Tag Archives: British Museum

When is a hoard not a hoard?

In the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in the University of Birmingham there is a black box, about as big as the ones A4 printer paper come in, which contains 275 coins. Almost all of them are copper-alloy of some description and they are collectively known as either the Balkans Hoard or the Heathrow Hoard. I was faced with this even before I began work there as Interim Curator of Coins, because they used it as an interview test, and they will never know how I only had the faintest idea what any of it was because of frantic reading of Philip Grierson the week before.1 (Never.) One of my assigned responsibilities while in that job was to produce a report on this box, which I duly did in February 2016, by which stage I also had a master’s student working on it for her dissertation and plans actually to publish it with her. Somehow, by the end of my tenure in post those plans had not much advanced, and so in October 2015 as I gathered my various responsibilities up in the new job I decided that this project was still among them, and stubbed this post to tell you about it. As it happens, a few days ago I signed off the first part of the project, a skeleton formal catalogue, and so it’s all very timely how these things (slowly) come around.

A copper-alloy follis of Emperor Anastasius I, struck at Antioch in 498-518, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0151

A copper-alloy follis of Emperor Anastasius I, struck at Antioch in 498-518, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0151. This isn’t one of the coins in the box; I don’t seem to have a picture of any of the folles therein, but it’s not unlike them except by being from Antioch; there’re only a couple of Antioch coins in there, and they’re both of Justinian I.

I noticed even at the interview that this supposed hoard was not one, at least as the word is usually understood. The most obviously identifiable components were big early folles of Emperors Anastasius I (491-518), Justin I (518-527), Justinian I (527-565) and Justin II (565-574), but on the other hand a goodly part of what was in the box was concave billon, and so late-eleventh-century or later. The implied 500-year span pretty much precludes this being a single assemblage; while certainly folles circulated for a very long time, it’s not half a millennium by anyone’s reckoning and the concave coins and the old flat ones probably couldn’t have been part of the same system. (Probably. Assuming there was actually a system. Anyway…)

Billon aspron trachy of Emperor John III Ducas, otherwise known as John Vatatzes, struck at Thessalonica in 1249-1254, Barber Institute of Fine Arts BH0173

This is a lot more like what the state of the ‘hoard’ is generally like, and is, we think, a billon aspron trachy of Emperor John III Ducas, otherwise known as John Vatatzes, struck at Thessalonica in 1249-1254. You can imagine how much fun the identification was… The Barber has not formally accessioned the ‘hoard’, but this coin’s provisional access number is Barber Institute of Fine Arts BH0173. Not to scale with previous coin.

Further investigation only deepened this paradox. Firstly this was because we were able to identify more of the components. The later end included not just this twelfth-century concave stuff, mainly of Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) but some later still, but bits and pieces of the Latin Empire of Constantinople and its Thessalonican rival and really quite a lot of medieval Bulgarian material, most of all of Tsar Ivan Alexander (1331-1371) though again, a bit later. The absolute outlier was a grano of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1519-1558)! Meanwhile, we had checked into the provenance, because the ‘hoard’ had originally come to us from the British Museum, and we had only received the Byzantine portion. It turned out that what they had kept was another 400-odd coins, mostly from the period of the Roman Empire but going back as far as Alexander the Great (336 BC-323 BC). So that date range was now up to nearly 1900 years and the issues of some very different states. It’s not a hoard!

Copper-alloy asarion of Tsar Ivan Alexander and his son Michael, struck at an unknown location in 1331-55, provisionally numbered Barber Institute of Fine Arts BH0088.

Copper-alloy asarion of Tsar Ivan Alexander and his son Michael, struck at an unknown location in 1331-55, provisionally numbered Barber Institute of Fine Arts BH0088. Not to scale with previous coin, though it is actually smaller.

Except, it kind of is. A hoard is by definition an assemblage of valuable items (whether personally or monetarily valuable) deposited with the intent of recovery, right?2 Well, the other documentation we got from the British Museum clarified a lot of things. This particular assemblage was deposited in a set of carrier bags, behind a loose panel in a bathroom on board an aeroplane staging through London Heathrow airport on its way between Sofia and Washington DC. If that’s a ritual deposit, I’m pretty sure it’s only because shipping stuff out of Bulgaria to sell on the US market has now become almost a regular practice.3 Someone was meant to pick this up. As it happened instead, it was discovered by a cleaner and taken over by Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise, who decided in due course that there was no prospect of returning it to its owner and that therefore it fell under a legal doctrine called ‘last resort’, which meant that rather than lose it to world heritage by dumping it on the open market it could be deposited with a UK museum. So the British Museum got it and gave some of it to the Barber. (This was in 2004; I believe the law about this changed in 2008.) It’s a fascinating group, has some actual numismatic novelties in it we think, and the combination of what’s in there allows one to make some educated guesses about where it was coming from (which my student bravely did, on the back of considerable research4), but it’s most fascinating as a collection, I think, because of the story by which it has become a hoard. It’s one of the things I’m working on, anyway, and, while it is temporarily out of my court, you can expect some day to hear more about it here.


1. Reading, of course, P. Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982) which, if it doesn’t have all the answers, at least has most of the questions and some good guesses with illustrations to help. If you ever have to gen up on Byzantine coinage in a week, I recommend it!

2. For example, P. Grierson, Numismatics (Oxford 1975), p. 125: “A hoard is by definition a group of coins or other valuables which was concealed as a unit….”

3. This is the bit that needs the most substantiation, really, isn’t it? But you could start with Tihomir Bezlov & Emil Tzenkov, Organized Crime in Bulgaria: markets and trends (Sofia 2007), pp. 177-198, or Nathan T. Elkins, “A Survey of the Material and Intellectual Consequences of Trading in Undocumented Ancient Coins: A Case Study on the North American Trade” in Frankfurter elektronische Rundschau zur Altertumskunde Vol. 7 (2008), pp. 1–13, online at http://s145739614.online.de/fera/ausgabe7/Elkins.pdf, last modified October 2, 2008, as of October 12, 2009. I found these cites while researching what became Jonathan Jarrett, Reinhold Hüber-Mork, Sebastian Zambanini & Achille Felicetti, “Coinage, Digitization and the World-Wide Web: Numismatics and the COINS Project” in Brent H. Nelson & Melissa Terras (edd.), Digitizing Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture, New Technologies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies 3 (Tempe: University of Arizona Press 2012), pp. 459-489, but look, they have become useful again because the problem did not end with what these people knew about…

4. I can’t replicate her bibliography here, not least as I don’t have a copy, but the place to start for the Anglophone is D. Michael Metcalf, Coinage in South-Eastern Europe 820-1396, Royal Numismatic Society Special Publication 11 (London 1979), even now.

Link

An array of interesting links

I tend to store up interesting links against a day when I have no content to post, but the backlog situation has meant that not only does that never occur any more but that the links themselves get very old. I thought it was about time to clear some out! I had so many that categories seem necessary, even. So let me humbly suggest that you may wish to click to learn more about the following:

    Things from out of the ground

    A Celtic disc brooch looted by Vikings and now in the British Museum

    A Celtic disc brooch looted by Vikings and now in the British Museum, see below

  1. In no particular order, a previously-undiscovered Viking fortress, at Vallø in Denmark, located in mid-2014 by laser imaging and ground-penetrating radar;
  2. I have been known, in my cynical past, to say that the best way to hide an archæological discovery you wish to keep secret is to give it to the British Museum, due to their cataloguing backlog, but I was not wholly serious obviously, whereas this is a bit ridiculous (but has that brooch in it);
  3. further stuff has also been found, as is now de rigeur for all credible archæology in the UK, under a car-park, in Haddenham in Cambridgeshire where they hit what seems to have been a small sixth-century Anglo-Saxon cemetery during development work in February 2014;
  4. some eighth- to -tenth-century bodies found stuffed in a well Entrains-sur-Nohain in Burgundy provoke the writer of that post to several equally hypothetical Carolingian-history explanations
  5. an Iron Age hillfort at Broxmouth in East Lothian, Scotaland (just), has revealed what seems to be evidence of fifth-century BC steel-making;
  6. and there has been an array of hoards discovered that need their own subsection:
    A silver lidded vessel of Carolingian date recovered in a hoard from Dumfries in 2014

    A silver lidded vessel of Carolingian date recovered in a hoard from Dumfries described below

    1. a hoard of Viking silver loot, including what was once a really nice Carolingian lidded ewer or similar, found near Dumfries in south-west Scotland in late 2014;
    2. “one of the largest Roman coin hoards ever discovered in Britain”, 22,000 or so third-century coins found in Devon in November 2013 but only breaking into the news in September last year; I think Georgia Michael told me about this one so hat tip to her;
    3. and although 5,000 coins suddenly seems like not so big a deal, nonetheless, for the Anglo-Saxon period it is; I’m pretty sure this find nearly doubles the amount of King Cnut’s coinage known to exist in the UK, for example, and this one I definitely do owe to Georgia so off that hat comes once again;
    4. Posed photograph of some gold dinars from a hoard found off the coast of Israal

      I would not let someone do this with a gold find even before it had been catalogued, myself, but I am not the Israel Antiquities Authority, in whose care this hoard of Fatimid gold dinars ended up (see left)

    5. and two thousand is hardly trying, but firstly these ones were gold and secondly they were off the coast of Israel, dating to the reigns of the tenth- and eleventh-century Fatimid caliphs Al-Ḥākim and Al-Ẓāhir, and possibly coming from a sunken tax shipment, which I bet has caused a lot more diving since the news came out and which news I owe, once more, to Georgia Michael, who must have got the idea that I like coins or something…

    Things afoot in the research world (including those parts of it that blog)

  7. A new(-ish) project running out of Oxford to map all the various hillforts of the British Isles, presumably including that of Broxmouth above…
  8. … out of which project came the following endeavours from my native land, with lots to read if hillforts are of interest to you;
  9. a thorough and useful set of suggestions about what was wrong with the UK’s Research Excellence Framework exercise, not including its terrible name but with many other good points, from the self-appointed but persuasive Council for the Defence of British Universities (and here I owe a tip of the hat to Professor Naomi Standen);
  10. more light-heartedly, here is a reason for scribal errors that I had never considered, and still rather wish I hadn’t given some of the suggested remedies;
  11. a suggestion from a doctoral researcher at Sheffield that the current male fashion for extreme facial hair has medieval precedents, and plenty of modern ones too (a tip of the hat here to one of the Australian Medievalists);
  12. Things from out of the archive

    Fragments of a mid-seventh-century manuscript of the Qu'ran in the Mingana Collection, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham

    Fragments of a mid-seventh-century manuscript of the Qu’ran in the Mingana Collection, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham, see below

  13. Some extra fragments of illustration from the Catalan comital cartulary known as the Liber Feudorum Maior have been rediscovered!
  14. Following our theme of materials for the study of Anglo-Saxon England feared forever lost to scholarship, you may not necessarily be aware that after much deliberation about what to do with it, Professors Stephen Baxter and John Hudson have published the unfinished second volume of Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law on the Early English Laws website as Patrick Wormald, Papers Preparatory to the Making of English Law, vol. II, for which many people may be very grateful;
  15. the Vatican Library’s digitisation project has a new website and a much more searchable catalogue, though it does admittedly appear to be broken just now;
  16. and, to end with something at least that is very new and exciting, we have a lot of people coming to the Barber Institute just now because they have not read far enough down this story to realise that the very very early Qu’ran manuscript it describes is not yet on display here, but it is still extremely exciting!

Seminar CLXXXVI: making sense of Glastonbury

There are a great many seminars to interest medievalists in London of a term-time, but the two that most usually cross my radar are, of course, the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and the Joint Medieval Seminar of the UCL Institute of Archaeology and the British Museum. I can’t usually get to both in the same week, but in recent years they have got round this for me (and maybe some others, hey) by coinciding for the first instance of the latter each year in order to host the David Wilson Lecture in Medieval Studies. This year the speaker will be Guy Halsall, which should be fun; last year it was Professor Robert Gilchrist, which certainly was. She was speaking with the title “Glastonbury Abbey: reinterpreting the Anglo-Saxon archaeology”.

Interior of Lady Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey, looking eastwards

Interior of Lady Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey, looking eastwards

Glastonbury Abbey is of course a site in which many people are interested, for reasons not always critically historical, but it’s certainly of deep academic interest too: largely because of the testimony of William of Malmesbury, it has been held to be the earliest Christian site in Britain, St Patrick’s foothold in England, the first cloister in the country and also a place with pyramids in its cemetery.1 This is, as you can imagine, the kind of stuff that one would hope archæology might be able to check, and indeed the site has been much dug, in more-or-less continuous campaigns from 1904 to 1974, but not very much of that ever got published by any of the eight directors in charge, and what Professor Gilchrist has been doing with her team is working through the extensive surviving notes of the last excavator, C. A. Ralegh Radford, and the remaining finds, and trying to get to the point of a modern synthesis of what has actually been located by all these people.2 (Thus, she hasn’t actually done any digging, but as she said at the outset, since she isn’t an Anglo-Saxonist perhaps it’s best that she hasn’t done any damage…)

Ralegh Radford and team in the midst of the Glastonbury excavations

Ralegh Radford and team in the midst of the Glastonbury excavations

This is, as you can probably imagine, not at all simple. Radford was lone archæologist on his project, which he was doing with a rotating staff of volunteers well into retirement, and all the notes were apparently kept in his spare room and occasionally turfed off the bed to accommodate guests! He had done all his digging as narrow trenches across the site, never dug beyond the precinct and thus wound up with a very complex set of findings. This was further complicated by the fact that he was also doing the same job of synthesis with the earlier digging, which had been larger-scale and open-plan but not necessarily so well-informed (and Radford was, at least, informed by a full lifetime of digging Anglo-Saxon sites). So, he never dug the churches, but reinterpreted the findings of the previous archæologists, which had also never been fully published… It’s turtles all the way down.

Tourist map of the Glastonbury Abbey site

Tourist map of the Glastonbury Abbey site

Anyway, what Radford thought he had drawn from all this was a site of pagan or Celtic origins (despite his having no material he’d identified as earlier than eighth-century!), largely because he thought he’d found a vallum (a rampart marking a monastic precinct, usually reckoned Irish practice), on which a series of early churches were built with a cemetery in use from the seventh to tenth century, then a big rebuild under St Dunstan in the tenth century, including the cloister and many extra buildings of which one at least was a glass workshop. Reevaluation of this produces some interesting results: actually, Radford did have pre-eighth-century remains, late Roman pottery of the fifth and sixth century not recognised as such, and the glass he’d found which he took to be Dunstan’s era’s is actually very late seventh-century, and so probably relates not to Dunstan but to the endowment of the abbey by King Ine of Wessex that is its earliest documentation.3 The vallum also seems to date to the seventh century, from what little there is to date it with. But there are also signs of Dunstan’s work, too, including perhaps canalising the river to supply the abbey’s water. What there isn’t is a cloister: the sections that Radford had taken to be part of one don’t date consistently and would if joined up be about the hugest cloister that ever was. As for the cemetery, that shows no good sign of use before the eleventh century, although there are some cist graves (of that period!) with material heaped up round them that might just have been whatever William was describing as pyramids, and between them, where he said the body of King Arthur was found, there was apparently at least a really big hole dug somewhere between the twelfth and fifteenth century…

Supposed location of the tomb of King Arthur, Glastonbury Abbey

Supposed location of the tomb of King Arthur on the abbey site, pyramids not shown

So, in so far as we can give a synthesis yet, it might go like this. If there is a pre-Christian site at Glastonbury, it’s probably on the Tor, where late Roman pottery has been recovered, though that still doesn’t make religious activity up there any earlier than the current St Michael’s.4 The earliest church, in fact, was probably not there or on the abbey site, but at Street nearby. Down where the abbey now is, though, we have some evidence for fifth- and sixth-century occupation, in timber buildings that might qualify as halls, and this may even be what the vallum relates to, so, not a monastery at all then but some kind of fort like an Irish dún It was presumably in fact a royal vill, since King Ine was able to endow a church here in the seventh century, and we can be pretty sure that church had glazed windows. No sign of St Patrick sadly, though as Professor Gilchrist pointed out the wattle church of his date that William of Malmesbury records had not only burnt by William’s time, but would also have been archæologically eradicated by the current Lady Chapel, so we can never say it wasn’t there… The church that was, however, seems to have been two separate chapels on what is a common pattern for early English churches, which were as at Canterbury subsequently joined together in rebuilding, and this perhaps in the tenth century, when the site seems to get a general kick up the material scale; most of the small finds are of that period or later. Before St Dunstan, it’s hard to see very much going on here at all, and King Ine’s best attempt may not have been very long-lasting. There is also the strong possibility that the core of the site of that period was off to the north and just hasn’t been dug, however! Anyway, despite these interruptions to its noble spiritual history, the evidence for sub-Roman occupation here is actually better than Radford thought, and if it doesn’t tell us about continuity, when put in its wider context it might tell us about the shift of focus and use in a settled area during the period of sub-Roman collapse, as well as the early Saxon church later on. So apparently now Professor Gilchrist is quite keen to do some digging after all! We can but hope…

Route up to Glastonbury Tor viewed from bottom of steps

To finish with some stairs… the Tor and St Michael, viewed from (well) below


1. William of Malmesbury, De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie, transl. Frank Lomax as The Antiquities of Glastonbury (London 1906 repr. Llanerch 1992).

2. F. B. Bond, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations”, Proceedings of the Somerset Natural History and Archaeological Society Vol. 72 (Taunton 1926) pp. 13-22; Theodore Fyfe, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1926”, ibid. pp. 20-22; idem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1927”, ibid. vol. 73 (1927) pp. 86-87; C. R. Peers, A. .W. Clapham & E. Horne, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1928”, ibid. Vol. 74 (1928) pp. 1-9; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1929”, ibid. Vol. 75 (1929), pp. 26-33; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations, 1930-31”, ibid. Vol. 77 (1931), pp. 83-85; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1932”, ibid Vol. 78 (1932), pp. 109-110; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1933”, ibid. Vol. 79 (1933), p. 30; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1934”, ibid. Vol. 80 (1934), pp. 32-35; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1937”, ibid. Vol. 83 (1937), pp. 153-154; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1938”, ibid. Vol. 84 (1938), pp. 134-136; C. A. Ralegh Radford, “Excavations at Glastonbury, 1954” in Antiquity Vol. 29 (London 1955), pp. 33-34; idem, “The excavations at Glastonbury Abbey 1955” in Notes and Queries for Somerset and Dorset Vol. 27 (Wells 1958), pp. 68-73; idem, “The excavations at Glastonbury Abbey 1956-7”, ibid., pp. 165-169; and finally, synthesizing the lot, idem, “Glastonbury Abbey before 1184: interim report on the excavations, 1908-1964” in Medieval Art and Architecture at Wells and Glastonbury, British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions 4 (London 1981), pp. 110-134, supplemented later on by Humphrey Woods, “Excavations at Glastonbury Abbey 1987-1993”, Proceedings of the Somerset Natural History and Archaeological Society Vol. 138 (1994), pp. 7-73 & Oliver Kent, “Ceramic finds from archaeological excavation at Glastonbury Abbey, 1901-1979”, ibid. Vol. 140 (1997) pp. 73-104 with corrections Vol. 141 pp. 221-231. That is a total of eighty pages, more or less, with another hundred or so on the finds in the later two articles. Not so much to show for nearly as many years’ work…

3. Susan Kelly (ed.), Charters of Glastonbury Abbey, Anglo-Saxon Charters 15 (Oxford 2012), presumably no. 1, but I don’t know as the Electronic Sawyer hasn’t yet caught up with this publication.

4. See Philip Rahtz & Lorna Watts, Glastonbury: Myth & Archaeology (Stroud 2003) for details of the Tor digs and the wider landscape.

Treasures of Heaven as seen from earth

Term in Oxford started early this year, and as a consequence is now over. (If you work anywhere else in higher education, I’m sorry to dangle that in front of you.) This term has been energising but also frantic, and I’ve not been coping well with the to-do lists outside of teaching because various bits of my family have needed a lot of attention in the background, as well my general disorganisation. To stay afloat in my seven to eight hours contact time a week across six different courses, it does rather seem as if I had to sacrifice blogging, and indeed social e-mail. Well, I’m now sort of caught up on sleep and so I’m going to try and get some posts up. I have loads part-written, so hopefully this isn’t a vain promise, because after all I have a heck of a backlog. And first in it, chronologically, is the fact that I went to see the British Museum’s exhibition about saints’ relics in the Middle Ages, Treasures of Heaven on the 8th October last year, narrowly before it closed, and I wanted to say a few things about it.

Cover of the catalogue of the British Museum's exhibition Treasures of Heaven

Cover of the catalogue of the exhibition, showing the reliquary of an unknown female saint who became the face of the exhibition, and whose actual picture is firmly copyrighted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where she now once more resides

I thought this was a very good exhibition, actually—and I suppose I should mention that one of my best friends helped set it up, so I may be biased, but they had no control over what went in or how it was displayed—but not everyone I’ve spoken has agreed. There’s no question that explaining the cult of relics, or even the cult of saints more broadly, to a modern secular audience is problematic; the beatification of Cardinal Henry Newman a few years ago put this in front of the journalists and it’s still true. This is an affair mainly of belief, of ideas and notions that are largely intangible – an identifiable person in Heaven with whom the believer has some basis to feel a connection, and whom they can therefore use or conceive of as a conduit to Heaven that has special personal relevance and personal effectiveness.1 I can say that, but if you don’t believe in Heaven or worry about your salvation, then it’s still not going to be easy to take on board. Some people I’ve spoken to don’t seem to think that the British Museum tried hard enough to get the ideas across. My immediate reaction to that, as an ex-museum person, is to bluster about how hard it is to represent ideas with objects, but actually, for a start that’s exactly what these objects were for, and secondly, on reflection, I think the BM did a pretty darn good job of it, actually (and my museums experience has not always inclined me to speak kindly of the BM, so it costs me something to admit this).

A Roman votive plaque on show at the Musée du Louvre

A Roman votive plaque on show at the Musée du Louvre; not so many of the actual objects from the BM exhibition are online, and this one actually makes my point better as it's not Christian. It's also from Wikimedia Commons. The guy had problems with his eyes and a foot, it seems.

Reliquary of the Holy Thorn of Jean, Duc de Berry

Reliquary of the Holy Thorn of Jean, Duc de Berry, from Wikimedia Commons; click through for a British Museum video presentation of it

So they started with burial customs in the Roman world, and included as well as the ornamental sarcophagi that help give some idea of an Antique afterlife to the viewer, some votive plaques that open up the idea of communicating with it. Now after that, I will admit, it all went maps for a bit and I’m not sure the average viewer will have understood why they were important; I suppose that the idea was quite literally to put Christianity on the map and thus explain how ideas born in the Middle East came to be of such relevance in the areas that the exhibition largely featured, which were substantially Germany and the Low Countries although many other places too. But the context was set quite early, and after that it became much more of an art-historical progress than a religious-historical progress. I thought this was fair enough, because most of the objects were amazingly beautiful, and the mere fact that people had put that much effort and feeling into creating treasure houses for tiny bits of dead people was itself pretty religious, and there were changes in the way people worshipped revealed in the way the relics were housed, displayed and set up for use, not least because the objects displayed deliberately overlapped the Reformation and printing, and the captioning brought those out.

It’s not that I had no problems with the exhibition at all, obviously, this is me. I would have liked a few more instances of relics that weren’t body parts or bits of the True Cross, but instead things like dust and stones from the Holy Land, and so forth. There were some of these, but they were easily missed, especially as there was a number of containers for such things on display from which the actual relics had long been removed. Of course, such objects were kept bagged and even if displayed the viewer wouldn’t be able to see what they were, so I can see why not, but they were, it seems, by far the commonest sort of relic, so I thought that could have been further up front.2 There were also some issues with actual display I had. In particular I kept finding myself crouching at the edges of cases, because the lighting from above seemed to work best if one viewed the objects from below – that presumably can’t have been the intent. I know how hard this is to do, of course, especially when one’s objects are so damn shiny, but also not least when there are fabrics and perishables involved that you mustn’t subject to bright light. All the same, I expect the BM to get these things right, and I personally felt that these were only nearly right. Is the answer perhaps small lights at the corners of the cases, sometimes?

Relic shroud of St Amandus from Salzburg Cathedral

Relic shroud of St Amandus from Salzburg Cathedral; this was on display, but the image is borrowed from Columbia University, whose zoomable version is linked through. The actual fabric, unlike St Amand, is Middle Eastern

The other thing that niggled was the persistent recurrence of the phrase, “It was thought…” to explain the beliefs behind the pieces. This became especially tricky as we approached the Reformation but it also made absolutely everyone implied by the phrase as credulous as each other. Now, when students try and tell me, Terry Jones style, that medieval Christianity was basically a massive scam dream up by the Church to feather its own nest by encouraging fearful donations, those students do not fare well, but nonetheless, saints’ cults were huge earners sometimes, and people involved in them did do things to maximise their cults’ popularity and saleability.3 And if you read, for example, Chaucer, you can find people mocking this, well before Calvin’s bit about there being enough fragments of the True Cross in Europe to build a warship. Not everyone, even if Christian, reckoned all this stuff to be genuine. So, sometimes I’d have been happier to see, “It was claimed that…” or even “Some claimed that…” in these labels, just to put a bit of an edge on this `Age of Faith’ interpretation. But, mainly, I thought this exhibition was an amazing treasure house, and one that (unlike some others) it was just about possible to tour in one go. Also, the exhibition catalogue, which I caught on half price (and so can you), is absolutely gorgeous, and even if it does contain another piece on saints’ cults by Arnold Angenendt—which I’m sure many people think is a good thing—there is lots of interesting writing alongside the amazing objects.4 So I’ll finish this with a selection of some of the objects I was most struck by (where images of them are legitimately available on the open web, at least).

Bell shrine of St Conall Cael, Abbot of Inishkeel

Bell shrine of St Conall Cael, Abbot of Inishkeel, fifteenth-century shrine round a seventh-to-eighth-century bell; again, from Columbia Art Museum's Treasures of Heaven pages

Chapel of St MacDara, St MacDara's Island

Chapel of St MacDara, St MacDara's Island

I liked this one so much not because it is individually special, though it is, but because the label in the case with it stuck it next to the church I’ve shown it with here, in the same kind of juxtaposition, and the similarity of form did more than words could have done to put the intentional echoes actually before one and in a quite literally founded way. I would have been well pleased with coming up with that idea.

Reliquary shrine of St Gondulph

Reliquary shrine of St Gondulph, image at Columbia University

Reliquary shrine of St Monulph

Reliquary shrine of St Monulph, likewise from Columbia University, full zoomable version linked through

These, which are twelfth-century reliquaries of two bishops of Maastricht, I just loved because, as the catalogue says, each of the dead bishops is, “twisting energetically as if ready to leap from his tomb”.5 As the resurrected Saved would presumably be pleased to do! Full of personality, these.

Man of Sorrows reliquary cabinet from Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome

Man of Sorrows reliquary cabinet from Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome, here from Columbia University and therefore again linked through to a zoomable version which is totally worth the time you'll spend goggling at it

And this because it has so many things going on: papal sponsorship, robbing of Byzantium (because the icon—which is a mosaic!—is Byzantine but the case is Italian from decades later), non-physical relics (not that you can tell, as I admitted above) and immense artistry for a fairly small audience. If this was shared, it was shared among a very select group of people. The best of this exhibition for me was, thus, a way to step harmlessly into the private devotions of a great many people to whom these objects were more than just treasure.


1. The entry text for this whole phenomenon is undoubtedly Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: its rise and function in Latin Christianity (London 1981), which is one of those books that decides students on an academic career, so brilliant is it.

2. I make that assertion based largely on a couple of papers I’ve seen Julia Smith give about such objects, but as yet I think the only part of that research that’s published is “Rulers and Relics c.750-c.950: Treasure on Earth, Treasure in Heaven” in Andrew Walsham (ed.), Relics and Remains, Past and Present Supplement 5 (Oxford 2010), pp. 73-96, so what this means is that I might have got this fact wrong as I can’t look it up where I think I got it yet.

3. For that sort of shenanigan, your book of reference should be Patrick Geary’s Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages (Ithaca 1994), which is kind of a bumper resource for weird-seeming medieval customs involving dead people.

4. To give it its full citation, Martina Bagnoli, Holger A. Klein, C. Griffith Mann & James Robinson (edd.), Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion on medieval Europe (London 2011), including Arnold Angenendt, “Relics and their Veneration”, pp. 19-28, which I will up and admit might be excellent as I haven’t yet read it.

5. Martina Bagnoli, “Reliquary of St. Gondulph” and “Reliquary of St. Monulph”, ibid. p. 177. They abbreviate “St.” thus throughout, even though it’s not a suspension so shouldn’t carry the stop. Is this a concession to American usage?