Amgueddfa Blog: Heritage in Turbulent Times

This is the summary of a talk Carolyn Graves-Brown from Swansea's Egypt Centre gave at the recent "Heritage in Turbulent Times" event at National Museum Cardiff.

Studies of Bronze Age Egyptian weapons and warfare tend concentrate on metal weapons and ignore the part played by flint. Flint is not considered as attractive as copper or gold and in a milieu which is impressed by technological progress, metal is still considered superior. However, at least until the Early New Kingdom (c. the time of Tutankhamun or 1300 BC) there is strong evidence that flint weapons were standard military issue and far from being a primitive technology they were a natural choice for both utilitarian and ideological reasons.

Despite the fact that many hundreds of artefacts were found in a possible armoury in an Egyptian fort sited in Nubia (modern Sudan) and the fact that contemporary artefacts are known from sites in Egypt, flint found on Egyptian sites is often explained away as either foreign or intrusive to New Kingdom contexts. However, in many instances flint is a good choice for weapon manufacture, particularly where a quick and ‘dirty’ fight is envisaged. Flint is sharper, arguably cheaper and often more deadly than metal. Warfare and flint also had an ideological importance, it is the ideal weapon of the sun-god Re and perfect for destroying the enemies of Egypt. I concur that metal was a component of warfare, but make a plea for the role of lithics.

National Museum Wales and Cardiff University contribute to heritage preservation. If you would like to know more about "Heritage in Turbulent Times" please follow our blog.

Our second event on preservation of heritage in times of conflict is on Saturday 11th July at National Museum Cardiff, 10:00 to 17:00. Throughout the afternoon, we will again offer a series of short (15-minute) informative talks:

14:00 - Stabilizing heritage in turbulent times; what can science do? (Dr Lisa Mol, Cardiff University)

14:30 - The role of Conservators in heritage preservation. (Dr Christian Baars, Amgueddfa Cymru) 

15:00 - Authenticity, ownership and the question of restoration vs preservation vs conservation. (Jane Henderson, Cardiff University)

15:30 - Flint in Egyptian Pharaonic Warfare. (Carolyn Graves-Brown, Egypt Centre Swansea)

16:00 - War damaged monuments: memory and preservation. (Dr Toby Thacker, Cardiff University)

All talks are free of charge. The event is hosted by Amgueddfa Cymru and sponsored by Cardiff University. For further information follow our blog here, or at Cardiff University.

Museum conservators are responsible for the care of collections. This includes appropriate storage of objects, housekeeping, and maintaining the correct environmental conditions to stop, for example, books in library collections from getting mouldy. In addition, emergency preparedness is another aspect of collections care (or: preventive conservation). How important this is was recently demonstrated during a large fire that gutted an entire historic property.

The fire at Clandon Park in April 2015 was devastating. However, a large part of the objects on display in the house were rescued successfully. This was only possible because the National Trust, who owns Clandon Park, has in place extremely well organised emergency plans. When the fire broke out these plans kicked into action immediately, and a well-rehearsed cooperation with the fire service led to the salvage of hundreds of objects from the house.

The fire fighters risked their lives to salvage important cultural objects. In addition, the help from staff, volunteers and local people must not be forgotten. But the point I am trying to make is that without an emergency plan, all of those helpers may not have achieved very much.

The documentation handed over to the emergency services in case of a disaster in a historic property or museum includes information on what the most important objects are, where they are kept and how they are secured. This enables planning a salvage operation down to taking the tools required for object removal into the building; it avoids the situation where you stand in a burning room in front of the object that needs to be removed quickly only to find out you took a flat-head screwdriver, rather than the Phillips you actually needed.

Emergencies are not restricted to fires. Floods, storms, even earthquakes and acts of terrorism (for example, the attack on the Bardot, Tunisia’s National Museum) can all lead to cultural heritage being damaged. In Wales, the Assembly Government has set up an Emergency Planning Network for museums to help museums, archives and libraries prepare for emergencies. The development of a network response group provides heritage professionals to help museums, archives and libraries in the event of an emergency, and assist with salvage and recovery.

Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales has its own emergency plans which we hope will never have to be used – but it is nevertheless important to be prepared. Disaster preparation is part of the role of preventive conservators; we attempt to limit damage occurring to cultural objects in our care to keep them safe for you and future generations. This involves risk assessments, minimising risks – and being prepared for the worst to happen.

If you would like to know more about disaster prevention in museums, and heritage preservation in general, follow our blog, or Cardiff University's “Heritage in Turbulent Times” blog, and come to our free event at National Museum Cardiff on 11th July with talks on why scientists shoot with guns at building stones, restoration/preservation/conservation, flint in Egyptian Pharaonic warfare, and war-damaged monuments.

"Heritage in Turbulent Times" is a joint project between Cardiff University and Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales.  

Our first public event as part of this project will be this coming Saturday, 27th June 2015, at National Museum Cardiff. We will provide information and raise awareness on the threats faced by cultural heritage. In the afternoon, various speakers will give short, 15-minute talks on a variety of subjects. One of the speakers is Dr Toby Thacker, Senior Lecturer in Modern European History, Cardiff University, School of History, Archaeology and Religion.

Toby will be talking about Verdun in France. This is where the most intense fighting between the French and German armies took place in 1916, and ever since it has been the most iconic event of the First World War for the French. Around the town of Verdun a huge area has been declared as ‘terre sacrée’, or hallowed ground, and left as it was after the battle. This area includes several shattered villages, now deserted, and upwards of thirty different forts, many of which were badly damaged by shell fire from both sides during the conflict.

Some, such as Fort Douamont, are now kept as sites for tourists, school parties, and researchers to visit. The fort itself is mainly underground, but the steel gun turrets projecting above ground show extensive damage from shells and bullets. The earth around them is littered with shell holes, with fragments of metal and barbed wire, and the concrete emplacements are suffering from shell damage, and now from weathering. The whole site poses complex questions about memory, conservation, and heritage. More to come on Saturday!

Accidents happen: we drop our favourite coffee cup in the kitchen and it shatters into a million pieces; parking the car, we misjudge the distance to that bollard and, oops, scratch the car; the faulty television overheats and catches fire. We usually try to protect ourselves against such accidents by assessing the risk, and mitigate against risk to help us avoid accidents. We install smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and emergency stairs to help us get out of a burning building should the worst happen.

Our immediate thought in the event of a disaster is, quite rightly, the preservation of life. But objects that mean something to us are often a victim of disasters, too. This may be the family photographs getting lost in a house fire. Or it could be an entire historic building, which is important to the local or even national history. The very recent fire at Clandon Park House in April 2015 illustrates how quickly an important part of British social and parliamentary history can be destroyed (the Onslow family, whose estates this was, provided three speakers to the House of Commons over the centuries).

What if heritage is destroyed not by accident, but entirely purposefully? In 2013, a construction company in Belize destroyed a Maya pyramid to turn it into gravel for road fill. The pyramid was 2,300 year old – millennia of heritage, memory and civilisation were destroyed, incredibly, because the ancient structure provided a cheap and easy source of building material.

At other times, heritage – monuments, buildings, statues, or even individual objects – are the target of anger. In post-communist Eastern Europe, statues of Stalin or Lenin are being removed as symbols of power of a by-gone era. Palmyra, the prosperous Assyrian city in today’s Syria, has temples 2,200 years old, was first destroyed by the Romans in 273 AD, by the Timurids in 1400, and is now threatened once again with becoming a casualty of war and ideologies.

Whether you agree with the symbols and ideologies of the people who came before you, our own being is born from previous historic events. Our music, stories, architecture, even our state of government would be nothing without the histories that led up to them. To make sense of our modern world we need to remember – remember positive events for the good they are, and negative events so we can avoid dark hours of history repeating themselves. Ultimately, the past informs our present.

In this project, funded by Cardiff University Engagement Seed Funding, we explore the effect of armed conflict on stone surfaces, emergency planning and heritage salvage, strategies for post-conflict remediation, and construction of memories of WWI or post-communist Eastern Europe.

Dr Lisa Mol (Early Career Lecturer, Cardiff University, School of Earth and Ocean Sciences) works on the impact of armed warfare on stone surfaces, which links to heritage conservation and long-term strategies for post-conflict remediation. Lisa asks people to shoot with guns at pieces of building stone to study what happens on impact.

Building on his recently published monograph on the construction of memory of the First World War, and on sites of memory in Eastern Europe, Dr Toby Thacker (Senior Lecturer in Modern European History, Cardiff University, School of History, Archaeology and Religion) will cover the contested role of damaged historical sites in the construction of memory.

Dr Christian Baars (Senior Preventive Conservator, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales) is a member of the Welsh Government’s Emergency Planning Network Wales; he ensures the long-term preservation of museum collections, has experience working with the emergency services and will highlight the importance of preserving heritage for future generations while addressing the issues of looting and illicit trade in cultural objects.

If you are interested in this subject please follow our blog and come along to one of our events at National Museum Cardiff this summer.