Saturday, August 22, 2009

Colchester Castle

I have been very busy lately traveling from one job to the next and so a bit lax at blogging. I will however endeavour to catch up with some of the events I have told at in August this coming September (I hope that makes sense)

Last week however I spent telling at Colchester Castle in Essex and had plenty of time to think about the place and what it meant to me.....

Colchester Norman Castle Keep
Click on any image to make larger

Its an interesting museum crammed into the remains of a Norman Keep which is built from the earlier Roman material and on the foundations of an earlier temple dedicated to the deified Emperor Claudius; a temple that was destroyed during Boudica's revolt. It covers much of Colchester's history including the the civil war siege mentioned in my earlier blog on
St Botolphs Priory in Colchester. The different periods are cunningly set out in winding streets spread out around the lower floor of the Castle.

The museum is however dominated by its pre-Roman 'Celtic' and Roman history, because in both these periods Colchester seems to have been an important area of settlement for the Trinovantes, the Celtic tribe and then as both an early Roman fort, then a retirement complex for old soldiers; many of whom lost their lives during Boudica's revolt. Not only does the museum focus on this period, but it has some wonderful and unusual objects on display from this period, and here are some of my favourites:

A Roman lead coffin which is not that unusual in itself except that this one had a lead pipe attached that once led to the surface so that the family of the deceased could continue to pour wine and other offerings down to their dead. This is one of only three such examples found in this country although the museum also has a pottery vessel full of cremated remains that also had a lead pipe where future offerings could be deposited. Unfortunately I did not get photos of theses, but it shows a continued relationship with the Roman dead; it was certainly not a case of being "Dead and Buried"!

The museum also has a collection of worked bone and other materials used to decorate furniture and costume. In particular I liked seeing the pieces that were unfinished because they represent a moment in time and leave you wondering why they were not finished, what happened that resulted in the pieces being discarded?

Partially worked bone and waste

There is also a display of Roman pots some of which broke and deformed in the kiln. I like seeing these, because there is always a temptation to think of cultures like the Romans as being perfect. Yet they too made mistakes and their innovations were often the result of trial and error like ours today.

Roman ceramics including Kiln waste

History is written by the victors, hence the Celts are still seen by some as uncivilised barbarians today, yet some of the objects on display from the Bronze and Iron ages go against that view. In one case, which I think contained objects from a place called Lexham, there was a wheat sheaf or ears of wheat delicately cast in metal that were probably stitched to clothing. A recognition perhaps of the importance of wheat to early societies, although it may also be a recognition of its beauty?

Even more interesting to my mind is the bronze cauldron found at Sheepen. It was made c.1250 BC and is one of the oldest examples found in the UK. I like it because of the cauldrons close association with western myth and legend. In particular its associations with notions of magic, rebirth and even with the grail. Like any other object in any other museum, the cauldron has a story both personal and cultural that no museum label can ever do justice to!

3000 year old Bronze Cauldron

This is certainly the case with my last choice; a carved wooden figure said to be over four thousand years old and now known as the Dagenham Idol. The two things that can be said with any certainty about it, is that its carved from pine about 2250 BC. Other than that there is little that is known about the figure. It is one of the earliest human representations to be found in the British Isles which has given the the figure a kind of reverential, mythic status. Hence the name 'idol'. This makes me laugh a little, because for all we know it could have been a very simple child's doll! That said I don't know either and it could have been much more; perhaps even a representation of one of their Gods and I suppose that's why I liked it so much- the fact that I could stand and wonder about its use, its origins, who made it, who owned it and what for. I like that a lot, for there should be a little bit of mystery and a whole lot of wonder in the world!

The Dagenham Idol