Learning to Label Properly with the Bahrain Collection

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One of the cylinder seals

Everyone has family heirlooms kicking around in their basements, attics, garages, spare bedrooms; things that your parents or grandparents considered absolutely too important to throw out. In my family, this can range anywhere from my dad’s old report card to every issue of Time Magazine ever. Imagine, though, looking through your dad’s things and coming across a box of what is clearly ancient artifacts. This is what happened to the Blackmore family in Langley, British Columbia. These boxes have been sitting in a garage, as far as we can tell, since the 1970s. They were collected by Harvey Blackmore while he was working in Bahrain and, upon his death, his children donated the collection to the Laboratory of Archaeology (LOA) at UBC under the stipulation that they are also worked on by the From Stone to Screen project. This collection has almost 200 artifacts dating from the Ubaid period (5th millennium BCE) to the Islamic period in the Middle East. Unfortunately, since the majority of their provenience is unknown, the collection cannot contribute much to archaeology. The story of Blackmore, though, and his days off tell us more about amateur archaeology in the ‘60s and ‘70s that we had ever expected.

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Lynn shows Chloe (left) and Lisa (middle) the ostridge egg

Lisa and I went to the LOA in August to check out the collection that we’d both heard so much about. The collection was donated in May 2014 and according to MOA regulations, it was in quarantine until last fall. The larger concern with the collection, apparently, was the box full of notes, photographs and journals that came with the collection. These were frozen to make sure they weren’t carrying anything that could potentially harm the other artifacts in the museum. Starting in the spring, the collection was unpacked and sorted by Dr. Lisa Cooper, a Near Eastern archaeologist in the CNERS department and Dr. Lynn Welton, one of our post-docs. The LOA then hosted lab nights throughout the spring semester where volunteer students came in and helped catalogue the collection (Lisa and I were “too busy” finishing up our Masters and let me tell you, we regretted not making time every Tuesday evening for this amazing collection). Finally over the summer, FSTS hired two students using our TLEF funds to finish cataloguing the artifacts. Courtney, who was working on the metals, and Lynn showed us through the collection and we were awed.

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The carnelian necklace

The artifacts are diverse, eclectic, and exactly the variety one would hope for in a teaching collection. Pottery ranges from the 2nd millennium BCE up to Roman Palestine. There are seals, both cylinder and stamp, with a variety of images including a project favourite of 2 men drinking beer through straws (we are, after all, grad students). We have Neo-Babylonian seal impressions, including one with cuneiform. Lynn speculates that the cylinder seals may be fake since all 3 are not only too similar but have unfamiliar iconography. Even so, fake artifacts give us the opportunity to show students how to distinguish the real from the hoax. (Other lessons the collection can teach: never use sharpies on artifacts). It has a beautiful necklace with red and yellow carnelian sourced from India or Pakistan whose colours still stand out beautifully against the white tissue paper surrounding it.

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Remains of a bitumen basket

One of my personal favourites is a bitumen and reed basket. All that remains today is the bitumen (a tar-like substance that Mesopotamians used for everything from baskets to a mortar for craftwork) but there are hollow grooves where the reeds disintegrated over time. The basket came in pieces and took hours to sort out of the packing material it was in, but is eerily beautiful today and resembles an extremely delicate piece of sand like I would make on the beach as a child.

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Sensitive – do not open!

The collection also had various human remains that we will not do any work on; they are culturally sensitive material. The Museum of Anthropology is built on Musqueam land and in respect for their cultural traditions, the human remains are ceremonially sealed.

These are just a select few of the 196 artifacts that have finally been photographed and catalogued and are now available for interested students to research. Lovingly dubbed the ‘Bahrain Collection’ (because, really, Bahrain is so much fun to say), at the end of the hour of going through the collection I found myself more drawn to the box full of papers. I asked Lynn if she minded going through it with us and as she did, an unbelievable story came out of who Blackmore was and how he wound up with a 5,000-year-old bitumen basket in his garage.

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One of the many files of the Bahrain collection

It ends up that Blackmore was not an archaeologist at all. He was in Bahrain working for BAPCO in the 1970s and lived in an expat camp. Lynn showed me his journal and pointed out that all of his entries were from Thursdays alone, presumably his day off and this is when he would go explore the island. He had a letter from the government giving him permission to go dig soundings south of BAPCO’s oil field but he took this opportunity to go explore a lot more. According to his notes, he went and opened multiple tombs, most of which had already been opened or damaged by others. His goal was to record things that would eventually be damaged or destroyed by later development. To his credit, he did contact some Danish archaeologists who were working on the island at the time whenever he discovered a tomb that had yet to be opened.

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I look at a picture of Blackmore and co.

This is when the disbelieving jealousy kicked in. The expat camp he lived in, Uwalli, was extremely isolated and the residents had no contact with the outside community. And on his days off, he could just go dig up Roman, Mesopotamian, Bahraini artifacts. When I was a child, my family lived in an expat community in Sumatra, Indonesia. All we did on our days off was bike ride in the jungle where you were more likely to find poisonous snakes and tigers (maybe the occasional elephant), not ancient artifacts. Given my current career path, it was very difficult for me to not react like a petulant child. In any case, I found Blackmore’s story fascinating. His records, though, are a great example of how not to keep a dig journal. “Today, I found a ring” is not good archaeology, in case anyone was wondering.

DSC_0919For Lynn, the interesting part of Blackmore’s story was what it showed about the state of archaeology in the 1970s. There are photographs of at least another 200 artifacts that are not in our collection. Where did they end up then? She thinks that around 1970-1, the Bahraini started instituting a policy that divided finds between the Bahraini National Museum and the person who found them. There are images of a collection of seals that were gathered together at a conference in the 1970s. Blackmore has a picture of the impressions, even a mould, but only one of the actual seals. Where did the rest go?

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H. Blackmore in his element

The more documents that are read, the more answers that we have. Evidently, though, amateur archaeologists were given free reign to roam around Bahrain and collect artifacts as long as they donated a certain amount to the museum. Blackmore was evidently dabbling in the realm of academia, as you can see with his work with the Danish archaeologists and the occasional item from a conference, but the fact that these beautiful artifacts sat in a box in Langley for the last 30 years definitely shows that this was a hobby for him, at best.

The eclecticism of the collection cannot be overstressed. A box is optimistically labelled ‘shark teeth, 50 million years old!’ which does actually contain teeth, but certainly not from a 50-million-year-old shark. The diversity of the artifacts could not have all come from Bahrain, either, which Lynn thinks means he traded at a market when he was over there. The one box that certainly made all of us crack up when we saw it contained a pipe bowl, arrowheads and a note that says “made by a white man”. Good to know. His appalling journaling and labelling skills can be forgiven, though, when we think about how many diverse artifacts our volunteers can now work on.

Thumbing through his journal

Thumbing through his journal

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Courtney shows off a metal artifact she’s working on

Our other artifact collection, the Fuller Collection, was also donated by the child of a Canadian who worked in the Middle east in the early 20th century. While today’s tighter regulations are something all academics are eternally grateful for (we cannot use artifacts as evidence unless we know exactly where they came from), this collection has already taught our students how to sort, catalogue, photograph and draw artifacts. As Lynn said, this collection can’t add anything to our understanding of Bahrain’s history or culture but at least it’s giving us the opportunity to teach future archaeologists who can then go out in the world and help preserve cultural heritage.

Once all of the cataloguing is done, we hope to start making an exhibit with the MOA that will feature Blackmore’s work.

About Kat Solberg

Kat has her MA in Classical Archaeology from UBC, where she first became involved with the project. Its Media and Communications director, she is the voice of the project and all of its public dealings. When she's not glued to her computer, she can be found digging things up and obsessing over the Romans.

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