Collecting antiquities during wartime – the First World War Antiquities Project

Written by Mr James Donaldson (Museum Manager and Curator, R.D. Milns Antiquities Museum, The University of Queensland) and Dr Brit Asmussen (Acting Principal Curator, Cultures and Histories, Queensland Museum)

Queensland Museum and The RD Milns Antiquities Museum, University of Queensland, are collaborating on a research partnership to learn more about the antiquities collecting activities of Australian WW1 personnel. 

Soldiers and collectors

The collection of souvenirs by service personnel is a well-known phenomenon of the First World War. The types of souvenirs collected included war materiel (equipment and supplies of a military force; an aggregate of things used in any business or undertaking munitions, weapons, uniforms), trench art (items made by soldiers, prisoners of war and civilians from war materiel) and items of ephemera such as postcards and photographs. Australian service personnel were recognised as particularly zealous collectors. Perhaps a less known fact was that they also collected and brought home antiquities (items of ancient cultural heritage) from a diverse range of locations, including Egypt, Syria/Palestine, Mesopotamia and the Western Front.

Why collect during wartime?

Why collecting antiquities became a popular practice among Australian service personnel is an interesting question. Official archaeological excavations were rare during the First World War, and thus service personnel were not witnessing active ‘formal’ excavations while they served. On the whole, discoveries were ‘accidental’, and thus not systematically recorded or reported.

Indeed, many antiquities were purchased, rather than excavated. It is important not only to understand the types of antiquities Australian service personnel chose to collect and bring home during the First World War, but also to consider the relationship between antiquities as commemorative war souvenirs and their status as ancient (or purportedly ancient) artefacts, and thus items of foreign cultural heritage.

Exotic ancient objects were likely fascinating, and also of interest to families back home. Some items may have been to offer protection (such as scarabs), others, such as well-worn coins, may have been used to ease anxiety, other objects may have been intended as gifts (such as necklaces) or valued because they offered a real or perceived connection with the past.

Researching the collections and collectors

Despite evidence that the practice was widespread, only a handful of souvenir antiquities collected during the First World War have been studied.  A few isolated blog posts, generally associated with museums, have publicised individual souvenir antiquities (including some forgeries/fakes!) in collections from Canberra and Queensland.

Most service personnel collected genuine antiquities (scarab beetles, statues, coins), but replica/fake artefacts are also very common. As part of our research partnership, we have already identified over 160 artefacts associated with more than 35 service personnel and held by over a dozen institutions or individuals which may be relevant to the project.

These figures include the more than 60 artefacts collected by ten service personnel that are currently housed at the Queensland Museum.Through this research, we hope to understand more about the practice of collecting antiquities as souvenirs, what antiquities tended to be collected, how they got to Australia, and the timing and context of donation. In addition, we aim to tell the stories of the people who collected these artefacts and provide information to collector’s families and institutions that care for the artefacts.

The project offers a unique opportunity to explore the stories of individual Queenslanders who served in the First World War, their lives before, during and after the war, personal stories recording the reasons why they were acquired, and contact with the ancient world through the artefacts they collected.

Stay tuned!

Over the next year, we will be putting together a series of blogs about each individual collector in the Queensland Museum antiquities collection, including the artefacts they collected. Stay tuned!   

‘Jackals’ collected by Private F Chenery, Egypt, QM Collection. Photograph Peter Waddington

This object is an ancient Egyptian terracotta Kohl-pot, used to store kohl. Kohl was made from crushed lead ore and fat. It was used throughout Egypt as a black eyeliner for women and men.

Pottery jar collected by Corporal G de Tournouër, Fustat, Egypt, QM Collection. Photograph Peter Waddington

Scarab collected by Driver L Dimmick, Egypt, QM Collection. Photograph Peter Waddington

Phase One of the project focuses on artefacts currently residing in Queensland collections and/or with strong Queensland stories. If you would like to discuss the project further, discuss WW1 antiquities souvenirs in your own family collection, or donate antiquities, please contact James Donaldson at j.donaldson@uq.edu.au.

References

Asmussen, B. 2014. “The ‘bric-a-brac’ of war.” Blog Post, 30 June 2014, Queensland Museum. https://blog.qm.qld.gov.au/2014/06/30/the-bric-a-brac-of-war

Rutherford, D. 2013. “A not so ancient ‘antiquity’.” Blog Post, 31 July 2013, Australian War Memorial. Retrieved: https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/not-so-ancient-antiquity

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