Bringing the ancient past closer than ever - Museums Association

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Bringing the ancient past closer than ever

Eleanor Mills delves into ancient human history and examines how museums that interpret such long-gone cultures are using innovative techniques to capture the imagination of their audiences
An immersive audiovisual film, A Place of Ceremony, captures the kinds of scenes believed to have taken place at the Kilmartin Neolithic Cursus, which was built around 3800 BCE Kilmartin Museum

In the early 1990s, when I was about eight, I went on a school trip to Sutton Hoo in Suffolk.

The teachers had taught us all about this great Anglo-Saxon king who had been buried there in a lavish ceremony with all of his incredibly ornate armour and possessions to help him in the afterlife, how his body had been lain in a beautifully crafted Anglo-Saxon long boat with rivets that held its timbers together, how his reign had been long and, consequently, how important the site was.

We were bundled into a minibus, excited to not be in the normality of our classroom, and after the build-up of a 40-minute journey with 30 excitable girls, we arrived.

The Anglo-Saxon burial grounds at Sutton Hoo

Our teachers marched us the significant 10-minute walk across fields in grey and wet conditions as our anticipation heightened – it felt like an age. Would we see a gold-lined tomb with treasures throughout? Would it shine with rays penetrating the nonstop rain? Would we be able to board a real Anglo-Saxon boat?

As our excitement peaked, we were led to the unremarkable grassy mound where King Rædwald of East Anglia was buried: a small hillock in the middle of a field in the drizzle, which we couldn’t even climb on. What an anti-climax.

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New rules of engagement

That was 30 years ago, and times have changed significantly. Sutton Hoo has been redeveloped to much acclaim, despite the challenges of getting visitors to engage with the Anglo-Saxons.

“People seem to find the Anglo-Saxons difficult to relate to, as they belong in most visitor’s minds to a vaguely located historic period firmly owned by the Vikings,” says Angus Wainwright, who works as an archaeologist at Sutton Hoo.

The site has the primary challenge of interpreting Anglo-Saxon history, but also the story of the 1939 excavation, which happened on the eve of the second world war, so there are two separate exhibitions that deal with the two time periods. And what of the unremarkable mound?

“Visitors now walk out to the Royal Burial Ground where landscape interpretation is installed along the route and up the new 17-metre-high viewing tower overlooking the mounds,” says Allison Girling, the property operations manager at Sutton Hoo.

The newly opened viewing platform at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk. The tower offers a commanding view across the Royal Burial Ground

“There is also a limited number of guided tours to walk in among the mounds – which are very fragile – with a volunteer guide.”

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The tower opens up views across the burial grounds and to the River Deben, which plays an important part in the Sutton Hoo story. It is the route King Rædwald’s body would have been transported along before being carried up the hill to his final resting place.

Recently, the National Trust, which runs Sutton Hoo, acquired the land that joins the ancient site to the river. Now open to the public, River View is 27 acres of grassland that enables visitors to enjoy riverside access for the first time at the site.

There are new walking routes and a better visual connection that helps visitors understand more fully why this site was chosen as the final resting place of Anglo-Saxon royalty.

SUTTON HOO

Run by the National Trust and redeveloped in 2019, Sutton Hoo was discovered in 1939. Located on the River Deben, opposite Woodbridge in Suffolk, the site is where Anglo-Saxon King Rædwald was buried, and remains one of the richest finds of the period.

The iconic highly-decorated helmet found there, dated c.620-625CE, along with most of the site’s other objects, are now held at the British Museum. The recent addition of a viewing tower allows visitors to look down over the royal burial mounds below.

Understanding and navigating the landscape that our ancestors lived in is a big part of bringing the past to life, whether that’s through sophisticated technology, or good old-fashioned walking routes. And a slew of new and redeveloped sites have recently opened across the UK that all take different innovative approaches to breathing life into the past.

One of these has been created by Hampshire Cultural Trust, which opened its new immersive experience of Anglo-Saxon Winchester, 878 AD, in November 2022.

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The museum service collaborated with Ubisoft, the videogame company and creator of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, to develop a part-digital, part-acted experience with real Anglo-Saxon objects on display, all in a disused retail space in Winchester’s Brooks Shopping Centre.

“We took a big risk,” says Jaane Rowehl, the director of collections and programming at Hampshire Cultural Trust.

“Visitors begin their experience on the eve of the Battle of Edington seeking shelter from advancing Vikings behind the strong walls of Winchester to await the fate of the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom, Wessex. Then, entering the main space, visitors wander around 9th-century Winchester.

Digital graphics are a key part of the immersive experience at 878AD

"There is a mix of traditional object displays and graphic panels, alongside more playful and immersive elements such as quizzes, games and side quests, as well as the chance to interact with one of six pieces of participatory theatre against the backdrop of a digital projection of an Anglo-Saxon scene made by Ubisoft.”

The Assassin’s Creed graphics supplement the experience cleverly, adding depth to it while also attracting a younger audience.

“This project was a true partnership and collaboration, employing the latest technology to support interpretation based on up-to-date academic research to engage new audiences with the story of King Alfred and his lasting legacy in Winchester,” says Rowehl.

“878 AD has a higher percentage of visitors in the 16-25 age group than any of our other museum venues – 3% of survey responders said they were aged 16-24 (compared with 2% in other museums) and the 25-34 band represents 10% of responders at 878 AD versus 7% at other museums. The higher percentage of 45-54 responders would also suggest parents visiting with teenagers.”

The attraction uses layered interpretation, including live actors

The trust also created an app (see box) with digital initiative Sugar Creative to continue the experience beyond the visit to the venue.

“It’s an app trail across the city centre to explore how peace transformed the city into, arguably, the first capital of England. Using a combination of Augmented Reality (AR) and gaming, there are 10 stops on a pleasant walk that covers topics such as education, defence, trade, religion, medicine and building,” Rowehl says.

“For me, the best reactions to 878 AD have come from children who I’ve seen dragging their parents around the venue or showing them how to use the app. From shooting their siblings with an AR arrow or screaming ‘King Alfred’ in their battle chants, 878 AD is able to inspire more children to take charge and lead the visit, probably because it does not look like a museum.”

878 AD

This immersive Anglo-Saxon experience opened in Winchester in 2022 and is run by Hampshire Cultural Trust. Using layered interpretation, including live actors and digital graphics, traditional object displays and a specially designed app, the experience tells the story of the eve of war as Viking hordes close in on the Anglo-Saxon capital of Winchester.

In a collaboration with tech company Ubisoft, 878 AD uses graphics from the popular videogame Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla to create a backdrop and provide characterisations of Anglo-Saxon people throughout the venue.

 

CREATIVE COLLABORATION

Will Humphrey is the creative director at Sugar Creative

To innovate on a project such as 878 AD requires new types of partnerships, both between sectors and people. In creating an experience founded on history, you may expect these partnerships to be based on something factual, but we founded ours in the emotional – a curiosity and love of the past that created an openness from which all things become possible.

This manifested most clearly when bringing together historians and immersive games designers, not simply to get the balance of accuracy but to find where the potential of digital experiences could enable us to immerse users in a very human past. This process led to some of my favourite moments in creating 878 AD.

For instance, hearing academics share quotes from archaic texts in response to the design team’s favourite computer game moments. And breaking down in laughter when arguing about the behaviour of Anglo-Saxon dogs was joyous.

This humanisation process, and the way in which we associate meaning with the stories of the past, highlighted the way in which some contemporary extremist communities reimagine the past to create ideology. This meant we had to consider the question of how content could be misinterpreted. The adoption of false concepts of white Anglo-Saxon and Viking racial purity by online alternative-right communities had to be addressed.

Ubisoft’s research team had already laid the groundwork for dealing with this in the creation of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. Even so, we needed to stay current and omit any symbols from displays that could be perceived in a negative way.

We are excited by the potential of digital hybrid content to expand the museum experience and engage new audiences. The potential to combine place, people and history in an entirely new way is made possible through partnerships that value bravery and curiosity to create genuine innovation.

Something that 878 AD didn’t have to face is dealing with an archaeological site that now just looks like a field. But this has been part of the challenge for the new venue of Ad Gefrin in Northumberland.

Ad Gefrin has tackled this by removing the archaeological site, about a 10-minute drive away from the museum, from the equation. Visitors are told where it is, but it isn’t part of the core experience, and anyway, it really does just look like a field with a few indicative lines cut in the grass.

It’s a very important field though. Discovered in 1949, the historical site of Gefrin (or Yeavering, which is a nearby town), was excavated between 1953-63, revealing a huge complex of large timber halls, a wooden grandstand (or amphitheatre) and support buildings that indicated that it was an extremely significant royal find.

Home to Anglo-Saxon King Æthelfrith (d.616), King Edwin (586-633) and his Queen, Æthelburga of Kent (601-647), the nature of what occurred on this now-pastural site was recorded by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in 731.

As Bede writes, Queen Æthelburga’s Italian bishop Paulinus spent 36 days “catechising and baptising: during which days, from morning to night, he did nothing else but instruct the crowds who flocked to him from every village and district in the teaching of Christ, and when instructed, he washed them in the water of absolution in the river Glen, nearby”.

An aerial view of the field where the foundations of the royal palace were discovered
Setting the scene

The challenge for Ad Gefrin was how to recreate this unique bit of history in a new visitor centre. What it didn’t want to do was only portray the royal aspect.

“What we’ve tried to do is show the breadth of society – all the people who made the royal court work. So, there’s a real emphasis on everybody from slaves to weavers, the craftsmen, but also the role of women in society,” says Chris Ferguson, the director of experience at Ad Gefrin.

“It would have been too easy to make the venue all about kings and battles, when actually it’s all the other people who make the royal court.”

The venue, in the town of Wooler in Northumberland, is an entirely new building that houses an immersive AV experience, a museum section with objects on display, a bar and bistro, and a distillery (see box).

Visitors start with the AV experience, which recreates the Great Hall that the Anglo-Saxon kings and queens would have inhabited, painted in bright colours and lit with firelight as it likely would have been.

“We’ve created a play on our AV wall that brings people to life from the Anglo-Saxon period, which I think is fascinating,” says Ferguson.

“This period doesn’t often get taught in school and when it does, it’s confusing, so the idea of storytelling based on fact to immerse you in a world with the types of people you would have seen and met allows you to then go to the field, the archaeological site, and imagine what it might have been like to live there.”

There’s a plan to re-excavate the site to delve deeper into life in that era. “If there are new discoveries, we can add and refresh our museum display easily and keep enhancing the story and showing new research,” says Ferguson.

AD GEFRIN

An Anglo-Saxon museum and whisky distillery, Ad Gefrin opened in the town of Wooler, Northumberland, in March 2023. The venue focuses on the people who supported 7th century Anglo-Saxon royalty, of which rich archaeological evidence has been found just down the road.

Discovered in 1949, this is the first time that the story behind the site of Yeavering has been told. Using an immersive environment, digitised wall and museum displays, the venue creates an engaging experience for all ages, and it is hoped that its restaurant and distillery will have a hand in regenerating the local town.

 

COMMUNITY SPIRIT

Eileen Ferguson is co-founder of Ad Gefrin, Northumberland

Never in my wildest dreams would I ever have imagined anything like the project we’ve created. The site that we’ve built on has been in my family for almost 100 years. My grandfather started a haulage business when he came back from the first world war, and he bought that site. Then my father worked there.

I was used to going to Wooler because it was the centre of my father’s universe. It was a special place for him, as it is for me. I went off to become a chartered accountant but came back when my father was ill and had to sell the business. We sold it to Ferguson’s Transport and Shipping, run by Alan Ferguson. I met him on this very site and years later I married him. So, Ad Gefrin is a special place for us.

We could have just built a whisky distillery and produced whisky with about four people working there, and that would have been it. But we wanted to breathe life back into Wooler and bring jobs to the town, so we thought why not pin the distillery to a nice visitor centre.

We had an important family meeting with all five of our kids back in 2018. “Right kids, we’ve got something we want to discuss with you, and it’s really serious. We’re thinking of spending all of your inheritance. But if one of you doesn’t want us to do it, we won’t go ahead.”

They all said go ahead. I told them it was going to be huge risk, but asked if any of them wanted to work in the business with me. Chris, now director of experience, said yes. He has a PhD from Oxford in archaeology and his thesis was on Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. It was as if our stories were aligned.

So, Ad Gefrin is not one person’s idea. It’s evolved with lots of things falling into place at the right time. Government funding was available for the visitor centre and we calculated that we could employ 54 people across the site.

Business-wise, whisky distilleries are tricky. You’ve got to invest heavily early on and don’t get an income until years later. But the visitor centre means people have been buying things from the shop and eating in our restaurant from the get-go.

We’ve got three markets – local people who want somewhere good to eat, tourists curious about Anglo-Saxon history, and then the people who are interested in whisky. And I hope they’ll be so blown away they’ll all want to keep coming back.

Ad Gefrin locates an exact place that is key to Christianity becoming the predominant religion in the British Isles, and the equally important site of Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island isn’t far away.

Irish monks settled there in 635, as King Edwin’s successor, King Oswald, acceded the throne in 634 and gifted the monks a substantial sum to build a monastery. But it was Saint Cuthbert (634-687) who established Lindisfarne as the holy centre we know it as today.

A devout man throughout his life, it was only after his death that the cult of Saint Cuthbert grew. Eleven years postmortem, monks opened Cuthbert’s stone tomb to find that his body had not decayed – a profound sign of his holiness.

Following this, miracles began being reported at Saint Cuthbert’s tomb, and Lindisfarne became established as the major pilgrimage centre in Northumbria. A later result of this reputation was the masterpiece of medieval art, the Lindisfarne Gospels, produced in the early 8th century.

The ruins of Lindisfarne priory, with a view across the foundations of the south aisle, with the north aisle on the left, the Rainbow arch (centre) and the south transept to the right
Igniting interest

In order to tell this story to the public, English Heritage took over the site and opened a visitor centre there in 1988, although this first effort was far from perfect.

“It was very text and graphic heavy with spatial divisions and showcases that didn’t afford the artefacts the best care,” says Susan Harrison, English Heritage’s north collections curator. “And within the ruins, the interpretation panels were standard lecterns.”

The visitor centre has since been revamped, and opened recently. “The space has been opened up so it has a light, modern, appealing feel,” Harrison says.

“The objects now take centre stage in state-of-the-art displays that enable visitors to view all the internationally significant stone sculptures in the round and well-lit.

"We’ve even been able to put recently excavated objects from the Anglo-Saxon monastery on display, including a glass gaming counter, Britain’s first known prayer bead necklace and one of the earliest surviving examples of knitting found in Europe. It has allowed us to showcase the treasures of the collection.”

Across the site of the priory, there are also newly designed lecterns and benches that sit more sympathetically within the ruins and feature the latest historical research and reconstruction drawings.

And English Heritage has created a new family trail inspired by the animals portrayed in the Lindisfarne Gospels, as well as commissioning a new monument, by sculptor Russ Coleman, to mark where the original burial place of Saint Cuthbert and the site of miracles at Lindisfarne may have been located.

Harrison says that layered interpretation is key to engaging modern audiences, and adopting this approach at Lindisfarne has paid dividends. “Comparing 2019 and 2023, we’ve seen on average an approximate 10% increase in visitors month-by-month, which is great.”

LINDISFARNE PRIORY

Situated off the coast of Northumberland on Holy Island, Lindisfarne Priory embodies the move to Christianity during later Anglo-Saxon years.

Now looked after by English Heritage, the ruined priory tells the story of Saint Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels, which were created here in the early 8th century. The ruins visible are those of a 12th-century priory, which claims direct descent from the earlier monastery.

Lindisfarne deals with relatively recent history compared with some sites in the UK, including Kilmartin Museum in Argyll, Scotland. And it tends to be more challenging to engage visitors in older history because it takes so much more of a leap of the imagination (see box). So how has Kilmartin told the story of its neolithic and bronze age site?

“We made a choice to take people backwards in time, because we felt it helps to anchor people in the present, rather than take the conventional approach that often starts the visitor journey in geological time, at the beginning,” says Sharon Webb, the director and curator at Kilmartin Museum.

“We introduce the story of Kilmartin Glen by orientating visitors in the present day and then gradually taking them on a journey back through time, concluding with the time of hunter-gatherers around 12,000 years ago.

Kilmartin Museum reopened in September 2023

"Nuances in the building’s design subtly coincide with transitions in the story of the glen, notably the visitors' return to natural daylight when they encounter a large window with panoramic views across Kilmartin Glen towards a bronze age funerary monument – the Glebe Cairn.”

Webb says that exhibition designer Studioarc Design helped create a sense of theatre in the redeveloped venue, which reopened last September, with lighting designer LightMedium also playing a vital role.

“We knew that lighting would be very important to highlight the texture and pattern of the items,” she says.

KILMARTIN MUSEUM

Kilmartin Museum was founded in 1997 and holds archaeological finds from across Argyll, as well as undertaking research on such objects.

In 2019, just more than half of the 22,000 artefacts in the museum’s collections were awarded Nationally Significant status by Museums Galleries Scotland and an independent panel of experts.

Having undergone a substantial redevelopment, the museum reopened last September and has been able to display many of its artefects for
the first time. Telling the story of the region’s ancient history is central to the venue.

 

WITNESS TO THE PAST

Sharon Webb is the director and curator at Kilmartin Museum, Argyll

Built around 3800 BCE, the Kilmartin Neolithic Cursus is the earliest known monument in Kilmartin Glen. It would not only have been visually spectacular, consisting of hundreds of posts shaped from 375 mature oak trees, but it also represents a massive mindset shift that separates neolithic communities from the hunter-gatherers who preceded them.

The exhibition does talk about the neolithic origins of domestication and agriculture, but we also wanted to emphasise this new-found capacity to transform the world through huge construction projects.

Unlike many of the stone monuments that followed, nothing survives of the cursus above ground today.

We had to extrapolate from the excavated evidence to create a large-scale visualisation to reveal how the monument may have appeared.

Like other examples of its kind, the cursus met a fiery end when many of its timber posts were ritualistically burnt 5,500 years ago, a spectacle we have captured through evocative animations in our immersive audiovisual film, A Place of Ceremony.

The project also created galleries for special exhibitions. We developed two inaugural exhibitions, one called Response, which is a collection of work by four artists who have spent years living, reflecting and responding to the archaeology to create their art.

The second, titled Carbon Legacy, by Lizzie Rose is a multi-disciplinary response to the cursus monument, which asks the viewer to reflect on the statement of power and intent that the felling of 375 oak trees thousands of years ago represents.

The installation is formed of artwork, sculpture, film and 375 oak tree seedlings that act as a reminder. After 12 months, as a form of restitution, they will be planted around the site where the original monument stood. This exhibition cleverly links the first monument to be built in Kilmartin Glen to the present day, the climate crisis we are facing and to the future.

Creswell Crags, an enclosed limestone gorge on the border of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, goes even further back. It houses fragile cave art from the last ice age and evidence of occupation between 13,000 to 15,000 years ago.

“The site is comprised of a gorge with caves, a meadow and a museum, so we can engage audiences in different ways, from cave tours, exhibitions, trails, educational visits, to learning activities and events,” says Angharad Jones, curator at Creswell Crags.

Creswell Crags gorge and caves feature evidence of human society dating back to the ice age

But engaging visitors in such deep time also meant the team had to get creative to ensure the all-important repeat visits.

“In the main exhibition there is a sand pit with animations projected onto it showing the advance and retreat of ice sheets, which changes depending on how the visitor builds up and shifts the sand,” says Jones.

“And downstairs, there is a microscope and a dig pit where visitors can ‘excavate’ bones. And cave tours can be on anything from art, evolution, survival, life in the ice age, animals or rocks.”

CRESWELL CRAGS

An archaeological park with caves, gorge and a museum, Creswell Crags is on the border of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire and tells the story of early humans and the last ice age. Cave art can be seen first-hand, and the museum displays objects unearthed on-site, including stone and bone tools.

Making culture this ancient easier to engage with definitely tends towards the immersive, whether that’s using digital technology or bringing hands-on experiences to audiences.

Even if ancient cultures are harder to bring to life by their very nature, museums are still keen to engage new audiences with these time periods.

And by devoting resources into creating a realistic picture of the past with hybrid, multi-layered interpretation, even what appears to be an unremarkable mound can be exciting.

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