This morning it was my turn to lead a short gallery tour for the VSAs or Visitor Services Assistants. A curator leads a tour looking at a particular aspect of the displays or the collections to help brief the Visitor Assistants every week. As quite a lot of work has already been done on this very Blog on the topic of enamelled objects from Roman Britain I decided to take some seldom-seen objects from the store out onto the gallery and talk to colleagues about this material which I think is particularly attractive even in the condition to which it has been reduced by the passing of time and Manchester’s notoriously acidic soils… It was great to see Anna Bunney, Curator of Public Programmes, who came along to support the tour and gather ideas for future events and activities.
We started off at the second table in the Ancient Worlds gallery where visitors can see a selection of some of the enamelled material in the collection. Some of the most beauriful objects are actually replicas made by Mr H.W.Axtell of the British Museum but I have not been able to find out anything about the gentleman and his work. Nevertheless, it is thanks to him that we have an idea of how visually striking the pieces were when they were complete, although he has shown them with their dark green patina rather than the brassy, golden yellow colour they would have had when new. I am very grateful to Justine Bayley for sending me a reconstruction drawing of an enamelled wheel brooch as it would have looked in the Roman period. This is cheap, flashy dress jewellery or bling but none the less attractive on that account.
Justine’s detail of one of the compartments in the brooch above shows how delicate the work in millefiori could be.
One of the most beautiful pieces in the Manchester collection is a small fragment of bronze inlaid with millefiori from the Roman Manchester excavations of Prof G.D.B.Jones (1978).
I toyed with the idea of putting it on display as part of the Ancient Worlds galleries but decided reluctantly it would have been too small for visitors to see and enjoy. The item is only 2 cm across and each of the millefiori squares with a dot in each corner is just 3mm wide. I suspected initially this might have been part of a seal-box used to protect a wax seal from damage whilst a document or a package was in transit but having looked at the Portable Antiquities Scheme database I am now convinced that this was indeed a brooch (see Kent-980761 and IOW-F3E8F4). The Manchester example has a round countersunk area on its back which is very similar to the Isle of Wight example. Justine Bayley very kindly drew my attention to her book (with Sarnia Butcher) Roman Brooches in Britain: a Technological and Typological Study based on the Richborough Collection (Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London, no.68, 2004), which features a number of such brooches on p.127 (Nos 363, 364, 367) and more schematic
ones on p.177 (T227 and T240).
Justine commented: “These brooches are small and decorative rather than being used to hold your clothes together so you’d want to keep weight to a minimum. It’s possible that the enamel may bond better or more easily if the metal backing is not too thick which could be another reason for the design. I suspect the overall reason for the shape is practical/technical rather than economic, but there’s never any point in using more metal than you need to! In some cases you can see concentric marks in the hollow so either the pattern from which the mould was made or the finished object was ‘turned’, ground or polished with a rotating movement.”
Thanks to Louise for photographing this morning’s session and to Justine Bayley for kindly providing photographs and sending comments.