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.

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.

Norton Community Archaeology Group investigates a suspected formative henge

For five weeks, we are investigating a site on the edge of Letchworth Garden City, between the historic village of Norton and the A1 motorway. Originally thought to be a ring ditch (ploughed-out burial mound), reinterpretation of aerial photographs and a geophysical survey suggested that the site might instead be a henge.

Last year, the group cut a trench across the centre of the site and it became apparent that it was very unlikely to have been a burial mound. There was no trace of a central burial (or any other burials, for that matter), while the deposits towards the centre indicated that they were the result of discrete activities, including burning, depositing Grooved Ware potsherds and flint knapping. There was little time last year for thorough investigation, so this year we’ve returned for five weeks, opeining up a second trench at right angles to the first.

The group consists largely of amateurs who want to find out more about the archaeology of where they live. Many of them have been involved with the group since it formed in 2006 and have built up a considerable amount of experience. I’m their professional advisor and the summer excavation is my main research project. This year, we have a professional supervisor, Caoimhín Ó Caoileáin, and my paid intern, Siân O’Neill, providing professional support.

We stripped the topsoil on Wednesday 27 July and have been cleaning the trenches since. One of the student archaeologists, who worked with us last year, has begun planning the new trench, so we will be able to begin excavation later today. This is obviously the part that most of the people who join the group are interested in! As well as digging, though, I make sure that everybody learns how to draw plans, to record the contexts on which they are working and how to recognise the different artefacts they may encounter.