On going at Gustavianum
An interview with guest researcher Aaron De Souza
Hi Aaron de Souza. You are a Lise Meitner Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Austrian Archaeological Institute at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna.
What are you doing at Gustavianum´s Historical Collections?
This is actually my fourth visit to Uppsala and to the Gustavianum’s collections! I came twice all the way from Sydney, Australia, as part of my PhD research, and again in 2019 as a postdoctoral researcher from Vienna.
This time, I’m here to do research for my current project, Living Nubia: New perspectives on Nubian settlements, which is supported by a grant from the Austrian Science Fund. The project takes an in-depth look at ‘non-urban’ Nubian habitation sites that have been overlooked for the past decades, and tries to find some new insights about them based on current knowledge.
In Uppsala, I’m looking specifically at objects collected by the Scandinavian Joint Expedition to Sudanese Nubia (“the SJE”), which includes material from at least 17 habitation sites. At present, these sites are only very briefly and incompletely published, so my aim here is to re-document the finds, re-publish the data, and hopefully offer some new interpretations.
How old are the pot sherds/fragments and how did they end up in Uppsala?
The objects in the SJE collection were all excavated between 1961-1964 as part of the international UNESCO campaign to rescue the monuments of ancient Nubia that were going to be lost following the construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt. The SJE itself was a joint mission with teams from Denmark, Finland, Norway, and of course Sweden. The finds were shared between Sudan (the country of origin) and the four Nordic countries, but as the mission was directed by Prof. Torgny Säve-Söderbergh of Uppsala University, the largest portion of the finds came to Uppsala.
The Gustavianum holds finds from the so-called “Early Nubian” and “Middle Nubian” periods, which collectively cover approximately 2500 years of Nubian history, from c. 4000 – 1500 BCE. There are also some later assemblages from a New Kingdom Egyptian cemetery in Nubia, as well some early material from Neolithic times.
Why do you keep coming back to the SJE Nubian collection?
In my opinion, the SJE Nubian collection is by far one of the most important collections of Nubian antiquities in the world! One of the reasons it is so important is because of its breadth. Uppsala’s portion alone includes 15 TONNES of pottery, stone objects, metal objects, jewellery and beads, leather objects, organic material, some faunal remains, textiles, and so much more! While some of the more precious objects remain in their homeland of Sudan, the scope of the Uppsala collection makes it possible to reconstruct entire tomb assemblages, and to build more complete pictures of cemeteries, settlements, and ancient communities.
The SJE didn’t just collect complete and beautiful objects, but also fragmentary objects, including tonnes and tonnes of pottery sherds! In most cases, this kind of material would be discarded, but it’s presence in the SJE collection not only ensures the completeness of the dataset, but it offers huge potential for scientific analysis. I myself have conducted petrographic analysis on some samples generously loaned by the museum, and plan to do some further studies in the future.
But one of the most important aspects of the collection – and something lacking from a lot of other major collections! – is the associated archival documentation. The archives include original handwritten field notes, find lists, thousands of photographs, original maps, correspondence, catalogues, newspaper clippings, and so much more. The extensive documentation makes it possible for researchers like me to fully understand an object’s context, and sometimes it feels as though you are right there in the field with the excavators! The archive is also extremely useful for filling in any gaps in the published reports, and also for clarifying any errors that may have crept into the final publications. In short, this documentation is extremely valuable from a scientific perspective, and it is the source of the collection’s ‘power’ in terms of research scope.
What can we learn from pot sherds/fragments?
Pottery sherds may not look that exciting, but they are extremely informative! The most common thing that they are used for is to establish chronology. Much like cars and fashion, pottery shapes and style changed over time and we can use those changes to establish what date or period we are looking at – kind of like how a dress from the 1950s looks very different to a dress from the 1960s.
But more than that, pottery can tell us about trade and economics (e.g. where things came from, what was contained in them etc); material technologies (e.g. how things were made); cultural interconnections (e.g. pots that combine styles from more than one cultural tradition); function (e.g. how pots were used)… among many other things.
Can you describe your working process with the Gustavianum collection?
I work through one site at a time, going through the material as it currently (i.e. beautifully!) organised. The material from the habitation sites is mostly pottery fragments, so I go through each bag and identify anything that is informative – ‘diagnostic’ sherds that tell me something about the shape of the vessel (e.g. rims, bases, handles, decoration). I measure the sherds, take notes about their general appearance, materials, as well as any evidence for how the object made or used. Then I take photographs of as much as possible, and then I make a technical illustration of the most informative pieces. This same general process also applies to other types of object, for example lithics, organic material, and more. Throughout the process, I check through the archival documentation to see if I can establish exactly where at the site the object was found. I also scan and copy the archival documentation. At the end, I give copies of all of my documentation to the curators at the Gustavianum so that it can be added to the collection archives.
Ultimately the most important thing is handling the objects directly (while wearing gloves, of course!). This direct engagement is vital because it gives me a sense of how an object “feels”, how it fits in my hand, how I handle it, as well as a better understanding of how it was made and used. We always have to remember that these objects were made by people, for people, and so direct, first-hand analysis is essential if we want to really understand them!
European Academic Heritage Day
Anders Celsius – the unknown man with the well-known name – was a professor of astronomy at Uppsala University from 1730 to 1744. Celsius was a pioneer in investigating the Earth and its changes by means of systematic observations and by collecting long series of numerical data, among other things temperature.
The planning of a new archaelogical exhibition at Gustavianum
Hi Franziska Lichenstein! You are a doctoral student at Göttingen University and at the same time involved in the production of a new archaeological exhibition at Gustavianum. How did that come about?
I am a doctoral student in a research group in Göttingen that investigates exhibitions from a history of science perspective. We also try to integrate a practical point of view in our dissertations, in addition to theory and our respective research topics. This makes it possible to understand processes within the various departments and how an exhibition is created. In my doctoral project I am investigating archaeological exhibitions about the Viking Period.
What do you think of Gustavianum's archeological collections?
They are really impressive! As a literary scholar, I have previously mostly been involved with texts, so getting in touch with the material culture is actually still something special for me.
What do you think is the most interesting object?
It is difficult to choose. But an object that I find particularly fascinating is a brooch with a female figure carrying a kind of drinking horn. The brooch was found in the boat grave of an elderly woman in Old Uppsala and will probably be exhibited in the new archeological exhibition at Gustavianum. Some researchers interpret the object in the light of Nordic poetry from the Middle Ages, which tells of mythological female figures. But even if you disregard that, it is interesting that there was, even then, a girl with a drink!
New signs for the Humanities Theatre
Rebecca Flodin, Curator at Gustavianum! Could you tell me what you are doing at the Humanities Theatre?
Uppsala University owns a significant collection of sculptures in the form of plaster casts. Some of these sculptures were put on display in the Humanities Theatre when it first opened. Until now they have been without information boards, but we have finally been able to add these!
Can you tell us a little more about the sculptures and how they came into Uppsala University’s possession?
The plaster cast collection was acquired by the University largely during the 19th century. At that time the sculptures served mainly as models for the teaching of drawing. The collection includes about 300 plaster sculptures; in addition to casts of works from classical antiquity, there are also busts and medallions of royalty, scientists and other famous people.
Who should I contact to book or visit the Humanities Theatre?
Visit our website for the Humanities Theatre for more information!
The Vikings Begin continues on to Montana
Hi, Emma Hocker, Senior Conservator at Gustavianum! Is it true that you will soon be travelling to Montana to set up Gustavianum’s travelling exhibition The Vikings Begin?
– That’s the plan! But I need to follow all the restrictions and recommendations for the trip to the USA, such as a negative Covid test within 48 hours of departure and observing all the safety precautions, including wearing a face mask for the whole journey. Now I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the flight actually departs, as there have been quite a lot of cancelled flights. I would prefer to be there to take care of the valuable objects, but if that’s not possible we have a plan B, which involves Zoom and a late evening for me!
What sort of reception has the exhibition received in the USA?
– There is a strong interest in everything that has to do with the Vikings, due to the multitude of TV series and documentaries that have been screened recently – not least The Dig, the recent film about an excavation at Sutton Hoo in England in the 1930s of a boat grave from the same period as those found at Valsgärde. At the last venue, The American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, the visitor figures were the best ever for an external exhibition, so hopefully that trend will continue. Vaccination in the USA has gone well, so one can hope that the public will be eager to visit museums again.
Are there further stops planned after Montana?
– We have recently agreed that the exhibition will be shown at The History Museum in Mobile, Alabama between October 2021 and June 2022, before its return to Sweden. It is very exciting and we can say with pride that the vikings have conquered USA’s east, west and now also south coasts.
Digital seminars about objects in Gustavianum's collection store
Hi, Greger Sundin, curator at Gustavianum! Is it true that university institutions can book digital seminars about objects in Gustavianum's collection store?
– Absolutely! While physical visits are not possible, we can still hold seminars about the objects in collections that are held in our various stores and study areas. We have had to adapt to what is possible digitally, but much of the object-based study we do can be successfully communicated remotely.
How does such an approach work?
– To a large degree, we can adapt to the needs of the teacher, but otherwise we have a number of approaches that we know work well. This can involve streaming audio / video over zoom (using, among other things, movable cameras), featuring objects selected for relevance to the theme of the seminar. It is also possible to prepare filmed material in advance in cases where streaming is not suitable.
Easter egg orientation March 29 - April 5
With the help of a map and a little ingenuity, you will find your way to the answer. The university's museums invite you to an educational and intriguing tour between the Tropical Greenhouse and the Museum of Evolution. Start from the Tropical Greenhouse entrance and get around using your smartphone. The orientation is open 24 hours a day from 11.00 on March 29, until 16.00 on 5 April. For you between 5-12 years. In collaboration with: the Museum of Evolution and Gustavianum.
The questions are in Swedish.
Finds from the antiquity - a ceramics exercise at SciFest
SciFest 2021 went digital, and Gustavianum was of course participating. Read more about the event on Scifest website.
On March 8, a class from Rosendalsgymnasiet in Uppsala participated in a workshop arranged by the Department of Archeology and Ancient History as well as Gustavianum at Uppsala University.
Since this year's science festival went digital, the exercise had to be carried out remotely. The responsible teacher from Rosendalsgymnasiet, Calle Håkansson, retrieved in advance a study material consisting of ceramic fragments from the stone and bronze ages in the Aegean area. On site in the classroom, the students had to examine the ceramics in pairs and try to think about what they may have been used for. University lecturer Michael Lindblom supervised the class digitally.
The students thought it was exciting to handle such old objects and they took on the task with intrest. Michael Lindblom explained in both an easy-to-understand and interesting was.
In this year's digital SciFest, Gustavianum also participated with the interactive workshop SciFest 1663. Classes from all over Sweden had the opportunity to witness what dissections in the anatomical theater could have looked like in the year 1663. The students' own anatomy skills were also put to the test when they could draw how they think that a human heart looks like and that with the help of the strings they estimated how long our intestines really are.
Activities during 2020
A new Vice-Chancellor portrait for Uppsala University
The university's art collection contains a large number of portraits. Here, older eras unite with our own time and the collection thereby manifests a continuity throughout history. In December 2020, the univeristies former vice-chancellor Eva Åkesson was thanked. In connection with this, her portrait, made by Olle Hamngren (b.1960), was unveiled.
Följ med på ett besök i konstnärens ateljé och lyssna på ett samtal om tillkomsten av Eva Åkessons porträtt.
Digitalt firande av Drottning Kristinas födelsedag
I samarbetet med Christina-Akademin, Livrustkammaren och flera andra kulturinstitutioner runt om i Sverige anordnas ett digitalt firande av Drottning Kristinas födelsedag den 8 december. Hör museichef Mikael Ahlund och 1:e antikvarie Ragnar Hedlund berätta mer om kopplingar till Drottning Kristina i Uppsala universitets konstsamlingar och myntkabinett.
Från värdefulla gåvor till universitetet och hovets flytt under pesten, till raka gator och abdikering i Rikssalen på Uppsala slott. Drottning Kristinas historia är även Uppsalas historia. Hör Uppsalas ciceron John Ringh berätta mer!
Kulturnatten Uppsala 2020
Kulturnatten 2020 med tema Gömt men inte glömt hos Evolutionsmuseet och Gustavianum. Följ med intendenterna på en digital rundtur in i föremålsmagasinen och hör dem berätta om några unika föremål.
Få ett smakprov på vad som händer
Följ med in hos glaskonservatorn och se hur Gustavianums unika medeltida glasfönster konserveras.
Gustavianum is closed for renovation
The renovation will, above all, improve the environmental conditions for exhibited objects, as well as increase the total area of exhibition space. The renovation work is being conducted by Sweden´s National Property Board, in close collaboration with Uppsala University. The work is estimated to be completed until autumn 2023.
Gustavianum is itself a unique building of a major historical significance that must be treated with great care. The building including the Anatomical Theatre, will not be altered. The careful renovation will instead focus on improving the existing building´s ability to function as a museum, where the collections can be better preserved for the future. When the doors re-open, the visitors will experience a unique university museum of world class.