Archaeologists are collectors and hoarders. We go through life amassing our own assemblages, perhaps in compensation for all the things we find during fieldwork and excavations that we must hand over to someone else.
My latest collection obsession was prompted by the kindness of Hugo (as in Hugo Anderson-Whymark of the National Museum of Scotland) during the Neolithic Studies Group visit to southwest Scotland in May 2019. During a lunchbreak on a sunny Saturday in Wigtown, he presented me with a small package – a present for me! I carefully unwrapped – excavated – the package that he presented me with and inside was a very small ceramic pot. Directed to read the tiny writing on the base, the reason for this gift soon became clear. This was a very small replica of a prehistoric urn. I could barely believe such a thing existed.
Later than day back in my weird Kirkcudbright B&B room (a short walk from some of the locations used in The Wicker Man) I turned the little fragile pot over in my hands, absorbing the writing on the bottom:
MODEL OF CINERARY URN FOUND AT GLEN DORGAL NOW IN TRURO MUSEUM
On the side of the pot was, weirdly, a crest for the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil. What was the Celtic connection?
This was all very exciting, and Hugo filled me in on the astounding truth – that there were lots of such tiny ceramic prehistoric urns, made (primarily) by Staffordshire ceramics manufacturers WH Goss in the late 19th and early 20th century, based on a variety of later prehistoric pots and urns, with a host of town crests upon them. How could I not have known about this? There is even a Goss Collectors’ Club for fans of the ‘crested urns’ and other china keepsakes made by Goss.
The story of these little pots – the crested urns – goes back to the nineteenth century. Essentially they were cheap tourist souvenirs, produced between 1858 and 1939, and which were embossed with the crest of the town or place where they were being sold. WH Goss used a huge range of historical influences for the shapes of their little urns, in part with an ethos of making these little pots educational and informative. Thus there are countless examples of little urns in the shape of medieval pots and jugs, Roman vessels, leather bags, goblets, drinking urns, milk urns, tankards, all in the order of 60mm to 80mm in size. In each case the object that the china replica is based on is written on the base with a Goss stamp, although this became less common through time thus reducing the educational value of the urns. Other companies such as Arcadia made knock-off cheaper versions of some of these urns.
So why are some of these little objects china replicas of prehistoric pots? In a 1995 paper about this phenomenon, Catherine Johns stated that the idea came from Adolphus Goss (1853-1906), son of founder of the Goss company William Henry Goss. Goss Jnr. wanted to produce educational and informative keepsakes of holidays and daytrips for working class tourists. The prehistoric pottery range designs came from the pages of Llewellyn Jewitt’s 1877 The ceramic art of Great Britain (2nd edition) and so, as Johns notes, even at the time, some of the terminology used was out-dated (‘Celtic urn’, ‘ancient cup’). As Anderson-Whymark has tweeted, this book had a fine collection of wood cut illustrations of prehistoric pots including one of the Glen Dorgal urn that started me off on this journey.
And so a modest range of prehistoric inspired crested urns were developed, Johns documenting 18 different styles based on Beakers, Food Vessels, and assorted cremation urns of Bronze Age date.
These miniature china urns are pretty good replicas of the originals, in some cases retaining fine detail such as surface decoration, almost impossible to see except close up. Some retain the asymmetries and irregularities of the original.
Johns did a remarkable job of tracking down what the original pots actually were due to a random selection of information and nomenclature. For instance the handled vessel pictured below was called by Goss the ‘Brixworth Ancient Cup’ which is of course a Beaker: for those if you who like this kind of thing it is No. 626 and Fig. 1066 in Clarke 1970!
Pretty cheap at the time (something like 6d), these little urns have become collectable. More information on each pot can therefore be gleaned from annual sales catalogues, produced years after production was wound down. These contain good pictures and info on all Goss pots, not just the prehistoric ones, and show the wide range of town crests on show, not all of them obvious tourist hotspots.
Generally purchasing these crested urns today is quite an inexpensive business. Hugo’s gift was worth about £2.50 in 1975 as you can see above from the price guide for that year, and in 1999 was valued at £12.50 (Pine 1999). However, I very much doubt Hugo paid that in the charity shop he found the object, and on Ebay such pots now sell for a few quid. Ebay has devalued the market to the extent that at any time loads of these are being auctioned for not much money. Almost no-one else bids for them in my experience.
One quirk of these pots is that almost all have a different town crest and object locaton, but some match. So for instance I have a ‘Devizes Celtic drinking-cup’ urn in my modest collection, with the town crest of Devizes. These are a usually more expensive due to rarity although I don’t think mine cost anything more than normal, nowhere near the £33 it was worth in 1999 apparently.
I don’t need to tell you that these objects are immensely collectable for prehistorians. After tweeting about Hugo’s gift and my first crested urn, archaeologists Neil Wilkin and Mark Knight came out as Goss collectors. Hugo has a massive collection by his own account, and legendary Scottish prehistorian Alison Sheridan has some too. Crested urns are held in the collections of the British Museum and the National Museums of Scotland.
Of course this started me collecting, and I have now amassed a decent little corpus of crested urns, with more or less all of the 18 types represented by at least one example. In some cases, where small and medium versions were produced, I have one or both. My dad even built a nice display shelving unit for them.
The act of collecting these urns has its own excavation parallels. Coming through the post, most urns have been wrapped up a box and bubble wrap, mimicking the ways that complete pots might be removed from the ground and taken to the lab for analysis. Each act of opening packaging is another form of excavation, unwrapping multiple layers of protection, revealing something beautiful at the end of the process. The material culture of posting and packing these little urns holds its own fascination for me.
Is this urban prehistory? Of course it is. The collection of these weird versions of prehistoric pots seems to me an opportunity to bring the vessels of the ancient dead into our domestic spaces. An opportunity is afforded to trace herringbone designs and lozenge patterns with our fingers, or hold these vessels up to the light which shines right through, literally bone china. Placing these wee pots onto shelves and mantelpieces has echoes in antiquarian practice, where ancient rude urns would be collected from the ground and placed on display by wealthy landowners, only to become lost in the mists of time, turned to dust.
The Goss crested urns are entangled in the Bronze Age, the antiquarian age, the practices of archaeology, the postal service, online auctions, and the lives of collectors.
Johns argued that, ‘there has always been a subtle underlying implication that a natural predilection for designs based on those of antiquity is a mark of an educated and sophisticated taste’. The Goss miniatures sought, in a sense, to democratise this snobby perspective, and open up objects of educational sophistication to suit all pockets and grace the most modest of mantelpieces. What Adolphus Goss started, Ebay finished. Prehistory for the people!
Sources and acknowledgements: I would firstly like to thank Hugo for his kind gift and generous explanations of his collection and advice on how to build my own. Images from Hugo, Neil, and Mark used in this post were all tweeted in response to my excitement at this Goss-giving.
The following sources were refered to in this post:
Catherine Johns 1995 Educational souvenirs: models of British Bronze Age pottery in Goss heraldic porcelain. In Ian Kinnes and Gill Varndell (eds) ‘Unbaked urns of rudely shape’: essays on British and Irish Pottery for Ian Longworth, pages 211-8, Oxbow Books.
Nicholas Pine 1999 The concise encyclopaedia and price guide to Goss china. Milestone publications.
Roland Ward 1975 The price guide to the models of WH Goss. Antique Collector’s Club.
Lynda and Nicholas Pine 1987 The story of the Staffordshire family of potters who invented heraldic porcelain. Milestone publications.