The Historic Environment Image Researcher, Dr Janice Kinory, has been thinking about a particular image…

‘As a guest blogger, I’d like to use this venue to write about how old images in the HEIR Project collection can provide a fresh perspective on things we think we know as archaeologists.

I first learned about the innovative Roman rotary quern from text books. Having excavated at several Roman sites I have even found bits of rotary querns. I’ve seen complete rotary querns in museum showcases. I even had a fully developed mental model of the use of this implement, envisioning it being used by a solitary individual, possibly a slave, working indoors, grinding grain. In short, I thought I “knew” about rotary querns.

HMC: Palestine: "HOLY LAND."   "28. Women Grinding."

This image, showing a scene from 1930s Palestine, hit me like a thunderbolt for several reasons. Clearly, the presence of the working rotary quern at that date was the first shock, making me think of the Monty Python movie “The Life of Brian,” in which the question what have the Romans done for us is answered at length; the quern clearly needed to be added to that list.

The second thought was that grinding was shown as a social activity, with the two women, possibly a mother and daughter, sharing the work, each with a hand on the wooden drive handle. My third insight was that the work was clearly being performed outdoors, which undoubtedly minimised the inhalation of flour dust.

Most importantly, though, was my final thought: the recognition of the organic mat and cloth beneath the quern on which to gather the flour being produced. I’d never thought about needing a containment mechanism for the flour. I had virtually no chance of finding an organic mat of any type with a quern fragment in an archaeological context and had never seen one included in a museum display beneath a quern. This was, as they say, a paradigm-shifting moment for me.

This image came from the collection of Harris Manchester College at the University of Oxford. It was part of their collection of pictures from the Holy Land, with many of the pictures in that group showing sites associated with Christianity. Some, such as this one, focus on the people living in that region in the early to mid-20th century.

The picture leaves many questions unanswered; we do not know whether or not the photographer was aware that the grinding process dated back to the Roman period, nor do we know whether this was an illustration of contemporary 1930’s life or a staged representation of how things were done when the older woman was a child. Was this an activity for the household, or was the grain being ground in sufficient quantity so as to produce a saleable surplus, generating cash income? The longer one stares at the picture, the more questions come to mind.

With almost 10,000 images already available, I believe that the HEIR Project images have the potential to shift many paradigms. I would love to hear from those who read our blog with their thoughts about this picture.’

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A teaser: ‘Living off the Romans in the 19th and 20th centuries’

We are looking forward to a talk by our researcher, Dr Janice Kinory, who will be exploring the relationship between commercial photographers in the late 19th century and the Roman ruins they photographed. She will be showcasing many of the beautiful slides from the HEIR database:



If you are a member of the Roman Discussion Forum, we look forward to seeing you at the Institute of Archaeology, Oxford next week, but if not, Janice will be blogging about her talk here in the near future (and no doubt there will be a paper forthcoming…)

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No spelt, please, we’re Saxon

Originally posted on Not Just Dormice - Food for Thought:

Guest blogger Mark McKerracher considers the fate of foodstuffs after Roman rule…


The boats safely beached, four Germanic feet touched the sands of old Britannia. The heavily moustached faces of Hengest and Horsa looked out over these strange new shores, littered with imperial detritus. A limp, decaying sack lay at Horsa’s feet.

‘Spelt flakes,’ it read, ‘naturally rich in Romanitas.’

‘Pah,’ muttered Horsa. ‘Foreign muck.’


Behind this stirring vignette of the birth of England lies a real archaeological conundrum: why didn’t the Anglo-Saxons eat more spelt? The facts are simply stated. When charred crop deposits are excavated from Romano-British settlements, the wheat component is practically always dominated by one type: spelt wheat. Yet from the 5th century AD onwards, in deposits from Anglo-Saxon settlements, bread wheat takes its place, dominating the wheats to the near-total exclusion of spelt – as it has done, pretty much, ever since…

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Lost views: ‘Palaces of Mechatta’

This image from our lantern slide collection is labelled “PALACES OF MECHATTA: ON EDGE OF SYRIAN DESERT, CARVING” “SYRIA (6th AD) “XEm”


The monumental unfinished palace of Qasr Mshatta was discovered and excavated in 1840, and lies about 30km south of Amman in Jordan. It probably dates to the mid 8th century. The huge intricately carved southern facade, illustrated in this image, was given as a gift to Kaiser Wilhelm II and transported to Berlin in 1903. A significant proportion of the carvings have been reconstructed and are now on display at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, having suffered damage from bombing during WWII.

In an article of 1908, P. Siméon Vailhé described the site as: ‘this fairytale palace, pearl of the Syrian desert, before the facade was taken to Berlin’. He also added that ‘the legendary palace of Mechatta has been measured, drawn and photographed to the last detail’, and noted that the 24 extremely good, large format photographs allowed the facade to be studied as it was when it was still in place.

HEIR, the Historic Environment Image Resource, contains many evocative images which provoke a debate about how and why ancient sites have changed, whether changes are beneficial or destructive, and how the treatment of material culture in the past and present represents a complex interplay of political, social and cultural attitudes. Change is inevitable, and the value of a resource such as HEIR is the opportunity it gives to study lost views of the past, as Simeon Vailhe noted.

P. Siméon Vailhé (1908) Chronique byzantine et médiévale de Palestine (Vizantijsky Vremennik, xiv p462-482)

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Unexpected baggage

The Institute of Archaeology holds some of the archives of archaeologist Martin Harrison, who was Professor of  the Archaeology of the Roman Empire at Oxford. He is perhaps best known for his excavations in Turkey, particularly his work at Sarachane and Amorium. So we were intrigured when we received an unexpected addition to his archive – this suitcase:

This is a serious suitcase – wooden structure, cloth covers inside and out, metal locks – but it has obviously seen better days. When we opened it we saw this:

– a small collection of maps and papers. But what you can’t get from this picture is the SMELL. The suitcase had been stored in damp conditions, and unfortunately it had developed mould and a lively colony of weevils:

mould and thrips

Luckily we check all new acquisitions in the post-excavation area away from the archive before we let anything through the door, and fortunately most of the papers in the suitcase were published maps and photocopies which we did not need to retain.

Archiving – always something new!

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Archival conundrum: to keep or not to keep?

One of the most difficult tasks in archiving (as in archaeology) is deciding what to retain, and what to dispose of (or put on the spoilheap). Similar underlying principles govern both disciplines.

Firstly, the research agenda: what is the archive for? Who will be using it? How significant is the material within the framework of a) what we think we know about the past and b) what future researchers might want to know about the past?

Second, the pragmatic agenda: is there space for this material? If it is kept, will this take up space and prevent us from retaining more important material (measured against criteria 1 above)? How much will it cost to conserve this material?

In archiving as in archaeology, the rule-of-thumb should be the same: if in doubt, keep!

All this ‘what is the point of an archaeological archive’ angst has been provoked by these:


Christopher Hawkes’ original box files. The contents – letters, documents etc – have been catalogued and been placed into acid-free archival storage boxes. We don’t want to continue using the original boxes for storage because they are not acid free, and their internal spring mechanisms will damage the contents.

Normal archival practice would be to discard these boxes. But the archaeologists in us think of the history of objects, and the story these box files have to tell. The labels on the outside are written in Christopher Hawkes’ own distinctive handwriting. These labels represent how Hawkes thought about and partitioned his research. These were the boxes which formed part of his research environment: a physical embodiment of his ideas and framework for thinking and retrieving information.

Some of the boxes may have older histories: this one, re-used by Hawkes, was made in Germany. Did it once hold part of Paul Jacobsthal’s archive?


On the other hand, these boxes take up a lot of valuable space. What would you do – would you keep them?

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From Oxfam to the Archive: how to bind a lantern slide

Volunteers are AMAZING. Recently, we have been working on the Ashmolean Museum’s lantern slide collection, and their volunteers have been helping to clean and catalogue the slides. One of the team presented us with this – a purchase from the Headington Oxfam charity shop, where she also volunteers:

Lantern Slide Binding Strip box

It’s a box of lantern slide binding strips! Lantern slides are made up of the image sandwiched between two thin plates of glass. The glass sheets are held together by the binding strips which seal the edges and keep the whole object secure:

Anonymous Photographer  Calton Hill, Edinburgh The Department of the History of Art, Oxford

Most photographers made up their own lantern slides at home using these special strips. Here’s what they look like inside the box:

Inside the box: pristine!

Inside the box: pristine!

Reading the instructions, it turns out that applying the strips must have been a fiddly and time consuming job. You needed tweezers, a bowl of hot water, blotting paper and lots of patience. On the other hand there was no TV or internet, so what better way to spend the evening than to settle down with a pile of binding strips and a pair of tweezers?

Wet the binder both sides by holding one end with tweezers and plunging the whole binder very quickly through a dish of hot water, drawing it out quickly over the edge in such a way as to scrape off excess water from the sticky side.

Lay binder, cement uppermost, on a blotter, allow a minute to become ‘tacky.’ Pick up a slide and cover glass and press one edge firmly to a length of binder, being careful to see that the width of the binder projects equally on each side of the slide; then rub down the projecting portions on to the front and back respectively of the slide.

Continue with the remaining three sides in a similar manner, and having completed the slide allow to dry out and set.

We’ll let you know what happens if we find a moment to repair any of our damaged slides. Anyone got any blotting paper?

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