Don Bramwell: The archaeological artist

Don Bramwell: The archaeological artist

Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

When most people think about the work of Don Bramwell they will be reminded of his accomplishments within the field of archaeology, working on sites in Derbyshire such as Fox Hole Cave and Elder Bush Cave. But a select few might also recognise his creative side through his archaeological drawings of finds like this bear skull seen below. The accompanying photograph (showing the actual bear skull drawn in his diagram) helps to highlight the precision to which he gave to these drawings and how invaluable his talent was to aid in the recording of these sites, at a time when it was much harder to get a perfectly clear image from a camera.

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His talent for the arts was not just kept to archaeological objects and finds however, and while searching through boxes of archived material I have come across many detailed illustrative drawings, complete with watercolour additions, of…

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All things weird and wonderful

Last weekend we changed some displays in the project space so we could show off some of the fantastic items from the Randolph Douglas collection. This was acquired by Derbyshire County Council in 1984 with help from the PRISM (preservation of industrial and scientific material) fund. The scheme is administered by Arts Council England to encourage collecting and conserving items that tell the story of the development of science, technology, industry and related fields.

Douglas display
The new display in the project space at Buxton Museum

Randolph Douglas has already been written about by my colleague Ben Jones in a previous blog here, and we know from questions we are asked that he is a popular subject with our visitors. He’s particularly well-known among magicians and also for the museum he ran in Castleton, called the House of Wonders.

randini postcard  4

Randolph Douglas took the stage name Randini. Here he is on a postcard signed Jan 1914.


Douglas was born in 1895 at Greenhill in north-east Derbyshire, the son of a silversmith. He was fascinated by Houdini from a young age, purchasing locks and a straitjacket as a young boy, and meeting the escapologist when he was still a teenager. Their friendship quickly evolved beyond that of star and fan into mutual admiration. Douglas even inspired Houdini’s famous upside-down escape from a straitjacket during one of the escapologists visits to the Douglas family home at Endcliffe in Sheffield.

Houdini postcard 4

Douglas and Houdini outside the Empire Theatre in Sheffield, 1920


After being discharged from the army on medical grounds in 1916, Douglas used his experience as a steelworker and amateur locksmith to focus on making models. He also amassed a large collection of ethnographic and geological specimens, locks and chains, and local curiosities. He and his wife Hetty moved to the village of Castleton and turned half of their house into a museum to display his collection. The House of Wonders opened at Easter 1926 and visitors paid a small charge to be shown around by torchlight. After Douglas died in 1956, Hetty continued to run the museum until her death in 1978.

A House of Wonders

Poster advertising the House of Wonders c.1930

On display this summer you can see items including handaxes from the Pacific islands, a case of patented locks and keys from the 19th century, beautifully decorated Chinese card markers and water pipes, a copy of the Lord’s Prayer small enough to pass through the eye of a needle, a smuggler’s dictionary with a secret cavity and a Saxon spearhead found at Matlock. Truly wonder-full!


Meet the Flintstones

Here at Buxton Museum we are lucky to have an amazing selection of flint tools and implements. These range from the 10,000 year old hand axes, two of which we have on display for visitors to handle, to the tiny microliths (an abbreviation of the Greek word for stone -LITHIKOS), made by chipping small pieces off a core block of hard quartz flintstone.

One question I am often asked by visitors is ‘How can we identify a flint that has been shaped by human hands and not by geological activity?’ The answer is ‘not easily’. Flints were fashioned, using a fracturing technique; by striking a single point on the core stone to send out fractures through the whole block (a bit like splitting logs with an axe). Unfortunately, the same technique and result was achieved, en masse, when ice formed in the cracks of the flint rocks during the Ice Age; making it difficult to identify geological flints from handmade flints.

It is worth bearing in mind that the ‘human hands’ that often shaped these flints did not necessarily resemble the human hands that we know today and that different species of humans shaped and made flint tools according to their capabilities. There have been several species of human primate along the journey to the current model: Homo-Habilis, Homo erectus, Neanderthal, and Homo Sapien to name the most widely known species’ and most, if not all, species made and used flint tools in varying forms. Flint tools made by some of our earliest ancestors, such as Homo erectus in the Lower Palaeolithic Age around 1.8 Million years ago, comprised two – sided, pear-shaped, hand axes and scrapers fashioned from thick flakes of flint. These type of tools are categorised as ‘Acheulean’ which refers to the technology and industry which produced them. Acheulean tools have the largest footprint of usage spread across earth and were continually produced for over 1 million years; making Acheulean technology the longest lasting industry on earth to date.


DERSB 9580(1)

The Hopton Hand Axe  found near Carsington in Derbyshire shows extensive signs of retouching. It is believed to date from the Middle Palaeolithic, Acheulean era,  around 200,000 years ago.


Although the Acheulean design was to later re-emerge in Neolithic times, it was bridged by  different tools and technological designs during the Mesolithic period. Flint tools from this period, around 10,000 years ago, comprised tiny microliths of flint fashioned to make delicate arrow heads, scrapers, spears and wood working tools. The Mesolithic period fell between the end of the last ice age (although, technically, we are still in the ice age), about 11, 000 years ago, until the beginning of organised farm settlements about 6,000 years ago. Mesolithic flints were the tools of hunters – predominately used to hunt herds of game as the animals moved North, following the melting ice, for new pastures.


Mesolithic Flints 1

An example of the John Leonard Waterhouse Collection of Mesolithic flints originating from the Kinder Scout area of Derbyshire.

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May these waters never cease to flow

Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

This week Buxton celebrates the well dressing festival, which began in 1840 to thank the Duke of Devonshire for piping a supply of fresh water to a well on the Market Place. Apart from a break between 1912 and 1925, the event has been held annually.

W 199 front Celebrations on the Crescent in 1864, the first year that St Ann’s Well was decorated.

Since Thursday volunteers have been busy creating the dressings inside St John’s Church and this morning the results will have been installed at the three wells around the town ready to be blessed this afternoon.

PC 286 front The blessing of Higher Buxton Well in 1910.

The blessing of the wells starts with a service at St Anne’s Church on Bath Road followed by a procession that marches to each of the three wells in turn for a short blessing at each one. Afterwards the new well dressing Queen is crowned in a ceremony at St John’s Church. Next Saturday she will lead the annual carnival…

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The Oldest Building in Buxton

What is the oldest building in Buxton? And where is it?

The Old Hall Hotel might spring to mind. Parts of the building date at least as far back as 1573. Others might suggest St Anne’s Church – an inscribed date on the porch reads ‘1625’, but other sections of the church are understood to be much older.

And what did the Romans do for us? We know they were drawn here by the natural hot and cold springs. Their baths, temple, fort and houses are buried beneath the foundations of contemporary Buxton.

But to find the site of the oldest building in Buxton we need to follow the River Wye south-west. Stroll through the Pavilion Gardens and along the Serpentine Walks to a patch of raised ground by a 20th century housing estate. Welcome to Lismore Fields.


The entrance to the Serpentine Walks, 2016

The area around Lismore Fields, 2016

Lismore Fields, looking north, 2016

In the 1980s archaeologists excavated this site anticipating the presence of a Roman Road. Instead they discovered evidence for some of the oldest structures in Derbyshire.

Three buildings were discovered dating from around 6,000 years ago, during the Early Neolithic, but it isn’t known if they were used at exactly the same time. The buildings were rectangular and supported by posts. We can’t be sure what they looked like but it’s likely they had walls of mud plaster and heather-thatched roofs.

The people who lived here at that time were some of the earliest farmers in Derbyshire. Analysis of pottery found at the site suggested various contents including milk, animal fats and vegetable matter – the diet of those raising domesticated plants and animals.


But even these discoveries still might not clinch the title of ‘Oldest building in Buxton’! Lismore Fields also produced stone tools and debris associated with a circular structure of post holes. This assemblage was dated to the Mesolithic, or ‘Middle Stone Age’, a time before farming was practiced in Britain. Could these post holes indicate a temporary house or shelter? And, if so, have we truly found a winner for ‘Oldest Building in Buxton?’

Meet the Experts: come on a journey and meet the people exploring Collections in the Landscape during the Buxton Festival in July

Guest blog from Ros Westwood

There’s a great team at Buxton Museum developing the new gallery. I have had the privilege to work with the Buxton Museum collection for 17 years, but even so, I am not a subject specialist. Over recent years, we have attracted researchers and volunteers who have specialist knowledge. They have identified the mineral collection, the rocks and fossils, and the shell collection. After more than five years, they are coming to the end of sorting out the huge archive relating to the work of Dr J.W.Jackson. All this work is helping to shape the new displays, so we can select the most interesting objects and the best stories to tell you.

Volunteers and staff in the Project Space working on condition checking, photography, documentation and data entry.

Volunteers and staff in the Project Space working on condition checking, photography, documentation and data entry.

What is really important therefore is that we get the story right. The laying down of the geological history is complex. The mass of archaeological material needs subject specialists to describe it and understand its context. Not all of the team have been at the museum as long as I have, and I would like to thank all the specialists who have come to share their knowledge with the team. I am delighted that some have been persuaded to share their enthusiasm with our visitors this July as an event programme in the Buxton Festival Fringe.

Throughout the fortnight, the specialists will be at the museum. At I pm, lunchtime, each day (except Mondays and Carnival Day) they will either give a talk or be in conversation with a member of the museum team. Afterwards, do stay and have a chat, seeing some of the museum’s collections through their eyes.

So, who’s coming then:

Friday 8 July: we kick off with Alastair Willis, the Derbyshire Finds Liaison Officer. As a member of the nationally funded Portable Antiquities Scheme he has seen amazing finds being made by metal detectorists across the county. Come and hear about some Fascinating Derbyshire Finds.

Coins from the Kirk Ireton Hoard

Coins from the Kirk Ireton Hoard

Sunday 10 July: Pauline Beswick, archaeology editor of the Derbyshire Archaeological Journal and specialist in early ceramics will share some of secrets about the Earliest Derbyshire Pottery, from 4,000 BCE to 0. Pottery remains essential in our modern lives. Can you identify a drinking cup from a food bowl? And how can you tell which pieces are older than others?

Cup found in a barrow at Green Low, Chapel-en-le-Frith

Cup found in a barrow at Green Low, Chapel-en-le-Frith

Tuesday 12 July:  Matlock Bath was a lively tourist destination around 1800, attracting many artists to see the spectacular landscape. The museum’s art collection includes important pictures of the Derwent Valley, now a World Heritage Site. Doreen Buxton, a local historian has studied them often and will share her observations in The Derwent Valley: the artist’s perspective.

View of Matlock, Derbyshire by William Marlow (1740 - 1813). Oil.

View of Matlock, Derbyshire by William Marlow (1740 – 1813). Oil.

Wednesday 13 July: Step back in time with John Barnett, the Peak Park Survey Archaeologist for A Walk through the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, when people started farming in the Peak, began to use metal tools and built spectacular monuments including Arbor Low.

A leaf-shaped arrowhead

A leaf-shaped arrowhead

Thursday 14 July: Victorian tourists to Buxton included in their list of activities a search for Buxton Diamonds. Geologist Roy Starkey follows in their footsteps to find out exactly where they went and what they found.


Friday 15 July: Coins may look like the least interesting objects in the museum display but they are really important markers for archaeologists. Anja Rohde from the University of Nottingham in Money, Money, Money explores the secrets locked into the two faces of any coin and banknote and what they can tell us about life and customs in earlier times.


Saturday 16 July: The caves on the border of Derbyshire and Staffordshire have provided important evidence about Derbyshire pre-history. The bones of animals and later remains from people were excavated in the middle of the last century. They are being studied again by Umberto Albarella, Reader in Zooarchaeology at the University of Sheffield. Is there more we can find out about Peak District Pre-history: Dowel and Fox Holes Caves ?

Antler point, Fox Hole Cave.

Antler point, Fox Hole Cave.

Sunday 17 July: At the end of the 1700s, the business men of Derbyshire chose Joseph Wright of Derby to paint their portraits. Joseph Wright also painted important records of the changing landscape as mills were built at Cromford and down the Derwent Valley. Jonathan Wallis, from Derby Museums, with its nationally designated collection of the artist’s work, takes a fresh look at Joseph Wright’s Derbyshire.

Wright of Derby, Joseph; Dovedale by Derbyshire, Moonlight; Derby Museums Trust;

Dovedale by Moonlight, Derbyshire, Joseph Wright of Derby, Derby Museums Trust.

Tuesday 19 July:  Are there really Mermaids in Derbyshire? Among Buxton Museum’s top 10 exhibits is our pin-up girl, the mermaid. Its conservator, Anita Hollinshead, shares its history, secrets and the stories that continue to intrigue us.

The Buxton Mermaid

The Buxton Mermaid

Wednesday 20 July: Love it or hate it, Buxton Museum has the best collection of inlaid Derbyshire Marble anywhere. Ros Westwood (yes, that’s me) the Museums Manager at Buxton Museum will explore Ashford Black Marble: not black, or marble.  


Ashford Black Marble with inlay.

Thursday 21 July: Buxton has long been a tourist destination. An excavation of Lismore Fields to the west of the town in the 1980s found some of the earliest evidence of these people from more than 10,000 years ago. Daryl Garton, the site archaeologist, will tell more about Lismore Fields: evidence of early visitors to Buxton.


Part of a bowl found at Lismore Fields, Buxton.

Friday 22 July: The discovery of up to three cave lions in the quarries at Hindlow in the 1950s provided some of the most spectacular animal remains in the museum’s collections. In the Ice Age, lions were animals to fear and respect. Dr Jill Cook, Curator of Ice Age Art at the British Museum will tell more about Cave Lions in Derbyshire and Abroad.

The foot of a cave lion, Hindlow.

The foot of a cave lion, Hindlow.

Saturday 23 July:  A generation of children have grown up braving the growl of the museum bear. Dr Hannah O’Regan from the University of Nottingham wants to know when the last bear roamed Britain. In Bear Detective:  the History of Britain’s largest carnivore she will look at the evidence, the facts and myths.

The growling Buxton Bear is currently a visitor favourite.

The growling Buxton Bear is a visitor favourite.

Sunday 24 July: I’ve kept this date, just in case – there are so many people helping the project, there may be a Stop Press to capture your attention…so keep a look out on Twitter.

UPDATE:  Julia Farley, curator of British & European Iron Age collections at the British Museum, will join us on 24 July to explore everyday life in the Iron Age.

I look forward to seeing you. The lectures will be in the Project Space, so there will be limited seating. Admission is free, but your donations will be appreciated. And we are grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund and all the organisations that our specialists represent for generously helping to make this programme successful.

We are getting nearer testing the digital options for collections in the Landscape too. So if you enjoy this programme, look out for that too.

Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my!

I’m pleased to share this blog post by Kidology Arts, Artists in the Residence for the project. Hopefully the first of many posts!

Kidology - Artists in the Landscape

As artists in residence at Buxton museum, we have spent the last few weeks exploring the ice age animal bones and in the museum collections. Richard has been sketching and painting and I have been composing, playing and recording in response.

We decided to pay our first visit to one of the places in the Derbyshire landscape where these bones were found, High Wheeldon.


The sound of the crows and jackdaws echoing between the hill and the stone cliff was amazing and I managed to record some of them despite battling against the wind. While Richard hiked to the top to get a better view for sketching, I tried to get a clean recording of the beautiful stonechats at the foot of the hill. We managed a recording of the wind and a very windswept sketch from the top of the hill. We did, however, leave with some extremely beautiful photographs…


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