Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Provenance - it's all about provenance

Six months ago, on a plane between Singapore and Melbourne, I watched a remarkable documentary about the attempt by the city of Detroit to sell off the contents of its art museum to defray the city's debts.

The scheme ultimately foundered - because of provenance.

One of the original founders of the museum apparently used to go on collecting tours of Europe, buying paintings from cash strapped aristocrats who had lost everything in the first world war - so you would think it would be easy to work out provenance.

But, no. The person in question was an art collector in his own right, and while he would sometimes use the museum's money to pay for items, sometimes he would use his own, and sometimes he would 'sell' a piece to the museum at below cost and claim it as a tax loss.

And the records were a complete mess.

It wasn't clear which had been bought on behalf of the museum, which were on loan, and which were donations - and of course the more saleable paintings' records were as confused as the less valuable.

In this case having an unclear provenance worked for the museum - they couldn't sell what wasn't theirs, and the didn't know what wasn't theirs.

And I suspect that this is the case with a lot of museums who developed their collections in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century - the documentation is quite unclear.

Not for everything of course, for example the Elgin Marbles have a clear provenance and the case really depends on the legality or otherwise of Elgin's actions and whether his firman from the Ottoman governor really gave him permission.

But then we have cases like the Nizam of Hyderabad's mummy, which I blogged about back in 2015, where provenance is unclear, we know he bought it, but not if it was illegally acquired. Likewise in Amelia Edwards' account of her trip up the Nile in the 1870's, she recounts the story of the tourists who bought a mummy at vast expense, and after a week or so found that they could not stand the sweet odour emanating from it, and (literally) jettisoned their losses by throwing it in the Nile.

And this all makes the problem of artefacts acquired during the period of European colonialism.

Were the items acquired legally, were they acquired under duress or what.

And of course rules change. Egypt, for example started to license archaeological digs quite early and had clear rules about both documentation and ownership - basically that the more significant items were automatically property of the Egyptian department of Antiquities, which is why so much of the material is in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, but as we know, there are significant collections elsewhere, and as the Nizam of Hyderabad case shows us, the system was not perfect.

Other countries, especially those under colonial rule, were not so strict.

And for this reason, probably one thing that should be done is to digitise the museum records and correspondence, as well as that of individual archaeologists and collectors, to both settle the question of provenance, but also to provide an unrivalled insight into the history of archaeology, and it's relationship to the antiquities trade in the nineteenth century ...

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Lenovo Ideapad K1 six years on ...

Yesterday was ferociously hot, so I did what I usually do when it’s too hot for gardening, and played with some old hardware, this time J’s old Lenovo IdeaPad K1, an android tablet dating from late 2011.

In its day it was pretty slick, slicker than the zPad, and a pretty nice bit of kit with an excellent screen - being an artist J spends a lot of time looking at pictures and illustrations - but it was a bit heavy to hold, and even though we'd invested in stand cum charging station for it, it could be a pain to use for extended periods. Not only that, it would occasionally lose its network connection, or more accurately not recover gracefully when our router flipped from adsl to the backup 3G connection, so eventually it was replaced by a Samsung Galaxy.

By the time it was replaced, Lenovo had more or less abandoned the K1, but had unusually, provided an option to upgrade it to an unsupported version of Android 4 - the K1 having originally shipped with 3.2.

We never followed that up at the time, as the only thing I used it for was downloading podcasts, and gPodder was happy with things as they were.

In retrospect, this was probably not such a good idea, as the links to the generic version have now (understandably) disappeared off of Lenovo’s website.

So, what can you do with 3.2?

Well, no modern browser, but Opera mini installs and runs quite nicely.

The previously installed wikipedia, gmail and twitter apps still work as does inoreader - an rss feed reader. You can’t, of course install anything recent, which means no decent text editor or anything like that.

But, given that most of what I use my  current tablet for is wikipedia, email and twitter, plus a bit of rss feed reading it isn’t a disaster. Not having access to OneNote or Evernote is a bit of a pain, but were my existing tablet to unexpectedly come to a bad end it would be good enough for a stopgap, which isn’t too bad for a device over six years old running an old operating system ...

Friday, 5 January 2018

Transcribing a blot

One of the tasks in documenting artifacts as part of the project is transcribing labels on the bottles of materia medica in the pharmacy.

Mostly this is fairly straightforward - the labels are on the whole beautifully stencilled in india ink on good quality paper, and so while they may be a little yellowed they're perfectly legible. It's the early twentieth century ones that are more of a problem - cheaper paper and sloppilly writen in faded fountain pen ink.

To be sure they have their peculiarities - the extensive use of Æ  in nineteenth century pharmaceutical latin and outdated abbreviations like TṚ for tincture, but it's all fairly straightforward.

Until a couple of days ago, when I came across the following


where the label had been corrected at a later date - if you look carefully you can see what appears to be an extra L which has been blotted out in a different thinner ink. presumably at a later date.

This of course raises an number of questions about transcribing the label - should I transcribe the label as it was meant to be read, or include the blot, or transcribe it as the original text and note that the first L had been blotted out at (presumably) a later date.

I decided to go for the middle route and transcribe the label as you would read it today, blot and all.

While I knew about the Text Encoding Initiative and the Leiden Epigraphy conventions, which I'm using to indicate missing or illegible characters, I didn't know about blots.

My first thought was to simply insert a unicode blot symbol, except there isn't one - as a stopgap until I could spend more time with Google I decided to use the cyrillic Zhe (Ж) as


  • there was no cyrillic text involved in the pharmacy anywhere
  • it sort of looked like the H^HZ^HN sequence we used to use in Wordstar days to generate a cursor symbol on daisywheel printers when doing documentation
  • having learned to read and write Russian I could write it with a degree of fluidity
I guess I could have used the unicode block character ( █ ) but as I also keep a longhand paper workbook in parallel with the transcription spreadsheet Ж seemed a better choice.

I started off by searching for things like 'epigraphy blot' without much success - well I guess stone inscriptions don't have blots, although they do have erasures, so I don't think it was that silly a search. 

Changing the search terms to something like 'TEI transcription blot' was more useful and produced a lot of information on how to represent blots in XML as well as important questions such as whether it was a correction by the author or a correction at a later date and differentiating between the two, as well as what to do if you weren't sure.

The only problem was all this information was for creating XML markup, and I was transcribing the labels to an excel spreadsheet using unicode, and I needed a standard pre-XML way of doing this that was going to be intelligible to someone else.

In the end I found the answer in the epidoc documentation maintained by Stoa.org. Under erased and lost  it not only documented the TEI XML but also referenced previous pre XML paper technology conventions, in this case [[[...]]], which was ideal.

This little journey has raised a whole lot of questions, including should we be using TEI XML encoding for the labels.

The short answer is probably not, unicode in excel plus some standard notation is more than adequate in 99.9% of cases, and the whole majestic edifice that is TEI seems like complete overkill, but certainly this little diversion shows the importance of discussing and agreeing on transcription standards before starting on something as seemingly straightforward as a sequence on nineteenth century materia medica labels ...