archaeology

London: The Havering Hoard @ Museum of Docklands

Much as I’ve missed visiting museums, I have to admit that I am primarily a food-driven individual, and I have missed visiting markets even more. One of the places I’ve been dying to go back to is Greenwich Market, solely for the sake of getting a Brazilian churro, surely one of the most delicious foods ever invented. But Greenwich is an awfully long way to travel just for the sake of a churro (though I have been known to do it in the past), and so I tried to tie a museum visit into the experience. The National Maritime Museum is usually a prime candidate, but their special exhibition is currently just portraits from the National Portrait Gallery, and I frankly don’t see why I should pay to see that when I can just wait until the NPG reopens and see it for free. But the Museum of London Docklands is not terribly far from Greenwich (I tend to think of everything on the DLR as being close together, even though it’s actually not, but it’s fun to ride, and where else can you find places named Mudchute and Island Gardens right next to each other? (Spoiler: Island Gardens is not any nicer than Mudchute. The names are meaningless)), and they currently have a temporary exhibition on the Havering Hoard, which is on until 22 August and is free – you just need to pre-book a free general admission ticket to see it.

  

My interest in hoards is admittedly pretty minimal, but Marcus was interested in seeing it, and when a friend wanted to meet up that day, I suggested he join us as well. Even though it was a Sunday, the museum wasn’t all that busy, especially the Havering Hoard gallery. I guess we should have researched what the Havering Hoard actually was before turning up, because we were all envisioning a collection of precious objects in silver and gold, maybe some coins and jewellery, you know, nice stuff that someone would keep hidden away for a reason. Well, the Havering Hoard is not that. Instead, it is a collection of late Bronze Age pottery shards (sherds) and other practical items, like axe handles, found in the London Borough of Havering (that I had really only heard of because they were one of the few London boroughs that voted for Brexit, which pretty much automatically put them on my shit list) in 2018. It is apparently the third largest Bronze Age hoard found in the UK, consisting of 453 separate objects, though if most of those objects are broken pieces of pottery, is it really that exciting?

 

Well, maybe to archaeologists, but not really to me or Marcus or our friend. The exhibition wasn’t very large because only a selection of the objects were on display (either because all sherds basically look the same, or because they just didn’t want to excite us too much), but we did take the time to read all the signage, which mainly consisted of descriptions of how the objects in the hoard would have been made, and theories as to why they may have been buried (personally, I would say it was because it all looked like garbage, and that was actually one of the theories! The others were to keep it safe, as an offering to the gods, or as a symbol of status, though I can’t see how the last one could be true. How could you show your power by hiding everything away where no one could see it?). In my opinion, the best part of the exhibition was the foot pedals that illuminated x-rays of the hoard on one of the walls. Covid safe and fun! My friend had somehow never been to the Museum of Docklands before, so we went for a stroll through the permanent galleries, which looked the same as the last time I visited, except for a cool treadwheel thing I had somehow never noticed before (maybe because it was always full of children in the past), so Covid be damned, we had to give it a go (there was a hand sanitiser dispenser nearby, so we just sanitised before and after) and it proved to be super fun but also kind of dangerous, because it was very easy to fall over once it got going.

   

Having finished with Museum of Docklands, we finally headed over to Greenwich to grab that sweet, sweet dulce de leche filled churro, and god was it worth travelling for. I just wish they’d get another stall somewhere closer to me (if I ever have a belated wedding reception, I’m going to ask them to cater it). And more delights awaited us when we walked over to Deptford to see the Peter the Great statue. I don’t know how I’ve lived in London as long as I have without laying eyes on this masterpiece, but it is seriously one of the most hilarious statues I have ever seen, and so inexplicable. Why is Peter’s head so small? Why does the little person have flies on his coat? Why does the throne have what is either Pan or a demon head on the back (I assume the eyes and ears are to show that Peter was all-seeing and all-hearing)? Why are there random dishes of food on the back of the sculpture? So many questions.

 

The plaque on the sculpture wasn’t massively helpful, telling us that it was here because Peter visited Deptford in 1698 to learn more about shipbuilding, and the statue was a gift from the Russian people to commemorate this, though it wasn’t built until 2000. I did a bit of research online, and the stories about Peter’s time in London are frankly as insane as the sculpture. He visited London under an assumed name, though as he was almost seven feet tall and the ruler of Russia, this probably wasn’t all that effective in disguising his identity. He was trying to modernise Russia, and learning about shipbuilding in London was part of this effort. He rented the diarist John Evelyn’s house, and by all accounts, completely destroyed it with his drunken carousing. His entourage included a little person (Peter was known for his fascination with genetic abnormalities, and he had a retinue of people with dwarfism as well as an army of extremely tall people) who he allegedly pushed on a wheelbarrow through Evelyn’s famous gardens, thus wrecking them. His head was a normal size in real life, but the sculptor who made this (Mihail Chemiakin, who was forced to leave the USSR in the 1970s for being too controversial) seems to only be able to sculpt tiny heads, so I guess that explains that one. The rest of it is still a mystery, but it is glorious (Prince Michael of Kent did the unveiling, and I would have killed to be there. How could you not die laughing when the cloth got pulled off to reveal this?), and we spent a good hour sitting on a bench nearby, chatting and basking in the weirdness of this statue (and watching the reactions of other passersby also seeing it for the first time), and I decided that if I ever become emperor of the world, I will have a throne just like this one. Highly recommended, much more so than the Havering Hoard exhibition!

London: The Mithraeum

The London Mithraeum has been on my to-do list for a long time, but because Ancient Romans aren’t exactly a priority, I kept putting it off. But since I knew I’d be in the area anyway for a training course, and I was taking a trip to Rome the week following, I thought I might as well get myself in the mood by looking at some Roman ruins right here in London (I also made potato pizza al metro style, which is one of my favourite things to eat in Rome, but that was more because I had potatoes and slightly mouldy Gruyere to use up, and because you can never have too much pizza). Planning ahead with the Mithraeum is key, since they strongly encourage you to pre-book a free slot.

The Mithraeum is located in the Bloomberg building, which I was a little concerned about finding since the City is very easy to get lost in, but it is located right next to one of the many entrances to Bank Station and is clearly signposted outside. I arrived about twenty minutes early because my course had finished a bit sooner than anticipated, but I was welcomed right in (though I was asked for my ticket as soon as I walked through the door, so clearly they are serious about the pre-booking, even though it wasn’t busy at all when I was there), and given an introduction to the three floors of the space, which made it sound quite grand. The reality is a little bit different. The ground floor is meant to be the gallery space, though I really didn’t get the current installation at all, nor was there any explanation provided. It just seemed to be a load of bottles sitting on a tiled cube, with some tiled benches to one side that may or may not have been part of the installation.

The highlight of this section was definitely the big wall o’artefacts, actually a wall of Roman ruins excavated from the site, which were beautifully arranged and had a rack full of tablets next to them that you could pick up and use to learn more about each object. I’ve never seen shards of pottery referred to as “sherds” before, as they were here, but perhaps it’s an Anglicism I’m unfamiliar with (I asked my curator colleague about it at work, and she informs me that you come across it occasionally, but shard is more common now. I guess they’re more or less interchangeable, except in the case of the building. Maybe I’ll start calling it the “Sherd” just to be weird). Had I known how underwhelming the other floors would be, I might have spent more time studying the wall, but as it was, I only spent about five minutes looking at it before heading down to the mezzanine level.

This contained replicas of exactly three objects, each with a touch screen where you could learn more about it: the head of Mithras, the Tauroctony (a plaque with a bull on it, basically), and a replica of the original temple. Now seems like an appropriate time to get into the history of the site that I’ve been neglecting up til now. Basically, like pretty much everywhere in the Square Mile, this area was part of the original Londinium, Roman London. In 1952, a temple was discovered during the course of excavating a bomb site. This was the Mithraeum, a 3rd century temple dedicated to the god Mithras, who appears to have been known mainly for slaying a bull. Not much is known about the Cult of Mithras, except for it was men-only and probably involved drinking in some capacity, but it was certainly popular, as 100 different Mithraea have been discovered all over the former Roman Empire. The one in London was dismantled in 1954 and reconstructed in a different site, but when Bloomberg bought the original site in 2010, they agreed to move the temple roughly back to where it was discovered, which is where it is today.

They clearly have tried to turn the Mithraeum into a bit more of an experience than what is merited by what is actually here. They only let people in every twenty minutes to the actual ruins, so you just have to hang out in the dark mezzanine area with the three illuminated objects in the meantime, which is why I regretted not spending more time on the ground level. Once you are actually inside, you experience, as they call it, “an ephemeral installation,” aka some sound and light effects: hazy light and a recording of some men mumbling in Latin. The lights gradually come up so you can actually view the ruins, which are underwhelming at best, but that is what I tend to think about all ruins. I was wondering whether I had to stay in here for the whole twenty minutes, because I’d more than finished with the ruins after about three (there being nothing to read within the temple itself), when some guy came out and told us a bit more about the site. Apparently 80% of the ruins are original, and 20% are a reconstruction, which I assume includes the metal figure of Mithras and a bull in the middle of the altar. Fortunately, after he finished talking, people started to leave, so I felt free to make my escape too.

As I always feel when something is free, I can’t complain overmuch, but the word “underwhelming,” which I’ve already used at least twice in this post, is the main thing that comes to mind. Apparently the old site wasn’t much visited, and I think they’ve tried to jazz it up a little to make it more of an attraction, but there’s only so much you can do with ruins. I suppose if they’d tried to get more artefacts in they could have made more out of it, but most of those, including ones found on the site (other than what’s on the display wall) are now housed at the Museum of London. So I’ll give it 2/5. It’s nice that they’ve tried to preserve it, and maybe people who actually like the Romans (not me, though Mary Beard tries her best (and to be fair to her, her programmes are interesting, I’m just not motivated to learn more after I finish watching them)) will get more out of it, but I certainly wasn’t thrilled.