The Salisbury Museum

When Mainly Museums contacted me and asked if I would like to write a review of my favourite museum for my blog I jumped at the chance. The idea of being able to have a bit of a museum experience from behind the comfort of a screen, no matter where in the world you are, appeals to me. It’s an honour to contribute.

So, I had a little think! My favourite museum? Well, it has to be a toss-up between The Witches Museum in Boscastle, Cornwall, and a fantastic and highly regarded local museum in Salisbury, Wiltshire in England. I think the Salisbury Museum just about pips The Witches Museum to the post though.

Even if you are reading this from faraway lands, you may already know of Wiltshire, if only for its most famous of features, Stonehenge. Salisbury is the nearest town to Stonehenge, famous in its own right for many things, but in particular for its majestic cathedral with the tallest spire in the UK. Surrounding the cathedral are a collection of wonderful grand old buildings in ecclesiastical, residential and educational use. One of these is The King’s House (pictured at top), a 13th to 14th century Grade I listed building which started life by being used for activities associated with the cathedral. Over time it was used as a residence for both families and as individual dwellings for students and tenants. Its main claim to fame is the house entertained James I in 1610 and 1613, hence its name. In 1981 the museum took on a 125-year tenancy for the building. It is somehow fitting that the highly regarded collection of artefacts owned by Salisbury Museum is housed in a suitably magnificent building.

As you approach The King’s House, it’s worth taking a minute to absorb the history of this building for a moment. Enjoy the medieval-ness of it, before you are transported back to the very earliest times of Mesolithic, Palaeolithic and Early Neolithic man.

One of the nice things about Salisbury Museum is its ‘localness.’ It’s a charitable, not for profit, run with the help of a team of friendly volunteers, passionate about Wiltshire and its history. It’s not particularly expensive (in this day and age of high living costs) and well worth a visit.

Salisbury Museum is renowned for its vast collection of archaeological finds from around Stonehenge and the surrounding area. Its collection is one of the best in the country. It’s no wonder really. The south of Wiltshire in Southwest England is archaeologically rich with artefacts going back to the Old Stone Age. Unfortunately, when I visited this time round The King’s House was undergoing some much needed repair work, meaning half the museum is closed until 2025. The main archaeological collection is still available, and I’ll take you on a tour shortly. Luckily, I visited back in the spring and was able to get some photos of other bits of the museum including my favourite two items. All in good time though!

I’ve created a mini tour of some of the highlights of the archaeological collection so if you never get to visit Wiltshire you still get the chance to see what is on display. I should just mention, Salisbury Museum is not just about archaeological finds. There’s so much more than that. Salisbury was and still is a bustling market town and there is a rich history which started with the building of the cathedral in 1220. This spelt the end of the old settlement of Old Sarum, an old Iron Age fort and latterly Roman and Anglo Saxon settlement. Many artefacts from Old Sarum now live in the museum as well as other finds from the local area. The medieval history of the city through to more modern historical times is well documented with various wonderful bits of treasure.

Town Crier
PHOTOGRAPH BY Salisbury Museum Volunteer Blog

Although safely stored away at present, due to the restoration of the building, there is a rather wonderful collection of paintings in the museum, including five watercolours by the most famous of the Romantic English painters, Turner. And a pencil drawing of St Ann’s Gate by Constable.

Within the costume and textiles collection, which is associated with local people, there are an estimated 5000 items of mainly 18th- and 19th-century pieces. They represent various aspects of Wiltshire including farming, military, sporting, military, church and domestic life. A favourite for me is a wooden town crier toy from 1826. He has a bit of a Punch and Judy look to his face and standing on a wooden platform with wheels. A child would have pulled him along wearing his woollen coat and tricorn hat, little ringing bell in hand. He is really quite charming in a weird sort of way.

The Interior of Salisbury Museum

A small collection of ceramics and glass with local connections was bought together by collectors in the late 19th century. They used to meet up to regularly share their enthusiasm and discuss ideas. Dr W. D Wilkes, a physician in Salisbury infirmary living in nearby Wilton is responsible for actively advancing knowledge in the subject. We must be thankful to those living before us, who took time out to document and research their passions for us to now enjoy. After all, if they hadn’t, we would have no knowledge or record of our past.

The Five Senses from the Bow Factory in London
PHOTOGRAPH BY Salisbury Museum

Part of this collection contains some rare porcelain figures from around 1750. They are so very fine and I can imagine them adorning the mantle piece of some fine house in the country in the Georgian era, delighting visitors with their exquisite forms.

Wedgwood Cauliflower Teapot
PHOTOGRAPH BY Salisbury Museum

A local lady, Mrs Brixie Jarvis, from a village called Rockbourne on the Wiltshire/ Hampshire borders was an avid collector of Wedgwood. She left her vast collection of 650 pieces to the museum, and it gives a great insight into the history of this prominent fine china and porcelain company. Alas these are some of the pieces that are presently packed away, but better to be safe than sorry. It would be a disaster to lose any of these rare antiques to a rogue roof tile or such thing.

On display at present is a photographic display of Salisbury over the last century or so. Photography is a great way to show the real social history of a place and time I feel. You get a true sense of the atmosphere in a photo, an actual snapshot of time, and that’s why I find photography so fascinating. This collection gives a real feel for the lively and friendly, ever growing market town of Salisbury over the last few decades.

It’s time now to move to the star collection of the Salisbury Museum, their archaeological finds. These finds span history from the Palaeolithic to modern era. The collection is so significant it has been awarded Designated status by the Arts Council. Quite an accolade for a local museum. And it is thanks to the locality of Stonehenge World Heritage Site that these treasures exist. They are key to the understanding of the rich archaeological landscape of Stonehenge and the surrounding area.

Meteorite at Lake House
Meteorite at Salisbury Museum

Before you head into the room, you’ll come across something even older than the Old Stone Age. I really enjoyed the story behind this total gem. 30 000 years ago a meteorite fell to earth from outer space. After being preserved in the earth for many years it was uncovered from a burial mound in the 19th century by Edward Duke, a previous owner of the house and an antiquarian. He took it back to Lake House and it was then to sit for 80 years on the porch of this beautiful Elizabethan country house. 90 kg in weight, it has been touted as possibly the biggest meteorite to have even fallen in the UK. It was held in storage at the Natural History Museum for 20 years before finding its way back to Salisbury to live in the museum. Another little twist is that Lake House had a famous resident once. The pop star Sting!

The Wilton Hanging Bowl

Next up is the Wilton Hanging Bowl. Made of copper alloy and a tiny bit of gold this post-Roman workmanship was found in Wilton around 1860. These bowls have been found before, often in richly furnished graves of wealthy Anglo-Saxons. No one knows what they are for; possibly for use in religious ceremonies.

Each glass covered display shows a collection of finds from a specific area. Times of finds and the ages of the finds vary in each display. For children (and adults of course) there are drawers to pull out containing various items found on archaeological digs. Bones, coins, bits of pottery, weapons, tools, jewellery. Buried for all time until, one day, someone uncovers these little treasures of the past. There’s plenty to explore in this huge room.

I’m a fan of gargoyles, grotesques and corbels; cute or ugly. I do love to spot them on my wanderings and cathedrals always deliver. I loitered around the glass cabinet that shows what was excavated from Old Sarum, the site of the original cathedral. Found buried in a pit, and what a shame this had happened, were some of the original corbels. Here are my favourites:

Corbel with young female head
Corbel with trumpeter
Corbel with lion’s head
Gablet flanked by crouching lions
Feet of Christ from a crucifixion scene

No decent archaeological collection is complete with a skeleton or two and there are a couple of very important ones here in the museum. Of great significance is the Amesbury Archer c.2300 BC. This Late Neolithic burial site is one of the richest to ever be found from this period. It also contained the earliest dated gold. Buried just a short distance from Stonehenge this man would have come from somewhere in the Alpine region of Europe. Why he came to be buried there in Amesbury is unknown.

The Amesbury Archer

Another archer found buried in the ditch to the northeast entrance of Stonehenge was aptly named the Stonehenge Archer, from around the same time. He was discovered with a wrist bracer and three arrowheads; was young, strong and healthy when he died. Again, what happened to him. Was he actually buried there or was he murdered? Was he some sort of sacrifice? We’ll never know.

The Swallowcliffe Princess

Some miles away on the downs of Swallowcliffe in 1966, was found the burial site of an Anglo-Saxon young lady. She must have been very important, likely of noble birth, for buried with her were many treasures and she was laid on a wooden bed. Found with her were two glass palm cups (one of which is still perfectly intact and in good condition) and a decorative mount with repousse decoration from a satchel, among other things.

Around 1300 years ago it appears that a powerful group of people lived around this area, just as the Kingdom of Wessex began to emerge. Could this lady have been some sort of a princess?

The Warminster Jewel

As far as finds go, this one is ‘newer’ than a lot of the other artefacts in this room. What totally tickles me is that this was found near Cley Hill (a famous hill for many reasons) near Warminster by a metal detectorist. This is a hobby I would love to take up myself (if I can conjure up 36 hour days). I can’t imagine the excitement of finding something so old and so rare and so precious after probably digging up an endless supply of old bottle tops and other junk.

The Warminster Jewel, as it was named, is a very rare aestel (a manuscript pointer) of Early Medieval origin, so 9th century AD. King Alfred sent out aestels to all the dioceses in his kingdom to accompany his translation of Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care. Alfred was known for encouraging the development of spiritual learning. Each aestel would have an ivory or wood pointer, which could be used as an aid for reading.

Medieval jewellery

There’s a cabinet showing off several examples of Early Medieval jewellery, Saxon or Briton in origin. They come from local Anglo-Saxon graveyards. It is thought that the people who owned these were pagans, and their belief was that you took your precious objects with you into the afterlife, so they were often buried with a person when they died. In the image above you can see finds from Charlton:

Bowerchalke Roman Haul

Dated from the late Roman period this haul, found again by two detectorists, in the same area over a ten year period, contain 64 coins and four gold rings; an incredibly valuable find! Two of the rings were betrothal rings. One of the coins is the solidus of Valentinian II (375 to 392) which was the equivalent of a quarter of a Roman soldier’s annual salary. A very notable and rare coin indeed.

Stonehenge then
tonehenge now

No museum in Wiltshire would be complete without some Stonehengeness so I am glad to report there are plenty of items associated with this stone circle and the surrounding landscape. A couple of these have been mentioned above but I wanted to show you the ‘then and now’ models which I found quite fascinating. Luckily for me, living in Wiltshire, visits to and sightings of Stonehenge are a regular part of my life, especially given the main road that runs past is much used by me. But, what I know as Stonehenge is obviously rather different to how it would have looked even just a few centuries ago. Seeing a model of how the original circle would have looked, compared to how it is now to be found was interesting. On the one hand, isn’t it amazing this very special and ancient site is still standing? At least partially. But on the other hand, this model shows how much damage has occurred over time. The photos are above so you can see the differences too.

The Salisbury Giant and Hob Nob
The Salisbury Giant and Hob Nob

That brings to a conclusion my mini tour of the Wessex Archaeology Collection. But before we depart, I want to show you my favourite of exhibits. They weren’t on show this time round but I did manage to get some good photos earlier in the year. I then had the great joy of running into this exhibit at the Salisbury St George’s Day celebrations a few weeks later. The exhibit I love so much? It’s the Salisbury Giant and Hob Nob!

Tailoring was an important trade for the market town in Salisbury and came about thanks to the local wool industry. In 1447 The Tailor’s Guild was chartered and sometime after that they created the giant. He was associated with the St John’s Day celebrations (also known as the ancient festival of Midsummer) and it provided the ideal opportunity for the tailors to show off their skills and fabrics.

The Giant on parade

The giant’s name is Christopher, thought to be named after St Christopher, although he was made for St John’s Eve and St John is the patron saint of tailors so it could be that he was once called John. He stands these days at 12 feet tall, so he fits into the museum. He has lost two feet of height since his earlier days! He has been wheeled out for the joy of residents at all important festival days and events, such as coronations of kings and queens, for many centuries now. Hob Nob is the giant’s hobby horse, employed to part the crowds and make way.

He is one of the oldest giants in the country so you won’t be surprised to find out that over the centuries Christopher has undergone quite a few changes and renovations. Wooden statues don’t tend to stand up to the ravages of time too well, particularly when they are still in use. Today’s giant is not the original, sadly, but a replica. It’s still nice to see him being rolled out for events, keeping the tradition alive. And that is where I had the pleasure of meeting the giant up close earlier this year on St George’s Day. Much to my surprise, when I asked who was tasked with moving him around, I found Phil Harding, star archaeologist of UK television show Time Team, hidden inside waiting to pop out to surprise visitors. And I was so surprised! It’s another lovely little moment that will go on to create new history. The famous archaeologist, with a love of Wiltshire, who is responsible for awakening an interest in our ancient history in so many people, taking time in his day to keep the giant out and about on the medieval streets of the city.

Phil Harding from Time Team in a staring role as The Giant

The Giant and Hob Nob are a wonderful addition to the museum in my view. The old photos are sublime. One of the best images shows a mishap in 1911 when the giant toppled over during the parade to mark King George’s coronation. Remember I mentioned my love of old photos and how they show a snapshot of time? The ones involving the Giant and Hob Nob are certainly my favourites.

The Salisbury Giant topples over
Recent renovations unconvered the paw prints of a sizeable dog on the underside of a pegged tile. The dog must have wandered across the tiles while they were drying back in the 15th century.
This tile was taken from Great Bedwyn Church. It’s from the 14th century and is the badge of the Seymour family.
These little stamped faces were likely from a medieval pottery in Laverstock near Salisbury, that produced all sorts of items for well off households sometime between 1230 and the early 14th century.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Photographer Name
Dug up by local brickmakers in the early 19th century, these ancient animal bones were acquired by a founder of the museum. It includes a mammoth tusk, rhinoceros teeth, and a jawbone with the teeth of a wolf.

That brings us to the end of our tour. Given my interest in ghosts and folklore, I thought I would just check in with one of the volunteers who had been there for many years. I explained my blog and asked her ‘So, are there any ghosts here?’ In a building of this age, with such a history, I would expect at least one tale. But no. Sadly not. The volunteer expressed surprise at never having had any strange experiences in the building or having heard of any old stories. Oh well! It was worth an ask!

Having got home I gave my usual sources a cursory glance and it seems there are a couple of ghosts associated with The King’s House. You may or may not be interested but just in case you are… there’s an obligatory grey lady, seen floating around the north staircase and library. The other ghost is a horseman, some say headless, who rides across the rear lawn. There is one other legend associated with this building. It tells of a blood-stained stone, sited somewhere within the building, relating to the Earl of Buckingham’s execution, which actually happened on the site of the local Debenhams department store.

I hope my article has given you a good idea of what you can find in Salisbury Museum. There’s plenty more to see, if you get the chance to visit. It’s a lovely place to while away a couple of hours for anyone interested in the history of this area. And if you are coming to see Stonehenge anyway, it really is only just a few miles down the road. See you there someday! Maybe!

For further information head over to the Salisbury Museum website.

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Emma Heard

Emma Heard is a freelance writer with a love for her home county of Wiltshire and all that is strange and unusual within it. Offering writing services Emma currently works for a historical building magazine publishers and as a copywriter. As a side gig, Emma is the creator of Weird Wiltshire, a blog about ghosts, folklore and history from this magical and mysterious county and the world beyond. Emma is also a contributor to Haunted magazine and tells us she ‘has a book on the go.’ You can find Emma at Weird Wiltshire and also find Emma over on Twitter here.