British Museum blog

Roald Dahl and the Mildenhall treasure


Richard Hobbs, curator, British Museum

My first encounter with the Mildenhall treasure was back in 1977 when I was eight years old. I received a copy of the new Roald Dahl book, an author of whom, like many children of my generation, I was a huge fan. ‘The Wonderful story of Henry Sugar and six more’ was a collection of short stories (I still have it; perhaps it’s worth something, as a first edition) which bear more relation with Dahl’s rather macabre tales aimed at adults than the timeless classics for children such as ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ or ‘James and the Giant Peach’. Henry Sugar is a story about a man who discovers the ability to see through playing cards, and uses his gift to win vast sums of money in casinos. After the buzz of winning wears off, he starts to use his newly found wealth for acts of philanthropy: first giving his money away to random strangers (the cover depicts Sugar throwing wads of £20 notes out of a high storey window), then building orphanages.

The Mildenhall treasure is one of the most important collections of late-Roman silver tableware from the Roman Empire.

The Mildenhall treasure is one of the most important collections of late-Roman silver tableware from the Roman Empire.

But I was more drawn to one of the other stories in the collection, simply entitled ‘The Mildenhall treasure’, and about a rather different type of discovery, the discovery of treasure: one of the few stories of Dahl’s career as a writer he based on real events.

As Dahl explains in his preface, he decided to re-publish the story, with a few tweaks, because this was not the first time the story had an airing. In fact, ‘The Mildenhall treasure’ (then entitled ‘He plowed [sic] up $1,000,000’) was one of the first pieces of journalism he ever sold as a fledgling writer in the immediate post-war years – Dahl was a fighter pilot in the RAF – to an American magazine called ‘The Saturday Evening Post’. In both versions Dahl creates a narrative around the discovery of the hoard of late Roman silver in the winter of 1942 at the height of the Second World War by local farmer, Gordon Butcher, subsequently excavated by Butcher and his boss Sidney Ford. (The story was republished for a third time in 1999, this time as a stand-alone book with illustrations by Ralph Steadman).

Dahl’s story stayed with me, and in the late 1980s when I was studying for an archaeology degree at University College London, I recalled Dahl’s story when the Mildenhall treasure was mentioned during a lecture on the archaeology of the later Roman Empire, taught by the legendary Richard Reece. Richard also alluded to a conspiracy theory surrounding the discovery of the treasure, saying that many believed it had been flown in to the military airbase at Mildenhall from somewhere in the Mediterranean, perhaps North Africa. I remember saying to him: ‘But what about Roald Dahl’s story? Surely that describes very plausibly how it was discovered?’, or words to that effect. My comment was met with a blank look. It only occurred to me afterwards that Richard had never come across Dahl’s ‘account’: it was, after all, published in a book for children.

The Great dish from the Mildenhall treasure.

The Great dish from the Mildenhall treasure.

Of course, staff at the British Museum knew the story very well, having been contacted about it by countless school children over the years. Indeed to this day many children, having read the story, are drawn to the Roman Britain gallery to see the treasure for themselves. But how valuable is Dahl’s account? Although his intention was first and foremost to tell a good yarn, it is not without worth to archaeologists seeking the ‘truth’ about the discovery. This is because it was based on what may have been the only interview with Gordon Butcher, the original finder of the treasure. As Dahl explains in his preface, he drove to Mildenhall having read about the discovery in the Times, persuaded Gordon Butcher to talk to him, faithfully noted down everything Butcher said, and, in Dahl’s own words, ‘wrote the story as truthfully as I possibly could’.

Having successfully sold it to the American magazine, he shared the fee he received with Butcher who sent Dahl a note saying ‘you could have knocked me over with a feather when I saw your cheque’. But because Butcher’s boss Sidney Ford, not Butcher, took the treasure home, after the treasure emerged from hiding in 1946 the focus shifted to Ford, and Butcher’s part in the whole affair was rather overlooked. It appears that no-one, particularly the archaeologists who investigated the circumstances surrounding the discovery, thought to ask Butcher what he recalled of the moment when his plough struck something in the ground – no-one except Roald Dahl.

Dahl himself came to see the treasure in 1946 when it was first put on display. Of the experience, he writes: ‘It was fabulous. I got the shivers… just from looking at it.’ He was not the first to be affected in this way and certainly not the last – myself included.

Richard Hobbs is curator of Romano-British collections and is currently on a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship to publish the Mildenhall treasure

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Filed under: Archaeology, Mildenhall treasure, Research, , ,

Amara West 2012: looking back on the season in the cemetery


Michaela Binder, Durham University

After seven weeks of excavation we can look back to a very successful season in the cemetery at Amara West. In total, the two field school members (Åshild Vagene and Mohamed Saad), Laurel Engbring, Milena Grybowska and I were able to excavate and document 11 graves.

Multiple burials in the eastern chamber of G314

Multiple burials in the eastern chamber of G314

All of them proved to be complex features with one or two burial chambers used for the interment of several individuals – up to 15 in the case of G314. But even though the general outline of the graves appears similar, they differ from each other considerably in terms of size, shape and orientation. The results of this season confirm our picture of a mixed culture combining elements of Nubian and Egyptian funerary customs.

Copper alloy mirror (F8448) found within G309

Copper alloy mirror (F8448) found within G309

G309, the newly discovered pyramid tomb, attests to the wealth of some individuals living at Amara West. The use of a pyramid superstructure, the decorated coffin and a copper alloy mirror, only discovered on the very last day of the season, show that the people buried in this grave chose to be buried surrounded by recognisably Pharaonic objects and architecture. However, this does not prove they were Egyptians – they could also have been acculturated Nubians, or descendants of intermarriage between Egyptians and Nubians.

The discovery of an Early or Middle Kerma tumulus, dug by Åshild and Mohamed, shows that the area of Amara West had already been occupied long before the establishment of the Egyptian town. Even though the site of settlement changed, the inhabitants of the Pharaonic settlement chose to use the same burial grounds, which would have been demarcated by the prominent Kerma tumuli back then just as they are today. Was the cemetery placed here, over a Kerma burial ground, to underline Egyptian domination of the area perhaps?

Excavation area – Due to the strong wind the graves had to be covered with tarpaulin for most of the season

Excavation area – Due to the strong wind the graves had to be covered with tarpaulin for most of the season

The preservation of organic remains allows for more refined insights into funerary customs during the New Kingdom and post-New Kingdom period. As an example, we can differentiate different types of funerary containers such as coffins, different mats, textiles and burial beds.

Abdu Yassin, Hassan Awad and Milena Grybowska excavating in G309

Abdu Yassin, Hassan Awad and Milena Grybowska excavating in G309

The coming months will see work on the large amount of drawings, notes and context sheets, while the human remains excavated this season are already on their way to London where I will again spend a few months studying them. This time I will be joined by Åshild and Mohamed for two weeks as part of the field school project.

Many thanks to the excavators, workmen and everyone else who helped make 2012 a very successful season.

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Find out more about the Amara West research project

Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, Research

Amara West 2012: a pottery kiln?


Shadia Abdu Rabo, National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, Sudan and Neal Spencer, British Museum

Towards the end of the season, working in layers beneath house E13.8, we found a circular kiln – our first at Amara West.

The kiln had been made by cutting a deep pit into the natural surface of the island, and building a circular brick structure above it, with internal cross walls. The red-orange colour of the bricks, especially on the inside, were the first indication that this might have been a kiln for firing pottery vessels, with an upper chamber for placing the pots to be fired, and the lower space – cut into the alluvium – housing the burning fuel (wood, charcoal?). A shallow pit, sloping down to the entrance of the kiln, would have allowed the fuel to be inserted into the lower chamber.

The kiln with the later wall of house E13.8 built over the top

The kiln with the later wall of house E13.8 built over the top

We only excavated part of the lower chamber, as a wall of the later house ran over it. Inside, we found debris which post-dates the abandonment of the kiln, but right at the base were the compact ashy deposits we would expect in such a structure. Beneath that lay the burnt natural surface. There was clear evidence for the kiln being refurbished, with extra layers of plaster added to line the inside.

Many questions remain: what types of objects or vessels were fired in this kiln? What temperature could it have reached? We have taken samples from the walls, and the deposits inside, which might shed light on how this structure was used.

It is also interesting to consider how the kiln fitted into urban life. We found very little evidence for architecture in this area, so this might have been an open space between the house to the south (E13.3) and the imposing town wall – suitable for what must have been a smoky, dirty activity.

There’s a description of ‘the potter’ in a famous Egyptian literary text, the Satire of the Trades, which caricatures the profession as follows:

He is muddier with clay than swine
to burn under his earth.
His clothes are solid as a block
and his headcloth is rags,
until the air enters his nose
coming from his furnace direct.

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Find out more about the Amara West research project

Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, Research, , ,

Recording old cauldrons with new techniques


Stephen Crummy, archaeological illustrator, British Museum

As illustrator in the Department of Prehistory and Europe at the British Museum, I am always looking for the best way to help our curators interpret an object. My role is to produce artwork that shows the form, construction and nature of objects and any decoration on them so that they can be clearly understood. This will usually result in illustration for academic publications and exhibitions as a result of research work on the Museum collection, or excavations.

Traditionally I have produced pen and ink technical drawings but new opportunities are available through various computer-generated methods of recording, analysing and understanding information about objects and excavation. With the Chiseldon Cauldrons material, I am exploring some of the possibilities of these new technologies, and in this case using photogrammetry and laser scanning programs to produce 3D records of the archaeological remains of individual cauldron blocks as they are excavated by Alex and Jamie.

Three-dimensional scan results

Three-dimensional scan results

We are using a laser scanning system to produce 3D computer models of the individual pieces from each cauldron. This is achieved by plotting a thin red laser line as it is slowly moved across the surface of an object. Having recorded each piece we are hoping to use the photogrammetry programme to virtually re-construct the blocks as excavated.

The early results we achieved proved somewhat variable, especially with the laser scanning, but we are now starting to produce some very good quality scans in terms of both modelling and colour accuracy.

The plan is to produce virtual models of each cauldron as excavated which will enable us to understand much better what they would have originally looked like, and how they were made. It is also hoped that an overall plan of the pit and its contents can be reproduced. We’ll also be able to produce artwork for both printed and online publication, and to generate virtual re-constructions for publication and display. As we create interesting images, we’ll also post some of them here on the blog so you can see what we’re finding.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

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Filed under: Archaeology, Chiseldon cauldrons, Conservation, Research, , , , ,

Reflections on my time on the Hajj exhibition


Nina Swaep, volunteer, British Museum

When I started working as a volunteer at the British Museum last September, the preparations for Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam were already in full swing. Luckily, that didn’t prevent ‘team Hajj’ from including me as one of their own. Today’s my last day and I’ve been looking back on my time at the Museum with much fondness!

Being a Dutch MA student in Museum Studies specialising in Islamic Art at the University of Amsterdam, I was absolutely convinced that participating in this project would be the ultimate work experience for me. In Amsterdam, I had already done research on museum objects that related to the pilgrimage to Mecca – one of which is now featured in the exhibition – and I was willing to learn everything there was to learn. I wouldn’t really mind if my job would consist of pouring coffee and copying files, as long as I could get a closer look at the process of exhibition-making…

So you can imagine I was more than happy to find out that my tasks were a lot more challenging and demanded academic and social skills. The curators took me up and patiently showed me how exhibition making works. I could join meetings with them and found out that it’s not just a few people working on projects like these, but an immense organisation that takes years to prepare the exhibition.

Come winter, my work was focussed on the Indonesian section if the exhibition which features objects from Dutch museum collections and, more specifically, the collection of the Dutch arabist Snouck Hurgronje. I had worked before on the Aceh Map (which is on display in the exhibition) when I was in Holland but I had the opportunity to do some more research while here at the British Museum. I found out that, compared to all the other images featured throughout the exhibition, it shows a rather different representation of the Ka’ba. For one it isn’t shown as a cube but as a rectangle, which seems strange because the cubical shape is one of the main characteristics of the Ka’ba. Also, one can see through it, so it is shown without a kiswa, the cloth that covers the Ka’ba. These finding confirmed the idea that the maker of the Aceh Map had never actually been to Mecca – he could never have seen the Ka’ba without its kiswa, since, as one can learn in the exhibition, it is never unveiled.

The most enriching experience I have had whilst working on the project was contrary to all my expectations. It didn’t have anything to do with the glamour of the opening night, nor with the rewarding feeling when the exhibition finally opened to the public. It was a lovely autumn day when I found myself sitting at my desk, being deeply emotionally moved by the short clips of Muslims talking about their own pilgrimage, which I had to edit. I think the feeling of being an individual person amidst the millions of fellow pilgrims, brothers and sisters, must be completely overwhelming and to me the exhibition succeeded in communicating this to its visitors. The exhibition is particularly successful because of the wonderful balance that has been achieved between showing intimacy and the bigger picture of the Hajj being a phenomenon influencing millions of people around the world. It works on multiple levels and is therefore very satisfying.

As my time at the British Museum comes to an end, I can say that this has indeed been the ultimate experience for me; meeting many wonderful people, learning so much. I think the meaning of the exhibition became very apparent to me. Although I cannot go on Hajj myself, like many Hajjis, the Hajj exhibition has certainly changed my life for the better…

Leave a comment or tweet using #hajjexhibition to let us know what you think about the exhibition

This post was updated on 9 March 2012 to clarify Nina Swaep’s role on the exhibition as a volunteer, not an intern as previously stated.

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam is open from 26 January to 15 April 2012.
Find out more

In partnership with King Abdulaziz Public Library, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

HSBC Amanah has supported the exhibition’s international reach outside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

A journey to the heart of Bloomsbury


Harvinder Bahra, Community Programmes Coordinator, British Museum

The Museum recently held a private viewing of the exhibition Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam specifically for members of the local community. It was a very special opportunity for all of the community groups, neighbourhood centres and local charities we work with in London to see the exhibition. And despite the wintery weather, our community partners arrived early and in droves, eager to be the first ones to see this exhibition and gain a glimpse into this hidden world!

Deep in conversation at the Hajj exhibition community private view

The event turned out to be the community team’s most popular exhibition private view to date. With over 800 members of the local community coming to the Museum to explore, discover and learn about this yearly phenomenon. Neighbourhood centres invited their local Muslim friends and colleagues to visit the exhibition together, using it as an opportunity to share experiences and get to know one another more closely. As one of our community contact explained:

‘When we’re volunteering we tend to focus on the work at hand, so these moments of being together without over-riding purposeful activity are a great pleasure and wonderful way for us to all learn more about one another and hence strengthen overall ties and relationships.’

The exhibition was extremely well received and seemed to provoke a mixture of personal reflection and contemplation among our guests – a sharing of personal experiences and new insights as well as discussions into the history of the pilgrimage for all faiths.

A curatorial introduction given by Project Curator Qaisra Khan for our community guests finished of the day that highlighted some of the key objects and themes of the exhibition, and gave invited guests the opportunity to delve even deeper into the exhibition and this incredible journey.

Have you seen the exhibition yet? What did you think?

Leave a comment or tweet using #hajjexhibition to let us know what you think about the exhibition

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam is open from 26 January to 15 April 2012.
Find out more

In partnership with King Abdulaziz Public Library, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

HSBC Amanah has supported the exhibition’s international reach outside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

Catching up with progress in the Money Gallery


Catherine Eagleton, curator, British Museum

It’s now a couple of months since the last blog post – so much has been going on that we haven’t had time to write anything about it all. Sometimes, when I talk to friends outside the museum sector, they are surprised at how long major exhibition or gallery projects seem to take, but when you’re working on one of these projects, you see the number and range of things that there are to do.

At the moment, there is hoarding up in what will become The Citi Money Gallery, and behind there, the cases have all been emptied, and the walls and ceiling have been repainted. Next, there’s work to do on cabling and other basic infrastructure, before we start to install the new displays. Before the scaffolding came down, I made sure I went up to the top, touched the ceiling, and took this picture.

The view above the hoardings

The view above the hoardings

At the same time, the final work is being done on the design of the gallery, including the layout of objects in the cases, and the text that will go with them. With so many specialist curators involved, each piece of text has to be edited, and checked, and re-checked, to make sure we have every detail right. Then, the text and images all go to our graphic designer to create the panels and labels for the new displays. As I write, we are expecting the first proofs of the panels to arrive, which means that it starts to feel like the new gallery is nearly ready to be installed.

The objects aren’t being neglected either, and the team of Museum Assistants in the Department of Coins and Medals are busy checking all the object lists, and getting all the objects ready for display. This preparation involves every object being individually checked by one of the Museum’s conservation team to make sure it’s in good enough condition to go on permanent display, as well as so they can advise on how objects are mounted. With more than 1000 to check, this is a big job.

It’s amazing sometimes what a gallery curator gets involved with – from paint colour choices to deep discussions about how to ensure consistency in our use of ancient place names, and from climbing scaffolding to talking about whether a plastic object would deteriorate if it was on display for five years. I’ll be talking more about this to the next generation of museum curators at a Museum Studies day in March, which I’m very excited about.

The Money Gallery project is supported by Citi and opens in June 2012.

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Filed under: Collection, Money Gallery

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