Some of the objects recorded by the PAS might be considered to have something of a more direct or immediate link to the people of the past. This might be considered the case for personalised objects which are engraved with people’s names, or decorated with heraldry, for example. There are other objects whose biography is apparent through the evidence of any alterations they have received.
An object whose extended life use caught the eye recently is a medieval buckle found in Central Bedfordshire (BUC-550336). The type of buckle is interesting in its own right and of approximately 12th-century date. However, its prime interest here is as an example of a repaired object, presumably because it was considered to be both useful and important to its wearer.
Before turning to the evidence for repair of the object itself, we can consider an almost complete example of this type of buckle found in Scopwick, Lincolnshire (LVPL-7BD375). It would have had three bars extending from its attachment end, each once terminating in a circular expansion to take a rivet. The rivets that survive are made from iron. Coming back to our buckle, looking very closely we can see the vestiges of the three ‘bars’ at the attachment end where they survive on the Lincolnshire example. We can therefore speculate that these relatively weak extensions at one point broke off, perhaps all of them, perhaps not. To ensure that the buckle could again be attached to the strap, the user made two new holes, one at each corner of the attachment end. We can also tell that these were new at the time because they travelled through the decoration at these points. One hole was furnished with a new copper-alloy rivet with a square rove; we cannot tell whether the other rivet had a rove because it was made of something different – iron, which has survived far less well. Presumably, once fixed, the attachment end was neatened, with any surviving bars removed and tidied up.
Through close examination of an object we can delve into its life history, and get closer to its owner. In the case of this buckle there seems to have been a need to prolong its life, be it for practical or more personal reasons. Although the loss of the buckle’s pin could represent post-depositional damage, it may have been that when the pin broke that this previously cared for buckle was finally discarded. With this, though, we move further from observation and more into the realms of speculation.
June 12th 2018 marks eleven hundred years since the death of one of the most remarkable women that England has ever produced. Few have heard of Ӕthelflӕd (and fewer can spell her name) yet she was a warrior queen, absolutely the equal of Boudicca or Elizabeth I.
Ӕthelflӕd was Alfred the Great’s eldest child, and she seems to have inherited all of his intelligence and good sense. She was married to Ӕthelred, Alfred’s lieutenant in the Midland kingdom of Mercia, and when he died prematurely she was chosen as leader. She was never officially a queen – Mercia had lost its independence in the conflict with the Vikings – but she had the same status, the unchallenged leader of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom who led her people into battle against the Vikings.
Ӕthelflӕd was the daughter of Alfred and Ealhswith, a Mercian princess. She was born about 870 AD, a really low point in English history. The Vikings had been around every summer for decades, attacking coastal sites like Lindisfarne and taking plunder home, but in the 860s they started a new tactic known as ‘overwintering’. This meant that instead of going home for the winter, they sailed up a river, built a camp and stayed put. There are famous historically-known camps at Nottingham, York, Cambridge, Repton, Torksey and Thetford, and archaeology and metal-detecting have found traces of all of these.
This was a real change in Viking activity. They seem to have been aiming at conquest, political control and land-taking, rather than simple raiding, and so they became a huge threat to the English kingdoms. Alfred became king of Wessex shortly after Ӕthelflӕd’s birth, but by the time she was about eight, he was in hiding in the Somerset marshes. The story is that he was on the run, given shelter by a woman who didn’t recognise him and asked him to keep an eye on her cakes (probably bread rolls). He was so pre-occupied with thinking about how to defeat the Vikings that the cakes burned – and he was scolded by the woman who had no idea he was king.
The other kingdoms – Northumbria in the north, Mercia in the Midlands, and East Anglia – were occupied by the Vikings. The situation looked hopeless.
Alfred famously began guerilla-style raids against the Vikings. Eventually he gathered enough people around him to build up an army, and was able to defeat the Vikings and get some measure of peace back to the country. A treaty was agreed some time between 878 and 890, which drew a boundary between the Anglo-Saxon lands and the ‘Danelaw’.
By this time, like any good princess, Ӕthelflӕd had got married, but not to a prince or king. She had married Ealdorman Ӕthelred, who was in charge of London, newly liberated from Viking rule. Quite soon Alfred promoted Ӕthelred, to take charge of the Mercian council and the Mercian armies.
The title of ‘king’ was a potent one, and Alfred seems to have realised that he ought to keep it to himself. By putting an ealdorman in charge, Alfred is showing that he’s the top dog – it’s not a separate kingdom any more. This new arrangement isn’t always clear, though, and Ӕthelred issues charters as if he was a king. Mercian sources fudge it, calling him ‘Lord of the Mercians’, and some Welsh sources describe him as a king. No coins are yet known in the name of Ӕthelred.
Ӕthelred’s position was therefore a bit precarious, and being married to someone like Ӕthelflӕd was essential to keep stability. We don’t know Ӕthelred’s background – whether he was from Wessex, or from Mercia, or why he was chosen by Alfred. And he had imposed on the Mercians by their historic enemy, the king of Wessex. So we might expect him to be a bit unpopular, and in need of some backup.
The couple start off quite conventionally – Ӕthelred spends his time fighting the Vikings, and Ӕthelflӕd stays at home and has a baby daughter. But Ӕthelred then becomes ill. We aren’t sure what happens – maybe a battle wound, maybe something else – but at some point between 902 and 910 Ӕthelflӕd takes over. By this point Alfred had died, and Ӕthelflӕd’s younger brother Edward was king – we know him as Edward the Elder.
The campaign against the Vikings was still at its height, and Ӕthelflӕd organised the Mercian side of things. She travelled with her army, and apparently had a good eye for land, being able to predict where the Danes would be and where would be the best places to attack. She sent her troops into battle in the final great defeat of the Viking army, when (with Edward’s Wessex army) she surprised them at Tettenhall near Wolverhampton in 910. Apparently many thousands of Danes were killed, including all their leaders, and this was the turning point in the war against the great combined Viking army. Again, it’s surprising how little we remember the Battle of Tettenhall, even though it’s one of the great decisive battles of English history.
Ӕthelred then died, in 911. This made Ӕthelflӕd’s position more difficult, because it was not obvious who would take over. In England, there was no tradition of women becoming regents when their husbands (although this did happen in France). In Mercia, queens could issue charters, but in Wessex, apparently the wife of a king didn’t even get the title of Queen. And of course Edward was the official king – so who would now rule Mercia was probably up to him.
Edward doesn’t appear to have interfered, and he was probably waiting to see how Ӕthelflӕd got on. She couldn’t govern without the loyalty of her military retinue, and as we don’t hear much of her for a couple of years, she was presumably building up her strength at home.
She next emerges into history as a builder of fortified towns, or ‘boroughs’. Between 913 and 915, towns like Bridgnorth, Tamworth, Stafford, Warwick and Runcorn all had major defences built. Several of these have been excavated, and all were strategically significant, many on major rivers on which the Vikings could use their ships. The ‘borough system’, where towns are fortified and men detailed to guard them in rota, had been invented by Alfred – but Ӕthelflӕd hugely expanded it in her kingdom.
916 was an interesting year for Ӕthelflӕd. She took a break from fighting the Vikings, and switched to annoying the Welsh. Her ally in north Wales, the king of Gwynedd, died in 916, leaving her a bit weaker on her western boundary. So she sent a force against the kingdom of Brecon – in south Wales – presumably hoping to keep the new northern Welsh king on side, under the principle that his enemy’s enemy is his friend. This is significant because both Brecon and Mercia were under the overlordship of Wessex. By attacking another dependent kingdom, Ӕthelflӕd clearly felt that she could safely assert her independence!
It seems that Edward and Ӕthelflӕd in fact had a good relationship, working separately but for the same ends. In 917 she switched from defence to offence, and began to attack the Viking towns – first she captured Derby, and then threatened Leicester, but the Danish town here surrendered without a fight.
The Danish rulers of York then sent a message to Ӕthelflӕd that they would accept her as their ruler, but sadly she died on 12th June in Tamworth, on her way north to York. No similar offer was made to Edward, and in fact the Viking kingdom of York continued for decades until the death of Erik Bloodaxe in 954.
Ӕthelflӕd was about 48 when she died, in the prime of her life and at the height of her powers. The death of a powerful ruler is always a problem, and although Edward was in the middle of fighting with his own army in the east midlands, he immediately went to Mercia to ensure that his authority there wasn’t questioned. In fact, the most extraordinary thing had happened – after the success of one Lady of the Mercians, the leading men there had chosen another one, Ӕthelflӕd’s daughter Ælfwynn, who was now aged about 30.
There is then silence until about six months later. Presumably Ælfwynn had been trying to build up power in Mercia, and had not had the same success as her mother. For some reason Edward ‘deprived her of control’, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and by Christmas 918 she was in exile in Wessex. There was no resistance in Mercia to the loss of their ruler, and so this really ends the story of Mercia as an independent kingdom.
It has been pointed out that the transfer of power from one woman to another is not seen again until Tudor times six hundred years later, with Queens Mary and Elizabeth (and Lady Jane Grey before, if you insist). At this point legitimacy and royal succession was the important thing, whereas in the tenth century the crucial attribute was the ability to command in battle. And in Tudor times there were no male heirs, whereas in Anglo-Saxon Mercia there were plenty of able men around.
William of Malmesbury, writing two hundred years later, probably summed it up when he said that she was “a woman of enlarged soul” and that she “protected men at home and intimidated them abroad”. Let’s remember Ӕthelflӕd (and Ælfwynn) and celebrate their achievements as women before their time.
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?
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.