A new exhibition at Colchester Castle explores how we have made and worn objects to ornament ourselves from prehistory to the present day. Lucia Marchini went along to take a look around.
When Boudica advanced on the Roman town of Camulodunum (now Colchester) in AD 60/61, an inhabitant of one house hastily hid a stash of their valuable possessions in a small, quickly dug hole. Coins, earrings, bracelets, and more were unearthed at the site of their burnt-down house in 2014, and the hoard, known as the Fenwick Treasure (see CA 308), now resides in the museum at Colchester Castle. There, other vestiges of the attack, like burnt ceramics, are also on display, along with more modern objects (such as a bottle of ‘Boudicca’ wine) that trace the enduring local legacy of the attack. The very fabric of the castle forms part of the story, with its Norman keep built on the foundations of the destroyed Roman temple of Claudius.
The castle, refurbished a few years ago, is now staging an exhibition in its chapel that forges connections between some of the jewellery from the Fenwick Treasure and other items of adornment. Adorn: jewellery – the human story, the new space’s well-presented inaugural exhibition, looks at people’s relationships with jewellery from prehistory to the present, with a focus on Essex and the surrounding area.
In the case of the Fenwick Treasure, the jewellery bears witness to far-reaching fashions across the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD. The intricate gold-wire bracelets were made in Italy and brought to Britain, while the earrings – with large, hollow gold balls and S-shaped hooks to stop them slipping out of the ear – are of a type seen elsewhere, such as at Pompeii and Herculaneum, as well as in the Fayum mummy portraits from Roman Egypt, reflecting the similarities in tastes and trends in both the far north and the far south of the Empire. Snake bracelets, though not seen among the jewels of the Fenwick Treasure, have also been found in Colchester. These were popular in Classical antiquity, and gold examples from Pompeii and Egypt are on display alongside silver and copper-alloy ones from Colchester. The copper-alloy bracelets show some differences in style from the naturalistic gold versions, but clear similarities in the choice of the serpentine subject, which was associated with healing and regeneration in the Roman world.
Moving away from metals, jet was particularly fashionable in Roman Britain, where it seems the trend developed in the 3rd century AD. This black fossilised wood was considered to have protective properties, and to be able to ward off the evil eye. A whole range of wearable accessories were carved out of jet, including hair pins, beads, and pendants, which come in three main types: Medusa pendants, other mythological pendants, and portrait pendants. Colchester makes the claim of being the only place where all three designs have been found.
One charming jet pendant on display depicts two cupids busy at work making a pot. While many of the artefacts in the exhibition are drawn from local collections, this pendant is on loan from the British Museum. It was found in Colchester and has returned home for the first time in over 150 years. The subject of the scene, combined with the fact that Roman Colchester was an important centre for pottery manufacture, hints that perhaps the pendant’s owner was a potter.
MAKING A STATEMENT
Often jewellery can be worn to project clear messages of wealth, power, political status, religious beliefs, and personal relationships, themes that are all well represented by the material on display. There is, for example, a sentimental Victorian mourning ring made out of the hair of the deceased; the 16th-century Hockley Pendant, its Christian design showing a female saint (perhaps the Virgin Mary or St Helena) with a cross speckled with blood; and the 6th- to 7th-century gold North-West Essex ring, carrying the image of a human figure with a cross, with its Christian associations, as well as two birds of prey, which possibly represent Odin, thus making this a potential mix of Norse and Christian iconography.
Another intriguing find comes from Cavenham Heath in Suffolk. One of two Roman copper-alloy ‘crowns’ uncovered at the site in the 1920s, it is shown alongside a bronze feather found there later and thought to be part of the crown. It is a rare and unusual object, and its age remains uncertain, though the museum’s curators believe that it may date from the 4th century AD, when it was perhaps worn by a priest to signify holiness or divine authority.
While much is made of the potential wearers of these items, the exhibition also celebrates their makers and, through the work of six modern makers linked with Essex, shows that the creative tradition is very much still alive in the area. Displays carefully consider the materials used, how they were worked in different periods, and the tools needed to do so. Bronze Age casting jets, Iron Age tongs, moulds for Anglo-Saxon brooches and medieval buttons, ceramic crucibles, and a Roman pot decorated with images of metalworking tools are all on view, giving a glimpse of the work behind the dazzling finished product.
Highly personal touches appear on some of the objects too. One copper plate bears the name of Cintusmus, one of just two named coppersmiths from Roman Britain, while two intaglios engraved with satyrs carry the Greek names of Eusebius and Eutyches on the reverse, making these the only two intaglios from Roman Britain with their makers’ signatures. With an abundance of small details like these, Adorn invites us to consider the full stories of beautiful objects.
Adorn: jewellery – the human story runs at Colchester Castle, Essex, until 16 February 2020. Tickets to the Castle include entrance to the exhibition and cost £10 for adults (concessions are available). Visit https://colchester. cimuseums.org.uk/adorn/ for more details.