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.

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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.

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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; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/dovedale-by-derbyshire-moonlight-61217

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.  

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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.

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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.

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Making faces

This week two of the human skulls at Buxton Museum were scanned to see if these faces from the past can be reconstructed. This will help us tell their story in the new Wonders of the Peak gallery. One skull is of a young person found at Fin Cop Iron Age hillfort, dating from around 300 BCE. The second skull belongs to a man buried around 2000 years earlier at Liffs Low.

The scanning was carried out by Mark Roughley and Dr. Eilidh Ferguson from Face Lab Research Group at Liverpool John Moores University and it was absolutely fascinating watching them work.

Mark and Eilidh make an initial assessment of the material.

Mark and Eilidh make an initial assessment of the material.

The research group at Face Lab provides expertise in analysing the bones of the skull and face. They use it to identify bodies in forensic investigation, and to make archaeological images of historical figures. Mark has a background in medical illustration and Eilidh in forensic anthropology and they were able to explain brilliantly what they were doing and why, and what we could learn about people from looking at their skulls.

First the bones were inspected to see which parts needed to be scanned. Some of the remains were fragmented, but Eilidh could identify whether they were relevant and she helped us identify some unknown parts.

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Eilidh identifying some of the fragments as parts of the hand.

For example, some of the fragments stored with the skull were actually parts of the hand, so we re-labelled their packaging accordingly. Mark and Eilidh then set to work – Mark scanning each part in turn and Eilidh carefully photographing them for later reference back in the lab.

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The Artec Space Spider hand-held scanner looked rather like a steam iron!

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The image above shows Mark scanning and Eilidh working at our photography area in the Project Space watched by Collections Assistant Dave and volunteer Cynthia.

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An image was built up as Mark moved the scanner back and forth round the skull.

The scanning was done in our public Project Space, so visitors could see what was going on and we could explain about the project.

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Eilidh photographs the Liffs Low skull.

The Fin Cop skull is relatively complete and has not yet been on display. The Liffs Low skull is part of a complete skeleton which has been displayed in a reconstructed burial. Using a hand held scanner meant it was disturbed as little as possible. We’re hoping there’s enough of this skull to make a reconstruction, but it is quite fragmented with some of the key central part of the face missing. Mark and Eilidh will put all the pieces together digitally to create a more complete image of the skull and hopefully visitors to the new gallery will be able to meet these early Peak District people face to face!

Peak District Cave Lions!

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This amazing Cave Lion foot is part of Jackson’s collection of animal bones from Hindlow near Buxton. We recently decanted it from its ‘Bone hole’ on the gallery where it lay along with other Hindlow remains of bison, horse, mammoth and wolf. Up close, it’s much more obvious what a large animal the Cave Lion was, much larger than present day lions.  Going for a walk would be very different if these creatures still roamed the Peak District!

Painting of lions at Chauvet Cavern, Southern France (museum replica). Wikimedia Commons

 

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Part of the Cave Lion material in store.

Most of the Hindlow material is held in store because there is just too much of it to display. One of our expert volunteers Bente Loudon is working her way through assessing the material but previous research by Danielle Schreve (1997) on the Hindlow bones identified the presence of at least two lions. The bones include most of a right hind leg and may be the most complete articulated lion remains from the Pleistocene era. Along with the lions were the remains of at least three horses and four animals identified as cattle or bison. Gnaw marks on the bones and the variety of animals led suggests that the cave was a den for lions preying on horses and bovids (cattle/bison).

Also in the cave were the remains of another large, wild bovine, an aurochs. This led Schreve to suggest the bones were laid down in a warmer interglacial period when aurochs were here, rather than a cold stage, and this might explain the very large size of the lions and horses.

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Representation of the now extinct aurochs. (Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.)

We’ve really enjoyed sharing the objects with our visitors close up and our Artists in Residence @KidologyArts have been taking inspiration from the Cave Lion too!

Silly questions, interesting answers

By Ros Westwood.

After 17 years of walking through the Wonders of the Peak gallery, it has now almost gone. The objects have been carefully removed. Soon the structure will go too, and we will be able the full size of the space at our disposal. Yes, it is sad, but the opportunities this is giving us are amazing!

So often we say: ‘Oh! I’ve been there, I’ve seen it. I don’t need to go again.’ And yet as items which I should know well (I’ve walked past them daily for years) have been removed from exhibition, they reveal amazing detail which the previous display concealed. This little brooch from the Salt collection is a case in point. It was made 2,000 or more years ago, but just look at the terminals on it. The finely drawn and wrapped wire is almost invisible to our weary 21st century eyes!

Penannular brooch, Thirst House Cave.

As we develop the new gallery we are taking the opportunity to talk to groups of subject specialists. I am asking some seemingly quite ridiculous questions. Well, they may seem so, but often we take our own knowledge for granted and expect everyone else knows it too. So I have learned some really interesting things which I share with you:

Let’s start with plate tectonics. This was very new science when I was at school, and I remain really excited by it. But I was interested to learn that as the European plate drifted northward (rather like the Indian plate does today, very slowly by perceptively), there was a period of massive collision and folding of the earth which resulted in the creation of the mineral beds in Derbyshire.

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Blue John, Treak Cliff Cavern, Castleton.

Only afterwards, and so more recently, when the Siberian plate shifted westwards did the coal measures result from another period of land turbulence.  Curious to imagine Derbyshire under a desert plateau akin to Tibet which over years and years and years has been eroded and lifted to create the Derbyshire dome of limestone, almost the lowest level of rocks that cover the earth, and yet now above the sea.

How about land ownership? In the Mesolithic period, people were still following herds across the landscape. The scatter of tiny lithic flakes, in the Waterhouse collection, shows that the slopes of Kinder Scout were not an abandoned wilderness.  People did come down from the hills and gather together, as the large structures at Lismore Fields in Buxton suggest, but not necessarily for long periods of time.

Sheet of flints collected by John Leonard Waterhouse 1920-1940.

Sheet of flints collected by John Leonard Waterhouse 1920-1940.

But over time people felt a need to settle with domesticated animals and to develop smallholdings to grow the vegetables and grains. They spun wool from their sheep and goats, and knew how to set up a loom and weave. So they wore woven cloth garments made from wool and linen, surely dyed with fruit and vegetable colours. They made pots, decorated with patterns. For these people, this was a great time to live!

And when they died, their corpses were laid to rest in barrows. This provides a whole new meaning on their relationship with place. They were no longer wandering people.   They wanted to root themselves and their families in the place they were bound to, and to watch over it for generations – until a curious antiquary or archaeologist should disinter them. But even then, their place is marked, in Derbyshire by the many places called ‘Low’.
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It is as if the man whose skeleton is from Liffs Low comes alive from the display here. I can imagine him sitting in on that hilltop near Biggin and thinking about his and his family’s relationship with this special place – not a skeleton, but a fit man, with a slightly dodgy elbow caused by an old injury.

I’ve certainly not asked all the questions. In July we will host a series of public events throughout the Buxton Festival for you to do so too. ‘Meet the Experts’ will bring our colleagues from museums across the UK to share their knowledge with you and us. We will publish the programme shortly, but make a note in your diary for our series of lunch time lectures from 8 July to 24 July.

Earlier People of the Peak District

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The Museum’s reconstruction of an early Bronze Age burial at Liffs Low, Hartington – a young man of 25 to 30 years old who at some point had broken his elbow. Near him were a stone pendant and a decorated beaker.

The new gallery gives us a fantastic chance to think about the stories of the people of the Peak District, from early people to the modern day.

When archaeological digs are carried out, after all the analysis has taken place, any human remains and associated objects and records are often homed in the local museum where possible. They are a physical link to the folk who left their mark in the landscape. Some had their homes here, some were just passing through. Their structures, tools and artefacts can show us their skill, technology and humanity.

So we would love to know …

  • What fascinates you about earlier people in this area?
  • What sort of things would you like to know about them?  and …
  • What do you feel about human remains in the gallery?

You can leave a comment here or contact us through Facebook https://www.facebook.com/BuxtonMuseumandArtGallery or Twitter @BuxtonMuseum using the hashtag #EarlyPeakDistrictPeople.

 

Lava in the landscape

Lava in the landscape

Some geology additions to the Buxton collections show volcanic events in the making of the local geology and gave a great excuse (as if one was needed!) to get out and explore to see where they came from. Some of the new specimens came from Cressbrook Dale, a dramatic limestone dale near Litton dominated at the top end by the imposing Peter’s Stone. At various times there’s been volcanic activity at a number of centres in the White Peak, which include Tunstead, Matlock, Alport and Eyam Edge. Not necessarily large volcanoes, these could have been areas of vents and fissures under the shallow sea that covered the area at the time, and from which lava flowed or material was ejected to produce falls of ash. This led to layers or intrusions of lava flow and tuff inside the limestone.

In Cressbrook Dale these outcrop where the rocks have been worn away.

Cressbrook Dale

The picture above shows the North end of Cressbrook Dale and another feature of limestone dales – the seasonal river produced by our recent heavy rains!

Standing above the valley on a cold, damp, windy January day, it takes a real leap of imagination to picture the area as it was over 300 million years ago – not here, but thousands of miles away near the equator, covered with a warm shallow sea. Could it have looked like this …?

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Cressbrook Dale lava.

Cressbrook Dale lava.

Tuff is formed from volcanic ash blown out of vents, eventually settling on the sea bed.  There’s evidence that the Litton Tuff was the result of at least two volcanic vents, one west of Tideswell and another under Bleaklow, which probably erupted repeatedly to build up a layer of material.

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Litton Tuff from Cressbrook Dale.

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Tuff from Peter Dale Vent with limestone fragment.

At Cressbrook Dale the tuff layer forms a ‘wayboard’ separated by a depth of limestone from a lower layer of lava. The picture below shows such a wayboard in Ecton Copper Mine, where the ash appears as a soft clay.

The horizontal ledge shows the sea floor at the time with 'wayboard' of volcanic ash above.

The horizontal ledge shows the sea floor at the time with ‘wayboard’ of volcanic ash above.

Reference:

Hunter J. & Shaw R. 2011 The Cressbrook Dale Lava and Litton Tuff between Longstone and Hucklow Edges, Derbyshire. Mercian Geologist 17(4); 229-242.

 

A visit to the British Museum

This week’s blog is by Derbyshire Museums Manager, Ros Westwood.

Walking into the British Museum thrills me: from the lions lying watchfully at the north entrance, through the Death gallery where all the faces or masks and animals watch while you peer at items from all over the world, and into the huge space of the Central Court. Being Christmas, it did look a little like a shopping mall – but we all love to shop, and to sit and gossip, which so many people were doing. Looking up through Norman Foster’s domed roof, I could see blue sky and winter clouds.

I was visiting for two reasons. I wanted to see the Celts exhibition. This early period of our history is complicated by terminology such as the iron age (although the objects are bronze) and by the tramping boots of the Romans, whose written history is good at confusing the facts. Oh well, history is written by the victors!

Does Celtic history end with the Romans’ departure from Britain? Of course not, so I can now be confused by the Vikings, Angles, Saxons and Jutes, each with their own style. And to add to it all, in the 18th and 19th century the antiquarians re-interpreted the evidence, and the druids re-appear, as in this photograph by J W Jackson at Arbor Low in about 1927. Were the druids there at all? And are we actually still all Celts? Well, probably not. Were we ever?

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Exhibitions like this bring together and juxtapose objects. The first object you see is Greek! So as a visitor you have to start to think. The projected timeline was useful, and beautiful, not too long that you felt uncomfortable watching it, but holding your attention with good information and images. The highlights for me were the gold and silver torcs, particularly those that have recently been found in Scotland. The metal working skills are awe-inspiring, drawing wire, twisting thin plates, even making hinges. I hasten to add that wearing them may have required some neck strengthening exercises, they looked so heavy. There were huge cauldrons used for feasting, decorated with their lively animals and scary creatures.  And the St Chad’s Bible, which has left Lichfield Cathedral where I last saw it when we visited during the Enlightenment! programme.

After two hours in the low gallery lighting, I then enjoyed the thrill of going behind the scenes at the museum. The doors to the department offices are imposingly tall, with shiny brass locks and handles, and they shut with a satisfying click. Before you are endless passages, stairs, bookshelves with the libraries neatly arranged, and offices which should be silent or filled with hushed debate, except that the dull drone of stone cleaning outside shatters the studious calm.

I was visiting the Department of Europe and Palaeontology to talk about the potential of returning some of the treasures of Derbyshire to the new gallery at Buxton. I had previously studied the online catalogue and knew that there are some interesting objects which might be released from the stores. The curators I met were keen to suggest potential items, from the early Neolithic to medieval times. They patiently answered some of my quite ridiculous questions, but if questions are not asked, we’ll never know the answer. And as we talked, new themes started to emerge.

It is early days yet, but arranging loans takes a long time. I have promised new colleagues images of weird items in the Buxton collections, such as these mace heads reputed to have been found at Arbor Low. In return, they are searching the stores for errant combs and chatting to conservators about whether objects are stable enough to travel. I already have a potential list of 50 items, which will need confirming.

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But I cannot forget that Buxton Museum already has amazing collections. Walking around the Celts exhibition I realised that they may not be gold, but bronze jewellery items from Thirst House and Poole’s cavern, with their strong dates and provenance are as good as some of what was on show. Early next year we need your help to suggest the star items for the new gallery: perhaps here are some of Buxton’s star objects? Come and tell us.

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Dragonesque brooch from Thirst House cave, with red and blue enamel inlay, late 1st century to early 2nd century AD.

Trumpet brooch, 2nd century AD, Thirst House cave.

Trumpet brooch, 2nd century AD, Thirst House cave.