Weston

Archaeology at Letchworth Museum: telling stories about the past

A bronze escutcheon from an Iron Age wine-mixing vessel

A bronze escutcheon from an Iron Age wine-mixing vessel found in Baldock © North Hertfordshire District Council

We archaeologists are constantly reassuring the public that it’s not all about treasure: we are as interested in rubbish (if not more so) than in Tut‘ankhamun’s gaudy baubles. Yet we all go slightly dewy-eyed when something really beautiful turns up, even if we are sometimes ashamed to admit it. A gold stater of Cunobelin found on site will have everyone rushing across to see it: yet another sherd of Harrold shelly ware will not.

This isn’t hypocrisy. As I explained in my previous post, most archaeological finds really aren’t suitable for public display. All too often, they consist of fragments – slivers of animal bone, potsherds, rusty lumps of iron – that are, frankly, uninspiring (unless you know what you’re looking at, of course!). When we find something that is instantly recognisable for what it is – a well preserved brooch, a sculpted stone, a complete pot – it really is more exciting. And the good thing, from the point of view of a museum archaeologist, is that it is easier to tell stories about it to non-archaeologists.

For this reason, museums tend to display their best looking artefacts. With a collection that is varied, there is almost an embarrassment of riches: we have to pick and choose what goes on display. We also have to pick and choose which items will be priorities in our disaster management plans. Which objects do we save first? The most valuable? The most fragile? The most iconic? It is always a difficult decision and one for which there are no right answers. I have my own personal favourites that are on display, but they are not necessarily the artefacts that would need to be saved first.

Tenth-century sword chape from Ashwell

Tenth-century sword chape from Ashwell © North Hertfordshire District Council

Because Letchworth Museum tells the story of North Hertfordshire from the arrival of the first humans (actually most likely members of the species Homo heidelbergensis) over 400,000 years ago through to the turn of the twentieth century, there is an enormous range of objects on display. We have Lower Palaeolithic hand axes from Hitchin, Mesolithic tranchet axes from Weston park, a Neolithic polished axe from Pirton, a Bronze Age Ballintober type sword from Gosmore… By the time we reach the Iron Age, there are so many objects that could potentially be displayed that we are forced to choose the best: we have two cauldrons (one from Letchworth Garden City and one from Baldock), for instance. Pride of place goes to the early Welwyn-type burial from Baldock, which was packed with treasures. Moving into the Roman period, there is a beautiful marble portrait head, probably from Radwell, that is among the finest ever found in Britain.

Although the closure of the museum in September will mean that these items will not be available for public viewing again until the new museum opens in 2014, we are working on a digitisation scheme that we hope will make selected parts of the collections available through the web. We are currently looking at collections management systems and web-based solutions for making our huge collections accessible to a wider public. There are interesting (and busy!) times ahead.