British Museum blog

The Mildenhall treasure

Mildenhall Great Dish Richard Hobbs, exhibition curator, British Museum

This week, the display Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain opened. It features the magnificent Great Dish from the Mildenhall treasure, an example of the type of large, silver platter which may have been used to impress the guests of a wealthy family at a dinner party in the late fourth century AD. It’s an exhibition about dining and entertainment – and there’ll be more posts on this in the coming weeks.

The Great dish from the Mildenhall treasure.

The Great dish from the Mildenhall treasure.

The treasure at the centre of the display will be known to many people because of the writer Roald Dahl’s story about its discovery during the Second World War. In a previous blog post, I talked about my first encounter with this treasure, which came about when reading the short story when I was eight years old. It often strikes me as a perfect example of the vicissitudes of life that I could never have imagined, as a child like countless others reading Dahl’s story, that one day I would be in charge of looking after the Mildenhall treasure, the subject of Dahl’s piece! My only regret is that I was unable to talk to Dahl about the story direct – he died in 1990, some time before I became a curator here at the British Museum, and long before I became interested in the circumstances of its discovery.

But one person who did meet Dahl, specifically to talk about his story ‘the Mildenhall Treasure’, was John Gadd, a journalist and agricultural consultant. The British Museum acquired Gadd’s archive in 2008, with the support of the Friends of the British Museum – Gadd in turn had acquired the material in the 1970s. The archive consists of papers, letters, maps, photographs and memoranda belonging to an archaeologist called Thomas Lethbridge, whose connection with Mildenhall was his excavation of a Roman building in the 1930s, in proximity to the discovery of the treasure many years later. In Lethbridge’s papers, there was a considerable amount of correspondence concerning the discovery of the Mildenhall treasure, and the uncertainties surrounding the exact place of finding. In time, this led to Gadd becoming interested in the wider story of the Mildenhall treasure, which in turn led him to Dahl’s short story.

As I explained in my earlier post, Dahl based his story on an interview with Gordon Butcher, the tractor driver who found the treasure during the Second World War. Gadd wanted to find out if Dahl had any notes or other information beyond the published story, so he wrote to Dahl to find out. Such notes may have been important, because obviously Dahl was unlikely to have included everything in the final published version – maybe Dahl therefore, Gadd reasoned, had additional ‘inside information’. The British Museum possesses a few letters written from Dahl to Gadd in 1977, specifically concerning his story about the Mildenhall treasure; two were written before the first edition of ‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and six more’, the first edition of the book in which ‘The Mildenhall Treasure’ was re-published (the original version of the story appeared in an American magazine, ‘The Saturday Evening Post’, in 1947).

The first letter is written by hand, and as can be seen from the transcript, was penned from Dahl’s hospital bed as he was recovering from a hip replacement operation – the hand-writing itself has a decidedly ‘woozy’ appearance, hardly surprising under the circumstances.

© Roald Dahl Nominee Ltd

© Roald Dahl Nominee Ltd

Transcription:
c.13th March 1977
King Edward VII Hospital
Midhurst, Sussex

Dear Mr. Gadd

Sorry this messy reply. The Brit. Museum have hundreds of excellent photos of the Mildenhall Treasure. I’ve just got a new lot of them myself because I’ve rewritten that little piece for a new book of stories for older children. I have no notes. Nothing. Only the original long-ago article. I fear I would be of little use to you re. Mr. Lethbridge. I’ve just had a beastly hip replacement operation & for good measure pleuritis & an embolism on the leg.

Roald Dahl

The other letter Dahl sent to Gadd when home recuperating is typed and invited Gadd to talk directly to Dahl, which eventually he did.

© Roald Dahl Nominee Ltd

© Roald Dahl Nominee Ltd

Sadly, Dahl could not find any of his ‘original notes’ – but we’re nonetheless fortunate to have these documents, given the importance to the literary world of the man who wrote them. All this shows how discovering the truth about past events is a challenge – whether it’s researching the 2,000 year old dish at the centre of the exhibition, or looking back 60 years to establish the events surrounding the treasure’s discovery.

Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain is on display at the British Museum
until 4 August 2013.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

Find out more about Roald Dahl and the Mildenhall treasure
Roald Dahl Museum & Story Centre

Filed under: Exhibitions, Mildenhall treasure, ,

Exploring mobile money in Sierra Leone

Mobile money advert in Sierra LeoneSophie Mew, British Museum

Every six months, one corner of the Citi Money Gallery (Room 68) is changed to help tell the evolving story of money, its many forms and its meaning in the modern world. In December 2012, the opportunity arose to help curate the redisplay of this temporary exhibition panel.

Our guiding principles for the display were that we had to focus on new technologies and the changing ways in which people use their money, from online payments, to mobile phone use, and other digital technologies. The second criterion was that the case studies we used had to come from the African continent.

My colleagues and I decided to focus on the uses of mobile money and explore the wide range of experiences of mobile money systems.

I was due to carry out fieldwork in Sierra Leone for the Money in Africa research project, so I decided to investigate the uses of mobile money in the capital city, Freetown. I was conscious of the need to explain the concept of mobile money to visitors to the gallery as clearly and concisely as possible within a limited space, while leaving room for real life case studies. When I was considering which objects to source from Sierra Leone, I also faced the challenge of how to select visually inspiring objects to explain a topic that is, essentially, a virtual one.

Before I left for Sierra Leone, I researched mobile money companies that were operating in the country and contacted Splash and Airtel members of staff for interviews. When I got there, I questioned a wide range of people, including museum curators, shopkeepers, street hawkers and taxi drivers about their experiences with mobile money.

Mobile money advert in Sierra Leone

Mobile money advert in Sierra Leone

Having seen TV adverts, billboards posted around the city or heard about it on the radio, most people I spoke to were curious about the idea of making and receiving payments via their mobile phones but there was a general sense of confusion as to what mobile money actually was or how it could be used. This led to mistrust, which was confirmed during an interview I carried out with a Splash employee, who explained that security concerns were the most frequently asked questions. People wanted to know how safe their money was, whether they could contact the company if things went wrong, what would happen if their phone was stolen and, for some individuals in business, how they could ensure the privacy of their account.

For now, mobile phone companies in Sierra Leone are busy promoting themselves around the country. They put on road shows with PA systems where they distribute leaflets and t-shirts such as the one we decided to display in the gallery. Freelancers are employed by marketing teams to encourage potential agents to join their networks. They carry out media talk shows; visiting schools and offices to explain to people the advantages of using mobile money systems in a country where the infrastructure is limited, literacy levels are low and where banks are not widely used.

Current examples of where mobile money systems can be most useful included being able to transport the equivalent of large wads of notes that no one can physically see, paying school fees and topping up electricity meters without leaving your own home. The marketing of mobile money systems is not yet considered ‘aggressive’ – rather, there is a focus on education, on explaining to people how the transactions work so that they can feel confident enough to use it themselves.

Mobile money on display

Mobile money on display

The objects and images that my colleagues and I selected for the display panel have enabled us to visually explain Sierra Leone’s mobile money systems through, for example, local SIM cards, a mobile phone, coins and banknotes. Promotional material, including a t-shirt and accompanying photographs of Freetown help illustrate the ways in which mobile money companies are trying to introduce the concept to potential customers for the first time.

In a gallery that shows the many different kinds of objects used as currency over more than 4,000 years, mobile phones, digital technology and how they are coming into use make for fascinating additions. In some ways they are the latest in a very long line of technological innovations that mark the constantly evolving story of money.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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Filed under: At the Museum, Collection, Money Gallery, ,

Herculaneum: the unknown city

Herculaneum: the unknown city Vanessa Baldwin, exhibition project curator, British Museum

For many people visiting the exhibition, Life and Death Pompeii and Herculaneum, it may be the first time they have encountered the smaller city which lay west of Mount Vesuvius.

General view of Herculaneum with Vesuvius in the background © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

General view of Herculaneum with Vesuvius in the background © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

While Pompeii became a household name, immortalised in books, television and cinema, Herculaneum has remained relatively unknown in popular culture. In the exhibition we felt it was important to show why Herculaneum is just as important as its famous neighbour. The cities were destroyed by the same catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, yet at different times and under different circumstances. For these reasons Herculaneum differed from Pompeii, not only in its life as a smaller coastal city, but also in the incredible things that were preserved there. As a result it has different stories to tell.

Herculaneum was actually the first of the two cities to be re-discovered in the eighteenth century. In 1710 a well-digger chanced upon the theatre, where later finds included the bronze statue of the wealthy ex-slave and city benefactor, Lucius Mammius Maximus.

Bronze statue of Lucius Mammius Maximus © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

Bronze statue of Lucius Mammius Maximus © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

Herculaneum was buried much deeper by the volcano than Pompeii, more than 20 metres in some areas, so the first explorations of the site were carried out by tunnelling through the hardened ash. Pompeii, on the other hand, was only buried by about 4 metres of ash in some places. This meant that in the months following the eruption people returned to the city to salvage statues, building materials and whatever else they could find. However, it also meant that when Pompeii was rediscovered in 1748, it was possible to excavate large areas relatively easily. Visitors preferred to wander the open-air streets, houses and public buildings of Pompeii, than clamber down dangerous tunnels in Herculaneum. So although many of the most impressive discoveries, such as the bronze and marble statues from the Villa of the Papyri, were made in Herculaneum, it was Pompeii that attracted the tourists. As Pompeii became the focus of the excavations of the Bourbon kings of Naples, the tunnels of Herculaneum were filled in and interest in the site waned until open-air excavations began years later. The creation of plaster casts of the victims of Pompeii by Giuseppe Fiorelli in the 1860s sealed its fate as the city which set imaginations alight.

Herculaneum was also the first of the two cities to be destroyed in AD 79. The initial surge of superheated ash, rock and gas, following the collapse of the 20 mile high cloud ejected by Mount Vesuvius, raced towards Herculaneum and wiped it out in an instant. The temperature during the eruption is could have reached 450°C in Herculaneum, which meant that organic material, like wood and foodstuffs, were preserved. At these temperatures, and encased in volcanic material which rapidly compacted and hardened to rock, wood did not burn, but was instantly carbonised – turned to charcoal. At Pompeii, where temperatures may only have reached a cooler 350°C, organic material has very rarely survived. It is Herculaneum that has yielded the furniture, the straw baskets and the loaves of bread.

Carbonised furniture and food © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

Carbonised furniture and food © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

The archaeological site open to visitors today presents a striking scene: lying metres below the current ground level, with the modern town of Ercolano perching above it and Vesuvius still looming in the background. There are two-storey buildings, wooden doors, staircases and even racks holding amphorae, still in situ. Once an ordinary city of the Roman empire, its destruction and preservation have made it an extraordinary place which truly deserves the same renown as its counterpart.

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is at the British Museum until 29 September 2013.

The exhibition is sponsored by Goldman Sachs.
In collaboration with Soprintendenza Speciale per I Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

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Filed under: Exhibitions, Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum,

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