Phew! It’s been a hot, humid couple of days! Don’t get me wrong, I like the sun as much as the next ginger person, but it’s been quite nice to step into cool museum stores and lose myself in objects over the last two days. This week I’ve been tackling the collections at Christchurch and Plymouth, which are not evenly remotely close together and I’m now beginning to appreciate why people look at me as though I’m mad when I say I’m doing the whole of South West England.
It was barely 9.30am and I was already wafting my shirt to generate any sort of air movement. I’d left a disgruntled Robyn behind in Dorchester (disgruntled because of my 7am alarm on her day off), and journeyed halfway across Dorset to get to the RHMG. As with most museums I had no idea what to expect – I’d only dealt with the Archaeology curator, David Allan, over email, but he wasn’t usually based at the museum so it was all a bit up in the air.
Christchurch is a funny one. When Susan Pearce tackled her corpus in 1983, the county boundaries were different and Christchurch was in West Hampshire. Thirty years on and it’s now in East Dorset. This means that many of the findspots once recorded as “Hampshire” are now “Dorset” and there’s a whole load of material here that I hadn’t seen and site names I’ve never really come across. It really emphasises the problem of projecting modern boundaries onto the past.
Nevertheless, the more metalwork the better! The volunteers let me in and I was led to my source of interest.
The Bronze Age metalwork at Christchurch put me in two minds as the first thing I noticed was that all the pieces were complete objects. For many this is a source of joy, and there is so much to be learned from these pieces, but for me, I was sorry not to see more fragments (#fragmentationproblems). The material is brilliantly laid out, strapped to an upright coppiced hazel fence and surrounded by hafted replicas – it felt a shame to dismantle it. Christchurch have a great collection, largely consisting of axes, and I spent a really enjoyable day looking over the complete specimens, fulfilling my essential axe quota for the week, and analysing elements of use-wear and post-recovery.
Not a lot to say from the perspective of my PhD, other than that with so many complete objects all largely showing signs of use, it increasingly emphasises the anomaly that is broken axes. I left the museum in search of a satisfying spot to relax in the sun:
My next day started with an early morning train journey along Devon’s beautiful coast, a train-stranger obviously unfamiliar with personal boundaries, and a quick nap that nearly made me miss my stop. I arrived at the museum stores and Fiona, the curator, led through to a back room where I was presented with the Mount Batten material.
This is a prehistoric and Roman settlement site that yielded hundreds of pieces of metalwork, with much of the 55 pieces of Bronze Age material in fragments (horray!) In fact, it’s so fragmentary in some cases that it’s nearly impossible to tell exactly what it is I’m looking at:
Sifting through box after box identifying the Bronze Age material from the Iron Age and Roman was a merry little game that meant my whole morning pretty much disappeared without me noticing I hadn’t even stopped for a cup of tea!
As I wrapped up the Mount Batten collection, I moved onto other pieces, including a spearhead blade broken into two pieces and a sword that was… well, let’s just say Aragorn wouldn’t have offered it to Frodo.
Swords and spears in these conditions seem highly unlikely to have occurred by accident. The spearhead must have been in at least 3 pieces at one stage with a substantial portion of the blade and the socket nowhere to be seen, while the sword shows signs of having been bent near to the breaking point.
The final pieces were on display in the main gallery
These again represent some more complete specimens and after standing conspicuously in front of the glass cases scrawling down notes about their conditions for about half an hour, I retreated to explore the rest of the museum and its most important exhibit:
These 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, even though I’ve yet to break the 100 object barrier (I’m not far off!). Dealing with the contrast of complete and fragmented objects from the museums is actually a really interesting way to approach the data, as many of the pieces become pretty much indistinguishable once fragmented and you might be able to tell that one is from a socketed axe, but any more than that is difficult. Still, the experimental work I have planned will hopefully offer some answers – it’s coming soon, I promise!
My sincere thanks to Stephen Lowry and the volunteers at Red House Museum and Gardens for being so accommodating, to David Allan for traipsing across Hampshire to assist my research, and to Fiona Pitt at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery for being so attentive and interested in my research, as always.