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On a bright and breezy Saturday morning in September an enthusiastic group of children and adults gathered at the Mumbles in wellies and hi-vis jackets ready for a Big Beachcomb.

The Beachcomb was the first activity of Swansea Museum’s Lost Treasures of Swansea Bay project, which is being funded by the Saving Treasures; Telling Stories project based at Amgueddfa Cymru.

Led by Paul Huckfield of the Glamorgan Gwent Archaeological Trust and Mark Lodwick of the Portable Antiquities Scheme Cymru we set out with the retreating tide to see what treasures of Swansea’s past we could find.

Searching

The vast expanse of mud, sand, rocks and shallow pools did not look promising at first. But almost as soon as we had set off Paul was showing us the blackened and glistening remains of a prehistoric forest. Within another hour he had pointed out the sites of seven shipwrecks, old mooring points and other remains of Swansea’s maritime past.

On the surface of the shore we found hundreds of pieces of old pottery, metalwork, animal bones, glassware and pieces of clay pipe. A particularly evocative find was the base of a wine bottle, dating back to the 1600s.

The glass was thick, and so dark that you could only see its muddy green colour by holding it up to the sun. This was a high-status object - once, it would have held a decent vintage rather than plonk.

Collecting

When enough pieces had been collected in carefully labelled bags we laid them out on the slipway and sorted them into categories with the help of Paul and Mark – ceramics, glass and metalware, organic material.

Imagining

We speculated about who the objects had belonged to, when they were made, and how they ended up in Swansea Bay. Some, such as the bottle and some of the pots, were imported items – could they have been among the cargoes of one of the wrecked ships? Had the pipes been smoked by sailors and fishermen with wheezy chests? Were the bones the remains of their dinner?

Our treasures have now been taken back to Swansea Museum where they will be studied by the Young Archaeologists Club and used as inspiration for the Dylan Thomas Centre’s Young Writers Squad.

Look out for the next chapter in their history in a future blog.

It’s a strange sensation, being guided across a street blindfolded. Time slows. Distance is distorted, directions skewed. You become acutely aware of changes in the surface under your feet; shadows; things unseen brushing past your arm or cheek.

Being the guide is less disorientating but can be just as strange. Knowing that you have complete responsibility for getting someone safely to their destination is unnerving. The street suddenly becomes your enemy. Cracks and kerbs, streetlamps, benches, bins become anxiety-inducing obstacles – and don’t get me started on the cars!

The training was delivered by our friends at Cardiff Institute for the Blind, who have been helping us pilot our audio description tours for blind and visually impaired visitors. We wanted to practice our guiding skills, but also to experience what it’s like to be guided without vision in an unfamiliar environment.

Our trainers, Michelle and Sian, also gave us helpful insight into the day-to-day challenges of living with a visual impairment and the array of tools and technologies that are available to help. We were given a selection of simi-specs, which simulate the symptoms of common eye conditions, and asked to do everyday tasks like read, write and count out coins from a purse.

Sian gave us a valuable account of her experience living with a visual impairment, and the role of the lovely Arnie, not just a guide dog but a lifelong companion and friend.

Everyone agreed that the training was a positive experience on many levels, and although we realise that what we experiences is not directly comparable to the experience of people with sight loss, it felt that we all came away understanding a bit more. And after guiding our colleagues across a city centre street in the rain, the prospect of guiding people around the Museum safely is far less scary!

Our audio description tours run once every other month. For more information and future dates, please call (029) 2057 3240.

The time has come to announce the winners of our creative writing competition...

The challenge was to write a short story inspired by our exhibition Treasures: Adventure in Archaeology. Our writers were inspired by the ancient Egyptian mummy on display, as well as the beautiful Dolgellau Chalice. You have until 30 October to see them for yourselves - so hurry! Grab your tickets here.

Here are our three winning entries: click on the title to download them and get reading. Congratulations to our winners and runners up!

First Prize:

The Falcon's Curse, Eleanor Thorne

Second Prize:

The Chalice of Dolgellau, Theo Singh

Third Prize:

A Mummy at Night, Amy Wintle

Thanks to everyone who sent in a story, or who called by our art and craft activities - we've loved looking at each and every one of your creative works.

This week’s Youth Forum again made me think about museums and what they can do, and how they should be, in a different way.

While looking at art from the First World War had at times been a sensory overload, this time we were trying to understand what it would be like to come to a museum without one specific sense fully intact. How to make museum exhibits more accessible for the partially sighted?

Having always gone to museums with my sight in (near enough) tip top condition, I and probably others tended to presume it was a pretty necessary requirement. If I had trouble seeing the paintings/sculptures/artefacts, then I don’t think I’d want to go. Because if seeing is believing, and I couldn’t see what I was supposed to be learning about, then surely I wouldn’t learn very much and would end up feeling quite left out, even though this obviously shouldn’t be the case.

And it doesn’t have to be! The paintings and sculptures that we looked up were a bit of a mix, ones that more well-known and some that were completely new. Among the ideas that we came up with, for example, involved the painting Bad News, by James Tissot, incorporating the playing of military marching music alongside the painting to evoke the solemnity and sorrow of leaving your family to go off and fight in another corner of the world.

Similarly, for Entrance to Cardiff Docks by Lionel Walden, lighting effects could imitate the lights of the port and the surrounding buildings, with sound effects of ships coming into port, water slapping against the quay, sailors shouting to each other. We could have smells to add to the experience (although maybe not the fish!). Instead of rough sailors accompanying Manet’s San Maggiore by Twilight, it would be the gentle, joyful peel of Italian church bells.

In front of a painting of Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, Thomas Apperly and Edward Hamilton by Pompeo Batoni there could be a table with the objects and chairs laid out exactly as they are in the picture, as if the subjects had just finished the sitting and left only a few moments ago. David Nash’s intriguing sculpture Multi-Cut Column could have smaller imitations made of it, that people could actually pass around and touch, something rarely allowed in any exhibit. 

I realise there would be some technical issues in making sure it wasn’t distracting or taking away from the other exhibits, and that maybe not all these ideas will actually become a finished product, but I hope that at least some of them do work out. Because who wouldn’t want to experience this? It might be a bit like theatre, the art being brought to life, stepping into the painting. While I’m definitely thankful I’m not visually impaired in any way, I’m also thankful I took the time to try and understand the experience of those who are. 
 

  • Our next Audio Description Tour will take place on 8 December and will be of our Natural History collections.

‘The Lost Treasures of Swansea Bay’ is the first Community Archaeology project funded by the HLF project Saving Treasures, Telling Stories. Run by Swansea Museum, the project is inspired by a collection of finds made by a local metal detectorist on Swansea Bay, which has also been acquired for the museum by Saving Treasures.

Blades and Badges

It includes some mysterious items, such as a Bronze Age tool with a curved blade which has had archaeologists scratching their heads. Ideas about its purpose range from opening shellfish to scraping seaweed off nets or rocks or carving bowls.

Among the other items found on the Bay are a number of medieval pilgrim badges, including one brought back from the important shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Pilgrim badges are usually made of lead or pewter and were often bought at shrines as a souvenir and worn on the pilgrim’s hat or cloak.

It is thought that those found in Swansea Bay were probably thrown into the sea by pilgrims returning to south Wales by boat as a thanks offering for their safe return. It seems like a curiously pagan thing for a medieval Christian to do, but it’s similar to the modern practice of throwing coins in wells, which is itself a survival of an ancient religious ritual.

The Archaeology of the Bay

The new collection is just a tiny fraction of the objects discovered on the Bay, which has a rich and varied – as well as sensitive – archaeology. This includes fragments of Bronze Age trackways and prehistoric forests, Roman brooches, ceramics, shipwrecks and the remains of World War Two bombs.

Community Involvement

Each one has a tale to tell and together they are helping archaeologists build the story of human activity in the Bay over thousands of years. Helping to interpret the finds, their significance for the history of Swansea Bay and for the people of modern Swansea are representatives from Swansea community groups, including the Red Café youth group, the Dylan Thomas Centre’s Young Writers Squad, Community First families and the Young Archaeologists Club.

The project’s first activity, a Big Beachcomb, took place on the Bay itself on Saturday 17 September, but to find out about that you will have to wait for the next blog in this series…