Things I’ve learned working in a museum (part IV)

That you don’t learn as much from Time Team as you think you do…

You watch Time Team, and you think you’re learning everything you need to know about archaeology. You watch Phil knap a chunk of flint into a hand axe, and you think ‘I could do that. It looks easy’. You watch him pull a piece of Roman pottery out of the ground and proclaim “‘Ere, Tony, I’ve got a lovely bit of pot for you ‘ere” (to be read in a strong West Country accent), and you think it looks simple. Pottery is just pottery, after all. But no, it’s really not. It could be samian ware, black burnished ware, coarse ware, slip ware (red or black), it could be a fragment of an amphora, a cooking pot, a cup, a bowl, a mortarium (a mixing bowl – think ‘mortar’, not ‘mort’), or any number of other things. And then you quite often find Medieval green-glazed pottery mixed in with the Roman, too, and it all gets quite complicated.

So I look at a drawer of Roman ceramics in the museum, and my incisive Time Team-trained mind says, “It’s a drawer of Roman pottery”. And my archaeologist colleague sighs and says, “Yes, but what type of pottery?”. And my incisive Time-Team trained mind shuffles its feet in embarrassment and says, “Erm…dunno”.

And much the same thing happens when we come across a drawer of stone tools. I see a pile of rocks, my archaeologist friend sees hand axes, arrow heads, scrapers, choppers, burins, points, blades, microliths, pounders, hammerstones, whetstones…the list goes on.

So the last few weeks have been a bit of a steep learning curve for me. I hate to admit that I don’t know much about anything (because I’m a smartarse, and I like to know everything about everything!), but it turns out that I know a hell of a lot less about archaeology than I thought. My knowledge of Roman history is pretty good (late Republic and early Empire, anyway), and I naively thought that pretty much equated to knowing something about archaeology. Oh, how wrong I was! I have learned a lot very quickly, and can now identify my Roman pottery and stone tools much better than I could 3 weeks ago (not hard to achieve!), however, I think I’ll leave the archaeology to the archaeologists in future. It’s interesting, but it’s not my area of expertise! I’ll take a dinosaur over a pot any day of the week!

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5 thoughts on “Things I’ve learned working in a museum (part IV)

  1. My inner geek (poor kid, he's been neglected for a while)is so happy for you (and more than a little jealous)that your job allows you to actually Learn Things… I know, it sounds smartass, like I know everything, which I most certainly do not (hence the thirst-for-knowledge thing). I do enjoy my job, talking to kids about science is a lot of fun, but I just don't find anything shiny new to learn about… Oh well, there's always the Wikipedia stream-of-conscieousness stroll, almost as good as opening the Encyclopaedia Britannica at random articles, which used to be a dear hobby of mine when I was 12…

    I really hope you can remain in museum curation, and that you keep finding new challenges!

  2. I'm afraid so, Shell!

    And thanks Carlos! I really hope I can stay in museum curation too, because I love what I do and know how lucky I am in that. I'm keeping an eye out for jobs! I applied at Bristol Uni to do the 'talking to kids about science' thing, but didn't get an interview. Not sure I really want to do that anyway…public speaking always was one of my nightmares! It sounds fun, though! Your average 10 year-old knows more than I do about dinosaurs!

  3. The Bristol thing sounded good, if you didn't mind the whole speaking in public thing…but I didn't apply. Main reason being that it was a 3-year post with no guarantee of permanence. Also, whoever got it is now morally tied to it for all that time, and if they leave, the project takes a bad hit. One of the things I secretly like about my current job is that if something better comes along (as in, say, next door), I can leave in good conscience that the Learning Department can easily replace me…

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