Gold for the Gods

Buxton Museum and Art Gallery is one of five venues to host ‘Hoards: a hidden history of ancient Britain,’ and the only one in the Midlands and North West. The exhibition showcases objects from Prehistory to the post-medieval period that tell us how people lived, what they valued, why they collected and stored objects that they considered precious and what circumstances may have led to hoards remaining hidden.

More often than not objects were hidden because of times of economic hardship, warfare, or as gifts to the gods. Three of the most spectacular items on display at the Hoards exhibition are gold neck torcs dating to the Iron Age, and which were most likely deposited in the ground as offerings to the gods. Two on display come from a hoard from Ipswich in Suffolk, territory of the Trinovantes tribe, and the other was found as part of a hoard from Snettisham in Norfolk, the territory of the Iceni. 

Anyone visiting the exhibition cannot fail to be impressed by these huge collars of twisted and plaited gold, and this must also have been the effect, and the intention, during the time of the Celts. For the Celts jewellery was a highly important status symbol and a clear sign of wealth and rank. The torc was reserved for the aristocracy, as well as the gods, and they seem to have possessed an intrinsic magical and religious significance. Depictions of Celtic gods and goddesses often show them wearing a torc.  G

Ipswich torc with La Tene decoration

Roman authors provide a good description of the Celtic aristocracy, often describing them as ostentatiously flaunting their wealth. Diodorus Siculus describes warriors going into battle, hair spiked using lime water, and completely naked except for their weapons and gold torcs. Cassius Dio describes Queen Boudicca of the Iceni as wearing a huge gold torc, and Quintilian writes that a delegation of Gallic Celts presented the Emperor Augustus with a gold torc weighing thirty three kilograms – far too heavy to wear!

A question we are often asked at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery is “how were the torcs put on?” Julia Farley, curator of British and European Iron Age collections at the British Museum, has suggested that they were put around the neck “by being bent slightly out of shape, slipped onto the neck, and then bent back into shape again.” One torc from Ipswich, which is on display in the Hoards exhibition, clearly shows that it has been bent out of shape to make the opening larger. Some torcs do show repeated flexing of the metal; this eventually leads to a lot of stress being exerted onto the metal which eventually becomes brittle and snaps. One gold torc from Snettisham (not on display at Buxton) had snapped in antiquity and been soldered back together again, the break being hidden by a thin sheet of gold. Some torcs have hidden hinges or removable sections to allow easier fitting to the neck; when worn they would have given the impression of a solid ring of metal.

Ipswich torc bent out of shape to wear

Some torcs are far too rigid and heavy to be bent out of shape and worn, and it is possible that these were attached to cult statues or held aloft during ceremonies. A clue to this can be seen on the famous Gundestrupp cauldron from Denmark; one scene on the cauldron shows a seated deity with antlers to his head, interpreted as the god Cernunnos, surrounded by animals and wearing a torc around his neck and holding one up in his right hand. At Maily, Champagne, France, comes a torc with an inscription in Greek which alludes to it being part of a large offering of treasure dedicated to the gods by the tribe of the Nitrobriges in south-west Gaul. By offering precious items into the ground, or in water, the Celts were placing them into a liminal world between that of humans and the gods.

One of the Snettisham torcs with associated torc fragments

It is possible that torcs were placed around the neck of Celtic aristocracy at a rite of passage, such as a coming of age ceremony, or upon inauguration as a king or queen of a tribe. Some may have been only produced as votive offerings, intended to be buried and sent to the realm of the gods, out of reach of humans. Some bog bodies have been found wearing leather torcs around their necks, and this type may be associated with sacrificial rituals.

You may notice that one of the Ipswich torcs is decorated to both of its terminals with a foliate curvilinear pattern; this is known as the La Tene style (named after an archaeological site in Switzerland) and was a much favoured style of art across most of Europe and the British Isles from the 5th to 1st century BC; in fact it was so popular that the Celts are also known as the La Tene culture.

Torcs are frequently mentioned in the vernacular mythology of Wales and Ireland. The tale of Culhwch and Olwen describes Olwen as wearing a large gold neck-ring, and Giraldus Camberensis mentions a well in Pembrokeshire which contained a gold torc guarded by a serpent who bit anyone who attempted to steal it.

If you would like to discover more about hoards please come along to one of the following free talks at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery:

Hoards and hordes: – the Viking conquest and settlement of the East Midlands, by Gareth Williams, curator of early medieval coins at the British Museum, on Tuesday 30 April, 11am – 12 noon.

Talking torcs – the Leekfrith Hoard, by Teresa Gilmore, Finds Liaison Officer for Staffordshire and the West Midlands, on Wednesday 12 June, 11am – 12 noon.

The Year Ahead: 2019

If you’ve ever wanted to visit the lofty spa town of Buxton and its museum, 2019 would a good time. We have two exhibitions focusing on aspects of local life: As we look forward to the re-opening of The Crescent as a spa hotel and visitor experience, our summer exhibition will focus on this iconic Buxton building with art works and artefacts from our collection.

7. Crescent what's on imageOn May 31st 1999, media in the High Peak changed forever. Radio Buxton took to the airwaves for the first time and five years later High Peak Radio was launched. 20 years on, the two brothers who founded both stations curate an exhibition featuring reconstructions of the original Radio Buxton studio. They’ll also be a ‘pirate’ studio including items of memorabilia, equipment and original recordings.

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This year we are excited to be hosting Hoards: The Hidden History of Ancient Britain. Discover buried treasure and find out the various reasons why people put precious objects into the ground and why they did not retrieve them. The exhibition brings together finds from the British Museum and Salisbury Museum, including spectacular Iron Age gold torcs and recent discoveries from Wessex. We’ll also be displaying hoards from Derbyshire and the Peak District including additional material from Beeston Tor.

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As usual, there is also a changing programme of art exhibitions and events. Download your 2019 What’s On below and plan your visit here.

Buxton Museum Whats On 2019_A5 brochure_WEB

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.

Separated by Time and Space: Human Remains in the Modern Museum

This week’s blog was written by a student on work experience at Buxton Museum. Darcy is in her third year studying History at the University of Lincoln but grew up in Buxton. She wrote her dissertation on the subject of human remains in museums and was able to provide us with her expertise on this controversial subject:

Our relationship with viewing human remains on display in the modern museum remains a turbulent and divisive one. The controversy surrounding these exhibits has highlighted the ethical argument over how remains should be displayed, and whether they even should be. Modern museums are still struggling with the fine balance between education and entertainment, whilst trying to frame their exhibits in a manner which doesn’t compromise culture, respect and dignity towards the remains.

Most modern museums are formed from private collections, like the establishment of the British Museum in 1753 from the collection of Sir Hans Sloane. With the growth of the museum due to donations, human remains were added along with the popularly collected Ancient Egyptian mummies during the ‘Egyptomania’ phase of the nineteenth century. Currently, the British Museum holds over 6000 human remains from all over the world dating back as recently to the early twentieth-century, to as far back as prehistory.

Due to the huge time difference in the range of human remains, the Human Tissue Act of 2004 introduced new guidelines of how to display human remains and dictated that remains can only be displayed without the permission of kin if they are over 100 years old. For context, 100 years ago marked end of the First World War, which is easily in close memory of the older generation’s parents and grandparents.

Buxton Museum currently has around fifteen examples of human remains on display. The displays include a complete skeleton, skulls, jaw bones, teeth embedded in a portion of cave floor taken from the famous Poole’s Cavern, cremated remains in a Bronze Age urn, and even a fake ‘mermaid’ with real human hair. The age of the remains can be dated from anywhere between 6,000 – 2,000 years ago due to the high level of prehistoric and Roman activity in the area. The only ‘modern’ exception is the ‘Mummified Mermaid’ who is a forgery estimated to be from the Victorian era.

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Because of the thousand years which stand between the remains and visitors in the museums up and down the country, the separation in time removes a lot of the humanity and empathy when viewing the displays. Even during the height of ‘Egyptomania’, there was still the separation of thousands of years between the ancient mummies and the Victorian public. But how and where do we draw the separation in time between us and the remains for them to be considered ‘objects’ and not ‘ancestors’? This is still unclear as shown by the Human Tissue Act and opens up new debates on whether 100 years is really long enough to justify the display of remains without the permission of any living relatives.

However, museums are experimenting with ways that present the remains as more than just objects. Labelling and information cards are important to the narrative of the remains, but it is still easy to remain disconnected from this. Instead, technology in the museum space can be utilised to engage more intimately with the remains on a human level to aid in visitor interaction and also in provoking more empathy than before. Digital facial reconstruction has been used on two of the skeletons in Buxton museum from excavations at the local sites of the Iron Age mass grave at Fin Cop and the Neolithic burial at Liff’s Low.

3D printing further aids in the acceptability of viewing human remains. For example, a 3D print of the Fin Cop skull was made to be exhibited in Buxton Museum, as the full skeleton had been found, and to separate and display only the skull would have been inappropriate. Electronic tablets are also stationed around the museum to give visitors the ability to find out more about certain exhibits in depth and seeing them closer than just in the glass case. The tablets in Buxton Museum also provide the visitors with videos of how the digital reconstructions on the skulls were done, and in the case of the Fin Cop skull, an image of the real skull is shown without the need for it to be separated from the rest of the remains purely for the purposes of display.

So whilst the words and the facts of traditional museum information cards help to pull the visitor in, they can feel like too clinical a way of presenting something so controversial. This is why technological advancements like digital facial reconstruction provide a respectful way of initiating empathy and re-humanising the remains to keep them from becoming just ‘exhibits’. Not only does it give a more familiar face for visitors to relate to, but it also helps in closing the thousands of year’s gap in time and space which divides the modern museum goer from the human remains.

A Remarkable Discovery

You may have already seen in the news that Buxton Museum now has the Reynard’s Kitchen Cave Coin Hoard on display so there has never been a better time to pay us a visit.

In case you’ve missed all the excitement, the initial discovery of four coins was made by a member of the public, which led the National Trust to carry out a full excavation of the cave in Dovedale, a tourist hotspot on the border of Derbyshire and Staffordshire. In total, twenty six coins, including three Roman coins which pre-date the invasion of Britain in AD 43, were unearthed.

Reynard's Kitchen Cave, Dovedale. Collection of Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.
Reynard’s Kitchen Cave, Dovedale. Collection of Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.

The hoard consists of both Late Iron Age and Republican Roman coins, the first time coins of these two origins are thought to have been found buried together in a cave in Britain. The discovery is significant. Not only is it unusual to find Late Iron Age gold coins, but to unearth them actually within a cave setting adds to the mystery surrounding them.

Twenty of the coins are Late Iron Age and attributed to the Corieltavi tribe. These people lived further east of Dovedale in the modern Midlands. They were probably farmers, and came together for mutual benefit. Their tribal centres are thought to be Sleaford and Lincoln, and later in Roman times, Leicester.

The excavation was led by University of Leicester Archaeology Service and undertaken by Operation Nightingale which provides recuperation for field archaeology to for service personnel injured in recent conflicts. The coins were then sent to be studied at the British Museum before being  cleaned by conservators at the Institute of Archaeology at University College, London.

 

Late Iron Age gold coin front Photograph by Richard Davenport
Late Iron Age gold coin front
Photograph by Richard Davenport

Another special mention this week to Derbyshire Museums Manager, Ros Westwood, who has been awarded Fellowship of the Museums Association from the President of the Museums Association, David Anderson at the recent Museums Association conference in Cardiff. Well done, Ros!

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