British Museum blog

Sutton Hoo, treasure hunters and a lucky escape

Sutton Hoo helmet
Sue Brunning, curator, British Museum

Fifteen years ago I visited the British Museum as an undergraduate. As someone who’d most recently studied the English Civil War, I’d taken a course on Anglo-Saxon England because I was curious to learn what life was like at a time when the date only had three numbers in it. Our professor brought us to Room 41, the gallery of Early Medieval Europe – and there I had a fateful encounter with the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Dating to the early AD 600s, this remarkable Anglo-Saxon grave in Suffolk was arranged inside a 27-metre-long ship and covered with an earth mound, known to posterity as ‘Mound 1′. The burial’s spectacular nature has fuelled speculation that it belonged to a king of East Anglia. Seeing it back then for the first time, I was genuinely inspired. I’ve studied the Anglo-Saxons ever since.

Curators Sue Brunning (r) and Rosie Weetch (l) installing the Sutton Hoo helmet in the gallery

Curators Sue Brunning (r) and Rosie Weetch (l) installing the Sutton Hoo helmet in the gallery

Tomorrow, after four years of very hard teamwork, Room 41 re-opens following a major refurbishment that was generously facilitated by Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock, with additional support from the DCMS /Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund. Sutton Hoo takes pride of place in the centre, acting as a gateway into the rest of the gallery. Visitors entering through Room 40 will be met by the striking face of the helmet, standing sentinel at the head of his ship. My spine still tingles when I gaze into its hollow black eyes, especially out of hours in the quiet, dark gallery space. A haunting sight; but something else chills me when I look at these treasures – the true-life tale of how close we came to losing them forever.

The Sutton Hoo ship excavation in 1939. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century. Suffolk, England. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Sutton Hoo ship excavation in 1939. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century. Suffolk, England. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Drawing showing the cross-section of the mound where the treasure hunter's pit was discovered

Drawing showing the cross-section of the mound where the treasure hunter’s pit was discovered

When excavating Mound 1 in 1939, archaeologist Basil Brown found signs of what he described in his diary as a ‘Medieval disturbance’. These comprised a 10-foot-deep pit dug into the top of the mound, containing pottery sherds (more of which were found during further excavations in 1969), animal bone and traces of a fire. Experts identified the pottery as Bellarmine ware, dating to the 1500s or 1600s. Not much to write home about, you’d think; but these seemingly banal traces are, to me, some of the most hair-raising discoveries in Anglo-Saxon archaeology. They show that, at some time in the Tudor period, a group of treasure hunters (if that was their aim) had targeted Mound 1; but after digging vainly for some time, they stopped, built a fire, ate a meal and departed, leaving their waste behind. Archaeological drawings show that they would have had their prize if they had dug just a few feet further west. The sorry results of more fruitful looting expeditions are illustrated by the other burial mounds at Sutton Hoo. Mound 2, another ship burial, was found to contain only the tiniest hints of its former magnificence: a chip of a blue glass vessel; part of a pattern-welded sword; and fragments of gilded silver drinking-horn mounts.

Pottery sherds found in Mound 1, Sutton Hoo.

Pottery sherds found in Mound 1, Sutton Hoo.

While writing this blog, I visited the Sutton Hoo reserve collection to photograph sherds of the hapless looters’ jug. Handling them was an unnerving experience. Sutton Hoo is so central to our knowledge of the Anglo-Saxons that a world without it is unthinkable. Its alternative fate is too horrifying for me to contemplate: the great gold buckle melted down; the garnets of the shoulder clasps chipped out and recycled; the iron fragments of the helmet ignored and discarded. For an Anglo-Saxonist, the tale of what Charles Philips, another excavator at Sutton Hoo, dubbed ‘the lunch of the disappointed’ is more hair-raising than any vampire or werewolf yarn. It’s incredible to think that we owe the new gallery’s centrepiece to the miscalculations of a few opportunists. That makes me feel even luckier to be the curator of this precious collection.

 

The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300–1100 opens 27 March 2014 in Room 41. Admission is free.

The finds from Sutton Hoo were donated to the British Museum by Mrs Edith Pretty.

The site is managed by The National Trust – to visit and find out more, go to www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo

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New evidence of human cancer found at ancient Amara West

scan of human bone

Michaela Binder, Durham University and Neal Spencer, British Museum

Cancer is one of the world’s most common causes of death today, but there is little evidence from before industrialisation: almost nothing is known about the history of the disease in the past. We generally assume cancer is strongly related to modern lifestyle and environment. But the analysis of skeletal and mummified human remains recovered during archaeological excavations can provide insights into such diseases in the distant past.

Until now, only a small number of skeletons with evidence for cancer have been identified. While the oldest primary bone cancer is around 6,000 years old, the earliest example of bone metastases related to a soft tissue cancer dates to around 3000 BC. However, because only the skull is preserved, there are doubts about the accuracy of the diagnosis. Only nine more individuals with – often tentative – evidence of cancer predate the first millennium AD. The majority of these individuals come from Ancient Egypt. This is perhaps mainly because the long history of archaeological research has resulted in a very large amount of skeletal and mummified human remains becoming available for study. They are very well preserved and have received a great deal of attention from medical doctors and physical anthropologists since the 19th century.

View southwest over Amara West town, on the Nile river. Photo: Susie Green.

View southwest over Amara West town, on the Nile river. Photo: Susie Green.

In February 2013, the skeleton of a man who died between the age of 20 and 35 years was excavated in a tomb at Amara West, in northern Sudan. Founded around 1300 BC in the reign of Seti I, the town was designed as a new centre of the Egyptian control of Upper Nubia (Kush). The British Museum has been working at the site since 2008. Excavations in the town allow us glimpses of ancient lives: how houses were refurbished, what people ate, religious and ritual practices, where rubbish was disposed – and how the town changed over two centuries of occupation. Bioarchaeological work in the cemeteries is providing further insights into the ancient inhabitants: their life expectancy, diet and health.

The underground chamber tomb where skeleton 244-8 was buried

The underground chamber tomb where skeleton 244-8 was buried

Skeleton 244-8. The scarab (inset) was placed in the man's hands.

Skeleton 244-8. The scarab (inset) was placed in the man’s hands.

This individual (skeleton 244-8) was buried in a large underground chamber tomb (G244), perhaps used for a family around 1200 BC. The body was placed in a painted wooden coffin, with an Egyptian-style scaraboid placed in the hands. The bones of the torso, upper arms and upper legs have a large number of holes, 5-25mm in diameter. Radiographic examination of the bones revealed the holes are even larger beneath the bone surface. These holes were caused by metastatic carcinoma spreading from a soft tissue cancer: the oldest complete skeleton of a metastatic cancer found, anywhere, to date. The study, jointly conducted by researchers at the British Museum and Durham University is being published in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS One.

Small holes in the breast bone (arrows). The radiographic image shows enlargement and additional holes underneath the surface.

Small holes in the breast bone (arrows). The radiographic image shows enlargement and additional holes underneath the surface.

What caused such a case of cancer? Schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease which was and still is a major health problem in the Nile valley, can cause breast cancer in men. Smoke from woodfires within houses continues to be a problem in modern Sudan. At Amara West, most of the small houses were provided with cylindrical bread ovens, often three side-by-side in a small room. Careful excavation has revealed that many of these oven rooms were roofed: these would have quickly filled up with smoke, exposing people to potentially harmful substances.

Small room in house E13.4, originally roofed, with three bread ovens

Small room in house E13.4, originally roofed, with three bread ovens

Understanding the evolution, history and factors that could have caused cancer prior to the onset of modern living conditions is important not only for archaeology but even more so for medical research. Skeletal human remains, set within a well-documented historical, archaeological and environmental context are a key element for any such attempts. This may in future be crucial to develop new research strategies and therapies in order to tackle what has become the world’s deadliest disease.

The identification of such cases, and other diseases, among the population of towns such as Amara West, provides a more direct sense of ancient experience than those provided by ancient texts, architectural remains or the objects people left behind.

Follow the latest from the British Museum team now excavating at Amara West: http://blog.amarawest.britishmuseum.org/
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The Vikings are here…

Gareth Williams, Exhibition Curator, British Museum
Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie, c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. © Mationalmuseet, Copenhagen

Lo, it is nearly thirty-five years since the Vikings last came to this Museum, and nobody believed that such an influx of fantastic material from overseas (as well as the UK) could be made…*

To be fair, the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend lacks some of the drama of the original Viking attack on Lindisfarne in 793. We haven’t had fiery dragons in the sky (unless you count the Aurora Borealis coming unusually far south), and there hasn’t been much in the way of destruction or slaughter. Nor is it likely that this exhibition will be remembered 1200 years after the event, although in an age of globalised communication, there is no doubt that the exhibition has attracted considerably more notice in the last few days than the attack on Lindisfarne did at the time. Nevertheless, as the largest Viking exhibition in the UK for over 30 years, it has the potential to shape our definition of the Viking Age.

The attack on Lindisfarne is often used as a starting point for a period which extended until around 1050 or 1100. The defeat of the Norwegian Harald Hard-ruler (whose story is so brilliantly told in a new illustrated children’s adventure book by Project Curator Tom Williams) at Stamford Bridge near York in 1066 provides another convenient end date from an English perspective, although it doesn’t have much meaning elsewhere. The idea of a ‘Viking Age’ has formed part of modern historical perceptions since the 19th century, but the interpretation of that period, and of the Vikings themselves, has changed many times since then. One of the most memorable experiences of my own childhood was visiting the great Viking exhibition here at the British Museum in 1980. It brought together an unprecedented collection of Viking material, interpreted in line with what was then current thinking on the Vikings. Recent archaeological discoveries in Viking settlements in Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia played an important part in raising public awareness of the less violent aspects of life in the Viking Age. It was an exhibition that helped to define the Vikings for a generation, and the catalogue Viking Artefacts by the guest curator James Graham-Campbell remains an essential reference for any serious study of Viking culture.

Mass grave from Weymouth. Exh. cat. chapter 2, fig. 30.  © Dorset County Council / Oxford Archaeology

Mass grave from Weymouth. Exh. cat. chapter 2, fig. 30. © Dorset County Council / Oxford Archaeology

Of course, things have changed since 1980. There have been many new finds, due in part to the introduction of the Portable Antiquities Scheme which encourages the reporting of metal-detected objects. The Vale of York Hoard, for example, displayed in its entirety for the first time at the British Museum in this exhibition, was found by metal detectorists in 2004. And new material keeps on coming, with dramatic finds excavated even in the course of preparing this exhibition, necessitating rewrites and adaptations as we went along. The mass grave of Vikings found near Weymouth excavated in 2009 and the 2011 Ardnamurchan burial (the first complete example of a Viking boat burial from the British mainland) are prime examples.

Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie, c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. Exh. cat. Chapter 4. fig. 3. © Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen

Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie, c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. © Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen

A tiny three-dimensional Valkyrie amulet, found as recently as 2013, demonstrates how up-to-date the finds presented in this exhibition really are. Of course, the star of the show – the remains of Roskilde 6, the longest Viking ship ever discovered – is one of the most important and awe-inspiring Viking discoveries of recent times.

Just as important has been the impact of new research, particularly in the areas of ritual and belief and Viking-age economies. Some of this work has been pioneered by those behind the 1980 exhibition, and it is a privilege to have the opportunity to present their work and set out the state of current thinking for a new generation. As Professor Ronald Hutton astutely observed in his review in the New Statesman, the major overarching themes of the exhibition – global communication, cultural interaction and diversity, technological sophistication – are ideas with a profound significance to the modern world.

Looking back through the email trail, Vikings: Life and Legend has been over six years in the making. Apart from the challenge of delivering an engaging and informative exhibition, we have had the added issues of incorporating a 37 metre-long ship, and being the first exhibition in the new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, on which building had not yet even commenced when we started planning the exhibition six years ago. It has been an enormous team effort to get us here; While curators get the media attention on such occasion, the conservators, designers, loans administrators, object handlers and many other staff have equally important roles behind the scenes. The process has at times been exhilarating, exhausting, and frustrating. As Charles Dickens wrote, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’, and he only had to deal with two cities. This exhibition has had the added complication of being planned in three. Despite all that, we have finally reached the point where the exhibition is ready to show to the public, and it is enormously rewarding to see the positive response which we have already had from journalists and those who have seen the exhibition. If the response of the public as a whole is as positive, I think that all of us involved in the exhibition will be very satisfied. And if a single visitor is as inspired by this exhibition as the younger me was by its predecessor, then I shall personally be delighted.

*(With apologies to Alcuin of York.)

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend at the British Museum is on from 6 March to 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Tweet using #VikingExhibition and @britishmuseum

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Lost Change: mapping coins from the Portable Antiquities Scheme

coin visualisation
Daniel Pett, ICT Advisor, British Museum
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Today sees the launch of Lost Change, an innovative and experimental application that allows coins found within England and Wales and recorded through the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), to be visualised on an interactive, dual-mapping interface. This tool enables people to interrogate a huge dataset (over 300,000 coin records can be manipulated) and discover links between coins’ place of origin (the issuing mint or a more vague attribution if this location is uncertain) and where they were discovered and then subsequently reported to the PAS Finds Liaison Officers.

While much of the the data is made available for re-use on the PAS website under a Creative Commons licence, some details are closely guarded to prevent illicit activity (for example night-hawking or detecting without landowner permission) and so this application has been developed with these restrictions in mind. An object’s coordinates are only mapped to an Ordnance Survey four-figure National Grid Reference (which equates to a point within a 1km square), and only if the landowner or finder has not requested these to be hidden from the public.

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The distribution of coins is biased by a number of factors (a project funded by the Leverhulme Trust is looking at this in greater depth) which could include:

  • Whether metal detecting is permitted by the landowner, or the topography makes detecting difficult
  • Soil type and land use
  • Whether there is an active community of metal detectorists within the vicinity

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The tool is straightforward to use. The left hand pane holds details for the place of discovery; the right hand side holds details for the place of issue, the mint. These panes work in tandem, with data dynamically updating in each, depending on the user’s choice. A simple example to get going is this:

  • Click on “Iron Age” within the list of periods
  • Within the right hand pane, click on one of the three circular representations and this will highlight where the coins from this mint were found in the left hand pane. The larger the circular representation, the more coins from that mint have been recorded.
  • If one clicks on any of the dots within the left hand pane, these are selected and an overlay in the right hand pane allows dynamic searching of the PAS database.

The PAS intends to build on this project at a later stage and will be seeking further funding to enable this to happen, with many more facets of discovery available to query the dataset.

Lost Change was funded through a £5,000 grant from the CreativeWorks London ‘Entrepreneur-in-Residence’ programme.

The PAS is grateful to Gavin Baily and Sarah Bagshaw from Tracemedia who developed the application, and everyone who has contributed to the PAS database.

If you have any feedback on the project, please contact the PAS via info@finds.org.uk.

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The earliest human footprints outside Africa

Nicholas Ashton, curator, British Museum

Happisburgh has hit the news again. Last time the coverage even reached the People’s Daily in China, but I’ve yet to find out which parts of the globe the latest story has reached. Whereas three years ago the news was the oldest human site in northern Europe at over 800,000 years ago, now we have the oldest footprints outside Africa. Happisburgh just keeps giving up surprises.

Caption text?

We found them by pure chance in May last year. We were about to start a geophysics survey on the foreshore, when an old-time friend and colleague, Martin Bates from Trinity St David’s University, pointed out the unusual surface. The site lies beneath the beach sand in sediments that actually underlie the cliffs. The cliffs are made up of soft sands and clays, which have been eroding at an alarming rate over the last ten years, and even more so during the latest winter storms. As the cliffs erode they reveal these even earlier sediments at their base, which are there for a short time before the sea washes them away.

Caption text?

Back in May, high seas had removed most of the beach sand to reveal ancient estuary mud. We’d seen these many times before and had been digging them for years. Normally they consist of flat laminated silts, but in a small area of about 12 square metres there was a jumble of elongated hollows. Martin pointed them out and said that they looked like footprints. He’d been studying similar prints on the Welsh coast near Aberystwyth, but they were just a few thousand years old; we knew the sediments at Happisburgh were over 800,000 years old.

I imagine that there will be plenty of sceptics out there, as were we initially, but the more we eliminated the other possibilities, the more convinced we became. The sediments are hard and compacted – you can jump on them today and leave little impression. And there are no erosional processes that leave those sort of hollows.

The moment of truth came after we’d recorded them. We returned a few days later with Sarah Duffy from York University to photograph them using photogrammetry, a technique that uses multiple digital photographs and stitches them together with some clever software. The method is great, but the weather wasn’t – lashing rain, an incoming tide and fast-fading light. By the end we were cold, soaked, demoralised and still not necessarily convinced.

The results though were amazing. For the first time we had proper overhead images and could identify heels, arches and in one case toes. Isabelle de Groote from Liverpool John Moores University did much of the analysis. It seems that there were perhaps five individuals, both adults and children. The tallest was probably about 5 foot 9 inches tall. So who were they? Although we have no human bones, the most likely species was Homo antecessor or ‘Pioneer Man’, who lived in southern Europe at this time. They were smaller-brained than ourselves, but walked upright and fully bipedal.

We actually know very little else about the people who left these prints, but from the plant and animal remains at Happisburgh we know that they were able to survive winters colder than today. We’re still asking questions of whether they had clothing and shelter or controlled the use of fire. Some of this evidence will be on display in a major exhibition, Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story opening at the Natural History Museum on Thursday 13 February 2014.

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Easter Island (Rapa Nui): a new narrative

Moai staues on Rapa Nui
Jago Cooper, curator, British Museum

Small island communities represent some of the most vulnerable people on the planet to the impacts of climate variability and environmental change. This is why their voices are so powerful when heard above the clamour at international meetings designed to tackle these issues at the global scale.

Government of the Maldives hold a cabinet meeting underwater to raise awareness of global sea level rise. © Mohamed Seeneen

Government of the Maldives hold a cabinet meeting underwater to raise awareness of global sea level rise. © Mohamed Seeneen

From an archaeological perspective these island communities are particularly interesting as they have commonly been populated relatively late in the great human colonisation of our planet, often only arriving in these archipelagos in the late Holocene (past 5,000 years). Therefore archaeological studies in the North Atlantic, Caribbean, Pacific and elsewhere have revealed some fascinating narratives of how human communities have lived with the impacts of climatic variability and environmental change in these archipelagos. In particular these comparative island studies demonstrate how different decisions that people have taken have directly affected their relative vulnerability through time.

Within this context Rapa Nui (Easter Island) has often been heralded as a warning to the world, an example of a remote island community’s inability to live within their means, chopping down all the trees on the island, over-exploiting the island’s resources and self-inflicting their own demise. However, recent evidence offers a very different picture of what actually happened on Rapa Nui.

Recent archaeological excavations have revealed that the current treeless landscape of Rapa Nui has often been misinterpreted. © IWC Media

Recent archaeological excavations have revealed that the current treeless landscape of Rapa Nui has often been misinterpreted. © IWC Media

This new perspective to Rapa Nui’s past is the focus of a documentary that I have worked on for BBC4, Easter Island: Mysteries of a Lost World. It uses the latest scientific and archaeological evidence to reveal a compelling new narrative, one that sees the famous Moai as only part of a complex culture that thrived in isolation. To this end, I argue that there are indeed important lessons to learn from Rapa Nui but they don’t begin by blaming its inhabitants for their own downfall.

Iconic Moai standing on the slopes of Rano Raraku. © IWC Media

Iconic Moai standing on the slopes of Rano Raraku. © IWC Media

Easter Island, Mysteries of a Lost World is on BBC4 on Thursday 30 January at 9.00 pm. Watch clips from the programme on the BBC website.
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Sir William Hamilton and the wreck of the HMS Colossus

Red-figured wine bowl (volute-krater), attributed to the Baltimore Painter, Greek, around 325 BCIan Jenkins, curator, British Museum

Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), if remembered at all, is primarily known as the person who shared his second wife Emma with Admiral Lord Nelson in the late eighteenth century. Their ménage a trois was a notorious target for British satirists of the time. It ended with the death of Sir William in 1803, and two years later in 1805 the tragic death of Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Jasper ware portrait plaque of Sir William Hamilton, by Josiah Wedgwood I and Thomas Bentley, Etruria factory, Staffordshire, England, AD 1779

Jasper ware portrait plaque of Sir William Hamilton, by Josiah Wedgwood I and Thomas Bentley, Etruria factory, Staffordshire, England, AD 1779

Hamilton is celebrated in the British Museum for his collection of Greek and Roman artefacts, which acquired by the Museum in 1772, changed its course from its origins as a rather old-fashioned cabinet of curiosities to starting it on the way to becoming the great collection of world cultures it is today. The founding collection of Sir Hans Sloane had very few ancient objects of merit, but Sir William’s vision for the Museum would change that and for this reason he has his own showcase in the Enlightenment Gallery.

The story of the wreck of the HMS Colossus and the loss of its cargo occurred in the dramatic last years of Sir William’s life. He had been British Ambassador to the court of the king of Naples and Sicily for 34 years. However, when Napoleon’s army occupied Rome in 1796, Sir William was forced to evacuate Naples and return home with Emma to Britain.

One of his last acts was to oversee the packing of his vase collection. But back in England, Sir William not only had to suffer the wrench of his sudden departure from his beloved Italy, but also had the appalling news that his vase collection was lost at sea. It had been packed in an unfit vessel, which grounded off the Scilly Isles where it broke up, and the packing cases washed overboard.

Red-figured wine bowl (volute-krater), attributed to the Baltimore Painter, Greek, around 325 BC

Red-figured wine bowl (volute-krater), attributed to the Baltimore Painter, Greek, around 325 BC

But fortune smiled on the old knight as by accident his finest vases were not on the HMS Colossus. When another vessel arrived laden with Sir William’s property, he discovered the collection he thought he’d lost, and he delighted in preparing them for sale.

Sir William died in 1803 with Emma and Nelson at his bedside.

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Britain’s Secret Treasures is broadcast on ITV 1 Thursdays at 20.30, 17 October – 5 December 2013

Filed under: Archaeology, Portable Antiquities and Treasure

‘When a find is recorded, it is truly discovered’: metal-detecting and its contribution to archaeology

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.Michael Lewis, Deputy Head of Portable Antiquities and Treasure, British Museum

As the second series of Britain’s Secret Treasures broadcasts on ITV in the United Kingdom, it’s been amazing to see the reaction and level of interest. The first series averaged 3.5 million viewers per episode, so we know just how captivating the stories being told are. The fact that all the discoveries featured were, and are, found by ordinary members of the British public – not professional archaeologists – makes this all the more remarkable.

Indeed, many people watching the series have probably found archaeology, albeit not necessarily recognising it as such, be it a bit of pottery from the garden, a coin on the beach, or a piece of worked flint while out walking in the countryside. Individually these objects might not seem important (though clearly some are), but together they help paint a picture of the past, helping archaeologists understand where people lived, and how they worked and played. It is this public contribution to archaeology, through recording their finds with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) [LINK] that is transforming the archaeological map of Britain.

A pilgrim’s badge of Richard Caister, Vicar of St Stephen’s, Norwich.

A pilgrim’s badge of Richard Caister, Vicar of St Stephen’s, Norwich.

To date over 900,000 archaeological objects have been found by the British public and recorded. Many of these have been discovered completely by chance, but most have been found by people proactively looking for archaeology, such as through field-walking or metal-detecting.

It is probably fair to say that archaeologists and metal-detectorists have not always seen eye to eye. It wasn’t until the 1970s that metal-detecting started to become popular and the response of many European countries was to ban or restrict such archaeological work by non-professionals. Indeed, this remains the situation in most of Europe, including our closest neighbours, the Republic of Ireland and France, where metal-detecting is prohibited.

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.

However in England and Wales metal-detecting, with the permission of the landowner, was not legislated against; although metal-detecting on sensitive archaeological sites (scheduled monuments) has been prohibited (since 1979) and finds of Treasure – precious metals and groups of coins or base-metal assemblages over 300 years old – must be reported. Nonetheless, heritage legislation in England and Wales (and Scotland) remains quite liberal compared to elsewhere in Europe.

At one time, this was seen as a ‘failure to deal with the problem of metal-detecting’ by concerned archaeologists. By the 1980s the Council for British Archaeology launched the Stop Taking Our Past (STOP) campaign, based on the perception that metal-detectorists were systematically looting archaeological sites by removing objects from ‘stratified archaeological contexts’ (thus destroying important clues about how and why things were buried) to sell on the open market. Indeed, the private ownership of archaeological material, and also the buying and selling of antiquities, remains contentious, and defines relations between archaeologists and the metal-detecting fraternity today.

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.

Nonetheless, most agreed that the attempt to ban metal-detecting was a failure and probably counter-productive. The STOP campaign did little more than entrench views, and frustrate dialogue between the two sides.

Over time it has been understood that most metal-detectorists have a genuine interest in the past, though of course there are a relatively small minority of individuals who metal-detect just for financial gain or have little interest in archaeology. An important observation is that most metal-detectorists search on cultivated land, where objects and coins are generally already dislodged from any archaeological context by agricultural work, such as ploughing. Indeed, it may be argued that recovering these items ensures they are saved from being completely destroyed by agriculture and natural and artificial corrosion processes.

Author sieving at the site of a Bronze Age hoard found by a metal-detectorist

Author sieving at the site of a Bronze Age hoard found by a metal-detectorist

Once disregarded by many archaeologists as of little interest (the plough-zone was often machined off in archaeological excavations of the past) it is apparent this layer holds many objects that can offer clues about any underlying archaeology. Even in their own right, such stray finds are of interest to researchers studying particular object types and their distribution.

This appreciation of the potential contribution that metal-detected finds might have to archaeology led to the establishment of the PAS; set up first as a series of pilot schemes in 1997, and then extended across the whole of England and Wales in 2003. The aim of the project was to liaise with the metal-detecting community, build trust, and encourage finders (on a voluntary basis) to lend their objects for a period of time so they could be recorded. The aim was not to acquire objects for museums, but that said, many finders, realising the importance of their discoveries, have allowed museums to acquire them, or have even donated them.

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.

Before the PAS there was no mechanism to record such finds. Some people may have taken what they had found to their local museum (or even a national museum) for a curator to look at. But only a fraction of these were logged either by the museum or with the local Historic Environment Record. Even fewer were published, such as in a local archaeological journal. For many of these finds their discovery was only brief, as once they were returned to their finders they were probably put away in a box and forgotten, almost certainly without any record of their findspot (of most interest to archaeologists) being recorded. How then might they further archaeology?

Nowadays all the finds recorded with the PAS are logged onto its online database for anyone to look at, study and enjoy. On the public site precise findspot details are protected, to ensure archaeological sites are not damaged by looters, sometimes called nighthawks. However, the full data is made available for archaeological work and research, and is proving to be a major component in many research projects trying to understand the past.

A mount from a medieval coffett, probably enamelled in Limoges, France.

A mount from a medieval coffett, probably enamelled in Limoges, France.

Unless someone spends a reasonable amount of money on a metal-detector (several hundred pounds) they are not likely to find much archaeological material; cheap machines are nothing more than toys, with which you might find some lost change or ring-pulls at the most. Therefore it is a hobby people invest in and become quite serious about. Whatever the initial motivation to take up metal-detecting, most acquire an appreciation for history and want to learn as much as possible about the objects they find. They share the same buzz we archaeologists get about discovery. It is nonetheless important that metal-detectorists take care to avoid sensitive archaeological sites and follow the Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting at all times. This Code also outlines how important it is to get permission (from the landowner) before you search and the necessity of recording finds with the PAS.

Only once a find is recorded is it truly discovered, and through recording finds with the PAS metal-detecting can make a truly positive contribution to archaeology.

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Britain’s Secret Treasures is broadcast on ITV 1 Thursdays at 20.30, 17 October – 5 December 2013

Filed under: Archaeology, Portable Antiquities and Treasure,

Limoges enamelled plaque: a dazzling object

Limoges enamelled plaqueNaomi Speakman, curator, British Museum

Decorated with jewel-like enamelled colours and covered in gilding, this Limoges enamelled plaque found on the Isle of Wight, would have been a dazzling religious item for its original owner.

Limoges enamelled plaque, shown from all angles.

Limoges enamelled plaque, shown from all angles.

The plaque bears the image of a winged man, standing on a wave-like cloud, who most likely represents Matthew, one of the four Evangelists who created the four gospel accounts of the New Testament, in the Christian Bible. The plaque is church shaped, formed of a steep roof topped with an orb and cross. On the other side the plaque is recessed, and pierced by a hole, indicating that this small piece may have been attached to something much larger – quite what, we don’t really know.

What we do know, however, is that enamelled plaques of this kind were very popular in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century across Europe. Two key ways to spot Limoges enamel work are its vibrant blue colour, and, in many cases, stylised rosettes, examples of which have been found in England.

Enamelled mount from Limoges

Enamelled mount from Limoges

Their namesakes come from the city of their making, Limoges in central France, which was one of the centres of enamelling in the Middle Ages. The industry of enamel making in Limoges boomed in the twelfth century, and particularly famous examples of these are reliquary caskets commemorating the murder of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. One of these is on display at the British Museum in Room 40: Medieval Europe and another in Room 1: Enlightenment.

Reliquary casket produced in the Limoges workshops after the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170

Reliquary casket produced in the Limoges workshops after the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170

Limoges enamelled plaques could be made for many types of religious objects, including book covers, portable altars and reliquary caskets. What this plaque was attached to we cannot be certain, but we do know that it was used for religious worship, perhaps forming part of an object used to decorate an altar or for other use in public worship.

Equally, we cannot be certain who it belonged to. An expensive item, the plaque was most likely owned by someone of a higher status with the necessary wealth to afford such an item. But, unfortunately, we will probably never know.

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Britain’s Secret Treasures is broadcast on ITV 1 Thursdays at 20.30, 17 October – 5 December 2013

Filed under: Archaeology, Portable Antiquities and Treasure,

Expecting the unexpected: a royal hawking vervel in Norfolk

The flat outer face of the band is inscribed 'Henrye Prince'. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art GalleryTim Pestell, Curator of Archaeology, Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

As an archaeology curator in Norfolk you get used to the unexpected, perhaps even expecting it. With over 20,000 finds recorded every year in the county, we perhaps take it for granted that there are lots of unknown treasures waiting to be brought to us. To that extent, the discovery of another silver hawking vervel – the ring attached to a bird of prey giving its owner’s name – was fairly unexceptional.

Despite being quite rare finds, vervels are a well-recognised class of object, and Norfolk seems to have been prime turf for hawking, as a number of them have been found in the county over the years. Indeed, we have a large collection of them in the Castle Museum.

The Cley hawking vervel.

The Cley hawking vervel.

Recently, though, when I was told that another one had been found I was very interested. The news that the owner’s name on it was Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales and son of King James I (1566-1625), naturally made me sit up.

Hawking, or falconry, was a popular past time among the upper echelons of society in Europe during this period. Aristocratic men and women would pay large sums of money for birds of prey which would be trained and then used for hunting.

Now, my own sporting passion as far as birds are concerned is limited to following our beloved Canaries (Norwich City Football Club), but what on earth was this vervel doing in Norfolk? Those of us lucky enough to come from the county obviously know what a fine place it is, but what about Henry? With there being no evidence for him visiting Norfolk as Prince of Wales, it set all sorts of possibilities racing.

The flat outer face of the band is inscribed 'Henrye Prince'. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

The flat outer face of the band is inscribed ‘Henrye Prince’. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Was Henry simply here for a weekend hawking with the boys? Or was the hawk being trained for him up here? Had the hawk just legged it (or winged it) from somewhere much further away?

While we have no simple answers, and perhaps may never know how this one ended up in Norfolk, I was reminded of another of our hawking vervels, found by a detectorist in Emneth (in west Norfolk) in 2007. Inscribed, less than helpfully, ‘Come buck of Chichly in’ the bird seems to have singularly failed to have returned. That it may well have died in west Norfolk is hinted at by another find that came from the same hole that produced the vervel – a silver bell, presumably also once attached to the hawk.

Indeed, the number of these vervels that are now being found is fascinating. Not only is there an obvious human angle, enabling us to relate finds to actual people – some of whom we can even visualise through their portraits – but also, for me, they conjure up the colour of life as it would have been all those years ago. They bring to mind scenes in which numerous grumpy aristocrats wonder where on earth their expensive birds have flapped off to (answers to which we may at last be finding out several centuries later).

In the meantime the Cley vervel will be seen, alongside our other vervels, in our forthcoming exhibition at Norwich Castle on The Wonder of Birds from 24 May – 14 September 2014.

Hopefully Henry would have been pleased.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Britain’s Secret Treasures is broadcast on ITV 1 Thursdays at 20.30, 17 October – 5 December 2013

Filed under: Archaeology, Portable Antiquities and Treasure,

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This is Room 56, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC. It's the next in our gallery series for #MuseumOfTheFuture. Between 6000 and 1550 BC, Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (now Iraq, north-east Syria and part of south-east Turkey) witnessed crucial advancements in the development of human civilisation during the evolution from small agricultural settlements to large cities.
Objects on display in Room 56 illustrate economic success based on agriculture, the invention of writing, developments in technology and artistry, and other achievements of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians, who lived in Mesopotamia at this time.
Objects found at the Royal Cemetery at Ur are of particular importance, and you can see the Royal Game of Ur in the foreground of this picture – the oldest board game in the world. Our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery space is Room 55, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC. The civilisations of Babylonia and Assyria flourished during the first millennium BC. Political developments resulted in the incorporation of the entire Near East into a single empire, while increased international contact and trade influenced the material culture of the region.
Room 55 traces the history of Babylonia under the Kassites and the growth of the Babylonian state and empire until it was taken over by the Persian King Cyrus in 539 BC.
'Boundary Stones' carved with images of kings and symbols of the gods record royal land grants. The development of the Assyrian state and empire, until its fall in 612 BC, is illustrated by objects excavated in its palaces. Mesopotamia’s highly developed literature and learning are demonstrated by clay tablets from the library of King Ashurbanipal (r. 668–631 BC) at Nineveh, written in cuneiform script. It's time for Room 54 in our #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery series – the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Anatolia and Urartu 7000–300 BC. Ancient Anatolia and Urartu form an important land link between Europe and Asia and lie where the modern Republic of Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and north-west Iran are located today. Objects in Room 54 show different cultures from prehistoric to Hellenistic times.
Examples of Early Bronze Age craftsmanship on display include a silver bull and cup, and business archives of Middle Bronze Age merchants illustrate trading between central Anatolia and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Delicate gold jewellery and figurines date from the Hittite period, and Iron Age objects from Urartu include winged bulls and griffins that were used to decorate furniture. Next in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces it's Room 53, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Ancient South Arabia. Ancient South Arabia was centred on what is now modern Yemen but included parts of Saudi Arabia and southern Oman. It was famous in the ancient world as an important source of valuable incense and perfume, and was described by Classical writers as Arabia Felix ('Fortunate Arabia') because of its fertility.
Several important kingdoms flourished there at different times between 1000 BC and the rise of Islam in the 6th century AD. The oldest and most important of these was Saba, which is referred to as Sheba in the Bible.
Room 53 features highlights from the Museum’s collection, which is one of the most important outside Yemen. The display includes examples of beautiful carved alabaster sculptures originally placed inside tombs, incense-burners and a massive bronze altar. You can see the East stairs in the background of this picture. We've reached Room 52 on our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces – the Rahim Irvani Gallery of Ancient Iran. Iran was a major centre of ancient culture. It was rich in valuable natural resources, especially metals, and played an important role in the development of ancient Middle Eastern civilisation and trade. Room 52 highlights these ancient interconnections and the rise of distinctive local cultures, such as in Luristan, during the age of migrations after about 1400 BC.
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The later periods of the Parthian and Sasanian empires mark a revival in Iranian culture and are represented through displays including silver plates and cut glass. The next gallery space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 51, Europe and Middle East 10,000–800 BC. Farming began in the Middle East around 12,000 years ago, making possible the social, cultural and economic changes which shaped the modern world. It arrived in Britain around 6,000 years ago bringing a new way of life. This change in lifestyle meant people competed for wealth, power and status, displaying these through jewellery, weapons and feasting.
The objects on display in Room 51 show how the people of prehistoric Europe celebrated life and death and expressed their relationship with the natural world, the spirit world and each other. The object in the centre of this picture is the Mold gold cape, found in Flintshire in 1833 and dating to around 1900–1600 BC.
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