Archaeologists Then and Now

2010s

Archaeologists Then and Now

Era: 

  • 2010 - now
  • portrait of man

    Dr. Peter L. Storck, Curator Emeritus

Museums are known for the things inside them – Egyptian mummies, dinosaur fossils,  Greek and Roman marble statues, ‘stuffed’ animals and, my favorite from the Field Museum in Chicago, two adult Neanderthals standing outside a cave, so life-like I stood frozen in awe, worried what their reaction might be if they turned and noticed me looking at them.

When museums capture the visitor in this way they’re at their best.  It’s easy to forget, standing in front of the diorama of a Paleolithic cave, a Jurassic forest or a Paleo-Indian mammoth kill in the Ice Age, that museums also have stories.  Stories that make these dioramas and other exhibits possible.  This is worthwhile thinking about, especially at important milestones such as the one the ROM will be celebrating next year, technically on March 19, 2014, when the institution will be 100 years old.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because of a book I published for the general public in 1995, Journey to the Ice Age.  It’s a story about the research I did over a period of about three decades while a curator at the ROM and describes my search for the first humans to occupy Ontario after the retreat of the continental ice sheet.  When it was first published I was very much aware of the fact that my book was the only autobiographical account of a museum curator since the publication in 1956 of Charles Trick Currelly’s book, I Brought the Ages Home.  Currelly was the first director of the Royal Ontario Museum of Archaeology, one of five museums (together with Geology, Mineralogy, Paleontology and Natural History) that constituted the institution when it opened in 1914.  Thus, Currelly was a luminary.  I was much less so but I found it satisfying that my book, like Currelly’s, was about archaeology: mine concerning archaeology at ‘Home’, Currelly’s euphemism for the ROM and its home province, Currelly’s book embracing the world.

But aside from this, our books are really very different, reflecting different eras in world history and different stages in archaeology as a scientific discipline. 

Charles Currelly, born in 1876 in Exeter, Ontario, and educated in Toronto, developed a career as a collector of antiquities in the Middle East between 1902 and 1910 when Europe was a colonial power in the region.  Beginning as an assistant with Flinders Petrie, a Professor of Egyptology at University College, London, and soon to become a world renowned archaeologist, Currelly developed a knowledge of antiquities, a love of museums and a desire to create a museum in Toronto.  Simultaneously attracting the political and financial support of prominent businessmen and collectors in Toronto, Currelly began buying antiquities in Egypt, from both local people and dealers, soon developing a keen eye for objects of public interest as well as fakes.  Through his travels and ever expanding network of archaeologists and prominent collectors Currelly would eventually acquire material from Italy, Greece, Crete, the Middle East, England and continental Europe and, later, New Guinea, China, Mexico, the Southwestern United States, British Columbia.  Currelly acquired a huge range of artifacts: archaeological materials, ceramics, textiles, ethnographic items, to mention a few  – even an alleged Viking sword from Port Arthur, Ontario (now Thunder Bay).  His interests seem limitless.  But what he achieved could only have been done then: it would not be possible today.

My own work reflects a different era, and the ROM as it was in the latter half of the last century.  Trained as a professional archaeologist, I was hired by the ROM in 1969, during a period of expansion when the museum ran or supported excavations in the Middle East (Crete, Egypt, Iran), Africa (Botswana), England, the Caribbean (Cuba), Middle and South America (Belize and Peru) and ‘Home”, Ontario.  We all worked under permits or licences that controlled what and how we could excavate and what we could take back to the ROM – usually (except for me) only small representative samples.  Indeed, in the post-colonial world the export of artifacts became strictly controlled to prevent the cultural heritage of the host country from being stripped away and to keep archaeological sites from being looted for profit.

I was certainly conscious of working in a less exotic place than my colleagues who, because of the ROM’s ongoing interest in those areas, were part of Currelly’s legacy and vision of an international museum.  I was part of an older legacy left to the ROM by the 19th century collector David Boyle, whose work at the Canadian Institute Museum (1884-1896) and the Ontario Provincial Museum (1896-1911) would eventually form the core of the ROM’s own Ontario archaeology collection.  And although Ontario might not seem as exotic as Egypt or Iran or Peru, it has its interesting corners where one can glimpse Ice Age hunter-gatherers sitting around a campfire on the shore of a glacial lake or making stone tools on the edge of a small pond sheltered by the Niagara Escarpment. 

The artifacts that Charles Currelly, David Boyle, and my colleagues and I obtained in our work formed the basis for many displays and galleries in the ROM, ranging from humble display cases to evocative dioramas as engaging as the Neanderthal cave or the Jurassic forest.

Through time, the museum, like its exhibits, also changed.  The museum is no longer focused entirely on the past, but concerned as well – as in the Biodiversity gallery – with the present and the future.  The museum has also changed in another way, reflecting the emergence of multi-culturalism, not only in Canada but in the world generally, as people have claimed the right to celebrate their cultural heritage.  As a result, the ROM has become a cultural center where people of diverse backgrounds can gather to learn about and celebrate their ethnic identities.

Museums, long thought to reflect only the past – a dead past, seen in rows of dusty artifacts, curiosities, fossils, bones – have been revitalized in the last half century or so by revolutions in science that view these same artifacts as part of living systems and vibrant cultures that are part of our world, our legacy, our responsibility.  The ROM is part of this transformation.  It is also no longer youthful, or even middle aged.  It is old enough to have had wonderful successes and a few sad reversals.  Anniversaries are times to think about these things; to celebrate, to safeguard what has been done well, restore what has been lost and prepare to pass on the legacy we have enjoyed.  Because anniversaries also remind us that the time that is ours is very brief.

Charles Currelly’s book, I Brought the Ages Home, was published in 1956 by Ryerson Press (Toronto) and re-issued in 2012 by ROM Press.  Dr. Storck’s book, Journey to the Ice Age, was published in 2004 by the University of British Columbia Press in association with the ROM and with the support of the Louise Hawley Stone Charitable Trust.  Both books are available for purchase in the ROM Museum Store, at bookstores and online.

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