Solving the puzzle of broken artifacts in the 1996 JMM expansion collection
Despite what we see in museum exhibits, it’s not often that whole, unbroken artifacts are found during archaeological excavations. Most of what an archaeologist might uncover during an excavation of an urban site are small, broken pieces of artifacts like glass and ceramic vessels. These pieces are referred to as “sherds.” The archaeological collection from the 1996 JMM expansion has bags and bags of glass and ceramic sherds, and it fell to Carlyn and me to try to see if we could piece them together into complete artifacts!
When sherds have traces of decoration, like painted decoration on ceramics or embossed words on glass bottles, it can be very easy to find matching pieces and “mend” them. It’s also easy to find matching pieces of distinctive artifacts, such as a cup made from an unusual color of glass or a very large ceramic pot. But sometimes it can be much more difficult – one group of artifacts that we dealt with was several bags of small, nondescript clear glass sherds. We were able to tell based on how thin the glass was and the curve of the larger pieces that these sherds came from glass oil lamp chimneys, but even with that knowledge, it was very hard to piece together the sherds!
We were only mending artifacts so that we could keep records of what pieces go together in the collection, so we used tape to hold pieces together or folded paper and other creative solutions to temporarily rebuild artifacts. When artifacts are mended permanently, special glues and other archival means are used to mend broken pieces of an artifact to create the attractive complete artifacts seen on display in museums.
We also had to work to “mend” some artifacts that were not glass or ceramic, such as a cloth vest or pieces of shoes. At times, mending can be frustrating work, but it’s a lot like doing a very interesting puzzle, and the results when you can piece things together are really amazing!
A blog post by Collections Interns Carlyn Thomas and Molly Greenhouse. To read more posts from JMM interns, click here.