Proud Boys in the Background

Archivist Ian Gregory unveils another glimpse in to the past:

Every now and then, as I number and re-number photographs in our collection, one will catch my eye. It happened the other day as I catalogued a group photo from 1902. Men and boys have gathered round a collection of fossil animal bones. They sit or stand by a quarry face, similar to one where both my grandads once worked.

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Two figures at the back hold my attention. They are young boys, probably in their early to mid-teens. One has a hand on his lapel while the other has both hands behind his back. Their faces are a little blurred, but their postures indicate pride. Did they help in recovering those bones? Were they the first people to have seen them for millennia? Were they excited? Nervous? Did someone order them to help or had they volunteered? If ordered then I think they came to enjoy their task.

In those days most people left school at the age of twelve. How much did these boys understand about the excavations? No one would’ve known that humans evolved in Africa or that dinosaurs had feathers and so on, not even the men in suits who presumably directed operations. Then again, Darwin’s theory of evolution was already well established in the academic community. Perhaps these two boys had already heard something about it. If not then the people leading the dig could have told them of it.

My mother was at school in the 1930s and she told me that subjects like religion were taught in a simple way, even then. Pupils learned little about non-Christian belief systems. Yet neither she nor her friends were Creationists, they all accepted that the earth is millions of years old. Perhaps when you work long hours at physically demanding jobs you haven’t time to ask too many questions. I suspect that my two youths were in that situation of the time. My grandparents certainly were. That said, when help with an excavation was needed, experts often called on local people who had never been to university as there was no one else available. The said locals must’ve picked up some knowledge.

What did the future hold for those proud looking youngsters? Did they resume backbreaking labour? Did they try to find out more about the past? Or did an accident or the First World War end their dreams too soon? I don’t know, but if that day in 1902 they swaggered on their way home, then it’s quite understandable.

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The Buxton Cat Mummy

Bret Gaunt reveals another curiosity from Buxton Museum and Art Gallery:

Cats have played an important role in the everyday life of humans: as companions and for hunting vermin, as well as being both revered as gods, and reviled as demons. One of the most recent acquisitions at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery is the naturally mummified remains of a cat. This cat, however, is not from the deserts of ancient Egypt, but from here in cold and rainy Buxton! Unlike the cats of ancient Egypt which were worshipped as gods and carefully mummified to be placed in tombs, the presence of the Buxton cat reveals something far more sinister.

buxton cat

Over a hundred naturally mummified cats hidden in buildings are known from across the UK, though more will have existed but been disposed of because their significance was not realised, and possibly many more remain to be found. What all of these cats have in common is that they were hidden in secret cavities within buildings and used in a form of folk magic to repel evil spirits. The majority are positioned as if they are hunting or attacking, with some even having mummied mice or rats in their mouths.

Naturally mummified cats are found sealed into walls, under floors near doorways, sometimes in a roof space, and occasionally in cavities within a chimney – liminal spaces that were believed to be subject to the intrusion of malevolent forces. The cat from Buxton was found during renovation work at the site of the old post office at the Quadrant. Workmen disturbed part of the ceiling in one room and the cat fell out onto the unsuspecting men.

The majority of the cats from the UK seem to have been hidden in buildings during the period of the witch trials in the 16th to 17th centuries, though the practice did continue in some parts of the country well into the 19th and early part of the 20th century; in the case of the Buxton cat this would seem to be the case as the Quadrant was built in the 1850s.

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cat destruction box Derbyshire Police collection

Folklore regards cats with special powers, such as having sixth sense and possessing nine lives, as well as their ability to see in the dark. Cats are also very territorial and will protect their homes from threats and are prolific hunters. But cats also have an ambivalent character where they were regarded in the past as being the familiars of witches, and having associations with the devil.

An important clue to the nature of the cats is the secrecy involved in hiding them, and secrecy is often a key feature in magical practices; they are hidden from view in parts of the house where evil spirits or witches could gain access. Other items are often found sealed into houses, most commonly shoes, but also horse skulls and bottles, the latter often containing urine and nails and commonly known as Witch Bottles and which have a known role in averting the powers of evil.

The Buxton moggy is now safely on display in the Wonders of the Peak Gallery, protecting the museum from the forces of darkness! You can plan your visit here.

Magical Teeth

New member of staff Bret Gaunt is a local archaeologist with an interest in the religions of the ancient world, especially the archaeology of ritual and the use of amulets. He has made a study of the worship of water in Romano-Celtic Britain, the mystery Cults of the Roman Empire and the Gods of the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings. Here he provides an insight into an enigmatic site in the Derbyshire landscape, and the surprising objects that came from it:

There are many intriguing items on display at the Wonders of the Peak gallery, each with a fascinating story to tell about the people who lived in Derbyshire. One of them is a small beaver’s tooth amulet, kindly lent by the Trustees of the British Museum, which comes from a burial mound known as Wigber Low.

Beaver tooth necklace

The Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain in the fifth to sixth century CE, a time that saw the collapse of the Roman Empire and Britain left to fend for itself – the first Brexit! The Germanic settlers who filled the power vacuum brought with them a new language, gods and artistic culture that defined the early medieval period.

One of the ways that the Anglo-Saxons seem to have stamped their presence on the landscape was by burying their dead in older Bronze Age burial mounds, of which there are numerous examples in the Derbyshire landscape. One of these is Wigber Low, situated half way between Kniveton and Bradbourne, in the White Peak. The site originally started off in the early Bronze Age as a platform for the practice of excarnation where the dead were laid out for the flesh to rot away before the bones were gathered up and placed in communal tombs. In the Late Bronze Age a mound was placed over the platform forming a familiar burial mound that dot the landscape of Britain.

In the seventh century CE the remains of three females and five males were placed in the mound, along with grave goods to accompany them into the afterlife. Items placed with the dead included a sword, five spearheads, combs, buckles, knives, a firesteel, a silver strap end, a quartz crystal orb, part of a gold bracteate (a type of pendant specific to Germanic people), two gilt-silver pins in the shape of a cross set with garnets (one of which is also on display at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery), and two beaver teeth amulets set with gold caps.

Wigber Low means ‘Wicga’s Mound’ and it is possible that Wicga may have been one of the people buried here. The grave goods certainly indicate wealthy status for the people buried here, possibly the ‘eorlas,’ a warrior elite who lived in this part of the kingdom of Mercia.

The beaver teeth amulets are intriguing – why would someone want to wear the teeth of an animal? The answer seems to be magical and the presence in the mound of the quartz crystal orb would suggest that one of the people buried here was a seer. Only six examples of beaver teeth amulets are known from Anglo-Saxon England and the presence of the gold cap clearly shows that it was an important and valuable item. There was a strong belief in magic at the time, and protecting yourself from malignant spirits that could cause harm was carried out by wearing amulets. In the animistic world of Anglo-Saxon Paganism many animals were considered sacred or imbued with special powers and It would seem that the beaver must have held some sort of special role in Anglo-Saxon society, but what, we do not know.

Whatever its purpose the amulet was held in such high regard that it would be buried with its owner to accompany, and help them, in the afterlife.

See the amulet alongside many other curiosities at Buxton Museum for free. Plan your visit here.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery part one

New museum attendant Rachel Ibbertson hails from the Midlands and has been teaching us the lingo; donnies are hands. We asked her to share her initial thoughts on the displays in Buxton. Over to you, Rachel:

As you may already know, the eagerly anticipated release of “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is set to hit UK cinemas this November. As an extension of the wizarding world explored in the Harry Potter-verse, the “Fantastic Beasts” series seeks to broaden our magical horizons and further spark our imagination – mine included.

Growing up with this book series, I would often look for magic and mysticism in the world around me and was a little dismayed on my eleventh birthday when I didn’t receive my Hogwarts letter. In spite of this, I became determined to search the realm of the ordinary for examples of the extraordinary. So with this topic in mind, the concept of “Fantastic Beasts” got me thinking about equivalent examples in the “muggle world” and what better place to find inspiration, than Buxton Museum & Art Gallery?

Wandering around the displays in the “Wonders of the Peak” and the “Boyd Dawkins Study”, I was struck by the wealth of objects and extraordinary creatures on display. Some of the more obvious examples include the Buxton Bear and the Buxton Mermaid, whilst additional zoomorphs find a home in our reception area. By the way has anyone spotted the stained glass peacocks that adorn our entranceway or the cluster of cuddly companions sitting patiently in our gift shop awaiting their forever-homes? (merchandise plug over)…

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Through further exploration an abundance of amazing animals can be found around the museum, which in my opinion, can all be considered as “fantastical” for varying reasons…

For starters let’s think about the creatures that no longer inhabit the British Isles, or indeed the earth. Throughout the 4.5 billion year history of our planet, climate change has featured continuously and in turn has shaped the world around us. To picture the scene, you have to imagine a fluctuating series of landscapes and environments very different to our own – (perhaps a little reminiscent of this year’s “beast from the east” and summer heatwave?). For instance, if we visited the Peak District 350 million years ago we would find much of the landscape submerged beneath the sea – Buxton included! Such a dramatic contrast is evidenced in the “Wonders of the Peak”, via the fantastic fossils exhibited there; Trilobites (1), Brachiopods (2) and Ammonites (3) to name a few.

If we travel a little less far back in time – 2.6 million years to be precise – we will reach the start of the current geological period; “The Quaternary”. Characterised by repeated glacial (cold) and interglacial (warm) periods, it is from this time that we find evidence for some of the animals that once featured in our landscape. Many have since migrated or become extinct but a few examples of the animals affiliated with the interglacial periods are highlighted in the “Wonders of the Peak”. They include the remains of cave lions (4), bison (5) and hyenas (6).

In contrast, signs of life from the last glacial period; or ice age, can also be spotted nestled amongst our displays. Remains of reindeers (7), woolly rhinos (8) and mammoths (9) are some of the few that feature. It truly is fascinating to think that we once walked amongst such an array of amazing creatures – imagine the fantastic sights that only our ancestors might have seen?

On the flipside, what could be noted as incredible is the evidence that we find for the continuation of a species into the present day. If you look closely at the Roman tile below, you will see an almost humorous example of man’s best friend leaving his mark on the world. A little paw print pressed into soft clay, provides us with the merest echo of a trivial event from times gone by. You can almost picture the frustration of the tile-maker upon his discovery – perhaps they found a trail of paw prints over multiple tiles? Maybe the dog was caught in the act and a colourful scene ensued? Whilst these musings stretch the imagination, I think it makes for a fantastic story which breathes a little life into the past and makes our forebears and their experiences all that more relatable.

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After all isn’t the purpose of a museum, to make the past relatable? To welcome enquiry and share the remarkable stories that make up our collections? Whenever I visit a museum I often find that pieces of a whimsical nature attract my attention and Buxton Museum & Art Gallery is no exception. When looking in the “Boyd Dawkins Study” I noticed a display case with a taxidermy Dotterel inside – which according to the label, may have been originally mounted by none other than Charles Darwin himself! Whilst we have no concrete proof that this is his actual handiwork, the mystery and prestige surrounding the provenance of the Dotterel makes a great story and puts a different spin on what might be considered a “fantastic beast”.

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I had far too many ideas to note down in one post, so let’s take a rain check on part two. In the meantime why not pay us a visit (we are free admission after all) and see if you agree with me? Perhaps you could find some fantastic beasts of your own…  

Buxton: An Architectural Super Power

Volunteer archivist Ian Gregory reveals why a town the size of Buxton has such palatial buildings:

Visitors arriving in Buxton for the first time are sometimes surprised by its architectural heritage.  The Crescent, Opera House, Cavendish Arcade and The Dome are not what some people expect in a town this size. The patronage of the Dukes of Devonshire explains some of it, but there are other factors to consider.

The Industrial Revolution began in the northern Midlands; Sir Richard Arkwright built his pioneering cotton mills here in Derbyshire, while Josiah Wedgewood developed mass production of pottery not far away in Staffordshire.

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Interior of the Dome in Buxton, formerly The Devonshire Royal Hospital, now part of Derby University

Buxton’s heyday came in the 19th Century, when the process they began snowballed and made Britain a superpower.  When the railways arrived in 1863, visitors came from far and wide, some to take the waters, others to enjoy a holiday. Buxton grew because it was close to an economic powerhouse. It wouldn’t do to over-idealise the past; children were employed in mines and factories while all the women and some of the men were denied the vote. Nevertheless their world was changing and many towns, including Buxton, expanded rapidly.

As the twentieth century grew older, another economic shift occurred. British manufacturing declined and regions that once had thrived suffered recessions.  Economic power shifted to London and the South-East.

As I catalogue images at Buxton museum, I’m reminded of that time when the North and the Midlands drove Britain’s economy.  If dramatic transfer of power have occurred before then they could again. Some would argue that one is happening now, in the wider world, as China becomes the second largest economy on Earth.

Will there be others, not only shifts between nations but within them?  Have some already started in a small way, to be recognised when they have snowballed and we have hindsight?