There can’t have been many archaeological exhibitions to be presided over by a vintage bicycle. But in Beneath our Feet, Cyril Fox’s battered old machine (or one very much like it) dominates the space… and rightly so, considering the part he and his bike played in the story of Cambridgeshire archaeology. We can easily imagine young Cyril cycling through the fenland mists – armed with little but a notebook and his old army marching compass – searching out, mapping, and recording the sites and features of Cambridgeshire for his PhD, and to provide a foundation for the work of future archaeologists. These early achievements were no flash in the pan, and in 1926 he succeeded his friend Mortimer Wheeler as Director of the National Museum of Wales, where he stayed for the rest of his career.
This kind of focus on the archaeologists behind the archaeology is a recurring theme of the Beneath Our Feet. Halfway around the gallery, an excellent video gives us an insight into the activities and thoughts of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit during their revelatory and sometimes – as far as health and safety are concerned – heroic excavation of the bronze age lake settlement at Must Farm. And, towards the end of the exhibition, we’re invited to share the experiences of metal detectorist Mike Cuddeford, whose seven-year survey of fields at West Wickham gives us a unique perspective on ordinary lives in this part of the county from the Bronze Age to the Post-Mediaeval period.
Although the people behind the finds are interesting, the finds themselves are no less so….
The Trumpington grave is a brilliant opener to the exhibition, not only for the exquisite cloisonné cross and the fact that the whole ensemble is an extremely rare bed-burial, but also for the broader insights it offers into the sadly-truncated life of the young woman buried there. We can be confident, from the nature of the burial and the jewellery, that she was of high status. We know that she died around the age of sixteen and was not born locally. From the cross that she was buried with, we can speculate as to whether she might have been Christian in a still largely pagan environment (although it should be noted that a single artefact can find its way into a grave by many routes, and is therefore not robust evidence of anything).
But, whatever conclusions you draw from the exhibit itself, what is undeniable is the immediacy and poignancy of the associated reconstructed face of the buried girl. This, as the caption suggests, could be a young Cambridge student of today. The poignancy comes when you remember that this is not the face of a person at the beginning of her life, but at the end of it.
Going back in time to the early Roman period – and exhibited at about 8 o’clock to Cyril’s bike – we find a tiny Roman spatula-head in the form of a native British (or Gallic) bust. Apart from its intrinsic interest as one of the few depictions of a person from this cultural grouping available to us, the bust has added significance as the earliest example of the Museum’s many depictions of indigenous people seen through the eyes of a member of an alien, colonising culture.
Continuing round the exhibition, and going back again in time to the Iron Age, we come to an astonishing metal scabbard – the sword itself is too fragile to exhibit – found near Isleham. The lovely, swirly ‘Celtic’ patterns at the foot of the scabbard are still as clear and clean as when they were first made a couple of millennia ago, and make a telling contrast with the rigid, geometrically disciplined patterns found on Roman artefacts of the same period.
Hopefully I’ve shown that the exhibits – and I know I’ve selected only a few of my favourites – are more than just exhibits. Almost all of them kick-start a train of thought leading beyond the items themselves, and that’s one of the things that makes Beneath Our Feet such an intriguing exhibition. Another is the clarity of the descriptions and overall story-telling.
It’s not just me saying that. You can see it in the visitors’ behaviour patterns, and overhear it in their conversations. Most of them are taking time at each display and paying close attention to the labels, most of them are having serious discussions about what they see, and many of them – when they get to the end of their journey through the gallery – turn back to revisit items that have particularly caught their attention.
Interestingly, one of the key points of engagement – particularly for local visitors – is right at the beginning: the map of site-distribution in Cambridgeshire. People are really keen to see the stuff relating to their own town or village. A heavy footfall from Cambridgeshire is perhaps not surprising. But who would have guessed so many of them would come from Wimblington?