Senior Curator (Archaeology) at Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives. Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. Also Chair of the Society for Museum Archaeology, Research Fellow (University of Bristol) and Trustee at Dr Jenner's House. Museum & Garden.

Pots speak to me of the past…and other reponses to archaeology

Archaeology can be many things to many people but it never anything less than an inspiration to most. As a museum curator I present the past in a variety of different ways to multiple audiences and I believe I do so using many creative forms of interpretation. Its not often, however that I am asked to respond creatively to it myself. In October last year I was invited to participate in a project called Sanctum which was summarised later as follows “A remarkable structure arose from within the bombed-out remains of Temple Church in Bristol. For 24 days, 24 hours a day, the site was transformed into an intimate place of listening, in which to hear the city like never before.” An amazing auditorium was constructed from recycled materials to provide a round the clock performance space. “How did an archaeologist get involved in that?” I hear you ask. I was approached by a group of local potters at Potstop to introduce them to some sherds of broken pottery that had been products of the kilns in and around the area of the church. The sherds were to act as a source of inspiration for the soundscape they intended to produce using a kick wheel, oral history recordings, music and readings. In the end I was asked to speak about the pots “but not in an academic way” as part of the live performance and so on the spur of the moment whilst sitting on a bench in a London park I penned a poem for the first time since I had been at school:BMG Q1844[vi].1250x1250

Pots speak to me of the past.

They have a language of their own …….through touch and texture, shape and form, through the stories that they tell ……revealed by the real and the imagined.

But which one should I choose for you? Which one would you like to hear?

Is it of the potter who having won the clay, worked, coiled and turned it, pinched and prodded, stabbed and slashed it, to create bases that are frilled, handles like straps, and spouts with faces just like you and I? But wait this one is a cow and that a monkey! So simply formed from a single piece of clay yet it betrays our city’s seafaring past,
modelled on a sailor’s exotic companion from a far off place.BMG Q1844[v].1250x1250

Then there are the scenes – a stag with tongue protruding, wild eyes bulging, running for its very life being pursued by a hunter, bow drawn and ready for the kill. 

Round and round the pot they go, for all eternity, the stag never caught and arrow never fired. Their story is wrought from nothing more than strips of clay and a potter’s imagination. Whose story were they trying to tell?

Pots speak to me of the past.

Of the people who found them, sorted, washed, glued and researched them and then placed them one by one in rank and file, on shelves, in boxes, in cabinets and cases and helped the curious who were keen to learn more. Matching the patterns, classifying the shapes, dating the forms and handling with gloves – carefully curatorial to protect them from us all so they might live to tell tales in the future.

Pots speak to me of the past.

Their lives are now fragmented, both by accident and by time but still so many questions!  Who dropped that pot down a well? Who poured water from the jug? Who ate from that bowl? Whose finger made the spaces where I can perfectly fit mine? They are an unbroken line, spanning thousands of years between me and those who made them then and to those who make them now.

Pots speak to me of the past…….and of today.

Fortunately the poem was really well received and I performed it live three times. I am very proud of the fact that it now hangs on the wall of the potters’ studio. I had though that my foray into the world of creative writing was going to be short-lived but not so. In October this year we will be hosting Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold from the Staffordshire Hoard . There are so many questions to be asked about the hoard for which we have no answers so we will be using a piece of my creative writing to provoke visitors into thinking about what these might be – here’s the result:

warriorWhere do the warriors sleep?
Slain by the sword, perhaps a thousand fold or more,
forgotten in death,
names unknown…
their deeds unspoken…
at least by human breath.

Where do the warriors sleep?
Bodies broken in battle and trodden in mud,
picked over by victors,
weapons smashed,
their jewels plucked…
a bounty greedily shared.

Where do the warriors sleep?
Absent tales of mythical beasts, kings, heroes and fate,
misplaced in memory,
dulled by time,
just hidden secrets…
whispered only by trees.

Where do the warriors sleep?
Lost lives rudely awoken, revealed only by those who seek,
stumbling upon truths,
without knowing
some answers lie,
hovering just above the mist.

Somehow I think my “Poetry Pandora” alter ego may have been truly let out of the box…..but only for the sake of archaeology!



Why Archaeological Archives Matter: Providing Archaeology For All

Today I thought I would write something specifically about the way my working life revolves around archives so what follows below is a personal musing about them as sources of inspiration, collective knowledge and latterly of concern.

Learning in all its forms is really at the heart of much of what I do. Since the National Curriculum has been remodelled I’ve been working on delivering a series of CPD sessions aimed at local primary school teachers. Our ‘Bristol Curriculum’ is a model we use for locally-relevant learning that uses Bristol-specific examples to enable teachers to plan and deliver schemes of work. It struck me as I delivered ‘Roman Bristol’, that it would have been impossible without the wide range of artefacts that had been derived from excavations and most importantly the published interpretation of sites that existed in the local landscape 2000 years ago. One of the many skills a museum archaeologist needs to have is the ability to ‘translate’ excavation reports for the benefit of a public audience: we need to be able to understand the detail revealed by field reports as well as academic theory. Introducing teachers to Gaius Sentius and the daughter/wife for whom he had a commissioned a tombstone found at Sea Mills in the 1870s was a joy, but the context in which they might have lived could have only been provided by the excavation archives held in store. With a 100+ years of digging out at the Roman town of Abona there’s a lot of stuff that’s been studied and still waiting to be studied!

And isn’t that the point? Museum archaeological archives are a living resource not just a bunch of dusty boxes full of spent objects that have already revealed their all.The importance of these archives is that they can and should be used over and over again, especially as new sites and new techniques reveal more and more pieces of the jigsaw. Perhaps equally importantly they can be used for very different purposes by very different people.

At the moment we are well into dissertation season – by that I mean many students are looking for suitable material to study, and of course the archives we look after should be the open book they’re looking to for inspiration. Although many collections are well-documented, and some available in digital format online, you can’t beat looking at the real thing: you simply can’t turn a digital record image over to look at that particular feature, mark, etc. that will add value to a proper study. Similarly you can’t underestimate the genuine need to be able to make comparisons between several groups of objects at the same time. Museums, their stores and their curators, many of whom have acquired a vast working knowledge of the content of hundreds of archives, are a far better bet for helping to reveal connections between sites and objects than using an online search engine. One of my biggest frustrations is that whilst there is so much potential for inspiration and learning there are not enough hours in the day to take advantage of it all and the numbers of specialist curators with the skills and vision to unlock this potential are dwindling.

On the positive side, the range of enquiries I receive is enormous: in recent weeks I have been visited by researchers wanting to look at Palaeolithic material from Hampshire and photographic surveys of a Bristol dry dock made by a local unit in the 1990s. I have been asked to verify that we still hold material recorded on a local HER and to shed light on its documented provenance. Post doctoral researchers have enquired about collections of human remains relevant to an AHRC grant application and I have given advice on how to demonstrate impact without creating an exhibition. We have also had members of a local community history project jumping for joy because they felt so privileged to be able to take photographs of real objects found in their locality to post on their website.

Unfortunately on the negative side I am very well aware of just how many of these archives are at threat of having no final resting place, with no specialist care and consequently with precious little guaranteed public access. As Chair of the Society for Museum Archaeology I am frequently being asked to write letters of concern regarding the continued long term care of archives because of museum closures or staff cuts as the result of austerity measures. In fact I was asked to do that for yet another museum today. What can we do stop this? It is my very firm belief that we will only be able to do this by acting together as one profession because to be honest that is the only way we will get our voices heard. We need to play to our strengths – if we truly believe that our raison d’etre is to inspire others with the collections we acquire, study and care for, we need to use them more effectively to inspire the policy makers who hold the purse strings and to make them understand why they are so important to so many people. As archaeologists we need to find the locally relevant agendas, make ourselves aware of appropriate wider local and national issues and arm ourselves with fighting facts and figures. We need to show that #WeAreAllArchaeologists and most of all how vital it is that we continue to be a source of  inspiration and learning by providing archaeology for all.

Follow the Society for Museum Archaeology on Twitter @socmusarch and visit the website at for membership details and to find out more about the work that it does.

Museums, Mosaics and More

Watercolour by Thomas Marsh of a pavement from Newton St. Loe

Watercolour by Thomas Marsh of a pavement from Newton St. Loe

A museum archaeologist’s life is perhaps one of the most challenging and varied of all. Take today – I had a pretty good idea of what was in store (no pun intended) but as usual there were a few more challenges than I expected!

I like to start early – generally before the phone starts to ring – but I guess that there weren’t too many other archaeologists who started their day shopping for pillows. I needed to acquire these in preparation for putting back together one of our largest archaeological jigsaw puzzles, the Orpheus mosaic from Newton St. Loe.

The Roman villa at Newton St. Loe was discovered during the construction of the Bristol to Bath section of Brunel’s Great Western Railway in 1837.

Several mosaic floors were found at the villa including one which illustrated the story of Orpheus, a mythical poet and musician, charming a circle of wild animals. The mosaic was lifted and re-laid at Keynsham Railway Station where it remained until 1851 when it was given to the Bristol Institution (a forerunner of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery). Repeated moves between various stores over the next 150 years left the floor highly fragmented and at one time it was even thought to have been lost.

Brunel had wanted to create a museum for all the material found during the construction of the Great Western Railway. This led to a trainee civil engineer, Thomas Edward Milles Marsh (1818-1907) being given the task of recording the villa before its destruction. He prepared accurate plans including a life size tracing of the Orpheus mosaic and was responsible for lifting this floor and another for display. Although not involved in further archaeological work, Marsh retained his records and these were eventually donated to Bristol Museum by his daughter in 1936.

When Marsh transferred the mosaic to Keynsham it was in good condition. However evidence suggests that when it was moved again it may have been lifted with a pick-axe. Further breaks then occurred because of poor packaging and moves between stores, as well as frost and fire-damage. This led to the floor being broken into several thousand pieces and presents a major challenge in terms of its reconstruction, conservation and storage.

Marsh made careful records of and published some of them including this one

Marsh made careful records of the villa including this one

A full-scale reconstruction of the floor was discounted for many years because of its poor condition. In 1992 members of the Association for the Study and Preservation of Roman Mosaics (ASPROM) began the painstaking job of identifying its fragments. It was finally pieced together, in public, in the front hall of the museum between July and December, 2000. The reconstruction enabled us to make improvements to its storage to make it more easily accessible for conservation, research and display.

So what do my pillows have to do with the mosaic? Well as I am also working on a British Museum touring exhibition – “Roman Empire:Power & People”– we have decided to display some of our own amazing Roman collections in other places around the museum. Orpheus needed to be returned from the underworld, which in this case was the museum basement. Thankfully in the 13 years the mosaic has been stored away we have installed a bigger and better lift, which made the task of moving it up two floors so much easier than ever before. So what did it take? Four strong men, two curators, a pallet truck and some good old fashioned elbow-grease. Oh yes and two pillows which I’ll need to kneel on as I shuffle all of the fragments back together next week.

Steve looks on whilst the two Ians wonder if they have the right piece in the right place.

Steve looks on whilst the two Ians wonder if they have the right piece in the right place.

Now if the excitement of moving the mosaic wasn’t enough, today I have also been editing object labels for the BM touring exhibition (we are leading on all the design and interpretation), shortlisting for the Future Curators Programme (we are hosting a post in 2014) and preparing for our contribution to the Festival of Archaeology at our very own villa site – Kings Weston Roman Villa tomorrow. I have also been proofreading a new guide to the site that we will be evaluating tomorrow with the work-experience students who have been with us all week.

Funnily enough the day finished pretty much as it started, although instead of pillows I was shopping for Basil, Lavender, charcoal, broccoli and compost…which amazingly are all items we need for the activities we’ll be running out at the villa tomorrow. Clearly a museum archaeologist’s job description probably never includes shopping but it is inevitable since thinking on your feet and having a creative mind invariably requires new resources – even if they aren’t always the obvious archaeological kind!

Re enactors at Kings Weston Roman Villa 2013

Re enactors at Kings Weston Roman Villa 2013