REVIEW: The Wiltshire Museum has a summer of superb exhibitions

Written by Tony Millett on .

The Devil's Den (copyright Steve Speller) The Devil's Den (copyright Steve Speller) Two exhibitions currently open at the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes are attracting great interest.  One is temporary, the other is a new permanent display.

The temporary exhibition shows the remains our forebears left above the ground - remains still staking their dramatic place in the modern landscape.  The other shows finds excavated from below the surface of our landscape, forming another part of the Museum's ambitious programme of chronological displays revealing items that have often stayed hidden in storerooms.

Traces is an exhibition of really stunning photographs taken by Steve Speller.  In his words it is "a personal exploration of English prehistory in today's landscape."

Steve grew up near Avebury (he now lives and works in West Sussex) and has produced startling images of The Devil's Den, a single chamber 'portal tomb' on Fyfield Down just west of Marlborough, and a most unusual view of Silbury Hill.  This is a distant view of the mound seen over a field in flower, but it shows more clearly than ever the extraordinary scale of this giant Neolithic mound - the tallest man-made earthwork in Europe.

Speller's photographs (prints of which are for sale) include sites at Buxton, the Isle of Wight, Sussex and the bizarre Rudston Monolith in the East Riding of Yorkshire.  This is the United Kingdom's tallest standing stone - at 25 feet - and seems to have had the village church built round it.  It now stands there rather like a very tall vicar welcoming worshippers.

Ceramics by Alison Milner Ceramics by Alison Milner Complementing the photographs is a display of beaker ceramics by Alison Milner - also for sale.  These have delicate images inspired by the flora found growing around her husband Steve Speller's choice of Neolithic remains.

Her designs of spare fronds, florets and stalks look as though they are taking us back beyond Neolithic times towards those fossilised filigree remains of plants found between layers of slate and in coal seams.

This exhibition runs until late August.

A Saxon warrior's sword - from Blacknall FieldA Saxon warrior's sword - from Blacknall FieldAfter the recent openings of newly mounted displays of the Museum's amazing selection of Neolithic gold ornaments from the time of Stonehenge, they have now opened a new Saxon gallery: "Saxons: the making of the Kingdom of Wessex."

These display cases are of special interest to the Marlborough area as they tell the story of the Blacknall Field Saxon cemetery close to Pewsey, which was partially excavated in the 1960s and 1970s.  Its finds are now brought together and, with other finds as well, tell a fascinating story of Saxon life in Wiltshire.

The Blacknall Field cemetery served a village of about 50 people and included graves of all ages and conditions of men, women and children.  One grave held the remains of an important warrior - buried with his beautifully decorated sword, shield and spear.  Close by was a woman buried with superb jewellery and nearby the remains of three children - perhaps a family group.

Saxon jewels for a girl old enough to bear childrenSaxon jewels for a girl old enough to bear childrenAn ornate clasp for an older woman of some importanceAn ornate clasp for an older woman of some importanceBeing able to tell age of these remains has meant that archaeologists can show how, as children grew into adults, they were adorned with more and better jewellery (for girls) and more and better weapons (as boys grew into manhood.)  Much of the jewellery looks at first sight like gold, but is in fact bronze covered in gilt.

The Saxons were farming peacefully in the Vale of Pewsey.  But the cemetery does include signs of warring - with one skull showing the results of a definite and lethal blow from a sword.

There is a third display at present in the museum which is linked to the excavations that have just started in the Vale of Pewsey led by Dr Jim Leary of Reading University.  These cases show some of the finds from previous digs at Marden and nearby.  

(Front) The Clench Common bracelet - the other bracelet was found at Potterne(Front) The Clench Common bracelet - the other bracelet was found at PotterneDr Leary will be hoping that his students from Reading University's Archaeological Field School and their international colleagues will make many more finds to reveal how people lived at the time the henges at Marden, Avebury and at Stonehenge were in use.  They have already made some significant finds.

Visitors should not leave the Museum without finding time to marvel at the Later Bronze Age gold bracelet found at Clench Common.

Marlborough Open Studios:  to help mark the twentieth anniversary of Marlborough Open Studios, the Wiltshire Museum is putting on a special display over the weekend of 11 & 12 July.  They are bringing out of their storerooms works by some of the areas best known artists.  

The gallery will also include a display about Eric Ravilious (1903-1942)  - a water-colourist famous for his views of Wiltshire such as Wiltshire Landscape, Strawberry beds near Pewsey and the iconic painting of Westbury's White horse seen from a third class railway carriage.   He was killed when he was working as a war artist and his plane disappeared off Iceland.