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Green bling

27 Feb

Oh, Edmund… can it be true? That I hold here, in my mortal hand, a nugget of purest Green?

This post has two points of departure.

Firstly, I am uncomfortable with the use of the word bling in the context of prehistoric metalwork. This is a common enough trope used by archaeologists and the media. But is this really the correct word for how these objects functions in prehistory, or merely a characterisation of objects as being shiny, precious things – even if the objects in question were neither of these things in the Iron Age or Bronze Age?

Perhaps also there is an element of (inverted) snobbery here, of disparaging gratuitous wealth displays, and the appropriation of a word in mainstream discourse that would appear to be more at home in the urban dictionary. Take the case of the so-called Prittlewell Prince, whose early medieval grave was found in 2003 during road-widening in Southend: in the media and amongst archaeologists (from the Time Team to British Archaeology magazine) this individual became widely known as the King of Bling.

Secondly, I find almost all museums boring. Unless they are museums of weird things, or deeply strange, I am left cold by glass cases of inanimate objects, little text panels, maps, and assorted accompanying artwork and imagery. Museums of course can be deeply contested and problematic places, but for me I see them, usually, as reliquaries for cold dead things that we value today and see as representative which they may or may not be.

Museums confuse me with their fixed categories and compartmentalizations, their maze-like floorplans, the disorderly arrangement of things, the missing objects replaced by little loan cards, weird coffee, lockers with non-returnable coin slots, how much coinage to drop into the donations slot at the doorway. They are places of little stresses that I do not enjoy.

I realise how that both of my initial points of departure are contingencies related to the contemporary setting of the museum, that they exist to showcase prehistory (or whatever) in our own terms and not the terms of those who made the stuff (or whose bodies we display). They are places that for me have little sense of pastness, like big shops where nothing is for sale (except in the actual shop).

But on the other hand, as a recent visit I took to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford did remind me, museums can be fine repositories of urban prehistory. There are few places where urban prehistory exists in such a concentrated form, albeit it in a deeply fragmented and stylised arrangement. If you happen to want a hit of prehistory and are in a city or town, heading to the local museum is as good as a way as any to ensure that you your desire is fulfilled, your lust sated for the good stuff. Although I would argue that museum displays are really just a kind of methadone for prehistory addicts.

On the same weekend as I made my trip to the Ashmolean apres breakfast a conference was being held in Chester on the topic of The Public Archaeology of Treasure. This is one of a series of excellent student conferences organised by the tireless Prof Howard Williams of Chester University, some of which have resulted in publications including papers by students, and generously co-edited with students too. Howard has discussed the conference on several occasions on his brilliant Archaeodeath blog eg before the event and after.

The hashtags for this conference were / are #archbling and #blingarch and this is one of the things that I reflected upon as I sat on a lovely smooth wooden bench in the Ashmolean after failing to find a temporary exhibition of works by the artist Philip Guston that I was actually quite interested in visiting.

Because the European prehistory gallery that I had spent some time on at that point sure was full of bling, gratuitously so. But what intrigued me was how much of this bling was, er, green. Not gold, not silver, not even bronze, but green. Not always shiny, sometimes rather dull. And curiously the idea of green bling made a lot more sense to me because this opened up the category of bling to non-metallic materials. For instance, Neolithic jadeite polished stone axes, of the deepest green. Or wonderful ornate beads of glassy faience, in pale greens and turquoises.

Bling was on my mind for another reason as I pondered a vast wall of busts in the stairwell of the museum. That weekend I had been attending and participating in a continuing education conference on the topic of Places of Worship in Britain and Ireland: prehistoric and Roman. Organised by Paul Barnwell and Tim Darvill, this is part of an epic series of conferences on historic matters. I was talking about cursus monuments of course.

Speakers used the word bling a lot over the course of the weekend. My notes for a great talk by the wonderful Dr Seren Griffiths showed that she used the phrase WEIRD BLING but I can’t recall the specific context.

On the Saturday evening, an excellent talk by the National Museum of Scotland’s all-knowing Dr Fraser Hunter on Iron Age stuff was frequently punctuated with the word bling, usually in relation to some shiny piece of metal like a carnyx, a torc, or a lunalae. (I am not confident about the correct singular or pluralisation of any of those words.)

Curiously my notes from Fraser’s talk included a sketch of a weird Iron Age spoon, and a pair of these caught my eye as I wondered about the European Prehistory gallery at the Ashmolean, taking in the sheer green-ness of it all.

The more time I spent in this gallery, the more green stuff I saw, in all sorts of shades, depths, tones, and materials. Lumps of malachite (nuggets of the purest green?), glassy beads, stone axes, torcs, axes, little metal things that I had no idea what they were, and the pair of bronze spoon-things. In fact it seemed to me that there was more green bling than gold bling or silver bling or even brown bling.

Obviously some of this stuff was not green back in the day. A chemical reaction has taken place. Metal corrodes to a coppery haze and loses its original colour over time. A lot of this stuff is green with age: unlike wood, here green does not depict youthfulness and flexibility. But quite a good deal of this stuff was green all along, with for instance the rich greenness of the stone azes brought to the fore by relentless polishing. Here green was the origin point, not the inevitable outcome. Green-ness was worth climbing the Alps for, perhaps even dying for.

And of course a lot of the bling found with the ‘King’ at Prittlewell had, with age, green-ed like this drinking horn fitting and hanging bowl.

My own experience of green bling came with the discovery of a dagger grave in a cist at Forteviot, Perth and Kinross, 2009. The first indication we had of the grave goods was a shaft of green poking from the beige cist floor, almost as if the dagger was a new growth, appropriate amidst a grave that contained rich evidence for Meadowsweet flowers (white bling). The dagger, once all the brown stuff had been cleaned from it, was revealed to be a wonderful green jagged shard of copper alloy with a whale tooth and gold pommel atop. Now, let’s not get started on whale bling.

So if we must use the word bling, and given the word has been used by the Howard Williams and Fraser Hunters of this world, then I guess we must, then let us at least rethink the parameters and temporality of what we mean. Let’s celebrate green bling, if nothing else because it is one of the most common forms in which urban prehistory appears to us, minty fresh, today.

Sources and acknowledgements: the quote that starts this blog post comes from the Blackadder Season 2 episode Money, and was, or course, uttered by Lord Percy.

I would also like to thank Paul Barnwell and Tim Darvill for inviting me down to Oxford to take part in the conference.

Drinking horn image (c) MOLA and sourced from The Guardian and the hanging bowl image is also (c) MOLA, from Heritage Daily.

The Forteviot dagger image is (c) the SERF Project and HES.

Museum map taken from the guide to the Ashmolean which cost me a quid.

Finally, grateful thanks to Howard Williams for sharing his thoughts about bling. I am truly delighted to have found a topic to blog about that has not yet featured on Archaeodeath (yet!).

Taunton axe

26 Sep

Serendipitous encounter with

the material culture of urban prehistory

unexpected discovery

the happenchance of sewage infrastructure

small find destined to be documented, drawn

and stored in a box

once found, then forgotten again

almost unknown

unknowable

indicative of an act: loss, disposal

or the outcome of a process: erosion, river-washed

the slow accumulation of the archaeological record

drifting until discovery

on the riverbank

beside the cricket ground

by Mick Aston off the Time Team.

stone axe from taunton drawing

Notes: on the 30th June 1974 Mick Aston, then a field archaeologist with Somerset County Planning Department, found the butt of a Neolithic polished stone axe on the spoil heap of a trench that had been dug beside the River Tone, in the centre of Taunton, for sewage works. The broken axe was green in colour, had been bashed around by the river, and was broken. Analysis by the Petrology Implement Committee identified the possible source of the axe raw material as Cornwall. The axe is now, I assume, in a local museum collection.

SomHERimage14159 Mick Aston

Mick Aston (right) in 1987 (c) Somerset County Council

The location of this discovery is now a pathway running along the eastern bank of the Tone, passing close by the Somerset County Cricket ground. The location is not marked by any formal notification. Nearby is a setting of three megalithic eggs in a wooden compound.

location today

Eggs

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks firstly to Andrew Watson for flagging up the axe discovery for me in the Somerset HER. Andrew also kindly took me to the location and gave me a guided walking tour of central Taunton.

The axe has site reference number 44418 in the local HER database. The discovery of the axe was published by Aston here: Aston, M 1975 A stone axe from Taunton. Somerset Archaeology and Natural History 119, pages 70, 71. The axe drawing comes from that publication, and the photo of Mick Aston and colleagues was sources from the Somerset HER.