Whilst my students and guest speakers successfully delivered a free and open-to-all day conference on The Public Archaeology of Treasure hosted by Chester’s Grosvenor Museum on Friday 31st January, and the following morning there was a successful follow-up Twitter conference, next door there was a fabulous temporary exhibition on Treasure. It remains on until 22 March 2020, so make sure you check it out at the Grosvenor Museum, Chester.
First up, the exhibition queries why we value gold and silver above other materials, citing their rarity and resistance to corrosion, their material qualities and the range of items from which they can be made.
The 1996 Treasure Act is then explained: the context in which finds which might be treasure are declared and evaluated in England and Wales. A further board explains the hobby of metal-detecting and the role of the Portable Antiquities Scheme in recording finds discovered by responsible metal-detector users. Finds acquired outwith Treasure Trove, as well as within the framework of the Treasure Act, illustrate the different ways in which items have been acquired by the Grosvenor Museum, and including both a Bronze Age palstave and gold torc through to a recent metal-detector find of an early 16th-century coin-hoard from Beeston.
The gallery exhibits some of the range of hoards found in and around Chester, and dating the Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, medieval and early modern times. Some of them are particularly striking and spectacular in their scale, others fascinating as much for their structure and story.
I cannot attempt to review them all here, but highlights for me are inevitably the early medieval hoards, shedding light on the Viking-period burh founded by Aethelflaed, Queen of the Mercians, and the conflicts and connections of the period. These include the Castle Esplanade Hoard, the Huxley Hoard, and gold rings found in the city.
Other Viking-periods finds of note include a pair of gold rings. There is also a pendant incorporating a Roman intaglio which is presumably early medieval in date. There is also a silver sword pommel.
While I’ve long thought about the different ways in which we might responsibly and ethically display human remains and mortuary contexts in museums, the challenges of displaying single ‘treasures’ and attempting to afford them a context, has escaped my attention to date. Likewise, how is it best to display a hoard, including not only the individual objects, but the receptacle(s) in which they were found. The ‘Treasure’ exhibition adopts different approaches, but gives ample space to lay out each object in most cases: for example, the late Iron Age Malpas Hoard of silver coins, the late 12th-century Newhall Hoard of 97 silver short-cross pennies of Henry II and Richard I, and the late 16th-century Shocklach Hoard of ten gold coins.
The late 2nd-century Knutsford hoard of 103 coins, two finger-rings, three trumpet brooches, highlights the further practice of separating the hoard by artefact-type.
However, an alternative strategy is adopted for the 3rd-century AD Roman-period Agden Hoard. Partly because of the scale – 2500 coins – partly to afford a sense of the hoard ‘spilling’ from its pot, they appear as a heap, strewn across a narrow broad display case. Two tiers of transparent plastic afford the sense of the coins spilling from the tilted pot. Nice touch!
In contrast, the early 4th-century Poole Hoard consists of 1,496 copper coins – nummi – plus 5 radiate coins, and (presumably a sample of it) has been packed into a small display case multiple coins deep, thus giving a packed impression of its scale. If anyone who knows of publications addressing the ethics and challenges of displaying hoards: do point me in their direction! The Winsford hoard is arranged on multiple tiers of transparent plastic, with its cup beside it.
While the gallery presents a series of single items and hoards, which are fascinating in themselves, the display opens and closes with displays that challenge the parameters of what we might consider ‘treasure’. This is perhaps one of the most important dimensions of the exhibition. The rings include those too recent to be declared Treasure until the 1996 Act, which requires items to be over 300 years old.
Meanwhile, it closes by introducing other definitions of treasure which chime with the introductory text: things and buildings that tell us about people’s lives. This extends to things that were especially treasured in the past, but are not ‘treasure’, for these can be especially valuable today for the information and the emotions and identities they both connote for the past and evoke for us today. In so doing, this temporary exhibition encourages us to look again at the other galleries with new eyes, to explore the things defined as treasure, the things once treasured, the items we might treasure for reasons other than their inherent material value, and things that we might treasure.
But is there an Archaeodeath component? Well, potentially all hoards and other treasure-finds could harbour a mortuary dimension: their loss or deposition sometimes maybe connected to the death or one of more people. Yet the mourning rings offer an overtly memorial dimension to the display.
While problematic in many regards, and I’ve certainly been critical of its sloppy deployment and misleading and sometimes insidious associations, the term ‘treasure’ is powerful and polysemous, provoking a valuable gateway to reflection on material cultures past and present. The wonderful Grosvenor Museum exhibition focuses our attention on the many meanings of treasure past and present, and the importance of responsibly reporting anything we discovery, so that their stories can be treasured today.
Let’s be clear: I’m far from an expert in UK treasure laws and reporting, let alone the museum display of these finds. I am deeply uneasy about seeing artefacts put on display by museums as valued cultural items without a clear sense of their archaeological contexts. I’m certainly critical of the valorising of metal-detectorists as discoverers, and heralding them as heroes for simply reporting finds. However, if we wish to tell stories about the past through museums using material culture, ‘treasure’ – with its multiple meanings – remains a key part and, as with the Grosvenor Museum, this can be done carefully and without commodifying and sensationalising tendencies. In this regard, finders, landowners and heritage professionals retain the responsibility to work together to best manage and interpret the human past, and displays like this one do a great job in making the results of such approaches clear for all to enjoy and appreciate.