Mummies and more: the secrets of the crypt
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.