Classics and Archaeology Classics and Archaeology Collection

History and Collections

In late 1873 Miss Amelia Edwards, a novelist and travel writer, wishing to avoid the northern winter, hired a houseboat on the Nile River. She travelled in leisurely fashion up the river from Cairo to Abu Simbel and later described the journey in a best-selling book, A Thousand Miles up the Nile. The account she gave of the neglected antiquities of ancient Egypt inspired a dramatic increase in interest in Egyptology, leading to the formation of the Egypt Exploration Society and indirectly to the foundation of antiquities collections of the University of Melbourne.

The Egypt Exploration Society sponsored archaeological expeditions to Egypt and between 1893 and 1908 annual digs were held in the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus, where thousands of papyri were discovered and brought back to England. In 1901, presumably with the intention of spreading culture to the colonies, the Egypt Exploration Society donated five papyri to the University of Melbourne. This initial donation was followed by further papyri and other Egyptian objects received in the early 1920s. Many of these items had been found by the expeditions led by Sir Flinders Petrie, a grandson of Matthew Flinders, who was keen that the results of his work should be spread as far as Australia.

The main inspiration for the development of the Classics Collection between the wars came from Jessie Webb, lecturer in Ancient History in the History Department (1908-44) and Cecil Scutt, Professor of Classical Philology (1915-55). Jessie Webb gained regular grants from the University to buy ancient coins for teaching purposes, building up a collection of more than one hundred Greek coins. She also organised the purchase of casts of ancient statuary with the purpose of decorating the then new Arts building (known now, with the passage of time, as Old Arts). Professor Scutt was responsible for the development of the collection established in memory of John Hugh Sutton, an outstanding classics student killed in a motorcycle accident in 1925. Sutton's parents gave the University the significant sum of £500 to establish a classics museum and purchase objects for it. Professor Scutt enlisted the help of Cambridge archaeologist C. T. Seltman (who also purchased coins for Jessie Webb) to buy items with funds from the Sutton Bequest, and Seltman became a fixture at auction rooms and antiquities shops in Britain and the excavation sites of Greece, buying a wide variety of objects for the collection. The Sutton Bequest was expended by the end of 1929 and resulted in the acquisition of an interesting collection of coins, vases, plaster casts and other objects. Since 1970 the Classics Collection has been enhanced with purchase and donation of many Roman coins and further vases and other objects. The Classics Collection is an important teaching tool and an important aid to research, with many publications being based on various aspects of the collection and specific items in it.

In 1937 Jessie Webb applied for Arts Faculty support for James Stewart's expedition to Cyprus and, although it is unclear whether this support was given or if it resulted in accessions to the collection, it marked the beginnings of the important Cypriot Collection. After World War II Stewart led two major expeditions to Cyprus in 1955 and 1960-61. Although Stewart was Professor of Archaeology at the University of Sydney, support received from the University of Melbourne resulted in the expeditions being known as the Melbourne Cyprus Expeditions and the allocation of many of the expeditions' finds to this University. The Cypriot Collection received a further boost in 1987 with the purchase of 239 mainly ceramic objects from the Australian Institute of Archaeology.

The Middle Eastern Collection includes a wide variety of manuscripts, pottery, bronzes, coins and plaster casts. Some items were purchased to meet specific research or teaching needs, such as the collection of over one hundred manuscripts and early books, mainly in Arabic or Persian, built up by John Martyn in the 1960s primarily for the teaching of palaeography. Other items, such as a set of eighteen objects from a Phoenician shipwreck from Mr Joe Huber and a group of sixteen Egyptian objects from Mr Peter Chaldjian, have been donated to the University. The Middle Eastern Collections includes a set of bronzes from Luristan, three ivories from Nimrud and twenty-five vases from Madrash.

Since 1998 the Classics, Cypriot and Middle Eastern collections have been managed by the Ian Potter Museum of Art.

For background information about archaeology at The University of Melbourne see:
A. G. Sagona, 'Introduction: Archaeology at The University of Melbourne: A Short Essay' in A. G. Sagona & J.K. Zimmer (eds), Images of the Ancient World, Melbourne 1988, pp. 11-18.

Extract from: P. Yule, 'Classics, Cypriot and Middle Eastern Collections', in C. McAuliffe & P. Yule (eds.), Treasures: Highlights of the Cultural Collections of the University of Melbourne, Carlton, 2003, pp. 17-18.

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