British Museum trip – various viewpoints

I am attempting to organise the various aspects of my life, by using separate notebooks for archaeology/detecting and writing. The trip to the British Museum last Friday was a classic example of when that doesn’t work; too much crossover! I’ll try again here.

Having discovered that the BM is open until 8:30pm on Fridays – 6 glorious hours of wandering around one of the best museums in the world, for free, after a morning meeting – I shall have to repeat the experiment as often as possible 🙂

I am particularly worried ab0ut rivets at the moment; it’s too easy for something like a shield boss to deteriorate in our locally very acidic sandy soil, and for the copper alloy rivets to be the only remaining evidence. Plan A was to visit the Sutton Hoo exhibits (Room 2, ground floor), then go upstairs to rooms 49-51, Roman through Early Mediaeval, with a detector’s hat on. Look what Basil Brown achieved, with those beautifully laid-out rows! Unlike him, though, I get my rivets tumbled in plough soil, and so it’s important I know what I’m looking at, and I wanted to see the evolution of rivets through time.

Alas, to my eye, a rivet looks like a rivet looks like a rivet. Clearly this is my deficiency, because there is a whole (as ever, very expensive) textbook devoted to the subject; but there appears to be one design that hasn’t altered appreciably in 3,000 years. I’m just going to have to dump every rivet I find on the Portable Antiquities Scheme and let them sort them out 🙂

To recover from this set-back, I went to the cafe. There, I made the first error in notebook apartheid; I have a couple of pages of notes on the interaction between two young women, following on directly from the rivets. For some reason, they were sitting very still, hands in laps, with only their eyes animated; it struck me that it was a pose very proper to a pair of nuns, and the notes are around status and dominance games linked to eye size…

Then the organisation attempts failed again, as I wanted the larger writing notebook to take some sketches of buckles. I am now equally as worried about buckles as rivets; again, the design hasn’t changed appreciably since Saxon times. I got really into the detail of the Saxon workmanship; here are some notes in the writing notebook, so I don’t lose them!

  • A seax is about 10″ long, this one very crudely made at the cutting edge, but the flat edge decorated beautifully. It was a woman’s; would a man’s be different?
  • Pins for a woman’s veil were needle-fine. An actual needle was about 3″ long and thicker!
  • Bronze rings appeared in all sorts of contexts, from 1-3″ across (probably ought to be worried about them too)
  • 10 shallow silver bowls found at Sutton Hoo, for serving food; decoration is unique circular devices at bottom, cruciform arms patterned out. Bowls 9″ in diameter, 3″ deep. Lovely!
  • Small rings attached to the handle of a sword denote different allegiances
  • The wings of the bird on the helmet look like boars – which would make most of the major Celtic animals represented?
  • The roof height of a typical Saxon hall was 5m! 2 stories – not bad! Would mean that churches were not as impactful as I’ve been imagining.
  • Drinking cups were tiny, only a couple of inches high. Emphasises the difference between ale drinking for thirst and “serious” drinking…
  • Saxon sword bosses were quite small, but the Bronze Age ones were much bigger. Would be interesting to know how that affected function, and use of the boss itself as a striking weapon.
  • You can make a wire torc by wrapping the wire around a springy dogwood or alder twig – then burning away the wood to reveal the heart space inside the gold! I bet that was a magical, ceremonial moment.

Then the last note of the day was back in the detecting notebook – a comment on the changing representations of Christ over time. Pre 1100, the feel was around the strength, invulnerability and majesty of the Christ figure, even on the cross; after that date, there was a deliberate shift, by church policy, to images designed to invoke pity. That should definitely have been in the writing notebook, because presumably the shift was still happening in Wimer’s time – that’s a lovely subtle way of depicting a church, or an individual, as old-fashioned or following new-fangled ways!

Finally, I met up with an old friend, Terry Mummery, and (still thinking early mediaeval) asked his permission to share a lovely pic he took of St Eustace’s reliquary. I’m fascinated with reliquaries and the stunning beauty of the work involved, and this one is just after Wimer’s time, made in 1210. The BM writeup is here, but I prefer Terry’s photo – it gives you a much better idea of how attractive and pleasant the object is. With the skull fragments within, its approachability would make it such a powerful object to the Mediaeval mind – you could really feel like you were praying directly to the saint. I’ve also just noticed that the rivets holding the precious metal sheets together are the standard sort…

Eustace reliquary


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