History Centre

Walking Roundway Down: The Archaeology of a Civil War Battlefield

on Thursday, 27 September 2018. Posted in Archaeology, History Centre

We could see the enemy’s whole body of horse face about and run with speed… and our horse in close body firing in their rear, till they had chased them down the hill in a steep place, where never horse went down and up again.

Sir Henry Slingsby, Royalist Cavalry Commander, describing the endgame of the battle of Roundway Down.

Oliver’s Castle, seen from the edge of the Bloody Ditch.

Slingsby’s laconic words describe the best-known moment of the 1643 Battle of Roundway Down, when the broken Parliamentarian cavalry were chased from the field by the troopers of King Charles I. During this rout, both those fleeing and their pursuing enemies rode off the steep, western edge of the chalk down. The moment captured the imagination and that part of the down is known as the Bloody Ditch!

The rout of the Roundheads might be the most famous part of the action, but it was part of a bigger battle that was, in turn, part of a wider campaign as both sides tried to take control of the west of England. Both sides were seeking to exploit the region’s resources, recruit its menfolk, seize the horses and tax the populace, who were, often unwilling, participants in the increasingly bitter civil war that had broken out in 1643. Meanwhile, the battle took place on chalk downland that had already seen millennia of human activity, the landscape is rich in archaeological remains as a result, with barrows and a hillfort. The edge of the downs also gives superb views across the surrounding landscape and its archaeology.

In early September, we led an archaeological walk across part of the battlefield to explore and explain both the flow of the battle and the more ancient remains in the area.

The Roundway Landscape

The Wiltshire Historic Environment Record includes data for a number of later Neolithic or Bronze Age barrows. Like many other barrows in Wiltshire these occupy prominent locations with extensive views into the wider landscape. They have also, like many similar monuments, been investigated by 19th century antiquarians. Although some of these monuments are similar to others in the county, with prehistoric burials beneath and within earthen mounds, one barrow is exceptional. When it was opened in the 19th century a number of metal fixings were found that suggested there may have been a bed burial inserted into the Bronze Age mound during the Anglo-Saxon period. Bed burials are an unusual Saxon burial practice, usually reserved for women of high status, another example in Wiltshire comes from Swallowcliffe, between Salisbury and Shaftesbury, with others known elsewhere in Wessex and around Cambridge. These bed burials appear to date to the 7th Century AD and may relate to the conversion of England to Christianity, and the woman was buried with a dress pin decorated with a cross. The burials may also relate to the wider power struggles between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, including the expansion of Wessex.  The mound and the artefacts were re-investigated by Sarah Semple and Howard Williams in 2001 when they suggested that the Roundway burial might actually have included an elaborate coffin, rather than a bed. Whatever the mode of burial, the status of the deceased remains in no doubt, while the reuse of the much older burial mound is typical of Anglo-Saxon burials associated with barrows. This practice suggests not only the use of the barrows as landmarks, but also that they retained some form of mythic or folkloric power to the people of Anglo-Saxon England.

The walk also visited Oliver’s Castle, an Iron Age hillfort that overlooks St Edith’s Marsh. This monument includes a ditch and bank creating a rampart that encloses a promontory on the edge of the downs. The ramparts respect two earlier Bronze Age burial mounds. When excavations took place in the later 19th century, there was little trace of settlement, suggesting that the hillfort was, perhaps, used as a place of safety in time of danger, or that it was used for ceremonial events. In either case, the prominent location meant that views of the surrounding landscape were excellent, whether to see enemies or to be closer to the gods. The site enjoyed a later life as a sheep fold; a dew pond, providing water for sheep and probably originating in the 18th century, still survives within the ramparts. By the later 19th century, a shepherd is known to have had his hut close to the pond.

Below the fort is a site known as Mother Antony’s Well. This has been the site of excavations in recent years that have found probable Bronze Age barrows, an Iron Age enclosure, and Roman remains that included kilns used to dry grain. In addition, the Romano-British population seem to have regarded the springs in the area as special, and one had an elaborate well head that may suggest a shrine.

Letters Home

on Wednesday, 19 September 2018. Posted in Archives, History Centre, Schools

Charles Wyndham Barnes was born in Westbury, Wiltshire, England in 1884. His father was Frank Barnes and at the 1911 census was 53. Charles’ mother was Helena Barnes, aged 52. The census records that Charles working as a law clerk to a barrister. He had two siblings, one named Nellie Barnes, 22, and another called Constance, aged 10.

His Father was an engine fitter at a railway station and his sister’s occupation was as a shop assistant.

WSA Collection ref 4104

Charles was a dutiful son, and sent over 160 letters home from the front to his mother between 1915 and 1918 which are held here at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre (Ref: 4104/1). From his letters Charles appears confident and considerate – he wrote at least once a week.

Topics he talked of were his health (he was alright), gardening, fresh fruit such as apples, and partridges. His favourite topic was the weather – snow, floods and the heat of summer. He also mentioned that he would be away from the trenches for some time in May 1917.

Information from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission shows that Charles was married to Violet Blanche – known as “Blanche” who he mentioned in his many letters home.

Blanche Eyers was 24 when she married Charles on 24 December, 1914. The 1911 census shows Blanche living at home and working as a school teacher. She was born in Yarnbrook in 1891.

In the army, Charles joined the Wiltshire Regiment and served with the second battalion. Additionally, he had the rank of a Lance Corporal and his service number was 11257.

A week into the Battle of the Somme – called the Great Offensive by the public and the “big push” by the soldiers – Charles wrote a postcard giving an upbeat assessment of the battle.

Thinking of doing a work placement? My experience with CMAS

on Wednesday, 29 August 2018. Posted in Conservation, History Centre

I can’t believe that the first year of university is over! It goes so fast and with so much information it can be a bit overwhelming, but trust me, all that hard work and studying will pay off. The Conservation of Objects in Museums and Archaeology undergraduate course at Cardiff introduced me to a whole new world of practical science, as well as in-depth theory, of conservation materials and specialised equipment, such as x-ray and air abrasion machines. By the end of the year I felt pretty confident with the concept of conservation but was still nervous on how to actually apply the theory with real, archaeological objects; in a true work environment.  This is where a work placement comes in. My first-year placement was at the Wiltshire and Swindon History centre, as part of the Conservation & Museum Advisory Service (CMAS), a commercial business which deals with issues both in museums and in public collections.

Although it can seem daunting at first, this experience is essential for developing those practical skills and applying the theory with real, archaeological objects, as well as understanding the treatment of different materials and the ethical choices conservators must make; focusing on what’s best for the object and adjusting treatment plans with the client’s wishes accordingly. Keep in mind that work experience is for your benefit, so don’t panic when you have millions of doubts and questions because the people you work with are there to help you (even if you ask questions every 5 mins).

So anyway, onto the actual conservation, hooray!

First things first, you will need to assess the object just by looking at it and writing up a condition report, which simply states any observable issues with the object. The majority of my time was spent working with a Roman ceramic oil lamp in the shape of a foot! Quite a fun object from Chippenham Museum, but as you can see there is a bit of a messy application of adhesive around the centre of the lamp where it has broken in two and was re-joined.  There were also scratches, dust and cobwebs on the inside, layers of red dirt/soil on the surface as well as white flaking corrosion (see figures 1-4).

Before treatment:

Figures 1-4

Ok, so the lamp required a good clean and that adhesive definitely needed to come off. Ultimately, the decision was to completely remove the adhesive and undo the join so that I could re-attach the two pieces with a better, cleaner join.  In order to remove the adhesive, I needed to work out what solvent it was soluble in. For this, I took small samples of the adhesive from the lamp by slicing off some of the softer areas with a scalpel, under a microscope.  I then put the samples into a petri dish and tested them with different solvents (see figures 5 & 6).

Testing solvents on the adhesive:

Figures 5-6

After about 30 minutes, I could see which solvent made the adhesive go soft and rubbery. The process of removing the adhesive required quite a lot of patience as the it didn’t want to budge; a scalpel was used to remove larger chunks of the adhesive and a poultice was placed around the join. A poultice was a way of creating a solvent environment to help loosen the adhesive and separate the two pieces. 
 *Just to give you an idea of the tools used in this process, I’ve taken a couple of photos for reference.

Figure 7 From left to right – pin vice, plastic tweezers, scalpel, wooden stick and cotton wool

Figure 8

In conservation, we usually make or own cotton swabs by using a bamboo stick or cocktail sticks (depending on what you’re working on) instead of regular, pre-made cotton swabs.  Making your own means that when the cotton gets dirty it can be easily replaced and the size of the swab can be varied so you can get into the small nooks and crannies that need a good clean. It also means that we aren’t throwing away millions of cotton swabs and being more environmentally friendly.

After many tries, the poultice wasn’t loosening the adhesive, so I went in with the scalpel and pin vice to try and dig out some adhesive in the join. Another poultice was then left on for a couple of hours. When it was removed I was able to gently pry apart the two pieces (finally!) and clean the new surfaces (see figure 9).

The Fabric of Life

on Tuesday, 03 April 2018. Posted in History Centre, Wiltshire People, Wiltshire Tales

V & A Museum T.23-2007

Sometimes here at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, a researcher turns up with an enquiry that really captures your imagination. This happened to me last year when Cathy Fitzgerald arrived to research material for Moving Pictures, a BBC Radio 4 production inviting you to discover new details in old masterpieces:- http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3cswf9g
This link will allow you to listen to the programme produced and review the image of this wonderful coverlet that the V & A hold in their textile collections.

The coverlet was acquired from Kerry Taylor Auctions with the support of the Contributing and Life Members of the Friends of the V & A and was made in Wiltshire in 1820 by a lady called Ann West.
Kerry Taylor of Kerry Taylor Auctions, specialists in textiles,  describes the moment of arrival when a gentleman delivered it covered and wrapped in a large flannelette sheet, which when unpacked revealed this large 2.5m square bed cover; a real ‘tour de force’, colourful, vibrant and packed with pictorial images that draw you in and begin to tell a story.

It is wool appliqué and patchwork, with embroidery worked into the surface and is a valuable primary source in a pictorial sense giving a snapshot of life in Wiltshire around 1820, focusing on the everyday and depicting various trades, professions and social events that were part of day to day life.

The images and especially the centre panel depict biblical references, such as the Garden of Eden, David and Goliath and Moses being hidden in the bulrushes. The outer images give a taste of rural Wiltshire life, so have a closer look to see what you can find.

The reason for Cathy’s visit to the history centre was to research Ann West herself. There is a possibility that she may have come from Chippenham as a Milliner’s and Drapers is listed in Pigot’s Directory of 1830 and 1842 in the name of Ann West, but this connection cannot be confirmed. There is also a possibility that she came from the Warminster area, but again, nothing has yet been confirmed. However, the cloth she chose to use is absolutely typical of West of England textiles and lends itself perfectly to this type of appliqué work.
We hold some good examples of cloth pattern books from the Collier family and Crosby and White of Bitham Mill, Westbury, and these show exactly the types of fabric used in the coverlet; strong woollen cloths, typical of the West of England and produced in a wide selection of colours. These would have been dyed with natural materials as chemical dyestuffs were not in use until synthetic dyes were developed in the mid-19th century, specifically William Perkin’s mauveine in 1856. The coverlet is also hand sewn; sewing machines c1820 were still in the early stages of development and not generally in domestic use until mid-19th century. You can begin to imagine the time it would have taken to produce such a piece.

WSHC 719/1 Collier cloth book 1774-1787

What can the quilt tell us about life at this time in Wiltshire?

Celebrating 70... and a boy called Heritage

on Tuesday, 07 November 2017. Posted in Archaeology, Archives, Conservation, History Centre

Archives and archivists, artists, archers and archaeologists – all were on hand to make our annual open day an event to remember.
In fact it was a triple celebration when we welcomed the public to the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham.
Celebrating a decade in the “new” building would have been excuse enough for us to organise a special birthday open day, but 2017 is also the 70th anniversary of the county-wide archive being established, so we were really keen to pull out all the stops. The icing on the cake – there’s always cake at the History Centre – was the official presentation of our Archive Service Accreditation from The National Archives (TNA).

Heritage Cake - you can never have too much cake!

So at 10am on 28th October we opened our doors to the Family Fun Day and a host of activities designed to show off the wide-ranging work we do at the History Centre.
The stars of the show were a selection from the 70 favourite archives that have been featured on our website this year. It was difficult for staff and volunteers to choose their favourite archives – especially as it takes almost eight miles of shelving to house the archive collection – but all had a certain wow-factor. The display featured Kings, Queens and Presidents; artists and architects; nurses, soldiers and engineers; magnificent illuminated manuscripts and simpler texts. All had a story to tell and visitors on the day were fascinated to discover some of the gems of the collection.

A selection from the 70 favourite archives - and a wandering highwayman.

There were displays and activities showcasing all the work that takes place in the History Centre and this year for the first time our colleagues from the Copy Certificates team put on a display explaining their job. The team provides certified copies of birth, marriage and death certificates but it’s not always modern day certificates that they handle. They were able to show some of the more unusual girls and boys names from more than a hundred years ago – Lemon Maud and a boy called Heritage!

Behind the scenes with the conservators

Looking Back To Our First Day

on Tuesday, 31 October 2017. Posted in Archives, History Centre

Thursday 31st October 2007 we opened the doors to the new Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre.

Six months had passed since we closed the doors for the last time at the Record Office in Trowbridge. In that time we had moved 30,000 boxes of archives making 91 lorry loads from Trowbridge to Chippenham and safely installing Wiltshire’s archives into the new purpose built facility.


It was a real mixed bag of documents that went out, with members of the Wiltshire Family History Society coming in to look at Parish Registers and Bishop’s Transcripts. Officers from the Rights Of Way Department based at County Hall were here first thing to look at the County Council’s files for rights of way. Naturally there was interest in the local area with several maps of Chippenham being produced.

We produced 85 records (5 Wills, 3 Parish Registers, 2 Bishop’s Transcripts 66 documents and 9 maps) and welcomed 230 visitors to the new office on that first day. 

In the subsequent 10 years we have retrieved and returned quarter of a million documents, engaged 210,000 visitors and issued 14,900 new readers cards.

Here’s to the next 10 years.

Ian Hicks, Community History Advisor

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