Monthly Archives: November 2015

#35 Unearth Buried Archaeological Skills

We have a brand new Art Gallery in town, but it’s no sedate country gallery any more.

Known by the acronym MAMA – for Murray Art Museum Albury, it’s a stunningly designed exhibition space with an entrance that excites the moment you step inside – soaring spaces and wonderful use of light on the ground floor…

MAMA ceiling 2

… with an impressive staircase beside an elegantly curved wall leading to more spacious exhibition rooms upstairs:

MAMA stairs

Its new name is an inspired choice to attract locals and visitors alike, because we can now be exhorted to ‘Love your MAMA’, ‘Come to MAMA’, ‘Meet your MAMA’ and all the other combinations of warm motherhood emotions that can be evoked:

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 10.44.41 am

 and the real clincher…

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 10.45.04 am

But the one I found irresistible wasMAMA needs you!’

Yes, MAMA was looking for volunteers. I was looking to get involved. It was a win, win situation.

So this is how I’ve ended up behind the scenes in the curating section at MAMA helping sort through the buried artefacts unearthed when the new foundations were being laid last year. I’m now officially one of ‘MAMA’S Little Helpers’. Bliss!

After a morning’s training session – admittedly quite a bit shorter than a university archaeology degree – I’m able to pretend to be an archaeologist; and isn’t delving into past civilisations a childhood dream shared by many of us?

Together with two other industrious volunteers, we sit in companionable silence – occasionally broken by one of us pointing out an interesting discovery – cleaning, sorting, grouping, bagging, tagging and recording memories from times past, which in this context, means life around Albury’s main street in the1800s.

Here’s how it works:*

Step One: Take large tubs of clumpy-looking, dirty detritus, which in this example, are called the contents of Spit 1. (A Spit, I can advise, is ‘a unit of archaeological excavation with an arbitrarily assigned measurement of depth and extent’.)

Under no circumstances mix the contents of a Spit with the contents of any subsequent Spits that will be coming your way  (which are of course named Spit 2, Spit 3 and so forth).

Step 1 piecesExhibit 1: Could this ever divulge hidden secrets?

Step Two: Transfer pieces of this unloved material into tubs of warm water and scrub gently with a soft toothbrush. Take particular care to clean the broken edges too, as these will often help identify the material:

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 10.30.36 am

Step Three:  Rinse the now-clean items in water then leave to air dry on paper resisting the urge to place the artefacts in the sun or use a hair dryer to speed up the process.

This is where it becomes exciting as ancient Albury civilisations emerge before your eyes. (They do appear to include populations who use a lot of bottles):

Step 3b dryWho’d have thought a tub of dirty bits and pieces would end up like this?

Step Four:  Sort the pieces into matching colours or material groupings:

Step b sort

Step sort








Then reconstruct some of the pieces like a jigsaw puzzle!

Step 5a match

Step 5b Match






Step Five:  Become excited when you find a piece of pottery with an identifying mark on the back such as this portion from the blue platter:

Step 4b identify

Become even more excited when you magnify this to realise it reads “Jabez Blackhurst– Asiatic Pheasants, and discover that Jabez Blackhurst (1843 –1914 ) was a well known Staffordshire potter.

Step Six:  Commence bagging and tagging all the matching pieces of Spit 1 before moving onto Spit 2, the next layer down in the archaeological dig and which may expose even older artefacts than the contents of Spit 1:

Step b Bag


Step Seven:  Um … I haven’t been taught Step Seven quite yet, but I’m sure it will be just as satisfying as Steps One to Six.

Here are some great pieces the real archaeologist uncovered earlier, displayed like rare jewels at MAMA:

Step 6a display

It was Agatha Christie who, being married to an archaeologist, famously quipped ‘An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she gets, the more interested he is in her.’

Volunteering as an archaeologist when you’re retired is not so different. You keep hoping you may discover some old artefact among the pieces you’re cleaning that will evoke memories of a long gone childhood…

*You can try this at home – but it helps to be under the supervision of a real archaeologist…