Hitchin Museum: Social History & Archaeology

Late Bronze Age cremation urn

A Late Bronze Age cremation urn from Gosmore, south of Hitchin: no-one would quibble about this being a display of archaeology © North Hertfordshire District Council

My third post is about Hitchin Museum, the second of the two run by North Hertfordshire District Council. When the council was established in 1974, it took over museums from the former Letchworth Urban District and Hitchin Urban District Councils. Rather than duplicate the coverage in both places, it was decided that Letchworth Museum would concentrate on Natural History and Archaeology, while Hitchin’s permanent displays would deal with Social History and Costume (to which were subsequently added militaria, in the form of the Hertfordshire Yeomanry collection, and a Victorian pharmacy from the old Perks and Llewllyn’s shop in Hitchin, together with the collection of the Hertfordshire Pharmaceutical Trust).

A few years ago, I decided to add some archaeological material to the social history gallery that deals largely with the history of Hitchin. To that end, I put on display some Lower Palaeolithic hand axes, Neolithic tools, a Bronze Age cremation urn and a group of Late Iron Age and Romano-British pots from cremation burials. This created a case dealing with the period before the town began to develop. A second case already contained some medieval material (most notably an attractive encaustic floor tile from St Mary’s parish church and a ridge tile decorated with a three-dimensional horseman from the former Brotherhood guildhall on Bancroft, dating from 1475); to this, I added a late sixth-century globular jar from Gosmore and a skull from one of the sixth-century burials excavated on Queen Street in 2001. This, strangely, is the period when Hitchin seems to have developed as a community.

Medieval ridge tile with three-dimensional horseman

A medieval ridge tile from The Brotherhood (2-4 Bancroft, Hitchin), depicting a rider on horseback: fifteenth century in date, but is it archaeology or social history? © North Hertfordshire District Council

Adding these last items to an existing display raised all sorts of questions for me. Why were the tile and horseman considered social history objects rather than archaeological? There are other contemporary items (such as some attractive fifteenth-century wooden ceiling bosses from Hitchin or a ninth-century silver linked pin) that have made their way into the archaeological collections (and are consequently currently on display in Letchworth Museum). Why were they not seen as items that illustrate the social history of the town? After all, the linked pin is contemporary with Æthelgifu, a wealthy local woman, whose still extant will records gifts to the church in Hitchin, which she refers to as “my Minster“.

I comes down, in the end, to specialisms. In archaeology, we are beset by the problem of period specialisation. We have people who deal with Roman pottery, with Bronze Age metalwork, with post-medieval tile (well, perhaps not so many of the latter), whose professional lives rarely bring them into contact with each other. Such specialisms are a necessary evil – we need experts to deal with different classes of material – but they lead to a compartmentalisation that can make the labels we apply to the past appear more clear-cut than they really are. Nobody woke up in 2200 BCE and decided that they were no longer in the Neolithic and that therefore everything had to change. Nevertheless, we retain these labels because they are useful: Neolithic societies were different from those of the Bronze Age, but not in the sense that they changed overnight from one to the other.

Comemmorative coronation mag of Elizabeth II, 1953

A twentieth-century object, a mug commemorating the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953: few would disagree with classing this as social history © North Hertfordshire District Council

It is the same in museums. We have specialisms within museums. The Keeper of Fine Art may be responsible for the fine post-medieval ceramics (such as collections of Royal Doulton), while the Keeper of Social History may be responsible for the local earthenwares. Unless, of course, these items were found during excavations, in which case they will most likely be the responsibility of the Keeper of Archaeology. This highlights the artificial nature of these divisions. Is Social History just Archaeology with documents, or is Archaeology just Social History with objects? Either way, museums tend to use objects to illustrate both Social History and Archaeology because that is the nature of museums: they are repositories for objects (which may include documents, but that is very much a secondary function).

So, where does archaeology fit into a museum like Hitchin Museum? Insofar as the history of the town extends back to a period before any records survive, we can only deal with its social history through archaeological data sets. In the majority of places, the earliest centuries of a community’s existence lack all documentation and can only be reconstructed using the surviving material culture and other archaeological evidence. By separating this off from “Social History”, though, we create an impression that there are fixed dividing lines in the past and, more worryingly, that the true “history” of a place only begins when we have surviving records. I get the impression that archaeologists still have a long way to go before we convince historians, let alone the general public, that this is not the case.

Museum Archaeology in North Hertfordshire

Iron Age display in Letchworth Museum

Iron Age display in Letchworth Museum, June 2012 © North Hertfordshire District Council

Letchworth Museum, with its displays of local archaeology, will be closing to the public in September 2012. For once, that’s not one of these all-too-common tales of woe from a public sector that is cutting its soft targets to balance its books. It’s all to do with investment in a new district museum that will tell the story of North Hertfordshire, which is due to open in 2014.

In the meantime, I am working on understanding the objects in our collection that will best illustrate that story. Currently, we do not have a complete catalogue of the hundreds of thousands of archaeological objects held by the Museums Service. True, we have an Accessions Register stored in four ledgers that go back to the opening of Letchworth Museum in 1915 (and, fittingly, the first entry is for a collection of sixteen English silver coins that are curated as part of the archaeological collection). However, they are only partly computerised and, for the earlier entries, the information they contain is minimal. To compound matters still further, there has been no systematic entry of excavated material (much of it excavated by the Museums Service itself from the 1970s to 1990s), most of which remains unaccessioned.

As a compromise solution, I decided to create a stand-alone database detailing everything that is in our collection. Working on it for one day a week for several months, I have now reached 2761 objects, the last entry being a small jar from a Romano-British cemetery in Baldock, excavated in 1928 (and accessioned on 15 May 1928). At this rate of progress, I ought to be finished in about thirty years! Thankfully, with help from our dedicated band of volunteers, it ought to be finished before the new museum is opened.

It is a truism that only a tiny fraction of a museum’s collections can ever be displayed at any time. With the archaeological objects from North Hertfordshire, it’s well under 1% of the collection. Most of the material will never be displayed because it consists of seemingly unpromising potsherds, broken tile, animal bones and so on. Of course, we need to keep this material for further research, usually carried out by outsiders from research institutions such as universities. In this way, the service has contributed parts of a Bronze Age collared urn for lipid analysis (it had formerly contained a milk-based substance), human vertebrae with evidence for tuberculosis (of six samples submitted, four tested positive for TB) and a collection of material excavated at Ravensburgh Castle in 1964 that has been borrowed for analysis and publication.

Museums Resource Centre, Burymead Road, Hitchin

The outside of the Burymead Museums Resouce Centre, Hitchin

Most of our archaeological material is stored at the Museums Resource Centre at the Bury Mead industrial estate in Hitchin. This is where I am based much of the time, although I also work in Letchworth and Hitchin Museums, where I am available to give advice (including identifying artefacts) to members of the public. The service moved into the buildings in 1990 as a temporary measure and, twenty-two years later, we seem to be here more-or-less permanently. A purpose built bulk store (for non-sensitive archaeological material) was constructed in 1991; it has twenty-seven bays of roller racking and four bays of fixed shelving, which are full to capacity. Archaeological small finds were also moved here temporarily in 2003, but will be moved into better storage shortly.

Over half of the archaeological collection comes from excavations in Baldock. This is as a result of three large campaigns of excavation: the excavation of an extensive Roman cemetery site by Percival Westell of Letchworth Museum from 1925 to 1930, the excavation of several large areas of the Roman town by Ian Stead of the British Museum from 1968 to 1972 and numerous excavations in advance of development by Gil Burleigh of Letchworth Museum from 1978 to 1994. The site has yielded some spectacular finds, including the earliest Welwyn-type burial ever found (it dates from no later than 100 BCE). There is also a large collection of material from an important but sadly poorly known prehistoric settlement at Blackhorse Road in Letchworth Garden City, excavated by John Moss-Eccardt of Letchworth Museum from 1957 to 1974, where there was extensive Late Neolithic and Iron Age occupation as well as the only Anglo-Saxon cemetery excavated in North Hertfordshire. Recently, the Museums Service acquired the material from Guy Beresford’s excavation of the deserted settlement of Caldecote from 1974 to 1976, which has a good range of medieval pottery (including a complete St Neots Ware cooking pot of probably tenth-century date).

I find it a real privilege to curate such an extensive, diverse and important collection of objects. There are enough display worthy Iron Age and Roman brooches to fill a museum with them alone; the same goes for Iron Age and Roman coins or for prehistoric flint artefacts. Much as a specialist would appreciate this sort of display, it wouldn’t help us tell the story of North Hertfordshire. True, there are challenges. A lot of the material acquired in the early days is poorly provenanced or not even from the area; there are even some exotic objects (we have a small collection of Ancient Egyptian artefacts, for instance) that we are no longer part of our collections policy. In a way, this stuff is part our local story: it tells us about Victorian and early twentieth-century collectors and about what was thought appropriate for local museums to hold. As work progresses on determining exactly which stories the new museum will tell and with which objects, we will be blogging about it on our own dedicated museums website.