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Riches that could soon be revealed.

Byline: By Sonia Sharma

Tyneside's heritage chiefs plan to create a pounds 36 million Great Museum for the North. Sonia Sharma was granted permission to see some of the treasures rarely viewed by the public

The room was crammed with so many heavy stones of all shapes and sizes that I almost felt I had to breathe in just to move about.

We entered one-by-one and walked in the narrow passage, past the stack of large rocks on our right and ceiling-high cupboards on our left.

The store was barely 50ft by 20ft. Yet thousands of years of history were locked away here.

At first glance, the stack just looked like a big pile of identical rocks. But, as I found out, each one has a story behind it.

Lindsay Allason-Jones, director of archaeological museums at Newcastle University, was showing me the collection of historical treasures that have never before been seen by the public.

"These have never been on display," she said. "There are a few thousand objects here. Some weigh about a quarter of a ton each.

"But we can't exhibit them because there is not enough space in the museum."

The Museum of Antiquities, based at the university, is the main centre of archaeology in the North East.

It houses artefacts dating back to the Stone Age, Bronze Age and the Roman times, including those relating to Hadrian's Wall.

But what people can't see are hundreds of items hidden away in boxes and piled in racks, from pieces of armour and weapons to articles of daily use.

One peculiar bowl, large and heavy, was a perfect wedding present in the late Middle Ages.

This was a creeing trough for bashing oats to make porridge and they sometimes had initials of the happy couple who received the gift.

Sandwiched in the rows of huge stones, I found statues of four mother goddesses with their heads missing.

It was difficult to tell what they were. But Lindsay explained they always came in a set of three and the heads were carved separately.

The goddesses were symbols of fertility and good luck for Romans and were common in those days. Near the door stood a very rare stone bowl found in Roman public baths. This was used to wash hands before having a bath. It had a 5ft diameter which means I could fit in it.

A few pieces were missing from the sides but the museum has enough to reconstruct it.

A little further down the room, we came across what looked like a few big rocks normally seen lying aimlessly on building sites.

But Lindsay turned off one light and, as if by magic, concentric circles and other symbols appeared on them.

She said: "These ring stones are very difficult to light. Once we get more space, we hope to have a separate display for them.

"They are very rare and have a kind of prehistoric rock art, some with religious symbols. But we don't know why this was done.

"There are many theories. Some say people using hallucinogenic drugs came up with this result."

There were a number of Roman altars, tombstones and building fragments. One tombstone from the 2nd Century AD still had some original paint on it and a fossil of a snake.

None of these objects have been seen in public. Only a quarter of the antiquities are currently on display. It is hoped all these treasures will be more accessible after a new pounds 36 million Great Museum for the North is built.

The antiquities museum, which attracts 20,000 visitors a year, holds historic gems like Stone Age axes, food vessels, Bronze Age swords, wooden combs, brooches and Tudor tobacco pipes.

Also on view is a 13 to 14th Century AD cosmetic set which looks like a Swiss Army knife. Used by the then vicar of Chevington, it includes two toothpicks, a nail cleaner and an ear scoop.

We then visited the Shefton Museum of Greek art and archaeology, also based at the university.

But it appears not many people know it exists. It pulls in just 4,000 visitors a year, the bulk of which are organised school visits.

This is not surprising because it's concealed on the first floor of the Armstrong building and, due to security, opens only from 10am to 4pm on weekdays.

To get there, you have to walk through the campus arch on King's Road, turn left, walk through another arch on the right and pass a small car park before reaching the building.

Lindsay said: "Someone once told me that coming here is like climbing Everest. It's difficult to find but worth it when you get there."

This is a pity because the venue houses the most intriguing artefacts shedding light on the lifestyles of the Greeks and Etruscans.

As soon as I walked in, my eyes landed on a very bizarre exhibit in the middle of the room, a massive purple-coloured stone foot.

It is about 88cm long and three times a life-sized foot. My hand was the same size as its big toe.

It weighs nearly half a ton and it took eight people to place it on a solid block.

The first question I asked was `whose foot is it?' It appears we are not sure but it is likely to have been part of an emperor's statue.

Dating back to the 2nd Century AD, it is a Roman foot made from stone found in Egypt.

Andrew Parkin, education officer, said: "The full statue would have been about six metres high.

"They were not that common because the stone was expensive. It would cost a lot to get it from the desert in Egypt. Nearly always emperors seemed to use it.

"Being able to get a statue like this was also a part of their expression of power. This one would have been shipped from Egypt to Rome."

Other items on display included painted pottery, bronze figurines and sculptures in terracotta and stone.

There were a number of weird and wonderful perfume containers with exotic pictures like the Sphinx. One was in the shape of a crouching dwarf and one in the shape of a woman.

Perfume bottles were common during the period from about 450 BC to 525 BC. They were popular among Greek athletes.

Little clay and terracotta figurines, small enough to fit in your hand, also adorn the glass cabinets of the museum. These were in the shapes of horses, goats and bulls.

Andrew explained: "These statues were offered to Gods and goddesses in Greek temples."

There were a few tiny colourful juglets measuring about an inch and a half, the kind little girls could play with at imaginary tea parties.

But these cute little things were used to hold medicinal drugs like opium.

A little further down, I found myself being stared at by a feminine-looking orange and white face with a tongue sticking out.

"That's a gorgon," said Andrew. "The most famous one was Medusa who had snakes for hair and had the power to turn anyone who looked at her to stone.

"Gorgon heads were used to decorate buildings to ward off evil spirits."

Again due to lack of space, just 50 % of the artefacts are on display in the Shefton.

Without a doubt they deserve a better showing than a narrow room that people have trouble finding.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Dec 9, 2003
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