Re-discovering Some Derbyshire History in the Museum Stores

By Heather Miles

As a recent graduate, caught in the vacuum between finishing a BA and jumping into the black hole that is Postgraduate Study, I have found myself temporarily sheltered in the relative calm of Buxton Museum. By playing the part of a volunteer, I seem to have tricked them into unknowingly giving me refuge, and I have spent this past August blissfully recording archaeological finds in a quiet office.

My project has been to update the digital records of small finds and pottery from a series of archaeological digs around Carsington and Hognaston, Derbyshire, in the 1980s. This is no small task, as I have unboxed over 700 finds lying in storage unrecorded and anonymous. Many objects sit unidentified in dusty Ziploc bags, sadly a life shared with much of our nation’s archaeological record – not all finds can be as revered as the Sutton Hoo helmet or Richard III’s skeleton.

An unassuming cardboard box, sat in storage for over a decade, contains 22 bags of cremated human remains.

An unassuming cardboard box, sat in storage for over a decade, contains 22 bags of cremated human remains.

Fortunately for me, this absence of information has created a great learning opportunity. In order to record what is in front of me, I have had no choice but to learn fast how to identify pottery wares, animal and human bone, flint objects, and metallic ores, as well as how to best preserve them when items are in need of repackaging or protection (for example, old cardboard boxes can be rather acidic). As I delve deeper into the collection and begin to understand more about our local past, more and more exciting objects are appearing before me.

One of my favourite finds so far is a leaf-shaped flint arrowhead from Hognaston Reservoir. This type of arrow is typical of the Neolithic era (4000 – 2000 BCE), a form produced for its aesthetics over the more practical barbed triangle you might tend to associate with an ‘arrow’. This particular example is of great quality, a delicate and regular shape that would have required an artisan’s skills. Because it is quite thin, and there isn’t any visible wear, it is possible that it was created purely for ceremonial purpose and was likely never used.

A leaf-shaped flint arrowhead, Neolithic era.

A leaf-shaped flint arrowhead, Neolithic era.

Apart from the occasional small find, though, there is an abundance of pottery. Locally produced Derbyshire ware fills bags in vast quantities, sometimes with over 200 sherds in one bag. It has its own rough beauty, varying from brick red to deep purple or black, with a distinctive coarse surface covered in quartz and stony grit.

Other less commonly found types of pottery give evidence of a rich Roman trade with the rest of Britain and the continent. Multiple types of Gaulish wares are present, as well as colour-coated wares from Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire. One piece of colour-coated ware in particular bears an enduring mark of humanity, a clear fingerprint pressed into a Roman box-lid from the 3rd century AD. Other sherds display intricate decorations, some made by rolling a patterned stamp across the surface, some carefully etched in using a point by hand.

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A fingerprint on a Roman box-lid, 3rd century.

 

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Four sherds of pottery showing different decorative patterns.

I feel excited to be re-discovering artefacts that give insight on all aspects of life: eating habits, organised craft production, burial, trade and commerce, and even military presence. People have settled in Derbyshire throughout the ages, and all have left their permanent impression on the landscape – and eventually, in Buxton Museum’s store rooms.

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A Visit to Carsington Water

One of my latest outings for Collections in the Landscape has been to Carsington Water, an area with which we have strong links via our collections. The site is managed by Severn Trent and I was kindly welcomed by Ranger, John Matkin, who gave me a tour of the landscape.

Carsington Visitor Centre was my starting point, as it is for many visitors. From here, you can take a number of walks or bike rides, including the 8 mile route around the reservoir. Photograph by Stephen Jones.

The area to the north of Carsington was an important lead mining centre in Roman times, and it has been suggested that the valley is the site of Lutadarum, the centre of the Roman lead industry in Britain. Two Roman sites were discovered prior to the construction of the reservoir and three excavations recorded and saved artefacts before the flooding of the landscape. The results of these excavations are stored here at the museum.

Objects on display at the museum include pottery, glass and metal work. More materials are preserved in the museum stores and range from ordinary building remains such as tiles and nails to more unusual finds such as a lead phallus, thought to have been displayed as an amulet in the home or on a horse harness.

Some of the Carsington materials currently on diplay at Buxton Museum & Art Gallery.

Some of the Carsington materials currently on display at Buxton Museum & Art Gallery.

During my short tour of Carsington John led me to Stone Island, one of the most popular short walks for visitors of all abilities. The walk gives excellent views of the Carsington Hills (the source of all that lovely Roman lead) and is also the site of a Bronze Age barrow. A digital ‘stop’ at this location would be able to tie-in multiple elements of Carsington’s history.

Next, we drove north to the Sheep wash Car Park. This spot overlooks the area of the valley that saw the principle Roman excavations. Of course, this spot is now firmly underwater but it’s great to stand overlooking the water and picture how it might have looked over 1,500 years ago.

Carsington Water is well served by paths and bridleways and would be perfect for a joined-up trail to be explored on foot or bicycle. The reservoir is also a popular centre for water sports. However, whilst a canoe based trail sounds like great fun, it’s probably the perfect way to lose a smartphone in to the inky depths!