For the past two decades, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery has had no dedicated space exploring the area’s archaeology. Now, though, thanks to a long-running campaign and a gift from a local benefactor, a stunning new gallery has just been opened. Carly Hilts went along to find out more.
Through the door to the Elaine Evans Archaeology Gallery lies a shadowy grove filled with birdsong and the sound of people at work – a woodcutter’s blade thunks into timber; the sharp clicks of someone knapping flint ring out with almost mechanical precision; bellows wheeze, firing a metal-worker’s labours. This soundscape paints a vivid picture of communities and their changing technologies over thousands of years – and from surrounding glass cases, the faces of some of the landscape’s long-vanished inhabitants peer at you with interest.
This atmospheric space is Brighton Museum & Art Gallery’s new archaeology gallery, whose opening, at the end of last month, marked the culmination of a two-decade campaign by Brighton and Hove Archaeological Society and a generous donation by local benefactor Elaine Evans, after whom the room is named. The results are intriguingly experiential, with visitors engaging with the past as much through the ambient sounds and surrounding imagery (the photographs of trees that line the walls depict a real ancient woodland in Sussex) as the artefacts on display. These are arranged chronologically, covering the Ice Age, Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, and Anglo-Saxon periods – and at their heart lie the stories of some of the people who lived and died in the Brighton area centuries ago.
POPULATING THE PAST
Each period is represented by a skeleton from the museum’s collections (bar the Palaeolithic, as the museum holds no human remains of this antiquity, although archaeological evidence shows early humans and Neanderthals lived in the region), arranged in its original burial position and accompanied by grave goods. These remains have all undergone extensive scientific research to unpick as many details about the person’s life, death, and appearance as possible. This collaborative project involved DNA sampling by the Natural History Museum in London, osteoarchaeological examination at the University of York, isotope analysis at the Universities of Durham and York, and radiocarbon dating by SUERC. The results are presented on clearly written information boards, and have also fed into a series of strikingly lifelike facial reconstructions by the sculptor Oscar Nilsson.
Most of the people featured in the gallery are thought to be local, except for the woman representing the Neolithic period who may have been born in the Hereford area. She was buried close to Brighton, though, at Whitehawk Camp causewayed enclosure, and while her general health seems to have been good, it is thought she may have died (c.3650-3520 BC) in childbirth, as she was laid to rest with the body of a newborn baby.
From the Bronze Age comes a man whose Beaker burial was found on Ditchling Road. Analysis of his skeleton (which dates to c.2287-2125 BC) has revealed porosity in the bones indicating anaemia, and his teeth also hint at multiple periods of malnutrition during childhood. This individual was below average in stature and his frame was not robust; all of these clues, together with other DNA evidence for his appearance, have informed a reconstruction depicting a decidedly sickly looking young man with fair hair and blue eyes.
Other insights come from analysis of dental plaque on the teeth of a muscular Iron Age man from Slonk Hill who died in c.393-206 BC; the presence of charcoal suggests he worked and lived in very smoky conditions, perhaps as a metalworker. Meanwhile, the Roman woman buried at Patcham in c.AD 210-356 (an intriguing grave: she was found with an iron nail driven into the back of her skull) endured a life that was full of physical labour. Although she was still young when she died, her skeleton shows extensive evidence of arthritis. Finally, the suffering of an early Saxon man from Stafford Road is all too clear: while his was a typical ‘warrior burial’, accompanied by knife and spear, his death in c.AD 424-570 was probably a result of blood poisoning from the multiple dental abscesses that have left unmistakable marks on his jaw.
A SENSE OF PLACE
Each of the reconstructed individuals is accompanied by depictions of the kind of settlement that they might have called home, as well as a selection of artefacts representing daily life and what made their era distinctive (‘people, place, period’, explained Richard Le Saux, senior keeper of collections, and Andy Maxted, archaeology curator, who showed me around). These are dynamic displays intended to help visitors imagine how objects were used, and each section also features video footage showing key technologies in action, courtesy of experimental archaeologist James Dilley (www.ancientcraft.co.uk).
As well as more everyday objects, there are a number of local ‘star finds’ – including a unique Bronze Age cup crafted from Baltic amber, which was buried in Hove Barrow on the coastal plain of the South Downs, and the Woodingdean Stag, a remarkably detailed bronze animal standing 16.5cm tall, which may have once adorned a Romano-British shrine. These are complemented by key loans supplementing the museum’s collections: a Bronze Age sword from the Royal Armouries, and an Iron Age ‘gang chain’ from Llyn Cerrig Bach, lent by National Museum Wales.
Emphasis is mostly on the personal and the local, but the gallery also explores bigger ideas with a very contemporary resonance: migration, population change, and our connection with continental Europe. For those who want to dig deeper into the scientific research behind the reconstructions, there is also a screen where visitors can watch short videos explaining all the techniques used. Yet, with prehistory recently added to the national curriculum, the design team was also keen for the new space to capture the imagination of visiting school groups. You can see their efforts in the well-balanced information panels and the circular ‘campfire’ space that can seat 35 children for discussion, while each section also has an unobtrusive but evocative panel created by a local children’s author and illustrator, offering insights from a fictional time-traveller called Elva.
Showcasing the area’s archaeology and inspiring a sense of ownership in the local community are key to ensuring the survival of sites around Brighton and Hove, the team said. ‘Some of these sites are in danger of being damaged, and we want people, especially younger visitors, to learn about them, know them, and look after them,’ said Richard Le Saux.
Brighton Museum & Art Gallery is open Tuesday-Sunday and Bank Holidays 10am-5pm (closed on other Mondays and 25-26 December). Entry is free to local people with proof of residence, otherwise £5.20 for adults, £3 for children.