From Russia with Radioactivity: Misidentified Objects and Hazards

7 minute read

In February 2023, the Stores Move Project were busy documenting collections from South Africa which, luckily for me, included a lot of beautiful beadwork pieces. I was in my element, surrounded by beadwork and geeking out about which weaving techniques had been used, which colour combinations, which bead sizes… 

And then I came across an unusual piece. It was a woven beadwork band with a set of brass buttons, large glass beads, and an orthodox crucifix pendant in the centre. It didn’t look like any of the other pieces we had been working with, although the seed beads and brick stitch technique were consistent with some of them. The presence of the orthodox crucifix and what looked like military buttons may seem strange. But beadwork, like most cultural practices, is constantly evolving and reflects cultural changes as well as individual preferences and innovation.

A beaded necklace from Russia, with brass buttons and an orthodox crucifix.

Figure 1. Beaded necklace with brass buttons and an Orthodox crucifix, originally catalogued as being from Zimbabwe. MAA Z 44409.

The piece was originally attributed to Zimbabwe. From the historic documentation, however, it became clear that this attribution was a best guess given by an unnamed individual when the object was documented. The unique accession number, Z 44409, was assigned in December 1986 when, according to the catalogue card, it was ‘found during reorganisation without documentation’. The catalogue card also suggested that the necklace might have been part of a collection donated by Alfred Cort Haddon in 1905. In the Accession Register, it appears that several beadwork pieces were found and catalogued at the same time, all of which were listed as possibly from Zimbabwe. 

I spoke with the Collections Manager for Anthropology, Rachel Hand, and looked through some books on Southern African beadwork, but couldn’t find any direct parallels. We investigated the Orthodox crucifix and the military buttons but were unable to unearth any solid answers. Nothing on the necklace precluded it being from Zimbabwe. We made a note of our uncertainty in the record and moved on.  

Beadwork from Russia 

A few months later, as the Stores Move Project began processing the European anthropology collection, I opened a box with objects from Russia and was surprised to find a very familiar necklace staring back at me. Sadly, it was in poor condition with several areas of the beadwork fraying, and the central portion of the necklace was completely detached. The similarities to the above necklace were striking, especially since it was supposedly from a different continent. Further investigation was required!

Beaded necklace from Russia, with brass buttons and an orthodox crucifix, carefully packed in a wooden box with acid free paper.

Figure 2. Beaded necklace with brass buttons and an Orthodox crucifix, packed in a wooden box with tissue paper. MAA Z 18155.

This necklace, Z 18155, had an identical orthodox cross and very similar domed brass buttons with numbers marked in relief. The beaded band was constructed using a netting stitch rather than brick stitch, but with the same colours and the same edging. The back portion of the necklace was also similarly made from rolled fabric. In short, it was difficult to believe that these two necklaces could come from places so far apart and culturally distinct as Zimbabwe and Russia.  

I hadn’t previously come across any beadwork from Russia, so I searched a few online museum collections to see if I could find parallels. The British Museum cares for two beadwork necklaces which I could find, one of which has a crucifix pendant (As1898,0702.17 and As1898,0702.16). While they are not direct parallels, they indicate the use of beadwork in Russia, particularly netting stitch. This discovery provided enough support to amend the record for the first necklace, Z 44409, suggesting Russia as a place of manufacture or collection, and drawing attention to the similarities between the two necklaces.  

New hazards 

Another Russian beadwork object which I found in the British Museum collection led me to a second surprise. Leather apron As1913,1114.58 is decorated with beaded panels, tassels, iron rings, buttons and ivory. The online database record noted that the pale-yellow beads were made with uranium glass and were therefore slightly radioactive. Looking back at the necklace in front of me, Z 18155, I noticed the same pale-yellow colour on two faceted beads in the central portion.

A yellow-coloured glass bead, brass buttons, and an orthodox cross, tied together.

Figure 3. Detail image of central portion of necklace Z 18155, showing two pale-yellow glass beads. MAA Z 18155.

UV light being shown onto a radioactive, uranium bead. Under the light, the bead has turned fluorescent green. The bead is woven together with some brass buttons and an orthodox cross.

Figure 4. Uranium glass bead fluorescing green under light from a UV torch.

Luckily, conservator Ayesha Fuentes was on hand to answer my questions about these beads. Uranium glass in this pale-yellow colour is sometimes referred to as Vaseline glass. It fluoresces green under UV light, which makes it easily identifiable if you have a UV torch to hand. It was first produced in the early 20th century and soon became popular for tableware and household items. During the Cold War, however, the availability of uranium was heavily reduced, and this led to a decline in its manufacture. 

The actual level of radioactivity emitted is very low, and I was reassured to hear that these beads were indeed safe to handle with gloves, and pack in our normal wooden boxes. MAA’s internal database has a special tab to record hazards such as this, alongside any precautions required while handling objects. We also label the outside of the box to alert future users to any potential hazards before they begin unpacking.  

Packing for safe transport and storage 

Once we had discovered the necklace’s secrets, all that was left was to pack it in a way which would keep it safe from further damage. Throughout the project we have been experimenting with and developing our collective packing skills, using new materials in different ways depending on the needs of each object. I drew on some lessons learnt from packing the Mexican collection (read more about that in this UCM blog), using cotton tape to pin the necklace down on a plastazote base which was cut to fit the inside of the box. This technique eliminates the need to cover objects with tissue paper puffs which might catch on and break fragile elements, in this case the beads and loose threads in damaged sections. As a bonus, I was able to use the plastazote base to transport the necklace to the photo studio and take the photo on it, eliminating any unnecessary extra handling. 

A beaded necklace, torn from one end, carefully mounted in place on a plastazote base. Charms containing a radioactive uranium bead, some brass buttons, and a brass orthodox cross have been mounted in the centre on the necklace.

Figure 5. Necklace Z 18155 on a plastazote base, ready for packing. Note the areas of loose beadwork and threads, especially at the bottom. MAA Z 18155.

Final thoughts 

This set of discoveries in the store offers two valuable insights into the collection as a whole. Firstly, collections staff past and present, cannot know everything. It’s healthy, therefore, to approach certain types of information in the database with an open, sometimes questioning, mind. MAA uses a few types of accession numbers: those beginning with an accession year tend to have more secure information attached to them, whereas those starting with a Z may be less well documented.  

The Z prefix was in use at MAA from 1923-1992 and its primary function was to resolve historic numbering issues, or document collections which were not assigned individual accession numbers on arriving at the museum. Objects assigned Z numbers, especially later in the sequence, often don’t have much information attached to them. What there is may be speculation by whoever catalogued it unless there are labels or markings on the object. 

The first necklace we looked at, Z 44409, was documented in 1986 after having been found without any documentation in the museum. The only option available to staff at the time was to suggest likely provenance information in the hopes that more precise details might be found in the future. Beadwork in the collection comes mainly from the Americas and Africa, and since this necklace was found with other pieces from Africa, it wasn’t unreasonable to suggest Zimbabwe as the place of collection. The Stores Move Project has given us an unrivalled opportunity to go systematically through the collection, becoming familiar with object types from many parts of the world. It’s mainly because of this familiarity with Southern African beadwork that my suspicions were aroused in the first place, and because of my suspicions that I followed up on a hunch when I found the second necklace, Z 18155. 

Secondly, there are always new hazards to be found! This was the first instance of radioactivity which we have come across on the Stores Move Project. We regularly deal with other hazards such as lead, poisons, pesticides, and flammables, and have protocols in place for how to deal with each of them. We can test for lead using Plumbtesmo test strips and we have learnt that crystalline or powdery residue on organic materials often indicates the presence of pesticides. Unless we know when we might encounter hazards though, they can be difficult to identify. I was previously unaware of even the existence of uranium glass and, without the example on the British Museum website, would have been unlikely to think twice about the beads on this necklace. Now the whole team is aware of the possibility, and how to test it using UV light. Every day is a learning day!  

What’s next? 

For more Russian beadwork, this time a collar with lots of intriguing coin tassels, take a look at MAA Z 18088. It’s also worth exploring the whole European anthropology collection via the online database, highlights include Scandinavian bentwood boxes, various locks and keys, religious icons, wax votives, beautiful outfits, an Austrian chess set, and mandrake root charms.  

To search our online database, go to https://collections.maa.cam.ac.uk/. 

To read more about MAA collections, check out the UCM blog: https://www.museums.cam.ac.uk/blog/category/museums/museum-of-archaeology-anthropology/ 

Comments

  1. Sue Jones says:

    Really interesting read, and a great feeling when detective work pays off! This is the absolute joy of working or volunteering with museum collections – so many surprising discoveries are waiting in archive drawers!

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