A Life In Fragments

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There’s Method In The Fragments

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It’s been a while since I wrote one of these – it’s been a busy month – and I’d like to be able to regale you with exciting tales of deciphering archaeological riddles in diaries, saving dismayed damsels-in-distress, and avoiding arrows flying out of walls. My time has unfortunately mostly been spent writing conference papers, intermitted with some more intriguing museum visits.

You still get a cunning protagonist though

You still get a cunning protagonist though

There’s not a lot to say about writing conference papers – they’re tedious, nerve-racking and unfortunately a necessary hoop I have to jump through in the world of academia. Once written, I accompany it with a colourful PowerPoint and then stand on a stage arguing my ideas to internationally acclaimed academics, most of whom I’m inevitably never going to be able to please.

So basically the hoop is on fire and there’s a bottomless pit of despair on the other side

So basically the hoop is on fire and there’s a bottomless pit of despair on the other side

That joy isn’t until next week though so for now, I thought I’d share my recent visit to Poole Museum.

Poole was potentially my most interesting museum trip so far, as it involved solving mysteries, proving methodologies and one just plain weird object. I wouldn’t normally take you through each and every object, but this time I’m going to (I promise it’s probably interesting to people other than me…) First, to the mystery solving!

Ten palstaves were found during the construction of Bournemouth Hospital in 1985, of which five mysteriously disappeared around the same time the construction workers went home for the day and they’ve not been seen since. My records stated that there should still be 5/6 in split possession of Bournemouth and Poole museums, but when I visited Bournemouth a couple of months ago, they had no idea what I was talking about.

Since then I’ve done some digging around (pun intended) and found that the “5/6” was actually only five and the claim that they were split across two museums originated from an article written in 1992. Museums change a lot and rather rapidly, so I had high hopes that when I stepped in Poole Museum I would find all five safe and sound.

Hurrah! I was right!

Hurrah! I was right!

Tracking down objects from odd references is almost never this easy and I must admit it was immensely satisfying to be able to set the record straight. Of course, until I came along Bournemouth never thought they had any in the first place and Poole were never aware there was any confusion, so all I achieved was cleaning up the mess I created for myself… Moving swiftly on!

Objects I was keen to see at Poole included two refitting spearhead fragments and two refitting sword fragments, which, inevitably, turned out to be the same thing – definitely should have seen that one coming. They were in fact spearhead fragments, probably of a Late Bronze Age socketed pegged type. The fragments represented the middle and upper part of the spearhead blade, broken above the blade-socket junction and with the tip missing.


It’s common to find this form of spearhead broken down into fragments of about the size represented here and the fact that it was in a minimum of three fragments are one stage, automatically inclines me to believe it is the result of deliberate breakage. One of the key things I look for when determining deliberate destruction is associated marks that might suggest the intent behind the action. This might come in the form of chisel or hammer marks, bending, or evidence of burning.

Spearhead side view

When you turn this spearhead on its side, you can see it is slightly bent, which could be the result of use, or alternatively an effect of breaking it into fragments. If the tip of this spearhead was struck with a heavy object (such as a stone hammer) it could cause the spearhead to bend in this manner. It’s also always useful to check for casting flaws in the metal, which may incline the object towards breaking.

While the upper and lower most fragments didn’t show any significant casting flaws, thus increasing the likelihood of intent, the refitting fragment sections were of a markedly different colour and patination (the material that builds up on bronze over time – essentially rust for bronze). This means that while breakage at each end happened in antiquity, the refitting fragmentation was recent.

Ancient break - the fracture has become patinated (i.e. green) consistent with the rest of the fragment

Ancient break – the fracture has become patinated (i.e. green) consistent with the rest of the fragment

Fresh break - you can see the bronze-ish colour surrounding the black core.

Fresh break – you can see the bronze-ish colour surrounding the black core, inconsistent with the green patination.

It also means that my methodological approach is actually working! This recent fracture appears to have happened at the apex of the bending where the metal would have been weakest and could easily have happened upon excavation of the spearhead.

The final object was a winged axe. It’s a funny looking thing:

A bit like if a palstave and a socketed axehead had a lovechild.

A bit like if a palstave and a socketed axehead had a lovechild.

A winged axe essentially has its flanges hammered up and folded over in an elaborate “winged” form. This probably helped secure the haft in place and forging the flanges would have been much stronger than casting them. The Bronze Age community living in the Poole region clearly didn’t think this object was odd enough so jammed a fragment of a bronze tube into the wings of the axe and threw it into what is now Poole harbour, where in 2005 a diver stumbled (swam?) across it.

Winged axe with tube

See, unnecessary tube jammed in wings.

I wish I could tell you why they did this, I really do, but we have no idea and probably never will. The tube fragment is completely ambiguous, and frankly pretty useless in its fragmented form. It’s only about 4cm long and over time corrosion products have sealed it within one set of wings. I wonder if at one stage there was more to it, or if another object was wedged in the other set of wings and has simply fallen out, but this is just pure speculation.

Curiouser and curiouser...

Curiouser and curiouser…

Interestingly, this habit of placing fragments of other objects into axes is more common than you’d think and across Britain and parts of Europe (specifically South-East Europe), small fragments of other objects were jammed into the sockets of axeheads. There definitely appears to be some significance in these actions, but again we are left to speculate.

Needless to say I left Poole feeling pretty happy; if only every day could be this interesting.


All artefact photos taken courtesy of Poole Museum, and a special thank you to Sue Beckett for taking the time to discuss the objects with me.


  1. […] mentioned in my last post about the associated characteristics I look for when dealing with broken objects and in the case of […]


  2. […] and my voice was left to echo through the microphone and around the lecture theatre. In a previous post I pre-eminently described the conference experience as jumping through a hoop of fire with a […]


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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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