Pine cones and coffins: looking back at Carrawburgh

During my latest bimble along Hadrian’s Wall, I inevitably ended up at one of my favourite Roman sites, the Mithraic temple site at Carrawburgh.  The Roman name of the nearby fort site was Brocolitia.  This was probably based on the original Celtic name for the area and it’s possibly translated as “Badger Holes”.   The temple isn’t dedicated to  the god of badgers though- it was built to honour the god Mithras.

Carrawburgh Mithraeum, 2015: no badgers seen today.

Carrawburgh Mithraeum, 2015: no badgers seen today

Mithras was a Persian god from the East, god of light and heavily associated with the sun.  While we know that Mithras was worshipped as far back as 1400 BC, it wasn’t until the second century AD that Rome began to embrace the cult- Legion XV had returned from the East and began to spread the cult along the frontiers of the Danube. Mithraism inevitably reached the province of Britannia soon after.


The site at Carrawburgh has been restored and preserved to its latest fourth century plan, complete with replicas  of the altars that are in the Hadrian’s Wall gallery in the Great North Museum: Hancock, but it had experienced several stages of building and reconstruction before this phase in its history.  While admiring a nicely preserved archaeology site or viewing the altars in the museum gallery, it’s easy to forget about the stories of the site that were uncovered during the excavation.

The Carrawburgh Mithraeum had been built in  a swampy area to begin with and over the years the structure had become submerged by water and peat.  Lost to time, the site was only discovered in 1949 when a severe drought dried out the swamp and shrunk the peat levels down to such an extent that the top of one of the altars began protruding out of the ground.  A chap enjoying a walk in the area, who just happened to be a member of the Society of Antiquities, recognised the significance of the object and alerted the landowners.  The following year, the land was drained and fully excavated by a team led by Ian Richmond and John Gillam from Durham University’s King’s College, which would later become the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

So what did Richmond and Gillam find?

They discovered that the mithraeum in Carrawburgh had three distinct states.  It began life in the early 3rd century, barely big enough to fit a dozen worshippers inside.  Aswell as identifying such fundamental aspects of the temple such as where the entrance was located, one discovery in particular was interesting to me- pine cones.  Near the back wall of the temple, close to the remains of the altar platform, a single Mediterranean pine cone was found.

Carrawburgh Mithraeum in its final late 3rd century stage, including altars in situ.

Carrawburgh Mithraeum in its final late 3rd century stage, including altars in situ.

While it’s always tempting for archaeologists to label unusual finds as “ritual deposits”, it turns out that this pine cone was indeed a ritual object.  We know from  texts on oxyrhynchus papyri discovered in Egypt  that in the time of the Roman Empire, pine cones in Egypt were used in sacrifices, were given as presents among friends and were purchased in sets of 10 or 16.  These pine cones would have been used to hallow the altar platform or ward off evil.  The peat swamp also preserved the remains of a second pine cone that was heavily charred.  On initial discovery, this appeared to be an odd find as pine cones are highly  flammable and should have been consumed when used as fuel for a fire.  On closer inspection however, it was shown that the cone had been carbonised to make it burn slowly and steadily.  This would have given the cone a dark red glow as it burned, and emitted a pungent aroma.  These finds of simple pine cones immediately gave us an impression of what the atmosphere and environment within a Mithraic temple may have been like.

Discovery of the ritual pine cone!

Discovery of the ritual pine cone!

At some time at around 222 AD, it’s thought the mithraeum went under a complete redevelopment, with the temple being enlarged and the interior  reconstructed, presumably to accommodate more worshippers.  Again, the excavations on this second stage of the mithraeum uncovered some  intriguing developments.  At some point the floor level was raised in the anteroom of the temple to accommodate the insertion of an oblong shaped stone receptacle into the ground, 18 inches deep.  It looked to the excavators like a coffin, and after a willing volunteer from the team climbed into it and lay down to test it out, the “coffin” fitted perfectly.

The "Ordeal pit"

The “Ordeal pit”

This ordeal pit, as the area was known as, would have been a place for initiates into the cult to prove their mettle.  It was close to the hearth, so no doubt the men could be subjected to ordeals involving heat and cold, a part of the Mithraic tests of endurance and terror induced by being entombed.  The thought of this brings on a slight feeling of claustrophobia in this blogger, although it does give us yet another precious, if somewhat gruesome glimpse into the ways of Mithraism and what occurred in the secret confines of the temple.

It’s thought that the mithraeum fell into disuse  at some point in the early 4th century.  Some of the statuary appear to have been damaged deliberately, one theory being that a Christian commanding officer of the fort ordered the desecration.  Water levels in the area rose, and by the middle of the century it seems as if the area was being used as a rubbish tip.  And so the mysteries of the temple at Carrawburgh seemed lost to the ravages of time.  The 1950 excavation at Carrawburgh has been  celebrated however for revealing a host of details that can help deepen our understanding of this mysterious cult.  The surviving altars and statuary now on display at the Great North Museum: Hancock provide immense amounts of information to scholars and researchers, but it’s easy to forget that for every object on display, the excavation that produced the object will have provided many more insights and theories into a way of life that we are still learning about today.

Thanks to Richmond and Gillam's detailed excavation, a reconstruction of the mithraeum was built at the Museum of Antiquities. A film of the mithraeum can be today in the Great North Museum: Hancock.

Thanks to Richmond and Gillam’s detailed excavation, a reconstruction of the mithraeum was built at the Museum of Antiquities. A film of the mithraeum can be today in the Great North Museum: Hancock.



‘Volunteers are like a secret weapon of the museums sector’

A guest post by Jack Walton, a volunteer at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums. Jack’s article first appeared on the Guardian website as part of its Culture Professionals series.

Jack Walton currently volunteers within Tyne & Wear Archives and with Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums’ Boxes of Delight service for schools. He recently won the Outstanding Contribution by a Young Volunteer under 25 award at the annual North East Regional Volunteer Awards ceremony in 2015.

Jack Walton volunteering behind the scenes in Discovery Museum

Jack Walton volunteering behind the scenes in Discovery Museum

What is a museum volunteer expected to do?

All sorts! I’ve helped with object handling sessions; I’ve got school loans boxes prepped and ready for groups; I’ve helped reorganise and re-number council minute books in the archives; I’ve transcribed log books that are almost five times as old as me; and I’ve even spent a whole evening dressed up as a zombie.

Volunteers are almost like a secret weapon of the museums sector. We care about our history, heritage and collections just as much as paid staff do. We’re there to allow others to get the absolute best out of our venues and the phenomenal services they provide.

How does it feel to be a volunteer?

Pride is the best way to describe how I feel about what I do. I adore helping however and wherever I can, making sure people (staff and customers) are happy and having a good time. It’s all so at the end of the day I can step back, look at what’s been accomplished and say: “That was us – we did that.”

I also have a lot of fun. You meet lots of brilliant people when volunteering, both staff and members of the public. You also get to do things that very few other people can say they’ve done. It’s not every day you can say: “I got to hold a 1600s copy of Charles I’s death warrant!”

What are the challenges of the volunteer model?

Galleries and museums are starting to come to terms with all the changes to budgets and funding of the past few years. They’ve looked at ways to continue providing such an exceptional service while at the same time meeting their various targets. Volunteers can help there.

We want to make it easier for people, helping with the necessary-but-time-consuming tasks, the needs-more-boots-on-the-ground events and the things-have-come-up moments.

An extra pair of hands and a smiling face. That’s us!

Newcastle West End Foodbank

We want Discovery Museum to be a place where people can find out more about contemporary issues and where people can discuss these issues.

We recently found out what would be in a food parcel that would be given out to a family of three by the Newcastle West End Foodbank and bought the same items to go into our collection.

family food parcel

A photograph of a food parcel given to a family of three for three days


A photograph of the list of items in a family food parcel

We were surprised to find out that the West End Food Bank is the busiest in the country. Matthew King, assistant manager at the Food Bank said:

“We are the busiest food bank in the country, mainly because of the large areas of poverty we have here in the parts of the West End of Newcastle.”

“We have a shortage of donations up here at the minute so we’ve been driving down South to stock up and bring the food back up.”


A photograph of a leaflet given out by the Foodbank

Collecting this got us to thinking about the food bank and what it says about life in Tyneside.

We found out that…

The North-East is the only region in Britain where households have become poorer. A study, carried out between 2010 and 2012, found that in every other region, households had an increase in wealth.

Ref : Office for National Statistics.

In 2014 the region had the highest unemployment rate in the country, at 10.1%.

Ref : BBC News (accessed 4/8/2015)

 What do you think about it?

We recently asked about 30 of our visitors if they knew about the Foodbank and what they thought about it. Here is what they said;

  • Most people did not know that the Newcastle West End Foodbank was the busiest in the country but most people had heard of food banks generally. One person had donated to a food bank.
  • Four people thought that the food parcel wasn’t enough food and that it wasn’t nutritious because there wasn’t anything fresh.
  • Seven people thought that it contained quite a lot of food.
  • Four people commented that their children wouldn’t eat much of what was in the parcel.
  • When we asked what people would like to find out about the food bank seven people said nothing more. Two people asked how you qualify to use the food bank.
  • People also said it made them think about what the government are going to do about it, whether  this was going to happen more, whether they would you ever find themselves in that situation, about the generosity of the people giving food, about the people using it, about the cuts to funding and about poverty in general.

 A chance to have your say and find out more

We are working with local artists John and Karen Topping and the Newcastle West End Foodbank to create an installation which opens on 10th February and runs until 24th February at Discovery Museum. We’d like you to visit us and tell us what you think of food banks. What do you think they say about Newcastle today? How does it make you feel that Newcastle has the busiest food bank in the country?

Items of Interest from the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums Lace Collection

This is a guest post by Gil Dye, a volunteer at Discovery Museum. 

Branscombe Point collar, ref - TWCMS_H2387

Branscombe Point collar, ref – TWCMS_H2387

Tape Lace

Branscombe Point is a tape lace that was first made in the  Devon village of Branscombe around 1860. This was at a time when lace makers, who had traditionally worked  fine Honiton lace, were needing new ways of competing with the growing machine-lace industry.

From the seventeenth century onwards the lace-making process has been speeded up by the use of pre-made tapes; the tapes prepared by tacking to a backing then linked; usually using a needle and thread to stitch the tapes together and often to work needle-lace bars and fillings.

Initially the tapes were worked with bobbins or hand-woven on narrow looms. Laces made with these tapes are sometimes referred to as mezzo punto. Below is a copy of a seventeenth century lace in the V&A, assembled from lengths of bobbin-made tape.

From the middle of the nineteenth to early in the twentieth century there was an explosion of interest in tape lace with manufacturers producing patterns and a wide range of machine made tapes (below).

Copy of 17th century lace made by author with bobbin-made tapes

Copy of 17th century lace made by author with bobbin-made tapes

Amateurs could buy a kit consisting of a pattern printed on glazed cotton together with any tapes, thread, padded rings (couronnes) and picot edgings needed to complete the collar, mat or other item. Patterns were also published in ladies’ magazines of the time. Shop assistants were expected to work at these patterns during quiet moments, both to produce items to sell and to show customers how the work was done. However it is clear that customers did not realise how much work was involved, since many part-worked projects remain in sewing boxes and turn up in collections (below).

Samples of 19th century machine-made tapes (author’s collection)

Samples of 19th century machine-made tapes (author’s collection). A part-worked collar with pattern printed on glazed cloth and some of the tape that would be needed to make the collar. Lengths of ‘petal’ tape have been stitched in place and linked with needle-made bars; one area has been frilled with button-hole stitches. Also printed on the cloth is the name of the pattern – L’Henriette – and the code numbers – 439 and 718 of the tapes to be used (Author’s collection)

The generic name for all tape laces is Renaissance lace. Some laces rely for their effect on a variety of tapes, others on a variety of filling stitches. Tape-based laces were produced commercially in cottage industries in places such as Boris in Ireland and Ballantyre in Scotland in addition to Branscombe in Devon – and there are distinctive laces that bear these names. Around forty other names appear in magazines, advertising and other literature and it is not always possible to determine whether these are distinct styles or just a promotional brand.

The Technique of Tape Lace provides extensive information on tape lace from around the world, including working methods and 140 stitches (written by Ineke van den Kieboom and Annny Huijben, published by Batsford in 1994 with text in English, French and German, ISBN 0 7 134 6991 9).

If in doubt about the structure of a lace it is always worth looking for a tape.

Some examples:

In TWCMS_H1280 (below) the outlines are formed from a tape with one straight edge and one picoted. This is a carefully-planned piece with a variety of well worked fillings.

Tape lace collar, ref -TWCMS_H1280

Tape lace collar, ref -TWCMS_H1280


Detail of a tape and crochet lace yoke - TWCMS_J8104

Detail of a tape and crochet lace yoke – TWCMS_J8104

Above is a section of the yoke for a child’s dress (TWCMS_J8104). This is composed of one wide tape consisting of a series of flower shapes, each with ten petals (on the right of the picture) and several narrow cords with picots, which form the scallops on the left. The cords are linked with simple crochet stitches. This is another well-worked pieced giving a very professional finish.

TWCMS_H3235 (below) is part of a large tape lace collar, this has plain woven tapes, a crochet edging and crochet fillings mimicking simple bobbin lace.

Detail of a large tape collar with crochet fillings -  TWCMS_H3235

Detail of a large tape collar with crochet fillings – TWCMS_H3235

The rather scruffy lace below (TWCMS_H1220) is a poor copy of fine Honiton lace; the main part does appear to be Honiton bobbin lace, while the neck edge is composed of two different machine tapes and all are linked by needle-made stitches. This combination of machine tapes and Honiton sprigs was at one time known as Damascene Lace.

Detail of an imitation Honiton collar - TWCMS_H1220

Detail of an imitation Honiton collar – TWCMS_H1220

Princess Lace

Tapes can also be applied to machine net, sometimes alongside machine-embroidered motifs. This type of tape lace, now known as Princess Lace, is still made today, often sold as hand-made lace at airports and in tourist shops in Belgium and elsewhere – the ‘hand-made’ element is limited, usually consisting only of the large stitches used to attached the tape and motifs to the net.

21st century Princess Tape mat, Author’s collection

21st century Princess Tape mat, Author’s collection

The mat above is an example of 21st century Princess lace. This is a well-made piece composed of three different tapes applied to fine hexagonal net  –  and possibly a fourth tape gathered to form the central rosette. Apart perhaps from the stitching threads, all materials are synthetic.

The lace below,  part of a collar (ref: TWCMS_ H1280), is possibly 100 years older than the mat above. It includes seven different machine-woven tapes, plus motifs of chemical lace applied to a diamond net. It is likely that cotton thread has been used throughout. (Chemical lace is made by machine-embroidering a design with one type of yarn on to a fabric with a different chemical composition  – eg cotton on silk – then dissolving the background. Embroiderers today use the same method on water-soluble fabric.)

Section of a large net collar with applied tapes and a chemical-lace motif. TWCMS_ H1280

Section of a large net collar with applied tapes and a chemical-lace motif. TWCMS_ H1280


Look out for more blogs by Gil, with highlights from the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums lace collection. 


Our favourite magical moments: revisiting the ‘Creative Baby!’ exhibition tours.

There have been so many wonderful surprises over the course of ‘Creative Baby!’ Here we look back on some of our favourite discoveries, revisiting those moments when the babies responded in fascinating ways the artwork and creative play:

  • The whole-body response:
Chatting to the artwork

Chatting to the artwork (photo: Mark Savage)

Whilst adults may appreciate an artwork by nodding, gazing or discussing, the babies display a whole-body response to stimulation. Our exhibition tours have frequently seen babies animatedly waving, kicking, squealing, chatting, cooing and laughing in response to the artworks.

Reaching out to the artwork

Reaching out to the artwork (photo: Mark Savage)

'Stepping in' to the artwork

‘Stepping in’ to the artwork (photo: Mark Savage)


  • Finding new ways to play:
Exploring the lights

Exploring the lights

Without prompting, the babies investigate the space to find new ways of playing. The picture above shows the session where we took the egg shaped lights out of the tents and set them on the mirrored floor – it was one of the babies, not the adults, who discovered this new setting allowed the lights to be rocked without ever falling over. In a previous post, I blogged about how a change of scene can present new play possibilities – read it here.

  • Enjoying the simplicity:


In the session themed around gardens in Katharine Morling’s exhibition, I spent hours hot-gluing fake grass onto a mat, expecting it to be the most popular part of the play space. At the session however, it was overshadowed by the most simple activity I’d set up: bells on string, suspended from a table. A reminder that what may seem simple to adults can present amazing and intriguing possibilities to babies.

  • Adults can surprise us too!
Lycra games

Lycra games

In a previous blog post I wrote about the importance of setting up open ended ‘invitations to play’. Seeing some of the mums use the lycra and balls to lead their own games was a reminder that invitations for adults to play are important too – by setting up play spaces that can be used in a multitude of ways, we have seen the most wonderful creativity from the adults, as well as the children.

  • Finding delight in the everyday:
Pineapple investigation

Pineapple investigation

Most of the adults attending were drawn to the more unusual aspects of the play space – the things they wouldn’t find at home, like vast rolls of reflective foil; lightboxes; and fibre optic lights. The babies however, were equally enchanted by the everyday – mop heads, spoons, pineapples and baskets all provided interesting textures and new experiences. To the babies, these items are as unusual and intriguing as anything else they encounter in the gallery.

  • Babies as curators
Colour mixing on the lightbox

Colour mixing on the lightbox (photo: Mark Savage)

We loved witnessing those moments when babies curate their own visual compositions. They express this through play, by reaching for a specific coloured object, but it’s a serious business. Watching as they observe the object from all angles and display preferences for different colours and textures, or enjoy sorting and arranging, has been fascinating.


Reaching for the red!

Reaching for the red! (photo: Mark Savage)

Choosing orange!

Choosing orange! (photo: Mark Savage)

  • And finally – the moment this happened:

During the tour I talked about the artworks and presented items for the babies to touch. Afterwards, as the rest of the group moved into another space to start parachute games and songs, this new walker tottered over to the objects I’d been talking about, to have a closer look: a wonderful moment and proof you’re never too young to appreciate art!

Having a closer look.

Having a closer look (photo: Mark Savage)

Having a closer look

photo: Mark Savage