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  • Writer's pictureMUSEUM STUDIES

The Chau Chak Wing Museum

Ailish Schneider, MA (Museum and Heritage Studies) student

Ailish Schneider with the Education Collection during her placement. Photograph courtesy of Craig Barker.

Our internships for Museum and Heritage Studies, and for Art Curating, occur across a vast range of external organisations and at several GLAM sector portions of the University. The Chau Chak Wing Museum, Rare Books and Special Collections (part of the Fisher Library), University Archives, Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens, Verge Gallery, Tin Sheds Gallery, the Sydney College of Arts Gallery, and the Power Institute – our placements have occurred across each of these, and we've also recently opened internship discussions with Sydney Analytical, a central scientific service set to extend its object analysis services for the CCWM to the GLAM sector more widely. A network of connections linking these GLAM sector parts of the University to each other, and to academic and professional staff across the University, continues to expand. Ailish Schneider's internship was drawn from one such network thread, between the CCWM and the Department of Archaeology. Jane Johnston, Placement Officer.

An Archaeological Education Collection Internship

As a Master of Museum and Heritage Studies student with a background in Archaeology and Ancient History, I was thrilled to intern at the Chau Chak Wing Museum. In my project I investigated, identified, and documented material culture from archaeological sites located in southwest Asia in the Museum’s Education Collection. The collection I worked with was donated in 2009 to what was then the Nicholson Museum by Dr Judy Birmingham, a now retired academic who has been an influential part of the University’s Archaeology department.

Most of the materials that I worked with consisted of sherds of pottery vessels, almost all of which had little to no documentation, so along with identifying the material itself, I undertook extensive background research on Dr Birmingham and the whereabouts of her work in the Middle East to pinpoint when and how she came across this material. Thankfully, her role in Middle Eastern studies is well documented, so I could almost follow her footsteps and curate a timeline from 1950s to the present.

Piecing all the information together, I established that the sherds came from a wide variety of sites and contexts, stretching from western Turkey to Iraq and Iran. Also, I provided new insight of another kind – the Museum’s Education team had previously understood that the sherds were all surface finds. However, upon inspection of the sherds and the original labelling on some of them, and with the benefit of now having more extensive knowledge of Dr Birmingham’s work close at hand, it was clear that some of them had been collected during excavation.

Ceramic Sickle Blades from Lowland Iraq. Photograph courtesy of Ailish Schneider.

A highlight of the project was identifying and getting to work on the investigation of some ancient ceramic sickle blades from lowland Iraq. These blades were in a box with mixed material from Tell es-Sawwan and Tell al-Ubaid, two of the most important archaeological sites in ancient Mesopotamia. While their exact provenance and context cannot be determined, we can speculate that they came from either of these sites, both of which were prominent Late Neolithic centres that display some of the earliest evidence of irrigated agriculture, monumental architecture, and incipient social complexity, all of which form the hallmark of Mesopotamian civilisation.

Sickle blades were multipurpose tools used in craft production and the harvesting of locally grown produce. When stones could not be sourced, residents at the sites instead created ceramic sickle blades, these being more affordable as well as readily available due to local manufacture. As an archaeologist in the early stages of my career, I was fascinated to work with such important object-types, and am grateful to have shed a light on what those objects are, as a start to reconstructing a history that has been lost to view amid the post-excavation history of these blades, including recently, more than a decade in storage, amid a multitude and myriad of other objects also awaiting their turn for closer investigation.

Overall, this project was extremely informative and provided a great wealth of knowledge on how to identify diagnostic ceramics, along with development my professional research skills and object handling and management. I am thankful to my supervisors Dr Craig Barker as Head of Education and Dr Joseph Lehner from the Department of Archaeology, and Professor Geoffrey Summers, Fellow of the British Institute of Ankara for their invaluable guidance and time throughout my placement.

Sherds from Tell es-Sawwan in the CCWM Education Collection’. Photograph courtesy of Ailish Schneider.


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