Robert Vonnoh, (American, 1858 - 1933), Frosty Morning , 1904, oil on canvas. Gift of Danielle and Michael Barger in memory of Gisele and Harold Jaffe._x1200

Bringing Pottery Sherds to Life

When we started working on our Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) ancient art digitization grant a couple of years ago, we began to research some objects that came into the museum with very little information, often with no date or culture to speak of. Laura Lesswing, Williams Art History Graduate class of 2010, was a big help to me. We reviewed the curatorial files for leads on information about the objects. In the file for a group of pottery sherds there was a line that gave me a clue.

In a letter from 1982, the assistant director of the museum asked the donor, John Davis Hatch, for more information about a group of pottery sherds he collected on his travels in and around Greece in September 1978. Mr. Hatch wrote back “All the pieces are marked in pencil (look carefully). ” I also found some lists of locations in the file. The back of the first piece of paper had this logo on it:

And this list of sites he visited:

I went to work trying to read the inscriptions on the pottery sherds. They were written in sloppy handwriting on different colored surfaces with pencil thirty years ago. I used a magnifying glass with a light attached to it. Here is one example of what I was dealing with:

With the help of Laura Lesswing, I was able to use maps to plot Hatch’s travels to be sure I was reading his handwriting correctly. Here is one of the maps we were using:

We realized that some of the places he visited were Greek settlements in Asia minor. Here is another map of the ancient Anatolia region that Laura and I referenced.

Records that previously only said “pot sherd” now have more specific place names attached to them. In our collection database a user can now search Lindos, Acropolis, Agra, or Lerna (as a few examples) and find images of the pot sherds in our collection from these locations. If you would like to view them all you can type “sherd” into the Quick Search.

In February and March of 1982, the same donor went on another trip to Egypt, Israel, and Jordan and found sites that mostly related to the Roman era. When he donated sherds from these sites to the Williams College Museum of Art, the museum asked for more information about the pieces, he again replied that he had written on them:

This time he wrote with a red pen and the ink had nearly rubbed off of some of the pieces. These notations proved even more difficult to read than the previous group.

There is a Williams professor who was looking for artwork from Israel to use in his teaching.  We now know that some of our pottery sherds are from there. The professor is very interested in these objects. This is just one example of the value added by our discoveries. With a little bit of sleuthing these pottery sherds have become more useful for teaching and more interesting subjects for research.

3 Responses to Bringing Pottery Sherds to Life

  1. Mary Brown says:

    Incredible that the writing was still on those pottery pieces even after all this time.

  2. Linda Pilgrim says:

    One of the most compelling art historical blog posts I’ve ever read–a great mystery tour–with great documentary illustrations. Love the new website too BTW.

  3. Pingback:How did the cuneiform objects get here? › Williams College Museum of Art