ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 55, December 2000


Rognvald the Wrong

John Malam recalls finding Orcadian relics in an Essex junk shop

I've been finding things since I was old enough to realise there were things to find. For an archaeologist it's a way of life. For a former archaeologist it's a habit for life. The list of finds I have made reads like the contents of an antiquary's cabinet - some archaeological, some geological, some merely curious, all with tales to tell.

It was the objects in someone else's cabinet that really made an impression on my hunter-gatherer instincts. Junk shops are not usually happy hunting grounds for archaeologists, but, let's face it, we've all heard stories of treasures being found in the least likely of places.

So there I was, fresh out of university, peering into a case at the back of a junk shop in Chelmsford, Essex. It was August 1980, the month Steve Ovett set a world record in the 1500m, the month the Titanic was found, the month I chanced upon Earl Rognvald's relics.

There they were, looking for all the world like a floorboard off-cut and a squared-off lump of stone. Each was decorated with a neatly-painted roundel featuring a sailing ship, and an inscription stating they had been removed from Earl Rongnvald's (sic) coffin during work at St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, in 1915 and 1918. (Note the extra `n' in the spelling of Rognvald - a slip of the pen or a sign of something else?)

Three years earlier I'd been to Orkney and had visited the cathedral. And now, in far away Chelmsford, abandoned to the tide of gleaners who trawled through the contents of this little shop, were artefacts purporting an association with the 12th century architect of Orkney's magnificent mother church.

Genuine? Fake? A mystery, yes, and at £9.50 beyond my reach. Instead, I chose a collection of 300 World War I letters written from the trenches, tents and field hospitals of Flanders. I had no doubt about their authenticity, and the £1.50 price tag made them affordable.

I left the Earl's mysterious objects to their fate. Surely, a wealthier rummager than I would pounce upon them. But would that person appreciate them for what they said they were - fragments from a monument to a murder victim, slain before he saw his cathedral finished, whose bones were discovered in the 18th century sealed inside a column within his great building? I doubted it.

Back home I set about revealing the story of the brothers whose army letters I'd bought. I was writing letters of my own, to the MoD, to regimental historians, and one to the cathedral authorities on Orkney. Perhaps someone would like to know about the objects in Chelmsford. A reply came within four days, from the Chief Executive of the Orkney Islands Council, no less. I was instructed to purchase the objects on the Council's behalf.

Time flies. Would the cathedral curios have flown too? A call to Directory Enquiries, a call to the shop. They were still there. And when, at last, they came to me, they did so with a compliments slip that featured an engraving from Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop. How appropriate. Repacked, I sent them on their way to Orkney, content in the knowledge that I had played a part in some form of `cultural repatriation'. My interest over, the Earl's objects receded into distant memory. But now, 20 years later, I have revisited them. Just what were those artefacts? Were they all that they claimed?

Today they are in the Orkney Museum, Kirkwall, from where Anne Brundle, the curator responsible for archaeology, declares them to be fakes. But who's disappointed? Not me, and not the Museum, for whom they shed light on the little-known early 20th century world of Orcadian fakers and makers, who seem to have had their sights firmly set on the islands' developing tourist trade.

John Malam trained as an archaeologist. He is now an author specialising in children's information books.

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