A Life In Fragments

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Raiding the (Lost) Ark: The Weird and The Wonderful

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If there’s one museum I’ve spent more time at than most, it’s Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery (RAMM) and its store: the Ark. Trying to sample almost two hundred Bronze Age metalwork pieces and hoards from a variety of contexts and in countless conditions is no small undertaking, and one for which I’m very fortunate to have the support and interest of the Curator of Antiquities: Tom Cadbury, so I must start by giving a massive thanks to him and the rest of the museum team for so tirelessly accommodating me.

These boxes contain my hopes and dreams

These boxes contain my hopes and dreams

As you can imagine, with that many items having been accumulated over a couple of hundred years, you get more than a few odd ones, so I thought with this post I’d present some of the more weird and wonderful pieces and situations I’ve come across so far.

The Weird and The Wonderful #1: The Broadall “Rapier”

I’d wager that when you picture a rapier, you think of a long elegant weapon, emanating magnificence and skill.

And of course French Royalists shouting about solidarity.

And of course French Royalists shouting about solidarity. 

Bronze Age rapiers look very little like these Early Modern creations, but the term has been appropriated due to lazy archaeological nomenclature. For the Bronze Age, they are seen as an evolution of the dagger and a precursor to a sword, so you can still stick ‘em with the pointy end, but their thin, fragile blade and short hilt brings into question their appropriateness for fighting.

It's shiny and pretty whatever it was used for.

It’s shiny and pretty whatever it was used for.

Regardless, when I saw RAMM had one that I hadn’t seen before, and it was apparently recovered with part of a sheath, I thought this would be an exciting opportunity to study more weapons. Tom and I opened the box, which seemed small to contain an apparently “complete” rapier, and were confronted with this:

RAMM-P014 Broadall (1)

This “rapier”, discovered in the late 1800s in nr Broadall, South Dartmoor, is indeed complete, and matches the form of a Bronze Age rapier perfectly. But it’s also only 10cm long (about the width of my hand) – clearly not a weapon fit for D’Artagnan. Adhered to the surface on both sides is a thick layer of material, which is what has been regarded as the “sheath”, though even under a microscope we couldn’t quite tell what material it was made from. Both the size and the adhered material are incredibly unusual and I don’t know of any others that resemble this artefact.

It's just a little bit weird...

It’s just a little bit weird…

Signs of whether this object was ever used, or indeed what purpose it might have served are limited. There’s the possibility it was a deliberately created miniature, perhaps as a token or heirloom, and the fact that it was covered in some material might support this idea. It’s hard to envisage the functional purpose it would serve, though potentially a trusty little knife-esque object would be quite useful.

The Weird and The Wonderful #2: The People Who Just Didn’t Seem To Care

People have been discovering Bronze Age metalwork for hundreds of years and if we’re lucky, the people finding it have been individuals and groups that recognise its significance and thus hold on to it as a symbol of the past and at the very least note down the rough area in which it was found. This is of course an optimistic view that in reality is rare and many of the people who discover the pieces stumbled across them by accident and saw no value in them at all.

One such hoard is that from Lovehayne Farm, which was discovered between 1760 and 1768 and consisted of “over 100” axes or “sufficient to fill a wheelbarrow” – who needs the metric system when you can measure things in wheelbarrows, eh? This was then promptly sold as scrap and melted down – the only surviving remnants being 3 palstaves, a socketed axe of questionable provenance, and an axe of uncertain type. This hoard would today represent one of the largest hoards ever found in Devon.

Or possibly the largest wheelbarrow.

Or possibly the largest wheelbarrow.

Another find, which I got particularly excited about when I saw it, is a flat axe from Kentisbeare. This piece was bent and covered in chisel marks – my excitement dwelling of course in the fact that this artefact must have been intentionally mangled. And indeed it was: in the late 1800s the finder of this axe took it upon himself to strike this axe repeatedly with a chisel 33 times before giving up and offering it to the museum, probably quite dejectedly.

Why is anyone's guess...

Why is anyone’s guess…

I think it’s a testament to the Bronze Age metalworkers that the finder with his modern implements could not break this object – he could barely bend it out of shape – and it’s really interesting from my point of view that destroying these things is clearly no easy feat.

They are seriously resilient

They are seriously resilient

These two cases are by no means exceptions. There’s hundreds of instances just like these from all over Europe but it’s a massive issue that hinders so much of our interpretive potential for these objects. I’m focused on how prehistoric people felt about these objects, but it would probably be just as interesting to see the changing attitudes towards Bronze Age metalwork in modern times.

The Weird and The Wonderful #3: Breaking Axe Blades

Finally, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to talk about some fragments. As I’ve indicated above, breaking a bronze implement is not an easy task. And yet, I see my fair share of broken axeheads. Some, like the palstave, break frequently across the stop-ridge and this is due to an inherent design flaw that makes them weak at precisely the point where you’d want them to be strongest.

The fragmentation doesn't explain why the two pieces are different colours though

The fragmentation doesn’t explain why the two pieces are different colours though

The cutting edges are also commonly broken, and it’s socketed axe blades that I see most often, having been separated from the socket end. My final object of the day at the RAMM happened to be one such piece:

If axes could be models, this piece would totally be one.

If axes could be models, this piece would totally be one.

clyst honiton axe

You can see that there’s not too much of it left. One side is in pretty bad shape, while the other is fairly intact, which could be indicative that it was deliberately hammered to breaking point on one side. It’s my suspicion that there was something significant about separating the two ends of the axe and either depositing both separately, or depositing only one, while retaining the other for recycling, but that’s mere speculation.

What I’m musing over here is only a fraction of what I’ve seen (and have yet to see) in the depths of the RAMM, but despite over a hundred years of research, there’s so much more to think about and learn from these objects. Quite honestly, as much as I love the pristine implements and majestic swords, give me a weird and wonderful fragment any day and I’ll be happy.

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3 Comments

  1. […] two days, coupled with the visit to RAMM last week, have massively expanded my database and it finally feels like I might be making a dent, […]

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  2. […] actually do then?! My main task, in fact the main objective of my PhD, revolves around studying and interpreting objects in museums, and my mugs of tea and empty lunch boxes are all casualties of my intellectual pursuit to actually […]

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  3. […] an early form of palstave demonstrated some of the unfortunate work of antiquarians making early discoveries, having been scrubbed clean and chemically stripped in order to reveal the […]

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