Building Britannia: Behind the scenes at the Museum of Liverpool’s new Roman display

This week we have a guest blog by University of Leeds PhD student Luke Daly-Groves who has been putting together a display of Roman finds at the Museum of Liverpool:

For five weeks I have been working with a fantastic team of archaeologists at the Museum of Liverpool (MOL). Taking a deceptively broad departure from my PhD studies which focus on Anglo-American intelligence relations in occupied Germany, I have been collecting and researching Roman artefacts for use in a temporary display at the museum. I have always argued that there should be more collaboration between archaeologists and historians. After all, we both share the same mission, to discover the truth about the past. In this regard it may be helpful for me to talk about my experiences at the museum. Of course I would also like to share some of my thoughts about the ancient history of Merseyside.

My interest in Roman history was sparked by tales of Emperors and Empire, of bricks to marble, travels around ancient sites throughout Europe, books written by contemporaries such as Suetonius and the multimedia works of Professor Dame Mary Beard. But as Professor Beard emphasises, studying the Romans is not all about those at the top but also about revealing something of the lives of ordinary people. This is why archaeology is so important.

In the archaeological site of Pompeii, shards of pottery and even large almost intact pots lay strewn around the site, open to the elements and the mercy of thousands of tourists. Here in Liverpool, the smallest fragment of Roman tile is bagged and recorded because it may provide vital evidence. Why this seemingly large difference in approach? Context, in archaeology, as in history, is key. Very little is known about Roman activity in the North West of England. For years it was considered to be an area devoid of archaeology. Compared to the splendour of the Roman Baths in the South of England and even the imposing legionary fort at Chester, the Romans, it initially seemed to scholars, made little impact on Merseyside. I certainly had no idea of any Roman presence here prior to my work at the museum. However, just like with the study of intelligence history, the assembly of fragments can produce a broader picture.

Selecting finds from the Museum of Liverpool’s stores

I will never forget my first visit to the museum store rooms. This Aladdin’s cave of history is every historian and Indiana Jones fan’s dream. Countless shelves of boxes, all shapes and sizes, fill the massive space. Just from gazing at the front rows of a few shelves I could tell that these rooms house items relating to the history of countries all over the world, from prehistory to the Victorians. These store rooms are to the archaeologist what the archive is to the historian. Instead of documents, they hold and catalogue objects. A key difference is that archaeologists here undertake the role of both archivist and researcher, picking their own boxes and cataloguing their own items. It was refreshing to pick my own boxes. It felt like ordering from a sort of historical vending machine. But the process of preparation and analysis is the same. Before visiting the store rooms, I made a detailed list of each item I wanted to view, noting the shelf and row numbers which can be found on the museum’s impressive database. When compiling this list, I was faced with my first obstacle to research. Some items which would have been great for the display were on loan to other museums. The description of others, catalogued decades ago, did not do justice to the importance of the objects.

Just like archival research, you can never quite tell what the items you have studied on paper are going to look like when you are presented with the box which houses them. Some are of no use, others more important than one initially assumed. It is in the store room that archaeologists are faced with the same conundrum as historians, that of selection. How can one accurately represent the diversity of the past with limited time to rummage through the boxes and folders? I opted for both a thematic and chronological approach. I wanted to select items relating to different aspects of Roman life such as politics and religion whilst also demonstrating the length of the occupation. Consequently, I created a ‘timeline’ of coins, showing a span of Roman Emperors from Claudius (41-54AD) to Gratian (367-383AD). When selecting my thematic items, their appearance had to be considered. It is hard to convey context and scale in a museum display. When visiting a museum, I know I would rather see a tile stamped with the name of a Roman Emperor than a pile of orange dust. But historically, the pile of dust, due to its scale and where it was found, may be more important. It is a balancing act and there is really no right or wrong answer as to how it should be done. Just like removing chapters or sections from a book, sometimes the flow, or appearance, to the reader or observer, is the most important thing. If my display increases knowledge of Roman Merseyside and inspires people to want to learn more, I will consider this mission accomplished.

Luke mocks up some of the finds in the office

The issues of selection do not end in the store room. Having measured out the size of my display case and made a temporary mock up, I realised that not everything I picked would fit. Here is another similarity between historians and archaeologists: the limits of word count are the same as those of display space. The trick is to balance both, so they complement each other. This is a time consuming and challenging process. My first mock ups of display boards contained too much text. It took the help of the archaeology team to achieve something which would work. This can sometimes be frustrating for scholars who want to tell a story. But it is also rewarding to produce something accessible to all which could inspire the observer to research in more depth, perhaps by reading blogs such as this.

Copper alloy Roman bowl

Funding is also a big limiting factor for archaeologists and curators, as it is for historians. I first discovered this when working out the best way to display a large (for Merseyside) Roman copper alloy bowl. This incredible object was unearthed by a metal detectorist in Wirral. However, since being donated to the museum, it has remained coated in a fine layer of earth. The team which deal with cleaning such items are incredibly busy and my College was unable to provide further funds for my project. So, the bowl, when displayed, will only reveal glimpses of its greenish metal surface. Other challenges relating to display included finding suitable mounts and stands on which to place the objects. Having worked with Ron Cowell, helping to catalogue recently discovered items for his ground-breaking prehistoric display, I wished to imitate his use of different size blocks. However, as museum displays are planned months, sometimes years, in advance, the items available of this kind were very limited. Consequently, my display would have looked rather flat if Ron had not generously loaned me some of his blocks.

Whilst I was preparing my mock up display, arranging some fragments of orange Roman roof tile, one of the team informed me that stamped Roman tiles from the important archaeological site at Ochre Brook were still housed in the store rooms. I had overlooked these items on the large database, perhaps owing to their short descriptions. This resulted in another visit to the store rooms. Armed with list number two and with the help of curator Vanessa Oakden, I selected the appropriately numbered boxes from the history vending machine. The stamped tiles looked amazing. Nothing can quite describe just what it is like to hold something, almost two thousand years old, which a Romano-Briton in Liverpool would have held. The tangible definitely brings the past to life. This was made even clearer to me from observing the education team at the museum during one of their 1960s ‘hands on’ days when members of the public came to interact with objects from the recent past. Children with their grandparents expressed a genuine interest in such activities which will surely inspire further study. Similarly, the volunteer sessions in the archaeology department which allow volunteers to wash recent finds enabled members of the public, and myself, to share the sense of wonder which accompanies new discoveries.

But the museum is not just helping to spread knowledge of the past to the general public, the general public are sharing their knowledge with the museum too! For example, metal detectorists form an essential part of the museum’s day to day activities. As evidenced by the ever-buzzing telephone of the Finds Liaison Officer, Ben Jones, the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) is increasing our knowledge of Merseyside’s rich past every day. Many of the items in the museum’s store rooms and of those featured in my display were found by metal detectorists thus highlighting the importance of continuing this collaboration.

Ben Jones, FLO for Cheshire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside with volunteer Seonnie

The archaeology department is a multi-talented, multi-disciplinary, multi-purpose headquarters of history. Not content with just digging, cataloguing, scientifically analysing, mathematically plotting, engaging with historiography, publishing, collecting, displaying and lecturing, the archaeologists at MoL also engage in photography. Indeed, under the helpful guidance of Clare Ahmad, I photographed all of the items featured in my display along with some of those needed for Ron’s. This process helps future researchers to identify and study these items before or perhaps even without visiting the store rooms and enables minute details to be highlighted and enlarged through the use of digital technology. Indeed, my almost forgotten A Level photoshop skills came in handy again for a few days!

Historians and archaeologists can learn much from each other. We face the same challenges and share the same mission. The research of good historians is led by their sources, archaeologists by their objects. When both are used effectively together, the past can truly come to life. I have learnt much from my time working at the Museum of Liverpool. My research has helped to answer some important questions and raised further questions for future study. What might our ancestors have looked like? What did they believe? What did they make of the Romans? Or did the latter make Romans of them? Come and see my display entitled Britannia Inferior? A Glimpse of Life Around Roman Merseyside to find out.

Luke’s display will be on the first floor of the Museum of Liverpool during November and features several finds discovered through metal detecting which were reported via the PAS.