Save the national collection: blog it
Northampton Borough Council sold its Egyptian statue for huge profit. It’s been criticised, but it really doesn’t seem to care. What next? If I lived in Northampton, I’d be worried that my museums might sell off more stuff that I didn’t know they had. And who’s to say this will stop at Northampton? Which council will be next?
Part of the case for raising money this way is said to be that if the public don’t ask to see something, they don’t want it. David Mackintosh, leader of Northampton Borough Council, told the BBC that the Sekhemka statue had “not been on display in Northampton for over four years. Nobody’s really come to us and asked for it to be on display or to see it.” (I like that “really”. Really?) Commentators on news stories sometimes repeat the point. “Before all this kicked off,” goes one, “Can anyone tell me the last time they wanted to look at this statue? Last time they enquired about it?” (That got 13 votes against, 7 for.)
So here’s what we do. Tell people about the hidden gems in our museums.
At any one time, the bulk of any reputable museum or gallery’s collections is not on display. Most of what’s in store is known about only to a handful of specialists. If a museum has no qualms, it could slip things out onto eBay hoping no one would notice (over the years, it’s not unknown to hear of things that have disappeared behind the scenes for one mysterious reason or another). Many museums publish catalogues, of course, detailing all they have, a professional responsibility. But not all do, or have catalogued their entire collections. And, like the stuff itself, these publications are typically seen only by specialists.
So if you are such a specialist, and you know of something that is particularly interesting or important to you, but which is probably known to few others, tell the world! Let’s hear about those things that nobody really asks to see because they don’t know they’re there. Let them know. See off the vandals.
Here’s my bit. Stone bracers.
These are really interesting little things, usually found in male graves and often by the wrist, from which they are generally assumed to be archer’s bow-string guards (such graves often have little flint arrowheads too). They were in use around 2500–2000BC. A very fine one lay by the arm of a man buried at Stonehenge.
Ann Woodward and John Hunter recently published a detailed monograph, cataloguing all the known specimens – they found 161 in Britain and Ireland. They concluded their discussion with an entertaining, if not totally convincing idea that the objects may have had nothing at all to do with archery, but instead were associated with falconry. Robert Wallis has just looked at that from the viewpoint of a falconer, and dismissed it. So it’s back to archery – though we’re still not clear exactly how they worked. More research needed.
And what do you know? My colleague Rob Ixer happened to tell me that Northampton Museum & Art Gallery has a couple of these bracers (he worked on the petrology for the cataloguing project). We wouldn’t wish those to slip out to the best bidder, so here are their entries.
There’s another one, excavated at Raunds in Northamptonshire. It’s currently, so the entry says, in an English Heritage store in Hampshire, but in due course we would expect to see it find its way to its local museum. English Heritage would have a good reason now to think about that, but you never know. So here’s that entry too.
An Examination of Prehistoric Stone Bracers from Britain, by A Woodward & J Hunter (Oxbow 2011) (reduced to £9.95)
“Re-examining stone ‘wrist-guards’ as evidence for falconry in later prehistoric Britain”, by Robert J Wallis, Antiquity 88 (2014), 411–24