The Bridges Collection

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From Cradle to Grave – The Enigma of the Plank Figurine

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

Plank figurine, Bridges Collection, University of St Andrews, HC1994.3(65)

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).

Plank-shaped figurine, The Metropolitan Museum of Art 74.51.1534

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.

Figurine depicting child in cot, Peridies Museum, Larnaca, Photograph R.Sweetman


Statuette of cradle and infant, the Metropolitan Museum of Art 74.51.1536

White painted ware figurine representing a child figure in a cot, Peridies Museum, Larnaca
Photograph R.Sweetman


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).

Cradle and cradle arch, 18-19th century, Museum of Tyrolean Folk Art, Photograph A. Hadfield

Red-polished representation of two infants in a cradle, the Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm L.315BC28

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.

Mapuche cradleboard, Malalhue Museum, Photograph A.Hadfield

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]

Navajo-style cradleboard Creative Commons, Photograph Neeta Lind,

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


[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

[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,

[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 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’.

Figure 1. Amulet: still from Sketch fab and detail of seal. HC1994.3(144)

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).

Fig. 2 Temple Boy: from Bank of Cyprus Collection, Nicosia

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.

Fig. 3 Seated female figure with offering bowl (HC2003.1)

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):

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.

Fig. 4 Zeus Ammon in the Museum of Cyprus, Nicosia (from Agios Georgios)

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 (!

Further reading;

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.

DigiDoc 2018

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.

Eilidh_DigiDocI 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 ( 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.

DigiDoc_Eilidh and Me.png


Excavation and Sponsorship: Sir David Russell and the Jericho Findings

Dr Lenia Kouneni sheds light on the history of the university’s collection and the sponsor behind the excavation.

The last few weeks my research has led me to some intriguing detective work in order to shed some light into an important archaeological collection owned by the University of St Andrews in the 1950s and its current whereabouts. There is always a story behind every excavation project, from its first conception to the publication of its results and display of findings. These stories are important; they help us understand the scholars’ motivations and incentives, the means by which archaeologists accessed the monuments, and the networks they established. When it comes to archaeological research and excavations, the main protagonists are usually the archaeologists who uncover the material and the objects or buildings unearthed. There is, though, always an elaborate network of connections and organisations that support them and facilitate their work. Sponsorship played- and still does- a crucial role in the evolution of archaeological research. By the mid-twentieth century, institutions, such as the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust, became major funding bodies for archaeological projects, but archaeologists still had to cultivate relationships with wealthy patrons and rely on private networks in order to finance their ideas and projects.

I am currently working on one such Scottish sponsor of archaeological excavations with strong links to the University of St Andrews. Sir David Russell (1872 – 1956) was a wealthy papermaker and philanthropist from Fife, Scotland (fig. 1). He was the driving force behind the expansion and evolution of Tullis Russell and Company Ltd, papermakers based in Markinch, but he had a wide range of interests, such as sport cars, golf, photography and spiritualism. His wealth not only allowed him to pursue his interests, but also led to many generous benefactions and patronage of numerous institutions, schemes and individuals.

Fig. 1. Sir David Russell at the site of the Great Palace excavation, Sultanahmet, Istanbul (Constantinople), 1936 [Photo: University of St Andrews Photographic Collection, Sir David Russell Papers, ms38515-13-Leica-Album2-35-25]

His active involvement in archaeology started in the early 1930s when Sir David Russell provided the financial means and administrative support to an archaeological expedition to uncover the Great Palace of the Byzantine Emperors in Istanbul, led by James Houston Baxter (1894-1973), a Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of St Andrews. Russell utilised the Walker Trust of the University of St Andrews, which had been established by one of his ancestors, as a conduit for passing personal funds to the project. During my research on Russell’s sponsorship of the Great Palace expedition, I came across various other contributions that he made to archaeological projects in Anatolia, mainly of Byzantine but also of prehistoric interest. One of them was to Kathleen Kenyon’s excavations in Jericho in the 1950s. When Kenyon, a British archaeologist associated with the University of London Institute of Archaeology, was appointed director of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem in 1951, she initiated an excavation project at Jericho in 1952. She initially anticipated that the project will run for two seasons, but due to the findings she prolonged her work there for a total of seven seasons, until 1958.

The principal sponsor for Kenyon’s excavations was the British Academy, but support also came through other institutions and individuals. One of the major contributors was the Russell Trust, established by Sir David Russell in memory of his son, Pat, killed in the war. The Russell papers in the archive of the Special Collections of the University of St Andrews contain significant correspondence between Russell and Kenyon that documents Russell’s contribution to the scheme and provides a valuable insight into the donor-receiver relationship between archaeologists and their funders. Kathleen Kenyon knew David Russell since the early 1940s, when she was working as an honorary archaeological adviser to the British Council. In 1942 she had been asked to act as the intermediary between David Russell and Michael Grant, the representative of the British Council in Turkey, who was looking after the interests of the Great Palace site in Istanbul during the time of the war, when the Walker Trust excavation had come to a halt. It was due to the personal relationship developed between the two of them that Kenyon asked David Russell for financial help at the end of the first season.

David Russell committed himself to sponsor the Jericho excavations; he gave a substantial contribution to the work of the second season and agreed to sponsor the excavations for any further seasons. Even after Sir David’s death in 1956, his son, Major David Russell continued his father’s legacy and provided support to Kenyon’s projects. Kenyon wrote frequently, especially at the end of each season, providing Russell with information on the results of work and most importantly, sending him a share of the findings. According to the Antiquities Ordinance of 1920 and 1929, archaeologists who excavated in Jordan could claim a percentage of their findings for their own institutions back home. A large amount of archaeological material from the site of Jericho was dispersed all over the world as a result of the international nature of the team led by Kenyon. The major portion was deposited in the Castle Museum in Amman and the Palestine Archaeological Museum (nowadays the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum), while others went to the British Museum in London, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and elsewhere.

As a major contributor, the Russell Trust received a fair share of the findings at the end of each season, which ended up in a storeroom at the Bute building awaiting cataloguing and the hope of the establishment of a Museum of Archaeology. As I was going through the correspondence between Kenyon and Russell, I came across detailed lists of items from Jericho ranging from pottery to wooden objects and scarabs, dating mainly from the middle Bronze age (fig. 2). I almost screamed with excitement! Could we possibly have this material here in St Andrews? Thus, a quest for the whereabouts of the Jericho objects started and with the help of Alison Hadfield and Rebecca Sweetman, we were able to establish that foreign archaeological material from the university collections was transferred in 1988 to the National Museum of Scotland. A search through the online database of the museum revealed a number of items from Kenyon’s excavations, matching the lists in the archives of St Andrews. Correspondence with the curator in the museum also verified the transfer.

Fig. 2. List of items sent by Kenyon to the University of St Andrews, July 1955 [Photo: University of St Andrews Special Collections, Sir David Russell Papers, ms38515/11/14/10]

Kenyon was very accurate in recording at the end of the Excavations at Jericho Volume IV (pp 638-42) the location of all materials in museums and institutions, where they were shipped. However, since then many of these objects have been transferred, deposited or gifted to other institutions. In this process a significant part of their early reception history is lost and forgotten. Studies on the relationship between archaeologists and their funders help us contextualise and assess the political, social and economic framework within which archaeology developed. Sir David Russell’s name, the involvement of the University of St Andrews to the Jericho expedition and the history of the findings now deposited in the NMS would be forgotten if not for archival research. Such research helps to identify, contextualise and interpret artefacts in museums, providing information on their provenance and history of acquisition and informing their documentation, but also offers a way of reconnecting the public to artefacts in their local collections and museums.






The Bridges Collection

The Bridges collection comprises some 200 objects from Cyprus given to the University of St Andrews on permanent loan by the Bridges family.

The collection is housed in the School of Classics, University of St Andrews and is under the care of the Museum and Collections unit.


The material was collected in Cyprus when the Bridges family worked there and the Collection pre dates the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970.

Since 2016, a collaborative project between the School of Classics and Museum and Galleries has sought to make the collection freely accessible, provide more context as well as undertake a series of experiements concerning perceptions of material culture.



Fundamental to this has been the recording of the collection to make 3D images. Even with limited resources we have been able to scan 70% of the images and they are now available for free download on Sketchfab. We have been using the 3D images most recently as part of a project in collaboration with colleagues in neuroscience to test memory retention of archaeological material when experienced in different ways: 3D, sensory box, behind glass case and touching the object. The inital results have been surprising!


If you would like a copy of our quick guide to 3D scanning and sketchfab, please feel free to download it here:  Creating 3D Models Quick Guide.

Between Worlds: Writing with Masks

A half-day workshop at MUSA with JL Williams



JL Williams with satyr mask

The recent StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews provided a wonderful excuse to get the Bridges collection out and inspire some creative writing. We were lucky to have the opportunity to work with the poet JL Williams, who has a particular interest in the crossover between poetry and other art forms such as music, visual art, dance, opera and theatre. Her workshop at MUSA explored ‘masks of the imagination’ and included artefacts used in rituals to transport people from one world to another. Here she shares her thoughts about the day and her own poem, ‘Big Mother Silence’.


Writing is transformation. It is a way of bringing what is inside out, and of sharing the essence of what we are with others, through potentially vast tracts of time and space.

‘I’ll go slowly here: if metaphor is not idle comparison, but an exchange of energy, an event, then it unites the world by its very premise — that things connect and exchange energy.’ – Mary Ruefle 

I was thrilled when Annie Rutherford, StAnza Poetry Festival’s Programme Co-ordinator, got in touch to ask if I would run a workshop at the 2018 StAnza Festival in collaboration with MUSA. The workshop would revolve around writing in response to objects in the collection. The objects would include portraits, self-portraits and a collection of masks and figurines from MUSA’s archaeology and ethnography collection, as selected by curators Alison Hadfield and Lisa Scrimgeour.

Before the workshop Alison sent me through the list of objects and links to virtual and in some cases 3D representations, and it gave me the idea that it would be interesting to share these with the participants before the workshop so they could encounter them virtually and then see how that compared to meeting them in real life.

We had a full house on the day, with many writers from different backgrounds and countries in the room. First we did some free writing and introductions to warm up and talked about the self in writing. It was fascinating to hear how the notion of the self, and what was safe or acceptable to share and reveal, varied from person to person and culture to culture. A woman from Belgium said that there it was accepted that people had many selves and that one should be honest and open about each. A Scottish man said he had been born with an original self but felt he had formed multiple selves over time to fit into different social situations, and that it would not be normal to share a multiplicity of these at once.

We discussed the spectrum of exposing the self through our writing, and how some confessional writers bore all whereas some – especially moving into realms of non-fiction and academic writing, showed very little of the self though arguably the self is always visible in some way in a text, even if through that which we do not say.

We then had a guided tour of the objects by the curators. It was remarkable to be able to see these objects up close, hear in detail about each of their histories and even be able to hold and touch them, some many thousands of years old.

I was particularly struck by a small figurine, made in Cyprus during the Archaic period (745-475 BC). A male figure in terracotta clay, whose red and black painted decoration was still visible, and even the fingerprint marks of the person who formed him. Two holes in the front of the figurine, as well as the beautiful way it fits even now into the palm of a closed hand, has led experts to surmise that it might have been a bell, and used as part of burial ritual to signal the transition from one stage of existence to another. 3D model of bell figurine

After exploring all the objects and portraits, we returned to our notepads and I asked the poets to write a poem which engaged both with their self or personal experience and with the object in some way – ideally representing some sort of transition or transformation. We had a little time at the end to share these baby poems and I was delighted by the range and depth of what was produced in such a short period of time. Some people focused on a more ekphrastic style of writing* in which they described their chosen object in close detail – revealing their self in what they noticed – and some found ways through the objects to talk about powerful moments of change in their own lives.

Workshop participants

I wanted the entire experience of the workshop to feel like a ritual in which we opened ourselves up to the creativity of others… their objects produced across vast distances in time and space, and found within ourselves ways to communicate with this creative energy and make it come alive again in our own work. I hope the writers at the workshop, and you, might take the idea of ritual and responding to art in the world around you to heart and make your own experiments with writing between worlds.

My workshop poem inspired by Big Mother, Pat Douthwaite, 1994, Lithograph:


Big Mother SilenceHC1995.34-Douthwaite-803x1024

lying in this silent house
your blanketed arms rise
to buffet my ringing ears with silence

the silence my empty rooms
ring with this year
and will ring with each year

the silence of this room
the silence of this open mouth
of wound

a generative quality
you impregnate this silence with
your massive embodiment

of a silent mask beneath which
I discover the productivity
of silence

a dynamic and two-fold realisation
though not a mother I am
the mother of silence


JL Williams (StAnza – MUSA – 2018)

*The term ‘ekphrastic’ is derived from the Greek word ‘ekphrasis’, meaning ‘description’. A really good explanation and example can be found here: Poetry Foundation

A Hidden Treasure: A New Approach to Digital at the Natural History Museum

During a recent trip down to London for the Relevance Conference held at Historic Royal Palaces, our Research Assistant Hannah Sycamore had the chance to explore the Treasures Cadogan Gallery at the Natural History Museum. Here is her review of their display and digital provision.

I visited the Natural History Museum on a Tuesday lunchtime in October. The whole museum was teeming with tourists, school children and families. I headed in under the 25.2 metre long skeleton of Hope the whale and meandered up the main staircase to the Treasures Gallery which is situated just at the top of the stairs. The Treasures Gallery brings together 22 disparate objects from the museum collection. All these objects tell an extraordinary story about our planet, or the people who have explored it. There is an audio guide to the gallery available to download here. The objects on display are varied, everything from a Neolithic hand axe to Victorian glass models, to specimens to contemporary artworks.


The Treasures Gallery display

The gallery is small space and is carefully laid out. Objects are presented on a black background in glass display cases on small plinths and spot-lit; giving the clear message to the visitor that these objects are valuable and to be treasured. The digital media is cleverly integrated alongside the objects, and four of the objects have hands on “touch objects” (or replicas) next to them.

The touch-screen digital panel caters to all visitors through layered interpretation. Each object has around 8-10 tabs, and the visitor can click on a tab or swipe to move the screen to the next page. The first page is akin to a standard museum label, around 30 words long providing essential information. Following this, the pages explore more detailed stories, themes or historical information connected to the object. The final two tabs direct visitors to information online via their mobile and to other objects around the museum which may interest them.

This layered approach to interpretation, allowing visitors to choose the level of information which suits their interest, reminded me of the approach taken at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. However, rather than using digital to layer the information, in the World Cultures section, here the curators used the physical space of the museum. They carefully tracked their visitor flow, and noticed that families tended to stay on the ground floor and rarely made it to the first or second floor. They adapted their interpretation accordingly to suit their visitor’s needs. As you work your way up the floors, the interpretation is aimed more at adults and individuals with specialist interest, whereas on the ground floor the interpretation is more hands-on and aimed at encouraging family interactions. The advantage to digital media, as shown in the Treasures Gallery, is that you can seamlessly integrate layered interpretation into one gallery space; simultaneously catering to a range of visitor needs and interests.

Equally, at the Treasures Gallery, they have combined hands-on learning with their layered interpretation by placing four replicas or “touch objects” places next to the digital panel and, importantly, near to the original object. Observing how visitor interacted with these objects was especially interesting, as it paralleled findings from our Through a Glass Darkly project on how visitor use their sense of touch to further their understanding of an object. Whilst I was looking at the Barbary Lion Skull, I was joined by George, aged around 7, with his grandparents. Initially he was a little hesitant touching the replica, not sure if he was allowed. But after a minute of pointing at its teeth and comparing to his own, he touches the skull- paying close attention to its teeth and eye-hole sockets- and moved between the original (running around me) and back to the replica. I spent about 45 minutes in the gallery, and it was fascinating to watch how many people interacted with the replicas, adults and children. Especially rewarding to touch was the replica Nautilus Shell, and feel the scrimshaw carved decoration and detail. It gave a layer of understanding and appreciation of the skill involved in carving which might have been missed by simply looking at the object.

Overall, I was thoroughly impressed by the careful thought given to the interpretation in the Treasures Gallery. The use of digital in this manner allowed visitors to tailor their experience of an object, choosing how much detail they wanted and allowing them to take control of their own learning within a museum setting. Equally, placing the replicas next to the originals echoes the findings from our research; allowing visitors to use their sense of touch to further their understanding of an object. One area worthy of further research might be to what effect the “authenticity” of replica material has on visitors’ learning and understanding of an object. All the “touch objects” in the Treasures Gallery were plastic. I wonder, should our replica pots in Through a Glass Darkly be made from clay or could they be 3D printed? Would this have impacted on our research? Does the replica need to feel “authentic” to further understanding and enable visitors to draw parallels between replica and original? Such questions perhaps warrant their own research.

Digital Learning and Teaching Strategy for Scotland

A few weeks ago we reviewed other digital learning providers working in heritage organisations in Scotland as part of the Scottish Learning Festival. This review explored other institutions working within the Digital Learning and Teaching Strategy for Scotland (hereafter DLTSS). But what is the Digital Learning Strategy? What are its main aims? And what are the implications for heritage organisations working with digital technologies? Our research assistant, Hannah Sycamore, summaries the key points of the strategy and concludes by discussing the main areas where heritage organisations can contribute to and benefit from the strategy. 

Summary of the Digital Learning and Teaching Strategy for Scotland

The DLTSS was released in 2016 by the Scottish Government. Prior of this, a Digital Strategy for the whole of Scotland was released in 2011. The DLTSS states its aim is to ensure “that all citizens are included and confident in the digital society that Scotland will become is critical to the future of a fairer Scotland” through digital technology which “can enrich learning and teaching”. The digital provision in Scotland needs to be comprehensive in its approach to “ensure all our learners develop a level of general and specialist digital skills that are so vital for learning, life and work in an increasingly digitised world”.  The strategy is structured around four main areas or “objectives” which are: the skills of our educators; access to technology; curriculum and assessment; and leadership. The longevity of DLTSS will “ensure that digital technology is a key consideration in the planning and delivery of all future learning and teaching”.

The core outcomes for the strategy are tied to the Scottish Governments National Improvement Framework and Scottish Education Development Plan. The vision is to achieve excellence through raising attainment and closing the attainment gap, and to achieve equity, ensuring that every child has the same opportunity to succeed. Digital technology is just one tool available to learning professionals to utilise to achieve these goals.

Summary of the four main objectives:

  1. Develop the skills and confidence of educators in the appropriate and effective use of digital technology to support learning and teaching

Prior to the strategy, Young Scot asked 250 young people from across Scotland aged 11-25. Their general concuss was that the digital resources in their school was low and that teachers lacked knowledge of how to use digital technology. The strategy identifies the skills of educators and learning professionals as a key area for improvement. However, the key point to emphasise is that “the potential lies not in the technology itself but in our educators”. Digital technology is “a powerful, flexible and engaging tool” but only when wielded effectively.

  1. Improve access to digital technology for all learners

The strategy states that all learners are to benefit from an education enhanced by digital learning. However, access, infrastructure and sustainability of digital technology will all need to be improve and considered. Prior to the strategy, the Children’s Parliament consulted with 92 children from across Scotland aged 8-11. The main comments there that their access to digital technology at school was restricted by the lack of equipment and skills of their teachers. The strategy briefly touches upon the importance of partnerships to improve digital access and skills development opportunities- here perhaps the heritage sector can offer support by entering into partnerships with local education institutions.

  1. Ensure that digital technology is a central consideration in all areas of the curriculum and assessment delivery

The importance of encouraging the development of digital literacy is clear in our digital world. However, for pupils to “fully benefit from an education enhanced by digital technology” the strategy states that digital technology must “find a place in all curriculum areas”. Cross curricular learning is core to the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence and digital learning is expected to permeate all curriculum areas.

  1. Empower leaders of change to drive innovation and investment in digital technology for learning and technology.

For digital learning to be used consistently to enhance learning and teaching nationally, leaders at all levels are required to understand the benefits of digital technology. “Leaders” includes head teachers, ELC managers, classroom teachers, ECL practitioners, ICT managers, quality improvement officers, local authority officers and individuals working in the digital sector. Communication is key to ensuring that all these individuals can make an informed decision on how best to use digital technology to support education in their context.

Significantly the strategy states that “it is only by achieving all four of these objectives that we will create optimum conditions for the effective and appropriate use of digital technology to enhance and support education”.

Where does heritage fit into this?

The main areas where the heritage sector can support the DLTSS are: the skills of our educators; access to technology; and leadership.

The heritage sector has always offered educators and learning professionals CLPL (Career Long Professional Learning) and as the sector grows in its provisions and experience of digital technology, it can certainly offer training and sharing experience and skills in using the digital services it offers in the classroom. This is an area of development for our Through a Glass Darkly project too. 3D models are an excellent tool for learning, but learning professionals may require training to gain the most for their pupils.

Equally, the sector can also offer support through encouraging access to technology. This might be through offering specialist digital experiences pupils might not get in schools, such as immersive game experience at the Battle of Bannockburn, or it might be through offering virtual reality experiences, or an education experience through an engaging app. It could also be through working in partnership with local education institutions. As we explored in last week’s blog post, there is a great variety of approaches to digital technology taken by heritage organisations across the sector. Museums and heritage sites can certainly work with local education providers to improve access to digital technology for all learners.

Finally, heritage organisations can offer support to leaders in their area and offer advice on how best to adapt digital technology to their specific context. However, heritage organisations can also be leaders themselves by taking innovative approaches to digital technology and learning. Most museums are looking to invest in one way or another in digital technology. Heritage organisations can share the skills and knowledge they gain from this investment with colleagues across the education sector.

UMAC Conference

This year’s UMAC (University Museums and Collections) conference was held in Helsinki, Finland from 4-8 September. Alison Hadfield presented a paper on behalf of our team and reports back on some of the highlights from her trip.


The 2017 UMAC conference was attended by around 100 delegates from 26 countries, representing most regions of the world and a variety of University museums. It was brilliantly organised, with a packed programme of papers, workshops and museum visits, hosted jointly by the University of Helsinki and University of Jyväskylä (pronounced something like ‘Yoo-va-skoo-la’ though it defeated most of us!).

The main theme of the conference was ‘global issues in university museums and collections’ covering topics as diverse as community engagement, sustainable heritage management and the ethics of displaying human remains. My paper addressed the issue ‘how can we engage faculty and students with our collections when the educational system has been transformed by technology?’

This was an ideal context in which to present the results of our research from Through A Glass Darkly – Art of Artefact. During our experiments with focus groups last year, we observed some broad generational differences in visitors’ responses to digital material. As might be expected, it excited children far more than adults and sparked interaction within the group. By contrast, browsing was a solitary experience for adults, many of whom felt “distanced” from the images. Despite the visual appeal and research potential of the 3D digitisations, the project found unanimously that participants preferred to interact with real objects. Furthermore, as they explored each object using more of their senses they gained a fuller understanding of its original purpose and archaeological context.


I was really interested to hear what Lyndel King and Graciela Weisinger had to say on this subject in their presentation, ‘Neuroscience + technology = the challenge of redesigning the way of learning at university museums’. At the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) Massachusetts, USA, they have taken the unusual step of hiring neuroscientists to help curators understand how the human brain is wired to appreciate art. For example, they conducted an eye-tracking study to find out what people looked at most in paintings and discovered that the focal points were invariably human figures, animals and areas of high contrast, such as trees in a forest (good news for Finland!). Lyndel also discussed the role of the senses and emotions in learning, noting that smell is strongly tied to memory and can directly trigger an emotional response. Stories are also easily remembered because they appeal to our emotions and give meaning to things.


In many ways, this paper provided a scientific explanation for what we saw in our own study, and supports the argument that exhibitions should be multi-sensory and ‘tell a good story’. It would be fascinating to run an eye-tracking study with some of the objects from the Bridges Collection or to re-create the smell from our Iron Age aryballos (perfume bottle)! The final cautionary word from Lyndel’s team is that we need to think very carefully when and how to use new technology in museums. Social media and surfing the net may stop us getting bored, but some research suggests that boredom stimulates creativity and that multitasking actually impairs our ability to focus. Coincidentally, I found an article on the same subject by former Prime Minister of Finland, Alexander Stubb in Finnair’s in-flight magazine! He observes; “modern communication channels are training my brain to read a paragraph or two, then move on to the next thing…Neuroscientists have explained this phenomenon. We learn something new quickly and get a dopamine rush from it” but “studies show that surfing the web makes you more tired than intensive deep reading”. Perhaps in our super-connected, hectic modern world we will see a return to the idea of museums as places of contemplation!

On the subject of museum spaces, Kali Tzortzi, Assistant Professor of Museology at the University of Patras, Greece, gave a thought-provoking presentation on ‘Human Remains, Museum Space and the ‘Poetics of Exhibiting’. She has studied the way museum architecture and exhibition layout influence visitors’ reactions to exhibits, especially bodies. At the British Museum, for example, Egyptian mummies are displayed in glass cases along a main thoroughfare, whereas the Lindow Man is located in a more secluded corner of the newer Iron Age gallery, in a dimly lit, corner case. This somehow affords it a little more privacy and recognition that it was once a living being. This is taken even further at the Moesgaard Museum, Aarhus, Denmark, which houses the famous bog body of the ‘Grauballe Man’.  He is set low in the ground, surrounded by offerings, and visitors approach quietly to view his remains. The effect is more like a memorial than a museum:

On a lighter note, I really enjoyed listening to Yves Winkins’ reflections on working with contemporary artists at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris. A museum of industrial design, its founding purpose was to collect the latest technological inventions and assist with the training of tradespeople. In order to reinvigorate the displays, the museum has recently collaborated with 3 contemporary artists, Oscar Lloveras, Claude Lévêque and Cécile Raynal. Their work invariably disrupted the status quo of the museum and Yves Winkins shared the reactions of staff and visitors:

In addition to all the presentations there were lots of informal opportunities to share experiences with other delegates and I enjoyed learning a little about Finnish culture and history from our hosts. We were treated to some amazing Finnish hospitality, including what can only be described as a ‘feast’ on our last night at Jyväskylä.

For more photos and discussion from the conference, see UMAC’s Facebook and Twitter pages:

Review: The Scottish Learning Festival

On 20th and 21st September the Glasgow SECC hosted the Scottish Learning Festival, one of the largest education events in Scotland. There were over 200 stall holders and 4500 delegates at this year’s conference, and the Through a Glass Darkly project team were amongst them! We hosted a stall in the new Heritage Village alongside other Scottish heritage organisations, including Historic Environment Scotland (HES), the National Trust for Scotland, The Palace of Holyroodhouse and Go Industrial Museum Collective. The Heritage Village was new for 2017 as this year is Scotland’s year of History, Heritage & Archaeology. Running concurrent to the exhibition hall and stalls were a range of lectures, discussion panels and workshops exploring a range of topics relating to education and learning in Scotland.


Stall HA6 in the Heritage Village

Our stall was positioned opposite Historic Environment Scotland in the Heritage Village, and over the two days members of the team presented the project, it’s results, and the potential uses of the Bridges Collection in teaching and learning to attendees. One focus of several sessions at the conference was the Scottish Digital Learning Strategy and how to implement this in learning, in schools and more broadly across Scotland. This focus of the conference offered a great context to discuss our 3D digital models of the collection available on Skethfab, and how they could be used to engage learners in archaeological material through technology.


Discussing the 3D models with visitors to SLF

As well as sparking fruitful discussions and ideas for development, the learning festival also offered the opportunity for us to hear about a range of projects and chat to other stallholders about the work they are undertaking in the digital sphere. Here are some of the highlights from our time at the conference:


Inspiring Young People into Digital Skills- Edinburgh College

As part of the Inspiring Young People into Digital Skills seminar, representatives from Edinburgh College explored the work they have been conducting with students and digital technology in the heritage setting. Students had been working on the Global Treasures App, which makes clue based trails for visitor attractions, locally and globally. Scottish examples of the App include trails at Edinburgh and Stirling Castle. When hearing about the app, the new developments in visitor experience at the Banqueting House, London, as part of the “Lost Palace” digital experience sprang to mind. In Edinburgh, students worked with Global Treasures Apps to develop a treasure hunt app for other HES properties. The college felt that this project helped to better equip their students for their working life the digital age.

Our Digital Journey- Inverbrothock Primary School

Another fascinating project was presented by Inverbrothock Primary School, Arbroath. As a school they have embraced the national Digital Learning Strategy and have focused on developing skills in coding. There are already a number of projects and national frameworks devoted to encouraging girls and young women into computer science and coding (see Girls Who Code, and Closing the Gender Gap Lesson Plans), but I was fascinated by how early the teachers at Inverbrothock had introduced computer coding to pupils (P2 onwards). They highlighted ways to introduce the topic, and activities for coding that can be completed without using a computer at all. This is known as “unplugged learning”. One activity they presented to the audience involved following instructions to draw a picture (see below). The activity emphasised the importance of having precise, clear and detailed instructions, especially when working with computers, as all the pictures the audience created were different. The teachers at Inverbrothock Primary School firmly believe that teaching computer science from a young age will equip them in future.

Bird from SLF

Unplugged Learning: My creation following instructions given by Inverbrothock Primary School 

Useful links:


Using HES to Support Learning 

A holistic approach to digital learning in a heritage context was presented by SCRAN staff during the Using HES to Support Learning workshop. The presentation explored a WW1 project run at Forthview Primary School. The students not only used the archive material for research, they took part in immersive heritage learning at Edinburgh Castle and developed their own short animation film using the archive material and their own drawings. What was most exciting about this project was the creative and multidisciplinary approach taken to the digital material. For example, links were made to literacy through reading Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo, as well as links to the Expressive Arts through the animation project. The digital material held on SCRAN was a springboard for activities across a range of curriculum areas. Find out more about the project here and see the video pupils at Forthview created here.

Connecting Scotland’s Sound

A project which offers a different approach to digital technology and heritage is Connecting Scotland’s Sounds. They are based at the National Library of Scotland and champion the preservation and sharing of Scotland Audio Heritage. The possibilities and importance of utilising of digital technology can certainly be felt, especially for a project which works solely with our intangible heritage. They aim to raise skills in sound archiving, including digitisation to ensure the longevity of collections, as well as raise awareness of audio collections and promoting engagement. To list to some of Scotland’s audio heritage, click here.

Jute Mill Song

I thoroughly enjoyed listening the Jute Mill Song amongst the hubbub of the SLF exhibition.

Go Industrial Museum Collective

As well as a hearing about a range of exciting projects, the Scottish Learning Festival also offered the opportunity to chat to a host of learning professionals who were promoting their learning programmes and resources on stalls within the heritage village. One which caught my eye was the Go Industrial Museum Collective. This group consists of museums preserving Scotland’s industrial heritage and includes museums such as Verdant Works, Scottish Maritime Museum and New Lanark (to name just a few). One member, the National Mining Museum, are integrating digital learning into their learning programme through STEM workshop “Crafting the Mine”, which uses digital learning to engage pupils with STEM. Within the game Minecraft, pupils can explore the Lady Victoria Colliery and compete against each other to collect the most coal. Watch a film exploring the Crafting the Mine project and creating the Minecraft environment here.

There were yet more stallholders and projects exploring the possibilities of digital technology in a heritage learning context, including HES exploring virtual reality and the National Trust for Scotland, who own the immersive game experience at the Battle of Bannockburn. The Scottish Learning Festival presented visitors with the range of digital heritage experiences, and made salient the variety of digital heritage projects being undertaken across Scotland’s heritage landscape.

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