Sherborne’s “Pottery Workshop”

In this latest post our curator, Elisabeth Bletsoe, shares her recent discoveries whilst re-examining some of our archaeological finds.

Many of the excellent archaeological artefacts we have in reserve have been in disarray for some time; in the past the museum seems to have been the repository for the results of several digs in the town but information and context has become detached over time. Large parts of the collection are unaccessioned, others are recorded but lack numbering (so there is a danger of “reaccessioning”), while still others have numbers but neither object entry forms nor descriptions on the database. Our patient accessions team has been methodically working out what is on loan, for example from the Sherborne Castle Estates, and what is gifted – and this is not to mention the bags of unidentified and unwashed pottery sherds found under the stairs or stuffed under the sink in the second floor kitchenette! Luckily, I was able to enlist the help of our county Finds Liaison Officer, Ciorstaidh Trevarthen, who sorted through various groups of black burnished ware, medieval and post-medieval fragments and who was able to isolate a type she had not encountered before which was probably made locally and which she dubbed “Sherborne Beige Ware”.

Something that particularly intrigued me was the “Pottery Workshop, location unknown” labels that kept cropping up; eventually I gathered together from various boxes one single box of artefacts that I felt reasonably confident were associated with this designation. Several groups of sherds were numbered but had no recorded information. Some handwritten labels had pencilled on them “donated by C. Bean?” which led me to think that the pottery might have come from near the Old Castle as Charles E. Bean had carried out a number of excavations there in the 1930s. Some of the pottery was found in a box with pieces of Ham Hill stone labelled “15th century fireplace” and a loose card stating “found in ash-filled pit NW corner”.

15th Century Fireplace, Beckett Room

15th Century fireplace

I was puzzling over all this when I happened to glance through a report of excavations carried out at Sherborne Abbey 1964-73 by Jim Gibb entitled “The Anglo-Saxon Cathedral at Sherborne”. This described a series of digs by Sherborne School pupils under the direction of Jim Gibb and John Leach in the area west of the Abbey church and inside the west cloister range looking for evidence of the pre-Conquest structure. The words “late 15th century Ham Hill stone fireplace” caught my eye and, while reading the whole paragraph regarding a 1967 dig under the Beckett Room (where the School archives are currently kept),  the various pieces of the jigsaw fell into place:

“… a brief mention of the finds of later periods would be appropriate. The removal of the 19th century dado on the west wall uncovered 6 ft. of the south jamb…and also a fine late 15th century Ham Hill stone fireplace (Fig.3d), much mutilated. Some time in the first half of the 17th century the room had been used as a pottery. We uncovered: a cobble area and drain, post-holes of what had probably been a bench, a trough dug into the floor, lined with large flat stones with charcoal lying on its plain earthenware tiled floor. Mr. Kenneth Hudson identified the trough as a device for drying newly-turned pots before firing. Half the 15th century fireplace had been removed and a raised platform with a semi-circular back of burned stones in front of the fireplace probably formed the base of a bee-hive kiln. Many fragments of pottery, some not fired, were uncovered and, with the trough, are now in the Sherborne Museum”.

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Diagram (my labelling) of the Beckett Room excavation showing features of pottery workshop (1967)

In the accompanying diagram, a burned depression was also found in the vicinity (the north wall of the NW transept) and many of the sherds accompanying the fireplace fragments are black and sooty. It seems that the fireplace had been converted to heat the kiln, the cobbled area may have been the site of the potter’s wheel and that the pottery shop remained in existence for about a generation. I contacted our President, Katherine Barker, on the subject and she commented: “yet another short term use of the former monastic range after its Dissolution”. Although I have not come across anything so far resembling a “trough” lining, it is very satisfying that the story of these pottery fragments can be told and that they can finally be placed into a context which gives them meaning.

Raising the roof!

Charles Louwerse, local architect and the museum’s Building Officer, talks about some of the recent repairs to our Grade II listed premises.

Minor inconvenience to pedestrians in Church Lane, wonderful piece of scaffold art, climbing frame for alcohol-emboldened lads? No! The scaffold outside the museum was the platform for museum roof repairs, which are now complete.

The roof has had minor leaks over the past 10 years. An insulating foam had been used by a previous owner to both insulate and secure the tiles, and this was holding water within the roof structure which, in the long-term, would destroy the roof. So for a long time it’s expensive repair has been planned.

roof 7 (1)

Neil and his team of roofers have removed the old roof and replaced it with new tiles and have insulated the roof. Unfortunately, the spray-on insulation rendered the old tiles unusable; the new clay ones, however, will soon gain the patina of age! So this new roof should last as long as the previous one, with minimal maintenance requirement.

The work of art has now been removed and Church Lane is clear again until the next bit of maintenance on the neighbouring properties.

Many thanks to all directly involved and for the co-operation of those not!

Ch-ch-ch-changes…

David Mee, our outgoing Secretary, reflects on his initial experiences of Sherborne Museum and how much has changed in recent years.

Having recently retired as the secretary of Sherborne Museum Association (retired? – well, not completely) I was asked if I would like to write this blog – but where to start? Having retired from working in NHS hospitals since 1962 and moving down to Sherborne, I noticed one day in 2007 a poster in the window of Sherborne Museum, asking for volunteer stewards. I thought that sounded quite appealing, and as I had previously enjoyed working with the general public, from neonates to centenarians and from Bognor Regis to Cleethorpes I applied and was immediately put on the steward’s desk, initially with a dear old lady who was about to retire. I was OK with the small shop as I had in my early days helped my father in his sweetshop and had worked as a relief assistant at Beale’s department store in Bournemouth during three years of student vacations. I knew how to operate cash registers such as the ubiquitous National (as used by Arkwright in Open all Hours) and how to use the Lamson Paragon vacuum tube system, which consisted of miles of metal pipes covering eight floors traversed at high speed by flying shuttles (also used by Arkwright in his Derbyshire cotton mill).

By contrast, things were much simpler in the museum shop, although the layout was a little dated. The counter was an ‘S’ shaped dark blue painted wooden structure with an inserted glass display area at one end. It was rather on the high side, and when one was sitting behind it on the crippled swivel chair provided, the steward’s head, neck and shoulders could be viewed by the visitor, but not much more. I went out and bought a secondhand blue patterned cushion from a charity shop, and it remained on that chair for many years after. I was very soon allocated a regular alternate Thursday morning session of 2 hours and that put me in contact with several other volunteers at the museum – the curator, chairman, treasurer, steward administrator and researchers. Unfortunately, the secretary of some 24 years had recently died, and during my first few weeks as a steward, I was asked first of all if I would take the minutes of the museum council meetings and later whether I would organise a lottery. I declined on both – not because I couldn’t do what was asked, but I preferred to act as a steward and I thought I could probably make things a little easier for all of us.

I suggested making changes to the way we recorded museum visitors and shop sales, and after obtaining approval, and a trial run, we reduced the usage of small brown envelopes from 60 per month to just 10, and halved the use of A4 paper. We do have a strong Green Policy at the museum, and re-cycle lots of paper and cardboard. We even use pencils made of recycled material with which we record our daily activities at the stewards’ desk. Yes, DESK! We have ditched the old counter and replaced it with a proper desk (and a new swivel chair).

Miss O’Shea’s shell cabinet

Our curator, Elisabeth Bletsoe, shares one of her latest conservation projects.

Elizabeth Mary O’Shea (1910-1986) was born in Sheffield on Christmas Day, the daughter of Lucius Trant O’Shea (1858-1920) and Mary Annie Elizabeth Tindall (1875-1958). Her father Lucius was a Professor of Applied Chemistry at Sheffield University as well as a mining engineer and he made several contributions to the study of mining problems, particularly in connection with explosions and explosives. After his death, Elizabeth and her mother came to settle in Sherborne, later living at Whitely, The Avenue. Elizabeth was a founder member of the Museum and on its Council; she was also quite a collector – I have already displayed her tiny glass animals in the case in the Gardner Room reserved for other people’s passions.

Elizabeth gave several lovely things to the Museum, including the shell cabinet; perhaps this reflected her taste for the miniature. For some years past I had noticed a dusty cabinet under a weighted sheet of paper on the windowsill on the staircase leading to the top floor. I once pulled a drawer partially open and found a grubby assortment of tiny shells inside, but I hastily mentally shelved it as I knew that I could not at that point devote any real time to it. With the creation of the Natural History room, however, the cabinet became more prominent in my thoughts.  In the summer of last year I determined to restore it.

Shells 1

Detail from Miss O’Shea’s shell cabinet

I still have no real idea of its date, provenance or how it would have looked but it seemed to me that I could detect patterns and blocks of colour created by the different species. The shells were hopelessly jumbled, some were so small they had to be shifted about with tweezers, one of those impossible tasks reserved for the very wicked in Hades. Some were so coated in grime they were unrecognisable but after a careful soaking in tepid water and cleaning with an infant’s toothbrush their jewel-like colours were slowly revealed.  The shells were nested in beds of dirty cotton wooI which needed removing to discourage pests and each small compartment within the drawers had to be cleaned with a special conservation vacuum. I discovered tusk shells, jujube topshells, freshwater cowries, harp shells, periwinkles,  arc shells, dog whelks, scallops, oysters, pieces of coral, sharks’ teeth, tellins, a mermaid’s purse and some sea horses, although many are still to be identified. Most seem to come from the Atlantic coast, in a region from North Carolina to the Gulf of Mexico.

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The collection contains a wide range of shells

The box itself is interesting with a simple but attractive marquetry veneer which responded well to treatment with a beeswax polish. The whole project took around seven months and now my colleague Linda Atkinson has painstakingly lined some of the drawers with thin black Foamex which sets the shells off beautifully. She has taken some photographs and is having a couple professionally made up into greetings cards to sell in the shop. I hope now the cabinet will take its place in the Ruth Gervis (natural history) room and be newly appreciated by our visitors, now and for years to come.

Visible Storage: A Window onto our Book Collection

Elisabeth Bletsoe tells us about the concept of visible storage and how it ties in with one of our latest projects at the museum.

“Visible storage” is becoming a trendy new concept in many museums around the world, where public access is maximised and collections are revealed that are otherwise hidden from view. Most museums have only a small percentage of their artefacts on display which makes consideration of storage space and the internal conditions in which they are kept very significant. As time goes on, curators have to take into account increase in their collections as well as technology and filing systems that become obsolete.

A balance must be maintained between collections care and the need to keep visitors coming through the doors, so inventive ways of encouraging the public constantly need to be found. Visible storage is one new method of preserving collections in safe and visually stimulating environments, providing a behind-the-scenes window while maintaining conservation control. It is also a way of “democratising” the collections, making them available to all.

At Sherborne Museum, our book collection was kept behind closed doors in the small hall at the foot of the stairs; some of the volunteers themselves were not even aware of its existence. The space itself was not particularly aesthetically pleasing, with an old storage heater and a clumsy lectern for the signing-in book constantly in the way. Despite the display of 17th century spoons, it seemed to be an area to hurry through to somewhere else. We decided to reveal the book collection with some glass doors.

Elaine Taylor, our registrar, had a contact in Jamie of J. Smith Woodwork, a craftsman able to work with both wood and glass (see http://www.jsmithwoodwork.co.uk). Another volunteer, Celia Frear, reorganised and dusted the collection and also sourced professional spacers, labels and pamphlet holders. I had the heater and lectern removed and applied for a grant from the Dorset Museums Association as well as asking a local firm, Valmeira Glass, for sponsorship to which they generously agreed.

The hall space has evolved from being a wasted area into one in which it is now pleasant to linger; we have about 600 titles relating to Sherborne and Dorset to browse through and reflect upon. Although the books are not available to take away from the Museum, they can be borrowed, under supervision, for research in our workrooms on request.

Elisabeth

Cave canem: An animal incursion

In this latest post, our curator, Elisabeth Bletsoe, reveals more about one of her favourite items in the museum collections.

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One of my favourite items in the museum is the tegula, or roof tile, featuring a dog’s pawprint which you can see in the Roman case in the Gibb Gallery on the ground floor. It is surprising how many similar tiles have been recovered by archaeologists, for example at Roman sites in   Leicester, York, the Isle of Wight, Canterbury  and London, not only showing dog prints but also those of cats, sheep, foxes, goats, birds and rodents (as well as human thumb and finger prints). When a 2000 year old tile bearing the pawprints of a dog was unveiled from a Corieltauvi town house from the Blackfriars area of Leicester one correspondent commented that it must have been difficult being a Roman tile manufacturer putting up with “constant animal incursions”. The clay tiles would have been left on the ground in the open air to partially dry before being hardened off in a kiln during which time they were vulnerable to the wanderings of various creatures. It is possible, however, that the accidental marking was not perceived as a nuisance.

In the summer, a visitor approached me after seeing our tile and remarked that in Sicily, where he had a villa, pieces of dried clay with pawprints were considered lucky and were hung up from the eaves as a charm. Saltillo tiles made from clay from the riverbeds in Coahuila, Mexico, that meet with similar accidents, are also considered good luck; these tiles are isolated and placed in very visible areas on the building. In Central France, pawprints are deliberately added to the tiles and it is apparently very unlucky not to have at least one in the roof. Pawprints can be considered good luck affirmations when included in charm bracelets and they are currently popular as tattoos, symbolising the way forward or perhaps the power, swiftness or strength of the chosen animal. Dog prints in particular symbolise fidelity and friendship. I like to think that we have our own little piece of luck contained in our museum case!

Elisabeth

Behind the scenes…

In this week’s post, our data entry officer, Celia, shares her experiences of her work behind the scenes at Sherborne Museum.

The very first time I walked into Sherborne Museum it was to ask about volunteering.

celiaI had recently moved to Sherborne after years of moving around the country with my job, and usually to places that I hadn’t chosen myself. When retirement loomed, and with no roots anywhere in particular, my husband and I decided it was time that we got to choose where to live. On the way home from a holiday in the West Country, we stopped over in Sherborne, a town we had never been to before, and our decision was made. We felt we could settle here! We are now living in a village a short distance from town and are very happy with the decision we made. With some time to spare, and wanting to find practical ways of learning more about the town and the area, I thought of volunteering at the museum.

As a contrast to my previous full-time job, I now wanted something ‘behind the scenes’ where I could work free from schedules or deadlines. Working on the accessions team suits me perfectly; I normally do one morning a week, and more when I have the opportunity. I assist with logging new artefacts and maintaining the records of existing ones. There is a database which holds comprehensive details of everything that has been donated or is on loan, with its location in the museum. Alongside the day-to-day record-keeping, we’ve just started carrying out an audit of all the museum’s artefacts – a mammoth task that will keep us busy for the foreseeable future! Although everything is logged on the database, we also keep the original paper records, so we need to make sure that everything ties up and that items are properly recorded. The database allows us to search by keyword for anything that’s in the museum, and it’s really important that it is accurate so that we can search for items – to get their location, or to learn more about them. I’m fascinated by the enormous range of artefacts that the museum holds: photographs and newspaper cuttings recording Sherborne’s history, archaeological remains, clothing, toys and dolls, books, as well as important items of social history – and not everything is old; items from this century also have a historic value.

As I’m discovering, life as a volunteer at the museum is never dull, with new artefacts being donated (or discovered) all the time, new jobs and responsibilities to take on, and the opportunity to take further training through the network of Dorset museums.

Celia