Hidden heritage on our doorstep

Artefacts in storage at Fishbourne Roman Palace
Artefacts in storage at Fishbourne Roman Palace

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Dr Robert Symmons, curator of Fishbourne Roman Palace, in Chichester speaks about all the hidden gems of museums the public don’t see

I fondly remember my 15 years spent as a commercial archaeologist, or ‘dirt monkeys’ as we were sometimes called, moving from dig to dig trying to record our heritage ahead of the building of roads, housing estates and supermarkets.

During that time I must have removed several tonnes of archaeological artefacts from the soil, and the thrill of holding something that was last seen by a prehistoric farmer or a Roman soldier never wore off.

It’s perhaps surprising that few people give much thought to what happens to all those millions of archaeological artefacts.

Of course, the very best end up in glass display cases and are enjoyed by museum visitors, but almost all are boxed and stored behind the scenes of those same museums, and amazingly, some are re-buried – but that’s another story.

Our towns and cities are home to hundreds of museums of all sizes and shapes and many of these contain stores that are not generally open to the wider public.

These stores contain collections that are a vast untapped archaeological resource.

In the right hands these collections have the potential to tell us about ancient diets, trade, craftwork, building methods, diseases, economics, industry, religion, the list goes on.

This hidden heritage really is the foundation on which the rest of the museum is built.

You might never get to see most of this material, but it belongs to us all.

It is the physical remains of our collective history and hides secrets about all of our ancestors.

It often contains the remains of our ancestors themselves.

It can be difficult to cherish something you might never see, but every time you step into a museum gallery, read a news story or watch a documentary about our ancient past, you are benefitting from the result of hours of specialists’ work on these hidden collections.

Besides, most people treasure ancient monuments that stand in parts of Britain that we will never visit, so why shouldn’t we have the same affection for artefacts from beneath the streets of our home towns and villages?

So, next time you visit a museum, enjoy the displays, but bear in mind the vital work being done behind the scenes to preserve your hidden heritage.

n Fishbourne Roman Palace: Roman Way, Chichester, West Sussex PO19 3QR

Phone: 01243 785859