Cypriot material culture is found all over the land of Mediterranean in a variety of contexts. They are also some of the oldest, as the copper mines from Cyprus were one of the only sources of the metal in the Mediterranean making it a highly lucrative place to live. However, Cypriot remains have not only been found on land. In fact, three of the four oldest shipwrecks ever discovered have had cargos of Cypriot pottery, even though none were Cypriot in origin. The richest of these shipwrecks was the Uluburun wreck. Located off of the southern coast of Turkey in the Late Bronze Age during the year 1320 BC (±15 years). The ship was crewed by four Syrio-Canaanite merchants, and was also accompanied by two Mycenaean emissaries. The ship travelled from somewhere on the Carmel (modern Israel) coast, and was probably going to a Mycenaean port on mainland Greece. The ship itself carried a cargo of gifts sent from a palace in the Near East; 17 tonnes of material, over 15,000 artefacts. The artefacts were from a variety of cultures including Syrian, Canaanite, Hittite, North African, Egyptian, Grecian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Cretan, and Cypriot.
Some of the finds from the Uluburun shipwreck are actually quite similar to some of the artefacts in the Bridges Collection. Inside of the hold of the ship were large pithoi which held all sorts of pottery forms. The two pieces which show parallels are a fine-ware slip II milk bowl, and a coarse-ware base ring bowl (pictured below). The similarities between the coarse-ware base ring bowls is especially clear. Both forms have a distinctive ‘base-ring’ which can be seen in the indentation right above the foot of the piece. Additionally, both of these have a typical ‘wishbone’ handle, that swings up from the rim and then goes back down. This form of handle was a common feature in many pieces of Late Bronze Age Cypriot pottery.
Wishbone handles are also a feature of both of the white painted bowls. The handles on these artefacts are different, with the Uluburun example extending horizontally, and is joined smoothly to a point. The Uluburun example on the other hand extends out and up and had the two flat sides of the handle joined. While the designs on the bowls are different, what can be seen is that they employ a similar use of geometric patterns, which is typical for Bronze Age pottery.
The similarities between these pots does not imply that they are chronologically exactly the same, or even that they were made in the same part of Cyprus. These were wide spread and popular forms of pottery that persisted for hundreds of years. What the similarities do show is that these forms of pottery were so widespread that they were even found on a vessel which was taking part in royal gift exchange. It shows that Cypriot pottery was a prized possession by those all around the Mediterranean, and that it could have been used by a wide variety of people, in a wide variety of places. It is important to remember that the archeologically material which survived to modern day is only a fraction of what must have existed at one point, and so Cypriot pottery must have been a widely desired and distributed form.
Figure 1. The artefacts from Uluburun. Right: Coarse-ware base ring bowl. Left: Fine-ware slip II milk bowl.
Figure 2. Artefacts from the Bridges collection. Right: Base ring bowl. Left: White painted bowl.
If this topic interests you, pages 288- 385 in Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C. by Aruz, Benzel and Evans (eds.), the Uluburun wreck in full, and offers comparative evidence for each of the incredible finds from the site.
In recent years, a number of museums worldwide have embraced the potential of digital media for their exhibition spaces, programming and collections: as a means to both document and democratise objects and experiences. This blog hopes to make the case for 3D digitisation for museums: highlighting the ways in which this process supplements and enhances the museum experience. Although we would argue it shouldn’t replace more direct experiences, it also addresses the pitfalls of the medium, how museum professionals can acknowledge this, and work with them.
Museums can only display a fraction of their collections at any given time. 3D digitisation can offer museums the chance to display vastly greater proportions of their collections – as one interactive can house an infinite number of objects. This can allow museums to tell stories that have not previously had their moment in the spotlight.
Often, museums are restricted regarding the objects they can display because of conservation concerns – particularly fragile objects must be stored and displayed under strict conditions, and constantly regulated. 3D digitisation can allow museums to bypass difficult or impossible display conditions, bringing the object to audiences without jeopardising the original.
Perhaps the most obvious benefit to 3D digitisation of collections is access. 3D models have the potential to reach global audiences in a way physical objects cannot. They can be made available to researchers at a distance – objects are taken outside the museum space. Museums can even exist solely in a virtual space – take the example of the Kremer Museum, (http://www.thekremercollection.com/the-kremer-museum/) where through virtual reality, audiences can get up close with a collection of 74 Old Master paintings in a museum that does not exist in bricks and mortar. Several museums are taking advantage of the website Sketchfab – which is leading the way in facilitating the sharing of 3D models worldwide. The vast majority of our collection can be viewed on Sketchfab, (https://sketchfab.com/bridges) along with collections from the British Museum, Kunsthistorisches Museum, amongst others.
Access to objects in terms of conceptual understanding can also be increased through 3D digitisation – take the example of the Forth Bridges Project (https://www.theforthbridges.org/visit/go-forth/) in which pupils in Scottish schools can see a 3D reconstruction of the internal workings of the Forth Rail Bridge. In the same way that wax models once were invaluable teaching tools, 3D models can provide unparalleled access to an object’s inner workings and present detail and texture impossible to see with the naked eye.
3D digitisation can encourage ingenious interaction and reimaginings of collections. Whether this be 3D models used in video games or a model remixed on Thingiverse to be 3D printed, (https://www.thingiverse.com/) museums can spark this creativity by making 3D models available to play with. Making objects available for people to play with encourages greater engagement, all the while reducing barriers to interaction. The example of a school boy who downloaded 3D models of the busts of US presidents to create his own virtual museum was shared with great enthusiasm at the DigiDoc conference 2018. These busts are also available to 3D print, if one chooses. If museums are to aspire to making collections accessible to all, allowing people to play with them is a key step in achieving this goal.
When considering the pitfalls of the medium, it is first worth reflecting on our Museum and Memory studies utilising objects from the Bridges Collection. Participants often comment on the fact that they are surprised on viewing the original object, as it is bigger/smaller/heavier/lighter than they had expected it to be. 3D models therefore do have the potential to present a distorted view of an object. Measures that can be taken to avoid this include: listing weights and dimensions, including a scale bar with the model, reattributing the model to its original context, amongst others.
‘Cost’ in this sense can encompass a number of issues: monetary cost for camera equipment and post-processing software eg. Agisoft, and staff cost for the sometimes-lengthy attempts to digitise different objects.
The digitisation process can be complex and is not infallible. We have, on many occasions, been faced with an object that is too shiny, too transparent, or just an awkward shape, that has proved near impossible to digitise in 3D. As the technology continues to develop, this will only improve.
The question of whether digital objects possess an ‘aura’ is one that has been hotly debated.  Can they spark the same wonder and connection with the past that the originals do? This is inextricably linked to questions of authenticity – is seeing a reproduction of an object a valid museum experience? Is a 3D model an object in its own right? These are questions that will continue to be keenly debated as technology continues to progress. What is important to bear in mind is that museums should not seek to replace what visitors may deem a traditional ‘authentic’ experience – we should instead be looking to digital media as one of the most valuable supplementary tools we possess.
In the last few years, 3D digitisation has come on leaps and bounds: boundaries in the field are continually pushed, and new technology allows an ever-increasing number of museums the opportunity to experiment. One hopes that the democratisation of the technology and medium continues at a comparable rate over the coming years – allowing more and more collections to be shared with more and more people: sparking discussion, creativity, and a new stage in the life history of the objects in our collections. We would love for you to share with us your thoughts on the pros and cons of 3D Digitisation, and of your experience with the process!
 Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, ed. Hannah Arendt (2005); Dudley, Sandra, ‘Museum Materialities: Objects, Sense, and Feeling’ in Museum Materialities: Objects, Engagements, and Interpretations, ed. Sandra Dudley (2009); Betancourt, Michael, ‘The Aura of the Digital’, CTheory (2006) .
This week Alison Hadfield explains how we are using the Bridges Collection to inspire creative writing at the annual StAnza poetry festival in St Andrews.
Once again St Andrews is buzzing with the sound of poetry as Scottish and international poets, writers, performers and fans come together to celebrate poetry in all its forms. The theme for this year’s festival is ‘Another Place’, providing a fantastic opportunity for MUSA and the School of Classics to collaborate with StAnza on events inspired by our research and collections.
At the ‘Metaphors of Displacement’ colloquium on Wednesday morning, Michael Carroll, Rebecca Sweetman (School of Classics), Natasha Saunders (International Relations) and poet A.E. Stallings brought renewed attention to the ongoing refugee crisis in the Mediterranean region. The wide-ranging discussion focused on impact of metaphors used to describe displaced people and explored the impact of forced migration on individual and group identity. The speakers drew upon works of ancient and modern poets, including Aeschylus, Ovid, Giorgos Seferis, and A.E. Stallings to debate the challenges of expressing experiences of exile through the written word.
This was followed by a hands-on creative writing workshop in the afternoon, responding to archaeological material from the Bridges Collection. We were lucky to have poet, performer and writer Hannah Lavery at the helm, injecting her playful humour into the session and encouraging us to leave more conventional interpretations of the artefacts aside. Picking up on the theme of displacement, we had selected four small, portable artefacts that people might choose to take with them if forced to leave home. These were: an Iron Age aryballos or perfume bottle (about 600-500BC), a Hellenistic baby feeder (300-50BC), a prehistoric seal stone and an oil lamp probably dating from the Hellenistic period (300-50BC). Hannah liked the fact that these were clearly very personal items that could be worn or carried easily in the palm of a hand.
Baby feeder, HC1994.3(1) and Pinched oil lamp HC1994.3(2)
As there is virtually no information on the original context of the Bridges artefacts, it is of course impossible to be sure how and by whom they were used. Whilst this can be incredibly frustrating for research and teaching, there is nonetheless an element of mystery which hooks people in, and allows the imagination to roam. This was precisely Hannah’s intention. Her workshop was designed to provide ‘a slow reveal’ of the objects allowing participants to create their own meaning and stories to ‘fill the gap’ in our knowledge. To add to the suspense, the objects were concealed in individual bags and initially the group was only allowed to explore them by touch. This led to some wonderful descriptions, transforming the engraved sealstone into a ‘curled bud’ and most unexpectedly, the oil lamp into female genitalia ‘possibly for instructional use’! It made for a brilliant poem, but I doubt I will look at the lamp in quite the same way again…
Writing gets underway
Museum collections are by their nature, ‘metaphors of displacement’. They comprise objects which have been uprooted, re-purposed and re-interpreted in a world which is often very different from the one they originally inhabited. Hannah asked the group to consider how it might feel to be one of the artefacts at the point of discovery, and it was wonderful to hear the voices they were given; some were grumpy at being disturbed or confused to be ‘touched but not seen’. As always, I was amazed by the quality and diversity of the poetry written in such a short stretch of time and we hope very much that the writers will send us their finished work! At the end of the workshop Rebecca revealed the objects and explained what we actually know about them – stories that sometimes intersected with and sometimes diverged from the writers’ responses.
Lastly, we were very excited to be involved in further commissions of new poetry this year. Eight different poets responded to a selection of artefacts from the University’s ethnographic, zoological and archaeological collections and their work forms part of the digital installation running throughout the festival at the Byre theatre. The poets were: Finola Scott, Catherine Eunson, Angela Topping, Helen Nicholson, Julia Prescott, Beth McDonough, Marilyn Ricci and Hanan Issa.
Follow this link to take a look! https://thebridgescollection.wordpress.com/stanza-2019-commissions/
This week, Leah Neiman, a graduate student in the Museum and Gallery studies program, discusses the female figurines in the Bridges Collection, and what they can tell us about the female experience in antiquity.
One of the first questions we must ask ourselves about any artifacts is “where did they come from?” i.e. what context were they found in. This is a tricky issue for many artifacts which were collected in the past, without any records, as is the case with the Bridges Collection. However, based on similar material both in Cyprus, and female figurines from other ancient Mediterranean cultures, it is fair to speculate that these ladies found their final resting place in antiquity in a tomb. This does not mean their only function was in funerary ritual, they were likely objects used in daily life, which then followed their owners into the grave. The Bridges Collection has many terracotta figurines of women in a range of positions, predominantly from the Archaic period. The arms of many of these ladies are folded into their chests, and they hold either a pomegranate or pinecone were their hands meet in the center. Both of these objects were symbols of fertility in the ancient world because they have many seeds. The importance of reproduction to process of death is an idea that recurs in many ancient Mediterranean societies. It suggests an understanding of death not as an end, but as the continuation of the cycle of birth and rebirth into an afterlife.
Eight of the female figurines in the Bridges Collection.
The flanges which extend out to the site of many of the figurines bodies indicates that they were not stand alone figures, but have been broken off of something larger. The curvature of their backs and the flanges also suggests that they faced inwards, likely around the rim of a vessel. There are complete vessels that preserve figures of around the top edge women, in a variety of poses, both inward and outward facing.
Female figurines engaged in activities on the necks of Hellenistic vessels. From Archaeological Museum in Nicosia.
Based on the size, style, and fabric of two of our ladies (HC1994.3(75) and HC1994.3(72)) they likely originate from around the rim of the same vessel. While the activities that the women are engaged in can vary from vessel to vessel, it always seems to be a consistent pose on the same object
HC1994.3(75) and HC1994.3(72), two figurines suspected to come from the rim of the same vessel.
There is also number of figurines of a women nursing a child, a type refered to as κουροτρόφος, which references their role as child-rearers. These fall into a different category than the figurines discussed above, as identified by Orphanides (2001), as they are more active portrayals of women in daily life. Women likely would have breast fed children until about the age of two, and likely had children in quick succession. As one of our figurines shows (HC1994.2(54), the mother is already pregnant with another child, as she nurses the one in her arms. The exact ways in which these figurines were involved in daily life remain somewhat enigmatic, however, it seems clear that they reflect the kinds of tasks a women could expect to find herself doing. Κουροτρόφοι are the dominant type of figurine beginning in the Bronze Age, and the other kinds of activities other female figurines display, e.g. cooking, are those which would be compatible with childcare (Orphanides 2001).
The prominence of reproductive imagery and symbolism in the archaeological record attest to the importance of fertility to ancient cultures. Similar figurines of women with symbols or fertility and carrying infants can been found cross culturally and throughout time. It is our job to try to tease out as much information as we can from these objects to understand how people lived, and died, many millennia ago.
Check out our sketchfab gallery, here, and see how many ladies you can spot!
Orphanides, Andreas. (2001). The Bronze Age Anthropomorphic Figurines from Cyprus: Women’s Child Caring Role. Archaeologia Cypria. IV. 83-94.
This week, Dr Eleri Cousins of the School of Classics enlighten us about the lamps of the Bridges Collection.
The days are almost at their shortest here in Scotland – the sun set at 3:34pm today! – so what better time of year to think about illumination in the ancient world? The Bridges Collection contains a small but fascinating series of lamps, ranging in date from the Hellenistic to the Byzantine periods, and this week we’ve had them out of their cases for James Bezjian to scan, as part of the Through a Glass Darkly project. As far as I’m concerned, oil lamps are some of the most compelling archaeological objects there are. They are part of something that is still so fundamental to day-to-day life, the lighting of our homes, but they also represent such a *different* lived experience to the one that we have today. How many of us have ever been in a room lit only by candle- or lamp-light? Rooms like that are DARK – it’s hard to see who is at the other end of them, it’s hard to do any task, like reading or embroidery, that requires good eyesight, and to light a room with oil at all well for any length of time would have been expensive. Looking at lamps makes us realize that for most of human history, lighting – and thus active life – after dark would have been a luxury.
But lamps allow us to think not just about the lighting, but about a whole range of issues to do with life in the ancient Mediterranean, from domestic life to long-distance trade, from craftspersonship to fuel sources. They allow you to hold so many things about the Greco-Roman world right there, in the palm of your hand.
To prove that I’m not just lamp-mad, but that they really are amazing objects, let me take you through some examples from our collection.
Check out this lamp, for example, which probably dates to the Hellenistic Period. What astounds me about this object is the deceptive complexity of its design.
At first glance this looks like actually a very simple object, compared to the elaborately decorated, closed lamps we get in other periods. But actually several different techniques went into making it, all of which required a lot of skill. You can tell from the shape of the rim and the walls, and from the horizontal lines visible on the walls both inside and outside that it was first thrown as a bowl-shape on a potters’ wheel. While the clay was still quite wet, the potter pinched one end of the bowl to create the distinctive narrow nozzle, where the wick would have stuck out when the lamp was lit. Getting that pinch right must have taken both skill and practice; modern potters who have worked with our collection to recreate some of our objects have found it really hard to figure out the exact knack needed to create this shape.
If you turn the 3-D model upside down, you can see that the potter finished off the lamp by repeatedly scraping the bottom of the bowl to create a flattish base. By the looks of the marks, this was probably done when the clay had dried out a bit to become ‘leather-hard’ before firing. You’ll often see similar marks on the walls of other pottery forms, where the point was to ‘burnish’ the clay to make the walls shine once the pot was fired.
Even though this lamp is hand-made, it was still made according to a particular pattern, a learned technique, the knowledge of which would have been passed between craftspeople – as we can see from the fact that the same shape and the same ‘pinch’ appears on other lamps from the eastern Mediterranean, including in fact a second one from the Bridges Collection:
‘Types’ like this are bread-and-butter for archaeologists, because they can help us to pinpoint when and where an object belongs. (Think about how the shape of a plastic Coca-Cola bottle in the US differs from one in Europe – or from a glass one from the 1920s.) But especially with handmade objects, types like this don’t just represent networks of trade, or of production: they also represent networks of knowledge, of training, and of skill. In this case, it was a knowledge which lasted for a long time: pinched-nozzle open-saucer lamps like this are known from the Bronze Age through the Hellenistic period – making them actually quite hard to date!!
Looking at this lamp, we can see not only the details of its production, but also of its use. These lamps would have been filled with oil, most likely olive oil, which would have served as a fuel source for the lit wick. If you look carefully around the pinched nozzle, you can see it has been both blackened and reddened from heat. That’s a really common pattern on lamps, and shows the effect that use would have had on the object. You can see the effect even more clearly on this third lamp, which dates to the Roman period:
This lamp was made with a mould rather than with a wheel – mould-made lamps are very common in the Roman period, and would have enabled (relative) mass-production of objects. Since they could be mass-produced, we see Roman lamps being traded and moving around in great numbers across the Roman world. This particular lamp is decorated with an eagle (very Roman!), while another Roman mould-made lamp in the collection has vegetal decoration in the form of a pomegranate branch:
At first glance, mould-made lamps seem less individualized and more generic than hand-shaped ones. But it’s important to remember that in the ancient world, even ‘mass-produced’ objects had a human touch. On the inside of mould-made lamps, you can sometimes see the marks of fingerprints: a reminder that it was a real person who pressed the clay into the mould, almost two millennia ago.
This week we are very excited to have Dr James Bezjian (Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship) visiting us from the Citadel Military College of South Carolina. He is working with us to 3D scan artefacts in the Bridges Archaeology Collection and is also training students and staff at the University to use the latest equipment. Alison stopped by to watch this amazing process in action and ask James a few questions…
Alison: First, can you tell us a bit about the equipment are you using?
James: We have industrial portable infra-red scanners, designed by Artec 3D studios. One scanner handles medium-sized objects, the other handles smaller objects like tools, pots, pans, and the third scanner can render full-scale rooms, industrial and mechanical items.
Alison: And what’s involved in scanning – how long does it take?
James: First, I take the scanner and align it with the turntable so the scanner can understand what the level plane is and distinguish it from the object. Once the object is recognised I begin scanning, rotating the turntable and using the scanner to get all angles. It generally takes 20 minutes including scanning and processing. It works almost by touch. You have to keep your eye on the screen and watch your scan appearing. I take multiple scans and then the software connects it all like a puzzle.
Alison: How are you using 3D scanning in your work at the Citadel?
James: We teach students how to solve complex problems using innovative methods. 3D scanning was a solution to a complex problem that many of our local arts colleagues, museums and businesses were facing with preservation or recreating techniques. Many of these institutions can’t afford scanners like ours – the equipment I have here costs around £50,000. The Citadel were granted a donation to start an innovation lab, on the premise that we would work with the community.
Alison: What is the most interesting object you’ve scanned?
James: The stone statuette of a seated lady in the Bridges Collection (HC2003.9) https://sketchfab.com/models/a569484986b943d0ac8f4a32d9085bae!
The detail was amazing. I had a real sense of awe about the object. I’d quite like a 3D print of it actually!
Alison: Which have been the most difficult objects to scan? Why?
James: Things that don’t have distinguishable edges, textures or patterns. So for my work in the States that might be shiny metal objects like nuts or bolts. Here in the Bridges Collection we’ve had problems with some of the bronze objects that have rust on them.
Alison: What are the most exciting uses of 3D scanning and where do you think it’s heading next?
James: A group of astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) needed a wrench to fix something. They were told they wouldn’t get it for several months so NASA scanned the wrench and sent the file to space so it could be 3D printed and they were able to fix the problem.
They are also starting to 3D print homes in China which they can then 3D print in concrete. It’s very time effective and requires less labour. This could be a great solution for affordable homes…
Alison: Thanks so much James! I can see what a quick and efficient process this is and we’re delighted with the 3D models you’re producing of the Bridges Collection. We’re just sorry you’re only here for a week! Are you sure you want to get back to the States for Christmas??
To see some of James’ latest models check out our Facebook page or Sketchfab site:
This week, Museum and Galleries Student Azam Caesar
ruminates on his experience working at cultural and ethnographic museum and how 3D technologies could be implemented in such museums.
Before coming to St Andrews to study for the MLitt in Museum and Gallery Studies I had gained experience volunteering as a guide at the National Museum of Indonesia, which collects and displays the historical, cultural, and ethnographic artefacts of various ethnic groups. One of the first tasks I was given in my Museum and Gallery Studies course was to write an essay about the effects of the Digital Revolution in the museum field. Through writing the essay, I learnt about the variety of ways that digital media have been implemented in the museum space, including audio guides and interactive displays.
During my time at the National Museum of Indonesia, I noted the absence of such digital technology within its galleries. In a way, the National Museum still engages in the “classic” view of museums where the audience and the objects remain separate, visitors are there to simply see objects and read the accompanying text. While some objects such as Hindu-Buddhist statuaries are on open display, ‘do not touch’ signs maintain the demarcation between object and visitor. In contrast, many western museums are now trying to find ways to make the collections engaging for audiences by providing opportunities to interact with objects using touch tables, for example.
Since joining the Through a Glass Darkly project I have learned more on the implementation of digital technologies such as 3D printing and modelling in the museum field. I find it to be a useful tool to allow the audience to interact with the collection in a way that would be safe for the objects. I cannot help but think on how these technologies could be used in the National Museum. Of course, there are issues concerning the resources that are needed to implement the technology. However, since the collection includes plenty of ethnographic and cultural objects, there is an alternative approach that the National Museum and other ethnographic museums may adopt. Unlike the archaeological objects that we work with in the Through a Glass Darkly project, the collection in the National Museum of Indonesia comes from many cultures that still produce these same objects. This means the museum may purchase contemporary equivalents of objects in their collection for visitors to handle, whilst maintaining the antique specimens within the glass cases. I personally own a Javanese dancer’s mask; these same masks are displayed within the cases of the National Museum. While simply displaying the front of the mask is all well and good, it doesn’t help visitors to understand the construction method and the way it is worn. Unlike other masks, Javanese dance masks are worn by biting a leather strap that hold the mask in place.
Purchasing contemporary cultural objects is a good solution for artefacts such as tools, furniture, and art, but it becomes much more difficult concerning objects of a sacred nature. Consider the tau tau, wooden effigies of the departed that adorn Torajas tombs. Ever since the tourist boom to Tana Toraja in Sulawesi, several tau tau specimens have been stolen from the cliff tombs and made their way into collections of several museums. To counter this many Torajans have fenced or hidden the tau tau of their relatives. But those who have had tau tau stolen seem to have given up trying to reclaim them due to the chance of further theft and the financial cost to rededicate the tau tau. Perhaps 3D technology may be able to provide a solution to this problem. By creating 3D digital models and prints, museums may still be able to display religious objects without originals being removed from their sacred spaces. Alternatively a museum could commission a tau tau to be made by a Toraja carpenter, but would that ‘tau tau’ have the same authenticity as those that are displayed on the tombs? Would it be more appropriate for it to be called a “wooden human statue” rather than “tau tau”? These are some of the dilemmas museums face when using modern reproductions to facilitate object handling.
 Adams, Kathleen. (1993). “Theologians, Tourists and Thieves: The Torajan Effigy of the Dead in Modernizing Indonesia. The Kyoto Journal. 22. 38-45.
This week we focus on one of the most eye-catching and intriguing objects in the Bridges Collection, the ‘plank figurine’ or ‘bottle-opener’ as it has been affectionately nicknamed by staff and students. Who does it represent, why was it made, and how was it used? Alison Hadfield, Learning & Access Curator, has been following up some interesting theories…
What are plank figurines?
As the name would suggest, they are flat, rectangular-shaped representations of the human figure, usually handmade from clay with pinched features and incised or painted decorations. Some are free-standing, measuring approximately 10-25 centimetres, whilst others are attached to vessels
Where are they found?
They seem to be unique to Cyprus and mostly come from burial contexts though some are associated with domestic sites. In terms of collections they turn up all over the world. Hunting for plank figurines has become something of an obsession for the ‘Through A Glass Darkly’ team and we have discovered examples in the online collections of the British Museum, London; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Louvre, Paris; the Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens; the Cyprus Museum, Nicosia and The Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm. I also know of examples in museums, universities and private collections whose catalogues are not yet available online…. all the more reason to digitize!
How old are they? What are their origins?
They were made during the Early and Middle Bronze Age, ca. 2000-1600BC. Some scholars believe they were introduced to Cyprus by Anatolian migrants[i] but there is not a very strong resemblance to Anatolian – or indeed other contemporary figurines of the region in terms of material, form or decoration. It seems just as likely that plank figurines evolved on the island itself from earlier traditions such as the polished stone ‘cruciform’ figures made of a local stone, picrolite.
Who do they represent? Are they male or female?
Good question! Many of the plank figurines have no sexual characteristics at all. Both examples in the Bridges collection are quite androgenous, though the ‘bottle-opener’ does have pierced ears probably for the attachment of metal earrings. In his catalogue of the Cesnola Cypriot collection at the Met, Karagheorgis[i] stated that “Plank-shaped figurines are always female. Even when the breasts are not shown, it is certain that the figurines represent women because of their diadems, necklaces, earrings and other ornaments”. Although the incised decorations do resemble jewellery it seems presumptuous to determine the sex of the figurine on this basis, without clear evidence of male and female dress conventions in this period (e.g. from burials).
Sometimes a single figurine combines male and female physical attributes or is double-headed. Whilst some scholars have interpreted double-headed figures as a couple or a marriage symbol, there is no sexual differentiation between the pair to support this theory. Indeed Talalay and Cullen[i] suggest Cypriot plank figurines were designed with deliberate sexual ambiguity, allowing them to represent multiple identities.
How else can you explain the markings on the figurines?
Whether painted or incised, there are some remarkable consistencies among the geometric patterns on the faces and bodies of the figurines. Starting with the head, many examples have a series of vertical wavy or zigzag lines running down the back perhaps representing long hair. Small horizontal lines on the face may indicate tattoos, scarification or body paint – traditions well documented around the world by ethnographers but more difficult to find in the archaeological record. The diagonal lines running across the body might represent patterned clothing, binding or even swaddling.
What about the ‘hoop’ around the head of the Bridges figurine?
This is one of the most curious features of our plank figurine. To modern European eyes the circular shape is reminiscent of a halo, but there are two further explanations which are really interesting. The first is that the figurine may represent a shrouded body in a coffin, the linear patterns corresponding to folds or bindings. The high numbers of plank figurines found in burial contexts possibly support this theory. The second suggestion is that the shape represents the headboard of a cradle.
When visiting the Museum of Tyrolean Folk Art in Innsbruck last summer I spotted a cradle that had this very type of construction, even the interlaced straps intended, presumably, to stop the baby falling (or climbing) out! There are further cradle-like figurines in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm, including this remarkable depiction of two babies – probably twins – in a cradle. This artefact was excavated from the tombs at Lapithos, by the Swedish Cyprus Expedition (1927-1931).
More food for thought comes from a series of figurines depicting an adult holding a cradle either on his/her knee or at the shoulder. Taken literally, neither position would be terribly comfortable! I had assumed this was probably more of a symbolic depiction until I saw this Mapuche cradleboard during our recent visit to the Community Museum in Malalhue, Chile as part of the University’s EU-LAC project. This is a portable form of cradle, combining the functions of the modern-day backpack, baby seat and bed. Our guide Isabel Riveros Quilacan explained that Mapuche babies were often secured to their cradleboard and positioned upright against a wall so that they could observe and be part of activities from a very early age.
The cradleboard appears mainly to have been used by indigenous tribes of North America, Patagonia and the Sami. Although these cultures are far removed in space and time from Bronze Age Cyprus, the design of these cradleboards would explain both the rectangular shape of the plank figurines, the hoop-shaped headboard, the criss-cross decorations and even the necklace-like patterns, since stringed ornaments were often attached to the shoulder points of Native American cradleboards. Comprehensive arguments for this interpretation have been put forward by Bergoffen[i]
How might the figurines have been used?
Depending on the readings of the iconography and the find locations, plank figurines may be associated with fertility or with funerary cults and ancestor worship. However, Steel[i] points out that many excavations in Cyprus took place on mortuary sites, creating a bias in the archaeological record. Furthermore, several figurines from Lapithos, a site in northern Cyprus, are chipped and worn, implying that they were used and handled regularly. She argues that the figurines were brought out for events marking the key stages of life and that they became so closely associated with the owner they were ultimately buried together. In a funerary context, if the figurines do represent infants on cradleboards they could also be seen more generally as symbols of rebirth, or indeed of ‘eternal sleep’. Bergoffen notes that native American babies were typically placed on cradleboards between the ages of 5 months to a year, the most vulnerable stage of development, and “if the child died during its ‘cradle days’, the cradle was discarded or destroyed, or buried with the child, or placed on its grave.” I can’t help thinking here of the Victorian practice of photographing offspring who died young, thereby commemorating and preserving their image. Looking at these photographs it is hard to tell if the infants are dead or merely sleeping.
[i] Steel, L. (2013) Materiality and Consumption in the Bronze Age Mediterranean, New York, Routledge,
[i] Bergoffen, C.J. (2009), ‘Plank Figures as Cradleboards’, Medelhavsmuseet: Focus on the Mediterranean, Vol 5, 63-75 http://www.academia.edu/16375929/_Plank_Figures_as_Cradleboards_Medelhavsmuseet_Focus_on_the_Mediterranean_vol._5_2009_63-75
[i] Talalay, L.A. and Cullen, T., ‘Sexual Ambiguity in Plank Figures from Bronze Age Cyprus’. In Engendering Aphrodite: Women and Society in Ancient Cyprus (p. 181-196). Boston, MA: American Schools of Oriental Research. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5615/j.ctt2jc9sc.18
[i] Karagheorgis, V., Mertens, J.R. and Rose, M.E. (Eds.) (2000) Ancient Art of Cyprus – The Cesnola Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/metpublications/Ancient_Art_from_Cyprus_The_Cesnola_Collection_in_The_Metropolitan_Museum_of_Art
[i] Tatton-Brown, V. Ancient Cyprus, (1987), p.34, London, British Museum Publications
Identifying Objects without context, by Rebecca Sweetman (Professor of Ancient History and Archaeology, School of Classics)
This week, Prof. Rebecca Sweetman talks about the problems of identifying some of the objects in the Bridges Collection.
I have been in Nicosia on the Leventis Visiting exchange fellowship with the University of Cyprus and this has been a fantastic opportunity to see material in museums as well as chat with colleagues about the Bridges collection.
As a private collection of material, it is not always easy to identify context, date and even in some cases, what the object is. Up to this point, to provide details about the material, we have relied on a great deal of research on other published collections (of particular note is that of the British Museum) to find comparative data for the Bridges collection. Some pieces are more obvious and easier to identify than others; for example the Bichrome ware plate, with its intricate decoration on the base and dating to the Geometric period is a common feature in most Cypriot collections. Additionally, we have had welcome input from followers of our websites and blog on some identifications and corrections of our mis-identifications!
On this trip I was particularly grateful for the opportunity to present our digitisation project and the initial results of our experiments at the Archaeology Research Unit of the University of Cyprus. During this presentation, I asked the audience if they could contribute to the identification of some of our tricky pieces and we had an enthusiastic response.
I would particularly like to thank the Director of the Research Unit, Lena Kassianidou who spotted that a seal stone in the Bridges collection https://skfb.ly/6v8Ux is of a type quite well known on the island and is considered to be an amulet (as well as seal), similar to, if not actually, one worn by the well-known figures of ‘Temple boys’.
The Bridges collection amulet is probably made of a dark lapis lazuli and is pyramidal in shape (2.8cm long) with a perforation at the top for wearing. It has scratch marks on one of the long sides. The incised motif at the base depicts a figure with their arms in the air, possibly holding something in their right hand, with horns above and a tree (?)to the right of the figure (Fig. 1). In terms of the iconography, Reyes’ 2001, Cat 173, a Bronze Age example, is comparable in the organization of the scene and only 11 pyramidal forms are included in his catalogue (cat 89-100). The stones used in pyramidal forms vary considerably. I believe that the Bridges collection amulet is made from dark lapis lazuli but the fact that all six of Reyes’ lapis seals are scarabs creates some uncertainty about the identification of the stone.
The perforation makes the seal stone perfect for wearing, but whether it was directly associated with Temple Boys, and an amulet as such, it is not so certain. Temple boys is the name given to a statues group (usually limestone) which depict young boys (but sometimes girls) (Fig. 2).
They are commonly found in sanctuaries and some believe that they protected the god, others believe they are offerings from families, particularly in the context of coming of age rituals (see discussion by Papantinou 2012, 148-52). The Bridges collection does not have any examples of Temple Boys (that we have been able to identify) but the collection at Liverpool has many!
One of the largest collection of these amulets has been found on the island of Yeronisos, on the west coast of Cyprus. There they found a collection of 15 limestone amulets (Connelly, J. B and D. Plantzos 2006) and the various states of production lead the excavators to believe that they were produced on the island itself. This collection of amulets has been closely dated to the Hellenistic period.
For the Bridges collection amulet, without any evidence of its original archaeological context, its precise date is difficult to pin down (and we are open to suggestions!), but finding lots of good parallels has been very satisfying.
From this visit we have been able to solve some puzzles but some mysteries still endure. For example, we are still stumped on this lady (Fig. 3): https://skfb.ly/6v8VD.
If she were a male figure we could happily describe her as Zeus Ammon. We have looked for parallels and have come up with an example from the Archaeological museum at Nicosia. These seated figures with rams date between the Archaic and Roman period.
This one is dated to around the 5th century and the seated figured is flanked by rams. The bearded figure is holding a cornucopia whereas the Bridges collection seated female is holding a large dish, perhaps in offering. We would love to know if anyone has spotted any similar female characters, and if so do get in touch (email@example.com)!
Connelly, J. B and D. Plantzos, 2006. “Stamp-seals from Geronisos and their Contexts,” Report of the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus, 263-293. PDF
Papantinou, G. 2012. Religion and Social Transformations in Cyprus. From the Cypriot Basileis to the Hellenistic Strategos.
Reyes, A. T. 1991. ‘Stamp-Seals in the Pierides Collection, Larnaca’, RDAC 117-28.
Reyes, A. T. 2001. The Stamp-Seals of Ancient Cyprus Oxford University School of Archaeology Monograph 52.
Eilidh Lawrence, a learning and access trainee at the Museum of the University of St Andrews, shares her experience at DigiDoc 2018, a conference hosted by Historic Environments Scotland on digital innovation in cultural heritage management.
I was lucky enough to attend DigiDoc: Digital Innovation in Heritage Conference organised by the team at Historic Environment Scotland, at the Engine Shed in Stirling last week. The conference was a two day affair, preceded by a Research and Innovation Day, and followed by DigiFest: a programme of events, workshops and talks by experts themed around various digital innovations, including games and animation, for all ages. Presentations at the conference were delivered by digital innovators from across the globe: from the US, to Europe, to China.
What we hoped to take away from the conference were clear ideas of ways in which we can further engage audiences with the Bridges Collection, our collection of Cypriot archaeology that was donated to the University of St Andrews in 1994, and is in the process of being digitised into 3D models, available on Sketchfab.
Presentations that particularly gave us food for thought included those by Claire Spencer Cook from Nexus Studios, Jenni Mackay from Dundee City Council, and Maxime Durand from Ubisoft.
Claire Spencer Cook (@nexusstories) delivered her presentation on DigiDoc Day 1, which was entitled ‘History in Your Hand: How We Made BBC Civilisations AR (Augmented Reality)’. The audience-centred approach taken by Nexus Studios to create their apps is surely key to their success. Spencer Cook spoke of the different ‘personas’ the team bear in mind when designing their apps, and the focus put on considering how the experience would make the audience in question feel – with particular emphasis on the potential for exploratory experiences to stimulate the senses. Other important reflections provoked by Spencer Cook’s talk included the fact that often, it is best to supplement the physical with the digital, rather than to focus on the digital experience in isolation. The use of a simple user interface was also acknowledged as best practice, in order that apps be as widely accessible as possible. Clearly, the potential of augmented reality to democratise collections to anyone who possesses a smartphone is great, and could be exponentially wide-reaching.
Jenni Mackay (@lookwhatjendid) from Dundee City Council delivered a presentation on Day 2 entitled ‘Digital Technologies in Scottish Education: Creating Digitally Adaptive Learners’. The emphasis on the digital within classrooms in Scotland is heartening: the focus being on preparing the country’s young people for the workforce that they will enter upon leaving the school system. Mackay explained the Scottish Digital Learning and Teaching Strategy to delegates: emphasising the importance of digital technologies being recognised as being central to a learner’s education in Scotland, rather than as an add-on resource. The now-wide use of game-based learning, through games such as Minecraft, and software like Unity and GameMaker, was particularly exciting to reflect upon, as was the fantastic Forth Bridges Project (https://www.theforthbridges.org/news/go-forth-learn-and-be-inspired/). The project features different branches (‘Go Forth And… Discover/Design/Create/Explore’) and amongst its resources includes a series of mini-games, interactives and 3D modelling to illustrate complex engineering. The project perfectly demonstrates the potential of 3D digitisation to promote learning in a myriad of ways.
Lastly, Maxime Durand (@TriFreako) from Ubisoft spoke about the expansion pack for Assassin’s Creed: Origins, called the ‘Discovery Tour’, in a presentation entitled ‘Beyond Gaming: How Assassin’s Creed Expanded for Learning’. The Assassin’s Creed video game series has long captured the imagination of those fascinated by the sights and sounds of history: with previous games set in Renaissance Italy, France at the time of the Revolution, and their latest offering (released this month) based in Ancient Greece. The Origins incarnation of the game was set in Ancient Egypt: the Discovery Tour offers players the chance to explore Ancient Egypt without being restricted in any way by gameplay elements. Players can explore as various characters from history: climbing the pyramids, swimming in the Nile and visiting the Ancient Library of Alexandria. Although artistic license is sometimes used to aid gameplay, thorough consultation is done at all stages to ensure that the stories told are representative of those they belong to. The result is a visually and sonically stunning journey into the past: the access to which is unrivaled.
Durand encouraged delegates to ‘Make History Everyone’s Playground’. That truly is what we hope to go forward and do.