It’s not very often that you discover a hint of gold, a tantalising glint of something exciting lurking in a box in store…
The archaeology of paperwork
I spend a lot of time searching for information about the collection, a process which reminds me very much of the process of archaeology – slowly trawling old paper catalogues, file index cards, correspondence files and gallery display labels to reveal layers of information and piece it together to build up a bigger picture. I’m trying to bring together the information into our Collections database so we have a much clearer idea about the stories our objects are telling. But there seems to be a lot of information that wasn’t recorded, sometimes because previous curators thought stories were so well-known that they would never be forgotten. But as museum staff retire and memories fade these interesting stories can become lost in the mists of time.
Treasures of Hissarlik
One such story is just coming to light again, of two men called Calvert and Schliemann, a place called Hissarlik, and their quest to discover the ancient city of Troy. I’d come across their names in our accessions register relating to a small group of Greek artefacts, donated by a James Brant in 1928: “Dug up by the donor in 1876 at Hissarlik (Plains of Troy) in an ancient cemetery on a farm belonging to Mr. Calvert, who was associated with Schliemann in his search for Troy”. Then flicking through the TV channels at home last night I stumbled across a programme about Schliemann, an apparently infamous treasure-hunter archaeologist, and the site at Hissarlik. It’s a fascinating story of treasure, bad archaeology (apparently he liked to use dynamite to quickly ‘uncover’ the archaeology) and political disputes.
The objects in our collection are made from ceramics and glass rather than gold. Apparently Schliemann wasn’t interested in this sort of object as they lacked the glitz and glamour he was seeking. This probably explains how our donor managed to keep them for himself. But they are interesting in their own right – they come from a site which was historically important, from a project which was important for its place in the development of archaeology as a method, and are strongly connected to a man who was internationally infamous.
At a local level, and this is becoming a familiar tale for RAMM’s collection, the man who excavated these objects and donated them to the museum was a retired naval man who came to Budleigh Salterton in Devon. It’s yet another strand of RAMM’s story, of retired diplomats and military men commemorating their lives by donating their collections to their local museum.