Treasure Exhibition

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While staying in Sussex, I had the chance to visit my Treasure comic, which is on display at the Redoubt Fortress Museum in Eastbourne.

The comic is part of an exhibition on treasure, presenting artefacts, books and images from local collections.

There was plenty there to keep a prehistorian happy.

A palaeolithic flint axe…

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A bronze age socketed axe…

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Dr A’s favourite, an Iron Age chalk head:

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This was a thoughtful, beautifully designed exhibition, asking visitors to come to their own definition of treasure.

And it was great to see my comic printed on professional display panels – really big!

P1000303Dr H; Photos: Mr X

The Museum of Marco Polo

I have found myself wandering the beautiful, thoughtful galleries of the Museum of Marco Polo of late, so I thought I should track down Rachel Morris – the museum’s curator/editor – and ask her about her thoughts on museums.
The Museum of Marco Polo
 The Museum by Moonlight copy

How did you first encounter the Museum of Marco Polo?

The Museum of Marco Polo treads a fine (and very post-modernist) line between fact and fiction.  It all goes back to a holiday we spent on Buyukada Island off the coast of Istanbul, a place where – improbably enough – Trotsky spent his first four years in exile.  I was reading Borges’ short stories at the time and in between we went in search of Trotsky – ‘Trotsky?’ asked an old woman.  ‘I have never heard of him.  Is he a friend of yours?’ – all of which was enough to put a fictional spin on the place.  I remember we stood looking at a ruined villa and a garden of shady cypress trees – and that I thought to myself, ‘Well, you could make a beautiful museum here.’  That – and the fact that Marco Polo is a hero of mine – was enough to get it going.

In the History of the Museum we learn how Marco Polo was (literally) haunted by the ghosts of his past. Is the Museum itself haunted?

All museums play strange games with Time.  Objects make such long and complex journeys through time and often outlive us by far.  Museums also outlive us – although not always and only for a time.  In the end even the British Museum will be a roofless ruin – and the objects probably moved on somewhere else – which is an extraordinary thought.  In fact given how strange are the games that museums play with Time I am always amazed that there are not more ‘haunted museum’ stories than there are.

The Museum's Ruined Courtyard copy

Why are museums, real and imaginary, so important to you?

The truth is that when the Museum of Marco Polo began I thought it was the only imaginary museum in the world.  I soon discovered that there is a long history of imaginary museums that runs parallel to thehistory of the real ones.  An early example is the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Browne’s Musaeum Clausum, which exists as a beautiful description of an imaginary collection.  More recent examples turn up in Angela Carter’s novels and there is of course ‘The Museum of Innocence’, created by the novelist Orhan Pamuk as a novel and which he then built in real life.  Lots of writers, artists and film-makers love museums – I think because they fire the imagination – and real museums can learn a lot from this.  I think that many museums are works of art (maybe folk art?) and that the best museums have a thread of imagination running through them.

 When I was growing up my family would often visit Tring Natural History Museum. My favourite exhibits were the (replica) dodo and the two dressed fleas. Did you have a favourite/local museum as a child?

When I was little I used to come up to London to stay with my cousins.  They were way more glamorous than me and I was filled with awe-struck admiration for them.  When I had done all the admiring that I could I used to go down to the British Museum.  That was before museums became fashionable but I was a very geeky child and they suited me fine.  I was reading Mary Renault’s novels about ancient Greece so I spent a lot of time in the Greek galleries trying to make head or tail of them.

Magic Lantern Slides from Cinema Museum

Have you been inspired by any recent visits to museums or exhibitions?

I’m a big fan of the Cinema Museum in Turin.  It’s in a 19th century building called the Mole (which was once a synagogue) and tells the early history of Italian cinema when Turin was its capital – until Mussolini moved it to Rome in the 1930’s to punish the Torinese for their uppity and anti-fascist behaviour.  It has a big central hall where you can recline on cinema seats and watch the long-dead people of Turin flickering across the walls like beautiful ghosts.   But my favourite bits are the toy theatres, old cameras, magic lanterns (see image of lantern slides above), and a multitude of other 19th century optical toys in the early gallery.  It’s cleverly designed so that the beautiful, chunky things retreat into the background and the luminous images take centre stage.

 What would you like to see in the museums of the future?

Wit, imagination, beauty, enlightenment, light-heartedness – all the things that visitors love, that I love  – and that can and should be in abundance in museums.

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 Many thanks to Rachel for answering my questions. You can visit the wonderful Museum of Marco Polo here: www.momarcopolo.com and you can follow it on twitter too @MoMarcoPolo

The images of the museum are by Isabel Greenberg, chief illustrator to the Museum of Marco Polo and author of ‘The Encyclopedia of Early Earth’.  For more details go to www.isabelnecessary.com

Ask an Archaeologist: Neil Wilkin

Prehistories is very pleased to have Dr Neil Wilkin, Curator of Bronze Age Collections at the British Museum, take part in Ask an Archaeologist.

Ask an Archaeologist: Neil Wilkin

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What is your specialism?

My specialism is the Bronze Age in North West Europe. My PhD was on Early Bronze Age Food Vessel pottery and burial in Northern England and before that I was involved in a project that looked at Beaker burial in North East Scotland. In the course of working at the British Museum, I’ve become increasingly interested in metalwork deposition and hoarding. I’m also keen to bring together different types of evidence (e.g. ceramics, metalwork, typology and strands of context) that have often been studied in isolation in order to produce more joined-up accounts of the period.

Why did you become an archaeologist?

I was surrounded by archaeology growing up just outside Glasgow. My Dad was keen on buying our house because it was over the Antonine Wall, with a little bit of the foundation layer in the back garden! My primary school was across the road from the Roman baths and my bedroom looked out onto the Roman fort on Castlehill. At University I escaped to prehistory. I was always just as curious about who was beyond the Wall as who built it and Paul Garwood’s lectures and seminars on prehistory really captured my interest.

Which archaeologist (past or present) would you invite onto an excavation?

J.R. Mortimer (1825-1911). He excavated an impressive number of Early Bronze Age barrows near his home on the Yorkshire Wolds, many of them containing Food Vessel burials. By the standards of the day he was a good excavator, having a better grasp of recording and stratigraphy than many of his contemporaries. He was clearly passionate about archaeology from a young age and sacrificed a great deal in pursuing it. In a very good biography, Stephen Harrison makes a case that ‘had Mortimer lived and worked on the chalkland of southern England…he would have been celebrated today as the founding father of modern British archaeology’ (2011, 2), I think he’s certainly up there and deserves wider recognition. It would be good to tell him that.

2. Mortimer cover
Choose one of the following: trowel; museum; archive; library;
landscape; laptop.

I would have to say ‘museum’! But with the MicroPasts project, a collaboration between the British Museum and the Institute of Archaeology (UCL) underpinned by public participation (see http://micropasts.org/), we’re trying to show that Museum objects, archives and computers (specifically 3D models) can be brought together in useful and productive ways. This has involved digitising and transcribing the National Bronze Age Index, a large, traditional
card-based archive and making models of Bronze Age tools and weapons using structure from motion photogrammetry. It feels like the past and future of museum object recording can be brought together.

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What is your dream find?

The most iconic objects in museums tend to be those without parallel, with ‘the’ before their names (the Nebra sky disc, the Folkton drums and the Mold Gold Cape), and that’s both a blessing and curse. I’d like to find a close parallel for something we previously thought was unique and which we have many questions about, something deserving of
‘the’ in the title! The comparison and context would hopefully deepen our understanding without stealing the original object’s intrigue. Perhaps another cape of gold?
4. Mold Gold Cape

Time travel, yes or no? (Give reasons)

No, thank you. I had a quite heated debate about this question on a dig in Shetland and I think its quite a telling one…

I enjoy the difficulty of the task and the lack of certainty in studying prehistory, I think the process constantly humbles us and that that’s an important part of its value as a discipline.

If you had to relocate to the past, which era would you move to?

Naturally the Bronze Age, especially the early Beaker period (c.2400 BC), with the new ideas, technologies and people shaking up the old world order, but perhaps that’s a bit predictable? I’d like to see Victorian Scotland and specifically Glasgow during the lead up to the International Exhibition of 1901, which established the Kelvingrove
Art Gallery and Museum. Glasgow has lots of beautiful buildings and monuments from this period and from the Georgian era, but they’re often overlooked, even by its inhabitants. Alasdair Gray’s observations in ‘Lanark’ (1981) captures the tension:

“Glasgow is a magnificent city…Why do we hardly ever notice that?…Because nobody imagines living here…think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films.  But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively…when our imagination needs exercise we use these to visit London, Paris, Rome under the Caesars, the American West at the turn of the century, anywhere but here and now. Imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world outside. It’s all we’ve given to ourselves.”

Is there a work of art (e.g. novel, painting, music, film, etc) that has influenced you as an archaeologist?

Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel ‘Sunset Song’, for the tensions and balance between land and soil on one hand and ideas and education on the other. I also think some of the aspects of the farming lifestyle that are lamented as passing away (as agricultural machinery was introduced) would have been recognised by Bronze Age communities in North East Scotland, so it relates a really epochal moment. It also captures the conflict between fieldwork and academic writing that archaeologists experience.

“So that was Chris and her reading and schooling, two Chrisses there were that fought for her heart and tormented her. You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day; and the next you’d waken with the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of earth in your face, almost you’d cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies.” (Grassic Gibbon 1932)

When I recently revisited Cyril Fox’s seminal archaeological work, ‘The Personality of Britain’, I realised the two books were published in the same year (1932), and while they differ in important ways, they also convey some similar themes and beliefs about the relationships between land and people.


What are you working on at the moment?

In addition to the MicroPasts project mentioned before, I’m working on publishing the PhD thesis on Northern English Early Bronze Age Food Vessel burials. I’m also working towards an integrated study of Bronze Age metalwork deposition and hoards. The Treasure Act component of my job also means that, come Monday, I could be working on a new hoard that’s recently been found and that inevitably takes me off in new and unexpected directions…

5. Hoard

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Many thanks to Neil for taking part!

Make sure you check out the MicroPasts website.

Click on the link to read other Ask an Archaeologist features.

Dr H

New Connections

I’ve just been updating the links page on Prehistories, so I thought I should give a proper mention to some of the blogs I’ve been following recently.

First up is the excellent Urban Prehistorian site. This site charts the fate of prehistoric monuments on wasteland, housing estates and roundabouts. A thought-provoking blog, with an excellent range of postcards.

Greetings from Auchterarder

Reading The Urban Prehistorian has lead me into the vast world of psychogeography online.

These sites include The Fife Psychogeographical Collective and Landscapism.

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For the more hauntalogically-minded among you, head over to A Year in the Country, where you can discover the chilling truth about Brown Bakelite Boxes, read about Nigel Kneale and discover more about Delia Derbyshire, as well as admiring the site design and photography. There is even an online Artifacts Shop.

Image O4-A Year In The Country

Meanwhile, looking ahead to a series of innovative events, Public Archaeology 2015 gives us a breakdown of projects to look forward to in the coming year.

Public archMy most recent discovery is the Museum of Marco Polo. Illustrated by the wonderful Isabel Greenberg, this is a blog about museums – what they are, might and could be.

Isabel Museum by Moonlight

Enjoy!

Dr H

Archaeological Oddities: The Penbryn Spoons

 

AO Divination

 

You can read more about the spoons, and similar finds here and here and here.

Click here for more Archaeological Oddities.

A5 copies of Archaeological Oddities Volume One now available on my etsy shop – only £2 + postage!

Dr H