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Field report: Museum work on Bronze Age materials
2010 Museum Work
During the period of July 9th through August 15th 2010 I had the opportunity to work abroad at the site museum in Mycenae, Greece (fig. 1). Under the direction of Professor Kim Shelton of UC Berkeley’s Classics Department and the mentorship of several experienced graduate students from Berkeley and other prestigious graduate programs in archaeology I learned crucial hands-on experience in ceramics analysis and had the chance to work also with frescoes and a set of diverse small finds excavated at the site in recent years past. In addition to our regular museum routine (discussed below) we received many intimate and engaging orientations at the site. Professor Shelton gave us a tour of Mycenae’s cult center, a section of the citadel not open to the public, and provided an in-depth overview of its excavations and history, Lynne Kvapil (University of Cincinnati) offered a guided tour of the whole citadel and the tombs, and Gypsy Price (University of Florida) guided us around Petsas House (fig. 2), a ceramic-warehouse and domestic structure of the Bronze Age excavated by Berkeley over nine seasons and the context for the material with which we were working in the museum. In addition to our time at Mycenae, we also lived next to the ancient site of Nemea where we were only a few meters away from the Temple of Zeus and the site’s museum. During the season we also visited other archaeological sites and museums at Corinth, Perachora, and Athens.
With a small group of peers, undergraduates, and veteran graduate students I worked at the Mycenae museum Monday through Friday primarily sorting, cleaning, joining, and cataloging pottery sherds (fig. 3). The zembilis of excavated material originated from a deep well (or “pit”) within Petsas House. After sorting the sherds in each zembili by chronological period, vessel part, color/fabric, and decoration, and counting and cataloging them, we referenced any decorated pieces of pottery against P.A. Mountjoy’s Mycenaean Pottery: An Introduction. This exercise was the most challenging given the sparseness of decorated sherds among the zembilis and the relatively small size of most fragments. Through this exercise, though, I learned a canon of common Mycenaean motifs, slips and fabrics primarily from the LH IIIA1-2 period (the phase before the destruction of the structure). In addition to identifying sherds with slip and glaze, one of our main goals as a group was to work together to reconstitute whole vessels. To do this we studied each other’s zembili. After a week or so of practice it became easier to see which sherds had old and new breaks, a factor that can guide one when searching for pieces of the puzzle. Fresh breaks tend to stay within a zembili: fractures occurring after the material is bagged up. Old breaks are much more difficult for which to find joining pieces and sometimes too worn to be easily joined with glue. When we found a join we labeled that piece with its original zembili number before gluing it to the other pieces. By tracing the location of each piece and compiling a list of zembili numbers for each whole pot we were able to get a sense of the stratigraphic mapping of one vessel within the larger deposit. In reconstructing vessels each of us eventually found a niche: some gravitated toward larger kylikes, others conical cups, and I, coarseware cooking vessels (fig. 4).
Toward the end of the season, when we were nearly finished sorting and cataloging the well deposit, we moved on to more diverse tasks within and outside of the museum. On some Fridays a small group of us would sort flot at the director’s house in Mycenae (fig. 5). While it was arduous to separate pebbles from plesia clay, bones, pithos, seeds, and plaster fragments, it definitely helped me to realize the essentiality of each of archaeology’s subfields in reconstructing the bigger picture, the social and economic underpinnings of a culture and the materials off which it thrived.
During the last couple weeks in the museum I had to the opportunity to work on various materials while cataloging small finds from past excavations. These included objects ranging from Late Bronze Age Mycenaean Psi- and Phi-figurines and steatite weights to Hellenistic clay lamps and Roman glass. I even cleaned, joined and cataloged several fresco fragments from Petsas House and met the museum’s fresco conservator who showed us around her laboratory while describing recent finds and the conservation process. In cataloging small finds and fresco fragments I learned to draw and photograph objects properly and enter written information into a computer database (fig. 6).
During the following academic semester (Fall 2010) I was able to integrate my summer experiences with pottery and frescoes at Mycenae into my lessons on and discussions of Mycenaean art, architecture, and archaeology in HA 141C, a lecture course on Minoan and Mycenaean art at Berkeley. While teaching the sections for this course I integrated my personal images into presentations, arranged for a guest lecture by a fellow graduate student who had also worked at Mycenae and even designed a pottery-joining activity for my students during which we discussed the typed of shapes, fabrics, and decorations one would find on Mycenaean pottery. I wholeheartedly believe that my hands-on experience and intimate study of the material at Mycenae has helped to equip me with the essential tools I need to effectively engage my students with ancient objects and teach them about the practical role of archaeology in any study of ancient art and material culture.