The bridle-bit and the river

B&W bridle

One of the objects going into the Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition at Segedunum is a late Iron Age bridle-bit from the Laing Art Gallery. It is a beautiful object, complete and in good condition. It was ‘found in the River Tyne, near Kay’s Meadows’. This is presumably a mistake for King’s Meadows (unless anyone knows of a Kay’s Meadows anywhere?), which was a large island in the river between Dunston and Elswick. It was ‘large’ in the sense that it was about 1500m long (nearly a mile) and had trees, hayfields and even a pub on it. It was removed during dredging of the river in 1884 to make the river more navigable for large ships. The bridle-bit may have ended up in the river as a votive offering, as it has been suggested that the length of the river between the Island and the current position of the Swing Bridge was used for ritual ceremonies from c.1000 BC.

Late iron Age bridle-bit

Late iron Age bridle-bit

The bit is made up of three copper alloy pieces, each cast in one solid piece. It would have required skill and time to produce, probably using a process called ‘casting on’. First one side-ring was cast, then a wax link, attached to the ring, was made and covered in clay to form a mould, the wax then melted and the bronze poured in. The process was then repeated, with a wax version of the second side-ring made, threaded through the central link. A lot of effort, but a beautiful end product!

Ten Things You May Not Know About Kurt Schwitters and the Merz Barn Wall

Interior setting of large abstract wall sculpture set on a wall of slate stones, with wooden roof beam across top of picture and wooden flooring in foreground

If you’re a regular reader of this blog (as if) you already know about Kurt Schwitters and his Merz Barn Wall sculpture, but if you’re new to the Hatton then I can sum it all up in just one word:


However you may be less familiar with the following nuggets of knowledge:

It’s heavy, man
Schwitters created his large sculpture on the interior wall of a small dry-stone barn. A dry-stone building is made from just loose stones, a problem when it came to removing both sculpture and wall in one piece. To consolidate everything into one mass, the Hatton’s removal team built a steel frame behind the wall then filled it with concrete to embed all the stones. While successful, it did leave them on a hillside, in the Lake District, 150 yards from the road, with a lump of slate, steel and concrete weighing twenty-five tons – ‘Hang on a minute, lads, I’ve got a great idea..’.

Vintage black and white exterior photo of group of men removing a large section of wall from a smallstone outbuilding

Removing the Merz Barn Wall from the barn in Elterwater, Lake District

Here’s one I prepared before the programme started
Schwitters had moved to Norway in 1937 to escape increasing Nazi harassment but when Germany invaded in 1940, he fled to Scotland, where he was immediately arrested as an enemy alien. While in internment camp he continued to make new works, and his practice of creating art with whatever materials were to hand – his philosophy of ‘Merz’ – proved invaluable. Paints were improvised using oil from sardine tins, sculptures formed from leftover porridge and for a paintbrush Schwitters persuaded a fellow internee to donate some (perhaps all) of his presumably very bushy eyebrows.

Cash in the attic?
After the War, Schwitters and his partner, Edith Thomas, moved to Ambleside in the Lake District. He sold the occasional landscape, still-life or portrait, but there was little interest among the locals for the many collages he produced and he struggled financially. On occasion he resorted to asking for bread from the rear of the local bakery and a friend recalled Schwitters and Edith debating whether they could afford to buy an apple. In 2014 a Schwitters collage, Ja – Was? – Bild, sold at Christie’s for £12,400,000.

The Talented Mr Bickerstaff
To boost his meagre earnings while living in the Lake District, Schwitters entered the Ambleside Flower Painting Competition, but a professional artist entering a competition essentially for amateurs was, well, not really cricket. So First Prize was won by ‘Mrs Vartis’ for her roses and Second Prize by ‘Mr Bickerstaff’ for his chrysanthemums.

The pen is mightier than the sword (or at least the knife)

Close-up colour portrait photo of white middle-aged man in a tan fedora hat , cark suit, red shirt and tie, lighting a cigarette with a match

George Melly, 1978 (image Wikimedia)

George Melly, jazz singer, writer and critic, died in 2007 after a life that embraced every tenet of the term ‘Bohemian’. The only predictable aspect of George was his unpredictability, but on one occasion it proved his salvation. Emerging from a Manchester jazz club, Melly was confronted by two muggers who threatened him with a knife. Unwilling to give up his wallet and watch, George suddenly launched into a recital of Schwitters’ abstract sound poem Ursonate. So intimidated were the thieves that they ran off. The wonderful Chuwumbawumba featured the story in their song Ratatatay and you can listen to Schwitters himself reciting the poem here.

True Brit
Following his arrival in Britain, Schwitters heard about the concentration camps. He renounced his status as a German national and never spoke the language again. He also applied for British citizenship. It arrived in the post the day after he died.

Happy Birthday Kurt
By sheer coincidence, the Merz Barn Wall was installed into the Hatton Gallery on 20 June 1966, what would have been Schwitters’ 79th birthday.

Old black-and-white photo of large abstract square wall sculpture being lifted off a the back of an open truck by a lifting hook and strap

Preparing to lift the Merz Barn Wall into the Hatton Gallery

Black and white old photo of large abstract wall sculpture being hoisted into the sky by a large crane

Merz Barn Wall being lifted into the Hatton in 1966

What’s it all about?
When asked what the Merz Barn ‘meant’, Schwitters replied ‘It’s just form and colour, just form and colour.’

Python Hero
Just before his death in 1948, Schwitters declared ‘No-one knows who I am but in sixty years they will’ – but he hadn’t reckoned on Monty Python. In the very first episode of Flying Circus in October 1969, they mentioned Schwitters in a sketch about famous artists competing in a cycle road race: ‘And right at the back of this group, our very own Kurt Schwitters!’ You can see the clip here.

He liked Guinea Pigs

Old photo of white middle-aged man indoors holding two guinea pigs with water-filled glass jars and cases in backgroundAww…

‘Revitalising The Hatton Gallery’ is funded by Heritage Lottery Fund.            Logo for heritage Lottery Fund




The Willington Waggonway Research Programme

You may remember the remains of a section of a wooden waggonway were discovered underneath the former Neptune Shipyard not far from Segedunum Roman Fort in the summer of 2013. Before being redeveloped, the site was investigated by archaeologists due to its close proximity to Segedunum and therefore the potential for Roman remains in the area. The unexpected discovery of the rare and substantial remains of an early railway instead was a very welcome surprise. Constructed in 1785, the section of waggonway was identified as part of the route of the Willington Waggonway by local historian and author Les Turnbull. The Willington Waggonway was the collective name for a series of waggonways which were used by horse-drawn waggons to transport coal from collieries at Willington Quay and Bigges Main on the edge of Wallsend to the Tyne for shipment.


The excavated remains of the Willington Waggonway. Photograph © The Archaeological Practice Ltd.


During the 18th century, the North East emerged as the centre of mining technology and earned a place on the world stage because of the skills of its engineers and miners. The site is considered to be internationally significant for the archaeological record in terms of the development of railway technology. Only one other wooden waggonway has previously been professionally excavated and recorded in Tyne and Wear, that at Fencehouses on Wearside in 1995. However, no recovery of the remains were carried out and the extent of their survival is unknown. The discovery of a section of the Willington Waggonway presents a rare opportunity to study the substantial and well-preserved remains of one of Tyneside’s wooden waggonways.


Excavation Plan. Image © The Archaeological Practice Ltd.

The significance

The excavation at the Neptune shipyard unearthed the most complete and best-preserved section of early wooden railway to have been found anywhere in the world. It also included the only ‘wash hole’ for cleaning and wetting waggon wheels to have ever been professionally excavated and recorded. We knew that wash holes existed through documentary sources, but none had been discovered previously. This gives us an amazing opportunity to learn about their construction and how they were used by the large volume of traffic on the waggonway.


Excavated Wash Hole. Photograph © The Archaeological Practice Ltd.

Re-used ships’ timbers also appear to have been used in the construction or the maintenance of the waggonway. If these timbers originate from types of vessels which no longer survive then there is also the potential to learn about their construction.

Re-used ship timber. Photograph © The Archaeological Practice Ltd.

Peg in piece of re-used ship timber. Photograph © The Archaeological Practice Ltd.

Perhaps most significantly, the excavated remains of the Willington Waggonway is the earliest railway that has been discovered which was built to what became the international ‘standard’ gauge, defined as 4’ 8 1/2” or 1435mm. The later Killingworth Waggonway, which was used by George Stephenson during his development of the steam locomotive, used part of the Willington Waggonway to reach the river Tyne. The gauge of the Willington Waggonway (based on the earlier Benton Way) therefore set the gauge for the Killingworth Waggonway and ultimately the rest of the world. Today approximately 55% of railways in the world are standard gauge.

Studying and analysing such a significant and well preserved early railway will allow us to contribute new information to the archaeological record as well as increase our understanding of the technology and innovations of the time.

What’s happened in the last 3 years?

Thanks to the Arts Council England PRISM (The Preservation of Industrial and Scientific Material) fund, TWAM was able to rescue wooden and stone components within a zone 6 metres in length across the width of the waggonway. Representative and significant components were also collected from other locations on the site.

Timbers in storage prior to conservation. Photograph © The Archaeological Practice Ltd.

Samples of the timbers were analysed at the conservation laboratories of the York Archaeological Trust, providing a baseline assessment of the condition of the timbers in general and of their treatment needs. Based on the results, the timbers required consolidation with Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) wax followed by freeze-drying, a process which can take between 24 and 36 months.

What’s next?

Last summer, TWAM secured funding from the Arts Council England Designation Development Fund which will allow us to research, carry out scientific analysis and explore how the waggonway may be displayed in the future. We also intend to create a scale model, develop a publication as well as run both family friendly and specialist events. The project is now underway and will conclude at the end of March 2018.

The timbers will return to the North East in February 2017 to their new home in the Regional Museum Store at Beamish where the stone components are currently stored. Our hope is that this project will be a step towards full scale reconstruction and public display in the future.

Keep an eye out for regular blog posts on the progress of the project as we uncover the secrets of the Willington Waggonway!

Drawing of washpool in use

Reconstruction drawing of the excavated section of waggonway in use. Image © The Archaeological Practice Ltd.

The Willington Waggonway Research Programme is funded by the Designation Development Fund, Arts Council England.


On the Origin of Species – Charles Darwin and the Natural History Society of Northumbria. A Guest Post by Rebekka Noonan

My name is Rebekka Noonan and I am a Psychology student at Newcastle University. During my time as a volunteer in the Great North Museum: Hancock Library, I have discovered the fascinating links between Charles Darwin and the Natural History Society of Northumbria.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) is perhaps one of the best known scientists in modern human history, with his theories concerning the evolution of all known life forms defining much of our understanding of natural history. What is perhaps less well known about Darwin, however, are the links that he has to the  Natural History Society of Northumbria (NHSN). This society is based in the Great North Museum: Hancock and also has its Library located there.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

The NHSN has built up a wonderful library of books since its formation in 1829.  This includes a rare first edition of Darwin’s seminal text “On the Origin of Species” which outlines Darwin’s theory of transmutation and evolution. The book was based on his many years of work in accumulating evidence to support his theory, beginning with his famous trip on the HMS Beagle in the early 1830s. Despite this, “On the Origin of Species” was only published in 1859 despite the core ideas of his influential theory being present in Notebooks that he produced as early as 1837.  In these, Darwin had begun to comment on the role of selective breeding in evolution, viewing selection to be ‘the keystone of man’s success’. In fact, Darwin’s complete theory is thought to have been prepared as early as 1844, yet its appearance in print was delayed by many obstacles that prevented its immediate publication as a combination of evidence and theory into a cohesive body of work.

Alongside his ill health, one other concern that plagued Darwin in his apparent reluctance to publish was the potential impact that such a work, which rejected the existence of an almighty divine creator of all creatures, would have on a highly religious population, a population that included his religious wife Emma Wedgewood.

Interestingly, the copy of “On the Origin of Species” in the NHSN’s possession was bequeathed by a person who rejected the ideas put forward in Darwin’s work – William C Hewitson. Hewitson (1806-1878) was from Newcastle upon Tyne and a founder member of the NHSN.

William C. Hewitson

William C. Hewitson

He was also a wealthy collector of birds, illustrated books (many of which, along with “On the Origin of Species”, were donated after Hewitson’s death to the NHSN and remain in its present day collection), and perhaps most notably, butterflies, which Hewitson viewed as being perfect and coming from the hands of the creator. It is fitting then in his work “Illustrations of New Species of Exotic Butterflies” (also in the NHSN Library) Hewitson noted that if he could ‘find one grain of truth in the chaotic jumble of Mr. Darwin, his lifelong pleasure and occupation would be taken from him.’

Image from Hewitson's Illustrations of New Species of exotic butterflies

Image from Hewitson’s “Illustrations of New Species of exotic butterflies”

Hewitson, however, is not Darwin’s sole link with the NHSN, as another founding member of the society, Albany Hancock (1806-1873), engaged in correspondence with Darwin. Albany Hancock was the older brother of John Hancock and was a highly respected and skilled anatomist and artist, with wide ranging zoological interests. The letters received by Hancock from Darwin are transcribed in the “Natural History Transactions of Northumberland and Durham, Volume VIII 1880-89″. The correspondence began in late September 1849 after Darwin wrote to Hancock concerning the latter’s work on the burrowing barnacle, which began a lengthy correspondence of which 20 known letters were detailed in the Transactions. The subject of the correspondence concerned theoretical discussion of barnacles, in particular anatomical adaptations concerning boring, mostly centering around Hancock’s Alcippe Lampus. Within the correspondence there is documentation of the exchange of specimens, paired with the post examination thoughts of each. Unfortunately the Transactions only contain the letters received by Hancock from Darwin and not those that were sent by him, so the full correspondence from both sides is not recorded. Despite this there does appear to be much mutual interest and respect between the two, with Hancock being later noted as a supporter of Darwin.

Albany Hancock

Albany Hancock

The NHSN library also contains a first edition of a two volume work written by Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1731 – 1802). The book is titled “Zoonomia, or, the Laws of Organic Life”, published 1794 – 6. Despite the fact that both Darwins were never alive at the same time, Charles was a great studier and commenter on his grandfather’s publication.  “Zoonomia” was one of the first naturalist works and touched upon the idea of a common ancestor, and the idea of natural selection of which Erasmus said ‘the strongest and most active animal should propagate the species, which should thence become improved’. These ideas can be clearly seen in the acclaimed works that were produced by his grandson and which still resonate so powerfully to this day.

Erasmus Darwin's "Zoonomia"

Erasmus Darwin’s “Zoonomia”

All of the books that are mentioned in the above article are included in the collection of the Natural History Society of Northumbria which is located in the Great North Museum: Hancock Library. The Library is free to use and is open to everyone. Further information about the Library can be found at the following website

Marc Chagall’s ‘Apocalypse in Lilac’: Holocaust Memorial Day

Holocaust Memorial Day takes place on January 27th to remember the millions of victims of the Holocaust and other genocides around the world. This blog features pictures by three artists, working in very different styles, who were part of the thriving art scene in Paris before the Nazi era wreaked devastation on Jewish and modernist artists in Europe. Jews were targeted for annihilation under Nazi dogma, and millions of other people also lost their lives due to their nationality, ethnic group, religion, political beliefs, sexual orientation, disability, or because they opposed Nazi rule. All three featured artists had migrated to Paris earlier from Russia and Eastern Europe. Their pictures are included in the current exhibition Out of Chaos at the Laing Art Gallery.

Marc Chagall painted his intensely emotional picture Apocalypse in Lilac, Fantasy in 1945 in response to the news broadcasts of the Holocaust. He was working in exile in America, where he had escaped after the German invasion of Paris in 1940. In his picture, he used traditional Christian imagery to represent the suffering of persecuted Jews. The main image shows a crucified Jewish Christ, with a prayer shawl hanging either side of his body. A Nazi soldier at the foot of the cross looms over tiny figures in scenes of mayhem and persecution.

Chagall, Marc, Apocalypse clockDreamlike imagery was an important element of Chagall’s art, and in this scene he shows an upside-down clock falling from the sky, symbolising the end of the world. Below this, a man clutches a Torah scroll, while a boat full of refugees is among the small figures further down the composition.

Chagall worked in the La Ruche studios in Paris together with many artists from Eastern Europe, including Chaïm Soutine, who died as the result of having to flee the 1940 invasion (see previous blog Chaïm Soutine, misfit artistic genius in 1930s Paris). After the Second World War, Marc Chagall returned to France, but many others did not get that chance. Artists who lost their lives during the war included Polish-born painter Chana Kowalska.

Kowalska, Chana, Shtetl x2

Chana Kowalska painted her picture Shtetl in 1934 in Paris, looking back nostalgically to life in her Polish homeland. The scene shows a traditional Jewish village, a ‘shtetl’, typical of thousands across Eastern Europe before the Second World War. The arrangement of houses facing inwards around the water-pump indicates the tight-knit quality of village life. Kowalska’s painting style drew on the directness and simplicity of folk art. After the German invasion, Chana Kowalska and her husband joined the French Resistance. Tragically, both were arrested and killed.

Lipchitz, Jacques, Study for Between Heaven and Earth

Jacques Lipchitz was one of the group of Jewish artists around Soutine and Chagall working at La Ruche studios. Lipchitz had come to Paris from a part of Russia that is now Lithuania. He also escaped to America following the German invasion, and remained there after the war. Throughout his career, he focused on spiritual themes, and his abstract watercolour represents figures reaching up eagerly towards the dove of peace. His picture was a study for a gigantic sculpture, titled Peace on Earth, which stands at Los Angeles Music Centre.

Pictures: Marc Chagall, Apocalypse in Lilac, Fantasy, 1945; Chana Kowalska, Shetl, 1934; Jacques Lipchitz, Between Heaven and Earth, about 1966: all pictures © The Artist’s Estate, Ben Uri Collection