Friday, 6 October 2017

Thanks to very generous Grants by Tidworth and Melksham Area Boards, we can now offer free History Outreach sessions and organised events for the following areas: Chute, Chute Forest, Collingbourne Ducis, Collingbourne Kingston, Enford, Everleigh, Fittleton, Ludgershall, Netheravon, Tidcombe, Fosbury, Atworth, Broughton Gifford, Bulkington, Great Hinton, Keevil, Melksham, Melksham Without, Poulshot, Seend, Semington and Steeple Ashton. We'll be investing in Local History, not just by borrowing heritage from existing organisations, but by actively seeking out Wiltshire's local history in private collections and bringing it back for the people to enjoy. In the coming weeks we'll be showcasing the items we'll be bringing into the public domain (Including German POW letters, Roman brooches and First World War letters and medals). If your organisation is based in these areas, please get in touch for more information. We are, of course, still operating all our services across England and Wales as well.

The last time this letter was seen in Melksham, it was being posted in 1945... People will be able to interact with this and many more local history items.
We're also bringing objects home from Poland, Germany and the US.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Great show at the Chilled in a Field festival

Just a quick heads up on our show at the Chilled in a Field festival in East Sussex. We're keen to bring our unique collection of interactive history to as wide an audience as possible and we're taking bookings for 2016 already. We cover all periods of British history from fossils to the Falklands and you can pick most of it up and hold it. There's no better way to learn for kids and adults alike...

No matter what the subject, we always put on great talks and demonstrations. The show really is interactive and we get people involved in mini battles, sword fights, family history and fossil identification. We're never short of new exhibits and artefacts and in 4 years of shows we've never done the same one once...

If you'd like to see us at your event, please get in touch via our facebook page:

Or call us on 07900223477

Don't forget we offer a range of other museum services including family tree research, interactive talks to groups and clubs, educational days and visits to schools, object identification and many more.

We're non-profit and totally volunteer led...

Sunday, 12 January 2014

One Mega-bite (Or, Megalodon fossils from the Miocene and Pliocene eras)

Megalodon lived throughout most of the ancient world's oceans, from 17 to 2 million years. He was approximately 60 feet long with a body mass of about 77 tonnes. In comparison a mature Great White Shark can grow up to 21 ft in length and just over 3 tonnes in weight. The difference in size can be seen below:

This lovely artefact, a tooth of the giant sea predator, is part of a large and diverse prehistory section we will be showing off this year. You can see some of the collection here: 
The Great White Shark tooth next to it looks rather piddly by comparison... Megalodon had an impressive set of gnashers: 46 front row teeth  (24 in the upper jaw and 22 in the lower). Most sharks have at least six rows of teeth, so it is thought a Megalodon had about 276 teeth at any given time. 

Evidence of these massive creatures is fairly scarce, leaving behind only their fossil teeth and (rarely) vertebrae in ancient marine sediments. Most of its body was made of cartilage which did not preserve well in ocean sediments. Megalodon evolved to feed on the giant whales which appeared as the oceans cooled during the Miocene and Pliocene eras. It is estimated that Megalodon ate about 2,500 pounds of food every day, including whales and other large fish. 

Megalodon is a “lamnoid” shark related to modern makos, porbeagles, great whites, and many extinct species. Scientists debate if Megalodon is directly related to the great white shark or if it was an evolutionary “dead-end”. Its extinction came around 2 million years ago. It is believed that during the rapid climate change of the Ice Age, there was a dramatic reduction in the number of large whales that Megalodon fed upon. This, along with competition from other predators (sharks) eventually led to its demise. Its story is one of many, from all periods of our history, that you can hear about through the museum's collection of interactive artefacts.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Shell Stock (Or, British army artillery shells during the First World War)

There are a few artefacts that the museum always managed to get out on display, no matter what the theme. They are always the most popular items, because they inspire the imagination, because they make you shudder, or because they mean something emotionally to people. These items seem to do all those things, and they are usually most popular with the kids (and their attendant dads!) They are a surprisingly unfamiliar reality behind a very familiar horror story: First World War artillery shells:

Strange Old Things museum collection

Britain was late in adopting shrapnel shells for use with the artillery, but its effectiveness was not lost on observers when it was first used in the early 19th century against the Dutch, and later against Napoleon's French army. Lieutenant Shrapnel's original design, a round ball with a fuse inside, combined the usual high explosive shell with 'canister' shot, which was basically a tin full of metal which could be loaded into a gun and fired like a giant shotgun. The design was altered again in the 1870s, but was not tested until 1914. Above we can see an example from 1916. What you are looking at is the steel shell itself, after it has been fired from a gun. The brass casing that would have surrounded it was thrown off when the shell was fired. These casings would have been everywhere during a battle, on 1 July 1916 alone, the British fired more than 250,000 shells. Tens of millions were fired during the conflict. The resultant casings were largely left to rust or recycled. Some, however, fell into the hands of some rather talented people:

Strange Old Things museum collection

These two lovely pieces are trench art vases, engraved shell casings that have been turned into funcional or decorative items. trench art has attracted a huge following in recent years. These pieces, however, are not what they appear… the casings are actually from a Mark II 6 inch BLC naval shell from the Boer war period (1899 to be exact). By 1915 the British army was rapidly depleting its stockpile of artillery ammunition and production could not keep up with demand. Any serviceable shell in storage was dragged out and re-used, these naval shell were converted to 8 inch howitzer shells. Since the shell crisis had largely ended by the end of 1916 by increased production, we can guess at a date of 1915 or 1916 for the creation of the vases. But, we're forgetting the shell itself... Our example is really very well preserved, and you can only usually get things like this from Ypres or another battlefield town (this one is from Ypres.) We know it's shrapnel because of its construction. Once fired, the brass fuse at the top was activated on a delayed timer. The fuse went off during flight, sending an explosive charge down to the bottom of the shell where, handily enough, a second larger base charge was sat waiting. The resulting detonation turned the shell into a giant airborne shotgun, which fired its cargo of steel ball-bearings down onto the heads of the soldiers in the other trench, something like this: 

Since so many of them were fired, they are not uncommon finds in Northern France and Belgium. In fact they still cause damage today, and for a long time farmers in the area used special tractors with bomb-proof steel plating on the floors. The problem with shells, especially high explosive shells, is that they really HATE being buried in mud. Over time the metal rusts, and the solid explosive material, a mixture of materials including ammonal, rots and liquifies. The liquid ammonal then starts to seep through the rusted metal and harden on the outside. For this reason, you rarely see Belgian farmers smoking on the job... I was somewhat reverent when posing for this obligatory photo!

Had to be done... I think that's an 18 pounder, by far the most common shell used by the British. This one was left by the side of the road for the French military to dispose of. It's still very much live. Actually this was probably a Canadian shell, it was found in a sector of the Ypres front manned by Canadian troops for most of the war. Battlefield debris is nowhere easier to find than this part of the world. The combination of the epic amount of material used, and the static nature of the fighting, mean the ground is literally strewn with relics even today. Because a lot of the crops are deep ones like potatoes, the farmers plough deep into the ground and drag things like this up. This is what our nice, shiny steel shell would have looked like in another life:

Next to an example recovered from the Somme battlefield, the degradation is obvious. Both are 18 pounders, and both are shrapnel shells. The one on top was probably fired in June or July 1916, its almost certainly British and it's a sad reminder of that terrible battle that claimed so many lives, and has been so controversial ever since. These are 'area weapons', indiscriminate killing machines that are designed to remove life from a given area. The barbarity of such weapons, used again to even greater effect during the second world war, eventually led to the development of more selective methods of bombing and shelling. The first laser guided munitions were used against Saddam Hussein's troops in the first gulf war, but that's for another post...

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The red right and blue... (Or, why the First World War reversed the colours of the British battle map)

Red guys are the bad guys. Blue guys are the good guys. Everyone who has seen 'star wars', or played a world conquest computer game, knows that. If you've had a look at a British or American battlefield map since the Second World War, you'll know it too. Let's have a look at an example from a recent conflict (which we may have discussed before...) The Korean War:

'Bad guys' in this case are the North Korean army and their Chinese allies, they sit to the North in the red corner. NATO is holding the blue line, further South. NATO, of course, is always blue. It's a basic map marking format that enables commanders to immediately identify friendly troops and enemy troops. Whether it is fighting in the Balkans, Afghanistan, or Africa, it is blue. NATO countries are blue even when they act independently. Britain, as a NATO country, is therefore always blue. But why blue? British troops were blue in Second World War battle maps, before NATO was formed, so that's not the reason. It hasn't always been that way. This is a map from a battle that some of you may have heard of:

Waterloo, 1815. This is a section of a lovely British army map produced at the time by "an officer of one of the regiments on the service" (courtesy of Ashley & Miles Baynton-Williams). Here, the British to the North are in Red, and Napoleon's troops to the South are Blue. Just to muddy the waters, the Prussian troops to the North East advancing from Frichmont are Green... The reasoning is fairly simple at this very early stage in map marking: British troops wore red uniforms in 1815, French troops wore blue (by and large...) Thus it made perfect sense to colour them this way. And thus, British units on maps before the First World War were always red. During the Napoleonic wars, map marking made its debut. Wellington was diligent in their production, and he had officers ride around the countryside and produce drawings of the enemy positions in fine detail. The red vs blue tradition stuck, as we can see in this later map:

In 1843 the British fought two battles against the Mahrattas in India, at Maharajpoor and Punniar. British forces can be seen in Red again here, but I'm fairly certain the Indian forces never wore blue... By this time the tradition of 'our' forces in red and the enemy in blue had been established. Red was intrinsically the colour of the British empire. This worked fine when it was one army against another, but in 1854 the British took part in one of its rare coalition wars, allied to France and Turkey in the Crimean war. Things might have got confusing. In fact, Lord Raglan who commanded British forces (and who had served against the French during the Napoleonic war), insisted on referring to the Russians as 'The French' during the campaign. The French, still in Blue, were now friendly forces. So what colour should the enemy be this time? It was colourfully concluded like this:

On this British sketch map of the 1854 battle of Alma, the British right wing remains red, the left wing comprising the French and Turkish allies have been made blue (red right and blue!). Russian troops to the North have not been assigned a colour. If we look at this map compared to the previous examples at Waterloo and Maharajpoor, it is less clear exactly where enemy and friends are on the battlefield. This issue was not addressed again until the British and French next fought alongside each other, this time against Germany during the First World War. The French had always had the same idea, and began map marking at the same time as Britain (i.e. when they were at war with each other). For this reason, on historic French maps the friendly forces are blue, and the enemy are red. There were a series of discussions on the issue, and both sides wanted the colours to be the same for everyone, otherwise maps could not really be used interchangeably. So close was the co-operation between the British and French during the First World War, and so important was the staff work and planning, it had to be settled quickly. The French, being the dominant partner in 1916, won the day. Goodies are Blue and badies are Red. When the American forces arrived in 1917, they naturally adopted the same colours. In fact a similar red/blue divide had existed for them too: during the American civil war those were the colours of the two sides on most military maps of the day. When Britain and France fought again in the Second War, the colours had been set, and since the Western powers formed the backbone of NATO, blue remained a friendly colour. Helpfully, NATO has spent most of its time planning to oppose Soviet Russia, who can be no other colour but red on a map.

A simple detail with a rich history. The very essence of what we try to achieve at the mobile museum... 

Saturday, 7 December 2013

You've got mail! (Or... British personal armour from chain-mail to the First Gulf War)

We are rapidly building up our collection of period military uniforms in the museum for next year's season. They really are an eye-catcher and because most of them are fully interactive, they are among our most popular items. This set is no exception:

Our period set of First Gulf War uniform and respirator has been on display before, but it has been given a new lease of life with the addition of a number of other uniforms to the museum's display. We can now display the development of uniform and kit from the medieval period to modern wars, ending with this set which includes the following:

Mark    Mark 6 Combat Helmet

    19     S10 Personal Respirator   

    E      Enhanced Combat Body Armour (ECBA) in Desert pattern DPM

The first Gulf conflict, fought by a UN coalition against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, was the first notable kinetic war fought by a western coalition since the Korean War. It had been 10 years since British Forces had last deployed. Waged in defence of Kuwait after an Iraqi invasion, the conflict was the first true ‘media war’, and received extensive unfiltered coverage. It was also the testing ground for a lot of new technology, including the first use of body armour, and improved gas masks (respirators). It also saw Patriot missiles used for the first time and was an early testing ground for guided missile technology, which dominates modern warfare.

This set of clothes dates from that conflict, and it's intriguing to see plate armour return to warfare for the first time since the Medieval period, here in the form of ceramic and kelvar as opposed to plate metal. The technological battle in medieval europe between armour and armour-piercing technology at the individual soldier's level is being repeated in modern conflicts. Below, we see it's first incarnation:

Chain-mail had been industrially produced for professional armies since the rise of the Roman empire, but it tool on new urgency in the high medieval period. The English archers, the scourge of Anglo-French battlefields, were the first real armour-piercing specialist troops and as new technologies like field artillery came of age, armour struggled to keep up. Eventually heavy plate armour superseded chainmail, just as larger ceramic plates have recently replaced kelvar vests in Afghanistan. Let us not forget that between the English civil war and the Falklands war, British troops wore no armoured protection of any sort. We see once again military developments come full circle. Ultimately, the fundamentals of war do not change very much for the soldier or the scientist...  

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Roman Villas in Britain (A series of interactive talks)

Good evening everyone, my name’s Ben, I’m from a charity called Strange Old Things, which is a Mobile MuseumThose of you following this thread on FB, please stick with it there's lots more new material here, or scroll down to the first picture. It’s a fully functional museum collection, except its homeless and lives in a tent. This allows the museum to travel to pretty much anywhere, and we take it out to schools, local community events,  and now here to you. It’s not-for-profit and we rely entirely on donations. Our favourite donations are not cash, but strange old things. We get a lot of people donating mystery or collectable items to the museum, which helps keep the collection fresh, and takes us in new directions. The museum covers the whole span of Britain’s glorious history, from the stone age to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This week has been all about Roman Britain, since our series of talks on life in Roman Britain kicked off in July with an interactive lecture on life in a Roman villa. So we’re going to be looking at that here and we’re going to do it the way this museum does everything; through interaction with our period artefacts. These items are all genuine Roman pieces In 'real life' this is totally interactive, that’s the whole idea behind a mobile museum. Archaeology in Roman Britain is not about studying the past, but studying what is left of the past. As in many periods of history, it is the rich and powerful whose stories have survived, the ordinary men and women, farmers labourers, soldiers, are largely lost to us. 

The place we’re talking about today is a Roman Villa, a large country house inhabited by a local dignitary in around the 4th Century AD. He would have lived there with his wife and children, employed a number of craftsmen and possessed a number of slaves. The land under his control was extensive, and much of it was farmed for profit. These were important people, but they were not the rulers of the land. Local administrators were appointed by the governor, who was selected by the emperor. It was a job, albeit an important one. The men who lived in these villas were making a life for themselves here.
Built of stone and cement, the roof would have been tiled. Tiles are a fairly common find, they were mass produced and sourced either locally or across the channel in Gaul. They look very much like modern tiles in fact the design hasn’t changed since the ancient Greeks. You can tell Roman tiles apart, they tend to be a bit bigger than modern examples, and they show the wear and tear of time. If you feel the surface its pitted and worn. We have many examples, most come from Carleon in Wales, which was once the Roman settlement of Isca, one of the largest garrison towns.

Villas were often co-located with garrisons, and the army barracks gradually evolve into farming buildings as the military moves on. When the Romans wanted to extend their influence somewhere, they would send in traders and diplomats first, to spread the material benefits of empire and sign alliances, then the military would follow and build camps, then land owners and settlers would follow that and turn the abandoned garrison buildings into homesteads.

Food, like most other commodities would have been plentiful most of the time. There is evidence of some villa compounds falling on hard times, but by and large they prospered and items like these would have been an everyday sight. There are two types of pottery that you tend to find in this area, Samian ware is the first. It’s quintessentially Roman, produced in Roman kilns mainly in Gaul and was the same all over the empire. It was always this colour and came in a variety of standards of quality.

This is a fragments from a small dish found in Carthage in North Africa. It’s a great example of what we call ‘Fineware’, which would have been used on special occasions for parties and to impress guests. 

Something a bit different is this fineware dish sherd which was found in Grateley, where there was a fortification from the 2nd century onwards, evidently the area followed the usual pattern of becoming a villa complex. Romans were obsessed with image, far worse than we are today. The road to political power was one that every aristocratic Roman was expected to follow, and they spend vast sums of money on it. Showing off was an important part of building a reputation. Gaining high office was an expensive affair, and you wouldn’t get sponsors if people didn’t think you had money to throw around. Romans never made anything just because it looked pretty, it always had a purpose. We’ll see that fact reflected in all the items here as we work through them. 

This is something quite different. It’s called Greyware, and again it’s relatively common in this part of the world. All these examples are local Wiltshire finds. Greyware was not Roman, but British, it was produced locally and independently of Roman kilns. It was adopted by the Romans on their arrival here, to fill the constant demand for storage and transportation vessels. The empire consumed pot amphorae by the ton, there is a hillock in Central Rome over 200ft high that is composed entirely of discarded Olive Oil amphorae. This is courseware, which differs from fineware in that it was used for cooking and serving, not for show. The decoration is quite subtle but it’s not overly fancy. If you hold them in your palms, you can see how large these containers would have been. A lot of Roman pottery was glazed. While this looks very attractive, again the purpose is a practical one. Glazed pot is much easier to clean, so it’s a lot more hygienic.

So what do these fragments tell us? You can actually tell a lot about a site from the size of the fragments you recover. Larger fragments like these have usually been broken by accident or over time, they tell the story of abandonment rather than violence. Rome knew it’s days in Britain were numbered in the 4th Century, it was too difficult to fortify and it wasn’t regarded as enough of a priority to defend. So when they left, it was done relatively orderly and their immediate successors the Saxons really just followed them and occupied the settlements they abandoned. Compare that with some of our tiny Mediterranean fragments, which are typical of the type recovered from some of the islands, and there is a clear difference; i.e. they look like they’ve been to a Greek wedding. They are clearly smashed. We have fragments from Majorca, which was brutally sacked by Vandals in 4th c AD, the original vandals of history were a nomadic race and who hated city dwellers. Other items are from Kurion which was destroyed by an earthquake, also in the 4th c. The small fragments tell of drama, not decline. Britain’s fate was typically more sedate and understated, but no less interesting.

So what was Pottery like before the Romans arrived? Well, largely rubbish I’m afraid. 

This is an example of, probably late iron age pottery, hand decorated. Because Iron age communities lived in isolation there was never the mass produced fineware of Roman culture. But, as I look at this item, I actually prefer it to the Roman pieces. As you hold this, and look at the decorations, you can easily imagine someone with a wet clay bowl, and a stick, making a random pattern like this. And it was just to make it look more attractive. So what we have here is probably Iron Age fineware from a very ordinary family. But it looks Roman doesn’t it? It’s like a poor imitation. Well, it is. By the 3rd and 2nd C BC, Roman pottery was making its way to Britain, not necessarily fineware, but as containers for things like wine and olive oil which the empire traded for raw materials. Everyone knew what Rome was, and many people sought to imitate the empire at a local level in Britain. And of course, many more had an eye on the future, they knew Rome would eventually be on the doorstep, and they wanted to appear pro-Roman by adopting some if the culture, so they would be good allies.

Villas were a great place to see Roman technology at work, which was probably more important to them than their artistic work. It was, after all, technology that won wars, not pretty dishes. Roman engineering is rightly famed for its ingenuity, but only the wealthy could take full advantage. These tile fragments are sections of flutes that formed a central heating system for villas. They were arranged into square pipes that ran inside the walls and under the floor, terminating in an outhouse in which a large fire was lit. The resulting warm air was circulated through the piping, heating the house.
The tile on the left is from West Sussex, 4th C. The scouring on the reverse of this fragment would have helped it stick to the wall. Traces of the original mortar can still be seen. The tile on the Right is from Dorset, 3rd C. A maker’s mark can be seen on this section, which may have been an indication of how the tiles were to be put together once assembled on site. Explain. Now and then, if you get lucky, you can see a maker’s make of a known potter or painter. Some of these artists followed the rich settlers as they took land in the wake of the Roman invasion, and their marks can be seen at a number of sites. If you plot these sites on the map, you can tell where the individual was employed, so you can follow his career through the country. It’s one way of trying to piece together what was happening and when, there is still a lot of confusion about where the Romans were, and in what numbers. Villas can help us to work out the centres of activity in the country.

Terracotta mosaic floor tiles are another nice example, our examples are from c. AD 300 and were found in Norfolk. Mosaics are an instantly recognisable Roman thing. Again, they were a sign of wealth, and again they had a practical purpose. In the same way that glazed pot is easier to wash, mosaic floors are easier to keep clean, it discourages rats and the like. Not all mosaics were masterpieces. You can often use the quality of mosaics to track the highs and lows of a family’s fortunes. There’s a brilliant section in Silchester villa, which is a large geometric pattern, with dolphins at each corner, but the artist has got it wrong, so the bottom right dolphin is squished up next to the wall, looks more like a tadpole!

Another common sight in the Roman world were brooches. Very decorative, but again let’s not forget these were functional items. In fact, what you’re looking at here is the world’s first safety pin. It was used to fasten clothing together. Except of course, these are not the first. Civilisation in Britain did not begin with the Romans. 

This is an Iron Age brooch from Wiltshire. Its 3rd C BC, so a few centuries before the Romans. The design is called La Tene, and was distinctively ‘Celtic’ not Roman. And is this not just as beautiful as anything the Romans were making? Let’s go forward to the Post Roman world, this is an Anglo Saxon Cross Potent brooch, again it’s distinctively Saxon, not Roman. So in terms of style and craft, it didn’t begin and end with Rome. Brooches are brilliant, because they reflect the styles of the time. Brooches from the 1st Century are different to the 2nd, which are different to the 3rd, so you can use these finds to date the habitation of a villa. Jewellery was important to Romans, again as a symbol of wealth, and it wasn’t just the rich who were concerned, it was really every Roman citizen. The whole culture constantly re-enforced the idea that you should always seek to better yourself. So when ordinary Romans wore jewellery, they made sure it was of a design that others would appreciate. We have beads of semi-precious stones, coral, glass and bone. It’s the sort of everyday item that perhaps the wives of scholars or craftsmen would have worn, people who would have lived in or around the villa and served the lord of the manor. And just like today, there would have been fashions, so emeralds for example would have been in last year, but unfashionable this year.

Some of our more fragile items are glass. These are nice pieces. Amazing that they survive at all. These are the rims and handles of Glass containers, jugs or cups probably. An interesting aside, the Romans used cups like we do, but in Jewish tradition they used dishes to drink out of, called Graels. This is what the Jews originally meant when they talked about the Holy Grail, but the Romans mis-understood. So the holy grail is actually a Dish and not a cup. Anyway, Glass cups. They are not clear like modern glass. It’s a combination of different colours and some of these have been painted as well. Today, if you have coloured glass it’s a sign of wealth, a bit fancy for a special occasion or decoration. In Ancient Rome it was the opposite. Clear glass was not invented for 100s of years after coloured glass, and it was an expensive luxury. Coloured glass was much more common. Again, this is a message. Having these nice things was like having a sign up in your house saying ‘I’m rich, and important’.

One of my favourite items is an Intaglio (engraved gemstone) ring from Didcot, Oxfordshire. c. AD 1st – 3rd C. Jewellery was not restricted to women as it is today. Although I think more men wear jewellery today than women. Men wore rings, they wore necklaces, they wore brooches, and again these things were a sign of status and power. And there was nothing more manly than power in ancient Rome. And, once again, We see the Romans with a very pretty, but ultimately practical item. This ring would have been engraved with a mark to signify the owners seal, and probably it was used to mark letters or official documents. Most finds like this are found by metal detectors, or by field walkers. In parts of the UK there was so much Roman habitation that ploughs regularly drag things like this to the surface, and they can be picked up off the soil. Many of the pot sherds were found this way. It’s a very useful way of identifying an area that might have contained Roman settlements or buildings.

Our talks continue throughout August and September with a look at a 'Legionaries diary', the life and experiences of the Roman army told through the eyes of a single Legionary based in Britain during the 3rd C. 

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Brooching the subject...(Or, The Celts, La Tene and mythology)

The term 'Celts' is a much used phrase. It neatly sums up a race that we are very familiar with from mythology. Unfortunately, there is little history to follow the myth. Who were the 'Celts'? Well, nobody unfortunately. It's a catch-all phrase to group together many disparate and unique ethnicities and tribes, but it loosely covers the inhabitants of pre-Roman Britain, and especially Ireland. Even though the people in Ireland had nothing at all to do with the people in Pre-Roman Britain...

So why 'Celts'? Is this a Roman thing? Not really, the Romans talked about the 'Britons' but they meant the tribes inhabiting the South of modern England, not Ireland, Scotland or Wales so much. Their catch-all term was 'barbarian' which applied to anyone who didn't speak Latin. The phrase was actually Greek in origin, a 'barbarian' was someone who didn't speak Greek (i.e. his language was gibberish to Greek ears and sounded like 'bar bar bar'.) Ironically, Greeks once applied the term to the native inhabitants of Italy, including the Romans themselves.

So why 'Celts'? Well, here is why:

In the 3rd Century BC, a powerful cultural force swept through the peoples of Northern Europe. It seems to have had as its epicentre a small but rich settlement on the banks of a Swiss lake. It is known to have traded with the Mediterranean world. It has come to be called 'La Tene'. La Tene is an elusive concept, but at its heart it's an artistic movement that influenced the development of even the most basic items, like this lovely bronze brooch from around the 2nd Century BC found in Wiltshire. Its flowing lines, loops and zoomorphic styles have come to define what we think of as 'Celtic', but we have assigned it a race of its own, and a fairly strict geographic location. We should not. La Tene was more like the hippy revolution of the sixties than a group of people. And who knows what people in 2,000 years time will make of that...

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Archaeology Show at Old Sarum this Saturday and Sunday.

Come and see the museum at the Archaeology Show at Old Sarum this Saturday and Sunday. 

We'll be showcasing some new material, including the Neolithic flint working study group seen below. There will also be a collection of Roman coins, and some recent battlefield finds from the First World War.

Neolithic people were more cultured and skilled than many people think. As well as creating a range of tools, they crafted jewellery and statuettes and engaged in trade and religious activity.

This collection explores the process of ‘flint knapping’, where everyday tools were made from locally found flint. These items are from West Surrey and date to c. 10,000 BC

Monday, 22 July 2013

eye, claudius... (or, roman slave tatoos)

I have seen quite a few Latin tattoos recently. Some lamentably mis-spelt... In fact I read one newspaper describe them as 'Roman tattoos'. No, no no no.... Tattoos did exist in the Roman world, but for quite a different purpose. To paint one's body was really very 'barbarian'. the term 'Picts' to describe the Scots comes from the Northern tribes' habit of tattooing and painting pictures on their bodies. Romans would have no such thing! Tattoos were, however, a useful was of marking one's property and there was no greater commodity that slaves. Various tattoos were invented, perhaps the most famous and tragic was 'FVG' which was stamped above the eye of a slave (having no letter 'U' the Romans used 'V' instead, so it read FUG) and stood for FUGITIVUS. Unsurprisingly, this meant FUGITIVE. Thus, if a slave ever escaped, he would automatically be identified as a runaway and handed in. Other motifs were used in the East, where the trade flourished, and there were markers which essentially meant 'Tax Paid' which were also stamped onto the skin of slaves. A brutal reminder of the dehumanisation of entire races in the ancient world. Roman's didn't just decorate pottery you know... 

A note on the Suez War (Or, British Armed Forces Bank Notes 3rd issue)

After the end of the Second World War, the British army decided it was rather unwise to ship large amounts of hard cash into hostile environments abroad. From 1946 onwards, they began to issue their own banknotes that could be spend by soldiers in the canteen and later the NAAFI (Navy, Army, Air-force Institute). They were only redeemable at British army shops by British soldiers, so it was pointless to try and steal them. There were 6 issues (including a very rare 5th issue which seem only to have been released in tiny numbers). Well done if you have one of those, they are worth a mint! But, as usual, at the Mobile Museum we measure value in terms of interest. So my favourite of them all is this one:

Wonderful. It's third series, which was issued in 1956 for the Suez War, a much under-studied and forgotten war. You rarely see anything in terms of artefacts turn up for this conflict, so I'm very chuffed that we have this. In fact, the Suez War is a key conflict in our 'Helping History' project (find out more on our website: Anyway, this note was one of four that we were very kindly given mid-show at a WW1 exhibition we did for a Armed Forces event on July 17th. £1 was the highest denomination available in this series.


Rather a fiasco I'm afraid. Perhaps why it has been swept under the bulging carpet of forgotten fights. Basically in July 1956 Egypt rather rudely decided to nationalise the Suez canal, lifeblood of European trade from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean. Without the canal, you have to sail all the way around Africa, which quickly becomes tiresome. Nasser, the Egyptian President, was a bit too cosy with the Communist powers for Britain's liking, who teamed up with France and Israel to launch an invasion. Despite achieving the limited military objectives, the attack was almost universally condemned as a quasi-imperialist venture (which it probably was) and pressure from the USSR and US forced the occupation to end. Israel, who gained concessions elsewhere, was really the only net winner. The war was not popular in Britain, and cost the Prime Minister, Eden, the next election.


To this day British Forces use the same principal to manage hard currency in operational environments. Although the Dollar is the near-universal currency on Allied camps in Afghanistan, bizarre little cardboard tokens have been issued as small change substitutes. They are affectionately known as 'pogs' after the '90s collectors game. But they're not nearly as pretty...   

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Helping History: Forgotten Fights

The museum is beginning an oral history project to explore aspects of Britain's forgotten conflicts. For the next year, we will be collecting personal memories from veteran's lesser known wars by email, interview and snail mail. I will be fascinated to learn what men thought of the mission in Aden, how the jungles of Malaysia became home, what Northern Ireland was really like during the troubles. I hope it will interest you as well.

If you have a story to tell, or if you know someone who might be interested in sharing with us, please let us know. The recollections will be posted throughout the year on this blog, on our Facebook page, on twitter and via the website and, of course, they will be displayed at the museum's shows. We can post anonymously as well.

Help history and keep the past alive.

Monday, 12 November 2012

A Blyth Comment (Or, The 1908 India General Service Medal with Afghanistan NWF 1919 clasp)

It's my new favourite thing. A lovely item, and for a number of reasons. Before we start, behold:

The 1909 issue of the India General Service Medal with the Afghanistan NWF (North West Frontier) 1919 clasp. The medal was awarded for the dubious honour of having served on the frontiers of India. In 1919 that meant the North West Frontier, which was India's border with Afghanistan. In 1919 Afghanistan was doing a lot better than it is now, and Britain a lot worse. Having suffered British interference for years, the Afghans took the opportunity of Britain's destitution after the War to launch an invasion. Given the current conflict, the idea of Afghanistan invading the British Empire may seem almost amusing now,  but Charles Blyth, who was the recipient of this medal, would not have been laughing. But we are ahead of ourselves, because we know more about Charles Blyth than is revealed by this medal.
This item was part of a private collection in Denmark. it was bought, perhaps ironically, by a member of the Danish military who had served in Afghanistan. Luckily for us, he did a lot of the research about Charles and his story is fascinating.
Charles Blyth was born in 1884 in Marsham, Norfolk. The son of Joshua Blyth, a farm labourer, Charles enlisted into the militia in 1901 and served in the Royal Field Artillery. He was married in 1905, extended his service and was due for release in 1913. 1913 was not a good time to be finishing one's military career... in 1914 Charles was enlisted in the regular army and served in Northern France and the Middle East. He was invalided to India in 1918. 1918 was not a good time to be re-cuperating in India... Charles, now a Sgt, fought in the third Afghan was and was awarded the medal we see here. That is some epic 'wrong place, wrong time' and coupled with a bout of syphilis in 1905, he may be the unluckiest soldier to have his story told in our museum...

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Try not to be a Boer... (Or World War One trench art that is not what it appears to be)

Almost universally recognisable, trench art has attracted a huge following in recent years and always commands considerable prices at auction, even given the amount currently on the market. But that should not concern us. The real appeal of trench art is the personal touch; its provenance. Each piece is, by its nature, unique having been carefully crafted from mundane items of kit or munitions available to the soldier at the time. That is why these pieces are not what they appear… On the surface this pair, although very well executed, are not particularly interesting. We know nothing about their origin, they are not engraved with any information, we do not even know the conflict (although we always guess at either the First or Second world wars). These items have a better story to tell, however. If we unscrew the shell itself[1] we can have a look at the head stamp. Where trench art is not engraved, the head stamps can reveal a lot of information, especially when more than one piece of ammunition has been used.

Firstly, the letter ‘N’ stands out. N denotes that the shell was a naval shell so we are presented with an oddity; is this naval trench art? No. Because we have a date of 31 7 99. This is just what it looks like, the 31st of July 1899. What we have is a Mark II 6 inch BLC naval shell from the Boer war period. Both these items are the same type of shell, the other has a date of 1904. By 1915 the British army was rapidly depleting its stockpile of artillery ammunition and production could not keep up with demand. Commanders were now aware that cavalry could not achieve a breakthrough on the Western front and were convinced that they could batter the enemy aside with artillery instead. Any serviceable shell in storage was dragged out and re-used, these naval shell were converted to 8 inch howitzer shells. The red paint on our 1899 example shows that they were re stamped for use as mark VII ammunition. Clearly, although originating at different times, both these shells ended up being fired during the same action, and subsequently being made into vases during a quiet period. Unfortunately, we will never know why or by whom. But since the shell crisis had largely ended by the end of 1916 by increased production, we can guess at a date of 1915 or 1916 for the creation of the vases. It's as simple as that...

[1] Which you can sometimes do with ease with items like this, it’s always worth trying. Take great care, of course, not to damage the item.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Nazi piece of work... (Or, Operation Market Garden and Nazi medal and badge souvenirs)

Many people are fascinated, nay obsessed, with relics from the Third Reich. I am not one of them. So why I am I posting about a set of Nazi war medals and Badges? Well, Ill tell you. It would hardly be fair otherwise... First, as is traditional and only sensible, let's take a look:

Ok, fair enough, they do look pretty cool. What are they? Firstly, let's talk about what they are not. They are not about neo-nazism or the modern right or any of that nonsense. They are pieces of history. On the left is an Order of the Iron Class, 2nd class. It's probably the most instantly recognisable foreign historic medal ever issued. The date at the is 1939, but it was first issued in 1813 for service against Napoleon's French army. If you have one of those you can pretty much name your price. It was re-issued for the Franco-Prussian war in 1871, again for WW1 and a final time for WW2 when it was raised to the honour of an 'order' by hitler. The WW2 issues are the most common, they were issued out like biscuits towards the end of the war to try and boost morale. Biscuits may have been more useful... How do we know it's a 2nd class and not a 1st class? The ribbon. i.e. it has one; the 1st class awards had pins. To its right is a 25 year faithful service medal, similar to the British Long Service and Good Conduct, LSGC (or, Long Service and didn't Get Caught!). It is what is it, fairly unusual though. Right again and were back to the early Reich with a 1934 Bremen assembly march badge, quite a scarce little thing. That's Hitler's ugly mug, its fairly self explanatory. Right again, and rarer still, a Kreigsmarine (German Navy) officer's breast eagle. Ignore the coins... Yes, the labels are wrong, we've had a re-assessment and corrections have been made before you ask!

Question is, what are they doing in the museum, and what had Market Garden got to do with it?

Oddly enough, these items belonged to a British soldier. But they hadn't always... In 1944 1st army was advancing into Holland. It was part of the Ground element of the offensive (the 'Garden' bit). Within its ranks was 72 Regt RA, a Light Anti-Aircraft Artillery regiment. Troops from one its batteries, 262, would see heavy fighting at Son bridge. During the fight, a number of German POWs were taken, including men drafted in from the Kreigsmarine manning coastal defences. These items were swapped for cigarettes by the war-weary troops. And that is why they have a place here. This set of items is not about the Third Reich, or Market Garden, its about that moment in 1944 when two opposing soldiers made an exchange of items as two ordinary men. The items may be rare, but the story is priceless. 

Saturday, 6 October 2012

I don't mean to medal, but... (Or, World War Two campaign medals and stars)

This is what I lovingly refer to as our 'Top row'. It's a collection of (very nearly) all the campaign stars and medals from the Second World War. Despite the wealth of literature on the web, a lot of people ask about these medals, so here is a post from the mobile museum's 'World at War' section. A lot of information can be taken from a medal set. Unfortunately, unlike WW1, the medals are not named. But still, what set your family member has will still tell you a story. Lets start from the Left and work across:
The Defence Medal
The Defence Medal was awarded for non-operational service. This type of service was usually in the UK and included those service personnel working in HQ or on training bases and airfields and members of the Home Guard. Home Guard service counts between the dates of 14 May 1940 and 31 December 1944. 1080 days was the qualifying criteria. The Medal was also awarded for non-operational service overseas, for example in India or South Africa, where the qualifying length of service was shorter. The most common medal ever issued, the ribbon is said to represent the green fields of Britain, the blackout and the fire of the Blitz.
The War Medal
Perhaps the second most common, this was the award for 28 days minimum service with the armed forces, anywhere in the world. Like the Defence medal, it is cupro-nickel (the Canadian issue is silver). Anyone who had a campaign star automatically qualified, so if your family member has a star, they were entitled to this aswell. 
The Voluntary Medical Services Medal
Not a government issued medal, but one that turns up fairly regularly. It was awarded by the British Red Cross and the Scottish St Andrew's ambulance Corps in 1932 after direction from King George V. It often accompanies the Defence or War medal in a set belonging to VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) personnel providing field nursing services at home and abroad.
The Italy Star 
For 1 or more days' service in Sicily or Italy between 1943-5, and in the Balkans for various set dates. In the main an Army star, but Navy and RAF personnel involved in combat operations also qualified. 
The Burma Star 
For 1 or more days' service in Burma between 1941 and 1945. The ribbon, dark blue overlaid with a central red stripe, represents the Commonwealth Forces with two narrow stripes of orange to symbolise the sun. The design, in common with all the campaign stars, are said to have been designed by George VI personally.
The Africa Star
1 or more days' service in North Africa or Malta between 1940 and 1943, when the campaign was brought to a successful conclusion. Service with 8th or 1st army will qualify recipient for the relevant clasp.
The Pacific Star
A more elusive medal, this is for service on between 1941-2 in Singapore or Malaya, or at sea until 1945. A disastrous land campaign which saw Singapore fall to the Japanese was none the less the scene of some intense and brave actions. The ribbon is wide central stripe of green bisected by a central narrow yellow stripe to represent the forests and beaches of the Pacific, flanked by one stripe of dark blue and one of light blue with red edges to represent the three services. It is worn with the dark blue stripe furthest from the left shoulder.
the Atlantic Star 
This star could only be awarded after the 1939-45 star (see below). 180 days' additional service at any time between 1939-45 as ships crew (Royal Navy or Army) in Home Waters or the Atlantic was required. RAF air crew qualified after an additional 60 days service in an operational unit (having taken part in operations against the enemy at sea).
1939-45 Star
The most common star, it was awarded for 180 days service anywhere in the world between 1939-45 (although the period was shortened to a single day in some areas at certain times). RAF air crew qualified after 60 days service in an operational unit. Air crew of fighter aircraft engaged in the Battle of Britain between 10 July and 31 October 1940 were awarded the Clasp 'Battle of Britain'.
The France and Germany Star
Star awarded for 1 or more days' service in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands or Germany 1944-45. Naval personnel could qualify with service in the English channel and North Sea.
The Territorial Efficiency Medal 
In a WW2 medal group, this signifies the recipient was a member of the Territorial Army at the start of the war. It replaced the Territorial Force Efficiency Medal in 1921, and was in turn replaced by the Efficiency Medal. 12 years service were required, but wartime counts as double, so anyone with this medal had to have been in the TA in Sept 1937 at the latest. 

I hope this helps, we always welcome questions/queries about medals you have and need help identifying. They can be helpful in starting the process of digging into your family history. I am, of course, missing the Aircrew Europe Star and for that I can only apologize. 60 days operational service on top of the 180 days needed for the 1939-45 star allowed personnel, almost exclusively of the RAF to gain this medal for service over Europe from UK bases. Why is it missing? Have you seen what they go for?! If anyone has this medal, the museum would be VERY grateful...

For more information, the MOD operates an extensive database:    

Friday, 13 July 2012

Remains to be seen (Or: Displaying our ancestors)

I was quenching my cultural thirst last week at a beautiful museum ( I won't say which one, because I'm about to criticise it!) and having a lovely time. I happened, however, upon the oddest thing. In a glass display case, about the size of a small TV, and lit with a bright spotlight, was a pile of bones. A skull, some ribs, a femur and part of a spine were parts I could make out. A sign accompanied the display which read along the lines of 'these are the remains of a prehistoric man. We treat the remains with the care and dignity they deserve'.

'Care' is a curatorial task, clearly the bones were well preserved and secure etc. Dignity? Heaped in a pile in a glass box with a spotlight and gawped at by passing tourists? Im not sure that qualifies as any sensible definition of dignified. Its certainly not how I would like to end up, and I am the most likely person alive to want to be displayed in a museum! I wouldn't want that now, in 10 years, or in 10,000 years. Many museums do this, and it is becoming a controversial point. No less a giant than the British museum recently returned two ash bundles to Tasmania for traditional burial, and quite rightly too.

There are two sensibilities that are offended here. Firstly, our own understanding of how to treat a corpse seems sharply at odds with the practices that we enjoy seeing at museums. But perhaps more importantly, the individuals 'on display' likely had even more cherished notions of the afterlife than we do. Indeed, mummies on display in several museums violate the deepest sanctity of Ancient Egyptian religous practice, that a body should not be disturbed from its resting place. Countless pharoahs spent fortunes on vast tomb complexes, in part to ensure that their place in the 'field of reeds' would go unmolested. Without a say in the modern world, these ancient peoples and many like them have ended up in a sad place indeed.

I appreciate the value of historic research, and would be the first volunteer to take part in a detailed study of any ancient remains. It is vital to capture the facts of lost civilisations, there is no better way of preserving them. But once the study has reached its conclusion, it should be the most natural thing in the world to return the remains to their resting place. I baulk at the idea that the remains of Roman babies and young children are sat in display cases across the country. I can only imagine the horror of the parents if they had had an inkling of the future fate of their loved ones.

Suffice it to say, the Mobile Museum will not be displaying dead people any time soon...

Saturday, 30 June 2012

The Exhibition at Enford fair

We have just arrived back from showing the collection at Enford fair, a successful day with lots of nice comments and lots of questions about the Iron age that would have taxed all but the best of curators... ;) Quite an appaling start, Im afraid. We had some issues at Shipton Bellinger with our gazebo, today it was completely flattened by the wind. Fortunately no-one, and no strange old things were damaged in the process. But the day seemed to be a write off. The organisers at Enford sorted us out an indoor spot, however, and I'm so grateful for all their support.

Today we showed the Contemporary Conflict section for the first time, with mixed reactions it has to be said. I am very keen on this section because it's overlooked by many collectors and under studied in comparison to the two world wars. But because people are usually not well informed about the subjects, which include the Korean war, Bosnian war, Cold war and Afghanistan, there was not as much interest as I'd hoped. I think some more information would help matters, maybe a map. All lessons to take forward. Our key lesson now though is this: We need an indoor spot! If I have to spend another weekend bungeeing and tying a rubbish gazebo to my estate, I shall cry like a baby. SO in future, we will have to ask for accomodation indoors. At Enford we were set up next to the cake store, which guaranteed a steady stream of visitors, and a small rise in my blood sugar level, which will likely remain well into next week.

Again, I think the Roman Empire section stole the show. We had our new piece out: A clay brick from Ulpia Oescus, the legionary base of 1st (Italica) Legion during the Dacian wars (c AD 107/8). The brick is stamped with the Legion's mark: 1 LEG ITAL and was by far the most expensive old brick I've ever bought (and yes, I do make a habit of it!) During a visit to Carleon last week I actually pulled two roman tile sherds out of the ground in a public park, nice finds but unfortunately no marks on them. Still, they make a really nice display and certainly catch the eye. Next time we will be bringing out a 1935 Umbro swimming costume: cotton (perhaps not the ideal material!) it was used by a swimmer for the national team of Scotland so it's a very cool item. Ive procrastinated for ages in getting a decent frame (because I'm such a skinflint) but it deserves it.

Thankyou to everyone who visited us, and thank you all for your kind donations. A special thanks to everyone who helped me with the gazebo, as Mother Nature ate it... Next stop Durrington on July 15th; be there AND be square... 

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Seeking: Strange Old Things! (Or, how to help the museum by donating items)

How many people reading this blog have an old, unidentified medal sat in a box in a drawer? Or a dusty set of old letters from nineteen-0-something under the stairs?

We are reliant on donations. Our running costs are effectively zero: petrol and thats about it. But we need strange old things to keep the museum going. By donating/lending your old items you can help us keep the museum fresh and relevant. Id love to have a different collection every time we roll out but we just have enough stuff. Give your item to the museum and we can exhibit it for the enjoyment of the whole community. We'll even help you identify your object so it can be displayed and explained properly. A recent spate of donations has allowed us to start a new stand on contemporary conflict (we were kindly given a Japanese Korean war era cigarette case and an original Falklands war 3 PARA post-operational report. Thanks so much to Gloria and Adele!) which looks pretty good.

Leave a message on this blog for more details, or you can tweet us @TheMobileMuseum. If you're on facebook, join our group for details of upcoming events:!/groups/414579935242011/

Thank you

Ben and Meg

Sunday, 10 June 2012

The rollout at Shipton Bellinger (or, making a museum mobile)

The first rollout was quite a success, thankyou to everyone who turned up and supported us, especially my wife Meg, who had high winds and stormy tempers to deal with for the first few hours! Thanks also to Jon, who turned up to wish us luck and ended up as buckshee manual labour!

high winds and cheap gazebos do not mix, but after a lot of rope and swearing, we at least erected the shelter. that was really the hardest part. The collection itself travelled quite well, never asking 'are we there yet' and not once kicking me in the back. I was a little bit worried about it, especially some of the Roman pieces. We have three iron nails recovered from the battlefield at teutoberg forest in Germany, AD 9, very unusual to be able to date such non-descript pieces to a specific time like that, and they are deeply fragile. jon wouldnt believe that something that has been buried in the mud for two millenia could be so fragile, maybe im over protective... But all the peices made it in tact and pretty much in the order in which I packed them, which made life a lot easier. We had prepared a number of labels which went down fine, but these were not in order: cue lots and LOTS of faffing and an increasingly exasperated Meg as the opening time approached! placing paper labels behind tiny coins with my fat fingers is like trying to eat a pomegranet with a spade.... Because the gazebo was quite windy, we couldnt put our maps of Roman britain behind the displays, they had to sit outside. But i think theyll stay there, they were drawing people in.

We had a lot of visitors, many of whom were asking questions and I was in hogs heavan talking about the pieces at length... lot of kind donations including a copy of the post-operational report of the Falklands campaign by the 3 pars CO, very interesting stuff, and a perfect way to kick off our new 'contemporary conflict' display about British conflicts post-WW2. favourites seemed to be the Roman artifacts and the modern Britain collection, quiet a few of the older generation being pleased and upset at once to find one of their household items on display! Next stop... no idea yet, Well keep you posted! We are a charity, and were always seeking your unwanted strange old things for display either temporarily or permanently. You can email me at for further information or to enquire about how you can help. dont forget to follow us on facebook as well.