People have always lived in the area that is now known as London, a visit to the London Museum will tell all you need to know about London before it was London. However, it was the Romans who gave the area its name – Londinium – and apart from a small hiccup in the first century AD they provided the structure that would become one of the most famous cities in the world.
Although later parts of the cities history can be easier to spot, the evidence for Roman London is possible to find. The following is not an exhaustive guide, just a few pictures and the like of places as and when they were found.
The most obvious evidence for the Romans can be found in the bits of surviving wall that once surrounded the town. Short sections of the wall survive in various places (one section is in an underground carpark) and are really the only upstanding remains left – all else having been destroyed and built over by later generations. The wall remained (with later additions and repairs) because it was useful. For those wishing to walk the wall – follow the road ‘London Wall’ which leads to and from the Museum of London, along the way are several signposted places of interest.
The above photos show a section of the wall at Tower Hill (first three pictures) and one of the bastions and wall section of the Cripplegate fort. The Roman fort formed part of the wall defences when it was built in the second century AD. Follow this link for an interactive map of other locations of the wall sections. Do keep in mind though that the Roman parts of the London wall are generally speaking the lower sections, later Londoners did alter, reinforce and reconstruct much of the upper sections as and when was necessary.
As mentioned before an essential place to start if you want to know more of London’s history is with the London Museum. More so if you want to learn about the Roman period and earlier as much of the evidence comes from excavations. The Roman galleries paint a fascinating picture of life at the time with the added bonus of a section of the Roman wall being just outside the museum (see above photo).
Part of the gallery is laid out as a series of ‘rooms’ where objects are given life like context. For example, cooking pots and utensils are placed within the context of kitchen befitting a Roman home.
There are also many of the usual museum type exhibits. It was particularly interesting to see the exhibit on the burial of the Roman woman found at Spitalfields.
The above photos show a reconstruction of the Spitalfields woman may have looked like. Roman London was a cosmopolitan city and by AD120 the population was around 45,000. Many of the people living in Londinium came from all over the known world. The Spitalfields lady’s burial was of high status, not only did she have a stone sarcophagus but also a highly decorated lead coffin (above). Fragile glass vials were found with her as were pieces of Damascus silk. Chemical analysis indicated that she was one of the few known people to have actually come from Rome. Read here for more of her story.
Every generation since London’s inception has reimagined the city, demolishing that which did not fit or was not useful and rebuilding for their own purposes. Resulting in thick layers of history beneath the roads and buildings we see today. Every time a new road, building or train line is built the archaeologists move in to hastily uncover what can be seen, such as during the Cross Rail project. Many of these reports can be accessed via the Archaeological Data Service along with others such as 1 Poultry Lane and Tower Hamlets excavations.
Most of what is excavated does not survive the process for numerous reasons, however in one case the remains of Roman temple has been preserved deep underground – the London Mithraeum. Located beneath Bloombergs European headquarters in the heart of the city is the well preserved and intriguing site of a temple dedicated to the eastern god Mithras.
The mysterious cult of Mithras first appeared in Rome in the 1st century AD. It spread across the Empire over the next 300 years, predominantly attracting merchants, soldiers and imperial administrators. Meeting in temples which were often constructed below ground, these were private, dark and windowless spaces. (From londonmithraeum.com).
The temple was built in the third century AD and it lies on reclaimed land over what was once the river Walbrook; because of this a number of wooden artefacts survived. After the 1954 excavations the site was physically moved and reconstructed in the 1960s on the far side of the plaza from where it sits now. During the construction of the Bloomberg center even more excavations were undertaken revealing even more about the sites fascinating past. As part of this process, it was decided to move the mithraeum back to (as close as possible) to its original position seven meters below modern ground level and open it to the public as educational and exciting place to learn about Roman London.
The experience is immersive – the visitor stands in a darkened room, surrounded by the sounds of the temple as it may have been, judicious use of lighting draws your attention to various spaces. Each session is timed and numbers limited (booking is essential but free). This allows for an unhurried and unharried visit of the mithraeum – evoking an atmosphere of quiet contemplation, similar to that felt when visiting a church.
Although there is a small display of some of the many artefacts found during the 1954 excavations the sculpture featuring Mithras and the bull can be seen at the London Museum.
Another feature of Roman London which can still be traced above ground, so to speak, is that of the roads which ran in and out of the city. Some of the names may be familiar – Ermine St (now the A10/Kingsland Rd), Watling St (of which there are two…), not always easy to see or follow, later changes to the topography can blur the picture but it is always lovely when you accidentally find one such road…
Here is the Watling Street which most likely ran south east past the mithraeum and across London Bridge heading towards Durovernum (Canterbury) and the coast. The site of todays London Bridge is roughly in the same position of the first proper bridge across the Thames built by the Romans.
Unlike later periods of London’s history the Roman story can be a little harder to find however it is well worth the effort should you make the attempt.
Experimental archaeology is the one path that virtually anyone can take to travel back in time; to get an idea of what life may have been like in the distant past. One such place which encapsulates this philosophy is Butser Ancient Farm, a place I had the chance to visit recently.
Butser began life in 1972, in a different location by the late Peter Reynolds, whose passion for experimental archaeology was contagious. The original farm was situated on Butser Hill, in what is now the Queen Elizabeth Country Park, in part because of the evidence for extensive Iron Age field systems on Butser Hill, still visible in the prehistoric field boundaries and earthworks that cover the landscape. However, it did not open to the public until 1974 and because of its popularity moved to a more accessible site at the bottom of Butser Hill. In 1991 the farm moved to its present location (near Chalton, Hampshire – just off the A3).
At Butser it is possible to see ten thousand years of history come to life; to see plans of archaeological sites rise up from the ground; to feel, touch, smell and absorb some of what it may have been like in the past is an experience that should not be missed. All of the buildings which have been reconstructed are based on actual archaeological sites that have been discovered through excavation.
These excavations often only reveal the faintest of remains, the postholes and their layout is usually all archaeologists have to go on as to the type of building. The artefacts found and their position in the structure can also provide clues as to the use of the space inside and outside. Understanding all the fragmentary pieces of evidence can often take a leap of faith particularly for the general public. In this case Butser provides a physical and tangible connection to the past for the visitor.
However, it is much more than that, it is a place where those who study the past can test theories in, not only ancient technologies and construction techniques but also in how sites degrade. Our understanding of how archaeological sites are formed depend very much on understanding how a place degrades, becoming the humps and bumps we see in the landscape.
In addition to the buildings, there are also gardens containing plants that would have been in use at a particular time – known from faunal analysis during excavations. Ancient breeds of sheep, goat and pig are also a feature of the farm, giving the visitor a well-rounded experience. At certain times of the year, they also host various events such as flint knapping weekends, re-enactment groups, storytelling, solstice celebrations and more.
The following are few photos from my visit this year…beginning in the very distant past of the Mesolithic and Neolithic.
In the days preceding my visit the team at Butser along with volunteers from the HMS Queen Elizabeth had a go at erecting a megalith using only the types of technology available in the Neolithic. They moved and raised a 3.5 ton piece of Purbeck limestone using theorised prehistoric techniques. The stone is roughly the same weight as the smaller bluestones at Stonehenge, which were moved over 140 miles around 5000 years ago.
When performing such tasks it is also useful to observe what is left behind, these ephemeral remains are often the hardest to interpret.
From the Neolithic we carefully saunter into the Bronze Age, the time of the roundhouse and metal working…
The Iron Age –
The Roman villa – as with all the structures at Butser the villa was built using only construction techniques known to be used in the Romano-British period. The mosaic is the only known reconstruction in the UK and the aim was to understand some of the finer points in mosaic construction but also to see what happens to it over time.
The Anglo-Saxon halls are the most recent addition to the farm and demonstrate two different types of building style.
As mentioned before Butser also engages in research and education, none of the buildings, gardens or spaces are static museum pieces, they are constantly evolving – adding to our knowledge. Most years the farm is well attended by schools wide and far who get a hands on perspective of life in the past, archaeology and history.
The gardens and the animals are an equally fascinating aspect to the farm, endeavoring to give a much more rounded picture of the past.
For more information I would highly recommend their website (and archive) – Butser Ancient Farm
Museums have always been a favourite place of mine. If you ever want to really understand a place then visit the local museum. In New Zealand there appears to be a museum for everything, not all tickle my fancy – thus a car museum or a military museum are not really for me. However, this summer I had the opportunity to visit a number of museums around the south island of New Zealand that, well, did do it for me. These were mostly the small regional museums that told the story of the places they were part of.
Below you will find a few impressions of the museums I did get to visit, there were far more than I actually had either the time and my family’s patience to visit.
Our tour of South Island museums begins on the east coast in the tourist mecca of Kaikoura…
Kaikoura is a small town on the east coast of the south island famous for whale watching and crayfish. In fact, the Maori word for crayfish is ‘koura’ (kai meaning food or to eat). In recent times it was hit by major earthquake which did substantial damage to the town, the landscape and the people.
The museum is situated opposite the I Site in a unique building known locally as ‘the craypot’. The first museum in the area was established in 1971 and was originally situated in an old warehouse. A grant from the Lotteries Heritage Fund enabled the museum to move to its new headquarters and it was opened in 2016. Governed by the Kaikoura Historical Society it tells the history of the area from its earliest times through to the recent earthquake.
The museum space itself is not huge but it does cram a lot in, as to be expected in such a history rich area. Each section has been thoughtfully set out to explain a part of the regions history, from the natural environment, early settlers, fishing, whaling and more. One of the many issues facing many local history societies is the amount of items which are donated to them and how to properly display them with sensitivity to those who generously donate. At the Kaikoura museum I was impressed with the collections of items such as the saddles or the telephones – each showing the changes over time.
There is also a reconstruction of a jailhouse, a faithful reconstruction of a local store – Davidsons Store – and several full size carts/buggies.
The following pictures give a flavour of the other displays to be found. Unlike many other local/regional museums, here the Maori history of the area is sympathetically integrated into each display rather than being segregated and being treated as something ‘other’. Thus, in the display on fishing the history is explained from its very beginnings before the arrival of Europeans up until most recent times. It is refreshing to see the Maori story being told as an integral part of a places history. Below is a short slide show of some of the fishing display as well as the whaling history.
Otago Museum is situated in the heart of Dunedin and has close links to the University of Otago. Unlike the other museums in this post, Otago Museum is much larger with multiple rooms covering a range of subjects including geology, natural history, the Pacific Islands, world archaeology, early Maori history, colonial history and much more.
Interestingly the museum itself started life as a collection of rocks. It was during the 1865 New Zealand Exhibition in Dunedin in which Sir James Hector displayed a collection of geology samples he had collected during the Geological Survey of Otago. He labelled them ‘Otago Museum’ and thus the museum was born. After the exhibition the rocks stayed in Dunedin and were housed in the old Exchange Building which became the Otago Museum for ten years.
The first curator was Frederick Wollaston Hutton and it was under his management that the collection expanded eventually outgrowing the Exchange. In 1877 a new museum was opened and it is still there today, albeit with some embellishments. When opened the museum held 3674 items, today there are some 1.5 million objects and only a small proportion of those are displayed in the eight permanent galleries.
Animal Attic – a haven of taxidermy
Beautiful Science – digital installations
Maritime – celebration of Dunedins maritime history
Nature – New Zealand’s natural history with emphasis on the South
Pacific Cultures – art and culture of Oceania
People of the World – Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and more
Southern Land, Southern People – the prehistoric past
Tangata Whenua – the taoka of Kai Tahu, the South Islands principal iwi
I only had a brief time to explore the museum, it will definitely be on my list to revisit should I ever get to Dunedin again. The following are handful of photos from this large regional museum.
Defying the norms of classification this extraordinary museum (or is it an art gallery?) will often have you wondering if you have accidentally been transported into some strange dimension. Situated at the entrance of the Victorian precinct in the beautiful town of Oamaru, it is perhaps the most unexpected and quirky delight. Founded in 2011 by a group of people who are passionate about steampunk and wanted to share that passion.
Steampunk (in the words of HQ itself) ‘is a quirky and fun genre of science fiction that features steam-powered technology. It is often set in an alternate, futuristic version of 19th century Victorian England…’ I would also add that there can also be Mad Max or even a Frankenstein vibe to some of the inventions, making one wonder what is going on in some peoples minds.
Overall, it is a fascinating place to visit and certainly offers up a distinct visitor experience which you will not likely forget. Below are a few photos to give you an idea of what to expect.
This regional museum can be found in the heart of Arrowtown, established in 1948 it was originally situated in the billiard rooms of the Ballarat Hotel. In 1955 it moved to its current home in the old Bank of New Zealand building. In the following photos you will see that the museum encompasses the original bank’s stables and the original bakers oven which were built around 1875.
The museum itself documents the social history of the gold rush era as well as the early pioneers and farmers of the area. An unexpected delight and probably the teenagers favourite was the recreation of a street in the lower part of the museum. Here we found a ‘grog’ shanty complete with a town drunk; a blacksmith’s smithy and a Victorian school house.
Coaltown can be found in the West Coast township of Westport, it is part of the i-site building and was opened in 2013. The museum itself is contained within a single large room sectioned off to cover the stories of this remote part of New Zealand – the Buller District of the norther west coast, including the towns of Denniston, Stockton and Millerton. Starting with the early gold rush days through to the settling of the district and then the development of the coal mining it not only looks at the technology of mining but also the geology which makes the area so favourable. There are displays on the maritime heritage (important for the transport of the coal to market), other forms of transport and unionism Importantly, the museum does not forget the people and the social aspects of a community dependent on mining and the men underground.
It was a cold and wet Sunday afternoon when I visited and to be honest if it wasn’t for the weather and wanting to stay dry for a bit I may not have ventured into the museum…a mining museum is not entirely my cup of tea. However I am glad I did, it is a well presented museum with plenty of stories to be told. Perhaps one of the most mind boggling displays was that of an eight ton coal wagon perched at high in the building showing the steepest part of the incline at Denniston…
The following are just a few photos of some of the displays…
Nelson Provincial Museum
The final museum in this multitude of museums was the Nelson Provincial Museum and in it was exactly what you would expect of a museum which collates and tells the story of regional New Zealand. In it’s own words it ‘is the kaitiaki (guardian) of social and natural history and Taonga from the Nelson and Tasman regions. We are New Zealand’s oldest museum tracing our origin back to the foundation of the Literary and Scientific Institution of Nelson in May 1841.‘
Beyond this there are additional exhibitions such as the ‘Tupaia. Voyage to Aotearoa’ and ‘Slice of Life: The World Famous Dunedin Study’. In the first I discovered that I am a rubbish navigator and in the second my son experienced some of what it was like to grow up in the 70s, 80s and 90s.
The silence was constant,
the darkness absolute but at least it was comfortable. Of course, that was not completely true. Sometimes there would be noise and light but
only on rare occasions. This was one of
those occasions. At first it was only a
muffled clipping noise could be heard, plastic heels on a hard linoleum
floor. As the minutes ticked by the
noise got louder until it stopped, so close.
They had heard the noise before, anticipation hung in the still air or
perhaps it was just the dust motes waiting for something to disturb the
stillness so that they at least could continue to be what they were, to do what
they were meant to do – float lazily around finding surfaces to decorate.
Now a loud clicking as
the tumblers in the old lock turned, a breath then a snap, crackle and
pop. The ancient and rarely used fluorescent
lights shuddered on, illuminating row after row of metal shelves filled to the
ceiling with anonymous brown boxes. Each
box was numbered and some of the older ones even had labels, browning around
the edges, peeling, faded but labels all the same. Testimony, that someone had once cared.
From its cushioned
interior the broken pot waited, perhaps this time it would be chosen. Broken it may be but it still had a story to
At first a lump of cold,
dull clay, providing inspiration for a human mind. Worked and moulded by human hands, its
exterior carefully smoothed and decorated.
Then from the hot fire like a phoenix it came. The incised decorations had meaning, told
their own story of the people who made it.
Its beauty admired, given as a gift from an aunt to a niece and filled
with grain. Beautiful and practical,
that was its story. It was valued
passing from mother to daughter until a day of violence, rough voices and
screaming. In the aftermath the pot lay
broken on the hard-earthen floor, broken into many pieces, its precious
contents spilt out. The crackle and spit
of the burning building heralding the end of an era but not the end of the story.
Buried, for what seemed
like an eternity. The only company the ever-present
earthworms and the occasional mole. Scratching and burrowing, moving away parts
of the whole so that even now safe in the brown box, it was not complete. Then came the day when the light returned,
once more human hands held it, reverently, exclaiming over its beauty. Carefully washing away the dirt that had
accumulated over the centuries, it was drawn, measured and photographed. Then carefully, oh so carefully, a new home was
made for all its broken parts.
At first many hands held
it, admired it, there were more drawings and more photographs but gradually the
visits into the light became fewer and fewer as the next best thing came
along. It had been a long time since it had
felt the warmth of human hands gently caressing the incised decoration that had
its own story. Perhaps today would be
the day. If it had a voice it would have
cried out “pick me, pick me” not unlike so many of the other artefacts sitting
comfortably in their specially cut foam in their anonymous brown boxes. Each had story to tell of a time when they
were useful and valued, even broken and buried over centuries their stories had
“Pick me, pick me” said
Standing still at the
doorway to the storeroom the woman took a deep breath. Smiling she wondered where best to start. Her boss had simply said “choose the ones
with the best stories”. But how do you
choose a good story? What is a good
story? With a small satisfied sigh, she looked
at her tablet with its inventory, deciding to simply start with the artefacts
that appealed to her personally. Hoping
on some instinctive level she would choose the ones with the ‘best stories.
Although there was a
certain amount of pressure to pick the right artefacts this was a job she had
been looking forward to for quite some time.
Finally, a legitimate opportunity for a good rummage in one of the
museums oldest storerooms and a chance to prove she was good at her job. A job she loved. If she were a person of a certain disposition
she would have done a little jig, as it was she simply contented herself with
humming her favourite tune.
Running her fingers
lightly along the brown boxes she did a slow circuit of the room, soaking up
the slightly musty atmosphere. There was
no real order to the space except in a numerical fashion. Each box numbered according to when it
arrived in the room, so that Mesolithic flints sat happily beside early medieval
pottery sherds. She did briefly wonder
if there was analogy for the modern world there. Either way, here she felt at home, to her
each and every one of these artefacts had a good story to tell. Put them together and their story would be…mind
blowing? No, wrong word, it would
be…enlightening. Smiling and humming
she went in search of a trolley.
After an hour she had half
a dozen boxes on the trolley, so far so good she thought as she sat on the desk
at the end of the room. There were a few errant boxes that for reasons known
only to themselves had moved to other locations in the room other than their
designated spot. Perseverance had paid
off in those cases. It had been a risk coming
here, her choices were risky too. This
was not the only storeroom there were others with brighter, better and more well-known
artefacts stored in them, safer choices, but better stories?
Perusing the inventory,
the woman waited for something to jump out at her. What she needed for this part of the
exhibition was an object that grabbed people’s attention, an item to stop and
wonder at, what else is hidden away in the bowels of their museum? Page after page she flicks through, finally
at the bottom of the very last page a hastily added note. The last few boxes to come into the room, containing
artefacts from a small, local society training dig. The enthusiastic amateurs had come across an
ancient settlement but a lack of funding had kept the dig to a single trench, two
metres wide and five metres long. Even
so, several of the finds had been remarkable, telling a story of settlement in
use for many generations and its eventual but violent demise.
Feeling her heart beat
quicken the woman began to count boxes searching, hoping that no one had moved
them. The sound of her heels clicking a
beat along the rows, up, down, pause, up, down, pause. Damn!
They weren’t there. Hands on her
hips, frowning, her eyes focussing on the boxes that were not the boxes she was
looking for. Taking a step back she
scans around, sometimes they were simply a little bit in the wrong place, but
no not this time. If she were of a
particular disposition she would have stamped her foot in frustration not once
but twice, instead though she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
Logic dictated that she
should check who had last looked at the boxes, there might be some indication
as to where were now. Walking back to
the desk where she had left the tablet with its inventory she spied a row of
four brown boxes sitting innocently on the desk she had only moments before been
sitting on. Her pace quickened, please
let it be them she prayed to no one god in particular. If she were of a particular disposition she
would have ran and slid to a halt at the table, but she was not and she still
got there in good time. A quick glance
at the numbers on the outside of the box confirmed it, yes it was them.
As she lifted the lids on
each of the boxes, once more she said a silent prayer of thanks. The contents of all four boxes would be her
centrepiece, they told a real story, a story to resonate through the ages. The woman placed the boxes on the trolley,
satisfied. Her heels once more clicking
sedately on the linoleum floor, a creak of the door, snap as the fluorescents
flicker off, bang, the door shuts once more on darkness. The dust motes swirled about in the air
eddies left by the woman’s presence. A
comfortable constant silence reigns – until next time.
Slam, went the car
door. Two bodies wrapped up against the
weather, one tall, one small make a mad dash for cover under the museum’s
portico. Stopping to catch their breath
the small one links hands with the tall one. There were a lot of people milling
under the portico and mum had said very clearly, ‘do not lose your dad, after
all, he can’t even find his way out of a paper bag’. The boy wasn’t really sure what his dad would
have been doing in a paper bag. He
shrugs to himself, grown-ups!
Rain and school holidays,
not a good time to come to the museum but today was his only day off work and he
had promised his son that he would bring him.
He had no idea why he actually agreed, he would have much rather chewed
off his own leg than come to the museum.
But there was something about the look the boy’s mother had given him
and then there was the boy…equal portions of guilt and love tumbled through
his consciousness and he found himself agreeing. She had pulled him aside, “he loves the
museum, and it’s soothing…when he is there he almost like any other kid, stay
as long as you can”.
As they walked through
the doors, father and son turned and looked at each other.
“Well, you know it best,
where to first?”
The boy smiled, twirling
around eyes closed, mentally communicating with the museum, where to
first? He stopped, opened his eyes and
pointed. Following the pointed finger,
he spies the new exhibition hall and yes as luck would have it there was a new
exhibition. A display of previously
unseen objects from the museum’s storerooms, well fair enough at least it
wouldn’t be the same old things although he did fear that was yet to come. There was a tugging at the end of his arm;
the boy was itching to go. His mother
was right he did almost seem like any other kid here.
Kids, no one tells you no
matter what you think will happen, no matter how prepared you are, it is
nothing like what actually happens. He
had been so excited knowing he was to have a son, he had imagined footy games,
cricket on the beach, surfing, building tree houses and boisterous games of
tag. What he had got was an entirely
different kettle of fish. It wasn’t that
he didn’t love him his heart had almost burst when he first held him in his
arms. It was just that things had not
quite turned out as expected and in the beginning the readjustment had taken
awhile, it had taken too long for his wife, the boy’s mother.
The boy tugged again on
his dad’s hand, come on, imagine the treasures in here he tried to say. He looked up at his dad, his lopsided grin
bigger than ever. He loved the museum,
he loved the way it smelled, the way it sounded, the way the objects would
speak to him, tell him their stories. He
could spend hours with his nose pressed up against the glass cases just staring
and imagining. His mum always told him
that no matter what he would always have his imagination, the endless stories
he wrote were testimony to that. She had
packed his journal and brand-new pack of pencils in his backpack, “just in case
the mood takes you”, she had said with a wink.
As they wandered around
the new exhibition they saw stuffed animals in scary poses, shiny beetles and
beautiful butterflies pinned very carefully to a board, everything was named
(common and Latin), everything creatively displayed. Each display had an information board with
their stories. Many of the stories were
about where the animal had come from, who had found it and the hardships that
were undertaken in the name of science.
The boy wasn’t that impressed, again he decided it must be a grown-up
thing, killing something in the name of science, it was not a part of the
museum he liked much. But although just
a kid he understood that you didn’t need to like everything about something or
someone in order to love it – no one was perfect.
He tugged on his dad’s
hand again, something was calling him forward.
It was the archaeology section, now this was more like it. His soul sang for this was his nirvana. Here artefacts spoke of human lives, told
their stories, here he could lose himself totally. He moved quickly from case to case his dad
trailing dutifully behind him.
“Slow down kiddo, we have
all the time in the world.”
The boy came to a
complete halt in front of a case displaying a beautiful blackened pot, its
swirly incised decoration speaking to him.
There were other artefacts, bronze clothes pins, other pieces of pottery,
part of an iron skillet and an iron knife blade, both rusted but still
identifiable, jet beads lovingly set into a shape of necklace. The board said that they all came from the
same excavation, not far from where the boy lived with his mother. It was exciting to know that under his feet
as he walked around his town there could be more stories waiting to be
discovered. He looked at his dad, who
was just smiling at him in a funny kind of way.
“Go on, your mum said she
had packed your journal, it’s okay. I
like to watch you write your stories, I’ll just be over here keeping an eye on
The boys grin said it
She had drawn the short
straw, the volunteer who was rostered on to look after this section answering
the public’s questions had called in sick, a migraine or something. So here she was, she didn’t really mind, she
liked to see people interact with the artefacts. The boy and his father had intrigued
They were in a world of
their own, the boy strangely silent. The
father seemed a little uncomfortable, he looked like he’d much rather be out
tackling the elements than in here. The
boy had sat down on the floor with his back leaning against the plinth, on his
lap was a book and in his hand a pencil, he leaned back eyes closed, obviously
deep in thought. Suddenly as if someone
had fired a starting gun his eyes flicked open and the pencil flew across the
page. Her eyes glanced at the father, he
was smiling, he had seen this before.
Father and son settled in, one watching the other, just being.
An hour later, the pencil
was put away. She was intrigued, her
feet moving of their own volition she walked over to the boy.
“Hello, I’m the curator
who put this section together. Do you
The boy nodded smiling
his lopsided smile. His dad hurried over
“he doesn’t speak but he does understand everything, just doesn’t talk” he
“But you like to write,
don’t you?” she asked, not fazed by his father’s explanation.
boy nodded again, a moment of silence stretched out and then he handed her the
journal. Taking the journal, she moved
to the bench the father had previously occupied, sat down and started to
read. Both father and son sat quietly
she had finished, she turned to look at the boy, “you have a rare talent, you
can see the story behind each artefact, I honestly can say I felt like I was
transported back in time. Thank you. You are a very clever young man.” It was a truth, not words to bolster a child’s
would love you to come back another day, so I can show you some of the other
artefacts in storerooms and you can write more stories. Perhaps we can convince the museum to publish
some of them. People need to hear your
the boy was of a particular disposition he did do a jig, his joy obvious to all. His father felt a lump in his throat and not
trusting himself to speak just smiled and nodded his thanks. She handed over her card and got his details
too – she knew a good story when she saw one.
It’s all about the story, we all have them tucked away inside, sometimes we tell ourselves, sometimes we tell others. They are in everything and everyone we touch. Some are short lived and some will resonate through time but in the end, it is our story and how it ends is up to us.
Just recently the husband and I had a child free weekend away, during this time we spend two days exploring the town of Napier in the Hawkes Bay. Naturally I was drawn to the town’s heritage and as per usual my first stop was to the local museum – MTG Hawkes Bay.
Situated in the main part
of town near the seafront, it is attached to the library and spread over three
floors. The ground floor gallery is
taken up by two exhibitions – Tenei Tonu and Turuturu, Fingers, Feathers and Fibre.
Tenei Tonu showcased the taonga, both historic and contemporary, alongside the
stories of the local Iwi Ngati Kahunguru. Turuturu took up a space which joined
the museum to the library and is a fascinating albeit brief look at the
importance of weaving in Maori culture.
Turuturu are weaving pegs used to keep a
garment off the ground when it is being made. The main peg is the right one and
can be elaborately decorated. It represents the mana of Te Whare Pora – the
knowledge-bank of the art-form. The peg itself upholds the mana of the growing
garment and it spiritually connects the maker to the world of thought and
concentration. The peg also grounds the maker so they do not get lost in their
intellectual world. (quoted
from the MTG Hawkes Bay website)
On the second floor was three collections – one of an amazing display of heirloom silverware whilst the second was called Five Pakeha Painters – Perspectives on the Hawkes Bay. This small exhibition of artwork acknowledged the importance of art as a form of dialogue between the artist, the land and the social norms of the time. The third exhibition was titled The House of Webb – A Victorian Family’s Journey to Ormondsville. This is a temporary exhibition (it finishes on the 3rd November) showcasing life in Victorian Napier through the belongings, diaries and letters of the Webb Family. In 1884 the Webb family left their comfortable life in England and travelled to Napier and then further south to Ormondsville, this exhibition showed what life was like for these early settlers, some of their trials and how they survived those early days.
The final gallery to be
explored was in the basement of the museum – here the visitor is taken through
that fateful day in 1931 when the Hawkes Bay was hit by a massive earthquake
which destroyed almost all of Napier and killed over three hundred people.
At 10:47am on 3 February 1931, a devastating
earthquake struck Hawke’s Bay. In that moment it seemed the end of the world
had come. People were thrown off their
feet; buildings shuddered and collapsed as the ground pitched violently. In
central Napier, fires broke out within minutes and rushed through the city.
Amidst the burning, falling buildings, the bright blue sky of a summer’s day
was obscured by smoke and dust. People
could only watch as their home was destroyed around them. In desperation the
injured screamed for help, others ran for the safety of the beach, or home to
find their families. (Quoted from the MTG Hawkes Bay website)
As well as the thoughtful display of objects and stories, there is also a short film of ‘Survivor Stories’ which brings home how devasting the earthquake was to the people of the Hawkes Bay. Time here will forever be divided between ‘before and after the earthquake’.
The second place to be visited was the Napier Prison…yes on purpose…and no not in shackles…
Napier Prison is New Zealand’s oldest prison, it was first opened in 1852 and was closed to inmates in 1993. Situated on Bluff Hill and next to the quarry where early inmates were expected to do hard labour extracting the stone that would build walls which now surround the prison. In 2002 the prison was restored to the state it is in by a local family who turned it into a back-packers (not my first choice of accommodation) but nowadays it is a tourist attraction and even on the cold wet day we visited there were a quite a few visitors.
As a visitor you can either go on a guided tour or do the self-guided audio tour which we did. The facilities also host scare tours in the evenings and has an Escape Room Experience for those wanting something a bit different. On two separate occasions and for quite different reasons, the prison has been the focus of a TV show – one looking to enhance the visitor experience from a heritage perspective and the other capitalising on the prison’s spookier stories. The prison has also through its time been used as a psychiatric unit, a lighthouse and a meeting place for Alcoholic Anonymous groups.
Above is a block called ‘The Pound’ – the padded cells and caged exercise area chilling reminders that once upon a time mental illness was treated with a lot less compassion.
The above photos show a small selection of numerous information boards that provide a light moment amongst the many somber ones.
The above photos are of the main block and exercise yard, the bottom picture is of a well discovered a short while ago. The well room is in what was once the infirmary before being divided into other rooms during the prisons back packing days.
On a personal note, it was a fascinating place, however the sense of relief when I walked back out the front gates was immense. The heavy sense of foreboding made for an uncomfortable visit, there were places I simply could not enter. I took no photos of the ‘hanging yard’ or the graveyard (where only three burials are had), the feelings of deep sadness were enough to stop me pressing the shutter. The ‘hanging yard’ in particular had an effect on me…but having said that I am glad I went, it was educational and an eye-opener to life behind bars in New Zealand’s oldest prison.
The remaining photos are just a few from around a city well known for its art deco architecture and seafront gardens.
Please note that all photos are my own – the MTG Hawkes Bay do not allow photography in many of their galleries, hence the paucity of photos from this lovely museum.
The Terracotta Warriors are famed throughout the world and have been on my bucket list for quite some time. So imagine my excitement when I heard that a handful were to visit New Zealand. The following is just a few photos of the exhibition on at Te Papa, Wellington until April
But first some background
Like many of the great archeoloagical discoveries the terracotta army and the mausoleum of the first emperor Qin was really quite accidental. It was in the spring of 1974 that the local villagers decided to sink a new well a good couple of kilometres from the already well known mausoleum of Emperor Qin. After digging down for about five metres through numerous archaeological layers they eventually began to bring up bronze objects and parts of the warriors themselves.
The importance of the villagers finds was eventually realised and it was this discovery which was to form a catalyst for further extensive research and excavation in the area. The First Emperor’s Mausoleum refers to the complex of funerary remains which pertain to the burial of the First Emperor, it is a massive area with a vast complex of structures.
“…the most important remains of the tomb complex include the cemetary’s architectural structures, tomb tunnels, tomb burial chambers, the gate watchtowers, walls, roads and coffins, as well as accompanying tombs, pits and mausoleum villages. The mausoleum is also the product of supreme engineering and architectural efforts, including the construction of massive dykes and channels to prevent flooding, underground sluice walls, drainage channels, man-made lakes and ponds and so on. There are also a large number of facilities that are protective of, and associated with, these mausoleum structures, such as the remains of factories and workplaces, kilns and the tombs of those working on the mausoleum. There would o be fording places, wharfs and the like.” (Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality – edited by Rebecca Rice)
With that one paragraph we realise that there is so much more to a site, a place than just the sensational. A fact which is important to remember when dealing with any archaeological site…
Whilst the terracotta warriors are the main attraction for this travelling exhibition there are also a wide range of artefacts on display from many burial sites and dated over a wide period of time. Please excuse the poor quality of some of the photos, flash photography was not allowed, (all photos are my own).
As soon as the First Emperor became King of Qin excavations and building started at Mt Li (the location of the tomb), while after he won the empire more than 700,000 consripts from all parts of the country worked there…they dug through three subterrnean streams and poured molten copper nd bronze to make the outer coffin, and the tomb was file with models of palaces, pavilions and offices as well as fine vessels, precious tones and rarities. Artisans were ordered to fix up crossbows so that any theif breaking in would be shot. All the country’s rivers, the Yellow River and the yangtze were reproduced in quicksilver and by some mechanical means made to flow into a miniature ocean. The heavenly constellations were shown above and the regions of the Earth below. The candles were made of whale oil to ensure their burning forever.
(Sima Qian – Records of the Grand Historian)
At this stage in time the First Emperor’s actual tomb has yet to be excavate but the high levels of mercury recorded might suggest that the above quote was not an exageration…Sima did not mention the terracotta army in his description of the Emperor’s burial. The army occupies four large pits and it is estimated there are 8000 soldiers with only 3000 excavated. On average each soldier stands 180cm tall and weigh around 100-300 kilograms. There are foot soldiers, archers, armoured officers, wooden carriages and horses. All face east and it has been suggested that they are there to protect the Emperor in the spirit world from those he killed during his conquest of China…
After the Qin Dynasty the Han Dynasty rose to prominence and whilst their style of rule was quite different from the the First Emperor they did continue with the tradition of large scale mausoleums. The following photos are from the tomb of Emperor Jing of Han (157-141BCE); a Han general’s tomb at Yangjiawan (also of the Western Han – 206BCE-9C).
The above are the remains of a tomb gate from the Eastern Han dynasty. These were regarded as doorways between Heaven and Earth, the iconography suggests a celestial journey needed to reach Heaven after death. The battle scenes on the horizontal lintel hint at possible challenges on that journey.
Tucked away in east Auckland is the suburb of Howick, here you can find a gem of living history – the Howick Historical Village.
Over the years the family and I have visited the village on numerous occasions, it is pleasant escape from the technology and mass produced entertainment which so very much a part of our lives today. Although the bones of the place are immovable the addition of monthly live days and special events makes every visit different in some way.
The Village depicts life as it was in nineteenth century New Zealand with particular emphasis on the fencible settlement of Howick. Colonial Howick was originally founded by Governor George Grey who concerned about the potential threats from both Maori and the French. He established a chain of settlements around the southern part of Auckland as both an early warning system and a line of defence for the burgeoning new town.
Governor Grey originally requested troops to man these settlements however, it was decided to send retired soldiers to settle the area as members of the Royal New Zealand Fencible Corps, these were men who had served in the wars of Britain in the 1830s and 1840s. To be eligible to emigrate under the scheme the veterans had to be under 48 years of age and of ‘good character’ with ‘industrious habits’. If they qualified they were given free passage to New Zealand with their families, a cottage and an acre of land. In return they were required to partake in certain military activities and after seven years the land and the cottage would be theirs. Although they were given a small pension they were also expected to undertake work of some kind in the new colony.
Between 1847 and 1854 some 2500 fencibles and their families arrived in New Zealand, doubling the population of Auckland at the time. Other fencible villages included Panmure, Otahuhu and Onehunga. The live days at the Village have volunteers dressed in costume doing activities you might see on any given day in a fencible/colonial village including soldiers parading, wood turning, blacksmithing, ladies doing the chores such as washing, sewing and baking. There are also special themed days such as ‘A Colonial Christmas’ or an Easter egg hunt or a summer fete.
The Village today is based around Bell House which was given to the Howick Historical Society in 1972, negotiations at the time then secured a further five acres of land which later became the seven acres it is today. It took eight years of fundraising and working bees by many volunteers to turn it into a living museum. Many of the cottages on site were donated and transported to the village, of which there are now thirty buildings. It was officially opened on the 8th of March 1980.
Today the village is enjoyed by school groups as part of their education outside of the classroom modules and students on school holiday programmes – children are encouraged to dress in period appropiate costumes, leaving technology behind. Having attended during a school visit with my sons class, I can vouch for it being throughly enjoyed by all. On that occasion, the students learnt how to churn butter, played games of the times, baked bread in a wood fired oven, drew water from a well and attended a session in a nineteenth century school.
One of the striking aspects of the village are the gardens which have in themselves become an important heritage project with links to the Heritage Tree Crops Association and Auckland Seed Savers. Vegetables, herbs and eggs from the free range chickens are often available to buy at the main entrance. Another less well known part of the village is its research library which contains many documents and photographs for the early days of Howick – a vital resource for those who interested in the history of the area or those researching family trees.
For more information on The Howick Historical Village go to:-
A recent addition to my television viewing is a locally produced show – ‘Heritage Rescue’. Along the veins of a reality tv show and borrowing loosely from home makeover shows and the UK’s ever popular ‘Time Team’ (the shows presenter once worked on the latter as a humble archaeologist), Heritage Rescue visits small local museums, spending time (usually around a week) and resources to inject new life into these establishments. More often than not they operate purely on the fuel of volunteers.
One such museum was the Devonport Museum in Auckland – I am sorry to say that even though I have lived only a fifteen minute drive from this musuem I had never visited…a fact I hastened to amend after watching the two episodes dedicated to giving the wee museum a new lease of life. Having never been to the museum prior to its appearance on the telly I can’t compare so the photos that follow are of the new look museum.
The one thing that has obviously remained the same is the essential fabric of the building. The museum is housed in an old Presbyterian church which was moved to it present day location in an old quarry on the side of Mt Cambria in 1978.
On entering the museum to the left there is a timeline of Devonports history with a superb diorama of the local landscape taking centre stage. I was fascinated to learn that once upon time it was possible to get a boat through at high tide directly from Narrow Neck beach to the Ngatringa Bay past what is now the golf course and along the present day Seabreeze Rd.
Some of the precious taonga on display.
Samples of goods from the later brickworks
Devonport itself is an area rich in history, not just because it was one of the earliest nineteenth century settlements but also it was well utilised by Maori with its safe landing beaches, excellent access to kai moana and fertile soils on the slopes of its volcanic cones. Jutting out into the wider Hauraki Gulf it also provides an excellent vantage point of all who come and go into Auckland. The museum effectively reflects this tapestry of Devonports past.
There are displays on the history of ship/boat building in the area, we are told that the foreshore was a hive of industry in the nineteenth century. The above picture shows a model of New Zealands one and only remaining wooden light house which can be found just off the tip of Devonport, no longer being used as a light house but preserved as a historic site.
Shop window displays using real shop windows from the towns retail past gives the visitor an impression of what the main street may have once looked like.
Here a display panel gives information on Devonports main street – Victoria Road – who lived/worked and played there.
Devonport is well known for it old villas and colonial cottages – the museum has two models of these types of houses on display. The one on the right is complete with washing on the line and a larder stocked with local produce.
An old map of Devonport – the Takapuna Racecourse is now a golf course…
Overall our visit to the Devonport museum was very enjoyable, helped along by a friendly and informative volunteer who was able to answer my questions. There is even a kids corner with old fashioned games for the littlies to have a go at and in a seperate room a research space is well appointed for those to local/family histories. It is well worth a visit if you are in the area and even if you’re not.
For most people Thames is the town you whizz though on the way to the more exciting destinations in the Coromandel and to be honest this is what we often do except on this one occasion when it was decided to stop at the small local museum.
The Thames Museum featured in an episode of ‘Heritage Rescue’ during 2016 and as such was brought to my attention fuelling a quick pit stop along with the obligatory pie and coffee. The entry fee is $5 an adult or in our case, $10 for a family of two adults and two children. For this you get entry into an Aladdin’s cave of memorabilia from the 1800s and later. The early fridge and scary looking dentists chair filled both tween and teen with horror.
The first room was divided into spaces depicting life in a Victorian household. Leading on from this was a space where a short film would have been shown (but for whatever reason was not on the day we were visiting) and in cabinets along the walls were a variety of early Maori artefacts. This part of the museum was a little disappointing, there were very few explanatory notes as to what the artefacts were, where they were found or even who donated them. Unfortunately it did give the impression of being an afterthought which seems a shame given the rich Maori history of the area.
A third room held a collection of tools and equipment (including several dreaded dentist chairs which I forgot to photograph) whilst the final room where the spaces which were given a make over by the TV show ‘Heirtage Rescue’.
The brillant blue of the painted walls setting off the easy to read maps and displays. A small side room off this main space was given over to handcrafted models of the towns heritage buildings.
Like so many of our small town museums this one is run solely by volunteers and as such they should be applauded for their efforts in bringing the history of their town to life. Having said that it was at times difficult to navigate visually around the museum, particularly as the general feel is one of an overstuffed Victorian home. There is something to be said for a more minimalist approach. It was a stark and distinct difference between the areas given a make over by museum professionals and those not yet tackled, perhaps to the detriment of the remainder of the museum.