British Museum blog

Things that go bump in the night: the Blackmoor Hoard

Jennifer Wexler, Bronze Age Index Manager, MicroPasts

Part of the Blackmoor Hoard in the British Museum collection

Part of the Blackmoor Hoard in the British Museum collection

As part of our research into British Museum’s Bronze Age collections, the MicroPasts team is asking for the public’s help with researching the wonderful Blackmoor Hoard. Known also as the ‘Blackmoor-Wolmer Forest’ or ‘Selborne’ Hoard, the hoard was found near Blackmore, Hampshire. There are several Bronze Age barrows within the area of Woolmer Forest, and multiple hoards (Woolmer Forest, Woolmer Pond, Hogmoor, Longmoor Camp) from different periods have been found there. The connection between the ritual deposition of bronze weapons and the barrow cemeteries together constitute a particularly well-preserved ritual landscape of the Late Neolithic and Bronze Age periods.

Like many Bronze Age hoards recorded in the Bronze Age Index (such as the Arreton Down hoard), the Selborne Hoard has connections with several famous collectors of archaeological antiquities, including Rev. Greenwell, George Roots, General Pitt Rivers and Lord McAlpine.

Middle Bronze Age hoard from Blackmoor (left to right: 1893,0618,7, 1893,0618.11, 1893,0618.10, 1893,0618.13)

Middle Bronze Age hoard from Blackmoor (left to right: 1893,0618,7, 1893,0618.11, 1893,0618.10, 1893,0618.13)

Bronze Age Index card illustrating objects from the Blackmoor Hoard

Bronze Age Index card illustrating objects from the Blackmoor Hoard

Both Middle Bronze Age (MBA) and Late Bronze Age (LBA) hoards from the area are featured in the Bronze Age Index. The MBA hoard was found in 1840 and contains bronze torcs, rings and a palstave.

The LBA weapon hoard, discovered in the garden of a cottage near Blackmoor in 1870, is better known, and has a complicated history of collection. A large part of the hoard was handed over to Lord Selborne, as it was found on his land. It currently makes up part of the Selborne collection now in Gilbert White’s House and includes sword fragments, over twenty spearheads, three rings, ferrule fragments and one mysterious ‘grooved socket’.

Late Bronze age socketed spearhead. From the Roots Collection (1891,0514.6)

Late Bronze Age socketed spearhead. From the Roots Collection (1891,0514.6)

Somehow two large groups of objects from the hoard were separated from the Selborne Collection. Part of the hoard appears to have been disposed of soon after discovery and sold to two prominent antiquarian collectors, George Roots and Rev. William Greenwell. The Greenwell collection now in the British Museum is composed largely of spearheads donated by John Pierpont Morgan in 1908. The Roots collection is more diverse, containing spearheads, sword fragments and cast rings. Evidence suggests that the Selborne, Greenwell, and Roots assemblages were all part of the same deposit, with spearhead fragments from the various collections fitting together.

Lunette spearhead from the Blackmoor Hoard. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Lunette spearhead from the Blackmoor Hoard. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1998.540.1)

The British Museum purchased the Roots collection at auction in 1891. At this sale, one extraordinary example of a lunette spearhead (now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) was bought by General Pitt Rivers and displayed in his museum in Farnham, Dorset. The spearhead’s origins in the Roots collection and similarity to other spearheads from Selborne/Blackmoor suggests that it came from the same hoard.

This spearhead remained in the Pitt Rivers collections until the Farnham Museum closed in 1966, when much of the collection was dispersed to the Salisbury Museum and private collectors. Sometime after, the spearhead became part of Lord McAlpine’s extensive collection. After getting involved in the restoration of the Victorian town of Broome in Western Australia, Lord McAlpine sold off much of his private estate and collections, including the spearhead, to the New York art dealer Peter Sharrer. Sharrer donated the spearhead to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1998, along some other Bronze Age objects originally from the Roots Collection, where it is on display in Room 301, one of the few representations of the British Bronze Age in the Met.

While originally interpreted as representing a ‘founder’s hoard’ (i.e. containing a mix of broken metal objects for melting and re-using at a later time), recent research suggests that these objects were being purposely deposited in the ground in a particular, possibly ritualistic, manner. Also, rather than being used in everyday struggles or battles, the weapons found in such hoards may more likely be representative of social status and a ‘warrior aesthetic’ that developed later in the Bronze Age. A recent analysis of MBA-EIA (Early Iron Age) skulls found in the Thames shows that almost all exhibit blunt force injuries, at a time when the archaeological record is dominated by edged weapons, such as swords and spears. Not only does this have implications for the massive record of elaborate bronze weapons found in the Thames and other watery locations, but for all weapon hoards. Perhaps this explains why we get such elaborate and beautiful examples of weapons both from the Thames and from LBA hoards; the Metropolitan Museum of Art describes the Selborne spearhead as representing the

…highest tradition of the British Bronze Age. The piece is undeniably beautiful: its shape is elegant and spare to the point of evoking modern art. The raised rib in the middle, which also outlines the half-moon or lunette openings, may have been designed as a blood channel.

Help us find out more about the Selborne-Blackmoor hoard! If you are interested in helping us research and enrich our knowledge of the Bronze Age, please join us at MicroPasts.

The MicroPasts project team is led by Professor Andy Bevan (Institute of Archaeology (IOA), UCL) and co-investigated by Daniel Pett and Rachael Sparks (IOA, UCL). The British Museum Bronze Age Index is managed by Jennifer Wexler in collaboration with Neil Wilkin and Chiara Bonacchi (IOA, UCL) and Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert (IOA, UCL) are the principal researchers.

The Project is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Filed under: Archaeology, , , , ,

Citizen archaeologists wanted to help rediscover the British Bronze Age

Jennifer Wexler, Bronze Age Index Manager, MicroPasts Project, Daniel Pett, ICT Advisor, Portable Antiquities Scheme, and Neil Wilkin, Curator of European Bronze Age collections, British Museum

As any museum researcher will tell you, getting used to a new museum is as much about learning about the collections of objects, as chasing down the paper records that accompany them. These can yield vital clues about how and where important finds were made and how their biography unfolded. Last winter the MicroPasts team (a collaborative, multi-disciplinary AHRC-funded project with University College London‘s Institute of Archaeology) assembled at Franks House, to view the British Museum’s Bronze Age collection. Our visit was the inspiration for an exciting new project to digitise one of the first catalogues to document British and European prehistory: the Bronze Age Index.

The superb Bronze Age objects in the British Museum collection do not tell the whole story

The superb Bronze Age objects in the British Museum collection do not tell the whole story

The history of the Index is filled with periods of inactivity punctuated by rapid developments. It began as a major archaeological initiative founded by the British Association Committee on Bronze Implements in 1913 and originally housed at the Society of Antiquaries at Burlington House on Piccadilly. It was moved to the Department of British and Medieval Antiquities at the British Museum in 1933, though it was sent on loan to the former British Museum curator Professor C F C Hawkes, as acting Chair of European Archaeology at Oxford University in 1955. It was finally returned to its permanent home at the British Museum in 1966, where it has been kept ever since.

The Bronze Age Index’s home in the British Museum’s stores

The Bronze Age Index’s home in the British Museum’s stores

Known as the ‘principal instrument of research in the British Bronze Age’, the main concept behind the creation of the Index was the idea that by compiling a corpus of all Bronze Age metal objects found in the various museums and collections across the UK, it would be possible for the first time for researchers to study ‘the movements of peoples and trade through the exhaustive study of the distributions of certain types of implements and weapons used in the period’. This corpus took the form of an illustrated card catalogue, with each index card detailing object findspots and types, alongside detailed line drawings and a wide range of further information about the object’s context of discovery, illustrated below. For over 70 years, it represented the highest standards of Bronze Age object studies.

An example of an Index card, a flanged axe found while ‘cutting an equestrian figure of King George III’, from Osmington Hill, Dorset.

An example of an Index card, a flanged axe found while ‘cutting an equestrian figure of King George III’, from Osmington Hill, Dorset

The Bronze Age Index now contains over 30,000 records of Bronze Age tools and weapons largely discovered during the 19th and 20th centuries, and complements our current Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) Database of metal object finds. This initiative is interesting not only because it was the first catalogue of its kind documenting prehistory on a wide scale, but also because it was probably the first British archaeology initiative to call on public help with documenting British prehistory way back in the early 20th century.

Investigating a Bronze Age hoard – the Early Bronze Age Arreton Down Hoard from the Isle of Wight

Investigating a Bronze Age hoard, in this case the Early Bronze Age Arreton Down Hoard from the Isle of Wight

Following in the footsteps of creators of the Index, we are once again calling on the public to help us research this extremely important untapped resource. Since late 2013, the digitisation of the entire Index has been undertaken by the MicroPasts project. The MicroPasts project employs a crowd-sourcing platform (built on the open source project Pybossa) in order to solicit help from members of the public or ‘citizen archaeologists’ to assist us transcribing the important information contained on these cards. Additionally, people are helping us with creating 3D models of objects, many of which are recorded by the Index. By undertaking these transcriptions, it will be possible to incorporate the Index’s 30,000 records rapidly into the PAS database, which on its own includes nearly one million objects collected by the public, usually by metal-detectorists.

The result will be the largest national database of prehistoric metal finds anywhere in the world and a near-comprehensive view of what we currently know about such finds in the UK. Metal finds are not only crucial forms of evidence for dating Britain’s prehistoric past, but also tell us a great deal about prehistoric society and economy. The creation of this database will allow for the rethinking of almost everything we currently know about the use of metal in Bronze Age Britain, giving us a more comprehensive view of our prehistoric past. It is also fascinating as it should demonstrate how the interplay between reassessing archaeological archives and the employment of new technologies, such as crowd-sourcing, can open up new avenues of research and public engagement.

If you are interested in helping us research and enrich our knowledge of the Bronze Age, as well as many other museum archives, please join us and help to realise the aspiration of 100 years of Bronze Age study.

The MicroPasts project team is led by Professor Andy Bevan (Institute of Archaeology (IOA), UCL) and co-investigated by Daniel Pett and Rachael Sparks (IOA, UCL). The British Museum Bronze Age Index is managed by Jennifer Wexler in collaboration with Neil Wilkin and Chiara Bonacchi (IOA, UCL) and Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert (IOA, UCL) are the principal researchers.

The Project is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Filed under: Archaeology, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, Research, , ,

The Corrard gold torc – Bronze Age jewellery with a twist to the tale

The Corrard gold torc. © National Museums Northern Ireland: Collection Ulster Museum Dr Greer Ramsey, Curator,
National Museums Northern Ireland

I am not sure if this happens to anyone else, but my work routine seems to revolve around how quickly I can get the computer turned on in the morning to view my inbox of emails. Then of course the ‘ping’ of incoming mail catches my eye at the bottom right hand corner of the screen. I know that I should not let it distract me from whatever I am doing but it inevitably does.

Such was the case when I received an attached image of an object to identify that was found at Corrard in County Fermanagh. With a click of the mouse the most intriguing artefact materialised on screen – a Bronze Age torc, quite simply the most fantastic single item of prehistoric gold jewellery ever found in Northern Ireland.

The Corrard gold torc. © National Museums Northern Ireland: Collection Ulster Museum

The Corrard gold torc. © National Museums Northern Ireland: Collection Ulster Museum

The first thing that struck me was its coiled shape, which resembles a spring. This deliberate coiling has caused a bit of confusion in that the word ‘torc’, which comes from the Latin to twist, does not refer to this spring-like shape. The torc started its life as a square bar of gold and it is the action of twisting the bar along its entire length to create a corkscrew pattern that gives this object its name.

Why was it coiled? Some people think that in this coiled state it could have been worn as an armlet. I need come convincing about this as the majority of torcs are not coiled like a spring, but form a circular hoop where the cone-like terminals at either end act as a clasp. These must have functioned to allow the torc to be opened and closed, rather like a belt or necklace. Surprisingly, most Bronze Age metalwork, including torcs, have not been found in burials with skeletal remains which would allow us to know how they were worn. If the Corrard torc was straightened you would be astounded by its length – care to guess?

The deliberate coiling prior to burial may have made the act of concealment easier. Perhaps it was buried as a kind of decommissioning, sending out a signal that it was not intended to be used again. Under these circumstances it could almost be seen as a type of grave good (a burial without a body), or even an offering to the gods.

And, here’s another puzzle – weighing an impressive 720 grams (with a measured gold content of about 86%, equivalent to approximately 20 carat gold – the upper limit used for jewellery as any higher would make it too soft and easily scratched), where did the gold come from? Is it conceivable that the image Ireland has as an ancient El Dorado of prehistoric Europe depended on importing gold as opposed to having a local supply? This is part of a wider archaeological debate as to the origin of torcs. Was the Corrard torc ‘made in Ireland’ or somewhere else?

The torc is on display in the Ulster Museum in Belfast.

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, , ,

The Mooghaun Hoard: early ‘currency’ or bands of equality?

Mooghaun Hoard. © National Museum of IrelandNeil Wilkin, curator, British Museum

Question: What do you call a Bronze Age coin specialist?
Answer: Flat broke and misspent, for there is no evidence from this period of coins or currency systems, as we know them, in Europe!

And yet… a journey through the Citi Money Gallery begins with a group of Bronze Age objects. Among them are gold objects from the ‘Mooghaun hoard’ (about 800 BC), a find that has recently been honoured with a place in Fintan O’Toole’s ‘A History of Ireland in 100 Objects’ series, supported by the National Museum of Ireland and the Royal Irish Academy.

Some of the objects from the Mooghaun Hoard on display in the Money Gallery.

Some of the objects from the Mooghaun Hoard on display in the Money Gallery.

But why are they in the gallery? Their recent honour gave me the perfect opportunity to explore that question.

The start of our story is bitter-sweet: in March of 1854, workmen in County Clare, Ireland discovered at least 150 finds of what was then described as ‘fairy gold’, weighing approximately 5kg, mostly consisting of jewellery. The gold must have poured from the small stone chamber it was found in – childhood dreams of gold pots and rainbows come to mind!

Objects from the Mooghaun Hoard in the British Museum collection, and the National Museum of Ireland collection, as well as some reproductions.

Objects from the Mooghaun Hoard in the British Museum collection, and the National Museum of Ireland collection, as well as some reproductions. © National Museum of Ireland

It was certainly one of the biggest discoveries of Bronze Age gold ever found in Ireland or even North West Europe. Sadly, accounts tell of hats full of gold being sold for less than their true value to be melted down, forever lost. Only 29 objects survive today.

Around the same time, in Mold, Wales, a separate group of workmen came across another famous find of Bronze Age gold, known as the Mold Gold Cape. Like the Mooghaun Hoard, the cape was also dispersed. But unlike the Mooghaun Hoard, the fragments were not melted down and they were eventually purchased and re-assembled. So, why did the Mooghaun Hoard not receive the same treatment?

Unlike the complex decoration of the unique Mold Gold Cape, most of the Mooghaun finds consisted of many very similar bracelets or armlets with very little decoration. Perhaps they were a way of storing wealth – even an early form of ‘currency’? In melting and spending the gold, the modern finders may have been recognising this key quality.

However, there is more to the story. The finds at Mooghaun were made close to (or even within) a lake and close to one of the biggest Bronze Age hillforts in Ireland. This setting is typical of Irish hoards deposited for spiritual and religious reasons, rather than ‘banked’ for safe-keeping to be returned for later.

The similarity of the objects could also relate to the status of individuals. For while the Mold Gold Cape could only be worn by a single, very important person, the Mooghaun hoard could decorate the bodies of many people at once.

The Mooghaun finds therefore tell us that not all gold was for important individuals and that we can’t always separate economics from spiritual beliefs. In that sense, they provide the perfect starting place to the story of the history of money.

The Mooghaun Hoard is object 11 in A History of Ireland in 100 objects

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

Filed under: Collection, Money Gallery, , , , ,

Receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 10,985 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Today’s #BMAdventCalendar – this struck bronze medal shows a nativity scene Four boys make a snowball in this Japanese woodblock print from today’s #BMAdventCalendar Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, set and filmed here, is now in cinemas across the UK! #NightAtTheMuseum This is Room 91, the next gallery in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series. It's used for temporary exhibitions, usually from the Department of Asia. At the moment you can see the exhibition Pilgrims, healers and wizards: Buddhism and religious practices in Burma and Thailand (until 11 January 2015). Here’s some #mistletoe from today's #BMAdventCalendar – fancy a kiss? Miss Piggy & Kermit the Frog are celebrating #Christmas on this 1981 badge  #BMAdventCalendar #muppets
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 10,985 other followers

%d bloggers like this: