Roman Southwark

By Judy Aitken, Curator of the Cuming Museum

For more than 2000 years, Southwark has been a place of settlement, business and trade.  The Romans established a foothold on the south bank of the Thames shortly after establishing their city of Londinium on the north bank from around AD50.

This southern location, around present day Borough High Street, then grew into a major “suburb” feeding the new trade and travel routes to the South coast and thrived under nearly 400 years of Roman rule.  Sites and artefacts have been found all over Roman Southwark helping us to build a picture of this fascinating period.

Roman Cinerary chest lid (C15232)

The Cuming Museum has over 600 items of Romano British archaeology in its collections, some dating from the earliest days of archaeological excavation.  Early digs in Egypt tended to be focussed on excavating treasure for profit, rather than intellectual understanding and most found their way to traders.

Richard Cuming, the founder of the collection, would have purchased or traded for curios from these digs.  Henry Syer Cuming, his son, was much more interested in archaeology as a discipline.  But even so was keen to take items given to him by workmen who were themselves “excavating” London for new roads, embankments, tube tunnels and other developments.  Henry tended towards Roman British finds rather than Ancient Egypt and there are a large number of small, often personal artefacts from all over London.

The rest of the Cuming’s archaeology collections come from digs during the 20th century.  Professional archaeologists such as Kathleen Kenyon, who went on to make her name as one of the world’s foremost archaeologists in places such as Jordan, carried out extensive excavation of sites around Borough High Street.  Look out for a blog about her soon!

The Southwark and Lambeth Archaeological Excavation Committee (SLAEC), which continues to this day, also carried out extensive excavations of sites.  Much of the material came to the Cuming Museum as the nearest place of repository.

However, in the late 20th century the main place of repository for archaeological excavation material was the Museum of London.  The Cuming’s collections still contain large amounts of material from Kenyon’s and SLAEC’s digs however, and we are working with Museum of London to review it all.

Roman Hunter God statue (C15236)

London Borough of Southwark still supervises major digs in the borough, along with professional archaeology companies such as Pre-Construct and Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) as the north of the borough in particular is rich in archaeological evidence.  Companies who want to build or alter premises have to have an archaeological survey carried out and if there are finds then work can be paused in order for archaeologists to record and preserve the sites and any material.

“Pots and Prayers” is a new free exhibition at Morley College, giving a glimpse of Southwark’s Roman story by showcasing from the collections of the Cuming Museum.

It will run from Wednesday 1 March to Wednesday 19 April 2017 and will be in the college’s main foyer.

Events during the exhibition run include talks, walks around Roman Southwark and creative workshops. Families will be able to make Roman mosaics, try a toga or create a Roman city.

While the exhibition only scratches the surface, you will be able to learn a lot more during Morley’s 10 week Roman London course, starting Wednesday 26 April 2017.

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Amazing Aeronauts

By Judy Aitken, Curator of the Cuming Museum

Throughout our history we humans have been fascinated by the idea of flying and have admired and venerated the creatures which can do this with ease.

Great Montgolfier Balloon ascent. Surrey Zoological Gardens. 1838.

Hot air balloons were our first successful flight technology capable of carrying humans.

Although tethered and unmanned attempts were made for centuries beforehand, people only managed to sustain a proper balloon ‘free flight’ in the late 18th century when in 1783 the Montgolfier brothers managed to get their balloon, manned by fellow Frenchmen Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent d’Arlande, to fly untethered at around 1000 metres, for 10 minutes.

It seems this act had as big an impact on the popular imagination of the time as the moon landing did in 1969. Balloon images were everywhere, in clothing, jewellery and endless prints of the feat.

But while NASA took some time to send the first women into space, the first lady balloonists started appearing only a year after the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon first flew.

In 1784 Elisabeth Thible made a voyage in a hot air balloon that was to spark a forty year popular obsession with women “aeronauts”.  Women like Jeanne-Genevieve Labrosse, Elisa Garnarin, Sophie Blanchard, Lizzie Ilhling Wise, Wilhelmine Reichard, Carlotta (Mary) Myers, Leila Adair, the fabulously named Leona Dare and Mrs (Margaret) Graham all took to the skies, many in solo flights.  These women became famous and celebrated although very few are spoken of today. Most were doing it for thrills, many became world-wide sensations, some were doing it as stunts with their male partners and some, like Wilhelmina Reichard, were also undertaking scientific experiments.

Sophie Blanchard was the most famous of these and her tiny, timid and bird like character apparently completely changed once off the ground.  She toured alone and was highly successful until a fatal crash in 1819 ended not only her life but also some of the audience’s taste for ballooning – although it surged again in later years.

Female balloonists were famous across France, Germany and America, while Britain’s own sensation, Mrs Margaret Graham, was making a splash nearer to home.

I first came across references to this lady in posters in our collections for events taking place in Walworth at the Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens.  Mrs Graham claimed to be the only English female aeronaut, which might have been true, but her posters also claimed she was the “only female aeronaut in Europe” which, given the number of other ‘balloonistas’ at the time, was probably poetic licence.

Mrs Graham's balloon ascent. Surrey Zoological Gardens. 1837.

As a skilled self-promoter she knew a good story when she saw one and wrote thrilling accounts of her exploits, including the time when, just as she was touching down, a man with a lit taper came up behind the balloon and accidentally set fire to it.

Margaret Graham at first worked with her husband in their joint balloon ascents but by the 1840s he had all but stopped.  Mrs Graham carried on alone, occasionally accompanied by one or more of her seven children, especially her daughter Alice.

Balloonists risked life and limb, particularly as they were fond of setting off fireworks from the balloon cars once in the air, which, although spectacular, seems unwise.  Balloons were filled by attaching to gas valves and Mrs Graham recounts “filling up” at Lambeth gas works before a flight – which sounds a hair-raisingly risky operation.

Mrs Graham had her share of accidents, including one which caused her to miscarry, but she often turned these to her advantage as she used the danger to promote the next flight after her recovery.

Unlike many of the intrepid balloonists she lived a long life and died peacefully in bed well into her seventies.

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After the fire

By Judy Aitken, Curator of the Cuming Museum

Three years ago, on 25 March 2013, a huge fire severely damaged the Walworth Town Hall building.  The Cuming Museum had its public display galleries on the ground floor of that building, with over 900 objects in display.

All museums dread major incidents like this and we all have strategies in place to deal with them.  The London Fire Brigade also has rescue plans in place for historic buildings and objects.  Top priority is always life and limb, but once assured people are safe the fire brigade works hard to help preserve what they can.

In the Cuming Museum’s case the emergency personnel did a brilliant job of rescuing over half the objects on the day of the fire and the museum team spent the next year salvaging and recovering more of the museum’s collections.

Cuming Museum displayLike most museums, the Cuming only ever had a fraction of its collections on display at any one time but new objects were exhibited all the time through temporary exhibitions.  The rest of the collection was safely stored elsewhere and was not affected – but even so the job of conserving the material affected by the fire was a big one.

Damaged historic buildings, objects and archives are cared for by trained conservators.  Many museums have these on staff but as a small museum the Cuming does not, so had to seek out a firm which could tackle the job.  Many conservators work alone and large firms are rare.  So to treat several hundred objects at one time would mean big pressure on even the largest firm.  For this reason the objects were sent in small batches so the chosen firms could assess, conserve and return them in a manageable way.

Plowden and Smith was the main firm selected to take on the bulk of the job.  They have several different conservation specialisms, from wood and ceramics, to paper and textiles.

The museum’s insurance covered the cost of work but only to return the objects to the condition they were in before the fire.  It was decided that most of the objects would be cleaned and very gently conserved.

When you think of a fire in a museum (or anywhere else for that matter) you automatically assume most of the damage comes from flames or smoke.  However in our case very little was touched by the fire itself and not even very smoke damaged.  The big problems came from water damage and broken glass.

The fire brigade uses tons of water to extinguish major fires.  It saturates everything and gets absolutely everywhere.  It has to be done, but the water itself causes a lot of problems during the later clean up.

Also in the Cuming’s case, in order to get at the objects the fire brigade had to smash their way into the high quality cases used for display.  The glass in these kind of cases is designed to turn to powder when struck and this powder liberally coated most of the objects.

So Plowden and Smith, along with two other conservation firms who took on very specialist material, had two tasks: to deal with moisture damage and to get out all the glass.

Simon Moore and Janie Lightfoot Textiles joined the conservation effort focussing on taxidermy and rare pacific island material from the first voyages by Europeans to the region, most famously Captain Cook.

Janie Lightfoot Textiles’ team dealt with glass too, but their major work was severely damaged pieces, such as the kid gloves which had become very shrunken due to the water and heat.

Taxidermy is the Marmite of museum collections.  People either love it or hate it.  Modern taxidermy is making a comeback but our taxidermy is very old and we would never collect new kinds.

Our most famous “stuffed” animal is our little black bear, which Richard Cuming bought at a sale in 1806 from the Leverian Museum.  This museum was a very early museum and, in the late 18th century, was based just off Blackfriars Road.  The bear was on display from the very first moment when the Cuming Museum opened in 1906, and many generations of children remember him.

Being furry, he was covered in glass and dust after the fire and Simon Moore, an expert in restoring natural history objects, spent an incredibly long time extracting it all while at the same time trying not to pull out any hair – either his or the bear’s.

In another example, the conservator at Plowden and Smith removed all the glass from the velvet associated with Queen Caroline’s funeral coffin. Leaving the glass would just mean the damage would continue.

Work on objects like these took well over 18 months to complete. Not everything merited attention and the instruction was, for most objects, to do the least needed in order to preserve them.  However some objects needed a lot of work and were significant enough to need resources focussed on them.  In a future blog we’ll look at the giraffe sculpture from the lost “Walworth Zoo”. The sculpture is the only surviving memento of the Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens.

Meanwhile the collection is in storage but continues to be exhibited and digitised in anticipation of new space. The Cuming team in particular is grateful for all the help it received to rescue the collection and the enormous amount of good will and support from the community.

 

 

Weighing of the Heart

By Judy Aitken, Curator of the Cuming Museum

At this time of year the heart is everywhere: on a card, represented in chocolate or even on your sleeve.  The Ancient Egyptians, however, saw the heart not as a romantic symbol but as the key to getting into heaven.

Egyptian death rituals demanded that most organs were removed from the deceased and preserved in jars along with the mummified body so that they would serve a function in the Afterlife.

The heart and the brain were treated differently.  The brain was thrown away, as it wasn’t thought useful (some days I’m sure we can all sympathise with that).  But the heart was preserved and put back inside the body cavity. In some cases an amulet in the shape of a heart or other important symbol would serve if the real heart was damaged or decayed.

Ancient Egyptian Heart AmuletAncient Egyptians regarded the heart as the most important organ of all.  For them, it was the seat of memory, intelligence and emotion. But, crucially, the heart was also the passport to the Afterlife.

After death the souls of the dead would be judged and the successful were admitted into heaven.  The unsuccessful would be erased from memory, a terrible fate.

The judgement took place through the “weighing of the heart” ceremony.

FeatherFirst of all the dead soul, on arrival at the entrance to the Afterlife, would have to undertake rituals and state their case for acceptance.  Then the god Anubis would take them to the Hall of Maat and weigh their heart against the weight of a feather.

If the heart and feather balanced then the dead person was judged to be good and passed into a happy eternity.

If the heart outweighed the feather then it was judged to be heavy with guilt due to all the bad deeds the person had committed in life.

That soul was then cast away to oblivion.  The god Thoth recorded the verdict in his book and the heart of the bad person would then be eaten by Ammit, the “gobbler” goddess. Part crocodile, part lion, part hippo, she sat by Thoth ready for a meal.

So whether this Valentine’s day finds you with a light or heavy heart just think: Anubis might be watching and Ammit might be smacking her lips for a chance of a snack!