Ancient Art in the Archives: Studying Artifacts During the COVID-19 Crisis

By LaraAnn Canner, Curator of Music Special Collections at Old Dominion University Libraries

Image of a person drawing an ancient vase on a sheet of paper. An ancient vase sits on the table in front of them.
Noelle Jessup sketching ancient Cypriot vase.
(Photograph courtesy of LaraAnn Canner, November 5, 2020)

I have been told in the past that archivists need to be jacks-of-all-trades within libraries. Never had I felt this more strongly than when I became a de-facto archaeology teacher. Funny, since the last time I checked my title was Curator of Music Special Collections.

Early Spring 2020, Special Collections and University Archives happily hosted Dr. Jared Benton’s ARTH 203: Ancient Art class. Using Bronze Age pottery from the island of Cyprus donated to ODU in the 1960s1, the students took photographs and created archaeological sketches of the vases. Later, this work would be turned into digital 3-D models and in-depth research papers for the class final exam. The results of their studies were impressive, so much so that Dr. Benton believed that their work should be presented at Old Dominion University’s Undergraduate Research Symposium. Dr. Benton also asked if I would be interested in assisting a few of the students with the symposium through making the collections available, editing papers, and answering any research inquiries.

Image of a group of people gathered around an ancient vase, with one person taking a photograph
I’m the one in red, protectively shielding the artifact and terrified! 
(Photograph courtesy of Jennifer Hoyt, March 11, 2020)

Five students in all decided to participate in the Undergraduate Research Symposium, which was scheduled for the following March of 2021. This gave us plenty of time to develop a poster presentation or expand upon the research papers they had already written for Dr. Benton’s ancient art history course. Each student focused on different facets of the ancient vases, culminating in the most complete study of the pottery ever conducted. 

Then March 16, 2020 happened.

Old Dominion University’s President made difficult the decision to close campus for a week as the number of COVID-19 cases in Norfolk began to rapidly rise. Little did we know that a week would turn into months.

With campus remaining closed over the course of the summer, Zoom became the main means of communication. Together, we formulated the design of a virtual poster, which showed how the class created their digital representations of the Cypriot vases. I also met the students who were more interested in presenting papers, and shared my advice on best research practices, edits were made to their original papers, and themes were explored. Overall, it was a very productive summer, but to create the greatest possible poster and research presentations, the scholars would need to view the vases again…in-person.

So, we found ourselves adapting to the need for social distancing, but still providing access to our collections. Weeks of staff meetings, and University guidance, and back and forth emails led to updated COVID-19 policies, including granting appointments for ODU students and staff, wearing a face mask at all times, completing symptom checklists, and Archives staff disinfecting prior and after each appointment. These were just a few ways to create safe and healthy environment for our researchers.

Fortunately, the students had retained the basic understanding of how to document the pottery, but were a bit rusty after the long (very stressful) summer. Even though I possessed a minor in Anthropology and I had been present for these classes, acting as the Archives representative/vase guard, I was a bit rustier than our undergraduate scholars. However, I found my old Archeology textbooks and brushed up on my terminology, and by October I was ready to set the first appointment to intensely study the vases in-person.

Only one patron and one staff member were allowed in Special Collections for appointments, meaning that Dr. Benton would have to utilize Zoom to communicate to help guide our students. Two weeks prior, Dr. Benton dropped off his specialized equipment, including lights, standing rulers, graph paper, digital caliper, and even his personal camera in anticipation of the first appointment. During the session, whenever problems arose, or we needed to sure we were on track, student Sekoyah McGlorn would have to hold her paper up to a laptop screen. This was complicated to say the least…

Image of a person holding a piece of paper up to a laptop, with an ancient vase in the foreground
Sekoyah McGlorn asking Dr. Benton for guidance via Zoom.
(Photograph courtesy of LaraAnn Canner, October 21, 2020)

Watching an archaeological rendering as a bystander was fascinating, but I also had to become an interpreter of the professor’s instructions and at times a fellow teacher of Bronze Age pottery, which is not exactly my field of expertise. However, this session was not only a lesson in primary source instruction, but active learning. Together the students and I talked through the best ways to capture the vase’s decorations, worked through mismeasurements, and inspected the vase from every possible angle. This was the chorus of: “Oh, Okay.”, “Wait, no.”, “I got it!” as we placed targets, converted measurements onto graph paper, and worked out the best ways to photograph the pottery from above (without giving me a heart attack!). And, the results were incredible, just look:

At 8:30 o’clock in the morning, the 13th Annual Old Dominion University Undergraduate Research Symposium was off to a wonderful start. Our five students presented their findings, and in my humble opinion, did an awesome job! I will not go into detail regarding the conclusions, which were quite literally drawn by the student scholars. That is their hard work to share. However, I will encourage viewing the archived recordings of their presentations (found in Zoom Room G and Room GG), please follow this link:

Image of poster presented by Noelle Jessup, Sekoyah McGlorn and Jordan Staten at the Old Dominion University Undergraduate Research Symposium
Poster presented by Noelle Jessup, Sekoyah McGlorn and Jordan Staten at the Old Dominion University Undergraduate Research Symposium, March 20, 2021 (Courtesy of Dr. Jared Benton)

After volunteering to help with a primary source instruction session using Special Collections’ Bronze Age vases, I was surprised to find myself becoming a teacher of archelogy. It puts a whole new spin on “other duties as assigned”, but that is one of my favorite parts about librarianship. We turn choruses of confusion to the harmony of understanding, and change our policies to offer accessibly, even during the trying time of the pandemic, offering students a chance to hold a piece of history in their (properly gloved) hands.

As I look over at the archival storage shelves and see the box holding the Cypriot vases, I see so many opportunities for primary source instruction and active learning. I am extremely grateful that Dr. Benton asked me to be a part of his student’s work for the Undergraduate Research Symposium and only hope for future collaborations. Special collections and faculty instruction, coming together to give students the best possible education and a glimpse of the ancient art found in the archives.

1 In 1968, local Norfolk businessman Dudley Cooper gifted Old Dominion University his collection of five Bronze Age vases, purchased five years earlier from the Cyprian government.

Image of LaraAnn Canner


LaraAnn Canner is the Allan Blank Curator of Music Special Collections at Old Dominion University Libraries. Her role is to make the Music Special Collections accessible and working closely with students and faculty, doing outreach, in-depth reference work, building exhibits, and providing instruction.