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Science and the Past

Science and the Past

Edited by Sheridan Bowman
Copyright Date: 1991
Pages: 192
  • Book Info
    Science and the Past
    Book Description:

    The ancient artifacts so carefully restored and exhibited in museums open vast windows to our understanding of humanity's past. But for every question an artefact can answer about an earlier civilization, a dozen more are raised. How long ago was this made, with what techniques, and of what materials? What was it used for? How do we know it's authentic? Modern science is able to provide more and more answers to a wide variety of such fundamental questions. In this volume staff members of the British Museum's Department of Scientific Research explain how the physical and computer sciences are used to study and preserve the record of the past.

    The British Museum Research Laboratory is the oldest in the world attached to a museum; its staff writes with authority on the benefits (and pitfalls) of using modern scientific analysis to illuminate the technologies and achievements of the past.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7963-4
    Subjects: Archaeology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-4)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 5-6)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. 7-8)
    David Wilson

    The collections of the British Museum are rich and diverse; their origins are global and extend from the earliest stone tools to twentieth-century prints and drawings. It has long been recognised that the scholarly investigation of such an important and vast range of material depends on a number of disciplines, and among our staff we include archaeologists, art historians and numismatists. Perhaps less apparent to the public have been our scientific staff, but the Museum has maintained a scientific laboratory for most of this century. The Department of Scientific Research, although not the first laboratory established by an antiquities museum,...

  4. Preface
    (pp. 9-9)
    Sheridan Bowman
  5. List of Colour Plates
    (pp. 10-10)
  6. CHAPTER 1 The Emergence of Scientific Inquiry into the Past
    (pp. 11-15)
    Paul Craddock

    From the beginning of the serious academic study of antiquities in Renaissance Italy, science had a part to play. Scholars and collectors were impressed by the beautiful colour and texture of Classical bronzes, and set out to determine their composition, incidentally giving us the word bronze (from the Italianbronzo)to describe the alloy of copper and tin used by the ancients. Such famous antiquities as the Horses of San Marco were analysed, and by the eighteenth century interest had extended to prehistoric antiquities; thus in 1774, for example, King George III’s assay master. Mr Alchorn, analysed two Bronze Age...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Ceramics: Materials for all reasons
    (pp. 16-36)
    Andrew Middleton

    Ceramic artefacts figure amongst the most ancient of manufactured products; they range from rather mundane but useful everyday objects through to exquisitely beautiful works of art produced to delight the observer. The earliest known examples of burnt (or fired) clay objects, the female figurines from Dolni Vestonice in Czechoslovakia, are about 25000 years old, whilst bricks and domestic ceramic vessels were produced as long as 10000 years ago. These earliest examples of ceramic art and technology already illustrate three of the fundamental properties of ceramic materials: moist clay is plastic and can thus be moulded into quite complex shapes; after...

  8. CHAPTER 3 Looking into Glass
    (pp. 37-56)
    Ian Freestone

    In the modern world, glass is ubiquitous. We use it in our windows, televisions, containers and spectacles. If asked to name those characteristics which are particularly special to glass, it is probable that at the top of our list would come transparency and colourlessness. Close behind would inevitably come fragility.

    To members of early glass-using societies, the foregoing description would have been unrecognisable. Before the Roman period, glass was a rare, luxury material, almost invariably coloured and often opaque. It was predominantly decorative rather than utilitarian and appears to have been strongly associated with semi-precious stones in the minds of...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Mining and Smelting in Antiquity
    (pp. 57-73)
    Paul Craddock

    The mining and smelting of metals has always been one of the most technically demanding and arduous of human activities. A wide-ranging practical if not theoretical knowledge of geology, mechanics, chemistry and physics was required. Indeed the development of these technologies into true academic sciences may well have been spurred on by the insatiable demand for metals, creating the need for ever deeper mines and more sophisticated smelting processes. As with the influence of steam on science in the Industrial Revolution, science in antiquity owed more to mining than mining owed to science. Thus the study of early metallurgy is...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Metalwork: Artifice and artistry
    (pp. 74-98)
    Michael Cowell and Susan La Niece

    Even after overcoming the tremendous technical difficulties of mining and smelting metals, the end result of all this endeavour was a raw material that still required the considerable skills of the metalsmith to turn it into artefacts, whether practical, artistic or both. These skills are perhaps no better illustrated than by the finds from the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo. This burial mound, probably for the Anglo-Saxon King Redwald, contained a rich treasure which gives a startling insight into the wealth of the ruling classes in seventh-century East Anglia. It includes, amongst other objects, drinking vessels, iron weapons and chain mail,...

  11. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  12. CHAPTER 6 Tracing to Source
    (pp. 99-116)
    Michael Hughes

    The first question one tends to ask about any object in a museum is where did it come from? In many cases, pinpointing provenance, where an object of a particular type was made, enables us to identify it quite specifically. For example, the tin-glazed pottery made in Europe from the Renaissance onwards was produced in many styles1-2: that made in the Low Countries (known as Delftware) is of a specific range and type which varies from one production centre to another and is different again from the maiolica of Italy³ and the lustreware of Spain.

    An object’s appearance is the...

  13. CHAPTER 7 Questions of Chronology
    (pp. 117-140)
    Sheridan Bowman

    Most people wear watches, some keep diaries: we continually monitor the passage of time and keep records of the sequence of events. Public buildings such as libraries house less personal records in the form of newspapers, parliamentary accounts and other documents. We live in a historical period; written records are kept and we tend to assume that our records are correct and that we can accurately reconstruct the events of the past. However, historical documents are not always true records of the past. For example the so-called ‘Dark Age’ of European history, following the decline of the Roman Empire, has...

  14. CHAPTER 8 Spotting the Fakes
    (pp. 141-157)
    Paul Craddock and Sheridan Bowman

    A wide range of scientific methods can be usefully employed to unmask fakes and fraudulent restorations, in much the same way that forensic methods are used in criminal investigations. However there is one obvious question to ask about authenticity testing: if scientific dating methods can be used, why bother with any other techniques? It is, after all, the date of the object that is in question. The simple answer is that not all materials lend themselves to scientific dating. We must therefore resort to more indirect methods, such as the variation with time of copper-alloy composition or technology of production....

  15. CHAPTER 9 Computing and Mathematics: Putting two and two together
    (pp. 158-171)
    Peter Main

    Centuries ago, mathematics was dubbed ‘handmaiden of the Sciences’, and with good reason. The earliest discoveries in mathematics were made by the great physicists and astronomers in the course of their work, and in those days great scientistshadto be great mathematicians. The power and wide-ranging applications of mathematics quickly gave it recognition as a discipline in its own right, whose theorems have now been brought to bear on problems in every field of knowledge. Computers, and the programs that control them, rely no less on the past creativity of mathematicians. The youngster of today who comes to grips...

  16. CHAPTER 10 Computerising the Collections: The art of successful flea handling
    (pp. 172-181)
    Lea Jones

    The British Museum’s collections contain a pair of dressed fleas from Mexico. Sceptics may baulk at such an idea, but given the attested presence of such equally implausible-sounding objects as a block of portable eighteenth- century soup (ex Captain Cook), Inuit seal-gut underwear, African cobweb hats and other equally exotic objects, the concept of dressed fleas may seem more acceptable.

    This chapter addresses the problem of handling these fleas, not as extraordinary ideas, nor even as physical entities, but as units of information. Each object in a museum comprises a potential body of information, of both administrative and academic significance....

  17. Glossary
    (pp. 182-187)
  18. Index
    (pp. 188-192)