Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Stories from The Collection #4 - 'Romano-British snake bracelet terminal' and 'Chinese hell banknote'

This is the fourth in a series of posts about recent acquisitions to the collections of The Collection: Art and Archaeology in Lincolnshire.

This article was published in the Summer 2012 issue of ‘Lincolnshire Past and Present’ magazine, published by the Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology.

For this issue's journey into the museum's recent acquisitions we will be looking at two objects with connections to religious belief, but from quite different periods in history and from different sides of the globe.

Romano-British snake bracelet terminal from Marton, near Gainsborough

This small gold item is the broken terminal from a bracelet, in the form of a snake's head.  The semi-naturalistic head is oval in plan and is very flat, with the details of the head marked out in low relief.  A cross hatched section of the body gives some indication of the decorative pattern on the remainder of the bracelet, which would have wound around the wearer's arms a number of times.

Snake motifs occupy an interesting position in Romano-British jewellery, with the design known mainly on rings and bracelets.  In classical antiquity, the snake did not carry the same negative association with evil and deceit that it would later adopt in Christian mythology, and was instead seen as a creature connected with healing, regeneration and rebirth.  The slender image of the snake associated with the healing deity Asclepius may form the basis for the jewellery we find in Britain.  It has been suggested that bracelets such as this were worn by pregnant women as protective charms.

Such bracelets are usually found in bronze or silver, and this gold example is the first of its type recorded in Lincolnshire.  The Collection has another, complete, bronze example from Ancaster in its collections.  Bracelets such as these were a cultural import of the 1st Century AD, but this example could date to any time between the 1st and 3rd Centuries.

The Collection would like to take this opportunity to thank both the finder and the landowner for waiving their right to a reward and donating the terminal to the museum.

Chinese 'Hell' Banknote

The Collection's numismatic collections contain many examples of rare and important coins and tokens from Britain and across the world, from the Iron Age to the modern day.

The collections are more than simply examples of legal tender, however, and aim to demonstrate the ways in which the concept of money has been used by different cultures right up to the present day.  This Chinese banknote is not legal tender and was made only very recently.  It is, however, indicative of Chinese beliefs surrounding the afterlife, and a central element of important annual festivals.

The banknote was collected in Chengdu, in China's south-western Sichuan province, and is made of joss paper.  Notes such as this are burned by families at their ancestor's gravesides throughout the year, but particularly at the festivals of 'Ching Ming' ('Festival of Pure Brightness') and 'Gui Jie' ('Festival of Hungry Ghosts').  The Chinese belief is that spirits go to a form of limbo, but where money is still required to purchase goods.  In order to ensure that the ancestors are being provided for, the banknotes are burned, often in large quantities, while saying the names of items that could be purchased with them.

The banknote is based on a Hong Kong note, and displays noticeably western imagery.  The figure on the right is the 'Jade Emperor', the supreme deity with responsibility for the afterlife.  The concept of 'hell' does not translate directly into Chinese belief, but the word became associated with the afterlife after Christian missionaries arrived in China in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Some recent Roman ramblings...

It feels like I've been travelling non-stop for the last couple of weeks, and during this trekking I've been able to see a few Roman sites, both in the north west and in the Cotswolds.  Some visits were to re-acquaint myself with old friends, others to expand my horizons and see another little slice of our heritage.

In the finest tradition of Letters from Li Dongni, I'd therefore like to share a few thoughts and photos, in no particular order.

Senhouse Roman Museum, Maryport

The Senhouse Museum is one of those places that reminds you that fantastic archaeology isn't always found in picturesque locations.  With due apologies to the locals, the town of Maryport on the north west coast is far from a lovely place, but thankfully it is home to a museum with a very lovely Roman collection indeed - namely the Jupiter Optimus Maximus altars set up annually by the 1st Cohort of Spaniards.  These can claim to be the largest collection from any site in Britain, and their condition is almost perfect.  The museum has adopted as its emblem a boar (a symbol of the XX Legion), which it has sweetly named after the 1870 discoverer of a large haul of altars - Humphrey.

Of course, what Roman site worth its salt hasn't produced a few lucky phalluses?  Senhouse is thankfully up there with the best of them so here they are, just for you, including the famous 'snake stone'.

I always like to save the best until last, and without doubt my favourite object in the museum was this great little carving of a native 'horned deity'.

North Leigh Roman villa, Oxfordshire

This small but charming (and originally rather grand) villa was conveniently situated mere metres from the B&B we were staying in, but by odd coincidence I had been here before.  The star of the show is the tessellated pavement secured beneath a building for protection, which had been closed when I'd gone before.  By sheer lucky coincidence, on this occasion it was  being opened for the first time in almost a decade on the very day we visited. Aside from the nice mosaic survival, it also offered a very nice example of how the mosaic interacted with the walls of the room, particularly in the form of the tubuli (box flue tiles) which heated the walls and allowed the smoke from the hypocaust to be released.

Ravenglass Roman Bath house, Cumbria

The smallest of the sites I visited, and I dare say not the one that attracts the greatest hordes of tourists, though this might be because of the inadequate signage.  Still, despite this, the remains are what English Heritage describe as 'the tallest surviving in northern Roman Britain' (though their definition of 'northern' might differ from mine as I can think of a few sites with equally tall remains that are far from 'southern') and are nicely interpreted.

Birdoswald Roman fort, Hadrian's Wall

Birdoswald is one of the better known forts on Hadrian's Wall, and boasts one of the most complete sections of wall surviving nearby.  Although only around a quarter of the inside of the fort is exposed, the gates and walls give a good sense of scale, and the site museum is nicely executed, with a good balance between Roman history and the story of the discovery and investigation of the site over the last few hundred years.

Corinium Museum, Cirencester

Cirencester is a place that had been on my 'must visit' list for a while now, and the Corinium Museum was a major reason for that.  Having undergone a refurbishment a few years ago, I had been waiting to see how the new displays look and I'm very happy to say I wasn't disappointed.  The Roman collections are first rate, particularly the mosaics and the religious carvings, and the displays are thoughtful, clean and well laid out.

One particularly fine object is a bronze sculpture of Cupid, now sadly without wings.  Found in 1732 it is believed to have been part of a lamp.  Said to date from the mid 1st to mid 2nd Centuries, I still can't help thinking that the chubby face has more than a little of the 18th Century about it.

Cirencester Roman amphitheatre

Roman amphitheatres in Britain are fairly rare survivals - usually because they were of earth and timber construction and therefore easily destroyed in subsequent centuries.  Cirencester's fortunately survives, and is worth a stroll out from the town to visit.  Sadly, it seemed that when we visited, someone on two wheels had already been enjoying the arena's floor.