“..you’re allowed to paint your hands red…”




My name is Anna Jowett and I’m about to start studying my A-levels at South Wilts Grammar School. My favourite subject is History and I wish to study it at university when the time comes. I applied to the museum to do a Student Placement to enable me to gain information about the local area as well as demonstrate in my CV etc. how much I love the subject. The timing was perfect because I will have had 11 weeks of summer holiday this year following GCSEs, and I don’t think anyone can spend that much time doing nothing!

I helped out with three of the museum’s Discovery Days over the summer. They were creative activities aimed at children inspired by the Henry Lamb exhibition that was going on at the time – although this influence was generally lost on the younger kids who got very excited by the amounts of glue, paint and other crafty things that enabled them to get both themselves and the tables messy! Although I have had some experience babysitting, being in the presence of so many kids for six hours or so was far more tiring than I had expected and I spent more time than you would imagine at the sink trying to clean paint out of carved-up bits of potato. However it was one of those rare times, once you get past the age of eight, that you’re allowed to paint your hands red or rip up pieces of tissue paper almost for the sake of it without anyone thinking strangely of you. It was one of the most enjoyable things that I have done this summer and it was particularly entertaining to see what all the kids were able to make out of scraps, vegetables and various other bits and bobs. I thought that I had been creative doing art GCSE but in comparison to me, they should have all got A*s!




The Moonrakers


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Have you seen the delightful Moonraker plate, on loan from Wiltshire Museum as part of our Made in Wessex: Spotlight Loans feature? It was made by artist Mary White (1926 – 2013) in the 1970s and donated to Wiltshire Museum by Margaret Couzens who composed the legend.

Ellen Castelow writes this on the Historic UK website

Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries the wool produced from the English County of Wiltshire was known and prized all over Europe because of its superb quality.

Dutch and Flemish merchants had permanent headquarters in the Wiltshire town of Swindon, attracted there by the high profit obtained from the wool trade.

But there was a problem!

The merchant’s favourite tipple was Hollands Gin, but that carried a heavy import duty.

The solution for the Wiltshiremen seemed obvious, they would have to smuggle in the barrels of spirit and so avoid the import duty.

By the mid-sixteenth century they had established a smuggling operation that would run for more than 200 years. The barrels of spirit were landed in quiet coves on the Hampshire coast and brought up to Swindon by night.

The barrels were hidden during the day in church crypts or in village ponds. The green weed in the ponds concealed the barrels beautifully.

Problem solved!!

But one night it all went wrong.

The story is, that in either Bishop Cannings, or All Cannings (two villages reputed to be heavily involved in smuggling), the villagers were raking their kegs out of the village pond when they were surprised by a patrol of Excisemen.

The Wiltshire smugglers, with a flash of inspiration, pretended to be idiots, gibbering and grimacing at the Excisemen.

They pointed to the moon’s reflection in the pond and told the officials that they were trying to rake out a piece of the moon that had fallen from the sky.

They were so persuasive and acted their parts as ‘mental defectives’ so well that the Excisemen just laughed at this example of rustic simplicity and rode on.


But Wiltshiremen are called ‘Moonrakers’ to this day!


Volunteers Hands-on with Archaeology


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The Bank Holiday weekend saw the start of an interesting archaeological excavation in west Wiltshire,  and Salisbury Museum Volunteers are privileged to be helping a local archaeology group – the Deverills Archaeology Group (DAG) – in that ‘dig’, led by an old friend, Dr David Roberts. It will go on only for the rest of the week but long enough, it is hoped, to identify a number of features, thought to be Roman, which have shown up on ‘geophys’.


The really hard work is at the start when turves must be carefully removed (to be replaced later) and the top soil removed.


Then the more careful removal of soil takes place, to expose the layers, other features (pits, ditches, etc) and small finds.

Museum Volunteer Claire Goodey and others begin the careful trowelling…

Early finds have included a variety of pottery sherds from every period – Iron Age, Roman, medieval and modern – a lot of animal bone with butchery marks, and sundry metal work, including shoes for oxen. This is, of course, mainly simple domestic rubbish indicating a site which has been inhabited more or less continuously for at least two thousand years.

On Sunday it rained…


Museum Volunteer Alix Smith wields her metal detector. On an excavation like this, a metal detector is useful for checking that metal objects haven’t been accidentally discarded in the spoil heaps.


The local church has been kindly lent to the group by the village and offers a base for ‘post ex’ – washing, sorting, identifying, marking and bagging the small finds.

Meanwhile, back on site, the careful recording of features – photographing and drawing – continues, before digging deeper.


We hope to update you soon….

Discovery Tuesday!


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Discovery Tuesdays have been a hit again this year. We have had everything from music to lanterns, and today it has been printing – with vegetables! Many youngsters might well say that dipping cauliflower in paint to create clouds on the page is the best thing to do with it!

Thank you to those who bring the children, to the incredibly creative people who put on the activities, and to you, the Volunteers, without whom the events could not happen!


Volunteer Catherine O’Sullivan cleans paint off aprons!


Here is a contented grandmother who said Discovery Tuesday meant her grand-daughter had a rest from her for the day!

Alex Hoare, helping the youngsters in this photo, has organised and led this activity. She is a very talented artist (with and without vegetables) and specialises in glass. Thank you Alex for spending the day with us.

CBA Wessex – 60th Anniversary Conference at Southampton University


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‘Dawn: from our earliest ancestors to the hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic’


Saturday 3 November 2018 8.45am – 5.45pm at Highfield Campus, University of Southampton.

Key note speaker: Dr Alice Roberts, with Dr Phil Harding, Prof Margaret Cox, Prof Nick Ashton, Prof Vince Gaffney, Julian Richards and others also contributing.

Tickets (including lunch) £45 for CBA Wessex members, £55 for non-members.

Go to CBA website    for more information.

Old Sarum Landscape Project 2018


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Alex Langlands

We were lucky enough at the museum to have Alex Langlands speaking twice last month on the Old Sarum Landscape Project. He gave a talk for Volunteers on 18 July to nearly one hundred, and again over the Festival of Archaeology weekend to possibly 50 or more members of the public. This blogger went to both talks and hung on every word!

The Project took off in 2014, a re-evaluation of the nature and extent of the archaeology of Old Sarum and its environs, with a focus on Roman, Saxon and medieval phases. A video of Alex Langlands talking about the project in 2017 is available here. Part of this season’s work (a collaboration between the University of Southampton and the University of Swansea) involved an investigation of the western suburb of Old Sarum. There was what was described as “a fair settlement” in a 16th century document, and early maps show buildings at ‘Newton Westgate’ (new town by west gate!). It looks as if there was a small but busy ‘town’ both sides of what is now Phillips Lane, and in the area of Stratford Road,  probably serving the old Cathedral and the clergy at Old Sarum. An area to the east of Old Sarum has been better excavated but little is so far known about this western development.

These days, archaeologists often rely largely on archive material (such as the 16th c document and old maps mentioned above) and on non-intrusive surveys (eg field walking and magnetic surveys, sometimes known as ‘geophys’!) However they still like to excavate, if necessary, and given the chance, even though, ultimately of course, digging is destructive. Excavation has revealed medieval and earlier, Roman, building and 10th – 13th century pottery.


Surveying at the beginning of the season – remember a chilly wet spring?


Surveying at the site continuing


Excavations below the outer walls of Old Sarum


Some of the finds – a lot of pottery always indicates domestic buildings

(all photos above from the Old Sarum Landscape Project facebook page. Video is from the Stratford sub Castle village website.)


Salisbury Museum PAS volunteer Alix Smith assists the excavation by using a                         metal detector over the spoil heaps, to see if anything has been missed.



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Continuing my quest to visit every site featured in the 2017 temporary exhibition, ‘British Art: Ancient Landcapes’, last week my wife and I visited the Devil’s Den, near Marlborough. This is a neolithic passage tomb, thought to be about 5000 years old, and featured in at least two of the artworks in the exhibition. One was John Piper’s 1981 cartoon for the stained glass window in Wiltshire Museum, Devizes (Fig. 1) and the other was in a cabinet in Gallery 1 which, if I recall correctly, was A.C. Smith’s ‘Cromlech in Clatford Bottom – The Devil’s Den’, (Fig. 2).

dogs dish

Fig 1


Fig 2

The Devil’s Den was first recorded in 1723 by the antiquarian, William Stukeley, whose illustrations show a long barrow of considerable length with several large sarsen stones, of which only three remain today, arranged similarly to a Welsh cromlech.

As pointed out by various commentators on ‘Trip Adviser’, the Devil’s Den is not easy to find and it’s difficult to get to as it’s on private land, albeit with permissive access, and with no convenient parking. Not having an appropriate Ordance Survey map to hand, I had to rely on an aged Readers Digest/AA Book of the Road, on which the Devil’s Den wasn’t marked.  Hence I downloaded the route from the AA Classic Routefinder, which instructed us to leave Salisbury on the A345, turn right onto the A4 towards Marlborough and then take the first left towards Fyfield Farm.

This particular lane was marked ‘No Public Vehicular Access’, so we parked on the verge at the start of the lane. I walked back to a finger post to check that it directed us to the Devil’s Den, but it was just a ‘bald’ sign with no directions to anywhere marked!

We walked up the incline to the end (Fyfield Farm).  En route we met a delivery van coming the other way and stopped him to ask if the lane led to the Devil’s Den and were surprised to hear he’d never heard of it. This was another experience shared with commentators to ‘Trip Adviser’! At Fyfield Farm we again asked directions and this time were directed along a u-shaped track between hedges. The lady confirmed that there were no signposts to the Devil’s Den, and further assured us that we would be the only people there!

At the end of the track was a gate into a field warning us to ‘Beware of the bull’ (Fig. 3) … but the cromlech was nowhere in sight!


Fig 3

Climbing a hillock, I was relieved to see the cromlech, still some distance away across a field. This field was dotted with large boulders (Fig. 4) of which we’d seen several more on the approach lane and track – a classic glacial boulder field, and presumably the source of the Stonehenge sarsen stones. As noted by others on ‘Trip Adviser’ the paths leading to the cromlech/dolmen1 are not well worn and, in fact, are very indistinct, indicating that the monument is not frequently visited.


Fig 4

On arrival we found an impressive structure consisting of two standing stones, a capstone and two fallen stones (Fig. 5) , these being all that remain of what was the entrance to a long mound thought to have been about 230 feet long. The capstone is believed to weigh in excess of 17 tons.


Fig 5

As might be expected with an ancient tomb, there is much folklore associated with the Devil’s Den. Indeed, the Devil himself, is said to yoke up four white oxen in an attempt to dislodge the capstone. Another local tradition says that if water is poured into hollows in the capstone (Fig. 6), the water mysteriously vanishes during the night having been consumed by the demon who haunts it. Yet another tale concerns the eerie baying of a hound at night.


Fig 6

When we visited, these hollows contained evidence of substances having been burned in them, as I’ve witnessed still happens at Stonehenge during the solstices.

Having spent a good half hour at the Devil’s Den we made our way back, lingering to harvest a good 2lb of blackberries in the lane, which we’d spotted earlier, and later that evening made into a delicious blackberry crumble.

Also on the way home we stopped to take photographs of the White Horse at Alton Barnes, another site which featured in British Art: Ancient Landscapes.

  1. The word ‘dolmen’, is thought to be a derivative of ‘dillion’, meaning boundary mound.



Maddie Rodbert: “..the fun of it is the interpretation.”


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My name is Maddie Rodbert, and I have taken part in a placement week at the museum as part of my degree in Archaeology and Anthropology.  As I could have been digging somewhere in the back-end of rainy Wales for a fortnight, this was hugely preferable.  Although I am enjoying my course, I would much rather someone else hand me things that have already been dug up to look at; this means that the time I have spent at the museum has been hugely interesting as that is exactly what I have been able to do.

During my time at the museum I have been helping out a lot with the volunteers who go through every room, cupboard and shelf to properly label and record all the donated items, whether it be clothing, tools or bones.  What is out on display is such a minor selection of what is in the museum as most of it is archived away on towering shelves in the areas off limits to the public.

I have been fortunate enough to spend the week in the labyrinthine corridors behind the rooms in which the public spend their time.  It may seem strange that such a large building does not have more rooms for people to explore but in actual fact they are all full to the brim with… things.  If I were to romanticise it for a child I could tell them “there is buried treasure behind the exhibits, things from Greek myth and Arthurian legend”. However most of it really is not the sort of exciting treasure one would expect to see at first glance.  During the week we have been acquainted with everything from 150,000 year old hand axes to Celtic torcs, medieval flag poles to questionable thirties hats (the hat was a highlight – it really was quite awful).  However, it was an amazing opportunity to work with the various volunteers who work on the many areas of research.  It takes a huge amount of work to run a museum and when there is so much donated to them, it takes years to make sure everything is recorded and stored appropriately.  The first thing we are taught on this at university is that the only difference between grave robbing and archaeology is the process of recording the finds, as the removal of the items is essentially robbing them of their historical context.  Without the information written down, that moment in history is lost forever and this really cemented in me the importance of the work the museum does.

The Festival of Archaeology weekend was a time for all the work to be shown off to the public.  I got my first insight into the immense fun of having a press pass as I made my way around photographing and documenting the festival.  Covering multiple areas of history, prehistoric all the way up to the First World War, there was a lot that brought history to life for both adults and children.  What most people learnt from the day seemed to be that archaeology is really quite vague; we can never truly know exactly what happened all those years ago but the fun of it is the interpretation.  No matter how fantastic the condition of the items are, the stories we tell in the modern day are clearly as important as the ones we attempt to discover.