Friday, 28 November 2014

Treasures from Worcestershire's Past: ~51~ A small piece of agricultural history



Recently, Rhonda Niven, Conservator for the Archive and Archaeology Service, presented me with a neat, dried bundle of plant material that had been found pressed between the pages of a Croome Estate inventory dated Oct 2nd 1819. The question was, 'what was this material?' The most likely at the time seemed to be hay or corn.

On the photograph above you can just see fibres exposed at the ends of the stems. When viewed with a microscope, these appear much clearer, and give a clue as to the identity of the original plant. Although it looks like grass or wheat, I immediately thought of flax, which was a very important crop until its decline in the 20th century, grown mostly for its fibres which are used to produce linen yarn, cloth or rope. It can also be grown for oil that can be extracted from the seeds to make linseed oil, but it is the crop grown for fibres which was more common. It compares well with reference material held at the Archive and Archaeology Service. If you take a flax stem and bend it several times, particularly if it has been retted (partially rotted), almost immediately, the outer part of the stem will break down and you will see the fibres inside. It is this quality which makes it such a valuable fibre crop, producing the soft, smooth linen cloth that we all know.

From field to cloth, flax needs a long and time-consuming sequence of processing known as rippling, retting, breaking, scutching and heckling, so a great deal of effort must have been put into processing the crop on the Croome estate. A previous blog post (Long-straw wheat and flax on the Young Archaeologists' allotment) shows a small but fine crop of flax that was grown on a Worcester allotment in 2013.


Flax remains are found every now and then in soil samples taken from archaeological digs, but is usually the seeds, seed capsules or pollen grains that are found as they are quite robust, so it is unusual to see the stem and fibres as found here. Recently, large quantities of burnt flax which were dumped in a pit during the post-medieval period (possibly Civil War era) at the Kings School, Worcester. One interpretation is that this waste represents the remains of a whole flax crop burnt in fire, perhaps a barn fire.


Along with the flax on the page of the Croome estate inventory were records of payments made to numerous people involved with the upkeep of the house and management of the estate and farmlands - the 'Butcher', 'Baker', 'Fisher' and lastly the 'Cornchandler', or retailer of corn and related products. Perhaps the bookkeeper pressed a small piece of flax leftover from samples shown to the cornchandler during the sale of flax and corn from the estate that year.

Christmas Shopping? You will find plenty of ideas for great gifts at Explore the Past!




Are you looking for presents that are a little bit different this year?  If so, come to Explore the Past on Level 2 at The Hive, Worcester to see the large range of Books and CDs related to the history of Worcestershire– ideal gifts for young and old.  Brought to you by the Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service, we also have a great selection of Jewellery, Gifts and Pottery, all inspired by the past.

New for 2014! For the first time this year we have a gift for the person who has everything.  You can now make a donation to Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service either as a gift to yourself or for someone else.   The minimum donation is £5, and in return you will receive a gift card to show what you are contributing to. There are three lovely cards to choose from, one of which has a Christmas theme:


 


Don't forget we also stock the newly published Stories of Worcester:  History through the Eyes of Children by Pat Hughes and Deborah Overton - a great read for any budding history lovers out there; and Worcestershire's War by Maggie Andrews, Adrian Gregson & John Peters, which was researched using letters, diaries and journals made at the time. This remarkable collection of voices gives a unique insight into this county's First World War.

Head along to The Hive today to grab a gift that will be treasured this Christmas!      

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Treasures from Worcestershire's Past: ~50~ Hand to hand with ancient Worcestershire

This week's Worcestershire Treasure has been chosen by the Archive & Archaeology Service Manager, Victoria Bryant. The artefact Victoria has chosen is a lower Palaeolithic 'handaxe', discovered in a field near Madresfield. It was produced by a species of human ancestor named Homo Heidelbergensis during one of the warm 'interglacial' periods within the last Ice Age. It's likely to date from either 427-374,000 years ago (Hoxnian stage: Marine Isotope Stage 11) or 337-300,000 years ago (Purfleet Interglacial: Marine Isotope Stage 9), periods during which the climate was warm and conditions were ideal for groups of hunter-gatherer hominins. Victoria describes her reaction to holding a Palaeolithic artefact for the first time:

"I have been a professional archaeologist for 31 years and have handled many objects.  I loved history as a little girl and rather romantically imagined that if I could ever get to touch the cooking pots, the arrowheads, the hairpins or the shoes I would feel a physical connection to the past which would be almost like time travel.  

Over the years I have been delighted, intrigued and puzzled by objects but never really felt a direct connection to the remote past. All this changed earlier this year when I was able, for the first time, to hold a Palaeolithic hand axe which my colleagues were studying as part of a reassessment of the Palaeolithic evidence for Worcestershire funded by English Heritage.

Handaxe from Madresfield, photographed and illustrated by our Digitisation and Illustration teams

Handaxes are rare finds, and during my career I have focused on artefacts from the Roman period onwards. As a result I had only seen these early tools as images in books or objects behind glass. I always thought they looked crude and primitive, not like the tools of the later prehistoric periods, and frankly rather dull. I felt that the human species who made them, whilst of intellectual interest to my colleagues, were probably equally primitive and dull.

These preconceptions were shattered when I held a hand axe for the first time. As soon as it touched my skin I understood its sophistication and complexity. It fitted the human hand perfectly and was clearly a tool of carefully considered weight and balance. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, the person who produced this design classic had the complexity of thought, spatial awareness  and forward planning which I had, in my ignorance,  always attributed to modern humans. It was a light bulb moment and also a powerful emotional one – time travel at last!"


Wednesday, 19 November 2014

West Mercia Police records to be catalogued thanks to National Cataloguing Grant success

We are delighted to announce that Worcestershire Archives are one of the lucky repositories to be awarded funding from the 2014 round of the National Cataloguing Grant programme. Each year the Cataloguing Grants Programme supports the cataloguing of collections that need external funding to provide access to their content. The 2014 round received applications for over £1.8 million in total from various organisations, so we are extremely proud that our project has been selected for funding support. 

The title of the project is 'Worcestershire's criminal record - cataloguing the West Mercia Police Authority Archives' and over the course of 15 months it will allow us to catalogue and make available the Police records in our care. For some years now the West Mercia records held by our service have had limited availability due to their uncatalogued status, so we are excited to finally dedicate the time needed to these records. Once catalogued the records will be made available on our online catalogue and, subject to any legal closure periods, will be available to view in our Original Archive Area at The Hive

For more information on the Cataloguing Grant programme and to find out about the other successful applicants check The National Archives' website. 

Keep checking back on our Blog for more information about the progress of the project throughout 2015!

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Treasures from Worcestershire's Past: ~49~ A letter from Ceylon

This week's Treasure is a letter from the Bantock archive, which has been chosen by Lesley Downing, Archive Assistant. This item shows just how far afield the remit of records from Worcestershire Archives can stretch as the letter was sent from Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka). Although the opinions of the unknown author of this letter may be a little controversial, his letter provides a good description of the discoveries made there:




I came across this letter whilst looking through the archive of Sir Granville Bantock, ref: 705:462/4894.  It is a very chatty letter, from one old friend to another, and was obviously written when the sender was caught up in a moment of discovery – in this case of the similarities and differences between his own religion, Anglican, and that of the country he was visiting, Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then.  It is a very personal, individual description, and bubbles with joy and enthusiasm at his surroundings and observations.  It brings Ceylon, circa 1927 to Worcestershire, today.




Here is a full transcription of the letter: 

"My dear GB.

I promised you I'd call and here I am.  Your son has entertained me royally.  I just want to say briefly how Colombo impresses me.

It is the most wonderful place I have yet struck.  What a riot of colour!  And the people! I have been almost standing on my head, wondering where I had landed in, when I visited a Hindu Temple!

I am more convinced than ever that the origins of religion and ritual are in these functions and places.  From the daubing of the foreheads of children and adults with a cumin white paste and red paint, the burning of a candle at the entrance of the Hindu Temple, the glimpse of a mysterious image within,  (what is the arc of the covenant and the altar in Christian churches but this?), to the dancing and tom-tom drumming outside, the hullabaloo and general hubbub, we have all that makes for a religion ceremony in the west – only a bit more refined and sophisticated.

This is true religion.  The present Western type is a thinly-veiled replica of what I have seen today – with the hypocritical pretence that it is the only true revelation.

Our smug religionists don't like to peep too far back into the true sources of their ceremonies.

But there it is, and I have more respect for the simple honest faith of these people than the Western Christian, who won't admit the truth.

I am sorry I must stop.  I am going to meet your son at the races, and then a rush, after dinner back to the ship.

He looks the picture of health and I am delighted to meet him again.  He will write, of course, later.

Meantime my best thanks for your help and inspiration in telling me to call.  I shall write again, yours ever.

D[?] Vaughan [?]"





Sir Granville Bantock was an internationally acclaimed composer and conductor, a personal friend of Elgar and many other musical and artistic figures of his day.  His archive consists of approximately 6,000 items, many of which are personal letters, newspaper cuttings from his long and illustrious career and other personal items.




The archive holds several other items with an international feel, and I think it is a lovely illustration of the fact that we may be the Worcestershire Archive Service, but that does not mean that is all we are.  The Bantock archive itself holds letters from a German contact, Otto Kling written in French, 1906-1911, ref: 705:462/4664/6, some items in Persian, his own lecture notes on 'Chinese Music and Drama' and a huge volume of newspaper cuttings, VIP invitations, Concert Brochures etc., from his tour of Australia in 1938.  This includes a lovely photograph of the man himself, then around 70 years of age, cooling off during a heat wave by wearing a sarong!

We hold many, many private archives of Worcestershire people, the great and the good, and, of course, the ordinary people themselves.  There must be hundreds, if not thousands of items that bring the world to Worcestershire in this way, just waiting to be discovered.