Welcome to Part Two of our round-up of the PASt Explorers Conference, which took place on the 18th November 2017.
Suitably refreshed after lunch and a wander round the fabulous galleries at National Museum Cardiff, we jumped straight back into the stories. This time, the story of how lead cloth seals led Stuart Elton (PAS remote volunteer) to volunteer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme and ultimately write a book on lead seals. Stuart emphasised the power of finds to turn a casual awareness of history into a desire to know more about the lives of our ancestors, who have suddenly become real through this interaction with an artefact. A feeling of obligation to record and share what he finds is what drew Stuart to the PAS, and he is a model of best practice. All finds have an accurate findspot taken using GPS to ensure geographic validity, and each is bagged and filed with a copy of its PAS record, as well as being recorded on Stuart’s own database. So why cloth seals? Lead seals are a common find but, unlike coins, there was very little information available for them, despite the fact that they contain a wealth of information about our post medieval industry and its trading routes. And so the “Bag Seal Junkie” was born! As well as distilling all of his knowledge into a book, Stuart helps to improve the quality of lead seal data on the PAS database by reporting errors, so you see there is more than one way to volunteer for the PAS.
Next up, Steve Guy-Gibbens (PAS volunteer, Hampshire) took us on an investigative journey to uncover the story behind a Roman phalera – or is it? Phalerae are sculpted discs of gold, silver or bronze that would have been worn on the breastplate of a Roman solider during parades. They were awarded as a kind of medal for valour and often depict iconography that emphasises bravery and victory. As such, they can tell us many things, from stories of individual acts of bravery to Roman attitudes towards the military. So what about this example? The first challenge was identifying who or what it depicts. Some see a Roman goddess, others a lion. Who is right? The second puzzle that arose during Steve’s research was whether it was even a phalera at all. It is rather large compared to other examples, but it does have attachment holes suggesting it was mounted on something. There is no conclusive answer to either of these questions as yet but, as Steve found, this process of investigation and research is all part of the appeal. We can only work with the information and parallels that we have available and perhaps providing one definitive answer isn’t the key aim. What really matters is that we record each find as fully and properly as possible so that the information is there for people to write the stories they choose to write. The PAS database leaves space for alternative interpretations and we can update records when new information comes to light. And who knows? Perhaps another example like this one will turn up to help complete the picture.
From the story of a single object to using objects to tell multiple stories, Simon Nicholson (PAS volunteer, Derbyshire) took to the stage to entertain us with a selection of tales from Derbyshire and how he uses PAS finds to bring these stories alive. Like all of the speakers today, Simon’s passion for the past was sparked by archaeological finds and the local stories they can tell. By volunteering for the PAS he has ben able to work with these finds and weave them into his local history talks, some of which we were treated to at the conference. From a notorious 17th century forger to the tough and reliable pottery that lifts the lid on an early manufacturing industry, each tale was an example of how using finds from the local area can make a subject so much more engaging. Placing it in a local recognisable context can help to bring the history alive. The best example of this is the ‘Cromford Dollar’. These were Spanish silver coins counter-marked with a trade stamp that were used by tradesmen to pay their workers at a time when few silver coins were being minted in Britain. Most local people will have heard the term ‘Cromford Dollar’ but few will have seen them before. Using examples recorded on the PAS database, Simon is able to provide some background and colour to this local story. His listeners can literally hold history in their hands. The power of objects indeed.
Finally, what better story to bring the day to a close than a story that became a media sensation? Emily Freeman and Evelyn Curl (PAS volunteers, Shropshire) lifted the (piano) lid on a Treasure find that captured the interest of the whole country, and beyond. In late 2016, a piano tuner in Shropshire was carrying out a routine job on a piano that had just been donated to a local school. The keys were a bit sluggish so he lifted the to take a look and found a stash of carefully wrapped packages. On further inspection each was found to contain a cache of gold sovereigns. The coins weren’t particularly old or special but they had clearly been packed away with great care by somebody. For reasons unknown that person never retrieved them leaving us with the threads of an intriguing story. The potent combination of gold and mystery caught the public’s attention and sparked a frenzy of media interest. The team at Ludlow Museum found themselves thrust into the limelight – it certainly was not the normal PAS volunteer experience! Now that the media furore has died down, we’ve been left with an incredible story of one of the more unusual finds on the database. It’s another great example of how there is much more to an object than first meets the eye, and a suitable point on which to bring this thought-provoking conference to a close.
Throughout the day we heard many, many different ways in which the finds on the database have inspired people to get involved with their local history. Behind every object is a story, sometimes many. With more than 1.3 million objects (and counting) recorded on the PAS database there are endless stories waiting to be discovered. Perhaps the purpose of the database is not to tell the stories but to provide the information from which the stories can be drawn. And we’re not just talking about official academic narratives here. There is more than one way to write about the past. What matters most is that the stories produced continue to engage people with their past. The database is for everyone, after all. What stories will you discover?