Weapons of mass distraction: ballistics, beaches and badges

Regular readers (are there any regular readers?) may already be familiar with a archiving project that I worked on over the winter.

In 1986, The Royal Armouries carried out an excavation on the Thames foreshore in front of The Tower of London.

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They were looking for evidence of the Armouries’ workshops, but information about this dig, or what they found, has never been commonly available to the public. This is the archive material that I and my fellow-volunteers were working on.

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Last weekend Kathleen, the Curatorial Assistant who set up the project, and me and fellow-volunteer Guy took some of this archive material out and about as part of the annual Tower Open Foreshore weekend. This is one of the only opportunities for people to get down onto the foreshore at The Tower of London, and it’s very popular indeed.

In the 1930s, this section of foreshore was turned into a beach for the use of local children, complete with deckchairs, buckets and spades, rowing boats and all the entertainments you’d expect to find at a seaside resort.

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The beach closed during the war, but it was very popular indeed during the 1950s and we occasionally meet visitors who can remember playing there as children. Gradual decline and concerns over pollution in the Thames, lead to the closure of the beach in 1971 and these days access is restricted to special open days.

So Guy, Kathleen and I joined other groups including Historic Royal Palaces, the City of London Archaeological Society (COLAS), Thames Discovery Programme (TDP) and Thames 21 to delight the summer masses on the embankment and the foreshore.

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(nb. these photos were taken first thing on Saturday, before the masses arrived, hence the lack of masses)

We had a selection of objects from the dig alongside a selection from the handling collection which visitors could handle, feel the weight of and generally get to grips with. These included pieces of flintlock mechanism (people loved the term ‘gun furniture’), bayonet tips, a pike head, some examples of shot including a small canonball.

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We also had a couple of special little pieces which you might have seen on the blog before:

This fragment of a Christ in Passion pilgrim badge

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and this lovely medieval copper-alloy book clasp

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It’s also traditional to have an activity. These are often aimed at children (although we all know that the adults like to join in too) but when setting this up, Kathleen had been trying to think of an Armouries-related children’s activity that didn’t involve arming small children and having them run amok. That sort of thing is rightly frowned upon.  Hmm.

During the dig, there were several examples of badges and insignia found; pilgrim badges, railway badges and buttons, Royal Armouries insignia and so on, so we invited our visitors to make a badge of their own, either drawing on Royal Armouries examples for inspiration, or designing their own.

Badge number 1 went to Guy…

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…who, true to form, chose to display his allegiance to the Gunners. How apt!

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And he wasn’t the only one. Archaeologists just cannot resist a badge. This one was made by another Guy (not the Guy above)

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Alongside the artefacts, we also had some of the records, including a selection of site photographs, and these also proved a hit, especially with those of a particularly archaeological bent.

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A number of people (people who are generally very aware of archaeological activity in London)  remarked that they had no idea that a dig had ever been carried out on the foreshore here, and one TDP pal of mine had a small fit and did the monkey dance when he saw the photos, as he has been trying to work out levels and rates of erosion on the Tower foreshore and these records provide hard evidence.

This was a chance for us to highlight The Royal Armouries and the, often overlooked, role of archaeology in the collection. The response to the appearance of these artefacts and records demonstrates the value of the projects like this one, opening up those cupboard doors and enabling access, for the first time, to these unknown and unseen archives.

All the stands had a similarly fruitful day and we were told that there were about 990 visitors to the event as a whole on the Saturday and 1100 on the Sunday, so these are really good numbers (we did try to count how many people visited our stand, but we kept losing count, especially when we were swamped by crowds!). The queue for the foreshore was enormous.

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And we did also get to see a few of the artefacts picked up on the foreshore during the weekend. These are particularly appropriate:

two world war 1 shells

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a gun flint, as used in all those flintlock mechanisms we’ve been talking about.

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I’ve also just found out that there will be another chance to visit the foreshore in September, during the Thames Festival. Don’t miss it.

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7 thoughts on “Weapons of mass distraction: ballistics, beaches and badges

  1. Some of us visit here regularly in the hope, the forlorn hope, that you will someday post a short video of yourself doing “the monkey dance”.
    Badger

    • The monkey dance does not translate well. It’s a spontaneous and momentary outpouring of joy. A full-body body cha-ching! and it’s spirit cannot really be captured on film. It’s mystical. It’s simian. It’s not on film.

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