New Finds – Of Different Kinds

By Bernie Bell

I visited the Stromness Museum  to see the two new winter exhibitions, and started with ‘Great Expectations – curios from the cupboards’ – and that’s what they are!

Folk acquire objects, sometimes of great personal significance, put them on display, maybe for a long time, maybe for a while, then, not quite knowing what to do with them, put them in the cupboard, where they stay, and are sometimes forgotten about, until some kind of clear-out  takes place, and there is much delight and interest at what then become new ‘finds’.  The same can happen, in a museum, and ‘Great Expectations’ is an exhibition of some of the pieces which have spent some time in storage, and have come to light through the work of the Collections Development Team.  The exhibition tells the stories behind the objects, which were all gifted to the Museum by Orcadians, and how they came into the possession of the original owners.  And what a variety there is, of objects, and of interests.

There are geological specimens, including fossil shark’s teeth, and a piece of Galena from what is known as ‘The Mermaid’s Chair’ from which one of the Orkney ‘witches’, Scota Bess is said to have cast her spells!

There is part of  a hoard of coins, found at Pow Farm, near Stromness, hidden, presumably with the intention of being retrieved, but there they stayed until they were  discovered in the 1950’s.

One piece I particularly like, is the amulet, thought to be from Nigeria. This was probably worn either round the neck, or maybe round the knee, and has small pouches containing objects thought to either bring good fortune, or protect from harm.  A link can be seen here, with ancient peoples, of Orkney and beyond, who may have worn similar objects, in a similar way, and some of those objects have been and are being discovered.  It’s possible that the little polished stone, in the ‘ From The Trowels Edge’ exhibition, also in the museum, might have been worn in this way?  The leather rots away, leaving the stones, teeth, and bones which were in the pouches, to mystify today’s archaeologists.

We can often guess at the past, by looking at practices of the present.

Stromness Museum amulet

Also from Africa, are some textiles, and a Sansa, or thumb piano.  The patterns carved on Sansa are sometimes very similar to those woven into textiles, such as the piece shown here from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Stromness Museum African textiles

The patterns on Neolithic pottery, and in stone carvings, are often similar. Those patterns may also have been carved on wooden objects,  musical instruments? and, maybe, been woven into textiles, too, which have rotted away?  Food for thought.

Crossing the world, I also very much like the halibut hooks from the Pacific North-West, which would not look out of place in the Pier Arts Centre!

Stromness Museum halibut hooks

The exhibition has a Royal Oak connection, with the medals awarded to Hubert John Cousins who was ‘lost’ when the Royal Oak went down.

Stromness Museum Royal Oak medalsThis part of the exhibition also includes a photo of and a letter from, the daughters of the Commander of the U-boat which sank the Royal Oak – Gunter Prien. His daughters visited Orkney in 1963.  I thought it was good to see both ‘sides’ represented here, without rancour.

As you can see, this is an eclectic mix, through time and place.  Well worth seeing, and thinking about.

The second exhibition is entitled…….. ‘From The Trowels Edge – new finds from the Ness of Brodgar’.

New finds from the Ness of Brodgar – where do I begin, with the Ness of Brodgar?  How many years ago, do I remember passing by, looking over the gate, and seeing that two neat little squares of turf had been lifted in that field.  I thought  “They’re up to something”, and they were.

Excavations began, and the  ’Great Wall of Brodgar’ was discovered, to much excitement, but, it has to be said, The Great Wall kind of lost its glamour, when excavations continued, the extent of the Ness of Brodgar began to become apparent, and archaeologists started to FIND THINGS.  And they found such things – the ‘sky’ stone, the a-symmetrically carved stone ball, a ‘workshop’ with the pigments which were used still in place.  How many carvings? An extra- ordinary amount of animal bones, and – a baby.  A whole baby’s skeleton, placed carefully by a wall, some 5,000 years ago, and left undisturbed, until now. To catch up on the dig so far, you could look at the old dig diaries, of which this is a random example……

The excavation continues, under the sympathetic, steady, and wise Directorship of Nick Card, with much back-up from a team of equally sympathetic, and experienced colleagues.  And, of course – the diggers! – the volunteers who arrive, year after year, to dig in weather fair and foul, down on their knees, scraping away, with that essential piece of equipment – the trowel.

The Digger’s Prayer by Bernie Bell

Lord grant that it may not be wet,
Oh, please, Lord, keep it dry.
And may the wind be of the kind,
That gently whispers by.

Let Nick, and Martin, Dan, and Mick,
All be in a good mood.
And let some friendly person,
Turn up with yummy food.

Oh, let me be the one to find,
The ‘find’ that’s Number One,
And let me come back to the Ness,
Each year, ’til digging’s done.


And so I come to the exhibition, part of which is called ‘The Year of the Axe’, and they did find some beauties, this year, in particular, the Banded Gneiss axe, which is one of 2018’s treasures.

It looks ……like you want to hold it, and like you want to own it – and also, the wear on it is interesting.  One side of the blade has been re-sharpened, but not the other, which still shows signs of heavy usage.  Both side were then used as a small anvil –  a case of  Neolithic ‘Make Do And Mend’?

This could also be called The Year of the Thumb-pot –

This exhibition is of the most recent  finds, and what  more will they find under and at the far side of Loch View?  And under the spoil heap? And, and, and……………..?

Watch this space.

The Stromness Museum closed on the 21st December, will open again  for one day on the 28th, from 11am to 3.30 pm, when admission will be FREE!!!!!!!  to celebrate the founding of the Orkney Natural History Society in 1837.  It will then close again, re-opening on the 5th February 2019, still showing both of these exhibitions.

All images by Bernie Bell

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