Mummies and more: the secrets of the crypt

Wed, Oct 17, 2012, 01:00

ROWS OF OPEN shelves hold pottery vessels of every shape and size close to the entrance of the crypt.Built-in presses along one wall store bulky items from cooking cauldrons to millstones, while aisles of floor-to-ceiling brass-handled drawers conceal smaller objects from prehistoric flint tools to medieval “ear scoops”.

Stowed away IN the bowels of the National Museum on Kildare Street in Dublin, are hundreds of thousands of archaeological artefacts, most of which have never been seen by the public.

The 1,000-cubic-metre crypt is home to an estimated 300,000 objects, but until recently, even the longest-serving members of the museum’s staff were unsure what lay behind some of those doors and drawers. The majority of items in the crypt has remained untouched for half a century or longer, and, in many instances, the old identification labels are long lost, making it extremely difficult to know where the object came from or what exactly it is.

Three years ago, five documentation staff were employed by the museum to investigate the contents of the crypt of the Kildare Street building. Using century-old collectors’ catalogues and modern research and documentation methods, they have been creating an international industry-standard database record for every object in the museum’s reserve collections.

“We open every drawer, every box and every bag, and try to find out where the objects contained in them came from,” says Claire Anderson, who leads the documentation team in Kildare Street. “It is a really exciting job, because you never know when you go to open a new drawer what is going to be inside.”

The drawers are taken in batches upstairs to the documentation office. Each researcher takes one at a time to work on, which can take hours or days to document, depending on the contents. Some drawers might hold a single brass horn, while others contain bags of up to a thousand pieces of flint, each of which needs to be documented individually.

Some of the more surprising items the researchers have uncovered in the drawers include medieval torture implements (see panel) and the blackened and wrinkled hand of an Egyptian mummy cut at the wrist, which was perfectly preserved.

STANDARDISEDrecords of all new items entering the building have been kept since the National Museum of Ireland was founded in 1922, but the majority of the museum’s collections was acquired in the 19th century from private collectors and the Royal Dublin Society, the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland and the Royal Irish Academy. Each collector or collection had its own set of catalogues and numbering systems.

Some kept detailed descriptions and drawings of every object, while others would make a note of the number of coins in a collection, for example, without recording what was inscribed on each one or where they were from.

The documentation work in the Archaeology museum on Kildare Street is being carried out as part of a five-year inventory project across all four sites of the National Museum. The €2.5 million project, which began in March 2009, is funded by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

Of the museum’s estimated four million objects, almost a quarter need a detailed record. Just 30 per cent were recorded electronically in 2007 when a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General found “significant shortcomings” in the museum’s capacity to keep track of its collections.

Items from the crypt that are already clearly labelled are matched to their original catalogue record, and that information is entered into the computer database with a new identification number, storage location, and any known history of the item.

But many of the objects have nothing to identify what they are or where they came from. The labels could be long lost, and it is up to the documentation team to find out what it is, when it dates from, and to what collection it originally belonged.

“There’s drawers full of objects down there with no label, and the background and history of them is only revealed through researching through the archive, the library or online. You never know what kind of story you’re going to come up with,” says Anderson.

During the second World War, valuable items were packed into crates and moved to a secure depot belonging to the Department of Education in Athlone. When the war ended, they were brought back and re-interred, but resources were too thinly stretched at the time to record the new storage locations for the objects.

Documentation assistants have found some items wrapped in 70-year-old newspaper that haven’t been opened since. “With the new database, we will be able to search by keyword, by collection, by date, by county or by townland, and be able to find the exact location for all the results,” says Anderson.

As the documentation team work through the drawers and presses, most of the objects are repacked into individual bags or placed in acid-free tissue, and some light cleaning and conservation work is carried out. Any damage is recorded so the museum conservators know what needs to be done to repair or protect the items.

The inventory project is also throwing up new research opportunities for archaeology students, and the plan is to make the database available online for members of the public to access when it is complete.

“The museum is the repository of our cultural heritage,” Anderson says. “The collection belongs to everybody, but the museum is responsible for looking after the objects for everybody in the State. Part of that responsibility is knowing how many objects we have and exactly where everything is. It is so important that we do this now while we can, because without a record of what is there this valuable cultural resource could be lost or forgotten.”

Claire Anderson will give a talk about the riddles solved during the inventory project at the museum on Kildare Street on Saturday at noon, followed by a workshop from 2-3pm exploring how objects are researched, recorded and cared for. The event is free and suitable for over-12s only. To book, email educationks@museum.ie.

Treasures of the Crypt

SCOLD’S BRIDLES

These medieval torture implements were used as muzzles to publicly humiliate “loquacious, nagging or troublesome ladies” and female prisoners. The bridle would be clamped around the offender’s head and the roughened tongue plate inserted into her mouth. One came from Down Gaol in Co Down and the other from Louth Co Prison, and were acquired by the National Museum following the dissolution of the Kilkenny Museum in 1910.

EGYPTIAN MUMMY HAND

A blackened and wrinkled hand of an Egyptian mummy cut at the wrist, perfectly preserved with the fingernails intact, was found in a drawer full of medieval Irish pins. The hand originated from the Tombs of the Kings in Ancient Thebes (now Luxor in Egypt), and was donated to the museum by Captain J Ffrench Davis from Molesworth Street in Dublin in 1950.

BRONZE ROMAN FIGURINE

The bronze Roman figure, found in the river Boyne near Navan, Co Meath, and believed to be Hercules, was listed in the George Petrie collection catalogue compiled by antiquarian William Wakeman in 1867, but could not be located in the museum’s collection. It was found in the crypt during the inventory project and matched to its old catalogue record. Roman finds in Ireland are very rare, so locating the figure was a cause for celebration.

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