Category Archives: Object of the Month

Object of the Month – January 2021

These Snowdrops from Littlebury in Essex are January’s ‘Object of the Month’. The snowdrops were collected by George Stacey Gibson in a meadow at Littlebury in March 1864, so these preserved plants are 156 years old.

George Stacey Gibson of Saffron Walden published the first Flora of Essex in 1862. This is an illustration of Snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, from volume five of the Museum’s copy of his flora.

Herbarium

Specimens of these snowdrops are preserved in Saffron Walden Museum’s herbarium collection of dried plants. The herbarium contains plant specimens collected by botanists in Essex and it is now more accessible at the new museum store. The collection is an invaluable record of the plants found in this region and has been used to produce Floras for Essex and Cambridgeshire.

To preserve the plants they were pressed, dried and mounted on a paper herbarium sheet. The plant name, the location where it was found, the name of the collector and the date were written on the sheet, or a label which is fixed to the sheet. Each herbarium sheet represents a biological record of where a plant species was found at a particular time.

Flora

A Flora is a book that describes the plants that grow in a geographical area and records where they are found at a certain time. Research using the Museum herbarium has plotted how the number of plant species and the distribution of plants have changed over time because of habitat loss, changes in management of the countryside and pollution. The Museum’s copy of the Flora of Essex by George Stacey Gibson, 1862, includes so many beautiful coloured illustrations of plants from English Botany  by James Sowerby (1757-1822) that it has expanded to six volumes which are each bound in green leather.

The snowdrops were chosen by Sarah Kenyon, one of the Natural Sciences Officers at the Museum. These beautiful little plants produce their white flowers from January to March and they signify that spring is on its way. Snowdrops grow at the entrance to the Museum on Museum Street. We look forward to welcoming you back to Saffron Walden Museum later in 2021.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Images (top to bottom, left to right):

A herbarium sheet of snowdrop plants collected at Littlebury in 1864.

Snowdrop Gibson Flora. An illustration of snowdrop in the Flora of Essex by George Stacey Gibson, 1862.

The historic label for the herbarium sheet.

Object of the Month – December 2020

Karl Wesche (1925-2005), Sculpture: Deutschland 1946

Despite the museum having been physically closed to the public because of Covid-19 lockdowns for many months, we have thankfully continued to receive many interesting research enquiries. Maybe in lockdown, some academic researchers had fewer competing distractions!  For us working behind the scenes, the constant flow of research enquiries, was a godsend and ensured the collections have still been utilised.

One of the researchers who contacted us is working on his PhD, the first ever in-depth academic study into the life and work of the famous artist Karl Weschke. The museum holds a very evocative sculpture by Weschke of a weeping mother and child, titled ‘Deutschland 1946’ which he produced using clay he dug up at the Radwinter POW Rehabilitation camp when he was interred there.  Some have claimed it may even be the artist’s earliest known work.   

Weschke was born in central Germany near Gera in 1925 and became a member of the Hitler Youth, volunteering for parachute training in the Luftwaffe during the Second World War. In 1945, he was described as “insolent” when he was captured and ended up in a camp for hard-line prisoners in Caithness.  His mother petitioned for him to be freed in a prisoner exchange, but it fell through.  It was eventually decided that he was young and didn’t really pose any real threat, so he was moved to a more lenient student’s POW camp at Radwinter.    

Radwinter North camp had been established in the grounds of the requisitioned Radwinter Rectory, now known as Radwinter Manor. The camp was the brainchild of Charles Stambrook, a Jewish refugee from Vienna.  It was intended to be a way to reach out to those it was felt could be “re-educated.”

The German POWs regularly visited local families, as it was felt that this would help “rehabilitate” and integrate them better into the local community. Weschke regularly visited Bessie Midgeley at Larchmount on London Road, Saffron Walden with other POWS and she encouraged his artistic talents.  He painted scenery for the POW’s theatrical performances.  He became an art student at Cambridge using their studios to work on his sculpture and carvings.  He later went to St. Martins, before abandoning sculpture for painting and found acclaim as a leading artist of the Cornish School, having moved there in 1955.  He achieved national and international recognition relatively late in his career. A one-man show at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, in 1980, prompted the Tate to start acquiring examples of his paintings and Tate St Ives held an exhibition of Weschke’s work in 2004.  His obituary from February 2005 makes fascinating reading about his life and work. 

The sculpture we hold is believed to have been given by Weschke as a leaving present to Kelvin Osborn, who was then the YMCA Welfare Officer at the Radwinter camp. Decades later, Osborn donated the sculpture (by which time Weschke was now a famous artist!) for fundraising to the Friend’s School, Saffron Walden for an overseas development project they were undertaking.  It was purchased by Jean Strachan for £20 in the 1960s and it was later used again in the 1980s for fundraising for one of the school’s other overseas development projects, a water scheme in Bolivia.  The item remained unsold, so the family put in the donation money themselves and retained the sculpture.  The sculpture isn’t something which would naturally be displayed in a family home as it is quite raw.  The family eventually donated the sculpture to the Museum in 1984.

Object of the Month – November 2020

Late Iron Age Butt Beaker

Our Object of the Month for November has been chosen by Carolyn Wingfield, Curator. It is a late Iron Age beaker, imported from Gaul (France) and buried with its owner around the time of the Roman conquest of Britain in AD 43.

Beakers like this were the fashionable drinking vessels of the day for wine or beer. This beaker is 26 cms tall and is 20 cms across at its widest point. Its capacity is roughly 4 litres or 7 pints. Vessels like this may have been passed round at a feast or ceremony, so that does not necessarily represent one person’s intake of drink!

Discovery of an Iron Age Community

 In 1992, archaeologists discovered traces of an Iron Age settlement to the east of Bishop’s Stortford, in Birchanger parish. Excavations took place before the area was developed as Woodside Industrial Park. They found sherds of pottery, animal bones and features in the soil which showed that a small community was living there in the early and mid Iron Age, from around 700 BC to 100 BC.

There then seems to have been a break in occupation for at least a hundred years, until the early 1st century AD, shortly before the Roman invasion of AD 43. Around that time, an important member of the local Iron Age community died and was cremated. Their burial with pottery and other grave goods was the outstanding find of the excavation.

Occupation of the site lasted into the early Roman period until about AD 150.

The Burial

To prepare for the burial, the Iron Age community dug a large circular pit, a little over a metre in diameter. In this they placed eight pottery vessels (including this beaker), four bronze brooches, a leg of pork and a pig’s head, cut in two length-ways. It is likely that some of the pots held other food and drink to complete the feast for the afterlife. The ashes of the dead may have been placed in a cloth bag or wooden container which did not survive. Analysis of the cremated bone remains indicated that one individual, probably an adult, was buried.

The bronze brooches were all common types used to fasten clothes in the late Iron Age and early Roman period. They were in poor and incomplete condition so cannot be displayed, but the illustrations below are of similar brooches.

Posh Pottery imported from Gaul

The pottery can tell us much about the status of the person buried. The number of pots in the burial (eight) suggests that this was a fairly wealthy person. Also, they owned fine pottery imported from abroad and probably only available to higher-ranking people in Iron Age society.

This beaker is of fine white sandy clay and was made in north Gaul (France). The burial also included another beaker, red in colour, from Gaul. There were strong links between the late Iron Age peoples of Gaul and south-east Britain, as attested by many archaeological finds such as pottery and coins, and by Roman writers. The pots also included a platter and a cup, both made locally but copying the style of imported wares from Gaul.

The other four pots on the burial – a flagon, a cup, a second platter and a small jar – were all types of local pot known from the Essex – Hertfordshire region.

Pigs and Burials

The Birchanger Iron Age burial shares similarities with other Iron Age sites excavated at Stansted Airport and at Strood Hall in Little Canfield parish which lies near the former Roman Road Stane Street (now B 1256, formerly A120). Two late Iron Age cremation burials at the Duckend Farm Site, Stansted Airport also contained pigs’ heads. Pigs or wild boar were significant animals in Iron Age culture and myth, so perhaps the pig remains were more than just food offerings.

Want to know more?

See the full report of the excavation at Birchanger “Iron Age and Roman material from Birchanger, near Bishop’s Stortford; excavations at Woodside Industrial Park, 1992” by Maria Medlycott, published in Essex Archaeology and History volume 25 (1994), pages 28 – 45.

The finds and records from this site are held by Saffron Walden Museum and can be studied by appointment (access subject to Covid 19 regulations).

The Gibson Library (formerly Saffron Walden Town Library) is an excellent resource for local history and archaeology publications. For information on how to use the Gibson Library visit their website https://gibsonlibrary.org.uk

The History of Saffron Walden Castle

Saffron Walden Castle is situated on a promontory at the junction of two streams, the Madgate Slade and the King’s Slade, in a position which would have commanded the valley westwards to the River Cam.

Only the flint core of the basement remains of the once 3-storey keep. Inside are traces of a circular staircase, a well shaft and a fireplace.  Unlike some castles, this one didn’t have a motte (mound) but was a tower keep, built on the ground where the solid chalk bedrock could take the weight of the masonry.  An earth mound was raised around the basement level of the keep, but it wore down over time once the castle went of use and the walls were robbed.

The layout of the surrounding streets reflects the original line of the inner bailey.Castle Street, Museum Street and Church Street on the west, whilst on the east side it would have followed the old road, a little to the east of the present Common Hill.

There is no direct evidence about who built the castle at Saffron Walden, but it is likely to have been between 1125 and 1141. Geoffrey had recently been created Earl of Essex and it is highly likely that he built the castle around that time.  The first reference to it is contained in Empress Maud’s first charter in 1141 when Geoffrey de Mandeville II was given permission to move the market from the neighbouring village of Newport to his castle at Walden. Geoffrey de Mandeville changed his allegiance more than once during the civil war and in 1143 he was forced to surrender the newly built castle to King Stephen.  It was restored to Geoffrey de Mandeville III in 1156.  Around 1158, after the civil war, the castle was partially destroyed by order of Henry II.  The castle later passed to Maud, the wife of Henry de Bohun, Earl of Essex and Hereford.  On her death in 1236 it passed to her son, Humphrey, who became the 7th Earl of Essex.

In 1346, Humphrey VII de Bohun, Earl of Essex was given a licence to crenellate the castle, adding battlements to it. The de Bohuns opposed Edward III and in 1362 the castle was confiscated and endowed to the Duchy of Lancaster.  It later passed into the hands of Henry IV and remained a royal manor until the reign of Henry VIII.  The manor was given to Thomas Audley, the Lord Chancellor in 1538.  It then passed by marriage to the Howard family. 

Little is known of its later occupation, but much of the stone was removed before or during the 18th century. The turret on top of the keep was added in 1796 by Lord Howard de Walden. In 1797, it passed to Richard Aldworth Neville and remained in his family until 1979 when the ownership of the castle passed to Uttlesford District Council.

Excavations carried out in 1911-1913 confirmed the location of the castle ditch surrounding the bailey. More recent excavations, in 1973 and 1975, located the northern extent of the bailey, along Castle Street and the extent of the bailey eastwards to Castle Hill House. There have been more recent evaluations and watching briefs by archaeologists as dictated by essential works in the grounds and the recent conservation scheme for the keep, and a geophysical survey in 2012. 

Object of the Month – October 2020

New Zealand Kiwi

We’ve been busy over the last few weeks moving the bird taxidermy from a temporary home back to their usual store. October’s object of the month is a mounted kiwi skin, probably of a little spotted kiwi (Apteryx owenii), the smallest of the five kiwi species.

A stuffed Little spotted kiwi sking, facing left, mounted on a 'naturalistic' base.

The little spotted kiwi in Saffron Walden Museum. © SWM

With strong, heavy legs and no wings, kiwis have evolved for life on the ground. They are nocturnal, dig burrows to nest in, and have stiff, hair-like outer feathers to withstand pushing through leaves and twigs. Unlike most birds they have keen hearing and a good sense of smell to help them find food, mostly earthworms and insects.

A page from a book with drawings showing the head, wing and strong feet of a kiwi.

Kiwis have ‘whiskers’ around their beak, stiff feathers and tiny wings, and strong feet for digging.
[Internet Archive Book Images / No restrictions]

Kiwi numbers have plummeted since Europeans arrived in New Zealand, bringing rats, stoats, pigs, cats, dogs, trophy hunting and habitat destruction. Kiwis grow and reproduce slowly and only thrive today on protected reserves, with intensive work to remove these threats. The indigenous Maori regard the kiwi as a taonga (treasure), and actively protect the birds across 230,000 hectares of land, about the same area as the national government’s Department of Conservation. Altogether, an area of land bigger than Essex is managed for kiwi conservation.

Coloured map of New Zealand showing distribution of kiwis at present day and before European colonisation.

Light green, current location of kiwis; Dark green, location of kiwis before European colonisation; Dark grey, kiwis never known here. [© New Zealand Department of Conservation]

Map with numbers and letters showing locations of Little spotted kiwi populations across New Zealand.

Little spotted kiwi reserves – Predator-free islands: 1, Hen Island; 2, Tiritiri Matangi; 3. Red Mercury Island; 4, Motuihe Island; 5, Kapiti Island; 6, Long Island; 7, Anchor Island; 8, Chalky Island
Mainland: A, Shakespear Open Sanctuary; B, Cape Sanctuary; C, Zealandia.
Michal Klajban / CC BY-SA 4.0

See the little spotted kiwi and find out more about kiwi species in our Object of the Month display when the museum re-opens soon.

More information
New Zealand Department of Conservation (DoC) –  Facts about kiwi: https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/kiwi/facts/
New Zealand DoC – Little Spotted Kiwi: https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/kiwi/little-spotted-kiwi/
New Zealand DoC – Kiwi: https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/kiwi/
Science Learning Hub – Conserving our native kiwi: https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/resources/2784-conserving-our-native-kiwi
WWF New Zealand – Kiwi: https://www.wwf.org.nz/what_we_do/species/kiwi/

References

Internet Archive Book Images. ‘Features of kiwis’ Transactions and proceedings of the New Zealand Institute (1870). Internet Archive Book Images / No restrictions. Available from commons.wikimedia.org [Accessed 29.9.2020]

Michal Klajban. ‘Apteryx owenii – distribution map. CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0). Available from commons.wikimedia.org [Accessed 29.2.2020]

New Zealand Department of Conservation. Kiwi Recovery Plan Summary Document 2018-2028. New Zealand Government, 2018. Available from https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/kiwi/docs-work/ [Accessed 29.9.2020]

Black History Month (October) – Slavery Abolition Reticule

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This silk reticule (bag) was made in the 1820s to support the campaign to abolish slavery. It was donated to the museum in 1927.

The reticule is a beautiful and very delicate object.  It is made from unlined pale pink silk with a drawstring at the top. On one side, the image of a seated enslaved man with his two children has been painted in black. On the reverse, there is a poem entitled ‘The Slaves’ Address to British Ladies’, which reads:

‘Mothers of the fair and brave
Heavy is the debt you owe
For the sufferings of the slave
Thro’ an age of pain and woe.

Shall your sons with freedom blest
Be the oppressors of our race
As I plead, each noble breast
Kindles at the foul disgrace.

Torn from Afric’s sunny plains
By your fathers’ cruelty
We have groaned in heavy chains
We have pined in misery.

But a brighter day is near
Blessings by your justice given
Faithful wives & children dear
And the hope of Joy in Heaven.

We shall bless your holy zeal
In our lisping girls & boys
For we have a heart to feel
All a parent’s anxious joys.

We shall see the harvests wave
And the sweets of science know
Freemen – at the name of Slave
Shall our souls indignant glow.

The reticule was made in the 1820s by a female campaign group, to raise funds and awareness for the anti-slavery movement. Although Britain officially ended its participation in the slave trade in 1807, slavery continued in the British Empire and in 1823, William Wilberforce formed the Anti-Slavery Society to campaign for the end of slavery in the colonies. Whilst women were allowed to join the society, they could not form part of its leadership, so a group of women in West Bromwich formed their own group, which was then referred to as the Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves (later called the Female Society for Birmingham). Other groups formed across the country shortly after and by 1831, there were 73 female organisations campaigning for the immediate and full abolition of slavery.

Many of these groups produced objects such as bags, jewellery, prints and pin cushions, decorated with abolitionist emblems, images and text. These items were sold or distributed as part of their campaigns. Silk bags and reticules like the one in our collection were filled with campaign pamphlets and newspaper cuttings and distributed to prominent people, including King George IV and Princess Victoria, as well as to other women’s anti-slavery societies.

It is very likely that this reticule was made by the Female Society for Birmingham. It is similar to reticules made by the society in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Library of the Religious Society of Friends, and the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington DC. However, we have yet to find another example matching this particular design.

Conservation of the reticule

In 2017, the museum acquired funding to carry out conservation work on the reticule. The reticule was in very poor condition – the silk had faded and was stained, large areas of the silk had badly shattered and were coming loose, and the reticule could not be handled or displayed without causing further damage.    

With funding from the Daphne Bullard Award, the Saffron Walden Quaker Meeting and individuals in our local community, the museum was able to pay Poppy Singer, a textiles conservator, to carry out vital conservation work. Poppy cleaned and reshaped the reticule to its original shape, made an internal support bag and pad, adhered the fragmentary silk, and added very fine netting over the top to prevent future damage. Thanks to Poppy’s work, the reticule can now be carefully handled and displayed in the museum for short periods of time.

“The Museum and Me” – new book by Rachel Morris

Rachel Morris launches her new book on the 27th August 2020, inspired in part by her childhood visits to Saffron Walden Museum….

There can have been few children quite as geeky and eccentric as I was when I was ten. We were living outside Saffron Walden with our high-minded and austere grandmother, the four of us surviving on her state pension.  It was because we were always broke that I spent my childhood haunting Saffron Walden library and museum, where I could drift around for hours on end and no one would ask me any questions.

Years later I became the director of a museum-making company called Metaphor and started to remember my ten-year-old self. My book ‘The Museum Makers’ is about time and memory and museums, but also about families and the secrets they carry and the stories they tell.  One theme that’s threaded through it is Saffron Walden museum. 

I don’t remember the museum’s Victorian incarnation (though I wish I did) because they did up the museum in the middle of the 20th century and the majority of the old Victorian exhibits were swept away.  But some photographs have survived to show how typically Victorian looking the old museum had been, with its dark brown wooden showcases and its rows of deer antlers and its stuffed elephant in the middle of the gallery.  It’s companies like mine that have updated many museums and although there is much I don’t miss about Victorian museums (they were often racist) I do admire their grandeur and the rather gloomy drama of the way they looked.

I didn’t go to Saffron Walden museum to learn things – though I did love history and I was always reading children’s books about time travel. I went partly out of curiosity, partly in search of wonder and amazement, partly out of a restless urge to go to places without having to ask my family first.  I don’t remember many specific things – I was too young for that – though I remember Wallace the Lion.  And I remember the overall look of it, as well as the approach up the drive, with the castle ruins beyond, and the way you went in up the steps to the front door – as if into a house, except that it was not like any house I had ever been into.

I doubt that there was much interpretation at the time (museum interpretation didn’t really take off until the end of the twentieth century), but for me that didn’t matter. I generally visited the museum after having visited the library and so I always arrived with a head full of the stories that I had already consumed (usually whilst lying flat on my tummy on the library floor with the soles of my feet in the air).  And anyway, like lots of children I liked to look at things and to tell stories in my head about them.  One story I learnt either then or later was how the museum’s elephant was taken to London to star in the Great Exhibition in 1851.  Now that’s a story I would have loved when I was little.

After the museum I went round to the Common to pick up the bus home, with the first of my library books already open and me starting to read.

Children have a natural affinity with museums. They share with museum-people a love of things and a willingness (well, this is true of children at least) to ascribe to them magical powers. It’s no accident that a film like ‘Night at the Museum’ has been so popular with children. And so likewise the popularity of fairy tales that are stuffed with things that have magical powers, like slippers that can’t stop dancing and a ring that makes you invisible.  The other thing that amazed me about museums when I was little was the sheer profusion of things inside them.  My high-minded grandmother had got through life owning not much more than a small suitcase of belongings.  One of the qualities of museums that so entranced me when I was little was that they were thing-worlds (and so the very opposite of home), filled with more things than I could count.

Saffron Walden Museum is a family-focused museum with a long history of being child-friendly. As early as the beginning of the twentieth century schoolchildren were being encouraged to visit the museum when Guy Maynard was the curator.

My book, The Museum Makers, is about many things but its basic premise is that if museums have always been about sorting and classifying and making sense out of the confusion of the world, then – in the way that we hold on to our things and our memories and try to make sense of our own pasts – we are all museum makers.

My book is also very definitely a thank you to the museums of my childhood, of which Saffron Walden was one.

Click here https://bit.ly/TheMuseumMakersextract to hear Rachel Morris reading an extract from her new book, The Museum Makers which is published by September Publishing on August 27th 2020.

For more information behind this story visit https://bit.ly/TheMuseumMakersbook

Object of the Month – August 2020

Chinese Foot-Binding – Lotus Shoes

Foot-binding was a traditional practice that originated in 10th century China, among court dancers and high society women. By the 12th century it was a widespread practice. In the early 19th century it was estimated that five to eight women out of every ten in China (taking into account regional variations) had bound feet. It eventually spread through all social classes and while it was outlawed in 1912, it continued in some rural areas for years afterwards. A census taken in 1928 in rural Shanxi found that 18% of women had bound feet, while in some remote rural areas such as the Yunnan Province, foot-binding continued to be practiced until the 1950s. In most parts of China, the practice had virtually disappeared by 1949. In 1999, the last lotus shoe-making factory closed.

The museum has around 14 pairs of Chinese lotus shoes associated with foot binding. They typically have wedge heels, pointed upturned toes which extend beyond the sole and stiffened ankles. The embroidered uppers of the shoes have been beautifully crafted in silk and metallic threads, with embellishments – usually gold braid, beading and sequins.

The foot-binding practice involved plunging the feet into hot water and massaging them with oil. Then all the toes, except for the big ones, were broken and bound flat against the sole, to produce a triangular shape. The arch of the foot was strained as the foot was bent double. The feet were bound in place using a silk strip measuring 10ft long and 2 inches wide. These wrappings were briefly removed every 2 days to prevent blood and pus from infecting the foot. Sometimes “excess” flesh was cut away or encouraged to rot. Over time the wrappings became tighter and the shoes became smaller as the heel and sole were crushed together. After 2 years the process was complete and the feet were most probably numb, with a deep cleft in the sole that could hold a coin in place. Once a foot had been crushed and bound, the shape could not be reversed without undergoing the same pain all over again. This practice was usually undertaken on the feet of a young girl, aged between 3 and 11 years, as their feet would have been softer and easier to manipulate. It was usually carried out by the child’s grandmother. 

This painful practice was associated with beauty, status and marriage eligibility. Having tiny feet was considered sexually attractive, emphasising a masculine Chinese view at that time of a woman’s inferiority and weakness.  It was believed that girls who had their feet bound would be able to attract better marriage offers because of their tiny feet. In wealthy families, the feet of all the daughters would have been bound but in poorer families, the practice might only have been carried out on the eldest daughter, as they had the best chance of making a good marriage union. The ideal length of the foot – the “golden lotus” was deemed to be just three inches. 

Request for help with research project

 

 

 

 

 

 

Martin Barry a PhD student from Bristol University is researching ‘The Materiality, Memories & Material Culture” of Princess Mary’s 1914 (WW1) Christmas Gift to Soldiers & Sailors. Let him know if you are still in possession of your relatives embossed brass ‘Mary Tin’.  He would like to interview relatives by phone or virtually via Zoom.  Contact mb12582@bristol.ac.uk

New blog article: Roman Kitchen & Dining

Curator Carolyn Wingfield is giving a small display of Roman pottery a makeover, looking at where the pots were made or how they were used. This small bowl with a perforated base is a pottery strainer or colander, which has been partially reconstructed; it is quite rare for strainer bowls to be found complete. Domestic pottery like this was usually made locally, so it may well have been traded at a market in the Roman town of Great Chesterford, or the smaller centre at Great Dunmow. In this case, we do not have any information on where the strainer bowl was found. It was common in late Iron Age and Roman times to place food and drink offerings in the grave with the dead (usually cremated remains). We do not have detailed records of where every pot in the collections was found, but it is probable that most of the complete or reconstructed Roman pots in the collections probably come from burials.

Pottery strainer bowl or colander, probably made locally, c 170 – 250 AD

Everyday vessels like this take us straight to the kitchen or hearth of a Romano-British family home, to people preparing their food and maybe adopting some new food fashions and items of kitchen equipment after Britain became part of the Roman Empire. One manual of Roman cooking survives– the recipes of Apicius, a celebrated Roman ‘celebrity chef’. However his recipes do not necessarily reflect what the average Roman Briton was cooking – especially those with more exotic ingredients such as ostrich! Nevertheless it does give us a valuable insight into Roman cuisine, and some ways of preparing common foodstuffs and sauces. Recipes for preparing cooked squashes in sauce or lentils with chestnuts, for instance, refer to straining ingredients.

Small Roman flagon and cup, both dating from the mid 2nd century AD

This flagon was made at a pottery near St Albans (Roman Verulamium) and the cup was imported from north Gaul (Roman France). The flagon was found in Great Chesterford and given to the Museum in 1836 – the year after it opened – by a Mrs Barnes. The little cup, which is just 7cms high, may also have been found at Great Chesterford, but no record survives of its provenance.

Wine was imported and enjoyed before the Roman conquest by at least some local Iron Age people; wine amphorae (large pottery containers) have been found in high-status burials and sherds of amphorae were excavated at an Iron Age village site now under Stansted Airport. Romans usually drank wine diluted with water – even soldiers had a ration of weak, sour wine. After the Roman conquest the taste for wine and its availability spread. Drinks based on wines flavoured with herbs and spices were also popular, as was the use of wine in cooking. Native drinks were based on fermenting grains (barley, wheat) and honey, so mead was probably common as well as beer, though strictly it would have been more like an ale or barley wine as hops were not used in Britain until the late Middle Ages.

The small size of the flagon and cup suggest they might have ben used for someone’s special tipple rather than drinking to quench thirst. Perhaps we could imagine a local Briton enjoying a nip of spiced wine on a damp chilly evening? Bibite! (Drink up!)