School of Religion, Philosophy & Classics

Museum of Classical Archaeology

Photos: Supplied

The Museum of Classical Archaeology is housed in the foyer of the Department of Classics on the Howard College Campus. The collection spans over 3000 years with pieces from Egypt, Greece and Rome in the collection. The pieces range from a small numismatics collection, everyday items such as oil lamps, to bigger pieces such as a fragmented Amphora attributed to the Princeton Painter. The museum is used as both a tool of teaching and a research centre.

 Former Museum curator and UKZN Classics lecturer Dr Adrian Ryan said, ‘When you visit a museum and the curator tells you that you will be able to hold something that was touched and shaped by someone from a long, distant past, this becomes the only connection you have that is mediated by the piece itself. You must envision someone who once lived centuries ago, their lifestyle, how they survived at the time…all this makes you appreciate the significance of this historical artefact.’

Ryan recalled that the first object obtained by the Museum was a late 6th century Greek drinking cup. In the early 80s, a prominent classical archaeologist at the time and curator of the museum, Professor Anne Mackay, sourced a variety of artefacts particularly Greek vases for the museum. This reflected her expertise in Greek pottery.

Ryan would use material evidence from the museum to supplement the usual literature in his class teachings. UKZN Classics students are also often part of workshops on material culture and archaeological tools in the museum.

Dr Samantha Masters and Dr Jessica Nitschke, both from the University of Stellenbosch, facilitate workshops for the postgraduate students in the Classics Department in order to introduce them to various aspects of examining and interpreting artefacts and to acquaint them better with the pieces in the Classics Museum.

‘These workshops are relevant for students because it teaches them about archaeology and using objects to reconstruct the past. We chose UKZN because it has one of the few remaining collections of antiquities still on display in South Africa and features a wide range of objects and types,’ said Masters. ‘We are hopeful that the University remains committed to the curatorship and display of this collection, as it brings students and the public closer to the ancient world.’

In addition to a more theoretical part, which dealt with the various types of artefacts such as vases, statues, coins or lamps; the materials they were made from; the methods with which they were created and their chronologies, students also participate in a practical session during which they learn how to handle, measure, draw and catalogue an object.

The museum has a dedicated small display cabinet, aptly named the Law Collection and houses prized artefacts, from a generous benefactor, the late Ms Joan Law, who has made donations to the museum over the years.

Ryan said Law had been a ‘most consistent and generous benefactor who had donated money over many years and through whose assistance the museum was able to acquire its own pieces’. The list of artefacts secured include a selection of five Roman coins, a Roman bronze military diploma, and two fragments from anthropoid Egyptian sarcophagi – a piece of wood with hieroglyphics painted on it and a fragment of cartonnage.

 Speaking about the importance of the collection in the museum’s history, Ryan said: ‘The pieces in the Law Collection are without doubt my favourite – after all I got to choose them myself. Although they are quite modest compared with some of the artefacts in Cairo and the Antikensammlungen, ours is a teaching museum, and the interesting stories these pieces tell make them useful tools for bringing to life the history and culture of the civilisations we study.

‘Law’s legacy will continue here in the display cabinet housing the artefacts we acquired through her generous support, and it is my hope that they will continue to be used for the purpose for which they were intended – to inform, to delight, and to help ignite in new students an interest in the ancient world, so that its study survives at UKZN,’ said Ryan.

Many additional items from Joan Law, the Durban Art Museum, and other collections, can still be found in the UKZN museum. Small tours can be arranged by prior arrangement.