Glimpses into Others’ Lives at the British Museum

History is all about stories. The stories we tell ourselves about the past. The stories we tell ourselves about the past, about our communities, about ourselves.

The British Museum’s vast and world-famous collections hold multiple examples of stories around the globe. Some of these stories are easily accessible to us via the objects. Others are more obscure. Many objects record a fleeting moment of fun and joy, whilst many others testify to trauma and sadness.

Our History students at Northampton got a glimpse of these stories during our recent BA History course visit to the British Museum, London.

Photo ‘British Museum Panorama, London’, Ian Muttoo, Museum Panorama, London” by Ian Muttoo is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The museum’s gleaning glass cases are full of rare moments where you can connect with a person’s history and occasionally with their thinking.

My favourite from the visit? The moment when an unknown person fastened two of their rings onto a single necklace chain in 5th century Hoxne, Suffolk.

We probably all know someone who does this. We may have done it ourselves.

This act demonstrates the desire to protect a treasured item and keep it safe.

It raises so many questions about this person’s story. Did they wear the rings on the necklace beforehand, maybe as they were too big or as a treasured memento of someone they loved? The items are well-worn – they were loved once.

The rings themselves are damaged: the facets were removed before they were placed in the ground. What did they look like originally? What was the owners’ reaction when they realized that they may have to remove the ornaments?

Or did they do it just before placing the items in the ground to hide them from an unknown threat? Did they clip the rings onto the necklace just to make them all easier to find when they returned to dig them up at a later date? Were they worried someone else might take them?

This person never did collect their jewellery. It remained hidden with around 15,000 gold coins and other gems until its accidental discovery in 1992.

I love uncovering stories like this. I research the stories of those who largely expected to ‘die twice’ – once when they died and again once they passed out of living memory. The people who never expected to leave any trace on the historical record remains. The fact that they did so was largely the product of historical accident.

This was just my discovery at the museum.

I’m sure that every student on the trip had their own moment of discovery, ranging from the history of hieroglyphics to the weird and wonderful British Museum mermaid.

We run several trips across our BA History course, going to different historical locations.

Our students can take a tour around the history of London’s East End and Whitechapel area, following in the footsteps of the Whitechapel murderer. We learn together at Bletchley Park Museum about the history of the intelligence services and code-breaking, and at the Imperial War Museum.

Our second-years are off to learning archive skills first-hand in Northamptonshire Record Office in a few weeks!

 I’m confident that we will all make other discoveries in the coming years during them!

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