Introducing ceramics 9 – the bridge and the Bronze Age

By Roy Towers

The last part of our series is rooted in ceramics research but leads down a twisting, and surprising path. We travel from the Bronze Age to Victorian times, meeting along the way an archaeological villain, a naval tragedy, a world-beating iron bridge and a careful and underrated antiquarian.

The Bronze Age site is the remarkable barrow complex at the Knowes of Trotty, in Harray, Orkney, already mentioned in an earlier episode and famous for the gold and amber artefacts found there when Mound One was discovered and explored in 1858.

In 2005, a UHI team led by Professor Jane Downes and Nick Card began work on the mound and associated early Neolithic structure in a search for dating evidence and a better understanding of Bronze Age funerary practices.

Burial cist at the Knowes of Trotty barrow cemetery. (Sigurd Towrie)

Bronze Age burial cist at the Knowes of Trotty barrow cemetery. (Sigurd Towrie)

Most of us worked on the Neolithic structure as space on top of the mound was limited. But Nick and the late Judith Robertson carried out an immaculate and successful excavation, finding dateable material and uncovering a beautiful stone cist.

They also discovered in the topsoil a number of pot sherds from a blue-and-white transfer-printed vessel. There is nothing unusual in this. The Orkney soil is liberally scattered with broken Victorian, and later, pot but our practice is to retain everything like that excavated on site.

Fast forward to 2012, and in the UHI lab I found the Victorian pot carefully wrapped in amongst the Bronze Age material. I love Bronze Age pot but it had been a long and tedious day, so I decided to look again at the Victorian sherds.

Fragments of the Victorian ceramics found among the Bronze Age assemblage at the Knowes of Trotty. (Roy Towers)

Fragments of the Victorian ceramics found at the Knowes of Trotty barrow cemetery. (Roy Towers)

At this point we should introduce two important characters. The first is George Petrie, sheriff clerk of Orkney and a noted and frequently careful antiquarian who visited and recorded the exploration of Mound One at the Knowes of Trotty in 1858.

The second is James Farrer MP, a disreputable antiquarian who was very active at numerous sites in Orkney at the time and notable for the damage he caused, despite appeals from Petrie to moderate his activities.

One phrase from an early broch exploration sums up such plundering. It reads simply: “We cleared out the interior”.

It was Farrer who released to the public the news of the discoveries at the Knowes of Trotty, although the information came from Petrie, but we do not know details of Farrer’s further possible involvement.

(Roy Towers)

Back to the Victorian sherds…

The vessel, which turned out to be a Sunderland lusterware basin, was decorated inside and out with inscriptions, verses and an illustration of a bridge.

An internet search showed this to be the cast iron bridge built over the River Wear in 1796 and opened by Prince William, Duke of Gloucester, but not before 1,000 militiamen had been marched over it to test its safety.

The Wearmouth Bridge was the longest single-span bridge in the world at the time but by the 1850s, and after much repair, it had large engraved panels fixed to it reading Nil Desperandum, Auspice Deo, (Do not despair, have faith in God).  Perhaps Prince William was lucky.

Other illustrations showed anchors, a compass and some very bad poetry including The Sailor’s Farewell.

The Cambria verse fragments. (Roy Towers)

The Cambria verse fragments. (Roy Towers)

The most intriguing poem was a fragment of verse commemorating the return of a “noble bark of brightest fame” to England’s shore.

This turned out to be a small two-masted vessel called the Cambria, which had encountered bad weather in the Bay of Biscay in 1825.

The full verse from another commemorative lusterware basin. (Roy Towers)

Not far away the magnificent East Indiaman Kent, laden with a regiment of foot and much gunpowder, was also in trouble. She was on fire.

The little Cambria carried out one of the most famous maritime rescues of all time, limping into Falmouth eventually with over 600 people from the Kent crammed onto her decks. The Kent exploded.

We began with the Knowes of Trotty, Petrie and the awful Farrer. How do they link to the Sunderland lusterware basin?

The clue lies in the bridge.  Farrer was member of parliament for Durham just 12 miles from Sunderland, which was in his constituency. He would certainly have known about the bridge and could well have had a Sunderland lusterware vessel, famous then and now, as “bridge ware”.

Was the basin his? Did Farrer have anything to do with the initial exploration of Mound One?

It is an appalling thought, although we will probably never know. Yet it is one more illustration of the strange and fascinating stories which open up through the study of ceramics.

Two final points. Bridge ware is now very valuable in salerooms from New York to London. If there is any in your attic, look after it.

A longer version of this story can be found in the magazine British Archaeology, January/February 2015.

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