Faces from the past can be viewed at Hull Museums

Published: Wednesday 20th September 2017 by Courtney Farrow

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Almost 200 years ago, a collection of well-preserved wooden objects was discovered at Roos Carr, near Withernsea.

The fascinating items give us insight into past cultures and civilisations, as well as how we preserve and display history in today’s museums.

They were uncovered in 1836 by labourers carrying out some maintenance work on a ditch in Roos Carr. As they reached about two metres below the surface, the men spotted some interesting figurines, a wooden box and a serpent-headed vessel, along with an array of other pieces that didn’t survive excavation.

Four of those intriguing items were gifted to Hull Literary and Philosophical Society and later became part of the collections at Hull Museums. A final figure was added to the collection in 1902. It was discovered at the same time as the other artefacts, but one man had secretly given it to his daughter to play with, rather than handing it over to the society.

The ‘ancient dolls’ are between 35 and 41 cm tall. Modern analysers have found that they were carved from yew wood, with eyes made from quartzite. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the objects date back to the Bronze Age or early Iron Age, making them around 2,600 years old.

Their purpose has been highly debated since their excavation. Many link the miniatures to the biblical scene of Noah and his ark. Meanwhile, more recent studies have proposed that they represent votive offerings of some kind, such as to gods or ancestors.

They were found in a layer of blue clay, which means that the statues were originally left in or near a water source. Historians have pointed out that this depositing of items in rivers and marshes fits in with a popular European cult practice.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what purpose these models were created for. They are very rare and there aren’t many other examples of this sort of woodcraft. In Britain and Ireland, there has only ever been nine similar carvings unearthed. These other pieces were crafted from several types of tree, including ash, pine, yew and oak. New findings have advocated the idea that the use of different woods may relate to the god represented. For example, the yew tree has been linked to Odin.

The history of the Roos Carr figures gives us an understanding not only of Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age culture, but also of how nineteenth century historians and curators operated.

The figures were found alongside several curved pieces of wood, which the Victorians believed portrayed arms. The collectors glued the figures into the boat, along with their limbs, shields and paddles. However, a closer inspection discovered that these timber extensions fitted into another hole – and, in fact, the ‘arms’ were detachable male genitalia.

Since then, the glue and varnish have been carefully removed and the figures rearranged. It has also been noted that there might have been a second boat with its own crew, as the vessel we see today can only fit four people.

You can view the unusual Roos Carr figures in the Iron Age gallery at the Hull and East Riding Museum. The museum is open Monday to Saturday 10am-5pm and Sunday 11am-4:30pm.

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Published: Wednesday 20th September 2017 by Courtney Farrow

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