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Mythbusting archaeology

13 July 2016 by Liz

Viking lady

Viking lady

As the Museum of Liverpool celebrates the Festival of Archaeology in July with a week of free archaeology events we’ll be exploring latest research and discoveries which bust some myths about the past!

Myth 1: Vikings wore horned helmets

Cartoons, costumes, soft toys and statues of Vikings tend to have one thing in common: horned helmets. But there is no archaeological evidence that Vikings wore them! We know quite a lot about Vikings and their world from excavations and from the sagas – stories passed down from the early medieval period. We have evidence for the types of houses they lived in, the ships they sailed in, some of the things they wore and some of the ways they buried their dead.  In north west England we know which areas they lived in from placename evidence.  And we have some spectacular jewellery such as the Huxley Hoard of silver arm bands.

The image of Vikings in horned helmets developed in the 19th century, before much of the excavation and research which informs our understanding of the period had taken place.

Come to the Museum of Liverpool on 27 July to meet some Vikings, see the Big Heritage Viking ship and learn more about the impact the Vikings had in north west England.

Verdict: Busted

Myth 2: Multiculturalism is a modern phenomenon

In modern politics we hear about British multicultural society described as if it is a modern phenomenon.  But the more we understand about the past the more we see that Britain has always had groups of people moving to and from its shores, bringing new lifestyles, cultures, foods, and commodities to these lands.

The Romans, the Saxons, the Vikings, the Normans… many peoples have left their mark in the British Isles. In the Tudor period there was considerable exploration, with Italian explorer Christopher Columbus famously landing in America in 1492. The cutting of links between Britain and the Catholic Church and the Pope, especially during the rule of Elizabeth I, opened up links with Muslim countries, and long-distance trade. The west-facing port of Liverpool developed its links with the Americas, and built its first dock in 1715. Meanwhile, London was receiving imports from far and wide, including the middle east and north Africa which enabled an English silk industry to grow. Liverpool’s port grew to capitalize on the links with every corner of the world, and 19th century census information tells us about people born in many different places living in the thriving town of Liverpool.

On 22 and 25 July we have a talk and a handling session on the pottery found in Rainford, St Helens – a post medieval industry which exported to north America.

Verdict: Busted

Myth 3: Romans lived in villas

The recent discovery of a Roman villa in a back garden in Wiltshire is the stuff of archaeologists’ dreams, but could it happen in north west England?

In the Roman period in the north west there were some very clear impacts of Roman administration.  The fort at Chester housed the 20th legion of the Roman army, and alongside it were built an amphitheatre and other Roman-type buildings.  In the countryside, though, people only took on some elements of Roman culture. There are several archaeological sites where roundhouses have been excavated, which were inhabited in the Roman period. These traditional houses would have been pretty recognisable to the pre-Roman Iron Age people in the area. Within these houses, though, people would have used imported pottery from around the Roman empire, and they would have worn items of Roman-style jewellery, though sometimes designed with a local twist. So, it doesn’t seem likely that a Roman villa will be found in a garden in Merseyside, but we wait to see!

Discover how Rome influenced England’s north west at our talk on 25 July.

Verdict: Different in different regions

footprints in the sand

Human and deer footprints at Formby

Myth 4: People were smaller in the past

Many thousands measurements have been taken from skeletons to chart the height of the population through time.  Measurements of the skeletons from the Mary Rose suggest that the average adult height was around 5’7″, while the modern average is around 5’9″/5’10”.

However, it wasn’t always the case that people were a little shorter in the past. Research on the prehistoric footprints in the silts on Formby beach is exploring the people who walked there between around 5,400BC and 2,300BC. Alison Burns has used height from measurements of the footprints suggests that prehistoric men were between 5’2″ and 6’2″, many individuals being about 6 foot.

The difference in height at different periods in history owes a lot to changes in diet. Prevalence of some diseases in a population can also reduce average height, as fighting illness can prevent absorption of nutrients.

On 23 July meet researchers to find out more about modern and prehistoric footprints!

Verdict: Different in different periods

Lots of myths grow up around history. Many developed from fictionalisation of factual events. Shakespeare’s ‘histories’ started some of these – taking past events and skewing them to make a better story, and one which suited his royal patrons better!  You can’t believe everything you read, even if it’s written by the Bard!

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