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No. 21: What is the Oldest? : Should We Care?

What is the oldest artifact in our collection?
Such a simple question; such a complicated answer.

Is it really that important to know exactly how old? As a history museum we are, of course, obsessed with age, with dates, with where our artifacts sit in time. Not simply because they are ‘old’ (some of our things are quite ‘new’), but because the artifact is a key to a glimpse of another time, a fascinating and very different time past that we are nonetheless connected to and from which we have arisen.

Our collection objects are messengers from their times to ours, most important and honored messengers, acquired with careful thought, catalogued in persevering detail, enshrined at great expense in climate controlled storage areas, and ultimately exhibited in equally expensive ways that distribute their extraordinary messages as clearly as possible.


How do we know how old?
There are two ways: we listen to what someone tells us about the object, and we let the object speak for itself.
The problem with the former is that a) we must then decide whether or not to believe what is said; or b) there simply is no record. In fact, the curse and the appeal of my job is that I tend over 19,000 object records, none of which have quite enough information.

The problem with the latter is that a) technical materials analysis and/or consultation with specialists is expensive, and b) age without context is a bit sterile. An anchor pulled up by local scallop dragger, scientifically dated to be 18th century, is still just a mute rusty object. What we really want to know is the reason for its whereabouts, the nature of that vessel, where it last came from, the scope of its voyaging, the fortunes of its master and crew, etc.

Looking beyond our large 19th and 20th century holdings, let us peer back into the 18th century, for it is only here among this much more modestly sized group that a serious discussion of our oldest objects can begin.
Do not just marvel at their venerable age, but consider also the subtleties of establishing it.


An actual date, whether printed upon a label, carved into the surface, scratched on the back, or otherwise affixed to the object, can be enlightening. These abound in the 19th century; in the 18th century, they have more often crumbled away, been worn off, or never were.

18th century navigational instruments are rare enough to be the subject of extensive research and documentation. Like Stradivarius violins, their whereabouts is known and listed by interested institutions and other knowledgeable parties. This particular Davis quadrant or backstaff was made by the elder of the Salem, Massachusetts King father and son. Adding immeasurably to its value, both historic and monetary, is his signature, “Daniel King Fecit Salem March ye 24 1766”

This 1756 British Admiralty dockyard model of HMS Venus is our oldest model, and, with its ivory wheel and gun carriages, and carved boxwood detailing, it is certainly among our top five in quality. Expensive complicated undertakings, naval vessels were extensively documented in correspondence, accounts, paintings, plans and models. The exquisite quality of these Admiralty models has ensured extensive documentation whenever they change owners, so there is a thick broth of provenance to take comfort in.

An obvious date may actually confuse the issue. This Germanic pewter decorative table decanter (note spigot under the stern) may be ‘dated’ by the ‘1605’ engraved on the foresail, but the object’s file contains correspondence that raises the likely possibility that it was made in the 19th century, an artisan’s more recent tribute, harkening back to his forebears’ elaborate silver table-ship’s of the 16th century.

Another date situation, closer to home: this painted plaque was mounted over the door to Bath’s first schoolhouse, affectionately recalled as ‘The Old Erudition’, which was indeed established in 1794. In the detail (below), taken sometime between 1887 and before the building was moved in 1900, this plaque is recognizable over the scowling scholars.
A healthy skepticism regarding painted exterior woodwork in our New England climate must allow that this particular plaque could be a replacement for an earlier original. However, the advanced state of its paint wear and the type of nails through it indicate extreme age.
The question of whether the plaque has survived 100 or 200 years is almost beside the point, because the esteemed place of the Erudition Schoolhouse in the town’s history would remain the same.

A slightly confusing, but probably reliable label from the inside of this tall case clock gives us a thread of provenance leading into the 18th century. Without expertise in clocks of this era, we must decide to trust often fragmentary documentation: “Maker of clock Josiah Alsop, East Smithfield, London. Date 1794. Above particulars were obtained from the Clockmakers Co., Guildhall, Sept. 1896.”
The second label, dated April 1945, “With love to Peggy and Dick. Time flies but friendship never. From Kit and Jonny,” possibly recalls a wedding present.

The story behind many donations is often limited to the most minimal verbal information passed on at the time of transfer to the collection. This Canton export-ware plate came to us in 1964, in the very first year that the Museum began. The donors of record for this plate are recorded only as “The Washburn sisters“; the provenance simply, “Over 200 years old.” Nothing else. A vision of two spinster sisters firmly repeating what their mother told them about their plate comes to mind, though this may be unfair.
While this is certainly Canton export china, it would be presumptuous for the sisters to insist that it is pre-Revolutionary. American ships did not reach the British-dominated trading wharfs of Canton until 1783. Some post-Revolutionary Canton-ware reached this country (George Washington favored it), but the enormous American export market, when plates like this were packed as ballast in ships returning from the Far East, bloomed only after 1800.

There are hundreds of molding planes here, used by carpenters, shipyard joiners, and cabinetmakers to create various decorative patterns of wooden molding, mostly 19th century. The particular compound ogee shape made by this plane can be seen at the closest corner. Its blade is visible in the slot, and a name, “B. French,” has been stamped in the front face.
A note from a knowledgeable collector and consultation with tool reference works allows us to date this particular plane back into the 18th century, due to its length, the species of wood it is made from, and the nature of the chamfering along its spine.
While we are comfortable dating this plane as probably late 18th century, it is virtually identical to planes from Northern Europe from the early 17th century. Plane technology was slow to change. The actual age of this object is therefore of relatively less importance than its close resemblance to earlier pre-Colonial tools, like those used in the ill-fated 1607 Popham (Maine) venture, where the first ship launched in the New World was built.

But we can do better than the 18th century.
A fairly large group of unusual objects in the collection are here due to the penchant for mariners to bring back keepsakes of their global wanderings. Some of these things were new (then); some were old before they left for Maine.

Capt. Denny M. Humphreys of Bath brought this Japanese samurai sword home about 1880. Our file on the artifact contains a detailed (though unsigned) appraisal by a presumed expert on these weapons. Although the sword guard plate was replaced in the late 18th or early 19th century, the maker[?]s mark stamped into the tang of the inner handle apparently dates the blade to about 1624.

Here is another captain’s souvenir, even older, from Rangoon, Myanmar (Burma). It is about the right size to slip into a large pocket. Affixed to the back of the terra cotta, a faded note reads (below): “Heathen god, over 3000 years old, taken from ancient pagoda or temple in Rangoon, India, by Wm. Hardie.” The captain’s daughter in her 1967 donation correspondence refers to the “kidnapped” statue as being about 1000 years old.
The exact age is unknown, but we’ll leave our god, actually a Buddha, some of his mystery. Our interest is not archeological, but rather sociological, that a Maine ship captain had found the ancient Far East so alluring that he couldn’t resist pocketing a piece of it to wow the folks back home Down East.

OK, OK. After all this discussion, I would have to say that these fossilized shark teeth are technically the oldest artifacts in the collection.
Not what you expected? In the grand old tradition of the curiosity cabinet, we have our share of natural objects. I’m pretty sure we escaped any petrified wood, but there are a few fossils. Would you have preferred the fossilized mud impression of a clam? There is at least the possibility of a mariner’s tall tale to be spun from a handful of giant shark teeth.
The donor of the teeth recorded them to be “three to eight million years old.” There is little to be lost by not believing this; in fact we owe the donors of every one of our 19,200+ objects the respect of their convictions. There is far more to be gained in believing than not.

Let me know if you stopped by down here!
Chris Hall, Registrar

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Maine Maritime Museum