Category Archives: Archaeology

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.


Saffron Walden Museum is taking part in Treasure 20, a partnership project of the British Museum and Portable Antiquities Scheme, to highlight the important contribution of the Treasure Act to public museum collections around the country. Treasure 20 is a nationwide project which celebrates 20 years since the Treasure Act 1996 came into force in September 1997.

As part of the project, we are re-displaying our Treasure case, adding new archaeological finds such as a rare brooch in the form of a dove and a silver coin from Anglo-Saxon times, a delicate medieval finger ring and a tiny gold brooch with a pair of clasped hands.

The finds reflect the range of objects reported by metal-detectorists and also chance discoveries made by members of the public, like the Anglo-Saxon coin. The ring and brooches were all declared treasure under the Treasure Act 1996 and were purchased for the museum’s collections by Saffron Walden Museum Society Ltd, with generous grant-aid from the Arts Council England / Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund and The Headley Trust. Our collections and our understanding of local heritage have been enriched by over 50 acquisitions made through the Treasure Act.

As well as displaying new finds in the museum (look for the special Treasure20 labels), we will also be featuring a selection on the museum’s website and social media for 20 weeks, from June to October. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook to learn more about our Treasure collection or click on the gallery below.  We’ll be adding to the gallery throughout the project. 




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.


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.


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.

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.

Stepping back 1000 years!

Over the past few weeks, the museum has been celebrating and commemorating the 1000th anniversary of the Battle of Assandun. In 1016, the Anglo-Saxons fought the Danes (Vikings), under their leader Cnut, at a place called Assandun in Essex. Cnut was victorious and soon after the battle he became king of all England.

Historians have argued for centuries about the battle site – was it Ashdon near Saffron Walden or Ashington in south-east Essex? There are good reasons to consider Ashdon and Hadstock as the area where the battle was fought and where Cnut built a church in 1020 to commemorate those who fell at the battle.

To celebrate this historic event, we have been running a series of activities and events over the summer. In August, we ran family craft activities in the museum to make Saxon or Viking helmets and shields and we asked our visitors to help us create a battle mural, in the style of the Bayeaux tapestry.

dsc08182On Friday 9 September, pupils at Ashdon Primary School got a taste of Viking times when four re-enactors from Regia Anglorum and museum staff and volunteers set up a special session at the school. Regia Anglorum members introduced them to life and crafts a thousand years ago and the museum brought along a special display of local Saxon and Viking finds.

On Saturday 10 September, battle commenced at Waltons Park, Ashdon, as members of Regia Anglorum brought Saxon and Viking times to life before enthusiastic crowds. Over 800 people came to see the commemoration of the battle and a living history camp. There were special demonstrations of 11th century horsemanship and a Viking ‘boat burial’. At the museum’s activity tables in the marquee, young warriors had a chance to dress as a Viking, make shields or helmets and handle real and replica objects. There was a great atmosphere on the day, despite the typical English weather!

If you want to find out more about the battle, why not come along to the Saffron Walden Museum Society evening talk on Monday 10 October at 8pm, where Patricia Croxton-Smith will be talking about King Cnut and the Battle of Assandun.

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.


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


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.

My Museum: Dorian Knight

My Museum shares the experiences of our staff, volunteers and interns of working at Saffron Walden Museum. Dorian is our Archaeology Collections Intern, working with us for 3 months.

“I came to Saffron Walden Museum following my MA in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester and a curatorial traineeship in decorative art. However, I have always been fascinated by archaeology and the tangible and sensory link it provides to the ancient human past. The internship at Saffron Walden has allowed me to explore that interest.Dorian Knight

Over the past 3 months I have been searching through the archaeological archive, and finding collections and objects that are eligible for deaccessioning (the process of removing objects from the museum’s collection). I have researched and documented the provenance of these items, deciding on the best course of action for what those objects can be used for if they are not to stay in the Saffron Walden Museum’s permanent collection. This may include using the objects as part of educational resources and handling collections. Another alternative is to consider transfer of these objects to other museums where they may be more relevant. All these collections have been packed and stored in acid free tissue so they are safe and ready to be sent to their new homes.

I have really enjoyed my time at Saffron Walden Museum. Not only have I had the opportunity to handle and research some really amazing archaeology collections, but I have also an opportunity to develop my skills in other areas that I believe will benefit me greatly in the future. For example, I have curated July’s Object of the Month, an Iron Age vessel that has been heavily reconstructed by a museum conservator using cork. For me the beauty of this object lies as much in its careful restoration as it does in the original form. I have also gained insights into how archaeology fits into the museum’s education programme. This required familiarisation with the national curriculum and consideration of how archaeology collections can be creatively used to ensure their future enjoyment and appreciation.”

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.