Who would have thought that prehistory could be so romantic and so ‘people-y’?
I am standing in the new Wessex Gallery in Salisbury (just opened last week) and I am about to break one of the un-written rules of the Museum of Marco Polo (which is not to puff what we do in our daytime lives as museum-makers) because I am touched by the sight of so many lives and so many stories – of both the antiquarians who rediscovered the Wessex past and those who lived it in the first place.
Making museums is complicated. Hundreds of people get involved. Not every early decision makes it through, and not every early decision should. But this was a good, early decision – to tell a double story. Round the edges of the gallery we meet the men (they were mostly men) who carved out paths into the blankness of prehistory, whilst in the middle of the gallery we meet the men, women and children, now long since dead, who were the objects of their passion. ‘My mental eyes ached,’ said William Pengelly, a 19th century antiquarian, ‘from looking back so far into the abyss of antiquity.’
So going round the edge of the gallery –
Here is Heyward Sumner, an artist from the Arts and Crafts tradition, with a passion for archaeology, folklore, geology and local history. He retired to Bournemouth at the end of the 19th century and excavated the Roman pottery kilns in the New Forest. His delicate drawings of Roman pottery forms, washed in browns and blues, are masterpieces of delicacy and elegance.
And here is the Reverend Masters, who discovered a ‘cart-load of broken Roman pottery,’ which he displayed in his village museum at West Dean (a museum now defunct, but I wish I’d seen it). Here are Cunningham and Colt, a duo of passionate barrow-diggers. And here is Pitt-Rivers, the soldier-archaeologist, with his military bearing and intransigent attitudes, who laid down the principles of archaeology in the 19th century.
And above all here is my favourite, William Stukeley, 18th century antiquarian and self-styled Arch Druid, in whom the mysterious and numinous landscape of Wessex first implanted an obsession for prehistory. For five summers he walked, rode, measured and thought his way round the puzzles of Stonehenge, often with his friend and patron, Lord Winchelsea – because for Stukeley, who was an 18th century man, scholarship was convivial and went hand in hand with friendship. It was Stukeley who rediscovered the Avenue at Stonehenge, named the trilithons, gave the ‘Cursus’ earthwork its name, and observed that the stones were aligned with the midsummer sunrise. Stukeley said of Stonehenge ‘it is a true masterpiece. Everything bold, proper, astonishing. The lights and shades adapted with inconceivable justness . . . the proportions of the dissimilar parts recommend that whole, and it pleases like a magic spell.’
But Stukeley also fell in love with the idea that the Druids had built Stonehenge and so successfully planted this idea into the popular imagination that it still exists today – as a result of which the archaeologist Stuart Piggott wrote that Stukeley was ‘the least scientific and most irresponisibly romantic writer on antiquities ever.’ I love that mix of passion and exasperation leaping off the page together.
The showcases are stuffed with paintings, drawings, measuring tools, notebooks and first person quotes. All that poetry and imaginative sensibility – who would have thought it?
So much for the History Makers. In the middle of the gallery are the objects of their scholarly passion: the touching remains of those who lived and died here on the Wessex uplands: the teenage boy who was buried on Boscombe Downs in 1500 BC with 90 amber beads beside him; the mother, her 5 year old daughter, and two more children, siblings but unrelated to the first, who were all buried huddled together on Cranbourne Chase; and, best of all, the Amesbury Archer, born in Switzerland but buried at Stonehenge, who lived and died on the very cusp of a new, metal-making era, and who was buried with a pair of gold, hair ornaments and a cushion stone beside him. The cushion stone suggests that he may have been a metal worker, may indeed have brought the new techniques to Britain, and through them became a wealthy, shamanistic type, powerful enough to be buried by the Stones.
Wrapping round the gallery are huge photographs of the moody Wessex uplands, with their tall grasses and blowy, summer clouds. In prehistory the landscape was dominant, the deal-breaker, perhaps the most powerful character of all in the story.
It takes dozens of skills to make a museum – text, film, graphics, showcases, conservation, curatorship – but we couldn’t have done it without the History Makers and the long-dead people of Wessex.
The new Wessex Gallery has just opened at the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum.
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