Ask an Archaeologist: Semitic Museum at Harvard with Joe Greene

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For this episode, Ask An Archaeologist journeyed across the Charles River to the Semitic Museum at Harvard to speak to the Deputy Director and Curator, Dr. Joseph Greene.

We asked Dr. Greene two viewer submitted questions.

  1. How do objects end up in museums?
  2. What do you do with artifacts when they’re not on display?

Check out the video below to hear how Dr. Greene says archaeological materials come to the Semitic Museum and how even artifacts in storage can help us learn about the ancient Near East.

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Many of us are primarily exposed to archaeological artifacts through museums. Many of these museums house artifacts from all over the world.  The Semitic Museum at Harvard University focuses in cultural material from the Ancient Near East.   Dr. Greene told us how these materials, on display and in storage can help us understand the ancient past even after they have been removed from the ground.

“Further investigation can be done using techniques that one hadn’t even thought of when they were first dug up,” Dr. Greene told us, referring to modern research being done on the collections in the Semitic Museum.  He told us about a collection excavated in the late 1920s and early 1930s in Nuzi, an ancient site in central Iraq.  This collection includes pieces of ancient glass that have, in recent years, been analyzed to better understand the composition of the glass and therefore, how the ancient people of Nuzi made the glass itself.  Greene said that there is still ongoing research on the glass using modern techniques that were not available when the material was excavated in the 1930s.

Along with learning more about the ancient past, Dr. Greene states that the materials in the Semitic Museum are used to train future scientists, archaeologists and conservators.

“We have materials that offer the opportunity for students to do work… to both enhance our understand of ancient techniques and materials but also to tell us more about what we have in our collections.”

So how do these artifacts get to the Semitic Museum from the Ancient Near East?

Dr. Greene told us that many of the Museum’s collections were received from excavations Harvard participated in in the first half of the twentieth century.

“After the first World War and up until the Second World War, the Museum participated in a number of expeditions overseas from which it did receive a division of finds,” Greene told us, which included the collection from Nuzi.  At this time, many Near Eastern countries divided up the finds between the archaeologists and the government, meaning that some of the artifacts from the Nuzi expedition stayed in Iraq, and come came back to the Semitic museum.

The Museum is no longer collecting artifacts.

“We don’t [resort to the Market],” Dr. Greene said, referring to the Antiquities market. “We don’t need to.  We don’t need to enlarge our collection and we have certain ethical reluctance to do that anyway.”

While the museum does take donations (including a mummified hand that it recently acquired) they are hesitant to do so, especially if they cannot tell when the artifact was collected and removed from its country of origin.

If you would like to visit the Semitic Museum and see the spectacular collections from the ancient Near East click here for more information.


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