Amgueddfa Blog: Collections & Research

Shwmae! My name is Adelle, and I’m a PhD student at Cardiff University studying Iron Age mortuary practice in southwest Britain. I’m going to tell you about my amazing experience and some things I learned volunteering as part of the excavation team of the now-famous Iron Age chariot burial in Pembrokeshire. I’ll start from the beginning…

I thought I’d gotten a nice tan during the initial excavation in 2018, but it was only dirt. *Sigh*

The Story

I received an email in the spring of 2018 inviting me to help with an excavation of what was thought to be an Iron Age hoard discovered in a farmer’s field somewhere in Pembrokeshire. I had dreamt of the day I’d get to excavate anything Iron Age, as my passion for Welsh prehistory inspired me to move from my home in rural Kentucky (USA) to study at Cardiff. I had no idea that this opportunity would lead to the most rewarding, enriching, and educational experiences of my life.

The dig site was in a beautiful field near the entrance to a spectacular Iron Age promontory fort that was previously unknown. The thought that there is still so much left to discover about the prehistory of Wales left me buzzing with inspiration and wonder. I had never been to this farm in Pembrokeshire but it somehow felt warm and familiar, like an old friend; it felt like coming home after a very long journey.

Left to right: Chariot burial volunteers Tiffany Treadway, Felicity Sage (Dyfed Archaeological Trust), Owen Lazzari, Adelle Bricking (me!), and Michael Legge enjoying the beautiful scenery and each other’s’ company after a long day of work.

 

 

The initial excavation was…hot, to put it mildly! The clay we were digging baked in the sun as temperatures climbed to 32 degrees. The archaeology didn’t quite make sense as we searched for the rest of the “hoard”. And then, Mark Lewis, the curator at the National Roman Legion Museum at Caerleon (and whom I am pretty sure is actually a Time Lord from Gallifrey), uncovered the top of a massive iron tyre. This was no hoard—it was a chariot burial. The first one found outside of Yorkshire and Edinburgh; here in Wales. The whole team stopped and gathered around the tyre. We stood there in silence in a mutual understanding that everything we thought we knew about the Iron Age in Wales was about to change. Some of us grabbed onto each other in fear of falling off the face of the earth as our worlds turned upside down! 

The excavation team gathered around the tyre in silent agreement that this is the coolest thing that any of us have ever experienced.

A chariot burial was beyond our timescale, and we needed the help of skilled conservators to ensure the survival of the 2,000 year-old metalwork. It was a long year until we were able to go back to uncover the chariot. With a bigger team, more time, more rainfall and more volunteers, we successfully uncovered the first chariot burial in Wales this spring. I sometimes go down to the Archaeology Conservation Laboratory at the National Museum Cardiff to say hello to the chariot pieces and wish them luck as they embark on their new journey towards restoration! Louise Mumford, our archaeological conservator, is like a wizard bringing ancient and long-forgotten objects back to their former glory.

What I Learned

I learned more about archaeology during that excavation than I ever could have imagined. The combined knowledge of these archaeologists that I have long admired was mind-boggling, and I tried my best to soak in every delicious morsel of free expertise. I had read some of their books; these men and women had been teaching me since before I left Kentucky. As we discussed practice during work and theory over dinner, I felt myself becoming much more confident as an archaeologist.

Some of the dig team from Dyfed Archaeological Trust and Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales and I carefully excavating the chariot under the shelter during the second excavation season.

Aside from growing as a researcher, I gained a much greater understanding for the public’s perception of archaeology. The archaeology of Wales is not a niche interest for academics—as heritage, it belongs to everyone, and people are very often as enthusiastic about it as I am. For example, one of my favourite aspects of the excavation was spending time with the farmer who owns the land and his family. It was heart-warming to see their interest in not just the things we were digging up, but how we were doing it. To have our field of work understood and appreciated for the (sometimes painfully slow) process that it is, was rewarding.

After the chariot was excavated and all the parts safely lifted. A circular ring ditch with an entrance surrounded the chariot burial.

This satisfying combination of archaeological practice and public engagement has inspired me to continue volunteering at the museum for the Portable Antiquities Scheme in Wales (PAS Cymru). Without PAS, this excavation wouldn’t have happened, and this significant part Wales’ story would have remained untold. PAS is giving an invaluable gift to the people of Wales by documenting their material heritage and making it easily accessible to everyone. I am honoured to be a part of it, and I feel better equipped to use my own research to give back to the public.

Get involved!

I encourage everyone to volunteer for archaeological excavations. It’s one thing to see beautiful ancient objects behind glass cases, or 2D images in a book, but to be there as the earth gives way and the object is reborn from it, is nothing short of magical. It’s dirty, often laborious, but the friendships made, the knowledge gained, and the magical sense of discovery is worth every drop of sweat as we rediscover lost memories from our ancient past.

Me (right) recording Mark Lewis (left) as he prepares to help lift the tyres during the second excavation season. If digging isn’t your thing, there’s lots of other jobs to do at an excavation, including photography and recording video footage.

I hope to see some new faces at future excavations. Iechyd da!

 

What do you do if you have minerals in your collection that have a tendency to react chemically? For our research student Kathryn Royce this means: growing minerals from a super saturated solution, then sticking the crystals in a climate chamber for a few weeks and forcing them to dehydrate.

Yes, you read right, some minerals can dehydrate. There is a good number of mineral species which are poly-hydrated, meaning, minerals that contain water molecules as part of their crystal structure. Many of these mineral species can, under certain conditions, lose some of these water molecules. This process actually turns the mineral into a different mineral – just one with a lower hydration status.

For example, the mineral melanterite (FeSO4 · 7H2O), which has 7 water molecules, may lose some water molecules if kept at a relative humidity below 57%. The resultant products include either the mineral siderotil (same chemical formula but only 5 water molecules) or rozenite (4 water molecules). In the context of wanting to preserve melanterite in a museum collection, the dehydration products siderotil and rozenite, whilst minerals in their own right, would be classed as deterioration products and, hence, their appearance be undesirable.

To understand this process, and define how we would characterise the concept of ‘damage’ to mineral specimens, Kathryn is now analysing the deterioration products using a combination of different analytical techniques, including X-ray diffraction, electron microscopy, Raman spectroscopy and computerised tomography scanning. The results will help us develop a methodology for long-term monitoring of geological collections in museums and improve the care of such collections in museums.

This research is being undertaken at National Museum Cardiff in collaboration with the School of Geography and Environment at University of Oxford and the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology (SEAHA), and kindly supported by OR3D, BSRIA, the Barbara Whatmore Charitable Trust, the National Conservation Service, and the Pilgrim Trust.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here and follow us on Twitter

Hi all, I’m Pip Diment from the Exhibitions team, and I'm one of a group of museum staff volunteering to care for the six live snakes we are housing as part of the 'Snakes’ exhibition at National Museum Cardiff.

Our exhibition is now open and runs to the 15th September 2019. I was part of the team who cared for the snakes for the second two weeks of the exhibition run. We were trained by Guy Tansley from Bugsnstuff and he showed a group of us volunteers how to check on the snakes safely and provide basic care.

Guy Tansley from Bugsnstuff.

We are not required to feed the snakes – we have Dr. Rhys Jones generously helping us with that. Our tasks are to change the water daily, remove any poo, ureic acid crystals (wee!) and calcium plugs, also to remove any shed skin and to check the snakes are not too cold or hot and that they are ok. These checks are all done daily by a team of two or three volunteers.

Some of our volunteer snake care team.

On my first day volunteering I worked with Melissa Hinkin (from Artes Mundi, who is a snake enthusiast) and Vic le Poidevin (from our Events team). There was great excitement the first morning as Prestwick, the Jungle Carpet Python had shed her skin and had an enormous poo!  She’s a fairly large snake so it shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it was huge! Like a large dogs! The skin itself came off in two parts and is now being used as part of the handling collections (not too much handling as it is fragile!). Underneath all that shed skin Prestwick has now emerged even more beautiful with her skin a stunning iridescent effect. And this was still only day one.

On day two I worked with Christian Baars (from Conservation) and Robin Maggs (from Photography). Once again, much excitement as Keith, the Royal Python shed his skin overnight. Much smaller poo – smaller snake, so made sense! He also looked much more beautiful after shedding his skin.

Days three and four were not as eventful – only water changing and general checks required. Everyone seems very healthy and happy, and we are following their care instructions meticulously to ensure they stay that way. 

I admit I have an unhealthy interest in snake poo – and for the end of my first week we’ve had another poo! This time, again, from Keith. I am not the only one now excited by snake poos – see Robin and Christian admiring Keith’s offering (look closely it has substrate on it which makes it looks like it has eyes!)

I’m so glad I agreed to volunteer. I’ve held snakes before, but never spent so much time with them. I love that they all have great names and their own characters:

Prestwick, Jungle Carpet Python (Morelia spilota cheynei), female, approx. 10ft

 

Keith, Royal python (Python regius), male, approx. 3.5ft.

 

Mela, Boa constrictor (Boa constrictor), male, approx. 6ft

 

Kibblesworth, Hog nose (Heterodon nasicus), female, approx. 2ft

 

Carlos, Milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum campbelli), male, approx. 3.5ft

 

Seren, Corn snake (Pantherophis guttatus), female, approx. 4.5ft

Thanks for reading. You can read some of our other snake blogs here, here and here.

The exhibition runs till 15th September 2019, entry charges do apply, and all your contributions go towards bringing you even bigger and better exhibitions in the future.

Please note that there is no live handling of the snakes within the exhibition. In August we’ll be having snake handling sessions for the public – see here for details of booking.

Also, make sure you come and visit us this saturday (10th August) for our Venom Open Day!

One of the best reasons for housing heritage collections inside buildings is that the building keeps the weather out. Paintings, fossils, books and skeletons are best kept dry, and walls and roofs protect our collections (as well as staff and visitors) from the elements.

In addition, many of the objects in our collections also need specific temperature and humidity ranges to prevent them from suffering damage. Too high a humidity can cause swelling of wood, for example, initiating cracks in objects, or, if humidity gets even higher, mould growth. Therefore, National Museum Cardiff has a complicated air conditioning system. This system is more than 40 years old and has been maintenance-intensive and inefficient for some time.

We are happy to report that, after several years of planning, we have just completed the installation of new chillers and humidifiers at National Museum Cardiff. The purpose of chillers in the museum is to provide cold water – for lowering the temperature of galleries and stores in the summer, and for dehumidifying stores and galleries if there is too much moisture in the air. Humidifiers achieve the opposite effect: they increase humidity in stores and galleries if it is too low. Low humidity is usually a problem during the winter months – you may have experienced your skin drying out at home when you have the heating on in winter. To prevent our collections drying out we cannot apply skin cream; instead, we maintain a minimum level of humidity in stores and galleries.

The chillers and humidifiers have been commissioned now, and are working well. They have already proved that the control of our indoor environments is better than it was before. A very positive side effect of the new technologies is that they are much more efficient than the old equipment. In fact, they are so efficient that we are anticipating to shave almost 50% off our annual electricity bill for National Museum Cardiff, saving the planet more than 500 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. That is the equivalent of taking 100 cars off the road, or the average energy a family home uses in 38 years.

By investing in such new technologies, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales continues to ensure the safe storage and display of the nation’s heritage collections, whilst at the same time making a massive contribution towards the National Assembly’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 (Environment Wales Act 2016).

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here and follow us on Twitter. Follow the progress of the maintenance works during the coming months in 2019 on Twitter using the hashtag #museumcare.

 

 

Our summer exhibition, ‘Snakes!’ gives us a sneak peek into the secretive and captivating life of the snakes of the world. We are posting a series of snake blogs over the summer to share some of our snake related stories.

At the back of our Snakes gallery, we have made a map of the snakes of the world. Here you can find out which are the longest, the fastest, even the one that has the longest fangs! And this is where you'll find a picture of rarest snake in the world – the Saint Lucia racer.

Unbelievably, there are fewer than 20 individuals of this relatively small, non-venomous snake left in the world. And they are all confined to a tiny, nine-hectare islet off the mainland of the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia.

Fauna & Flora International (FFI), is an international conservation charity dedicated to protecting our planet’s threatened wildlife and habitats. In partnership with Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and national agencies, FFI is working to bring back these snakes from the brink of extinction.

This species was once the second most common snake on Saint Lucia. So what happened?

In the 19th century, small Asian mongooses were introduced to the island. They found the ground dwelling racers easy prey, and their population plummeted to the point that they were thought to be extinct. So now an emergency project has been set up to protect the remaining racers and spread the word about their importance.

But with such low numbers, can they really be brought back?

The answer is a resounding yes! Until fairly recently, the world’s rarest snake was considered to be the Antiguan racer, another Caribbean snake species found only on a handful of offshore islands in Antigua and Barbuda. In 1995, only 50 individuals remained, but thanks to the help of FFI and other national and international organisations, they are making a comeback. Their numbers have increased 22 fold in that time, with numbers now exceeding 1,100 individuals. So there is still hope.

How did they do it? They have focused a lot of work on eradicating the harmful invasive species – particularly ship rats – that have been introduced to the islands and introduced strict controls to help protect these sensitive ecosystems.

Snakes are often maligned and misunderstood, so they have also focused on changing attitudes and raising awareness. This has been so successful that many Antiguans and Barbudans have become enthusiastic advocates of their unique snake and its unique island ecosystem.

So, the hope is that by protecting the remaining Saint Lucia racers, and the tiny islet they live on, their populations will begin to stabilise and grow. It is so inspiring to hear a positive conservation story. I wish them all the luck in the world.

If you are interested in finding out more about snakes – come down to our exhibition! It is on until the 15th September. For more details check out our What’s On page.

You can find out more about Saint Lucia racers and the work of FFI here, here and here.

You can find out more about Antiguan racers and the work of FFI here.

You can find out more about FFI here.

You can find out more about Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust here.

You can read our read our previous blogs here and here.