A Life In Fragments

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5 objects down, only c.2995 left to go…

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Yes, you read that right. My PhD entails looking at about 3000 metal objects that have been discovered across South West Britain.

Why am I doing this again? (Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Why am I doing this again?
(Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Perhaps even more unfortunately is that these are not nicely collected in one place – they are spread across local and national museums, as well as in private collections. This means that I will be doing a lot of travelling as part of my study, as well as a lot of emailing, phone calling and generally sitting around waiting for people to reply to my messages. As I indicated in my first post, I’m hoping to chart most of my goings on throughout the PhD, so there will be several posts like the following in which I track my travels to different museums – I’ll try and make them as interesting as possible! This week I saw 5 objects split between two museums: Totnes and Allhallows, Honiton. This may not seem like a great achievement, but getting started is always the hardest step – it’s been a while since I studied the actual objects, but it’s always exciting to visit museums and see what they’ve got to offer me. I learn something new every time so here I’m going to regale you with my experiences…

Totnes Elizabethan House Museum

Damp and disgruntled I wandered up the Totnes High Street. It had not stopped raining since Exeter and when you’re carrying two bags of equipment with you, this is not what you want. But it would be worth it I told myself as I searched for the Totnes Elizabethan House Museum (TEHM – god bless acronyms). I know what you’re thinking, what am I doing looking for an Elizabethan House Museum when I’m supposed to be looking at prehistoric things? Well, it just so happens that TEHM has a small collection of prehistoric items spanning the Neolithic to Roman periods, and in amongst the Neolithic flint cores and axes, and Roman pottery sits one lonely Bronze Age socketed axehead.

See, there they are :)

See, prehistoric things!

I’d learnt of this axe from a 1983 Bronze Age metalwork catalogue compiled by the last person (in)sane enough to tackle this task in South West Britain: Susan Pearce (a name I’m likely to mention many times so learn it well!) She had a drawing and description of a socketed axe, which I thought I’d check out. However, following a warm welcome from the Totnes staff, a typically English conversation about the weather and a much-needed cup of tea, I was shown the axe that Totnes owned and realised:

This is not the axehead you're looking for

This is not the axehead you’re looking for

I’ve no idea which axe Sue drew back in the late 70’s/early 80’s, but it wasn’t this one. Her description matched it almost perfectly, but she drew it with a round socket, whilst the one residing in Totnes had a rectangular socket.

Close but no cigar (left from Pearce 1983)

Close but no cigar
(left from Pearce 1983)

I’m still trying to work this out, though it’s probably a mistaken label in her book. Most importantly for me, however, was that this socket had been crushed!

Sockets should not look like this.

Sockets should not look like this.

For those of you who have never handled a socketed axe, they’re pretty sturdy solid pieces of metal i.e. you cannot accidentally crush one, even if you stepped on it – they knew how to make things that last in those days! Crushed sockets essentially indicate that someone, at some point in prehistory, decided that the axe was no longer intended for a functional life and hammered the socket so you could no longer insert a wooden haft. This one had not been fully crushed but you can see hammer marks all around the socket and the long edges of the sockets have caved in and cracked and one piece has fractured off on one side. This is exactly what I’m looking for with my objects.

I think I must have spent over an hour just studying this one axe and learned so much about its potential life-history. The colour, shape, damage, wear – they all inform me about what this axe was used for in prehistory and how it was treated in deposition.

maybe if i concentrate hard enough it will burst into flames...

maybe if I concentrate hard enough it will burst into flames…

I got off to a winning start with this axe. There’s no information about where this axe came from other than that it was found in the “Totnes area” and I’ve managed to find an old article that says it was found in 1921 before it was donated to the museum in 1950, but sadly that’s probably as far as I’ll get with it. At least this shows that the practice of destroying objects was going on in my area of study, which gives me a glean of hope for the future of my PhD. On to the next artefacts in Honiton…

Allhallows Museum, Honiton

The weather was brighter today – thank goodness! I don’t think I could have spent another day wet and shivering. Allhallows Museum, Honiton was at least a little closer and more accessible and as I was met with another warm welcome, tea and biscuits I realised life could be a lot worse than this! Once again, Allhallows is not a museum you would expect me to be looking at Bronze Age things, but Susan Pearce’s catalogue directed me here with the promise of two axes in their collections. It turns out they had four! Sadly they bear little relevance to my PhD so I won’t keep rambling much longer, I promise!

I do love axeheads

There were two Early Bronze Age flat axes and two Late Bronze age socketed axes. All were ‘complete’ as such, displaying no signs of destruction, though one of the flat axes had a couple of notches in its blade edges demonstrating use,

The notches of the blade suggest it was hit against something rather hard

The notches of the blade suggest it was hit against something rather hard

whilst one of the socketed axes was in the same state it had been when cast, with casting seams still intact.

Axehead as it would have come out of the mould

Axehead as it would have come out of the mould

This always strikes me as a peculiar feature to find on Bronze Age objects – why were they casting these things but never preparing or using them? Continental scholars have posited they fitted into a pre-monetary system or perhaps were a form of ingot for transporting the metal. It’s probably going to remain a mystery, especially as we have no discovery information about where any of them have come from; this is unfortunately lost in the mind of some long dead antiquarians who donated them “pre-1977”. Nevertheless, it’s always fun to study axes. Next week I’m crossing the border into Dorset. Wish me luck…


  1. sean bell says:

    Very good and informative article.


  2. […] one of my original posts, I noted that there are about 3000 pieces of Bronze Age metalwork in South West England. […]


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I’m Matt, 26 years old, a glutton for academic punishment, a lover of all things Bronze Age, always willing to continue talking even when my friends have lost interest, and never happy unless overwhelming busy. Find out more here and be sure to follow me on Twitter @mgknight24 and Facebook

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