Saturday, 3 May 2014

Colchester Castle Museum: How Times Have Changed

Times change.  The relationship of the Essex Society for Archaeology and History with the Colchester Museum is not as close as it once was.  In 1859, in the year before the opening of the Museum at the Castle, a committee was formed of both members from the Corporation and members of the Society.  In the first half century of the Museum’s existence, the Society contributed substantial sums towards the curator’s salary.  As Eric Rudsdale wrote in the mid 1940s, “the institution grew from the time, when the Society supplied much of the stimulus and much of the money to keep it going, and how that interest gradually declined with changing times.  It was a sad break with a long tradition when the Society’s annual meetings ceased to be held in the Castle, so closely associated with its beginnings”.  Many members of the Society, Victorian gentlemen it has to be said, donated items for display.  These items had a county focus, and the Museum became known as the Colchester and Essex Museum.

The good news is that an approach has been made to hold the Society’s Annual General Meeting at the Museum, if not next year, then in 2016.

There are points where the Society’s relationship with the Museum declined.  In 1974 the membership of the Committee became co-options onto the Museum Committee of the newly extended Colchester Borough Council.  Then in 1986 the Colchester Borough Council decided to end these co-options, and the Essex Society for Archaeology and History’s enthusiasm and influence was relegated. “A tear”, it was written at the time.

In 1926 an agreement was reached between the Colchester Town Council and the then Essex Archaeological Society regarding the library and the artefacts.  It united the collections of the Corporation and the Society[1].  How fascinating it would be to trace their existence in storage.

Our records show appeals for items of interest to be given by members to the Museum.

And the Annual Museum Reports, particularly after the appointment of M R (Rex) Hull as the Museum’s curator, make many references to the Essex Archaeological Society.  Here are some examples.

In the year ending 31 March 1927, the contents of a Harlow Rubbish Pit (5320.26-5328.26) “have already been fully described in Mr A G Wright in Essex Arch Soc Trans Vol. XXIII p.222 but are described here again chiefly to publish the sectional drawings. The pit was found in opening a sand pit on the west side of the Roman road at Harlow, between the Railway Station [now Harlow Mill Station] and the bridge over the River Stort. One previously cleared on the opposite side of the road produced nothing, but the excavation was not supervised. The pit was cleared by Mr Miller Christy, Mr J L Glasscock, and Mr C F Hamilton.”

In 1928, “In the Holly Trees meadow [Colchester] the Essex Archaeological Society have carried out excavations under the direction of Mr P G Laver, and have revealed the sally-port discovered by Duncan and described in the first volume of their Transactions (Old Series)”. 

Also, “A large area west of the Roman town now covered by Sheepen Farm and traversed (in part) by Water Lane, now called Sheepen Lane or Road [Colchester], has long been known to be full of remains of the early first century.  …  An article on the remains recovered from the gravel pit will, it is hoped, appear shortly in the Trans. of the Essex Archaeological Society.”

Then, “[Acquisition] 6895.27. Top and bottom of a butt-shaped beaker. (See EAS Trans loc cit). The type was strongly favoured locally, and was possibly manufactured in the kilns of Sheepen Farm (EAS Trans O.S. Vol. I).”

Finally for 1928, “A remarkable find of jewellery, 5580-5584.27, illustrated Pl XXI, was made by Mr E J Rudsdale, and reported by him in the Trans. of the Essex Arch. Soc. Vol. XIX., pt. 1, p.58.  The articles appear to have been buried in a wooden box in an earlier rubbish pit on the area at Lexden which produces so much evidence of the Early Iron Age town [Colchester]”.

In the report for the year ended 31 March 1929: “By far the most outstanding find of the year, however, was the tombstone of the Roman cavalryman, Longinus, of the first Ala of Thracians.  This magnificent piece of Romano-British sculpture has been repaired and set up in the Romano-British Room at the Castle Museum. A full report on it has been published in the Transactions of the Essex Archaeological Society, volume XIX., page 117.”

In the New Arcade, Colchester, “The most important find [in Smith’s Yard] was one of the minor streets of the Roman town, and the remains of houses on the S. side of it. According to Dr [Mortimer] Wheeler’s hypothetical plan (An Insula of Roman Colchester, EAS Trans Vol XVI), a street might be expected in this part, running parallel to the main street of the town”. 

Finally, on excavations at Crouched Friars, also in Colchester: “It is not safe to put forward any theories about these bones, but they probably have nothing to do with the monastery.  Skeletons are frequently found in this area: a large number were found during sewerage excavations in 1913 (EAS Trans XII. 257 and XIII 107)”.

The 1960 report makes interesting reading.  It is a joint publication reproducing Eric Rudsdale’s history of the Museum produced in four parts for the Essex Review in 1947, and summarised in four parts elsewhere on ESAH160.  The exhibition of finds are drawn from across the county.  The illustrations were produced “from past numbers of the Museum reports.  They have been selected to show, so far as they permit, something of the sections in which the Museum is particularly strong, and to give some idea of the archaeological material which has been saved by this Museum, without which anyone attempting to study the archaeology of Essex would be in sad plight.

“The Roman period has been practically disregarded, it has been published recently exceptionally fully. The Bronze and Iron Ages have not been published recently, so we have concentrated on these.

“The following plates will only give some idea of the wealth of the Museum in Bronze Age beakers and Bucket Urns, and in the Belgic pottery of the Iron Age.  We hope that students of these subjects, and school teachers in general who require illustrations of this type of thing will find their publication in this compact form of great convenience.”

[1] To quote from the ‘Colchester Museum of Local Antiquities. Report of the Museum and Muniment Committee for the year ended 31 March 1926”, It was also agreed:

“That the collections of the two bodies be in future amalgamated permanently as one collection under the Museum, etc., Committee, and that all future accessions be entered into one book, instead of separately at present.

“That the Library of the Society remain the property of the Society, and at their disposal, it being hoped that with regard to the Library that the Town Council may be able, at a later date, to suggest suitable arrangements for its better housing.

“The amalgamated collection as a whole, independently of the Library and Manuscripts, to be vested in the Corporation who will be responsible for its housing, care and preservation, the immediate control remaining, as stated above, in the Museum and Muniment Committee on which the Society would be permanently represented.

“That no object which has belonged to the Essex Archaeological Society be alienated without consent of the Council of the Society.

“That the representation of the Society on the Museum and Muniment Committee be not less than one-third of the whole Committee.

“That the existing arrangements for contribution by the Society to the salary of the Curator be continued.”

No comments: