About ten days ago I managed to escape the lead-up to the opening of Fragmentary Ancestors and quit the office in order to re-engage with beautiful and fascinating objects in someone else’s collection. In this case it was the Malton Museum collection which sadly lost its home in the centre of the town a few years ago. A number of dedicated volunteers have been keeping the idea of the Malton Museum and its brilliant collections alive in the popular imagination by organizing events featuring objects from the collections. I went to a seminar earlier in the year on Roman glass led by Prof Jenny Price, who is a specialist in this subject.
Today’s seminar was led by Justine Bayley who retired from English Heritage about three years ago. Justine talked to us through a number of fine enamelled pieces from the Roman Malton collection, and mould fragments from Castleford, courtesy of Wakefield Arts, Museums and Heritage.
The Malton Museum seminars are a great way to get very close to fascinating objects the greater part of two thousand years old for a very modest fee and a great opportunity to learn about them from leading experts in the field. One of the wonderful things about today’s seminar was being able to look at the colourful objects under a binocular microscope, which brought out the bright colours.
We show a group of enamelled bronzes on the ‘How do we know?’ table in the Ancient Worlds archaeology displays at Manchester Museum. In order to understand fully how people in antiquity did things sometimes you have to try and repeat the process yourself. This can be very informative because you are learning by doing. Manchester Museum acquired some replica enamelled objects from the British Museum that came from this branch of experimental archaeology. Manchester Museum’s examples were made by H.W.Axtell of the British Museum.
Of course with the last two images, the replicas are shown as we might find them today with their patina. The actual appearance, as Justine showed us in one of her publications, would have been far more garish and, frankly, bling-ish! See Justine Bayley’s paper ‘Bling bling & Co: Tout ce qui brille a Morat et marsens n’est pas or’ in Archeoquiz Enquetes Archaeologiques Fibourgeoises (2012), pp 114-5.
Enamel was used to decorate a range of small decorative objects including brooches, seal-boxes, buckle plates, button-and-loop fasteners, studs, votive stands and a few larger objects such as vessels. Justine showed us an image of a beautiful inkwell decorated with panels of millefiori enamel.
Enamel is essentially glass that is fused to the metal and is brightly coloured and usually opaque. It dates from the 1st into the 2nd centuries AD, after which it ceased to be fashionable. The site of Nornour came up in conversation as a place where lots of enamelled Roman bronzes were found. It reminded me that Dan, one of the Visitor Services Assistants at Manchester Museum, shared some photos he’d taken of a visit to one of the museums in the Scilly Isles.