Convalescing and collecting: Antiquities in the First World War

By Mr James Donaldson (Manager/Curator, R.D. Milns Antiquities Museum, The University of Queensland) and Dr Brit Asmussen (Senior Curator, Archaeology, Cultures and Histories, Queensland Museum.)

In this blog, we remember the First World War service of Samuel Emmett, and discover why he was drawn to collect Roman antiquities in England while convalescing there after the war.  This blog is one in a series developed from research conducted during “The First World War Antiquities Project (Queensland)”, a collaborative project between the R.D. Milns Antiquities Museum, The University of Queensland, Brisbane and Queensland Museum. This is the first systematic survey of antiquities collecting by Australian service personnel during the war.

The First World War Antiquities Project: Queensland Museum collections

During the war, many service personnel collected antiquities from the countries in which they served. Three small antiquities in the Queensland Museum collection, pieces of Roman building materials, were collected and donated by Samuel Emmett. Samuel Emmett was born on 20 April 1884 in Hounslow, England, and trained as a civil engineer. Despite earlier attempts, he was finally able to enlist in 1918. Emmett did not serve in a theatre of active operations, but like many others, he played a vital role behind the scenes. Emmett was stationed at the Australian Railway Operating Depot at Longmoor Camp in Hampshire, supporting the movement of both troops and stores on the Western Front. By October 1918, Emmett contracted a severe case of Influenza, which he was still fighting in April 1919. The illness led to hospitalisations at the Military Hospital at Frensham Hill, the 1st Australian General Hospital at Sutton Veny in Wiltshire, and the Middlesex War Hospital at Napsbury. In mid-June 1919, he was discharged, granted two weeks leave and eventually departed for Australia in July 1919. 

Convalescence and collecting  

Perhaps during his 1919 leave after his illness, Samuel visited the Roman site of Verulamium near the city of St Albans in Hertfordshire. Verulamium was once a thriving Roman town, the third largest city in Roman Britain. The site contains remnants of a Roman forum, a market hall, triumphal arches and town walls and many houses with fine mosaics. It has long been a ‘must-see’ tourist spot. Here Emmett probably wandered the ruins, and souvenired three small objects which he carefully annotated with their findspots: Roman tile, from the city of Verulamium, a piece of Roman cement annotated as from “Vinyard Block”, and a small piece from a Roman brick. The Roman tile and brick fragments may have once been part of the Roman city-wall of Verulamium, which was constructed of alternating layers of brick or tile, and flint cobbles. The cement fragment probably comes from “Vineyard Field” in the south-western portion of the modern archaeological site Verulamium. An excavation of this field by Charles Ashdown in 1905 uncovered part of a house with two mosaic floors. However, Verulamium was not formally excavated until the 1930s despite several amateur archaeologists like Ashdown conducting excavations at the site in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The site became a scheduled ancient monument in 1923.

Collection of Roman antiquities, collected by Samuel Emmett, in England, ca 1920.  © Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington.

Engineers connecting across time

Emmett brought these back to Australia, where they remained with him for the duration of his life. In 1972 he donated these to Queensland Museum. In a letter accompanying the donation, an 89-year-old Samuel apologises for handwriting, affected by arthritis, and records that he collected them in ‘about 1920’, while convalescing at the ‘First War Hospital’ in England. He reflected that as a Civil Engineer himself, he was drawn to these pieces personifying ancient Roman engineering. These small souvenirs each have a label pasted on them, recording their origin. They are some of the only First World War souvenir antiquities from England so far identified so far in this project.

This blog is developed from research conducted during “The First World War Antiquities Project (Queensland)”, a collaborative project between the R.D. Milns Antiquities Museum, The University of Queensland, and the Queensland Museum. This is the first Australian survey of antiquities collecting by Australian service personnel during the First World War.

An in depth account of the personal stories and collecting being uncovered in The First World War Antiquities Project awaits you here and here.

Please contact the RD Milns Museum about antiquities of interest to the project: Mr James Donaldson, Manager/Curator, RD Milns Antiquities Museum, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry j.donaldson@uq.edu.au or 07 3365 7490.  

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s