Ancient Dorset grave goods inspire children’s poet, Michael Rosen

The Dorset County Museum was approached by Dr Melanie Giles of the University of Manchester to use one of its most iconic Iron Age burials in their project.

Dr Giles who grew up in Child Okeford, North Dorset and volunteered in the museum’s own archives at the age of 14, chose the finely decorated Iron Age mirror that was discovered in Portesham, Dorset.

The mirror, and other grave goods, were found accidentally by a metal detectorist in the burial of an elderly woman, buried around the time of the Roman Conquest. The goods were reported to Weymouth Museum, who called in Wessex archaeology to evacuate the items. The Dorset County Museum acquired the finds for public display in 1996. The Grave Goods Project team were invited to come and see first-hand the spectacular objects from this time that hold great artistic creativity but sparked political turbulence.

Working with Manga artist, Chie Kutsuwada, and one of the original diggers, Dave Murdie, they have produced a moving yet funny account of the burial helping school children understand how archaeologists excavate and analyse burials, and how important and exciting they can be. The former Children’s Laureate, Michael Rosen, was invited to write three poems inspired by a selection of grave goods, one of which was the Portesham Mirror. Chosen not for being a great communicator but for his acquaintance with grief. Rosen said the project reminded him of certain items place in his sons’ casket, who died aged 18 of meningitis. You can watch Michael reading prehistoric burial poems, along with many others, on his YouTube channel

The Grave Goods team are now working with the museum’s curators to make sure that the Portesham woman achieves her place in Dorset’s hall of prehistoric fame, once the Heritage Lottery Funded redevelopment of Dorset County Museum reopens in 2020.

About the Project

The Grave Goods project focuses on material culture in graves and other formal mortuary contexts in Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age Britain, c. 4000 BC to AD 43. The project – whose full title is ‘Grave goods: objects and death in later prehistoric Britain’ – is a research collaboration between Duncan Garrow (University of Reading), Melanie Giles (University of Manchester) and Neil Wilkin (British Museum). We will also be working closely with Historic Environment Record officers in England, Scotland and Wales.

Britain is internationally renowned for the high quality and exquisite crafting of its later prehistoric grave goods. Objects from burials have long been central to how archaeologists have interpreted society at that time. Interred with both inhumations and cremations, they provide some of the most durable and well-preserved insights into personal identity and the prehistoric life-course, yet they also speak of the care shown to the dead by the living, and of people’s relationships with ‘things’. Objects matter. This project seeks to transform current understandings of mortuary practice and material culture in later prehistoric Britain.

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