Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Curse of the Cotton Wool

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Eleanor Wilkinson, Collections Assistant at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology writes:

So, the Store Stories project at the MAA has not been completely plain sailing from week to week. A few hiccups have been thrown up that require addressing or issues that need further research. In my first blog I explained that it appeared many objects, which had been wrapped up in cotton wool for transport to Cambridge in the 1930s, were still in their original packaging. Why, you may ask, is this nice, soft, generally protective material such a problem for museums who want to carefully store objects that are thousands of years old? Well, have you ever tried to peel back the most fibrous material known to man from corroded metal? Or tried to untangle it from finely woven basketry? It’s a nice idea, but it really doesn’t work!

We’re also finding a growing number of objects that have unfortunately succumbed to the age-old conservation technique of ‘glue fragments back together and then place the object and still-wet glue back into the cotton wool packaging’. As you can see from our picture above this can have terrible effects on objects, causing not only the cotton wool to stick to the surface but being stuck between the fragments meaning the break does not fit back correctly, sitting awkwardly together where there should only be a small fracture line.

You can now see how something so benign as soft, fluffy cotton wool can cause such problems in museums. It is why the repacking of the Matmar material into proper conservation boxes and wrapped in acid free tissue paper is crucial for the preservation and conservation of these objects. As you can see below, each object then has its own little compartment, protected by acid free jiffy foam and tissue paper.

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Once the Store Stories project is complete, all Matmar material excavated by Guy Brunton will no longer have to sit uncomfortably in their woolly boxes, but be better packed and easily accessible.

And don’t get us started on bubble wrap…

Not Just Objects

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Eleanor Wilkinson, Collections Assistant at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology writes:

The Store Stories project here at the MAA is coming along nicely as more objects are found in our stores. However it isn’t just the physical material from Matmar that we are researching. This project is taking us into the museum archives too.

To learn a bit more about how the material came to the MAA we have been studying the correspondence of the museum over the period of 1929 to 1932. This time frame covers both seasons of Guy Brunton’s excavations at Matmar and the following year. As you can see from our picture above however, there were a lot of letters received during this time!

After trawling through a great many items we started to find letters by our man. In an issue of the magazine Antiquities a message had been sent out to any individuals or museums, who were interested in supporting Brunton, for contributions to his fieldwork in exchange for interesting pieces excavated from Matmar. We can see from documents in the archives that the curator at the time, Louis Colville Gray Clarke, saw great potential in this. Letters between Brunton and Clarke tell us that Clarke provided a subscription, of £20-25, to the excavation for each season and we have original lists, typed and handwritten, of the objects that Brunton had couriered to Cambridge.

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This type of research helps us understand more about the process of the Matmar excavation than simply studying the objects and site reports. It tells us how the material came to the MAA and on whose suggestion, and who else was interested in acquiring the material that Brunton discovered – ‘The Victoria and Albert are nibbling’. It has provided insight into why the MAA has particular material types – ‘It was Green who told me you wanted beads; I always have a big supply of them’ – and how Brunton himself felt of some of his finds –‘I will do what I can for you in the way of the early stuff – the flints are not very good this year’.

To box or not to box?

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Katy Barrett, Collections Assistant at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science writes:

I commented in my last post about how a first impression of the Whipple Museum stores is just how many boxes there are. Firstly, there are the archival boxes, made of specially inert cardboard, which house smaller and more fragile objects wrapped carefully in acid-free tissue. Secondly there are some big heavy-duty plastic boxes to make the heavy objects easier to carry (of which more in a future post). But most interestingly, and lets face it most attractive, are the boxes that many of the objects came with.

The kind of scientific instruments that are designed to be used in the field usually come with their own historic wooden boxes. These are often beautifully shaped and fitted-out to hold the unique instrument and its accessories in place. They often also have leather straps, metal keys, historic labels and luxurious linings of velvet or marbled paper. This makes them an intrinsic part of the object, and also of the accession record on the database. When it comes to re-organising the stores, however, these boxes present us with some logistical questions.

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Previously, many objects have been removed from their boxes and stored separately. It is difficult to know why this occurs in all cases. Sometimes it happens when the object has been displayed in a public gallery and the two are then not immediately reunited when the object is removed from display. ­The dilemma for the museum staff is whether to reunite them or not. Ideally we would like to have all parts of an object with the same accession number stored in the same location. However, being designed for travel, some objects need to be dismantled in order to fit into their boxes. This requires unscrewing fragile and complicated parts, which may damage these delicate mechanisms.

As museum collections expand into a limited storage space, questions over how best make use of the available space become more and more pressing…

The Man behind the Collection

A big thank you goes to the Griffith Institute, University of Oxford for the brilliant picture of who they believe to be Brunton asleep, possibly at Matmar!

A big thank you goes to the Griffith Institute, University of Oxford for the brilliant picture of who they believe to be Brunton asleep, possibly at Matmar!

Eleanor Wilkinson, Collections Assistant at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology writes:

I thought I would spend this week’s blog post telling you a bit more about the man behind the MAA’s Store Stories project, Guy Brunton. Born in London in 1878,[1] Brunton’s interest in Egyptology was first kindled when he won a book on the subject as a prize at school.[2]

After school, and a short interlude in business in South Africa, Brunton returned to his studies as a pupil under Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie at University College London where he spent two years learning of the archaeology of ancient Egypt.[3] Once completing his time at university, Brunton accompanied Petrie in his excavations of Senusret II’s tomb complex in Hawara, and it is for the archaeological finds discovered here that Brunton is best known. In 1913 the shaft tomb of princess Sit-Hathor-Iunet, a daughter of Senusret II, was excavated by Brunton and Petrie just south of the king’s pyramid. Robbers had ransacked the princess’s tomb, however they had not found the jewellery, cosmetic equipment or canopic jars hidden in a recess in the tomb wall. This great discovery was called the ‘Treasure of Lahun’.[4]

After the First World War, Brunton returned to Egypt and continued to excavate in the Faiyum region. In 1920 he went to Medinet Gurob with Reginald Engelbach where they excavated an Old Kingdom low-status cemetery. Though low-status Brunton was able to demonstrate, through the grave goods, the importance of burial rituals for different levels of the social strata.[5] Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Brunton continued to excavate over 50 sites just south of the Faiyum, in the el-Badari district, whilst he was the Assistant Keeper of the Cairo Museum.[6] This work took him to Qau, Badari, Matmar and Mostagedda,[7] and it is from this period of excavation that the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s material from Matmar originates. Some of the most notable material from Brunton’s Matmar excavation, as mentioned in the British Museum Quarterly, was a deposit of carved hippopotamus bones found in a large pit near a temple dedicated to the god Seth, some of which you can see in our picture this week.[8] This is now amongst the material that is currently being researched and repacked as part of the Store Stories project.

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Brunton retired to South Africa with his wife, Winifred Brunton, a watercolour artist known for her illustrations of ancient Egyptian art, in 1948 and died later that year in White River, East Transvaal.[9]

[1] Wikipedia, Guy Brunton, [Accessed 23 June 2013].

[2] The Times, Wednesday November 10 1948, p. 7.

[3] Ibid.

[4] An Introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt, Kathryn A. Bard, (Blackwell Publications, Oxford: 2008), pp. 183-84.

[5] Ibid., p. 160.

[6] The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Expedition to Egypt 1919, [Accessed 23 June 2013]

[7] Ancient Egypt Anatomy of a Civilisation, Barry J. Kemp, (Routledge, London: 2004), p.239.

[8] The Brunton Archaeological Expedition, The British Museum Quarterly, vol. 6 no. 1, (June 1931), pp. 29-30.

[9] The Times, Wednesday November 10 1948, p. 7.