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Archaeological collections in museums across Wales are being given a boost over the next few years by the Saving Treasures; Telling Stories project.

Focussing on items discovered by metal detectorists, its key aims include collecting and collections development, training, and community engagement with local heritage and archaeology.

Saving Treasures

Hundreds of items discovered by metal detectorists are reported to PAS Cymru every year, allowing them to be recorded and made publicly accessible via https://finds.org.uk/.

In 2015 37 of these were declared treasure under the 1996 Treasure Act http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1996/24/contents, many of which were acquired for local museums by Saving Treasures, on behalf of the people of Wales.

Over the next three years the project will build on this progress, hoping to foster strategic collecting by museums as well as responsible discovering and reporting by metal detectorists.

It will provide training to museum professionals and volunteers to equip them with the skills and knowledge to best collect, interpret and display their treasures.

Telling Stories

Saving Treasures is not just about museums. It’s also about people, especially those who live in the communities where the treasures have been discovered.

In order to reach out to non-traditional museum audiences the project is funding up to six Community Archaeology projects, which will be run by local museums working with community groups to help interpret their collections and bring them closer to their collective pasts.

The first Community Archaeology project, called the ‘The Lost Treasures of Swansea Bay’, is run by Swansea Museum and inspired by a fantastic collection of finds made by a local metal detectorist on Swansea Bay.

Each item has a tale to tell and together they are helping archaeologists build the story of human activity in the bay over thousands of years.

Saving Treasures is a partnership between Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales, the Welsh Museums Federation (FED) and the Portable Antiquities Scheme in Wales (PAS Cymru), and is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Keep an eye out for the next blog in what will be a continuous series of updates throughout the life of the project, to find out more about the mysterious Lost Treasures of Swansea Bay…

Treasures: Adventure in Archaeology has several amazing Welsh finds on display like the Cwm Nant Col Hoard, the Dolgellau Chalice and Paten and the Sully Hoard.  These objects are only a small part of the collection that the National Museum Wales holds.       

Capel Garmon Firedog

In the Iron Age, the hearth was the centre of the home.  Many hearths of high status families would have been decorated with large iron stands called firedogs.  They were often highly designed, most likely to reflect the status of its owner.  In 1852, a firedog was discovered near Llanrwst, Conwy.  Each end was topped off with what looked like a mythical animal, a combination of ox and horse.  Analysis of the object shows that it was made up of 85 different pieces and would have taken several years to construct.  When it was discovered, it had been buried in a boggy area and was in one piece, which led archaeologists to believe that it may have been buried as a ritual offering to the gods.  It was not uncommon for people to put offerings into lakes or bury them in boglands during this period.  

Capel Garmon Fire Dog

 

Langstone Tankard

While people of the past left many objects behind, they don't always survive for us to rediscover.  This is especially true for objects made out of organic material like wood.  However, if the conditions are just right, usually buried in a water-logged and oxygen-free environment, objects can survive.  That’s the case for a handful of wooden tankards dating back to the Late Iron Age or Early Roman Period.  By examining these objects, we are given clues to their use and greater insight to the society who made them.  The Langstone Tankard held about four pints.  It’s unlikely that was a single serving so the tankard may have been passed around, perhaps during a ritual.  One of the most interesting things about the tankard is that it was made out of yew wood.  Yew wood is toxic and, with enough exposure, fatal and according to Roman writings from this time period the toxicity was well known.  However, as with several other plants, in small doses it has been linked to medicinal uses.  It could be that the tankard was used with those medicinal uses in mind.

Langstone tankard

Caergwrle Bowl

One of the most impressive objects has to be the Caergwrle Bowl.  Dating back to the Bronze Age and about 3,200 years old, the bowl is made up of shale, tin and gold.  This was the same time period when the Trojan War was being fought in modern-day Turkey.  It was found in 1823 when workmen were digging drainage ditches at Caergwrle Castle in Denbighshire.  The bowl was in pieces but has since been restored.  Designs were carved into the bowl and then the gold was added.  It is thought that the bowl itself was made to represent a boat and the wave pattern on the bottom certainly furthers that.  There are also shields and oars and even a pair of oculus.  If you have ever seen a drawing of an Ancient Greek or Roman boat (especially the triremes) you will have seen that most of them are decorated with oculi, which were thought to ward off bad luck.  While the Bronze Age people of Britain would have used boats for trading, there has not been a lot of evidence found.  

Caergwrle Bowl

      

Paviland Cave

During the height of the last Ice Age (22,000 to 10,000 BC) the majority of the British Isles were covered by glaciers but we do find evidence of human activity in a few places.  The caves that line the shore of the Gower Peninsula have provided information on some of the earliest people to arrive to Wales.  In 1823, the Red Lady of Paviland was discovered.  This burial was accompanied by beads, tools and rings and the bones were stained with red ochre.  The analysis showed that the Red Lady was in fact a male in his mid-twenties who died around 27,000 BC making it one of the oldest formal burials in Western Europe. 

Illustration of the Red Lady of Paviland burial

This blog is about fossils whose beautiful patterns have intrigued us for as long as we’ve been human. These animals survived the evolutionary power struggles of the past to leave their relatives in today’s oceans. They are the Sea Urchins, or to give them their scientific name, the Family Echinoidea - Echinoids to their friends.

A ‘Hedgehog’ by name, but not by nature

Their name comes from the Greek ‘Echinus’, meaning Hedgehog, because of their spines. People in the Middle Ages had the idea that each kind of land animal had a matching version living in the sea; sea-horses, sea-cows, and so on. So the spiky Echinoid was naturally called a Sea-Hedgehog. This might sound daft today, but we still call the Echinoids’ cousins “Starfish” though we know they’re nothing to do with fish at all !

Like little armoured aliens

The bodies of echinoids are really strange, almost like something from science-fiction. Being covered in massive spiny stilts you can walk on is weird enough, but inside their box of a shell they’re even more peculiar. They have a multi-purpose organ called the water vascular system. It’s a central bag of fluid connected to five lobes which lead to many tiny tubes coming out through pores in the shell. These are its tube-feet. It can move them around by changing the pressure inside the bag. They’re very handy for dragging itself along the sea floor, sensing the surroundings, and for getting food to its mouth. Some burrowing echinoids can even stick a tube foot up above the sand to get oxygen from the water.

Their basic body plan has proved to be very well adapted to a life of sea-bed scavenging. They move along like armoured tanks eating up whatever they can find; mostly algae, but their set of five toothed jaws can deal with a varied diet.

Cherished by the Ancients

The beautiful shells of echinoids have fascinated humans for a very long time indeed, maybe because they’re so different from other animals on the planet. Most animals have just one line of symmetry and an even number of limbs. But echinoids and their cousins the starfish can show star-like five-fold symmetry.

We know that this struck many people in the past. Ken McNamara gives the following two examples in his book “The star-crossed Stone” about the rich folklore of echinoids.

The oldest example of a collected and labelled fossil, is an echinoid with Egyptian hieroglyphics inscribed on it about 4000 years ago. It was found “in the south of the quarry of Sopdu, by the god’s father Tja-Nefer”. Sopdu was called the god of the morning star - he was a kind of border-guard god, and it’s been suggested that echinoids were important to the Egyptians in some way in their travels to the afterlife.

But human fascination with echinoids stretches back much, much further than that; long enough for the great ice sheets to have advanced and retreated across Britain four times since. About four hundred thousand years ago in what is now Kent, someone chose to make a tool from a flint containing a fossil echinoid. Most flint tools have two cutting edges, but this one may have been left unfinished on purpose. If the maker had chipped the flint to make the other edge, the fossil would have been destroyed. What is amazing is that this person was not a Homo sapiens like you or I, but either a Homo heidelbergensis or a very early Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis). Other humans were collecting fossils before members of our own species left Africa.

Trevor Bailey, Senior Curator – Palaeontology. This blog was adapted from a gallery tour I gave at the National Museum Cardiff.

The word treasure can mean a lot of different things.  In Treasures: Adventure in Archaeology we are able to see the historical treasures that have been uncovered from archaeological excavations over the years.  But while the term can be applied widely to things that are important to us it also has a very technical, and legal, meaning.   

In the past it was not uncommon for people to bury their riches or cherished objects for safekeeping in times of trouble or as part of a ritual offerings.  While some of these buried objects were reclaimed by their owners, others were not.  Hundreds or thousands of years later, these objects have been found while ploughing farmland, building houses or by metal detecting.  There have been laws in England and Wales on how to deal with these discoveries for over a thousand years.  Common law defined treasure as anything made out of gold or silver.  It also had to be hidden with the intention of recovering it at a later time.  It was against the law to not report the discovery of potential treasure to the coroner and those not reporting finds could face fines or imprisonment.  In 1996, the Treasure Act was passed and expanded the range of precious metal objects, and any associated objects, protected.

Medieval coin hoard discovered near Presteigne, Montgomeryshire and subsequently declared ‘Treasure’

Medieval coin hoard discovered near Presteigne, Montgomeryshire and subsequently declared ‘Treasure’

In conjunction with the Treasure Act of 1996, the Portable Antiquities Scheme was implemented.  The aims of the PAS are to record important non-treasure archaeological objects and to highlight the importance of proper reporting of finds by the public.  For archaeologists, information doesn’t just come from an object.  The area where it was found, how it laid in the ground, what other objects were with it and other factors provide vital clues in understanding an object.  When things are accidentally discovered and then removed, that context is lost forever.  The hope is that with the PAS in place, those that come across finds will report them quickly, provide as much of the other contextual clues as possible or, better yet, leave them in-situ (in the ground) and call PAS to help excavate them properly.   

Bronze Age Beaker pottery from Merthyr Mawr

 

For more information on the Treasure Act and the Portable Antiquities Scheme, you can visit https://finds.org.uk/treasure.

Women's History Month is deeply rooted in the suffrage movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  To highlight the need for equality, it was vital to show the contributions that women had made throughout history and continued to make in current times.  In celebration of Women's History Month, and in conjunction with Treasures: Adventures in Archaeology, we take a look at some of the women who helped shape the discipline of archaeology.

Gertrude Bell was born in County Durham in 1868.  She was educated at home and went on the attend Oxford University where she earned a degree in history.  During a trip to Iran, she fell in love with the history and culture of the Middle East.  Becoming fluent in Arabic and Persian, she travelled extensively throughout the region, many times to places few Europeans had ever been.  During her trips, she would also carry out archaeological surveys of ruins and published several books.  Because of her unparalleled knowledge of the Middle East, when the First World War began she took a job with British Intelligence in the Arab Bureau in Cairo.  While there she worked with fellow adventurer and archaeologist T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia).  In the post war years Bell became deeply involved in the formation of Iraq and Jordan as independent nations.  She had a close relationship with King Faisal of Iraq and Syria and in 1922 the new government appointed her Director of Antiquities.  In this role, Bell became a passionate supporter of artefacts remaining in their original countries, not in European collections, and to combat this she wrote the Laws of Excavation, which gave protection to archaeological sites in Iraq, and established the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad.   Recently a movie, Queen of the Desert, was made of Bell’s life starring Nicole Kidman. 

Gertrude Bell in Iraq in 1909 age 41

Tessa (Verney) Wheeler was born in Johannesburg in 1893.  The family relocated to England and Tessa read history at University College London.  While there she met her future husband, Mortimer Wheeler, who would become a preeminent archaeologist.  After graduating, Tessa move to Cardiff where her husband had taken up the position of Keeper of Archaeology at the National Museum of Wales.  During their time there, Tessa and Mortimer carried out extensive excavations at Roman sites such as Segontium (Caernarfon) and Y Gaer (Brecon).  Just as they were preparing to begin excavating at Caerleon, Mortimer was appointed Keeper at the London Museum.  Instead of abandoning the project, Tessa took over the excavation.  Early in her career she was often overshadowed by her husband but in later life she was recognised for her fieldwork and the contributions she made to the ‘Wheeler team’.      

Tessa Wheeler at Caerleon amphitheatre

Turkish archaeologist Halet Çambel was a woman of many talents.  Born in Berlin in 1916, she had taken up fencing as a child and became the first Muslim woman to compete in the Olympics as part of the 1936 Turkish fencing team.  She famously declined an invitation to meet Adolph Hitler.  She then attended the Sorbonne in Paris where she read archaeology and the languages of Hittite, Assyrian and Hebrew.  She spent most of her career excavating in Turkey and spent over 50 years working at Karatepe, a Hittite stronghold.  She created the department of Prehistoric Archaeology at Istanbul University and in 2004 was awarded the Prince Claus Award, which is presented to those “whose cultural actions have a positive impact on the development of their societies.”    

A person doesn’t have to be a trained expert to have an impact on archaeology.  Take for example, Edith Pretty.  Born in 1883, Edith’s family saw the value in education, especially education via travel.  Throughout her many travels, she was able to see archaeological excavations in progress.  Her father also had an interest in archaeology and was given permission to excavate a Cistercian Abbey near their home in Cheshire.  Having inherited money, she bought land in Suffolk and moved there with her husband.  The property held several burial mounds which did not appear to have been excavated.  Edith and her husband often wondered what may lie beneath the mounds but Edith wanted any excavations to be done using the most up to date scientific methods.  In 1937, she contacted the Ipswich Museum and requested the mounds be excavated.  Two years later, the largest of the mounds produced one of the most important archaeological finds, the Sutton Hoo burial.  She gifted the finds to the British Museum where they are on display.   

1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo burial ship by Harold John Phillips

These are but a few of the women who have contributed to archaeology.  For more information, please visit http://trowelblazers.com/