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 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.
c.13th March 1977
King Edward VII Hospital
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.
The other letter Dahl sent to Gadd when home recuperating is typed and invited Gadd to talk directly to Dahl, which eventually he did.
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