This late sixteenth-/ early seventeenth-century floor tile with a picture of a grasshopper on it was found on the site of Baynard’s Castle, Upper Thames Street. It is London-made tin-glazed earthenware, intricately painted in green, yellow, two shades of blue and mauve. It is one of the objects that a group of postgraduate students and early career researchers spent the day learning to look at in detail at LAARC – the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre – at the first of a series (watch this space) of AHRC-funded Skills Development workshops on the theme of ‘Methodologies for material culture’.
With the expert help of Alex Werner, Head of History Collections at the Museum of London, and Roy Stephenson, Head of the Museum’s Archaeological Collections and Archives, we tried our hands at constructing biographies of early modern urban things. This tile was made in Southwark and found at the site of the Royal Exchange when it was rebuilt in the nineteenth century – it has a quarter of a Tudor rose in the top left hand corner, completed as the pattern was repeated. Seeing the two tiles together, you begin to get a sense of London floors – of the complex, self-consciously showy and fashionable Renaissance patterns on which the city’s elite might have been walking around the turn of the century. There are tempting connections between the site of this tile and the image on the previous one too – can we read Thomas Gresham’s emblem in the half a grasshopper and put that together with the floor of the Exchange which he had built? What kind of a map of London pavements would that give us? The answer has to be ‘probably not’! But the kind of biographies these objects invite was the question the day set us: our instinct as historians seemed to be to try to use them as a series of stepping stones that, placed sequentially, generated a particular kind of narrative that was very focused on specific people and important actions.
In the final session of the day we were given groups of objects to talk about: part of the Museum of London’s signature shoe collection, a group of pewter from Nonsuch with crossbow bolt-holes in it, and these several brown boxes of pottery. They were found in Southwark, around the time of the great fire of London – at least a whole household’s worth of ceramics, if not more. Our conversations around them moved backwards and forwards from the form, style and function that we had been told to focus on to the reasons for their deposit. Had their owners beat a hasty path over the bridge, fleeing the City in the fire with their prized possessions, only to realise they would not be able to return quickly and therefore dumping these heavy objects with comparatively small intrinsic worth? Had a minor earthquake shattered all the pottery in the house, leaving only pewter, wood and silverware items intact? That desire to create a biography from external events that is not in dialogue with the material quality of the objects seemed almost irresistible. But given time and the experts’ eye we came back to ‘active looking’, to focusing on how these objects worked, both individually and as groups – how wide the charger actually was, why it had holes in the rim for hanging, what the effect of its lavish pattern was in relation to the Bellarmine jugs, for instance. These less pushy, less sensationalist narratives of things were unlikely to relate directly to London’s famous inhabitants or events; more likely to concentrate on the experience of walking through the decorated spaces of the early modern City.