MV Blog


Agatha's cold cream

by Kate C
Publish date
4 September 2012
Comments (2)

Legendary crime writer Dame Agatha Christie may have sold more novels than any other writer, but did you know she was also a pioneer in object conservation? Working in Iraq alongside her archaeologist husband Sir Max Mallowan, Christie used improvised tools and cold cream originally intended for her own face to clean thousands of excavated fragments known as the Nimrud Ivories.

lid of cold cream container Lid of a 19th century ceramic cold cream container excavated from Little Lon, Melbourne and part of MV's Little Lon Collection.
Source: Museum Victoria

Cold cream is a mixture (or emulsion) of water in oil used to clean and soften the skin. Its name originates from the cold feeling left when the water component draws evaporates from the skin. But why was it useful for ivory? And is it still used for that purpose today? Senior Conservator Helen Privett helps to preserve objects in Museum Victoria's collection and she was happy to talk about contemporary tricks of the trade.

'We wouldn't use cold cream, but we use moisturising agents like it, such as polyethylene glycol which you find in modern cosmetics," says Helen. "The reason why you might use something like that is that you don't want to get ivory too wet, because it absorbs water and then expands to different degrees in different directions... a kind of multidimensional swelling which can cause cracking and distortion."

"We've got data loggers in the Mesopotamia showcases to monitor the environmental conditions. The showcases containing ivories are all set to about 55 per cent relative humidity to make sure they don't get too wet or too dry."

Approaches to artefact conservation have changed profoundly since Agatha Christie's time, and not just in terms of technological advances. There have been philosophical changes too: now the focus is on the long-term stability of the objects, which sometimes means a hands-off approach. Importantly, conservators don't necessarily clean artefacts any more.

"One issue in archaeological conservation is that you're removing objects from where they've sat for thousands of years," explains Helen. "Sometimes they're actually quite stable in that environment, and it's better to leave something buried than to bring it out of the ground." In the case of shipwrecks and certain archaeological sites, reburial of artefacts is becoming an accepted technique for preservation.

When cleaning or other treatment is required, conservators turn to a variety of materials. Many are chemicals that you might have in your own home, such as methyl cellulose (found in toothpastes, artificial tears and moisturisers) which is a useful adhesive and a poultice base, and citric acid (found in soft drinks) which is a gentle way to remove corrosion.

Woman with bucket Senior Conservator Helen Privett holding a giant bucket of citric acid in the MV Conservation Lab.
Source: Museum Victoria

Helen describes the global community of conservators as open and willing to exchange information about new conservation techniques and materials through articles and online forums. "There are some adhesives, for example, that are made specifically for the conservation industry but because it's such a small field we tend to use materials from other industries. We do a lot of testing ourselves, particularly for new environmentally sustainable display materials."

Becoming a conservator usually requires a sound background in art history combined with broad training in materials science and applied chemistry. Then there's the tricky decision about which sub-specialty to enter; conservators can specialise in particular fields such as paintings, paper, or objects. For Helen, it was a single moment that led her to object conservation – seeing the Portland Vase in the British Museum. "It's very deep, intense translucent blue glass with a carved white relief. They've never been able to replicate how it was made. This amazing object was smashed into hundreds of pieces and has been put back together numerous times, so it's got this extraordinary history of manufacture, collection and conservation. It's my inspiration."

blue and white Roman vase The Portland Vase, perhaps from Rome, Italy, about AD 5-25.
Source: © Trustees of the British Museum

Not every object is as monumental as the Portland Vase, and Museum Victoria's collection encompasses many types of materials, including a few that are notoriously difficult to conserve. When asked about her least favourite material, Helen doesn't mince words. "I love plastics, but I hate PVC. It's got what we call 'inherent vice' – it will deteriorate under any circumstances and was never meant to last. Because of the chlorides in the polymer, when it starts to deteriorate it forms hydrochloric acid and basically eats itself to death. PVC objects start to get sticky or tacky, or stuck in a certain shape and they're just a nightmare."

Further reading:

The Art of the Conservator (1992). Andrew Eddy (editor), British Museum Press, London.

Ladies of the Field: Early Women Archaeologists and Their Search for Adventure (2010). Amanda Adams, Greystone Books, Canada.


Murder in Mesopotamia: Agatha Christie and Archaeology forum at Melbourne Museum on Sunday 9 September

'British Museum buys 3,000-year-old ivory carvings Agatha Christie cleaned with her face cream' (Daily Mail, 8 March 2011)

Australian Historic Shipwreck Preservation Project

Conservation OnLine

Murder in Mesopotamia forum

by Bernard
Publish date
23 August 2012
Comments (2)

Bernard works part-time at Melbourne Museum devising and delivering presentations for visitors. The other part of the time he has his nose in a book, most often a comic book.

Man dressed as Hercule Poirot Bernard/Poirot with a copy of Christie's Murder in Mesopotamia.
Image: Amanda Linardon
Source: Museum Victoria

Once upon a time, I went through a voracious Agatha Christie period, and immersed myself in a fictional universe of murders daring and domestic, and solutions logical and astonishing. I still return to the Queen of Crime from time to time, for a dose of ordered worlds turned upside down, with order (and an enlarged sense of that world) reinstated by Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot.

So when the chance arose to develop a forum around Agatha Christie's experiences on archaeological digs, which directly led to her happy marriage to Max Mallowan and her1936  novel Murder in Mesopotamia, I stuck on my second-best stick-on moustache and leapt in!

Drawing of man and woman Drawing of Max Mallowan and Agatha Christie in 1946.
Image: Bernard Caleo
Source: Bernard Caleo

Chairperson for the forum, Melbourne crime writer Angela Savage, explains that the idea for the forum came out of friendly banter about what to read in preparation for our Mesopotamia exhibition. "Someone suggested Murder in Mesopotamia, which I was intrigued to learn was Agatha Christie's most autobiographical novel. The more I learned about Agatha's links to archaeology, her marriage to Max Mallowan and the time they spent together on digs in the Middle East, the more intrigued I became."

Setting the scene of Agatha Christie's visits to the digs in Mesopotamia will be Henrietta McCall of the British Museum, joining us via an exclusive pre-recorded interview to show us on-site photographs of Agatha Christie, Max Mallowan, and Leonard and Katherine Woolley, the leaders of the archaeological expedition.

People at archaeological dig Leonard and Katherine Woolley excavating in the Royal Cemetery of Ur, 1928
Source: By permission of the Trustees of The British Museum

Another of our panellists is crime writer Kerry Greenwood, author of the Phryne Fisher series of crime novels set in 1920s Melbourne (recently adapted into an ABC TV series), who will speak about the 'golden rules' that determine Christie's particular style of crime writing. Kerry will also speak about the fascination that the ancient world holds for her as a fictional setting – both she and Christie have set murder mysteries in Ancient Egypt.

The CEO of Museum Victoria, Patrick Greene, also an experienced archaeologist, is our other panellist. Dr Greene's experiences on archaeological digs and his recent travels to Egypt will figure in the panel discussions.

"The relationships between life and art, between detective fiction and archaeology, and how the allure of ancient worlds finds expression in popular art forms suggests rich material for discussion," says Angela Savage. "To be able to assemble such a distinguished panel feels like quite a coup."

It's great to have an opportunity to fill out my knowledge of the fascinating life of Agatha Christie, and I have it on good authority that our friend M. Poirot may indeed make an appearance at the forum, exercising his famous 'little grey cells'.

Man dressed as Hercule Poirot Hercule Poirot. Or some manifestation thereof.
Image: Amanda Linardon
Source: Museum Victoria

The Murder in Mesopotamia forum is presented by Melbourne Museum and Sisters in Crime Australia on Sunday 9 September, 2.00-3.30pm.

Podcast Episode 28: Be My Guest in Mesopotamia

by Dr Andi
Publish date
5 June 2012
Comments (2)

To gatecrash the opening of The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia exhibition at Melbourne Museum, we disguised ourselves as archaeologists and dug our way into the museum, like a reverse jailbreak.We interviewed the passionate archaeologist and curator Sarah Collins from the British Museum who was part the team that created this superb travelling exhibition. We also hitched a ride on a VIP tour with Patrick Greene, CEO of Museum Victoria.

Ancient civilisations are fascinating, and the Mesopotamian, Assyrian and Babylonian civilisations is where it all began when it comes to bureaucracy, law, government, Zodiac sign readings, writing lists, 60 seconds in the minute and what I might call a mild obsession with lions.

Bronze lion weight Bronze lion weight. One of a set made for King Shalmaneser V (726-722 BC). Inscribed on it is ‘Five mina of the king’ in both Assyrian cuneiform and Aramaic.
Source: The Trustees of The British Museum

Inside the exhibition I saw evidence of people tapping away on clay tablets; outside the exhibition I saw evidence of people tapping away on their digital tablets. So nothing has really changed in thousands of years.

Please enjoy listening to us babble on about the ancient wonders of Mesopotamia.


Podcast credits

Interviewees and voices:

  • Sarah Collins, British Museum
  • Patrick Greene, CEO Museum Victoria
  • A visitor at the exhibition opening
  • And a cast of ancient lions 

Interviews and production by:

  • Dr Andi Horvath – Senior curator, Museum Victoria
  • Arch Cuthbertson – Podcast Recording Services

Visit the Podcast Adventures page to listen to the archive, or subscribe to Access All Areas in iTunes.

Mesopotamian lunar table

by Martin Bush
Publish date
25 May 2012
Comments (0)

Martin is the programmer at the Planetarium at Scienceworks.

A personal highlight for me in The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia exhibition is the Babylonian lunar table. I love this artefact not just because of the antiquity of its writing or how long it lay preserved in the ground, and certainly not just because of the skill needed to make the rows of tiny cuneiform script. (How did they do it? I could never have managed.)

Babylonian lunar table Lunar table K.90 from the British Museum on display in The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia.
Source: © The Trustees of the British Museum

This tablet is exciting because shows just how seriously Mesopotamian cultures took astronomy. Observers recorded the appearance of the Moon – and also the stars and planets – every single night of the year. (Ok, unless it was cloudy.) They sent reports of these observations to the king. Babylonian astronomers had centuries of astronomical observations to work with. Unfortunately we don’t as not so many of these reports have survived.

Some concerns of these ancient astronomers – like making horoscopes to advise the king – are no longer of much interest to modern astronomers. But many ancient achievements live on to this day. Astronomers still number lunar eclipse using a system known as the Saros Cycle. This cycle was discovered by Babylonian astronomers around the 5th century BCE.

The work of these Babylonian astronomers can also be seen in the Jewish calendar. Sometime around the 4th Century BCE Mesopotamian astronomers calculated the average length of the lunar month. The extensive observations they had to work with meant that they came up with a remarkably accurate figure, different to the modern value by only a fraction of a second. This value was taken up by Greek astronomers such as Ptolemy and from there it was incorporated into the Jewish calendar when it was codified in the first millennium CE. The value determined by Babylonian astronomers is still used today to determine the date of the Jewish New Year.

This lunar table survived for centuries in the ground while the influence of Mesopotamian astronomy on our study of the skies has lasted even longer.

An eye for an eye

by Kate C
Publish date
29 February 2012
Comments (5)

Whether you know it best from the Bible, the Torah or Nick Cave's song The Mercy Seat, you might not know that the common phrase 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' has Mesopotamian origins.

prosthetic eye and teeth Left: Acrylic eye prosthesis made by Loyer Artificial Eyes, Burwood,Victoria, circa 1999. (HT 23234) | Right: Porcelain artificial teeth made by DeTrey's Diatorics, circa 1925. (HT 11829)
Source: Museum Victoria

It describes principle of retaliation – a harsh system of justice that permits someone suffering an injury at the hands of another to return like for like. The concept was first documented in the Code of Hammurabi, an upright stone pillar inscribed with 282 Babylonian laws by King Hammurabi (1792–1750 BC). It was uncovered in modern-day Iran in 1901 and is exhibited in the Musée du Louvre in Paris. 

Code of Hammurabi Code of Hammurabi on display in in the Musée du Louvre.
Image: Nick Olejniczak
Source: Used under CC BY-NC 2.0 from nicholasjon

Detail of the cuneiform on the Code of Hammurabi Detail of the cuneiform script on the Code of Hammurabi.
Image: Boris Doesburg
Source: Used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 from batigolix

Museum Victoria is borrowing a cast of the code from the Australian Institue of Archaeology to display during The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia exhibition. The cast, purchased by the AIA in 1968, is an exact replica made in very limited edition by the Musée du Louvre.

Much of the code addresses contracts, payments, terms of transactions and marriage laws, but a handful of laws are paraphrased in the well-worn 'eye for an eye'. In the 1915 translation of the Code of Hammurabi by LW King, the contributing laws are stated explicitly:

196. If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye.

200. If a man knock out a tooth of a man of his own rank, they shall knock out his tooth.

But it's not as simple as that. In Babylonian society, there were three distinct social classes: the freemen, the second-class citizens, and at the bottom of the heap, the slaves. If a slave suffered the injury, retribution was less about flesh and more about cash:

199. If one destroy the eye of a man's slave or break a bone of a man's slave he shall pay one-half his price.

The Code's rules, penalties and payments are a fascinating (and often contradictory) glimpse into the lives and values of the Babylonians. For example, if you leased a field and your crops were lost to the storm god Adad, it was your own problem. Yet if you hired an ox to work your fields and it was eaten by a lion, the loss was borne by the ox's owner. If the ox's death was caused by a god, an oath to that effect absolved the hirer of any responsibility. (It sounds like ox-hiring was a tough gig in Babylon.)

King Hammurabi's legacy persists and many of the philosophies of his code still ring true today. It established concepts such as medical malpractice, penalties for negligence and the role of government in resolving family matters like inheritance and divorce. Another important idea enacted in the Code of Hammurabi was assumed innocence, whereby both parties in a legal dispute were required to provide evidence of their claims – even if the evidence was no more than an oath that a god killed your ox.


The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia exhibition at Melbourne Museum

1915 translation of the Code of Hammurabi by LW King (PDF, 128 KB)

Code of Hammurabi in the Musée du Louvre

Q&A with Dr Andrew Jamieson

by Adrienne Leith
Publish date
22 February 2012
Comments (0)

Adrienne creates and presents public programs at Melbourne Museum and coordinates Museum Victoria's lecture series.

A new major exhibition is coming to Melbourne Museum this year called The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia. To learn more about the history and significance of Mesopotamia, I interviewed an expert in ancient civilisations, Dr Andrew Jamieson.

Can you first tell us a bit about yourself and how you are involved with the exhibition?

I am an archaeologist from the Classics and Archaeology program at the University of Melbourne, and for the past 25 years I have been working on archaeological projects in the Middle East. I'm helping with the development and presentation of The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia at Melbourne Museum, and I'm looking forward to sharing some of my knowledge at some public lectures at the museum.

Where exactly is Mesopotamia?

Ancient Mesopotamia corresponds with the area known today as Iraq, north-east Syria and south-east Turkey. The word 'Mesopotamia' is of Greek origin (meso 'middle' and potamia 'river'), meaning the land between two rivers – the Tigris and the Euphrates. Both the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers start in the mountainous regions of Turkey and flow into the Persian Gulf.

It was here, in a land through which the two rivers flowed, that some of the world's first great empires flourished - the Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian empires.

Statue of King Ashurnasirpal II Statue of King Ashurnasirpal II that was placed in the Temple of Ishtar at Nimrud where Ashurnasirpal established his capital city.
Source: @ The Trustees of the British Museum

So why is Mesopotamia so significant?

Mesopotamia is important for a number of reasons.  For example, Mesopotamia witnessed experiments in agriculture and irrigation, the invention of writing, the emergence of cities and complex society, and developments in art, literature, science and mathematics. Mesopotamia is also sometimes referred to as the 'fertile crescent' or the 'cradle of civilisation', because the crescent-shaped region was a moist and fertile land, and because the first complex societies emerged in this region.

Why is Mesopotamia relevant to us today?

For me, Mesopotamia is relevant today because it represents the origins or beginnings of western civilisation. Ancient Mesopotamia has a long and rich history that continues to influence our lives.

The Mesopotamians were amongst the first people to build and live in large cities. They also developed many aspects of technology including metalworking, pottery production, glassmaking, textile manufacture and leather-working.

The oldest writing yet discovered comes from southern Mesopotamia and dates to circa 3500 BC. It consists of pictographic signs incised on clay tablets that record the Sumerian language. The earliest writing was used to communicate basic information about crops and taxes. A few centuries later the pictographs were transformed into more abstract cuneiform ('wedge-shaped') characters. This distinctive script was incised on wet clay with a stylus (pen-like instrument), usually cut from a reed. Over thousands of years, Mesopotamian scribes recorded daily events, trade activities, astronomy, myths, and literature on thousands of clay tablets. So successful was this system of writing that it was used over three millennia by the different peoples of the ancient Near East.

Early cuneiform writing tablet, c. 3000 BC Early cuneiform writing tablet, circa 3000 BC. Quantities of barley allocated to officials listed by rank. The impressed circles and half-circles represent numbers.
Source: @ The Trustees of the British Museum

What can people expect to see in the exhibition?

The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia is specially designed for Melbourne Museum It features over 170 objects highlighting significant episodes of Mesopotamian civilisation, including masterpieces from Sumer, Assyria and Babylon. It is rare for the British Museum to tour such priceless pieces. Some of these objects include an early Sumerian cuneiform writing tablet, a fluted gold cup with spout found in the death pit of the tomb of Queen Puabi at Ur that may have been used for drinking beer, a large stone statue of the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II inscribed in cuneiform giving his titles and lineage, and much more.

Gold cup Gold cup with spout found in the death pit of the tomb of Queen Puabi. The long spout would have been used like a drinking straw, probably for drinking beer.
Source: @ The Trustees of the British Museum

The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia is a collaboration with the British Museum. It is on at Melbourne Museum from 4 May to 7 October 2012.


The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia

Video: What is Mesopotamia?

Video: The Mesopotamian Minute

Pre-purchase exhibition tickets online

Dr Andrew Jamieson at the University of Melbourne

About this blog

Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.