A new book has just been published by the British Museum, written by Ralph Jackson and Gilbert Burleigh. It’s the account of the discovery of 27 gold and silver objects that were buried within the temple at Ashwell in Hertfordshire during later third or fourth century AD, and of the campaign of excavations at the site. There was a silver figurine, a suite of gold jewellery and many votive plaques. Some of the plaques were inscribed with votive dedications to a previously unknown goddess called ‘Senuna’. It’s a wonderful discovery and a remarkable account.
I was lucky enough to study the Bronze Age objects from the site: a collection of tools and weapons that were gathered together and deposited in the temple during Roman times. They don’t belong to a single Bronze Age ‘hoard’ but rather result from a much more extensive – and interesting – process of collection and (re-)deposition.
The Bronze Age finds are naturally a sub-plot to the wonderful Roman British objects. But, seeing them in their final context, I was reminded of the difficult relationship between the periods we refer to as ‘historic’ and ‘pre-historic’. I was also reminded of J.M. Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians (1980). When the narrator of that book sits down to write the history of his nameless and anachronistic frontier town, he immediately and knowingly deceives:
‘We lived in the time of the seasons, of the harvests… We lived with nothing between us and the stars…This was paradise on earth.’
A magistrate and amateur archaeologist, he is appalled by his capacity and compulsion to deceive future readers. ‘I wanted to live outside of history’, he ruefully concludes, setting aside both his historical account and his attempt to decipher a series of ancient wooden tablets excavated from the ruins of a nearby town. Like a life-changing pulse of humility, the value of the undeciphered script is revealed to be precisely its lack of power. It is one of the great novels of Coetzee’s Nobel prize-winning career. It is also a great meditation on the potential of pre-historic studies to address biases implicit in our ‘westernised’ perspective.
At the temple in Ashwell, the Bronze Age objects chosen by Roman British worshippers form a curious little group. They do not make chronological sense: some are from the earliest centuries of the period, others are from the latest. The people who carefully collected and deposited them had little interest in the typology and classification that we impose of the past. One property connects many of the objects though: a tendency towards smallness. The smallest spearheads and axes, modest knifes and daggers. The tendency towards the diminutive is a well-known feature of Roman votive offerings. These are ancient objects reimagined in and for Roman minds.
These ancient objects probably ‘meant’ very little to Roman British people – in the sense of their ability to ‘read’ the past in the ways that we often clamour for in our museums and books. For Coetzee’s magistrate, and for the bronzes buried at Ashwell, there is power and humility in recognising the value of things that remain silent and unsaid. Even – but really because – they leave us, ‘feeling stupid, like a man who lost his way long ago but passes on along a road that may lead nowhere’.
Acknowledgements: The full account of the Bronze Age objects appears in the published volume which is available here. Thank you to Ralph Jackson for the opportunity to contribute.