In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many archaeologists, collectors and curators were white, wealthy, educated men and many of the objects in the museum’s collections reflect the interests of this narrow and exclusive group. However, with an increase in the diversity of people involved and the availability of technologies to draw out different stories, the nature of archaeology is changing.
The Archaeology Gallery asks important questions about who narrates the past with interventions addressing pressing societal challenges. For example, you will hear the voices of young people who have experienced forced migration – perspectives that interrupt and challenge traditional presentations of ancient cultures, such as Roman Britain and ancient Assyria (present-day Iraq).
We are learning more about archaeology all the time thanks to technological developments that can reveal stories previously unknown. For example, XRF and SR-XRD scans of an ancient Corinthian helmet showed that the nose guard and cheek pieces had been deliberately damaged. It was likely to have been a battlefield trophy that was dedicated in a temple as an offering and would have been worn by ancient Greek soldiers known as hoplites. Many damaged helmets like this one were found in Olympia.
The gallery also tells local stories, celebrating Manchester’s contribution to archaeological discoveries, fieldwork and research. One of the most famous finds made during the city centre excavations of the Roman Fort at Castlefield in 1980 was the Manchester Word Square. Dating to 182 CE (Common Era), it is thought to be among the earliest evidence of Christianity in Britain. It is inscribed with five Latin words that can be read in all directions, and the letters can be rearranged to form the first words of the Lord’s Prayer.
Another local story comes from objects found at Creswell Crags in Derbyshire. These include stone tools made by Neanderthals between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago. They were excavated by the museum’s first curator, William Boyd Dawkins (1837-1929). He also found flint tools made by anatomically modern humans showing that the caves were occupied intermittently for thousands of years. Boyd Dawkins’ identification of the animal remains found there, including mammoth, hyena and hippopotamus, revealed evidence of profound climatic changes over a long period of time that affected the species that lived in this part of Britain.
Archaeological objects reflect the journeys of people and significant moments from the past. This gallery will continue to evolve and expand as we foreground new and original stories.