Wednesday, August 25, 2010

"Britain's Scattered Heritage"


A contribution to the debate on the repatriation of foreign cultural property held in the museums and academic institutions of several rich developed countries which the inhabitants of source countries now want back.

The premise of this blog is a hypothesis on how this debate would look if Britain was the victim rather than the holder of such lost cultural property. How would the arguments about "universal museums" and "cultural cosmopolitanism" look if British history had not taken the turns it had? Losing a few battles, making a few bad economic decisions, having a few more idiotic leaders could easily have led to Britain (after all a titchy island on the edge of Europe) losing far more of the physical remains of its cultural heritage than it turned out (quite by accident) it did.

This blog attempts to examine how attitudes would differ if it was Britain which had lost quite a number of near-iconic items of cultural significance. While the objects discussed are all (for the most part) real, the history of how they got where they "now" are is fictional, but I hope not too far-feteched. [Any resemblance in these fictionalised stories to people now living, or modern institutions is fairly unintentional and no offence is meant in this tongue-in-cheek thought experiment.]

Vignette: the British Isles

"Britain's Scattered Heritage": A Sense of Loss


The items discussed in the pages below have been selected for discussion because they illustrate the various means and processes by which various important pieces of the cultural property of the British Isles have been scattered over the past few centuries. They also give a view of the range of material that has been taken abroad, and demonstrate the colossal loss that the British people have experienced by their removal from the cultural resources of the nation over past centuries.

These (and other) items were lost through the operation of various processes beyond our control in the past. These were detrimental to the preservation of the resources of cultural property in Britain available for the enjoyment and edification of citizens and visitors. While it is true that those of them in foreign public collections can for the most part still be seen by getting on an aeroplane and travelling in their footsteps to various distant parts of our globe, this is not the point.

These items cannot be treated as something which can just be carted off and be as meaningful in a foreign gallery as in the surroundings for which they were created. They have a relationship with place, they belong here, where they have a myriad of local meanings. The repatriation of as many of these items as possible is not only desirable it is imperative if British culture is not to lose its roots.

Britain has already lost so much of its material heritage that this can be seen as nothing less than a cultural disaster. In the current era of international co-operation and collaboration, in a united Europe now that colonialism has been swept away, it is time to right the historical wrongs done to Britain in less enlightened times and find a way to resolve these issues peacefully, amicably and to the benefit of all sides.

This blog opposes the aggressive domination and false rhetoric of foreign culture-snatchers who have treated the cultural resources of our country as little more than a mine to exploit to produce trophy pieces which they have appropriated to their own uses. Please think about the issues these pieces raise.

"Britain's Scattered Heritage": In the Eyes of the Law

The cases discussed in this blog illustrate the range of mechanisms and historical accidents that have contrived to Britain losing a considerable portion of culturally-important objects to foreign collections. In most cases there is little that Britain can do by applying existing laws to get this stuff back. Most of it left the country before the various international conventions and treaties (such as UNESCO's 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property ), some were lost as a result of invasion and colonization - though here their status as 'war booty' is disputable, this being a still-unclear area of international legislation, while some were gifted away or sold in the past by people entitled to do this by the standards of the times.

We however live in different times and the spirit of international collaboration surely requires an elastic approach to claims to disputed cultural property rather than a simple fait accompli approach. There is a considerable body of public opinion in Britain behind the idea of repatriation of this material, and political and economic gains involved, not to mention the moral arguments in favour of doing so. Let us act now to right the wrongs that have been wrought on our national culture by foreign culture-grabbing and retentionist foreign nations.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"Britain's Scattered heritage": The First Englishman

Scattered Heritage: The Swanscombe skull, the Barnfield Pit at Swanscombe in Kent contains river terrace gravels and sands of the Anglian Ice Age laid down between 425,000 and 350,000 BC by an ancient course of the Thames, flowing more than 30 m higher than in the present day. These deposits were well known as a findspot of flint tools and bones of animals (species represented include giant deer , elephant, rhinoceros and lion). In the summer of 1956 an expedition of the students' association of the newly-founded East African University carried out fieldwork and collecting in several Palaeolithic sites in the Lower Thames valley. During the course of this fieldwork three fragments of human skull were found and with the permission of the landowners of Barnfield Pit, they were added to the University's teaching collections. They are currently displayed in the 'Africa, Homeland of the Human Race' Museum in Koobi Fora, though the British Museum (Natural History) has expressed interest in obtaining them for the national collections.

Photo: Part of the Swanscombe skull

"Britain's Scattered Heritage": Lost Monolith

Stonehenge is one of the iconic prehistoric monuments for British prehistory, and attracted interest even in the Middle Ages. It became well known on the continent through the writings of antiquaries such as Camden, Inigo Jones and Jonathan Oldbuck and also attracted trophy hunters who over the years picked over the monument for pieces that could be taken away as trophies under the pretext that they would be accessible to the masses that were unable to visit the remote wastelands of Salisbury Plain themselves. In the period when Britain was ruled by foreign kings, William III (and to a lesser extent under the Hanoverians) many British antiquities were sent as gifts to foreign cabinets of curiosities. Here is one of the bluestones re-erected in the courtyard of the Dresden Zwinger, a gift from William III to Augustus III the Strong, Elector of Saxony in 1698. The blustones at Stonehenge were much smaller than the sarsens and very few of them now remain on the site.

Photo: Visit the UK

"Britain's Scattered Heritage": The Folkton Drums


"Scattered Heritage": The Folkton Drums (Late Neolithic period, 2600-2000 BC). These three mysterious objects were found in 2008 by excavations in advance of the construction of a mobile phone transmission mast on Folkton Wold near Filey in East Yorkshire, England. The excavations carried out by an archaeological contracting firm from Edinburgh discovered a badly damaged round barrow with two concentric ditches and containing several graves. the site had been damaged by earlier 'barrow digging', including by antiquary Canon William Greenwell, who luckily had failed to find all the graves. The cylinders had been placed behind the head and hips of the body of a child in an oval grave close to the outer of two concentric ditches. The objects range in size from 146mm in diameter through 124 mm diameter down to the smallest at 104mm in diameter. They are unique in the archaeological record – nothing similar is known anywhere in the British Isles from any time in the prehistoric period. They might in some way have been a symbol of the special social position of the family to which the deceased person belonged.

The elaborately carved cylinders are made from local chalk and have chipped and incised decoration organized in panels on their curved sides of the cylinders and also the slightly domed upper surfaces which resemble lids. The objects all have concentric circle decoration on the tops. The designs of two of the drums seem to represent stylised faces. The bases of the drums were carefully shaped and smoothed but appear to have been undecorated. The significance of the designs is unknown, though the geometric patterns closely resemble the decorative schemes of prehistoric pottery, particularly the Later Neolithic Grooved Ware style and Later Neolithic/Early Bronze Age Beaker pottery. Similar motifs are also known in megalithic art of the period.

In accordance with the pre-excavation agreement, the finds from the investigations were initially retained by the landowner, consortium J. G. Crassfeld. Negotiations managed to obtain the voluntary deposition of the majority of the excavation archive in the local museum, but on the advice of a Mayfair antiquities dealer the landowner placed the drums up for auction. Bidding was brisk, partly due to prior newspaper coverage of the objects which focussed on sensationalist elements such as their alleged supernatural significance. They were bought by the newly-created Tokyo 'World Museum of Indigenous and Primitive Art' (MIPO). The issue of an export licence was deferred, but there was not sufficient interest in them in the UK to obtain the asking price, and when the deferral period expired, the objects were exported to Japan. They will form one of the centrepieces of one of the new galleries on European Primitivism in the MIPO. The Vienna Kunsthistorische Museum is understood to be negotiating a long-term loan for its own prehistoric Europe galleries. Meanwhile Yorkshire Museums service supported by many local MPs has been pressing for changes to British legislation on the ownership of antiquities to prevent such a thing happening again.

I.H. Longworth, 'The Folkton Drums unpicked' in Grooved Ware in Britain and Ireland, Neolithic Studies Group Seminar Papers 3 (Oxford, Oxbow Books, 1999), pp. 83-88.

D.V. Clarke, T.G. Cowie and A. Foxon, Symbols of power at the time of Stonehenge (London, HMSO, 1985)

I.A. Kinnes and I.H. Longworth, Catalogue of the excavated prehistoric and Romano-British material in the Greenwell Collection (London, The British Museum Press, 1985)

Andrew Middleton, Jeremy R. Young & Janet Ambers The Folkton Drums: chalk or cheese? Antiquity Vol 78 No 299 March 2004

Chris Collyer, ‘Folkton Barrow, Bronze Age Round Barrow’,

Vignette: The Chalk Drums (Antiquity)
Cf. British Museum website on the Folkton Drums.

"Britain's Scattered heritage": The King's Shaving Mug

In 1837 workmen engaged in construction work took some building stone from a mound on part of Bodmin Moor, at Rillaton in Cornwall. This turned out to be a Bronze Age burial cairn, and in it was a chamber, 2.4 m long and 1.1 m wide. It contained the decayed remains of a human skeleton accompanied by this gold cup, a bronze dagger and other objects that have not survived - a decorated pottery vessel, a 'metallic rivet', 'some pieces of ivory' and 'a few glass beads'. The pot and gold cup were set beneath a slab leaning against the west wall of the cist.

The main body of this prehistoric cup was beaten out of a single lump of gold of high purity. The corrugated profile would have required great skill to achieve. In addition to being aesthetically pleasing, it added strength to the thin sheet metal. The handle is decorated with two sets of grooves and is neatly rivetted to the body through lozenge-shaped washers.

The Duchy of Cornwall at this time had rights over any treasure found within it (as bona vacantia) and the finds were therefore sent to William IV (reigned 1831-37) very shortly before his death. They remained in the royal household. According to hearsay, the cup stood in the dressing room of King George V and may have been used as a royal shaving mug (other versions have him keeping his collar studs in it). It was apparently sold in 1936, apparently after the death of George V, though enquiries of the Royal Household have been unable to elicit the precise details. The associated dagger however was acquired by the British Museum in 1937, but none of the other finds have since been relocated. The cup seems to have been in the hands of a private collector of royal memorabilia in New Zealand in the 1950s, but all track of it has since been lost. The Cornish Heritage Society is attempting to locate the current whereabouts of the object and obtain its return to Truro.

the Rillaton mug from the catalogue, "Britain's lost treasures".
the site of the discovery