From Volunteer to Supervisor – My Conservator Journey

Here former Manchester BA Archaeology student, Dominika Król, talks about her experience as a conservator on the Sam Alex Basement Conservation Project:

My adventure with conservation started in 2021 during the third year of my archaeology degree at Manchester. I was one of several students who volunteered to help with the conservation of archaeological finds and samples damaged during the flooding of the university’s artefact storage area in the Samuel Alexander Building basement. During this time, I was trained by a professional conservator and gained experience in cleaning and conserving Roman pottery sherds and tiles. Despite the enthusiasm and dedication of the volunteers, due to the large volume of archaeological material gathered through the years by the department, we only managed to scratch the surface. By the end of the year many decades worth of archaeological artefacts and samples were still in urgent need of conservation.

Figure 1. Examples of objects before (left) and after (right) conservation; you can see mould growth on the objects before undergoing conservation and cleaning.

After graduation, I was invited to join a Conservation Project Team assembled to assess damage and conserve all of the archaeological materials which suffered during the flood. My core responsibilities as a conservation assistant included sorting, cleaning, and conserving artefacts, re-packing and recording all possible context information as well as upkeep of the paper and digital archives. I had the unique opportunity to work with a wide range of materials such as ceramic, glass, bone, wood, metal, charcoal, flint, stone, and shell, which came from various sites ranging from prehistoric to post-medieval. Some of the artefacts I had the privilege of conserving include Neolithic flint tools, Roman spearheads, Medieval coins, Victorian clay pipes as well as countless shreds of pottery. Many objects stored in the Samuel Alexander basement had been excavated during the 70s and 80s and unfortunately had been forgotten. Since a considerable number of paper records were lost to the flood, we needed to work in close cooperation with other experts to acquire more data about the objects and sites. Although the majority of finds such as pottery sherds or rusty iron nails were quite easy to identify, we also encountered some mysterious artefacts which left us baffled and uncertain about their purpose.

One of our objectives during the later stages of the project was to invite students to once again join the conservation efforts and gain valuable practical experience. My responsibilities were therefore expanded to include training and supervising a new group of student volunteers. Thanks to their dedication almost all of the artefacts affected by the flood have now been cleaned, conserved, repacked, and placed in new boxes. The project is now entering its last phase with our attention turning to the future of the objects. My main objectives for the next few weeks will be reinstating, and reorganising the storage of the artefacts, as well as designing and curating an exhibition showcasing the highlights of the project. We are also currently working on the process of repatriation of some of the objects, mainly to France and to Libya.

Undoubtedly, a flood affecting an archaeological store and contaminating countless artefacts and samples would be seen by most as something destructive and regrettable. However, I believe a silver lining can be found in this unfortunate event. Due to the flood various artefacts which became forgotten came back to the attention of academics. Moreover, numerous objects will be returned to their correct owners. Furthermore, many students have gained experience which otherwise would be very difficult to obtain.

My story can serve as an example that volunteering during your degree can lead to fantastic future opportunities. Thanks to my involvement in the project, I have gained skills in cleaning and conservation of various materials such as ceramic, bone, wood, metal, stone, glass using dry and wet conservation techniques; knowledge and observance of Health and Safety regulations during working with hazardous materials and substances such as lead, mould and Industrial Methylated Spirit; working with large databases and spreadsheets; accurate record keeping; researching unpublished excavation reports; working collaboratively with specialists from different backgrounds; supervising of a large group of volunteers; restoration of a ceramic vessel; curation of a display cabinet; artefact photography and many others. I think that all of the skills and practical experience I have gained during my involvement in the Conservation Project will undoubtedly help me with the development of my career in archaeology and conservation.

Experiencing Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technologies

As part of the second-year, course unit CAHE25762 Art and Technology in Ancient Egypt, there are nine seminars, which allow students to – literally – experience ancient Egyptian materials and technologies. Five of these seminars are conducted in cooperation with the Manchester Museum and they give students the chance to actually handle ancient artefacts, teaching them how to do so safely, and what information can be gleaned from close examination of ancient material remains.

The remaining four seminars are dedicated to experimental archaeology. These include flint knapping, pottery manufacture and braiding cordage. Using the Mansfield Cooper Archaeology Laboratories allows the students to learn ancient techniques and crafts, such as how to manufacture a ceramic vessel using coil-building and paddle-and-anvil techniques. The pottery manufacture seminar (pictured below) was conducted under the expert supervision of Nacho, a Manchester-based professional potter. The ceramic bowls produced by the students were also put to good use – as containers iron-oxide based paint which the students then used to test the plant fibre paint brushes they manufactured in a separate seminar. These brushes are replicas of artefacts found in the Valley of the Kings and the original were, most likely, used to produce the beautiful paintings, which decorate the tombs of Egypt’s New Kingdom pharaohs.

Actually handling ancient materials and learning how to produce them gives the students a deeper understanding of how manufacturing industries functioned in ancient Egypt. Having access to the Mansfield Cooper labs is a crucial benefit to the department, as it allows this kind of practical hands-on teaching to be conducted in safe and appropriate surroundings and under expert supervision – both internal and external. 

Nicky Nielsen

The Melandra Tile – A Derbyshire Dog from Roman Britain

As part of the Sam Alex Conservation project, students and conservators involved on the project have been ‘rediscovering’ some fascinating objects which have perhaps become a bit forgotten. The first such object is the so-called ‘Melandra Tile’ (MEL76 XVI (6)). The tile was excavated from a Roman fort site near Glossop, Derbyshire. The original excavator, John Peter Wild (Manchester), the original excavator, and Claire Hirst (National Museums Scotland), a conservator assisting the project, have written a little about the tile below. Ursula Ackah (MMU) has also produced a full, 3D visualisation of the tile, available here:

What is it? (J. P. Wild)

This flat ceramic object showing the paw-print of a dog is a Roman building tile (measuring 28cm x 28cm x 6.5cm thick).

How was it used?

The tile originally underpinned a stack (pila) of similar (but slightly smaller) tiles which, with other stacks, supported the raised floor of a heated room in the earliest fort bath-block (c.AD 80). When in operation, hot gases from an external furnace circulated between the stacks and raised the temperature of the room above, directly and through hollow flues in its walls. The underfloor chamber is referred to as a hypocaust.

The earliest bath-block was the only efficient heated space at Melandra, and clearly very popular with the garrison – they soon extended it. The baths were situated outside the north rampart of the fort to minimise the fire risk: the first fort was entirely of timber.

Where was it found?

Found in 1976 during a Manchester University student training excavation, the object was recovered from collapsed building debris over the tepidarium of the first bath building. The core of the first bath-block consisted of three rooms running east-west: a cold room (frigidarium), a warm room (tepidarium) and a hot room (caldarium), the latter two heated by a hypocaust. The structures stood at the top of a steep scarp-slope down to the river Etherow, and in post-Roman times were partially carried away by land-slips that wrecked the hypocausts.

Why is it interesting?

Animal prints on Roman tiles are not rare, but this one is of interest for Melandra nonetheless. After a tile had been turned out of its flat wooden mould by the tile-maker, it was laid out to dry in the open air in a yard. Melandra weather is not propitious, and the drying might take weeks. At some point a dog, possibly belonging to the tile-makers, themselves soldiers, walked across the still-soft batch of tiles: the impression of its paws and claws was immortalised by the kiln firing. Further research may reveal the size/breed of the dog. Melandra’s dogs would be intimidating working creatures, not just pets.

How do we conserve it? (C. Hirst)

The tile was initially condition assessed by the conservation team before a plan could be made to bring it back to a reasonable condition. The tile had some debris, dirt and even mould on its surface which without specialist care would cause the tile to further deteriorate. A plan was made to use dry cleaning conservation techniques, such as brushing debris off the surface of the tile and cleaning as much of the mould off with a dry brush as possible. This initial clean then gave the team a clearer view of where the mould was active so that a treatment of Industrial Methylated Spirts (IMS) could be swept over the affected area to kill the mould and preserve its condition.

The Sam Alex Conservation Project

Over the past few months, students and staff at Manchester have been taking part in a project to carry out vital conservation work on material damaged in the flood of the Samuel Alexander Building basement in 2021. As a result of this, the University brought in a small team of conservators and student volunteers to aid in the conservation of the items. Whilst many of the items themselves were not too badly damaged in the flood (apart from being quite mouldy!), most of the documentation and supporting information was completely destroyed. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be showcasing some of the highlights which are students and conservators have been finding as they sift through the material.

News from the Ancient Letter Collections Project

There is quite a bit of news to report from the Letters project!


There have been some changes to the make-up of the members of the project. Our PDRA, Dr Antonia Sarri, has now moved on to a permanent post as Assistant Professor in Greek Philology at the University of Athens (congratulations, Antonia!). We were also lucky enough to benefit from the work of Dr Janja Soldo on the project in 2022: Janja has herself now moved on to a permanent post as Lecturer in Classical Languages and Literature at the University of Edinburgh (congratulations, Janja!). We’ve therefore appointed Dr Julene Abad Del Vecchio as the project PDRA since July 2022. Welcome aboard, Julene!

There are more changes to come: Andrew Morrison is moving to the University of Glasgow to take up the MacDowell Chair of Greek at Glasgow, where he will continue to co-direct the project.


As the Letters project continues, one of our aims is to focus on outreach activities of various kinds, including videos on different aspects of ancient epistolography. Here is a recent video of Prof. Roy Gibson, the project’s PI and co-director, giving a talk to the Herculaneum Society about Pliny.


Following the publication of a newly-discovered Athenian ephebic list in the holdings of the National Museums Scotland on the Attic Inscriptions Online website, we are able to announce news of research into three further Greek inscriptions in the same collection. Together they offer insights into the use of paint on Greek funerary monuments, the use of the Greek language, and interplay of cultures in Egypt during the Hellenistic and Christian eras.

The earliest of the three inscriptions is an epitaph for a man called Demokles the Messenian (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Stele of Demokles (National Museums Scotland A.1936.499). Image © National Museums Scotland

It is a stele (slab) of limestone with pediment. Beneath the architrave there is a sunken panel containing a painting depicting a person — probably male — with raised right hand, reclining on a couch upon which a veiled female sits. To their left stands a smaller attendant (perhaps an enslaved person); in front of the couch is a table bearing objects, possibly a loaf of bread, demonstrating the affluence of the family group. The inscription is painted in red between the pediment and the sunken panel; it commemorates Demokles of Messenia (in Peloponnesian Greece), who may have died as a mercenary or resident foreigner in Ptolemaic Egypt. The stele is likely originally to have been from the area of Alexandria and was collected by the Surgeon Major General Stewart Aaron Lithgow (1833-99), who was been active in Egypt and Sudan during the Nile Expeditions of 1884–86 as Principal Medical Officer. Like a number of other painted stelai now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, including one depicting a woman in childbirth, it derives possibly from a large underground tomb in the Ibrahimiyya necropolis of Alexandria and can be dated to the period between the third and early second centuries BC. The necropolis was organised around an open central courtyard into the inner walls of which were cut niches for burials over which were placed the slabs. Buried underground, the slabs preserve rare examples of funerary painting, and reveal a world of vivid colours used in the commemoration of the dead.

The other two inscription are much later examples of funerary epitaphs from Egypt, dating to the period c. 500-700 AD. One is an epitaph for a man called Paulos (Fig. 2), which is currently on display in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh but is previously unpublished.

Fig. 2. Stele of Paulos (National Museums Scotland A.1909.484). Image © National Museums Scotland

It is a limestone stele with rounded top; its steep tympanon is adorned with foliage and beneath the pedimental area are four palm columns with a circular motif in the middle. The style of the decoration suggests that it derived originally from Latopolis (Esna) in Upper Egypt. The final epitaph is also in the style of those from Latopolis: it features an elaborately-decorated pediment surmounting a panel featuring four columns with floral capitals between which there is an arch, a conch and a cross with six branches (Fig. 3). My autopsy (that is, literally, ‘seeing with one’s own eyes’: Greek αὐτοψία) of the stone reveals that it commemorates a man called Ammon, who was named after the Greek form of the name of the Egyptian God Amun.

Fig. 3. Stele of Ammon (National Museums Scotland A.1910.100). Image © National Museums Scotland

The epitaphs of Paulos and Ammon both include the phrase εἷς Θεὸς ὁ βοηθῶν, ‘there is one God who helps’: this is an acclamation that commonly appears on funerary monuments in Christian contexts from the fourth century AD onwards, and is a clear statement of Christian monotheism. Appearing on the name of a man named after an Graeco-Egyptian deity, it is an excellent demonstration of the intertwined nature of Greek, Egyptian, and Christian culture in the period after the fifth century AD.

Acknowledgement: I am very grateful to Margaret Maitland (Principal Curator of the Ancient Mediterranean, National Museums Scotland) for giving me permission to study and publish the Edinburgh inscriptions and to Daniel Potter (Assistant Curator of the Ancient Mediterranean) for arranging the visit. I would like to thank Professor Jacques van der Vliet for discussion of the inscriptions.

When Archaeology meets Romantic Literature and Visual Anthropology

John Piprani

As the Archaeology technician at the University of Manchester I manage two laboratories in the Mansfield Cooper Building, and both overlook an area behind the campus known as Greenheys. This area has an interesting recent history, being a parkland in the mid-1800s it was popular with wealthy families who built large houses. Most of these wealthy families had relocated by the late 1890s as encroaching worker terraced housing started to change the character of the area. Fast forward to the ‘slum clearances’ of the 1970s and the families living in this same terraced housing were relocated to other parts of Manchester, and their homes demolished. My laboratories now overlook the Manchester Science Park and in particular the recently constructed Bright Building. Hidden from my gaze, but nestled within the centre of the Science Park is The Old Abbey Taphouse.

The Old Abbey Taphouse was built in the 1890s and is one of the few buildings from this period left in the area. In its current iteration it is a Community Hub in a pub and one of the landlords, Rachele Evaroa, asked me if it would be possible to find out how the pub got its name. It is hard to separate out the history of the pub from the more comprehensive history of the area, and in my research, I found out that the writer, Thomas de Quincey, had grown up locally. The source of this information was a biography of de Quincey by the now retired University of Manchester Professor of Romantic Literature, Grevel Lindop. Grevel didn’t know exactly where de Quincey’s home was, only that it was called Green Hay, built in 1791 and demolished by 1860. Back in my office, the university subscribes to Digimap, a mapping resource that allows digital access to maps from the 1850s onwards, so of course I had a look on the 1850s map of the area.

Greenheys Hall and its gardens sat on Greenheys Lane, which in turn is less than a five minute-walk from my laboratories. I had identified where it was in the 1850s, but where exactly in present-day Hulme? On a sunny day in April this year Grevel and myself met up at The Old Abbey Taphouse and then set off, 1850s map in hand to look for the site of Green Hay. Visual Anthropologist and filmmaker Daisy Courtauld recorded our adventure, and to coincide with this year’s Manchester Literature Festival Olly Storr from the Bright Building has made Daisy’s eight-minute film available through the above QR Code (also embedded below). Click on the code or the link below to watch Daisy’s film, and perhaps use the above 1850s map to see if you can follow in our, and de Quincey’s footsteps.

The Attic Inscriptions Education project and an online CPD event (Saturday 5th June) for Schoolteachers on Ancient Athenian Inscriptions

Inscriptions are a magnificent resource for the interpretation of historical societies. Across time and space, we encounter individuals and communities recording statements of all kinds on stone, metal and other durable surfaces. In an ancient Greek context, they include simple labels and name-tags (e.g. Fig. 1), public and private commemoration of the dead, dedications, and official documents of varying length and detail.  

Fig 1. Timodemides’ pinakion from the Manchester Museum

The development of alphabetic writing in Greece during the eighth century BC initiated one of the most remarkable practices of the ancient world: the epigraphical habit, that is the tendency to put down writing on stone or metal. Hundreds of thousands of inscriptions on stone survive from the ancient Greek world and some 20,000 from Athens alone. Unadulterated by later editors, they offer the possibility of direct insight into the activities, mindset and social media of past societies.

Knowledge of them among modern learners of classics and ancient history, however, has historically been hampered by inaccessibility of translations to them. The Attic Inscriptions Online website, edited by Stephen Lambert, Polly Low, Peter Liddel and Chris de Lisle aims to translate and offer discussions on all surviving inscriptions from ancient Athens. It makes them accessible to everyone with internet access. As of April 2021, it contains English translations and commentaries on about 2000 of these inscriptions.

Our current work focusses upon those Attic inscriptions which are currently held in collections in the United Kingdom: the Attic Inscriptions in UK Collections project (2017-2022) on which we reported here in 2019 is creating new editions of the 220 or so ancient Athenian inscriptions known to be held in 12 collections across the UK (Fig. 2). More than half of these inscriptions are kept at the British Museum, but there are collections dotted across the UK.

Fig. 2. Ancient Athenian inscriptions in UK Collections; the Attic Inscriptions in UK Collections website

Since 2017, we have undertaken autopsy of most of the UK-based inscriptions and are in the process of publishing them, sometimes for the first time. We have, for instance, published the first edition of a fourth-century Athenian funerary monument in the collection of the Great North Museum in the city of Newcastle upon Tyne (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Pantakles’ stele at the Great North Museum: Hancock (Newcastle Upon Tyne). Photograph: P. A. Low

The iconography of this monument offers tantalising insights into the life and most likely premature death of Pantakles, the man named in the inscription. Above the inscription a sunken panel contains the figure of a siren (a mythical creature with wings and bird’s legs). In ancient Greece, sirens were closely associated with mourning: they were commonly depicted on Athenian funerary monuments when the deceased had suffered an unnatural or untimely death, particularly unmarried women and youths; our Pantakles may fall into the latter category. A further aspect of this inscription verifies the youthful nature of the deceased: beneath the inscription there is a representation in relief of a loutrophoros (water-jar), the upper part of which is preserved. In life this type of vessel was used in wedding ritual and on a funerary monument it signified that the deceased had died unmarried.

In the same project we publish what may be the only ancient Athenian inscription in a collection in Northern Ireland, the Mount Stewart stele (Fig. 4), a unique monument depicting five family members who may have been related to a wealthy propertied family connected with the orator Demosthenes.

Fig. 4. The Mount Stewart stele. Photograph: F. Lauritzen

Collection Histories

Inscriptions such as these offer us vignettes of life of ancient Athens. But they also preserve a back story about the collection habits of those who brought them to the UK. Collectors and travellers who took the Grand Tour (a sort of gap-year for wealthy young men of the eighteenth and nineteenth century) of the cities of Europe and the Mediterranean were drawn to Greek sculptures and antiquities by the lure of possessing an authentic piece of antiquity; stone inscriptions, whose texts offered a view of their ancient context, were particularly attractive. We should acknowledge the important role of cultural imperialism in this process: the acquisition of antiquities seems frequently to have been facilitated by the British diplomatic presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, and we must also bear in mind the importance of wealth: obtained through inherited land, cotton-fields worked by slaves, or the cloth mills of the industrial north, it was surplus capital that enabled voyages to the lands of antiquity. We discuss aspects of the collection histories in our video on the Attic inscriptions at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a striking number of inscribed marbles, within a generation or two of their acquisition, found their way by bequest into the collections of philanthropic organisations and public museums, where many of them remain today. A number of these inscriptions are on display (as they are currently at, for instance, the Leeds City Museum) but too many of them are located in closed rooms or in storage.

Our hope is that the Attic Inscriptions in UK collections project will make these inscriptions ever more accessible to wider audiences, and will facilitate wide understanding of these inscriptions and the history of how they came to be in the UK.

For more information, please look at the AIUK Papers section of the Attic Inscriptions Online website or visit the Attic Inscriptions Online Youtube channel.

Our project is now moving into its outreach and impact phase. Later this year we will launch the Attic Inscriptions: Education part of our website, which will offer free resources for teachers of ancient history and classical civilisation in Schools and Colleges at KS 1, 2, 3, GCSE and A-level.

On Saturday, 5th June, from 10am, we will host an online CPD event on Ancient Athenian Inscriptions in UK Collections. It aims to introduce schoolteachers of classical subjects at pre-18 levels to the use of ancient Athenian inscriptions in the classroom.

It will be led by Dr Peter Liddel (University of Manchester) with guests including Professor Stephen Lambert (Cardiff University), Charlie Andrew (Classics for All), Dr Sharon Marshall (University of Exeter), Dr April Pudsey (Manchester Metropolitan University), Rob Hancock-Jones (Townley Grammar School), Liam Holian (Weaverham High School), Sophie Evans (Pimlico Academy), Andronike Makres (Greek Epigraphic Society), Athina Mitropoulos (Queen’s Gate School), Karen Stears (Devonport High School) and Anne Wright (Woodbridge School). All are welcome. You can sign up for the event here (a £5 registration charge applies).

We hope you will join us for some of the event!

Lockdown, photogrammetry and teaching collections

John Piprani

Within Archaeology our teaching collections play a key role, allowing students to become familiar with the kinds of objects we use to structure our understandings of the past. Currently, however there are no ‘hands on’ opportunities for our students to engage with the collection and we are working to respond creatively to this.

As Archaeology technician I am responsible for the upkeep of the collection, and current circumstances have made me think differently about how we can use it. This has partly been stimulated by the work of an MSc Student at Manchester Metropolitan University, Ursula Ackah.

Ursula is in the second year of an MSc in Industrial Digitalisation and she contacted me early on in her course about doing a digitisation project with a cultural institution. I pointed her in the direction of the Bolton Museum where one of our alumni is curator, and that was that.

More recently it was me who contacted Ursula, to see if she could help to produce digitised models for a portion of our teaching collection. This digitised model you can see here is the first Ursula produced, an artefact from our collection that is called a Levallois core:

During the last 200,000 years or so two things have happened to this Levallois core. Firstly, it was abandoned by a Neanderthal, and based on the surface colour, this probably occurred in Africa. Secondly, the British Museum (BM) mislaid its associated paperwork and through no fault of its own this Levallois core became a refugee within the British Museum system.

Fortunately for us, a BM curator had the foresight to creatively re-assign it to be part of a ‘handling collection’, and along with a number of other amazing examples the collection was gifted to the Archaeology department here at Manchester. Thanks to Ursula this particular piece of Neanderthal technology has now entered a new and parallel digital existence.

Ursula’s work here is valuable to us on two levels. We are digitising artefacts that will be used directly for teaching within current modules. Consequently, students will again be able to become familiar with the key artefacts that prehistorians have been used to structure our understandings of the past. However, there is more.

Ursula has also broken the digitisation process (photogrammetry) down so that it can be taught to undergraduate students (and a technician!) within a two hour session, and completed using only a mobile phone camera and free to use software. In other words we can add to the student’s digital skills and experience as well as their archaeological knowledge. It looks like Ursula will also be using this process as the focus for her final year project, so it is a win, win, win!

We have found a use for this technology within Archaeology. Peter Liddel has found a use for it within Ancient History. If you are working within CAHAE and think it may be useful for your teaching then please get in touch and we can see about adding your artefacts to the list. If you work beyond CAHAE and want to find out more, again, get in touch. We are happy to share.