Making faces

This week two of the human skulls at Buxton Museum were scanned to see if these faces from the past can be reconstructed. This will help us tell their story in the new Wonders of the Peak gallery. One skull is of a young person found at Fin Cop Iron Age hillfort, dating from around 300 BCE. The second skull belongs to a man buried around 2000 years earlier at Liffs Low.

The scanning was carried out by Mark Roughley and Dr. Eilidh Ferguson from Face Lab Research Group at Liverpool John Moores University and it was absolutely fascinating watching them work.

Mark and Eilidh make an initial assessment of the material.

Mark and Eilidh make an initial assessment of the material.

The research group at Face Lab provides expertise in analysing the bones of the skull and face. They use it to identify bodies in forensic investigation, and to make archaeological images of historical figures. Mark has a background in medical illustration and Eilidh in forensic anthropology and they were able to explain brilliantly what they were doing and why, and what we could learn about people from looking at their skulls.

First the bones were inspected to see which parts needed to be scanned. Some of the remains were fragmented, but Eilidh could identify whether they were relevant and she helped us identify some unknown parts.

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Eilidh identifying some of the fragments as parts of the hand.

For example, some of the fragments stored with the skull were actually parts of the hand, so we re-labelled their packaging accordingly. Mark and Eilidh then set to work – Mark scanning each part in turn and Eilidh carefully photographing them for later reference back in the lab.

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The Artec Space Spider hand-held scanner looked rather like a steam iron!

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The image above shows Mark scanning and Eilidh working at our photography area in the Project Space watched by Collections Assistant Dave and volunteer Cynthia.

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An image was built up as Mark moved the scanner back and forth round the skull.

The scanning was done in our public Project Space, so visitors could see what was going on and we could explain about the project.

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Eilidh photographs the Liffs Low skull.

The Fin Cop skull is relatively complete and has not yet been on display. The Liffs Low skull is part of a complete skeleton which has been displayed in a reconstructed burial. Using a hand held scanner meant it was disturbed as little as possible. We’re hoping there’s enough of this skull to make a reconstruction, but it is quite fragmented with some of the key central part of the face missing. Mark and Eilidh will put all the pieces together digitally to create a more complete image of the skull and hopefully visitors to the new gallery will be able to meet these early Peak District people face to face!

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Call for Volunteers – Peak Lithics Transect

Buxton Museum & Art Gallery has recently received the finds and archive from the Peak Lithics Transect, a 30-year field walking project covering over 1000 fields and resulting in finds that include around 6000 pieces of worked stone, mostly prehistoric, plus other finds such as prehistoric and post-medieval pottery. The museum is seeking volunteers to help pack this archive to ensure it is stored effectively and is accessible for display and research.

No experience is required, just an interest in archaeology or museum work and a willingness to work socially in small groups. Full guidance and training will be given. Sessions will run on Mondays from 10am to 4pm with a break for lunch, but volunteers are free to commit to as much, or as little, of this period as they like. The first working part is scheduled for Monday 14th September and will include a short presentation about the project so far.

To find out more, or to get involved, email CITL@derbyshire.gov.uk.

Lovely, Lovely Lithics

Any mention of stone tools or lithics and you’ll see my ears twitch. This is a subject which has held long fascination for me, ever since my days as an archaeology student. Coming back to Buxton has given me the opportunity to work with these types of collections once more, so I really couldn’t be happier.

Stone tools are a window into the distant past, and are often the only material that remains from prehistoric societies. As such, lithics are a precious route into the lives of our ancestors, allowing us to imagine how people may have lived and interacted with their environments. This will be critical to the successful delivery of Collections in the Landscape, as we attempt to interpret the lives of the prehistoric  residents of the Peak District.

A selection of arrowheads from the Waterhouse Collection of lithics, housed at the museum.

A selection of arrowheads from the Waterhouse Collection of lithics, housed at the museum.

Let’s take an arrowhead as an example. They can be used to explore the relationship between technology and the environment, but they also demonstrate that, like today, objects can be more than utilitarian, and can hold important cultural, political or ritual meanings.

The Mesolithic period (c. 10,000 – 4,000 BC) is often characterised by the production of ‘microliths’ – tiny worked pieces of flint or chert. These could form composite tools, including arrowheads, where multiple microliths were set into a wooden shaft. You can see an amazing example of the real thing here.

These tools were effective against a range of creatures, and have even been discovered in association with auroch bones in northern Zealand, Denmark (aurochs were large, wild cattle that could be up to 1.8m tall!)

However, during the Early Neolithic (c. 4,000 – 3200 BC) we can observe a number of new arrow forms, including the distinctive leaf-shape arrowhead. So what drove this change in technology?

A leaf-shaped arrowhead from the museum collections

A leaf-shaped arrowhead from the museum collections

As the climate warmed after the Ice Age, Britain became home to fully developed mixed deciduous woodland. In fact, the period between c.7,500 and c.5,500 BC is often referred to as the ‘climatic optimum’ with average temperatures around 2 degrees higher than they are today, with more sunshine and lower annual rainfall (so nothing like contemporary Derbyshire!).

However, the clearance of woodland during the Early Neolithic changed this environment. It was now more difficult for the hunter to get a closer shot at his or her target. It’s theorised that leaf-shaped arrowheads offered a more aerodynamic and effective killing tool with increased range and penetration – more suited to the open environment.

However, not everything can be explained through a tool’s practical form and use. Archaeologists have to contend with the presence of both ‘fancy’ and ‘non-fancy’ tools (forgive the use of highly technical language). Some arrowheads have clearly only been worked enough to make them practically useful, but other’s exhibit extensive retouch and shaping. If you’re sole goal is create functional arrows, this amounts to hours and hours and unnecessary work.

So what’s going on here? Some archaeologists have suggested that ‘fancy’ arrowheads were more about ritual or status than they were practical tools, contrasting them with the partially-flaked, mass-produced arrowheads used for day-to-day hunting. However, others point out the fact that some ‘fancy’ arrowheads do appear to show evidence of use, so the plot thickens…

Fast forward to the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age and consider beautiful barbed-and-tanged arrowheads like the one pictured. This type of ‘fancy’ arrowhead is closely associated with ritual activity, for example, often placed alongside the dead during burial. But these arrowheads also dangle another tantalising hint about the structure of Bronze Age society.

barbed and tanged arrowhead

Hunting tool or status symbol? Or both?

In general terms, the quality of flintwork generally deteriorates during the course of the Bronze Age, but clearly the knowledge and ability to manufacture quality stone items was still present, perhaps in the hands of a small number of specialists who were creating objects with powerful meanings or status.

As with most forays into the world of prehistoric archaeology I’m going to end up asking more questions than I started with. However, I hope this blog has helped demonstrate some of the ways stone tools can help us explore and theorise about the lives of prehistoric societies.

References and further reading:

Butler, C. 2005. Prehistoric Flintwork.  Tempus, Gloucestershire.

Larsson, L & Sjostrom, A. 2011. Early Mesolithic flint-tipped arrows from Sweden. Antiquity. November 2011. http://antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/larsson330/

Waddington, C. 2004. The Joy of Flint. Museum of Antiquities, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Visions of the Past

I’m pleased to introduce David Carmichael, one of the project’s new Collection Assistants. Here, Dave takes a look at the project through fresh eyes, and reminds us all why we’re undertaking Collections in the Landscape…

It was with feelings of trepidation and excitement that I entered the green doors of Buxton Museum and Art Gallery to begin my first day of work as Collection Assistant. Trepidation, because I was aware of the mammoth task (forgive the pun!) which lay ahead of us in transforming the museum upper gallery into a permanent exhibition fit for a 21st century audience and, perhaps, beyond. Excitement, because the Buxton Museum Collection is a vast melting pot of archaeology, culture, art, history, geology, biology, the ‘just plain weird’ and plenty of, as yet, undiscovered facts and revelations, with which I was keen to get to grips.

There is something for everyone in this amazing collection: from prehistoric mammoth jawbones and Peak District hill-tribe weapons of war, to the living biology of the landscape, cocooned in the brachiopods, that inhabited the sea which covered the Peak District millions upon millions of years ago. Or, if archaeology and history are not your thing, the beautifully rendered artworks of local painters and sculptors, capturing the monumental and immeasurable rawness of the Derbyshire and Peak District landscape are on regular display.

Dave - hard at work already!

Dave – hard at work already!

Collections in the Landscape is the overall name of the project we are undertaking and my first task is to research and identify objects of interest relating to the ancient Iron Age and Roman Fort of Melandra; situated just above Glossop. These objects of interest will, in turn, be used to plan a walking trail to, and around, Melandra, that can be accessed as a mobile phone app or online.  And, so it was that as I opened my first acid-free archive box and carefully delved into its contents; hundreds of uncategorised pieces of Roman Grey-ware pottery sherds, that trepidation turned to exhilaration as I realised that we were on a journey. A journey through history and time that will be realised, but not end, in 2017.  Who could fail to be inspired?

David Carmichael

Digital Interpretation

The use of digital interpretation is a hot topic for museums at the moment, but it’s a difficult thing to get right. As part of Stage 2 in the Collections in the Landscape project we are hoping to redevelop the Wonders of the Peak gallery, and we see digital interpretation as a key part of that. One of the best ways to understand what works and what doesn’t is to go and visit other museums, so that’s what we did! I have to admit that I was a bit of a digi-skeptic when it comes to museums, I visit to see objects not screens, but even I was won over.

Gold Coin of Trajan - This level of detail would be hard to see in normal gallery conditions.

Gold Coin of Trajan – This level of detail would be hard to see in normal gallery conditions.

 

A good reason to use digital is to bring small or hard to view items to life, and make them easier to see. It is hard to see the real detail in a roman coin, especially when there is 20cm of case between you and the object. To get around this visitors often move closer to the case in order to see the object properly, which causes problems for other visitors. I experienced this first-hand when visiting the British Museum’s current exhibition, Vikings: Life and Legend. The objects themselves were incredible but because of their size, and the busyness of the exhibition, it was a struggle to see them sometimes (and I am relatively tall!). The problem was partly the amount of people, which is unlikely to cause the same issues for us, but it was mostly the scale of the objects that made it difficult.

Vikings: Life and Legend. No problem viewing Roskilde 6, but the cases at the back look a little busy.

Vikings: Life and Legend. No problem viewing Roskilde 6 but the cases at the back look a little busy.

 

One of the ways to get around this is by digital interpretation. There was no digital included as standard in the Viking exhibition, however, there were guides on iPhones available to rent. The additional charge put many visitors off, myself included, and only around 3% of people in the gallery were using them. The visitors with guides did seem to be using the space differently and were spending less time at the objects themselves; perhaps they were seeing things the rest of us weren’t. We have thought about designing an app or specific guide for Buxton Museum but the uptake in audio guides is so small that it isn’t practical for a museum of our size. We are also quite interested in touch tables. Although not a fan of digital in galleries, I would have loved a massive touch table in the Vikings exhibition featuring the Vale of York hoard. Not only could it have been used to view the objects in detail but an extra layer of information could have been added, making the objects far more accessible. This could be a useful interpretation tool for the recently acquired Kirk Ireton coin hoard and is already successfully being used for the Staffordshire Hoard.

Ed, Anna and Jess all using the digital interpretation on offer at Archives+

Ed, Anna and Jess putting the digital interpretation at Archives+ through its paces.

 

Archives+, in the Central library in Manchester, have embraced new digital approaches in their redevelopment. They have recently re-opened after a complete redevelopment of the building, funded by Manchester City Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund. We were lucky enough to have a guided tour of the new space and got to test out their digital offer. As a digi-skeptic and lover of archives I didn’t know what to expect. Archives+ face a different set of challenges to us; archives are hard to work with and difficult to engage people with. Paper is one of the most delicate materials to display, and, for conservation purposes, items can only be exhibited for a limited time. Audio and film archives can be intrusive and annoying in open gallery spaces. Archives+ avoid these problems by having a carefully designed space. Audio and film archives are available in separate booths to the side with directional speakers or headphones, and cases can be changed by a single member of staff.

The Oculus - situated in the centre of the building, it acts as a focal point.

The Oculus – situated in the centre of the building, it acts as a focal point. Audio booths can be seen behind.

 

There is very little original material on display in Archives+; instead they let the digital do the work. You can scroll through maps of Manchester from 1640, or look through the photographic archives of immigrant families. This is an approach that works well with delicate collections. The interactive that impressed us most was the Oculus in the middle of the gallery. It consists of three touch screen terminals that allow visitors to navigate a map of Manchester. The map contains around 50 points of interest and various different topics are covered by these points. The best thing is that everyone can see what and where the users of these terminals are looking at via the central map. We found this really drew people together and made you want to use it as a group. It was a positive visit and we all left feeling motivated about the digital options that are available. Digital seems to work well as a focal point, but is also a good way of making difficult items more accessible. While it should never replace original objects, it can be used to complement and support exhibitions to great effect.

Dovedale Family Trail

On Saturday 15th March we took to Dovedale to test our new Dovedale Family Trail. It was a windy start but the weather held and we had a lovely day. Myself and Anna were joined by Martha Henson, who has been working with us on all of the Buxton Museum apps.

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As I have mentioned before, Dovedale posed a different set of problems than the other sites. For starters, there is no mobile signal. We got around this by creating the trail as a pdf that can either be downloaded to a device or printed in advance. There is also a simple web-version available on the Buxton Museum apps site. On the test day we all used printed copies and, although low-tech, everyone thought it worked well and preferred it to a screen-based activity. The paper copy meant families were sharing, ticking things off and writing things down, and not worried about breaking anything.

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Everyone seemed to use the trail as a good info sheet and ideas for activities, but several families told us they weren’t always clear where they were. For instance, Lover’s Leap is a great place to stop and have a breather (especially as you’ve just hiked up the hill to get there!) but there aren’t any signs to tell you where you are. Some of our location choices for activities also seemed crazy once we were there. At the Stepping Stones we ask people to ‘Look at the fossils below your feet’, but this location is far too busy for anything else than crossing the river.

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Reynard’s Cave was everyone’s favourite spot on the tour (staff favourite too!). We do not encourage people to climb up the slope to the cave itself because the climb is steep and dangerous, however, most families on the event did. Lots of objects have been found in Reynard’s cave, from Roman pottery to animal bones, making it a collection highlight too. One family liked that they could connect visiting the cave, and Dovedale, to objects we have in the museum and said it would make their next museum visit more relevant.

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Walking back was the hardest part, even though we knew we had lunch at the end of it! Like many of the families, I would prefer a circular walk of Dovedale and we are looking into the options. We had some great suggestions on how to develop the activity. Could we turn it into an orienteering challenge? Or perhaps run it as a regular group event? If you have tried the activity on your own we would also love to hear your thoughts. Until May 31st we are offering a small prize to anyone who completes the Dovedale trail and fills in our online survey. Prizes can be collected from the museum.

Putting things to the test…

In the last two weeks we’ve finally had the chance to get out and about with some friends and test our digital pilot projects in the landscape. But could months of time, effort and research really prepare us the occasion?

 
The four pilot projects are currently sitting on a dedicated website http://buxtonmuseumapps.com. Most of them, with the exception of Dovedale, rely on a mobile internet signal to run the web-based application. However, the site can also be viewed from home on a PC or Tablet or anywhere else with a Wi-Fi connection.

We’re very interested to hear what people think, so whether or not you get out in the landscape or explore from your armchair, let us know!Arbor Low in the sunshine...it didn't last!

For me, one of the most interesting locations was Arbor Low & Gib Hill. This is for two reasons, firstly because I love the site, secondly because of the technical challenges it has thrown up!
On both the 7th and 8th March we bundled into a minibus and set-off to try The Mysterious Arbor Low web app. Strong, cold winds awaited us, but the rain held itself at bay as we explored the site and tried to access the digital content through our smartphones or tablets.

Participants explore the barrow built in the bank at Arbor Low

Participants explore the barrow built in the bank at Arbor Low

So what did we did discover?

Our participants were full of great of ideas about what they liked and what they didn’t. Once we’ve completed our evaluation process it looks like we’ll have a great resource with which to decide the next step for Collections in the Landscape.

However, here are three lessons I learnt very quickly over the weekend.
Don’t trust the weather forecast!

Go to Arbor Low they said…It’ll be sunny they said.

Friday had been bright but chilly. But as I drove through thick fog on the following Saturday morning it began to dawn on me that the promised ‘brightening up’ was unlikely to take place before our visit began! That said, the rain held off and the mist and fog do lend Arbor Low & Gib Hill a certain spooky charm.
In cold weather, people don’t like taking off their gloves!

As a general rule, the screens of tablets and smartphones don’t react well to gloved fingers. However, there was a certain reluctance to remove these accessories whilst standing on an exposed, windy ridge in the Peak District!
Mobile Data can be extremely variable

During out visit we experienced amazing variability in the accessibility of mobile data. Some participants had almost no problems at all whilst others (myself included) found themselves relying on pre-downloaded audios as a ‘plan b’. Interestingly, I’m on the same network as my colleague Jess, who had no difficulties whatsoever! This variability is certainly something to bear in mind as we plan ways to roll-out Collections in the Landscape.

As the mist fades away, the group advances to Gib Hill

As the mist fades away, the group advances to Gib Hill

We’ve already learnt a lot from the digital pilots, things that can only be gained from actually getting out there and braving the elements and technical difficulties! As we study the results of our evaluation we hope to take this learning further in order to tidying up the projects we have, and to plan more for the future.

As a final note, I’d also like to take the time to thank Museums Sheffield for their support and cooperation during the making of the Arbor Low & Gib Hill pilot and for letting us incorperate some their own amazing collections.