On Saturday 18th November we were welcomed to the National Museum Cardiff for our annual PASt Explorers conference. Battling rail replacement services, inclement weather and hordes of rugby fans, attendees arrived at the museum ready for a day of engaging and thought-provoking talks. This year the theme was ‘Telling Tales’ and we explored the multitude of stories contained within the PAS database.
We had tales of discovery and tales of inspiration; familiar tales with a new twist, and new tales that are being unlocked through PAS data. We even had tales of tales! At the heart of each were the finds themselves, and this was the key theme that emerged throughout the day. We heard about finds that had sparked a passion, finds that brought communities together, finds that challenged existing narratives and finds that captured the imagination of the whole country.
We kicked things off by laying a theoretical foundation for the day as Lauren Speed (PASt Explorers) explored the nature of objects and storytelling, asking us to ponder why we find these objects so fascinating. What is their power to engage us and why is this important? Some big themes to sum up in a short space but it really comes down to the link between ourselves and our material culture. Objects are a direct and very tangible link to the past. Like people, they have a chronology, biography and life-span. They carry not just the physical marks of their past use but also the meanings and values given to them throughout their life. Storytelling is an engaging and powerful way to unlock this information as it prompts us to look beyond the empirical data and think about the people behind the objects. Who made it and why? Adding some humanity to the way we talk and write about the past is vital for engaging as many people as possible and this is what we’re all about, after all.
Next up, we were treated to some examples of these ideas in practice as Dr. Rhianydd Biebrach (National Museum Wales) introduced us to the Saving Treasures; Telling Stories project. This is a 5 year Heritage Lottery Funded project that is helping local museum to acquire treasure finds for their collections and provides funding for local community archaeology projects to help people tell the stories of their local areas. Lots of examples were discussed but the story of the Trevethin Hoard probably best demonstrates the impact of the project. This is a hoard of Bronze Age axe- and spearheads found by a local detectorist. With the help of the Saving Treasures project, the hoard was acquired by Pontypool Museum where it is now on display. As well as being important archaeologically, the hoard has had a significant impact locally in an area more known for its industrial history. In fact, Bronze Age activity was previously unknown in this area and so the hoard is a source of immense local pride.
From new local stories, we moved onto the long-established narrative of Boudica and the Iceni uprising as Natasha Harlow (PAS volunteer, Nottinghamshire) revealed some of the results of her doctoral research into personal belongings recorded on the PAS database. We have plenty of images and stories of Boudica but archaeological evidence is lacking – her ‘costly’ chariot burial has yet to be found and the finds we have don’t support the image of Boudica passed down to us by classical writers. The ‘Iceni war of independence’ has left us a trail of destruction and hoards but not the harrying with fire and sword described by Tacitus. Instead, small finds recorded on the PAS database point to continuity in settlement and material culture in Iceni territory. Densities of brooch finds suggest manufacturing and workshop sites that continue through the revolt period, whilst the appearance of Latin text on votive items show an adoption of certain incoming beliefs mixed with old practices. What we seem to have is a story of resistance, selectivity and connectivity during the Iron Age to Roman transition. And what of Boudica herself – real-life warrior queen or an invention of Roman propaganda? For now, the answer depends on which story you prefer.
We rounded off the morning session with a surprising story from a field that wasn’t meant to have anything in it, as Dominic Shelley (PAS self-recorder, Cambridgeshire) showed us the find of a lifetime. After a quick scene-setting canter through the Dark Ages, we were quite aware that this sleepy corner of Cambridgeshire was pretty quiet during this period of history. Nevertheless, Dominic went out, permissions granted and detector in hand, to explore a local field and happened across an unexpected find: an early medieval gold Visigothic tremissis, minted in Spain and in very fine condition, just slightly worn. So not just unusual but hardly used. What then is the story behind this coin? It would have been worth a lot to its owner – 3 tremisses would buy you 70 litres of olive oil or 67 litres of wine, and if you stole a cow you’d be fined 2 tremisses. Is it evidence of a wealthy Visigoth living in Cambridgeshire? Probably not, but it does represent an interesting story. Somebody was bringing this coinage into the area and beyond, as shown by similar finds recorded on the PAS database. It does show us that Britain was not isolated in the 6th and 7th centuries and it is also a good example of how PAS finds are helping to change long-established ideas and stories. Previously it was believed that these coins had a purely symbolic function because they were known only from burials – money to pay the ferryman in the afterlife. Thanks to the PAS and finders recording their finds, we now have examples of these coins from non-burial contexts and can show another side of the story; that these coins were part of the economy too.
So a jam-packed morning! After a chance to see the fabulous tremissis in the flesh, we broke for lunch, and this is where I will pause this post. Join us next time for part 2.