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.