Objects of War: 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 (Senior Curator, Cultures and Histories, Queensland Museum).

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

Collecting antiquities in wartime

Over the past 12 months, Queensland Museum and the University of Queensland’s RD Milns Antiquities Museum have been researching the antiquities that were collected during the First World War. The first phase of The First World War Antiquities Project was supported by a grant from the Federal Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and is focused on Queensland-based collections held in Queensland Museum, which holds the largest number of WW1 antiquities in the state. Such objects collected by soldiers’ function as repositories of memory and meaning, and for us today, they tell us much about the collecting practices prevalent in the First World War.

What did soldiers collect?

Of all the items collected, coins are the most common artefact type, followed by amulets, shabtis (figurines placed to answer their deceased master’s call to work in the afterlife) and figurines. There are also examples of domestic equipment (a glass bottle, a bottle strainer, bowls and lamps), architectural and building materials (nails, tiles, cement, mosaic tesserae, and pieces from Egyptian monuments), jewellery (a necklace and a pendant), and stone tools.

The characteristic that these artefacts all share is that they would have been cheap to purchase or common to find while on campaign. They are also small, and easy to carry – in a pocket, personal pack or sent home in a parcel or letter.

The collection is almost an even split of genuine antiquities and fake pieces. The majority of fakes are from Egypt, where the sale of fakes to tourists was a well-known phenomenon in 19th and 20th centuries. A useful guide to Egyptian forgeries was produced by a Dr Wakeling in the years before the First World War and includes many anecdotes about the sale of fakes to tourists, as well as many parallels to the types of shabtis and figurines shown here. Acquiring fakes wasn’t problematic from a legal standpoint, but an interesting line of inquiry is whether soldiers knew what they were purchasing wasn’t original.

Collection of fake figurines, collected by Private F. Chenery, Egypt. © Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington.

Why collect?

One of the main research questions driving The First World War Antiquities Project is why service personnel collected antiquities during the war. It’s clear from newspapers and periodicals that soldiers were keenly interested in the ancient remains they could visit in places like Egypt, but often their only background in the topic came from the places and people of the Bible or popular publications. There are strong connections to be made between soldier collecting and studies of tourism in Egypt and the Levant. Soldiers also collected a lot of non-ancient material including postcards, bullets, badges, trench art and other curios, so it is important to place antiquities collecting within this broader phenomenon. Records suggest soldiers usually collected interesting mementos for themselves, and to show friends and family. On a more emotive note, it is also interesting to speculate if some items were chosen and carried in the hope they would bestow a sense of protection, such as scarab beetle amulets.

How were items collected?

Most artefacts were acquired as souvenirs, for self, friends and family. Many finds occurred in the context of digging trenches, fortifications and other military structures. Several soldiers talk about the ease of taking stones from around the Pyramids and Sphinx, or the abundance of coins at certain Mediterranean beaches. It was also possible to purchase antiquities from licensed dealers in places like Egypt, including from museums. The Queensland Museum collection includes examples of all these types of acquisition.

Pieces of limestone from the Sphinx, collected by Sapper J. H. Lowe © Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington.

How did the objects make it to Australia and Queensland Museum?

Some artefacts were sent home in letters and packages while soldiers were seeing active conflict. Others were returned to loved ones after a soldiers passing, and are itemised in personal effects. Others still remained with soldiers for their entire lives, perhaps as keepsakes provoking memory of their service, or reminders of unfamiliar and ancient lands. Some were donated to the museum shortly before they passed away, where they serve not only as objects from past civilisations, but also tell the important story of collecting in wartime. There are also a few examples of family members donating antiquities on Anzac Day. Other items remained in families for several of generations prior to being donated, and some families still hold ancient artefacts brought back by relatives who served in the war.

A coin that Driver L. Dimmick, sent back to his father, said to have been collected at Mena Camp, Egypt, in 1915 © Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington.

Where were they collected from?

Because so many Australians spent time training in Egypt, it’s not surprising that the largest part of the collection is Egyptian. However, artefacts are also known from all the places Australians served during the war, including Mesopotamia, Israel/Palestine, Gallipoli, Northern Greece, the Western Front and England. As a result, the collection is quite diverse, as is the spread of time periods represented, from the Neolithic though to the Early Modern period.

Fragment of Roman roof tile, collected from the Roman ruins of Verulamium, St Albans, England, by Sapper S. Emmett © Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington.

 Ethics

These artefacts reside in Australia as a result of historical collecting practices, which are no longer in accordance with modern ethics. All of these items were collected and came to Australia prior to the UNESCO 1970 Convention. Legal protections of archaeological sites and antiquities and their sale existed in one form or another in the Ottoman Empire from at least 1835, due in part to the collecting practices of European museums and collectors. These colonial practices continued up to and during the First World War. At the time of the war, laws in other places such as Britain and France were less robust, if they existed at all. Fake objects are not bound by the same legal issues of collection.

The research on the collections so far suggests that most soldiers acquired their collections via discovery in the field, or purchase from antiquities dealers. Purchasing antiquities from licensed dealers, including the Cairo Museum, was legal in Egypt during this period. However, museum officials, and those making the laws, were often European Egyptologists.

A central part of the project collaboration is to thoroughly investigate and publicise the provenance information available about individual artefacts collected during the war and now residing in Australia. This approach promotes transparency and dialogue about historical collecting activities and the ethics of antiquities collecting more broadly.

Islamic oil lamps from al-Fusṭāṭ, acquired by Comte Corporal G. de Tournouër from Ali Bey Baghat, Museum of Arab Art, Cairo © Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington.

Stay tuned for further blogs in the series

This blog is developed from research conducted during “The First World War Antiquities Project (Queensland)”, a collaborative project between the R.D. Milns Antiquities Museum, The University of Queensland, and Queensland Museum. This is the first Australian survey of antiquities collecting by Australian service personnel during the First World War.

We gratefully acknowledge funding from the Federal Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the expertise of Dr Serena Love, Everick.

Check out the project website:

Please contact the RD Milns Museum about antiquities of interest to the project: Mr James Donaldson, Manager/Curator, RD Milns Antiquities Museum, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry j.donaldson@uq.edu.au or 07 3365 7490.  

One thought on “Objects of War: The First World War Antiquities project

  1. It’s so lovely to see this project coming to fruition, having been around at the beginning of the idea. More please!

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