By Rachael Sparks, on 12 January 2012
Let me introduce you to one of the more unusual pieces in the Institute of Archaeology Collections. I first met it last year, when it was returned to us from the Museum of London from an extended and unintentionally long period of loan. It has a convoluted history with an unexpected punch line.
The vessel was discovered in the foundations of the ‘new’ Houses of Parliament at Westminster, construction of which began back in 1840. It was acquired by John Newman, who enthusiastically exhibited it to members of the British Archaeological Association in 1847, where it was suggested the piece was either Late Roman or Saxon (Journal of the British Archaeological Association II, 1847, 102). It later made its way into the collection of W&T Bateman, and was then sold by Sothebys in 1893 for 10 shillings, under the rather Victorian category of ‘Early Sepulchral Urns’. By now it had become an ‘Early Saxon terracotta’. The next owner was someone called Berens, who may have been a dealer in antiquities. At some point after this Max Mallowan got hold of this vessel and donated it to the Institute of Archaeology Collections, where it was accessioned in 1947 (47.18/1).
So far so good. The Saxon label seemed secure, and the vessel was sent off to be stored with other Iron Age material. Yet doubts crept in. Saxon archaeology moved on, and in the mid 1980s somebody finally noticed that all was not right and the object was taken over to the Department of Medieval Antiquities in the British Museum for advice. Archaeology is not just about what you know, its also about who you know to ask.
The pot was hawked around various departments in the hope of being identified. Nobody thought it was British anymore, but it wasn’t East African either. So what was it? Eventually it made its way to Richard Blurton in the Department of Oriental Antiquities, who showed it to a colleague from the Museum of London, Natalie Tobert. And it was Natalie who finally laid the ghost of past misidentifications to rest, recognising it as a piece of traditional pottery from Central or South India. The date couldn’t be pinned down, as village potters were still making very similar things. But the style was quite clear.
So how did this wind up in the grounds of the Houses of Parliament? One assumes rather that the position of this plot on the Thames foreshore had something to do with it. Merchant ships of the East India company plied these waters, weaving a net that tied London to the far places of empire. Presumably one such ship brought this vessel across the sea, perhaps as a souvenir, or even as something that was being used. But the vessel broke, it fell out of use and was thrown overboard.
Knowledge is forged from the weight of accumulated facts. Put enough bits of information in a pile, let it ferment, and eventually it will achieve a critical mass from which some kind of understanding emerges. What I love about this pot is the fact that it came onto the antiquarian scene without a pedigree, and so the gentlemen scholars of the day were in the dark when it came time to put it into some sort of cultural context. Not that this stopped them trying. As it happens, they got that context gloriously wrong; while that need be no surprise, what is interesting is that it took so long for anyone to notice the fact. Perhaps this reflects no more than that this object was out of sight in a storeroom and so out of mind.
As a footnote to The Curious Case of the Pot in a Pit, as I like to think of it (cue shots of a mysterious Indian-pot-carrying nautical fly tipper looming out of the London fog), only part of this tale came from official Institute of Archaeology Collections documentation. The denouement, as it were, was supplied by my husband, who remembers the story from when he volunteered at the Museum of London back in the 1980s. The path to knowledge is mysterious indeed.