Early Materials Forum

Paula Mills, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK

In the UK, and perhaps elsewhere, there is very little impetus to hold cross-disciplinary meetings. Instead every effort is made to break fields down into smaller and smaller specialisms and thus the wider context gets forgotten. The Early Materials Forum (EMF) has resulted from a perceived need to encourage cross-fertilization in the particular area of artefacts.

The idea to form the group came out of discussions at the Archaeological Sciences meeting in Durham 1997 (reviewed in the last issue of the SAS Bulletin) and subsequently more informal chats. Colleen Stapleton (formerly of the British Museum, Department of Scientific Research) and myself decided to take the risk of establishing the group now known as the EMF. We were very keen from the outset to ensure the meetings were an informal way of encouraging people to report their current work at negligible cost and without the emphasis on publication. In essence it would allow researchers to get together and talk about what they are currently doing.

The first problem encountered was what name to choose and it is worth a few lines to explain the scope of the group. Materials was easy - we are primarily interested in artefacts i.e. not human remains, the word ‘early’ was chosen to reflect the fact we include both historical and archaeological media, i.e. we exclude the modern plastics, and finally forum had a nice ring to it. Since its inception but before the first meeting, Colleen returned to her native Florida, although she thoughtfully found a replacement for her role as co-organiser - Katherine Eremin (National Museums of Scotland).

The first meeting was held at the end of January 1998 at the British Museum. Speakers from a range of backgrounds and studying a variety of media were invited to highlight the following aspects - museum based science, conservation science, provenancing and technological change. I didn’t take much persuading to open the meeting by discussing a study of eighteenth century Chinese ceramics. David Thickett (British Museum, Department of Conservation Research) then took us to ancient Egypt and the problem of salt seepage from cuneiform tablets. Louise Joyner (University of Sheffield) talked about neolithic mortars and Ruth Saunders (University of Reading) followed this with a petrographic study of Roman quern stones. Paul Maclean (University of Bradford) rounded the session off with the results of his work on high antimony bronzes.

The first meeting was a pilot - which I can say was warmly welcomed. The decision was that the cross-discipline approach was refreshing and that perhaps two such afternoons should be planned a year. The debate as to location was resolved with the compromise of one in London and the other elsewhere in the UK. Fortunately, a representative from Oxford offered Christ Church college as a location for the next meeting. Equally a website was volunteered - http://www.emf.tc - which Kathy and myself will attempt to keep as uptodate as possible.

The second meeting, 12 May 1998, started out with an all encompassing list of presentations - metals, ceramics, glass, wallpaintings and gemstones - but due to a number of factors the final ‘delegate list’ comprised of three metals papers and one on gemstones. What the new list lacked in variety of media it more than made up for in style. The session began with a conservator talking about reconstructing a tenth century blade which was followed by a fascinating presentation on ancient Chinese bronzes. The talk on emerald mining in Roman Egypt generated lots of discussion with the session being brought to a close with analyses of Norse grave goods. The enthusiasm for the group was such, that a third meeting is planned for later this year which will be hosted by Cambridge University.

It is hoped that the EMF will continue to flourish with a further broadening of the audience with time and improved advertising. There are currently more than sixty people on the mailing list (electronic by necessity) and the opportunity to publish on the web is now available to those that wish to increase their ‘audience’. My vision for the future if I can be so bold would be to continue to have more talks volunteered than there is time to present and to see the group develop into an established self-help group that truly crosses the disciplines of archaeology, science, conservation and art history.