Category Archives: Archaeology

Object of the Month – April 2018

 

April’s Object(s) of the Month is a selection of pieces of Roman roof tiles with paw, hoof and foot prints left by animals and people over 1,750 years ago. The tiles came from a temple that was about 1km north-east of Great Chesterford, which was an important town in the Roman period.

Can you work out what sort of animal left the footprints?

How animals left their mark
At the tile-maker’s yard, the wet clay tiles would have been laid out in the sun to dry before firing in a kiln. It was during this drying stage that tiles could be trampled over by any passing stray animals or domestic pets. Traces of footprints are found from time to time on Roman tiles, and the Great Chesterford tiles preserve prints from a number of different animals, including dogs of various sizes and cloven-hooved farmyard animals such as sheep, goats, calves or pigs. There is even the impression left by a hobnail boot or sandal, possibly from a workman trying to shoo away the animals that were treading on the unfired tiles!

The tiles with footprints are all pieces of tegulae – large, flat rectangular roof tiles with upturned sides. We do not know exactly where these tiles were made. Tiles and bricks were usually made near the building site if possible, where there was a supply of suitable local clay, water and wood to fuel the kilns. It was difficult and expensive to transport large numbers of tiles from a distance, though Great Chesterford’s position in the River Cam would have allowed materials to be brought in by boat.

Great Chesterford Roman Temple
The site of the temple, north-east of the town, was a special place before the Roman Conquest. Local British people had a shrine on the site in the late Iron Age. After the Roman conquest, in the late 1st or early 2nd century AD, the temple was rebuilt in Roman style as a square building with walls of mortar and chalk rubble faced with flint and plastered, and a tiled roof.

By the mid-3rd century (around 250 AD) the temple had fallen into disrepair. Large amounts of roof tile and plaster fell off the building and it appears that the remains of the roof was cleared away before a big programme of rebuilding started in the late 3rd century.

You can see the tiles on display in the museum throughout April and find out more about Great Chesterford, the temple and Roman building materials in our archaeology gallery.

Behind-the-scenes on a Monday!

Have you ever wondered what staff do when the museum is closed on a Monday? We’re busy behind the scenes, making sure our collections are documented and cared for.

An important job to complete when the Museum is closed to visitors is routine cleaning of the museum’s permanent displays. Volunteers are helping curatorial staff to clean objects on display, a few cases at a time. This not only keeps the displays looking good, but also prevents potentially harmful dust particles accumulating on fragile objects, and allows curatorial staff to check for signs of corrosion and other problems.

Objects are carefully removed from the case to a table covered with acid-free tissue paper. Here they can be examined and very gently brushed to remove dust particles. The nozzle of the special mini-vacuum cleaner, designed for museum conservation, is held just above the object to remove any loose dust without touching fragile surfaces. Once the case interior has also been cleaned, everything can by placed back on display and the case secured. It can take about an hour to do a medium-sized show case.

Volunteer Joanne has been helping our curator Carolyn to clean the archaeology displays. So far, we are about half way round the gallery. In the case behind Joanne are some of the beautiful Roman glass vessels, pottery and metal objects used by and buried with local people over 1,800 years ago, at Little Walden, Canfield, Bartlow and Stebbing.

Other curatorial staff work in our off-site store with volunteers on a Monday. Here, we add and edit information about the collection onto our collections management database, making sure we know exactly what we have in the collection and where it is! This has been particularly important in the aftermath of our store-move, as the locations of all the objects moved (about 80,000 objects in total) needed to be updated! Every object has a separate record on the database, with information about its history, provenance, significance and physical appearance. 

As we work through the collections systematically, adding information to the database, we check the condition of our objects and identify any conservation work that needs to be done. Our new store has helped dramatically with this process as we now have the space to store our objects in a more visible way and to lay out objects so that they can be inspected. 

Whether they are on display, or cared for in our stores, our collections are at the heart of the museum. It is vitally important that we take the time to care for them properly, so that they are preserved for people to enjoy long into the future. 

Object in Focus – Medieval Seal Matrix

 

We are preparing to re-display our special ‘treasure’ case in the archaeology gallery, to include some new finds we have just acquired under the Treasure Act. These include a small silver medieval seal matrix, a metal stamp with a design to press into sealing wax and make a seal. Curator Carolyn Wingfield has been doing a little research into medieval seal matrices as part of the preparation for the display.

Document with seal (Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum)

In the Middle Ages, anyone with property or money would probably need to seal official documents, or send letters in the course of managing personal and family business. Royalty, nobility and the Church had large and impressive official seals attached to their documents. People of lesser rank, such as clerics, merchants or farmers, would use small seal matrices made of lead or copper alloy to imprint a wax seal only 1-2cms across. Silver seal matrices are rarer and so we can imagine someone of some wealth and social status owned our silver seal matrix.

These small, common seal matrices were suspended by a cord from a belt or carried in a purse and so frequently got lost. As a result, metal detectorists find lots of seal matrices. The Portable Antiquities Scheme has recorded over 4,000 seal matrices on its database – 139 of them are from Essex.

Impression of the medieval seal matrix recently acquired by the museum

Seal matrices show a wonderful variety of inscriptions and designs, though there are certain themes which were popular. Many give us the names of their owners, ordinary people such as ‘Richard son of Ralph’ or ‘Annais the wife of William Dun’. Religious symbols and portraits of favourite saints occur as well as comic ones, such as a sleeping lion with the inscription ‘Wake Me No Man’. Other inscriptions include an instruction in Latin ‘Frange. Lege.Tege’ meaning ‘Break [the seal]. Read [the letter]. Conceal [the contents]’. Carolyn’s personal favourite was a seal matrix shown to her by a local metal-detectorist several years ago. It was engraved with a comical medieval ‘cartoon’ character which had a large two-faced head, running along on two little legs. The Latin inscription translated as ‘The Seal of Nonesuch’. Clearly some of our ancestors enjoyed a joke!

You can see some of the museum’s collection of Treasure on display in the Great Hall or have a look at our Treasure20 campaign

Object of the Month – July 2017

 Handaxe from Warren Hill, near Mildenhall, Suffolk

July’s Object of the Month is a flint handaxe made and used by an unknown ancient human around half a million years ago. It will be featured in our next special exhibition, Life in the Ice Age which opens on 12 August 2017.

Over many thousands of years, the handaxe has been rolled and blunted by rivers and glaciers, and stained by minerals, but it still shows signs of deliberate shaping to form an edged tool.

The reverse side of the Handaxe

‘Handaxe’ is the name we use to describe these early multi-purpose hand-held tools for cutting, chopping and grinding. Experiments have shown that they were efficient tools for butchering large animals, and for chopping and pounding other foods such as edible roots. The people who made and used them were ‘hunter-gatherers’, who hunted herds of wild animals, and gathered natural foods such as nuts, berries and edible plants.

A Short History of Handaxes

The earliest humans to make simple stone chopping tools lived in Africa about 2 million years ago. When a new species of early human, Homo erectus, developed about 1.8 million years ago, they used more carefully shaped cutting tools, which we call handaxes.

By 1.5 million years ago, humans had spread out of Africa into southern Europe and continued to make handaxes wherever there was flint or other suitable stone. As humans evolved and learned to cope with different environments, so handaxes evolved: there are many variations of size and shape. It continued to be the main tool of many human cultures up to around 50,000 years ago, when modern humans appeared, and stopped making and using handaxes.

Joseph Clarke’s collection

Joseph Clarke

Our handaxe is marked to show that it came from the collection of Joseph Clarke (1802 – 1895), who was a local antiquarian. Joseph and his brother Joshua were active members of the Saffron Walden Natural History Society (later Saffron Walden Museum Society) and as trustees they played an important role in the Museum. Joseph was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London and his network of contacts enabled him to collect objects from beyond the local area.

 

 

The site at Warren Hill

Warren Hill became famous in the nineteenth century for the large number of ancient handaxes and flake tools found there, many of which, like this handaxe, eventually found their way into museum collections. The age of the Warren Hill deposits and the flint tools in them has been debated for over a century. Investigations in the 1990s suggested that the gravels were part of a now extinct river system, called the Bytham River, which flowed from the Midlands across East Anglia and out into the North Sea. Later the Anglian Glaciation destroyed the Bytham River and created our present-day landscape. So the flint tools from the Warren Hill gravels must date from before the Anglian Glaciation, about 500,000 years ago. Evidence of human activity before the Anglian Glaciation is very rare because the ice sheets destroyed most of it._

Map showing the site of Warren Hill

_

You can see this Handaxe on display in the museum until Sunday 30th July, and in our upcoming exhibition ‘Life in the Ice Age’, which opens on the 12th August.

Object of the Month – November 2016

November’s Object of the Month is a flint dagger over 4,000 years old. It has been chosen as Object of the Month by Carolyn Wingfield, Curator. The dagger was made by a skilled prehistoric flint-knapper and its significance was drawn to the museum’s attention by Hazel Martingell, a specialist in prehistoric flint and stone artefacts.

1912-58-19

Photograph of Windmill Hill, taken in about 1900 (from the museum’s collection)

Found on Windmill Hill in 1863
The flint dagger was found by workmen on Windmill Hill, just north of Saffron Walden, in 1863. They were digging a road from the main road to The Vineyards, the new residence of William Murray Tuke. Tuke was a banker and a trustee of Saffron Walden Museum. In 1871 he gave the dagger to the Museum but it was over a hundred years before the date and significance of the dagger were identified.

An identity puzzle
At first, the dagger was thought to date from the Old Stone Age, because it has some similarities to very fine flint tools produced over 16,000 years ago by the so-called ‘Solutrean’ culture (named after a French site).
We now know of hundreds of other flint daggers and knives like the Windmill Hill dagger. They date from the end of the Neolithic (New Stone Age) and beginning of the Bronze Age, around 2,500 – 2,000 BC. Both flint and metal (copper and bronze) daggers were in use at this time, though they are never found together. Perhaps different groups favoured different materials.
Archaeologists use many terms to describe flint blades; the Windmill Hill example could be called a dagger or a knife. It would have had a handle of wood, bone or antler, and must have been a prized possession.

1971-13-flint-dagger-h-martingell-drawing

Drawing of the flint dagger by Hazel Martingell

Fantastic Flint!
The technique used to make flint artefacts like the Windmill Hill dagger is known as ‘pressure flaking’. A flint blade was struck and shaped, then finished by levering off tiny, regular flakes by applying pressure with a pointed tool. It takes great skill to produce such thin and sharp blade in flint.

To see another example of fine flint-working from this period, follow this link to the website of the Wiltshire Museum, Devizes and Phil Harding’s favourite object, the remarkable ‘Stonehenge Dagger’, which was found in a burial near Stonehenge.

http://www.wiltshiremuseum.org.uk/galleries/index.php?Action=4&obID=287&prevID=111&oprevID=22

We do not know why or how the Windmill Hill dagger came to be buried, but it is unlikely that such a precious object would have been lost by accident.

You can see the flint dagger on display in the Museum until 30 November 2016.

Object of the Month – May 2016

“Strange Stone Object”

In 1903, some men digging gravel on the south side of the village of Wendens Ambo, near Saffron Walden, made a remarkable discovery. Between about 3000 and 4000 years ago, Bronze Age people had used that area to bury their dead, cremating the bodies and burying the ashes in large hand-made pots or ‘cremation urns’. The diggers had unearthed pieces of an urn, together with this implement of shaped and grooved sandstone, approximately 19 cm long.

The pottery urn that the gravel-diggers found was not unusual, as many similar urns have been found across Britain. The stone object, however, was unlike anything archaeologists had ever seen. It was shown to many leading archaeologists of the day and fully published in 1916 by a noted scholar, Miller Christy, but no one could come up with a convincing explanation. Over 100 years later, it continues to baffle everyone.

Some ‘mystery stone object’ facts

  • It is shaped like a cylinder and tapers a little towards the ends
  • There are five grooves along its length, spaced equally around it
  • The grooves could have been cut with either a stone or a metal tool
  • It measures 189 mm (nearly 19 cm) long and about 63 mm diameter
  • It weighs 1165 grams and is made of gritty red sandstone
Drawing of the stone object from 'A Guide to the Departments of Archaeology and Ethnology in the Saffron Walden Museum', published in 1916.

Drawing of the stone object from ‘A Guide to the Departments of Archaeology and Ethnology in the Saffron Walden Museum‘, published in 1916.

 What Was It For?

These are some of the suggestions made:

A pounder or a pestle?

Probably not, as the ends show no signs of the wear that would be expected.

Corn-grinder?

Again, probably not, as the sides show no signs of wear and why would they be grooved?

Arrow-sharpener?

The grooves do not show the wear that would result from this and there are better ways of sharpening arrow heads or smoothing arrow-shafts.

Is it the head of a club, do the grooves allow it to be lashed to a handle?

That would have been an awkward way of mounting a club-head!

Is it a roller for breaking or ‘braying’ flax or other vegetable fibres?

Possibly – we know that Bronze Age people spun and wove flax and wool but we need more practical evidence.

Does it have a ‘religious’ or ‘ceremonial’ use, now lost to us?

Possibly, though such explanations are often given by archaeologists when they don’t really know! However, there are other Bronze Age burials that contain apparently ‘ritual’ objects, such as small decorated chalk cylinders. We do not know how our Bronze Age ancestors regarded these objects.

Is it a more recent object, which had somehow got buried near the urn?

The stone object was found actually touching the urn in the burial pit and there was no sign of later disturbance or animal burrows. Also, no historical or modern objects like this are known.

What do you think? Is it a practical tool, a ‘sacred’ object or a ‘stone loofah’?

Why not let us know what you think it is by tweeting us @SW_Museum or leaving a comment on our Facebook page.

You can see the object on display in the museum until 31 May 2016.

Object of the Month – January 2016

January’s Object of the Month is a gold Viking finger-ring. This ring was selected for Object of the Month by Carolyn Wingfield, Curator.

The ring was found by a metal-detectorist near Thaxted in 2013 and reported under the Treasure Act (1996) . It was purchased in 2015 for the museum’s archaeology collections by Saffron Walden Museum Society Ltd, with the assistance of the Arts Council England / Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund and the Headley Trust.

V & A logoThe ring is made in a style associated with Viking jewellery and dates from the tenth to twelfth centuries (around AD 900 – 1200). It was made by twisting two strands of gold wire, and then twisting these withHeadley Trust logo two tapering gold rods, and forming a hoop. The thin ends of the rods and wires were joined at the back of the hoop by beating them together into a flat, diamond-shaped plate. The plate is decorated with tiny punched circles.

The size and weight of the ring suggest that it was most likely worn by a man. It weighs over 32 grams and the metal is over 95% gold, the rest being silver and copper.This was established by X-ray fluorescence analysis at the British Museum’s Department of Conservation and Scientific Research. The ring measures a maximum of 35mm across in its current state.
Viking Rings

This style of ring, made by twisting or plaiting gold wires and rods together, is associated with the Vikings. ‘Vikings’ is the collective name given to people from Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden) who raided, traded and settled across northern Europe and beyond from the ninth to twelfth centuries.

Many such rings have been found across the Viking world. Illustrated here are two different types of Viking gold ring, both from Essex and both in the collections of the British Museum.

 Plain gold ring, a form also known as ‘ring money’, Thaxted  Gold ring formed from twisted rods and wires, West Bergholt, nr. Colchester
Plain gold ring, a form also known as ‘ring money’, Thaxted
Photo: British Museum
Gold ring formed from twisted rods and wires, West Bergholt, nr. Colchester
Photo: British Museum

 

Sometimes detail can be important. The diamond-shaped plate on the back of our Thaxted ring is thought to be a Scandinavian feature, because it is also found on rings from the Viking homelands. In other words, it was probably made by a Viking goldsmith in Denmark, Norway or southern Sweden, rather than an Anglo-Saxon smith working for Vikings in eastern England.

We cannot tell who lost the ring, or why. Such objects could easily be traded or passed from one person to another. To the Vikings, such jewellery acted as portable currency and a sign of status. Arm-rings and neck-rings made of gold and silver in the same style are also known.

You can see the ring on display in our Treasure case, in the Ages of Man gallery.

Object of the Month – July 2015

July’s Object of the Month is a late Pre-Roman Iron Age vessel, dated to approximately 50 BC – AD 50. It was chosen as Object of the Month by Dorian Knight, Archaeology Collections Review Intern.
The vessel was excavated in Chesterton, Cambridgeshire, and donated to the museum in 1904. It is very likely that the vessel was used for feasting and would have contained both food and drink. It has been conserved and restored to its original shape using cork by a museum conservator in the twentieth century, over one thousand years after it was originally made.

Iron Age vesselConservation and restoration are necessities in any museum, where the primary aim is to care for, stabilise and mend objects so they can continue to be used and enjoyed. What is particularly fascinating in this case is the extent of the restoration and the interesting ethical dilemma it presents. Restoration has often been considered a controversial issue; whilst some are keen to make an incomplete piece of art or precious artefact whole again, others feel that the object may have a greater value in its natural and incomplete state. Similar issues can also present themselves in our everyday lives: should we repair our old clothes so that they look newly bought, or should we leave them as they are, as a testimony to the scenes they have witnessed and the places they have been? Whatever the case, two principles are integral to conservation work. The first is reversibility: anything that is done to conserve an object should be fully reversible. The second is transparency: all conservation work should be well documented and distinguishable from the original object. In the case of this vessel, the conservator has made it very clear that the object has been restored.

You can see this vessel on display in the museum until 31 July.