The Past in the Past: Investigating the Significance of the Deposition of Earlier Objects in Later Contexts

Posted on March 11, 2020


This part of my series of posts on conference presentations, that I have filmed. This is another one from the TAG conference:

Session Info

Prehistoric and later societies’ perception of the past has received increasing attention over recent years. One practice that has received relatively little attention, however, is the association of already ‘old’ objects with later contexts, despite being noted across multiple eras (e.g. Bronze Age metalwork in Iron Age hoards or Roman artefacts in Anglo-Saxon graves). Interpretations for these items range from the discard of scrap to objects of veneration, though they may have been important tools for memorialising or, conversely, forgetting the past. Whilst some of these objects may have been heirlooms, others may have been uncovered during building or agricultural work perhaps impacting on their biography for those who redeposited them. Often the contexts in which they are deposited form significant locations in the landscape, which may in turn have their own histories and significance to past communities. Such objects thus hold interesting insights into conceptions of time and memory in the past. This session aims to bring together a range of case studies and theoretical approaches to better understand this practice across a longer temporal span.

Organisers: Matthew G. Knight (University of Exeter), Dot Boughton (University of Central Lancashire) and Rachel Wilkinson (University of Leicester/British Museum)

Days of Future Pasts: Material memories in past societies

There is growing archaeological evidence in Britain for objects deposited ‘out of time’, that are potentially many generations or even hundreds or thousands of years old at the time of their deposition. Some of these items have been dismissed as residual and the result of mere happenstance or casual appropriation, but it is increasingly apparent that many were carefully curated before being deliberately deposited by later people. This burgeoning evidence is partly the result of the enormous increase in developer-funded fieldwork, but also recent large-scale research projects that have been analysing grave good data from burials, and/or utilising more extensive programmes of radiocarbon dating and Bayesian modelling. Were these simply ‘heirloom’ objects, however, or were other more complex processes involved? This paper will examine in detail a selection of excavated examples drawn primarily from Chalcolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age Britain. Some items were recovered from more ‘formal’ settings such as burials and ritual monuments, others from more ‘everyday’ contexts, but they can be interpreted as part of complex and varied social practices of identity, memory and forgetting within past societies.

Catriona Gibson (University of Reading) and Adrian Chadwick (University of Bristol)

‘Multi-period’ Hoards from the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age in Southern Britain: Interpreting patterns and contextualising deposition

The recently discovered Vale of Wardour hoard, excavated under archaeological conditions, has invigorated a debate on ‘multi-period’ hoards in later prehistory. These often astonishing collections of objects, sometimes comprising metalwork from five or six distinct archaeological periods, have previously been under-studied and either not trusted as true depositions due to their legitimacy of or seen as anomalous and ignored. However, recent research has highlighted the potential that these hoards have in further understanding later prehistoric societies. This paper compares ‘multi-period’ hoards that appear to have been deposited in the late Bronze Age and Iron Age, and demonstrates patterns that can be used to interpret the processes behind the collection and deposition of these already ancient objects. Examples from other aspects of the late Bronze Age and Iron Age archaeology of southern Britain will be used to help contextualise and interpret ‘multi-period’ hoards.

Alex Davies (Oxford Archaeology)

Fragmentation and Reassembly in the Iron Age: Tracing the biographies of heirloom objects

The phenomenon of depositing heirloom objects is one that appears in different forms across Middle-Late Iron Age Britain. Objects such as shields, swords and cauldrons were seemingly well used over many years and sometimes curated for generations before being deposited in hoards or burials, for example. This practice raises a number of questions about the motivations behind depositing treasured objects, as well as the motivations behind curating them for such lengthy periods of time in the first place. In this paper, I will bring together evidence from Britain, also making use of Continental comparisons, to approach these questions from the perspectives of the long and visible biographies of ‘old’ Iron Age objects. Evidence for use-wear and repair will be combined with new evidence for the deliberate fragmentation and reassembly of composite objects to answer questions about why objects were curated and modified over time. I will argue that the visible biographies of old objects were important, allowing them to take on valuable mnemonic properties and making their eventual deposition all the more significant.

Helen Chittock (Oxford University)

The Antique Antique?

Relationships with the past are documented by contemporary writers during the Roman period but personal attachment to historic objects may also be inferred stylistically and through examples of depositional context. This brief paper uses items within the collections of the National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon, or reported there as a reporting site for the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS Cymru), in order to explore possible Roman (and post-Roman) attitudes to the historic. Historicity or utility? – Case studies include the Caerleon jacinth marine goddess or Nereid, possibly 2nd-3rd centuries BC; the Caerleon genius togatus figurine, deposited post- AD 317, a debased Julio-Claudian style still prevails in the late-3rd century or later; the Caerleon ‘Celtic Horse’ stud, a 4th century deposition of a similarly dated artefact but stylistically very similar to 1st century coinage – its report suggested implied survival of heirlooms; reworked antefixa from the Caerleon fortress baths and extramural area; and a seemingly intentionally deposited ‘dedicatory’ Republican denarius from the Praetorium.

Mark Lewis (National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon)

The Reuse of ‘Antiques’ in Anglo-Saxon Graves

My paper is based upon a study recognising that many societies acquired the symbols and artefacts from earlier communities for a variety of reasons, but something different was happening in the C7th in Anglo-Saxon England. At this time as Conversion Period cemeteries are being established, a number of high status burials have ancient artefacts placed within the grave. These items do not appear to be heirlooms in that they are over 100 years old so cannot be from a known relative. Whilst some items are late Roman or early Anglo-Saxon, others are much older and types of jewellery which in some cases be traced back to the Iron Age. Were these curated or items ‘won or stolen’ from earlier sites? At a different level, it is suggested that a type of Iron Age ‘safety pin’ brooch became popular at this time in the mid- 7th century. Some reasons for this will be presented.

Stephen Sherlock

Treasured possessions? Heirlooms and antiquities in Medieval coin hoards, AD c.1000- 1550

While there has been an increasing consideration of the significance of ‘old things’ in early Medieval societies, rather less attention has been paid to corresponding phenomena in the archaeology of the central and late middle ages. Despite this, it is clear from contemporary textual sources that later Medieval people were no less concerned with old objects than their forebears; account rolls and wills outline the complex trajectories of possessions handed down across generations, and law codes, court records and miracle stories reference the occasional rediscovery and reuse of earlier antiquities in the centuries approaching the Reformation. This paper reviews the use and significance of ‘old objects’ in central and late Medieval Europe through the lens of hoard evidence, considering examples from the tenth to mid-sixteenth centuries.

Murray Andrews (UCL)

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