This week is #MuseumWeek – a worldwide festival for cultural institutions on social media. So it seems a perfect time to talk about some of the amazing museums that can be found across Wiltshire. Whatever your interests - from archaeology to transport to modern art - you will find something that appeals and inspires.
Like many other spaces, museums have been closed for much of the last year due to the pandemic. They are now able to re-open and have been looking forward to welcoming back the public once again, having made all the necessary arrangements to ensure a safe and enjoyable visit following the latest national lockdown. You can find out more information about museums in the county by visiting the Museum in Wiltshire website.
There are so many great museums it’s difficult to know where to kick off, so to quote The Sound of Music, ‘let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start’ by looking at some of the earliest objects from Wiltshire.
To find out about more about Wiltshire’s prehistory, you can’t beat Wiltshire Museum, Devizes and Salisbury Museum. Both are home to collections designated as having national or international importance, which tell the story of Wiltshire over the last 500,000 years.
Wiltshire Museum has beautiful gold items from the time of Stonehenge, some of my other favourites items on display are these exquisitely worked bronze age arrowheads.
Salisbury Museum’s award-winning Wessex Gallery includes the Amesbury Archer and finds from Stonehenge.
Local Studies Library – the elderly volumes that might surprise you!
I can’t believe it’s been 5 years this month since I was lucky enough to become the County Local Studies Librarian here at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre. In this time, I’ve had the exciting opportunity to learn a lot more about Wiltshire’s fantastic Wiltshire Studies collection, both at the History Centre and in the county’s many local libraries. You could spend a lifetime delving into the items we hold; there is never enough time in the day to enjoy looking at the collection and the many and varied topics, people and places that span hundreds of years.
The items in our collection have found their way to us through many different means. Some have been purchased, others gifted or donated by kind individuals, many local residents who share our belief that Wiltshire’s treasures should stay in the county for everyone to access and enjoy. Others have been in the ‘library’ system much longer, from reading rooms at places such as the Mechanics Institute in Swindon, historically part of the Wiltshire local authority before Swindon became unitary in 1997.
Local Studies libraries are classed as a ‘special collection’, and within Wiltshire’s are items dating from the 17th century to today. You would be surprised to learn how robust the most elderly items in our collection are; the acid in modern paper makes modern books more troublesome to keep safe. Even so, we like to keep an eye on our oldest items to ensure they are well looked after. I am currently conducting a condition survey to check on their wellbeing and the process has been very informative, opening my eyes to the rich variety of items we hold.
Our journey begins with some of our oldest items; Civil War and Commonwealth pamphlets from 1647-1658 (ref. AAA.946). These include the impeachment of members of the House of Commons by Sir Thomas Fairfax in 1647, an account of the speech of King Charles I on the scaffold in 1649 and a copy of the Commonwealth Mercury dated 25 November 1658, describing the removal of the body of the late Oliver Cromwell from Whitehall.
“Now thus much without vanity may be asserted of the subject, that if all persons, both Ladies, much more Gentlemen, would spend some of their time in Journeys to visit their native Land, and be curious to Inform themselves and make observations of the pleasant prospects, good buildings, different produces and manufactures of each place, with the variety of sports and recreations they are adapt to, would be a souvereign remedy to cure or preserve from these Epidemic diseases of vapours, should I add Laziness? – it would also form such an Idea of England, add much to its Glory and Esteem in our minds and cure the evil Itch of overvalueing foreign parts..”
So begins the work of Celia Fiennes published as “Through England on a Side Saddle in the time of William and Mary” by her descendant Emily Griffiths in 1888. Celia Fiennes was born in Newton Tony, Wiltshire on the 7 June 1662 and died on 10 April 1741 in Hackney aged 78, buried on the 17th April in Newton Tony. She was one of England’s first female travellers and was unusual for her time in travelling the length and breadth of the country on horseback with only one or two servants for company.
She was born to Nathaniel Fiennes, a Parliamentarian colonel during the civil war and politician, and his second wife, Frances Whitehead. Celia spent most of her younger years in Newton Tony, living at the manor house on the west side of the High Street. The house was largely demolished in the early 19th century but its kitchen later became part of the Three Horse Shoes. Her parents were non-conformist and a group of Presbyterians met at their house, and in 1672 the house was certified for Presbyterian meetings.
Celia Fiennes mostly travelled during the period 1684-1703 but continued intermittently until 1712. Her earlier journeys were predominatly in the south, including to Salisbury, Bath and Stonehenge. In 1697 she travelled in the north and then in 1698 undertook her Great Journey travelling to Newcastle, the Lake District, Durham to the South-west Gloucester, Bristol and Cornwall (to Land’s End).
Remarkably, her travels emcompassed every county in England 100 years before the Stagecoach. She travelled sidesaddle on horseback, with only one or two servants staying in inns and sometimes in the country houses of her connections (often seeing these buildings in stages of construction). She wrote notes as she travelled and eventually wrote them all up into a memoir in 1702, originally intended only for family reading. Her explorations began as a way for her ‘to regain my health by variety and change of aire and exercise’ but her notes demonstrate she had a keen interest in the places she visited. She had a particular interest in mining and industry and also often remarks on the local food she eats, the roads she travelled on and the houses she stayed in: a valuable source for historians! Through her words we get a glimpse of 17th century everyday life. We might never have thought about what it would be like to travel the country without signposts but she highlights them as a notable feature remarking on ‘posts and hands pointing to each road with the names of the great towns or market towns that it leads to’.
Her travels in Wiltshire and its locality prove interesting reading. You can probably guess where she is referring to with this statement, visiting around 1690: ‘This… is reckon'd one of the wonders of England how such prodigeous stone should be brought there, as no such Stone is seen in ye Country nearer than 20 mile.’ If you guessed Stonehenge you are correct!
On 20th March the History Centre temporarily closed its doors to staff and public in line with national guidance for dealing with Covid-19. Unsure when we would return staff from all teams faced the challenge of working from home without face-to-face contact with our colleagues and community of visitors, as well as the loss of physical access to our extensive collections and resources.
Despite these restrictions, our industrious and enterprising teams have been working away on a range of projects and initiatives, from the comfort (or discomfort) of our own homes. In addition, several colleagues have combined their History Centre commitments with voluntary community support work, helping the more vulnerable members of society. As Wiltshire Council employees we have also been supporting the local authority’s response to the pandemic.
Here is an update from the first of our teams, detailing some of the ventures we have undertaken to adapt and maintain our services during lockdown.
Wiltshire Buildings Record
The WBR normally opens its doors to the public on a Tuesday. Because of the restrictions we have not been able to see any visitors since the end of March, but that has not stopped enquirers emailing. It seems that while people have time on their hands, not being able to work, researching the history of their house seemed like a great pastime. Without physical access to our own records and the archive collections, we have had to manage researchers’ expectations and point them to online resources.
Of course, there are several different ways of doing research online, and I have managed to direct some enquirers to useful websites that can answer their questions without the need for a visit. A great jumping off point is the map comparison website Know your Place. We are extremely fortunate that for Wiltshire, Somerset, Gloucestershire and Bristol you can tell immediately whether a building existed at a certain period right back to c1840.
Other ways of researching are:
Check the Wiltshire and Swindon Archives online catalogue to see if there are any immediately relevant documents. The documents are not available online but once the History Centre is open again to the public you will be able to look at sources such as deeds, maps, censuses, Enclosure awards etc.
Victoria County History gives an excellent overview of Wiltshire parish histories that have been covered so far and is available online.
With the easing of lockdown, we were able to resume searching our own WBR records and our specialist research service has restarted in a limited way. WBR is now beginning to undertake commissioned histories for interest again, so please do call or email for a chat. You can find all our contact details on the WBR pages of this website.
The Archaeology team has had an eventful lockdown period which has seen two members of staff leave and two new colleagues arrive, while we also sadly lost one of our World Heritage Site team, Sarah Simmons, who left her post after 14 years to pursue new goals.
The challenges of working in lockdown were mostly faced by our two new recruits; Neil Adam and Michal Cepak who are now the Assistant County Archaeologists under Melanie Pomeroy-Killinger. Both Neil and Michal have had to go through staff inductions and learn the job while working from home, but happily this task has been greatly aided by superb help from Melanie as well as from the HER (Historic Environment Record) team of Tom Sunley and Jacqui Ramsay.
In terms of the day to day, little has changed for archaeology. The business of local government continued with planning applications to be assessed and major public works, such as the A303 Stonehenge by-pass, to be planned for with other colleagues in the Council as well as colleagues in Historic England and a myriad of other government departments and interested parties.
Lockdown has meant the cancellation of our heritage walks this summer, along with a number of other public events that we had planned, but we do plan to reach out to you through a digital strategy that should see far more content going online for the public at large to access.
Living and working in lockdown has brought a unique set of challenges, but as things slowly ease, we will return to what is nowadays called a ‘new normal’, probably never exactly as it was prior to 26th March 2020, but with the same sense of public service along with a few new ways of working and presenting our data to you.
In Part 2, we will hear how the Archives and Local Studies team, Conservation and Museums Advisory Service (CMAS) and Education Service have kept busy during lockdown.
Neil Adam, Assistant County Archaeologist
Dorothy Treasure, Buildings Recorder, WBR
Heather Perry, Conservation and Museum Manager (CMAS)
Joining any new organisation can be a daunting prospect, but joining one when you can’t even travel to your place of work or meet your new colleagues? Yes, life in a time of C-19 has presented all kinds of unique situations to people across the country and while my issues were trivial compared to those faced by others, I must say it been quite an experience.
First, to introduce myself. I am Neil Adam, recently the Senior Archaeologist at Hampshire County Council, who has finally come ‘home’ to Wiltshire (I live in Warminster!) to serve as the new Assistant County Archaeologist, mainly covering Salisbury and the south of the county. I spent the first 25 years of my time in archaeology working for various commercial field units across southern England (Wessex, AC, Cotswold, Oxford), (which included working at such sites as West Kennet Farm, Silbury Hill and Stonehenge) before moving into consultancy in early 2010 and then into curation with Hampshire in 2015 (poacher turned gamekeeper). I am extremely excited about the prospect of working in my home county and one filled with some of the most iconic archaeological sites in the country, and in the case of one particular site, the world.
My favourite sites in Wiltshire:
Any my local vista:
When I was offered the post in late February this year all seemed set for the move to the History Centre, a new commute, new colleagues and a new building to find my way around. I did warn Melanie that I also had a trip planned for May across Florida, so having got settled in, I would then be away for a couple of weeks (I was actually supposed to leave yesterday…). However, as with everyone else on planet Earth all that came to nothing and I found myself instead taking a very extended staycation at Chez Adam.
As you all know starting a new job usually involves an overload of new work practices, registrations, P45s, trying to remember who everyone in the team is (not very good with names, better with faces) and then lots of e-induction courses. Well, that went out of the window following the closure of my new workplace, just 2 weeks before I was due to start. However, thanks to the efforts of Terry, Melanie, Tom, the IT department and many others at the History Centre, the basics of the job (my Wiltshire Council ID badge, laptop, phone and headset) were all ready for me to pick up from Chippenham in a social distancing operation worthy of any government leaflet. Back home it was set up time and soon I was on the road to full induction thanks to the wonders of modern technology (well Skype and Teams anyway). A few weeks have followed where I have got up to speed on who is who and who does what at the council (and yes that did include e-learning!) and then began the process of familiarising myself with the ins and outs of my new job.
Good points? Well, being stuck in my little back room I have had the time to work through a lot of material at my own pace without the day to day back and forth of an office environment and as a result I think I got up to speed on a great many things at a faster rate than I otherwise would have. I must have also saved a fair bit in petrol and wear and tear on the car.
Bad points? It has been a bit strange getting to know my new colleagues through the small window of an online communication system and you miss that vital human contact where so many minor queries and issues can be sorted. The strangest thing is that as I arrive at the end of my first month in the job I am still to learn how to get into the building I am meant to work in and were to find the nearest café. I wonder if my colleagues look the same in person as they do on video?....
(*or what was held to be The Truth in the Middle Ages)
At the summer solstice, Stonehenge falls under the spotlight: in the solar sense and in the cultural sense. People all over the world find it fascinating and are reminded to ponder it when the sun is at its highest. Much of the appeal of Stonehenge may be attributed to its encompassing aura of mystery, its air of mind-bending antiquity. There is much about it we don’t understand, despite the advances made by ingenious researchers, but we are not the first generations to try to account for Stonehenge. So what did our forebears believe?
According to a twelfth-century author called Geoffrey of Monmouth, the ancient stone circle now known as Stonehenge was originally brought to mount Killarus in Ireland from Africa by a group of giants. It was known then as the Giants’ Dance and had healing properties. The stones came to Wiltshire with the help of a very young Merlin, at the behest of King Arthur’s uncle, Aurelius Ambrosius, to be reconstructed as a memorial to a group of Britons massacred during the reign of the malicious usurper, Vortigern. Some decades later the structure renamed Stonehenge becomes the final resting place of Uther Pendragon.
I studied this story while writing my PhD about an illustrated medieval manuscript containing an abridged version of Wace’s Anglo-Norman French translation of Geoffrey’s history: La Roman de Brut. Even in its shortened form, the episode in which the child Merlin guides the reconstruction of Stonehenge celebrates brains over brawn, great power despite littleness of stature:
“They grasped the stones behind, in front and sideways: they pushed and thrust them hard and shook them hard, but however much force they used, they could not find a solution. ‘Rise’ said Merlin, ‘you will so no more by force. Now you shall see how knowledge and skill are better than bodily strength.’ Then he stepped forward and stopped. He looked around, his lips moving like a man saying his prayers. I do not know if he said a prayer or not. Then he called the Britons back. ‘Come here,’ he said, ‘come! Now you can handle the stones and carry them into your ships.’ As Merlin instructed, as he devised and told them, the Britons took the stones, carried them to the ships and placed them inside. They brought them to England and carried them to Amesbury, into the fields nearby.” – Based on Judith Weiss’ 2002 translation of Wace’s Roman de Brut
To the medieval mind, the stone circle was a monument to human mastery of nature, as well as to the fallen Britons. Still today we measure ourselves by the power of our prehistoric ancestors to have created it. I recently created a linocut of the child Merlin guiding the reconstruction of Stonehenge. Both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace focus on the dismantling of the stones in Ireland, which is also the moment illustrated in the manuscript I worked on for my PhD. Instead, I depicted the moment when that iconic plain was undergoing its momentous transformation.