Archaeologists are often faced with the question of what happens to artefacts after an excavation is complete? As is the case for a lot of excavations, artefacts can find themselves housed in museums. This centuries old institution found its beginning approximately 1500 years ago, with the earliest recorded museum dated to 530 CE – the birth of an institution that has grown to more than 55,000 museums found over 202 countries. Now that’s a lot of artefact management. Museums are where excavated material and artefacts often end up – either on public display or stored in extensive and very secure facilities. Modern accessions of artefacts into museums is a well-structured process that ensures the origin and information for each artefact is meticulously maintained. However, this wasn’t always the case. Back in the day there was less emphasis on knowing where things came from and more interest in having the biggest and the best. The procurement of artefacts, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries involved the very official process of people either dumping things they found at the front door of museums, or, more officially, ‘hobbyists’ would donate their private collections. It was, and remains, an absolute mystery as to where the artefacts came from. Sadly, the lovely museums of little old New Zealand are not exempt from this issue.
For my honours dissertation I wanted to see if it was possible to give history back to these artefacts. I chose the Otago Museum as my target location, due to its convenient location across the street from campus, to see if I could pick a portion of their collection and provide information as to where they may have come from. Before my research, the Otago Museum had a collection of 413 artefacts registered as Romano-British pottery. As a budding archaeologist, the thought of being able to handle such a large collection of 2000-year-old artefacts was very exciting. I was provided with the museum’s register of every item in their collection, with whatever information they were given at the time of accession, or details that have been added from later research. In the case of the Romano-British pottery collection, this included, but was not limited to, comments such as “Vase. Roman. Up to about 200. B.C.” or the ever descriptive “Roman Amphora. Found in London”, which doesn’t leave much to go off. This meant that each piece of information had to be teased out from every artefact in the collection. From the form, material, and decoration styles of each artefact, I was able to both eliminate any artefact that had been mislabelled as being Romano-British in origin and begin to quantify the collection. This narrowed the list down from 413 items to 121 complete vessels (note fragments that were not terra sigillata (a type of Roman pottery) were not included in this review). From the 121 artefacts, a random selection was made of 33 vessels that were then compared to assemblages from excavations in the Britain in the 1990s and 2000s. It is reasonably common for museum collections to have a higher quantity of fine ware vessels compared to what is found in archaeological excavations, perhaps indicating that even though this set of pottery was acquired largely through a random sequence of donations, there is a preference towards fine wares that are more ornate and ascetically pleasing. But this was appropriate for the case of Romano-British pottery, as it was common for there to be a higher portion of fine wares in a household assemblage, as coarse wares were mostly used just for cooking or other domestic needs. In the case of Romano-British pottery, fine wares generally referrers to terra sigillata vessels; pottery made from smooth, fine textured clay with a sleek red gloss. The result of this method of artefact attainment by the museum has left them with a fairly representative sample of Romano-British fine wares from the first century CE through to the third and fourth centuries CE, represented in the museum’s collection of various vessels; jars, bowls, dishes, plates, lids, cups, beakers, flagons, and mortars.
Romano-British pottery was the by-product of Roman invasion of Britain, a gradual process that began in 43 CE and saw the eventual introduction of two items essential to the everyday Roman life: the potter’s wheel for vessel throwing and kilns for firing pottery, leading to the birth of Britain’s pottery industry.. The Roman period in Britain saw an explosion in the use of ceramics, enabled by the wide adoption of wheel-throwing and kiln-firing, which made a much wider range of vessel shapes available to ordinary people. Jars used for cooking and storage were the most common vessel type prior to the arrival of the Romans in Britain, but from 43 CE onwards the range of vessels was supplemented by table wares, comprising of bowls, dishes and drinking vessels, serving vessels, such as flagons, and specialised vessels that were new to Britain, such as mortaria for preparing food, and amphorae, which were used to transport imported staples, such as; olive oil, wine, fish products and occasionally fruit (Cooper et al., 2018). Imported table wares were the only vessels that, occasionally, showed signs of repair, meaning even these must have been affordable to most. The British style of ‘Roman’ pottery is distinguishable by a few principle features; red glossy finish, the use of stamps and rouletting, barbotine and mould-formed applied ornament, manufacture within moulds or over forming devices (Hayes, 1997: 12).
Whilst I was able to link artefacts from the Otago Museum to the excavations they probably came from, it wasn’t easy, and it highlighted the problem of museum collections from archaeological excavations with no provenance information. Although I looked at Romano-British pottery, it’s a problem that can be applied to museum collections around the world, including those from excavations in New Zealand. Here in Christchurch, research has been undertaken on the Canterbury Museum’s collection of artefacts from the Redcliffs site complex to associate the artefacts with their archaeological provenance and show the value that museum collections can hold (Kerby 2017).
And of course, when we’re talking about museum collections it’s important to acknowledge the fact that many artefacts housed in museum collections were acquired by ill-means. There has increasingly been more conversation arising around the issue of repatriation. Repatriation is the process of returning an asset, an item of symbolic value or a person – voluntarily or forcibly – to its owner or their place of origin or citizenship. The placement of Kōiwi Tangata and Toi Moko in international museums is a major topic in the issue of repatriation. A programme was established in 2003 as the Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme at Te Papa, mandated by the New Zealand government and supported by iwi. Repatriations have been conducted from 26 separate instutions, in Great Britain, the United States, the Netherlands, Argentina, Australia, and Germany. Since 2003 Te Papa has repatriated 420 Māori and Moriori ancestral remains from overseas institutions, with an estimated 600 ancestral remains still to be returned to New Zealand (Herewini, 2008).
During our excavations across Christchurch we’ve accumulated tens of thousands of artefacts. Whilst we currently store the artefacts, there is a possibility that one day they may end up in a museum for everyone to see. Understanding the problems that face museums when it comes to collections from old excavations means we can make sure we don’t repeat past archaeologist’s mistakes, and that our artefacts never end up in a museum collection with the only information being “found in Christchurch”.
Thanks to the Otago Museum for the use of their images.
Cooper, N. J., Johnson, E., Sterry, M. J. (2018) Eating in and Dining Out in Roman Leicester: Exploring Pottery Consumption Patterns Across the Town and its Suburbs. Internet Archaeology, 50.
De La Bédoyère, G. (2006) Roman Britain: a new history. New York: Thames & Hudson.
Hayes, J. W. (1997) Handbook of Mediterranean Roman Pottery. London, British Museum Press.
Herewini, T. H. (2008) “The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa) and the Repatriation of Köiwi Tangata (Mäori and Moriori skeletal remains) and Toi Moko (Mummified Maori Tattooed Heads),” International Journal of Cultural Property. Cambridge University Press, 15(4), 405–406. doi: 10.1017/S0940739108080399.
Kerby, G. (2017) ‘Redcliffs Archaeological History and Material Culture’, MA thesis, Otago University.