Reassembling the Past the Digital Way

We often notice the similarities between archives and archaeological excavations. Sometimes, in the post-excavation process, you come across two sherds of the same pot dug up from different parts of the site. It’s a great feeling when you suddenly realize that the piece of pottery in the bag you’re working on matches a piece you worked on from another bag several days earlier. You put the pieces together, and suddenly the process of fragmentation starts to be reversed for the first time in centuries


Plant Science Collections Box 26 im. 26

We had a similar moment in the archive today. Most of the lantern slides we are working on have numbers on them which hint at their original place in the cataloguing systems adopted by various individuals and departments. Over time, though, after much use in lectures, followed by occasional repackaging, accidental or deliberate re-ordering, shuffling and churning, slides that used to belong together become separated.

Stage 1

Stage 1 (Geography Collections Box 8 im. 16)

As we were digitizing lantern slides from the Geography and Plant Science Collections, we recorded the source department as well as the original box number and sequence number for each slide within the box: in other words, we recorded the physical location of the slides as they are today. However, digitization allows us to explore the collection to rediscover old links. The word ‘jelutong’ appeared in the caption of a slide as part of the day’s work stream. We confess ignorance: we had no idea what ‘jelutong’ means – apparently it’s a Malaysian tree (Dyera sp.) which can be tapped for latex.

Stage 2. The arrow is thicker - and the men have swapped sides!

Stage 2. The arrow is thicker – and the men have swapped sides! (Geography Collections Box 12 im. 6)

Searching for ‘jelutong on our research database (, we found other examples – in fact there were four sequntial images showing successive stages of jelutong tapping, and an image of a typical jelutong forest. The excitement, however, came from realizing that these related images had ended up dispersed across three boxes of lantern slides in the Geography Collection and a further box of lantern slides from the Plant Science Collections.

Stage 3. They've swapped again.

Stage 3. They’ve swapped again (Geography Collections Box 8 im. 15)

We’ve used the linking function of our database to reassociate the images. You can now see the full set of pictures by scrolling down to the “related resources” section of any of the five images.

Stage 4 - and we have latex...

Stage 4 – and we have latex… (Geography Collections Box 9 im. 15)

If you find any other linked images in the database, do let us know! We’d also love to know the identity of the men in these photographs.

Images reproduced courtesy of the Plant Science Collections, Radcliffe Science Library, Oxford University and Geography Collections, Radcliffe Science Library, Oxford University.

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