Gold Under Gravel, Gold Under Glass:Anglo-Saxon Material Culture Through Excavation, Collection and Display 1771-2010

  • Robert Mccombe

Student thesis: Phd


This work argues that Anglo-Saxon artefacts not only represents an understanding of the developing representation of Englishness and national identity within the museum but that it possesses a broad and complex post excavation identity drawing upon many contexts. It considers the treatment of Anglo-Saxon objects post excavation through their use and display in private and public collections. Through an examination of material from the late eighteenth to the early twenty-first century, drawing upon antiquarian, archaeological and museal contexts, themes of national, regional, local and personal identity are analysed. Four case studies are presented in the course of the analysis. Each was chosen for its substantial social history post excavation and the opportunity to engage with multiple themes and contexts in regional and national museums. The studies focus upon the Kingston Down Brooch, the Benty Grange Helm, the Relics of St Cuthbert and the Sutton Hoo Helm. A series of object biographies are created to trace the social histories of objects through their trajectories of shifting uses and functions. Making use of recent approaches towards object interpretation by Foster and Jones, Tythacott and Alberti, amongst others, object biography is used to trace a trajectory of discovery, interpretation and collection. While this provides the structure to the research, the analysis draws upon archaeological, historical and cultural theory based notions of identity and race to examine the creation of meaning in the museum. Ideas of iconism as a process are considered and used to highlight the creation of an icon, forcing an examination of the choices made in selecting meanings that surround an artefact. I argue that at various points in their histories the objects became used in discourses of racial nationalism in which direct connections were drawn between the Anglo-Saxons and contemporary audiences. Yet as ideas of Anglo-Saxonism became increasingly problematical, I contend that where it persisted, the emphasis on national identity became based in institutional reputation, rather than race. Moving beyond ideas of national identity, concepts of local, regional, personal and religious identity persisted and even overrode discussions of 'Englishness'. The role of both collector and curator remained vital in deciding which meanings were emphasised.Rejecting the notion that meanings remain static after collection, this study contributes to the museological body of work examining the shifting interpretation of objects in the museum. By examining archaeological material in its historical and modern display through a museological prism, this research provides a discussion and exploration of 'English' material culture in the museum alongside the growing discussions of Scottish, Welsh and Irish heritage.
Date of Award1 Aug 2012
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorSian Jones (Supervisor)


  • Anglo-Saxon
  • Museum
  • Antiquarian
  • Nationalism

Cite this