The largest, most complete ichthyosaur fossil in the world, found by chance lurking at the bottom of a lagoon in Rutland. The most important Roman mosaic find in a century, uncovered in a Leicestershire field during lockdown with the help of Google Maps. A Stonehenge-era carved chalk drum, the most important prehistoric find in recent memory, discovered in a children’s burial site in East Yorkshire.
An onlooker might be forgiven for thinking every day is like Christmas for the UK’s archaeologists and palaeontologists, so astonishing are the discoveries that have been unearthed in the past few years alone.
Spurred on by these high-profile finds – and a renewed curiosity in local history brought on by the confinement of the pandemic – the UK is in the midst of a new wave of public interest in our buried human and natural heritage.
Recent films such as The Dig, which told the extraordinary story of the discovery of Anglo-Saxon treasures at Sutton Hoo, and Ammonite, a fictionalised biopic of palaeontology heroine Mary Anning, played by Kate Winslet, have brought a touch of movie magic to the grubby work of excavation.
As the middle ground between professional research and public engagement, museums are ideally placed to tap into this appetite. It’s not just about inspiring the next generation of treasure finders and dinosaur hunters, it’s an opportunity to draw in new audiences and demonstrate the public benefits of this field for people from all walks of life.
Bringing the past to life
These gains range from the “therapeutic landscapes” prescribed by doctors to boost health and wellbeing, to the improved confidence and purpose that can come from being part of an archaeological project, to the sense of place, identity and community that a deeper connection to the past brings.
“For museum archaeology, it’s about enabling people to engage with the subject at the level they choose to,” says Gail Boyle, the senior curator of archaeology and world cultures at Bristol Museum.
In the past there has often been a disconnect between the academic, scientific and public engagement sides of archaeology. But over the last decade, the disparate parts of the sector have become better at working together, sharing knowledge and being aware of what the others are doing, says Boyle, a former chair of the Society for Museum Archaeology.
Audiences are often as interested in the process of archaeological discovery itself, and the human stories behind a dig, as they are in the historical detail, says Boyle.
She has urged field archaeologists to preserve the personal legacies of their work, such as photos, oral histories and correspondence, for museums to share with future generations – as happened in archaeological records of old.
Museums are also taking more care to involve audiences in ongoing processes that usually happen behind the scenes. National Museums Scotland has launched a broad programme of engagement around its Galloway Hoard exhibition, which opened last year and is on tour at Kirkcudbright Galleries in Dumfries and Galloway (until 10 July). Buried around 900CE, the Viking-age hoard was acquired by the institution in 2017 after a fundraising campaign, meaning the public were invested in it from the very start.
“Quite often there’s a lot of focus on the discovery, that moment when it reappears,” says Martin Goldberg, curator of the exhibition. “But the thing that seems to really capture the public, in my experience, is the ongoing process of discovery that we’re engaged in afterwards.”
Long before the exhibition opened – capitalising on the spike in digital engagement during lockdown – the museum was sharing videos and blogs of practitioners working on the hoard, capturing moments of breakthrough as each artefact was slowly cleaned and conserved. This process has been brought into the exhibition itself – a time-lapse video on the exhibition floor shows a conservator cleaning a cross, seeing its beautiful Christian iconography emerge from layers of dirt for the first time in 1,000 years.
“For me, the moments of discovery are almost heightened because they take a lot of hard work to get there,” says Goldberg. “I would hope that how we can present our work to the public now – yes, we’re giving them the discoveries, the juicy stuff – but I hope there’s also more appreciation of the amount of time it takes, and that these are goals that are worth working towards.”
Breaking new ground
Ground-breaking advances in science and technology are also incorporated on the exhibition floor, where visitors can see CT scans of objects still wrapped in fragile textiles, as well as a film and digital model of a rare Roman rock crystal jar from the hoard that was recently unwrapped by conservators. Goldberg says it’s important to show the public the full breadth of the “heritage industry” that goes on behind an exhibition.
“It draws in scientists and researchers from all sorts of other fields – there’s amazing potential in interdisciplinary crossover and archaeology is actually perfectly situated to draw in all of these different strands, because we’re a science but we also operate in an arts and humanities background,” he says. “In educational terms that’s an important message to get across.”
But on the museum floor, the focus always comes back to the human story. Goldberg’s favourite objects from the hoard are two balls of dirt, which had been carefully buried alongside the gold and silver treasures; although innocuous, they must have been of great value to the owner and are believed to be contact relics that pilgrims would have taken from the ground of holy shrines they visited.
“You can see how these dirtballs were formed – almost like a child would do with plasticine, rolling them into sausages first,” says Goldberg. “The idea that these balls could have travelled such a great distance 1,000 years ago and then were saved in this treasure vessel, that’s the thing that’s always got me: the human connection.”
Another long-term archaeology initiative at National Museums Scotland is the Glenmorangie Company Research Project, a 13-year corporate partnership with the Glenmorangie whisky distillery that came about after the company adopted the motif of a Pictish stone found on its estate as its logo.
The initiative enlists artists and craftspeople, such as leatherworkers and silversmiths, to produce new works in response to archaeological objects in the collection, bringing them to a wider audience while also informing curatorial knowledge about how the artefacts themselves were produced. Each project produces an affordable publication that aims to make the research as accessible as possible – the most recent, Crucible of Nations: Scotland from Viking Age to Medieval Kingdom, builds on the public interest sparked by the Galloway Hoard exhibition.
Beneath the layers of human civilisation in the ground lie far more ancient riches – and there is enormous potential to expand the reach of museum palaeontology in the coming decade. The presence of Mary Anning on the English curriculum has played a vital role in getting schoolchildren hooked on the subject, says David Tucker, the former director (recently retired) of Lyme Regis Museum, which was involved in the production of the Ammonite film.
“It’s particularly encouraging to see what Anning’s inclusion is doing to get young girls involved in science,” he says. Mary Anning Beach – “the largest gallery in the world” as Tucker calls it – is on the museum’s doorstep and thousands of would-be fossil hunters follow in her footsteps every summer, many of whom join guided tours given by experts from the museum. A statue of the legendary Victorian palaeontologist is due to be erected there this year.
A discovery of riches
Also fuelling the current wave of interest are extraordinary discoveries such as the aforementioned Rutland ichthyosaur, along with huge scientific advancements that are rewriting what we know about ancient natural history. With these developments in mind, could the coming decade witness a new boom in dinomania?
Jeremy Lockwood is determined to make that happen. A PhD student at Portsmouth University’s School of Environment, Geography and Geosciences, Lockwood is spearheading a plan to transform the council-run Dinosaur Isle museum on the Isle of Wight into a charitable trust, with ambitions for a new museum building and educational dinosaur park backed by financial support from the German company Dinosauria.
Often overlooked by the wider public, the Isle of Wight is known in palaeontology circles as the dinosaur capital of Europe, with an enormous wealth of fossils dating from a largely unstudied time in the Cretaceous Period.
“[Victorian scientist] Richard Owen came up with the term ‘dinosaur’ based on a fossil found on the Isle of Wight,” says Lockwood. “It’s a really good story – right from the start, as people started to understand the meaning of dinosaurs, the Isle of Wight is there.”
The Dinosaur Isle museum is currently in a millennium-era building that is rusting in the sea air; Lockwood believes the institution is in need of greater investment and a suitable home to make more of its rich, ever-growing collections.
Although there is exciting potential for engaging audiences in the subject, both Lockwood and Tucker point to a more serious purpose to their work.
“We’re at a time of climate change and mass extinction – a term that came from palaeontology – and museums have to link into that and show people how the same thing is happening now,” says Lockwood. “Talking about dinosaurs is a really good way in.”
With the amazing discoveries being unearthed by archaeologists and palaeontologists all over the UK, and the media taking a keen interest in these finds, museums have a unique opportunity to raise awareness of the riches that lie beneath our feet and dig into new audience demographics in the process.
ON THE RECORD: PUTTING TREASURE FINDS ON THE MAP
The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), which is run by the British Museum and Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales), is designed to encourage the recording of archaeological objects found by members of the public.
The scheme works with national and local partners, and operates through its network of 40 locally based finds liaison officers, the PAS Central Unit (based at the British Museum), national finds advisers, interns and volunteers. To date, more than 1.5 million items have been recorded, from prehistoric-worked flint to post-medieval dress accessories.
The PAS was founded in response to the growth of metal detecting and the lack of provision to record finds, set within the context of the reform of Treasure legislation.
The Treasure Act, which applies to England, Wales and Northern Ireland, was passed in 1996 and came into force the following year. Under the act, all those who find gold and silver objects (and groups of coins from the same finds) that are more than 300 years old have a legal obligation to report such items. Finds liaison officers often help people determine whether a find constitutes potential Treasure and can report the finds on people’s behalf.
In Scotland, the Treasure Trove Unit is responsible for the daily running of the Treasure Trove system and is the first port of call for new discoveries and finders.
An important goal of the Treasure Act is to ensure that the public benefits from such finds by allowing them to be acquired by relevant museums. The act is designed to provide a reliable and secure mechanism for museum acquisition, as the objects all have clear, established provenances and the museums do not have to negotiate with private dealers or pay auction fees. For cases reported in 2019, 117 institutions acquired or were in the process of acquiring finds. The vast majority of finds are acquired by non-national museums – 328 of 351 cases in 2019, or 93%.