The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) is a national programme run by the British Museum in partnership with local bodies; in Wiltshire these are Salisbury Museum, Wiltshire Museum, Wiltshire Council and Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. The primary aims of the scheme are to provide a framework by which members of the public can identify and record finds of potential archaeological significance, as well as to encourage awareness of archaeological issues and best archaeological practice. Whilst the scheme is available to everyone, from field walkers to builders, by the nature of their hobby Metal Detectorists find the majority of the archaeological artefacts we record onto our database; and it is our job to help those engaged in the hobby record as much archaeological information as they can, while also minimising disturbance of in situ archaeological remains.
Metal detecting as a hobby is actually highly comparable to fishing and, anecdotally, I have noticed there does seem to be a great deal of overlap between the two groups. Both hobbies are relatively solitary affairs which can require great deals of patience – they both also exploit a resource in our environment, but this is where the similarities begin to end. Whereas fishing is carefully licenced and managed in order to ensure that the exploitation of our river’s fish is sustainable, there is no such monitoring of the archaeological record.
Crucially, and unlike fish, the archaeological record cannot repopulate itself, once a deposit is disturbed and/or artefact removed, the context is lost for good. This is why it is imperative that detectorists behave responsibly as they exploit this resource which, ultimately, belongs to everyone.
Legally speaking, detectorists in England and Wales are only required to report objects which meet the criteria of the Treasure Act 1996, this is a very specifically worded and narrow set of criteria which frequently miss nationally important finds; a recent example has obviously been the Gloucestershire Dog hoard, but more locally this narrow definition has missed a large hoard of Roman pewter, containing a rare and well preserved tank, thankfully reported by the finder. There is more to detecting responsibly than simply making me aware of unusual finds however, and the perception that I would only be interested in nicer finds is something I often run up against.
The clocks have gone forward, days are getting longer, the sun (hopefully) shining brighter and the museums in Wiltshire that have been closed over the Winter are staring to open their doors to the public.
But don’t be fooled – these museums have not been hibernating, inactive over the last few months. Hard working volunteers have been busy behind the scenes doing all the work required to look after the collections and create new, vibrant and interesting exhibitions.
Enjoying the displays as a visitor it is can be easy to overlook all the time and effort that goes into producing them and keeping the museum ship shape. This includes a wide range of activities such as keeping the building tidy, making sure historic collections are well cared for, documenting and cataloguing objects to appropriate standards, researching local history, writing labels and telling stories, selecting the most suitable items for display and talking to members of the local community – to name just a few!
Bradford on Avon Museum recently re-opened following their mid-winter closure, which was spent cleaning, tidying and repainting. Work carried out in the gallery includes new interpretation and displays of the Museum’s collection including road and shop signs from the town. Visitors now also have the opportunity to view pieces of plaster from a Roman Bath Complex, excavated in Bradford-upon-Avon in 1976. Not all of the changes at the Museum are immediately visible however. In addition to what’s been happening front of house, work has also been carried out with the collections in storage to make the most of the available space.
There has also been a hive of activity in Aldbourne and I was very pleased to attend the opening of Aldbourne Heritage Centre in the village over the Easter weekend.
The Heritage Centre tells the story of the village of Aldbourne through stories, photographs and historic collections collected from local residents. A large crowd of people gathered outside the Centre to witness the proceedings.
On the day the ribbon was cut by archaeologist, broadcaster and Time Team regular, Phil Harding. He spoke to the assembled visitors about how important the Heritage Centre is to the village and how it can help the community remember its history and discover more about its roots.
Just before Christmas I was invited to an afternoon at Chippenham Museum to celebrate the contribution volunteers have made to the Museum over the past year.
I listened with great interest and a growing sense of wonder as Curator Melissa Barnett thanked all those who had given their time for free, speaking about all the work that had gone on throughout the year and the projects and events volunteers had been involved in.
Working with a small team of paid staff, the efforts of the volunteers are vital in creating an active and bustling community based Museum. They have a group of around 75 people who give their time to help in all areas, both front of house and behind the scenes. Amongst other things volunteers welcome visitors on the reception desk, carry out educational activities and workshops, answer enquiries, research and document the collections and work on special events. They also provide an important link with the local community, ensuring that the Museum provides what people in the town want.
As I reflected on the afternoon, it struck me that Chippenham isn’t the only museum in Wiltshire with a vibrant and hard-working group of volunteers. Having recently started working as Museum Officer for Wiltshire Council, I’ve been busy visiting many of the museums across the county and meeting the people who run them. Time and time again I’ve been mightily impressed by the levels of dedication, enthusiasm and expertise shown by the volunteers I’ve come across, including those here at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre.
Don’t forget to visit this wonderful touring exhibition inspired by the British Museum and telling the story of Wiltshire in 100 objects. Supported by the Arts Council England and managed by Wiltshire Museum, Devizes, the project showcases the varied nature of objects held throughout Wiltshire by its museums. These museums range from military collections, industrial sites, art galleries, heritage centres and small village museums as well as national collections.
The 100 objects are diverse and each gives an insight into the rich history of Wiltshire. They have been classified amongst ten major themes...