
Kate, working with the Museum's Access Officer, Gill Hart, has been canvassing the opinions of staff, schools and the general public as to what sort of information is most useful on a label. But while the consultation over content continues, we have had to make some fundamental decisions over the format of in-case information and have decided to adopt the 'gateway object' model. This means that, instead of general information panels that introduce the case or section contents, we pick out key or representative objects and introduce the wider issues covered in the case by focusing on these objects. We think this approach will work, but locating the gateway objects near the information 'bars' is something else to take into account while planning the layout of each case.
I have been treating some of the ivory objects from the sanctuary at Artemis Orthia (you can read more about this display in Lucilla's news above), and two of them turned out to be particularly interesting.
One is part of an ornamental comb (GR.132.1923), while the other is a small carved animal, thought to be a bull (GR.132.1923). Although they have been in the museum since 1923, both still had quite a lot of burial dirt obscuring their surface details. Archaeological ivory is very fragile and has a soft crumbly texture rather like damp chalk. After many years underground it is often stained, and breaks very easily under pressure. Elephant ivory has a distinctive layered structure, which means that pieces often break off in slices. This has happened to the carved animal, which has lost the top of the head and rump, and has numerous cracks along the strata.
In contrast to the ivory, the burial dirt was very hard, and in the case of the comb it was holding the tines together. Removing it safely was very difficult. The dirt was softened a little at a time with a solvent mixture (as plain water would damage the ivory), and scraped or brushed away gradually. Some of it had to be left in situ because removing more would have put the objects at risk. After several hours work, all done under a microscope to get a good view of the surface, new features on the objects were revealed.
The carved animal turned out to have a hole through the middle, so it could have been threaded like a bead and hung around the neck. The feet of the animal were clearly revealed as paws, not hooves, and the tail and facial features also became clearer. The animal was not a bull, but perhaps a dog, or more likely a lion (as it resembles other lion carvings from the same period).
Meanwhile, a greater surprise was in store with the comb, as hiding under the burial dirt was a tiny scrap of gold!
This is all that remains of some original gold decoration, and it helps to explain some other features on the comb. On the back is a circular gap in the carving, which probably held an inset jewel or metal decoration, while around the edge are rivet holes which were probably used to secure a decorative gold or silver band. This means that the comb would have been both highly ornate and also valuable, since ivory and gold were both expensive products.
In July, I started work on our Clazomenian sarcophagus (GR.7.1902). This large ceramic coffin dates from about 470 BC and is decorated on its upper surface with panthers, helmeted heads and geometric patterns.
The sarcophagus had a rather eventful life before it arrived in the Fitzwilliam Museum. It was bought on behalf of the Museum by John Henry Hopkinson, a former student at the British School at Athens who had joined the University of Birmingham in 1901. (He was later ordained as an Anglican priest and became Archdeacon of Westmoreland in 1931.) Hopkinson travelled to Rhodes in 1902 to research the provenance of some vases in the British Museum, and had promised M.R. James, the Director of the Fitzwilliam, that he would look out for any interesting antiquities while he was there. According to Hopkinson's letters to James, "it was a time when the Turks were inclined to smash up any antiques that the peasants found and it was important to get them out of the island".
Hopkinson found our sarcophagus buried underneath a dungheap on a farm in Kameiros. His letters describe it as "quite complete, although broken across". After negotiation with the owner, the Fitzwilliam agreed to pay "£50 to cover all expenses of embarkment - the risks of embarkment to be borne by vendor". The sarcophagus was duly packed up in July 1902 and shipped to England on a British steamer. Unfortunately, when the crate was unpacked in Cambridge it was discovered that the sarcophagus had been broken in transit. Two months of wrangling followed, and the Museum finally agreed to pay the seller the full £50, less the cost of repair (which was then estimated as £12-15).
From Hopkinson's correspondence with the Museum, it sounds as restoration work on the sarcophagus began almost immediately after this. This first restoration was carried out using shellac to make the joins and plaster to fill the gaps, and some of these materials can still be seen on the coffin. There are drips of shellac near several of the joins, especially on the back. These are now dark brown, because shellac darkens as it ages, so they are quite disfiguring on the surface of the sarcophagus.
At a later date, possibly when the Greek and Roman galleries were redisplayed in the mid-1960s, the sarcophagus was restored again. It is not clear why this new restoration campaign was carried out. There is evidence that some parts of the sarcophagus were taken apart (either deliberately or unintentionally!) and reconstructed; the treatment may also have been carried out to 'refresh' the appearance of the sarcophagus by re-filling and re-painting some of the losses.
The shellac and plaster from the first restoration had not been taken off before the second restoration was undertaken, and there were several layers of plaster and adhesives in place (see above). Many of the sarcophagus fragments had not been aligned perfectly, so there were 'steps' in the joins. In the later restoration campaign, these steps had been bridged by smoothing plaster over the original surface on either side. The paint used to cover up the plaster extended even further over the original surface of the sarcophagus. By the time the sarcophagus was taken off display in 2008, it was certainly in need of conservation!
The old restoration materials had to be identified and documented before they were removed. Using ultraviolet light, as described in an earlier diary entry, I was able to identify the earliest adhesive as shellac, and to see that there were two types of plaster used in the previous restoration campaigns. The newer (1960s) adhesive was more difficult to identify. It swelled up (but did not dissolve) in water and did not seem to be readily soluble in any other solvents. On a hunch, I carried out some chemical tests to see if it was polyvinyl acetate (PVA). These showed that the 1960s adhesive was PVA ... and also that the 1960s plaster contained PVA, probably mixed in to make it harder. After all of this investigation, I'm finally ready to start removing the old restoration materials...