Sunday, June 19, 2016

More Archaeology of the Museum Basement

I love stories like this one from the Orkneys:
A long lost Neolithic human figurine, found at Skara Brae in the 1860s, has been rediscovered in the collections of Stromness Museum. Dr David Clarke identified the figurine among artefacts from Skaill House donated to the museum without provenance in the 1930s.
Until last week the figurine had been known only from a sketch in the notebooks of antiquarian George Petrie, but now we have the real thing. Delightfully bizarre little figurine, too, carved of whalebone in the neolithic period. The museum calls that lower hole the "navel" but I have my doubts.


G. Verloren said...

As I understand it, there are piles and piles - veritable hoards of artifacts - simply sitting around in museum basements, storehouses, and other storage areas, uncataloged, undocumented, and unanalyzed, typically having been left so for decades if not even centuries, with the exception of periodic relocations and changing of hands.

It astounds me that we don't do more to sort through these backlogs. Is it a problem of a lack of manpower? A lack of available expertise? Perhaps simply lack of time or money? All of the above to varying degrees?

I wonder if some major international body like UNESCO or similar could put together teams that they could send out around the world for this exact purpose - getting permission from the various museums and governments and whatnot that own these objects to pull them out and go through them all at long last. Or perhaps a prestigious enough private or national organization could go about it? The idea intrigues me.

John said...

Most material in museums has been reviewed to some degree. For example, I recently participated in cataloging thousands of ancient Indian artifacts from around Washington, DC that are now in the Smithsonian's annex. The basic nature and size of the collection was known, and several archaeologists had looked through it, but nobody had taken the time to make a detailed inventory. I remember 15 or 20 years ago a previously unknown Bach organ piece was discovered in the rare book library at Yale; it was in a folder titled "Misc. German Keyboard Scores 18th c."

It is much rarer for there to be collections the contents of which are completely unknown, although I am sure there are many such around the world.