Recently, for the first time in too many years, I visited the wonderful Reading Museum. Integral to the Victorian town hall, the museum is situated at the very heart of my home town on Blagrave Street between the railway station and the Forbury Gardens. I visited on a Saturday morning. While England lost to South Africa in the rugby final and the shouts and cheers could be heard from The Blagrave Arms, the museum was relatively well populated by a quiet and diverse mix of people – individuals and families – some of Afro-Caribbean and Asian backgrounds, illustrating the multicultural dimensions of the southern English town.
The Museum itself contains a varied range of fascinating archaeological collections re-displayed as of early this year. Not only can you see the mosaics and artefacts from Silchester Roman town, the discoveries from Reading abbey, the 19th-century copy of the Bayeux Tapestry and the Huntley and Palmer’s biscuit tin display, there are prehistoric and early historic finds from many parts of the middle Thames Valley around Reading. The aspiration of the re-display of The Story of Reading Gallery was not to dumb down. As well as emphasising international connections, there was a desire to make the history of Reading about ‘more than beer, bulbs and biscuits’. Of particular interest to me was one key element: ‘Reading before the abbey’.
With limited space, how does the new display tell the many thousands of years of Reading’s history succinctly and clearly? One answer is that they use basic, well-accepted, familiar periodisations and a selection of artefacts found since the 19th century to explain the story before Reading Abbey’s foundation. A display on the first wall of the ‘Story of Reading’ display provides a narrative of over half a million years, ‘right up to Anglo-Saxon times, when a small town began to take shape’. Supporting this, there are a series of inset small display cabinets. One contains a display of two bladed weapons – a knife and a spearhead – plus a stamp-decorated cinerary urn and a round-backed antler item bearing ring-and-dot decoration. A very short statement is made: ‘between AD500 and AD 600 the Saxon Reada and his followers settle here. A nunnery is founded around AD 900’. This deploys a very old-fashioned interpretation of ‘-ingas’ place-names and the historical evidence that a religious house was established following the Viking raids. The finds are not adequately explained, although there is an illustration of an early medieval timber dwelling behind the finds to illustrate something of the Anglo-Saxon period.
Next, there is a head of a battleaxe with a sketch of a warrior camped beside the Thames busy sharpening it. The caption explains this came from the Thames near Sonning and relates to a time of ‘Danish Viking’ raids.
Before this, a single tall display cabinet attempts to encapsulate the prehistory and early history of the middle Thames Valley. The timeline explains the relationship between the different periods, rising upwards towards the present and finishing with the Abbey’s foundation. The right-hand column affords facts to indicate what else is going on in ‘The world beyond’, including the origins of Islam, the conversion of Poland and the Kievan Rus, and the Battle of Hastings. Meanwhile, the items in the display case are comparably arranged vertically, with the Stone Age and then Iron Age finds at the bottom, Roman artefacts in the middle, and the Anglo-Saxon finds above with a sword at the centre of the display.
The early Anglo-Saxon finds include a bossed urn and a stamp-decorated urn, both likely from cremation graves. There is also a pair of gilt saucer brooches and a festoon of glass beads. None of these finds are adequately explained (unless I missed a caption) and they are antiquarian finds without a secure context. Still, what this display does achieve is a distilled ‘potted history’ of Reading. I’ll leave this here, with congratulations to Reading Museum for bringing together a rich set of finds in a very small space that affords a flavour, using traditional narratives and periodisations, of Reading before the abbey. In this story, as a period of time, not an ethnic or racial label per se, the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon period’ fulfil a valuable role in the history of the place, marking the period ‘after Rome’ and ‘before Hastings’.
Is it ideal? Nope.
Is it problematic: yes.
Is it dumbed down? A bit!
Is there a clear Archaeodeath context? Not really, although the fact the pots were from cremation burials is made clear.
Does it still work? I’d say it does: it marks a time after the Roman period, and remember the fabulous Silchester gallery is two floors up. Equally, it marks a time before the Normans: remember the Bayeux Tapestry copy is on the next floor up of the museum! In terms of the narrative about the town and its position at the confluence of the Kennet and the Thames, it makes clear this is the time after Calleva Atrebatum and before the foundation of Reading Abbey. ‘Anglo-Saxon’: job done!