Shakespeare’s London – Museum of London Archaeological Archive

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, and as such there are several special events going on. One such event, Shakespeare’s London, taking place at the Museum of London Archaeological Archive in Hackney, is a tour of the archive which includes a look at artefacts discovered at London’s Elizabethan theatres. I booked this pretty much as soon as I heard about it, as I love both history and Shakespeare.

Mortimer Wheeler House

The Archive is held at Mortimer Wheeler House; I looked up how to find it and I’m glad that I did, as it isn’t the easiest building to find. It’s located in east London, north of Old Street, just below the canal. We waited in the foyer for the tour to begin; there were quite a few of us, so we were taken around in two separate groups. As we explored the Archive, we were able to learn more about it, as well as the history of theatres in Shakespeare’s day.

The Museum of London Archaeological Archive is part of the museum’s Department of Archaeological Collections and Archive. Over the past century, nearly 8,500 archaeological sites have been investigated in Greater London: this archive holds information relating to all of these, with full archives for over 3,500 of them. There is also an archaeological library collection. It has been officially recognised as the largest archaeological archive in the world.

The Archive is of international significance, the primary source of evidence for early London. As archaeology itself is a destructive process – accessing one layer usually involves removing another – the only evidence of its existence is in the archive. There is an online catalogue containing information about object collections and archive records, and the Archive can also be visited for research purposes. This is free, but you need to make an appointment.

Early in the tour we got to play “archive lottery” – choosing a number and taking the relevant box off the shelf to see what it contained. Our box wasn’t particularly exciting, containing bits of pottery – however, as our tour guide (one of the Archive’s volunteers) explained, pottery is actually a really valuable tool for dating a site. We were subsequently introduced to some very special artefacts relating to the theatre.

Theatres like the Globe, the Rose and the Curtain, popular in Shakespeare’s day, were actually known as playhouses: the term “theatre” tended to refer to indoor, private theatres located in houses (similar to the Globe’s new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse). However, for the purposes of the tour they were referred to as theatres. We saw a cannonball that was found on a theatre site, once used to help create the sound of thunder (a similar item from the Rose Theatre is about to go on display at the British Library as part of their Shakespeare exhibition). Some of the smaller artefacts that we got to handle included copper pins, seals for rolls of cloth, and fragments of tobacco pipes. We also saw – but because of its fragility, understandably weren’t allowed to touch – an almost complete leather boot from the Elizabethan period: an incredible sight.

Many of the small items recovered were things which could have been dropped easily in the tightly packed, busy atmosphere of the playhouse. Gambling dice and makeup brushes were also found, as were tokens used to gain admittance into the playhouse. Money boxes were used to collect payment; when they were full, they were smashed, and the contents counted. They were kept in the money box office – what would later become the box office.

The area around Southwark where most of the theatres were situated was also known for bear-baiting, and the skull and bones of a bear and of a dog, possible rivals in the ring, are testament to this. The bear bone that we saw had tooth marks on it – possibly chewed by a dog after the poor dead or dying bear was discarded.

In a small room with a table, we were able to look at newspaper cuttings and letters related to the discovery and excavation of the Rose Theatre in 1988. When an archaeological excavation began on this site, no one had any idea just what an incredible find would be unearthed. The discovery sparked a campaign to retain and restore the site (the original developers just wanted to cover it over), and inspired a change in the law, meaning that excavations are now required when developers take over a site in London.

It was once thought that the hazelnut shells found at the Rose site indicated that theatregoers ate hazelnuts during performances, in the same way we might eat sweets or popcorn today. However, it is now thought that the thick layer of hazelnut shells would have provided cheap and effective flooring – especially as, with long performances and no toilets, groundlings would often just go where they stood – it makes me cringe to imagine walking over a spongy, urine-soaked floor of shells, but I guess they would have been used to it!

Finally, we ended up in a ceramics room, looking at some of the Shakespeare-related items held in the Archive. These included whole, and nearly whole, money boxes (which were always green, seemingly), and a figurine of Othello and Iago. We got to have a look around the room for a while before leaving, at some of the impressive collections which ranged from Roman amphorae to Victorian hot water bottles.

I absolutely loved my trip to the Archive and would recommend it for all those interested in London’s history. The Shakespeare tours are taking place again on 16 April, so it’s not too late if you want to take part.

Crime Museum Uncovered – Museum of London

The infamous ‘Black Museum‘ of Scotland Yard, officially known as the Crime Museum, is a collection of criminal memorabilia kept at the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police Service at New Scotland Yard. Founded in around 1874, it has been used for over a century to help the police in their study of crime and criminals. While the existence of the museum is widely known, it is not generally open to the public.


This all changed a few months ago when the Crime Museum Uncovered exhibition opened at the Museum of London. The exhibition was instigated by the Crime Museum itself, which has wanted to open up to the public for a while, but was concerned about the sensitive nature of the exhibits. Throughout the exhibition we are invited to question the ethics of putting such items on display, and to think about what they can teach us. As part of this sensitivity, the series of displays about specific crimes only go back as far as the 1970s.

The exhibition begins with a room which has been reconstructed from the original museum. It contains court sketches, Victorian-era mugshots and death masks, reflecting the nineteenth century obsession with phrenology – the belief that the shape of a person’s head could reveal their personality and character. This room is fascinating as it reveals how the Victorians thought about crime. There is also a disturbing selection of hangman’s nooses which were used on famous criminals.

The major part of the exhibition is laid out chronologically, with each case devoted to a different crime. Some of these cases are famous – Crippen, Christie, Ellis – others, less so. This section could easily be sensationalist, but instead it is informative and well-presented. The descriptions on the cases give prominence to the victims, not just the criminals, and the role of detectives and the police is emphasised: many of the cases have been chosen because of their significance in the history of detection and evidence, such as the first case in which a conviction was secured thanks to the use of fingerprints.

Sure, some of the exhibits are a bit gruesome: Crippen’s spade, the acid bath murderer’s gloves, a selection of masks made from stockings to hide the wearer’s face. However, all of them are informative, and some are even funny – such as the “false footprint makers” used by a would-be burglar to leave footprints around the crime scene. His cunning plan failed after he left his own footprints alongside the fake ones.

As well as displays focusing on individual crimes, there are themed displays containing fascinating artefacts, such as weapons confiscated from criminals, concealed weapons (including a pair of binoculars containing concealed eye spikes), and abortion pills and implements (from the days when abortion was illegal). Some items relate to modern-day crimes. These include the fake jewel used by the police in the attempted theft of the Millennium Star diamond from the Dome in 2000, and a selection of IRA mortars fired on Downing Street and MI6. There is also an unexploded nail bomb.

At the end of the exhibition there is the opportunity to watch a short video exploring how appropriate it is to open up these collections to the public. My friend and I spent a good couple of hours in here, in this informative and fascinating exhibition. It is thoughtfully put together, sensitively curated and hugely worthwhile – one of the best exhibitions I have ever seen.

Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived And Will Never Die – Museum of London

My parents and their friends came to London over Easter, and on Good Friday we went to the Sherlock Holmes exhibition at the Museum of London. We were excited by the entrance to the exhibition, which was in the form of a bookcase in which, so the assistant told us, we had to find the secret door. Unfortunately, we all felt that the exhibition itself failed to live up to this.

There were certainly many fascinating and relevant items on display, from film posters from the detective’s various incarnations over the years to original manuscripts, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1886 A Study in Scarlet notebook, containing the first ever lines of a Sherlock Holmes story, and the manuscript of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. There were also a couple of costumes – including a traditional outfit from Holmes’s mid-20th century incarnation as well as the Belstaff coat worn by Benedict Cumberbatch in the most recent BBC series.

Overall, though, I thought that there was too little that was actually related to Sherlock Holmes, and too much context and setting the scene. For instance, there were many paintings and photographs of late nineteenth century London, which helped to put Doyle’s work in context and picture Holmes’s London, but which was not directly connected to Holmes. There were also objects on display that related to the novels and adaptations, such as Victorian ephemera like typewriters and costumes, not directly associated with Holmes.

It would be wrong to say that I did not enjoy the exhibition – I found it very interesting – but I thought it had been mis-advertised. If it had been marketed as an exhibition about nineteenth-century London, I would have been quite happy.

Costume from the exhibition


Benedict Cumberbatch’s coat from the modern Sherlock


The Cheapside Hoard – Museum of London

The Museum of London‘s exhibition on the Cheapside Hoard has been open for a few months now, and I got the chance to visit with my friend on Saturday morning. Security is tight: you aren’t allowed to take bags or coats with you into the exhibition area, which I can understand – but you have to pay for the privilege of storing your stuff in a locker, which I feel is a bit cheeky.

The Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Jewels is a major exhibition, and looks at the collection of jewellery from the late 16th and early 17th centuries that was discovered in 1912, buried under a Cheapside cellar. The reason why this amazing collection was left here is as yet undiscovered; the mystery surrounding the treasure is part of what makes it so fascinating.

On entering the exhibition we were able to grab magnifying glasses to help us take a closer look at the jewellery: this proved very handy, although we didn’t need them for the first part of the exhibition, which was about the history and context behind Tudor and Stuart London and the jewellery trade. We learned about the importance of jewellery in society, and how it was used to indicate status: a portrait of Elizabeth I showed her dripping in gems – perhaps, as Francis Bacon rather harshly suggested, to detract attention from her ageing person. We also took a look at the inside of a goldsmith’s shop, and viewed a number of jewellery chests and boxes, many of them almost as beautiful and ornate as the jewellery they once contained.

Afterwards it was on to the Hoard itself, displayed within glass cases, with similar items grouped together. So the first section was filled with chains, enamelled, bejewelled and worked in gold, designed to be worn around the neck or the wrist. Another case contained pearls, another displayed rings, and yet another concentrated on the different kinds of gemstones found among the treasure, ranging from rubies and emeralds to amethysts and garnets. There was even a handy guide to where the various stones came from.

Many of the items could be worn today: necklaces, bracelets and rings are all common items of jewellery. However, others would be less common in the twenty-first century. Small scented bags would have undoubtedly helped to combat the stench of sixteenth and seventeenth century London, and the examples here are beautiful and ornate, particularly the little frog. It’s also unusual nowadays to carry a watch (except for a wristwatch), but the emerald pocket watch is undoubtedly one of the highlights of this collection.

Some of the items follow similar designs and patterns, but a few stand out as individual gems among a collection of treasures. A parrot cameo, a ship hairpin and a butterfly necklace are particularly beautiful, as is the tiny salamander brooch complete with little feet. Photography is not allowed in the exhibition, but this brooch’s design has been expanded and placed on the Museum of London wall for the duration.

Museum of London
Extremely large version of the salamander brooch adorning the wall of the MoL

Visit the Cheapside Hoard exhibition. Marvel at how such a beautiful collection managed to survive underground for three hundred years, and wonder how on earth it got there. You have until the 27th of April. It’s worth it.

Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men – Museum of London


On Sunday I visited an exhibition at the Museum of London, entitled Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men. It explores the relationship between the trade in dead bodies and the study of anatomy in the early 19th century, and was inspired by the 2006 excavation of a burial ground at the Royal London Hospital, in which evidence of dissection, amputation and anatomical examination was found. I am rather squeamish and was worried that the exhibition would be a bit gruesome for me, but despite a few icky bits I was fine. The exhibition was sensitively arranged and the bones and anatomical models on display were generally presented from a scientific point of view.

Surgery during this period was difficult and dangerous, made even more risky by the lack of anaesthetic. Surgeons needed to develop their knowledge of anatomy and disease, and the best way to do this was by examining and dissecting real bodies. However, demand far outstripped supply. Religious beliefs, superstitions and personal feelings meant that the vast majority of people were terrified at the prospect of their bodies being cut up after death. In addition, they did not want to be equated with murderers, whose corpses were habitually donated after being hanged.

The ‘resurrection men’, or ‘body snatchers’, stepped in, raiding churchyards to provide the surgeons with the corpses they required. They were feared by the population at large: the exhibition displayed an iron coffin used to protect its inhabitant from being removed, and other artefacts designed to prevent grave robbery. This fear is understandable, especially given the publicity surrounding those body snatchers who did not stop short at robbing graves, but actually resorted to murder. Still, the bodies were necessary to the surgeons in order to broaden their knowledge of anatomy, and thus enable them to save lives.

I was interested and surprised to learn, at the end of the exhibition, that there is still a shortage of bodies for dissection at the beginning of the 21st century. Maybe there needs to be some sort of campaign?