Artefacts ranging from a Bronze Age cape to an air-raid warden's diary have been collected on a groundbreaking website, reports Terry Saunders
Rosemary Boyns's enthusiasm is infectious. She is busy cataloguing evidence of a fascinating expedition that a group of Welsh engineering workers made to imperial Russia in 1906.
They had to travel across Europe and Ms Boyns can plot their progress using the picture postcards they sent home from Berlin and Warsaw. She also has letters they sent to loved ones, telling of life thousands of miles away; and photographs of their destination, showing a thriving settlement with buildings that could have come straight from the Welsh valleys.
The men were part of a skilled labour force that regularly travelled to Hughesovka, an iron-working town named after Welshman John Hughes (it is now called Donetsk and is in Ukraine). Thirty years earlier, Hughes had accepted a commission to build, and provide the labour for, an iron works as part of Russia's bid to develop its heavy industry. As the factory became established a bustling town grew up; many of the Welsh workers and their families settled there.
For Ms Boyns, the postcards, letters and photographs of the Welsh engineers' journey are the latest gems to be added to the groundbreaking Gathering the JewelsCasglu'r Tlysau website. After being catalogued and digitised, they will join the site's collection of 21,500 items that celebrate Welsh history and culture.
The treasures range from a priceless ceremonial gold cape from the Bronze Age, found in 1833 by quarrymen working in the Flintshire town of Mold, to records from Port Talbot Eastern Boys' school noting the acceptance of Richard Burton, the actor, into Oxford University; and from delicately decorated gemstones that were discovered under the bath house at Caerleon's Roman fortress, to the letters and diaries of Welsh soldiers who served in France in the First World War.
Then there are the humorous, the unusual, the risque and the bizarre items - a Welsh-designed dress worn by pop star Kylie Minogue; a porcelain watering can used by Victorian ladies in Llangollen, Denbighshire, to "refresh their carpets"; photographs of the winners of Narbeth Carnival's decorated bicycle competition in 1909; an 18th century sampler showing Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, complete with lift-up fig leaves; and three stuffed albino moles, caught on the Llangattock Estate in Monmouthshire.
The ambitious concept of Gathering the Jewels was born in the summer of 1999 from a collective desire by archivists, librarians, gallery and museum curators throughout Wales to bring the country's treasures together into one collection. "New technology has enabled us to do that," explains Ms Boyns, a former primary school teacher and archivist who is now the project's education officer. "We've created a truly remarkable and accessible record of Welsh life - but the 'jewels' themselves are still where they belong, and where they can be seen, in the local museums, libraries and galleries across Wales."
Anyone exploring the country's history will find themselves on a labyrinthine journey through invaders and settlers, myth and mystery, power and rebellion. Wales is a land dotted with castles, derelict monasteries and ancient stone altars; where the remains of Roman hill forts rub shoulders with obsolete coal mines. These are reminders of the way the country's struggles are linked with its landscape, and with a culture that has absorbed a succession of powerful incomers.
Such a rich history has, inevitably, yielded an abundance of treasures. The website features illuminated medieval manuscripts that found their way across Europe to Lampeter; impressions taken from the Great Seal of Owain Glyn Dwr, who in the early 15th century brought a brief period of freedom for Wales after seizing power from English overlords; a 5,000-year-old, finely carved macehead; and, arguably the greatest treasure of all, that gold Bronze Age ceremonial cape.
Somewhere between 1900BC and 1600BC, the cape was beaten from a single gold ingot and delicately decorated with ribs and bosses. It is regarded as one of the finest examples of prehistoric sheet-gold working and is unique in form and design. But, as the website tells us, the cape in the Mold Museum is a replica: the original is held at the British Museum in London.
While such artefacts reflect past glories, the real story of the Welsh people is revealed by everyday items such as letters, photographs, diaries, newspaper cuttings, fashions and furniture. The detail they contain of everyday lives encourages our empathy: it gives us an idea of their owners'
ways of seeing the world.
Little is known outside Wales, for example, of the three-night air raid that destroyed much of Swansea in February 1941. The website contains a first-hand account of the devastation by ARP (Air Raid Precaution) warden Basil Radford. There is also a collection of letters of condolence that were sent to the families of men who died in the 1934 disaster at Gresford colliery, near Wrexham.
The remit for Gathering the Jewels was initially very wide, a condition of the initial funding from the National Lottery's New Opportunities Fund, so it was set up as a bilingual resource for lifelong learners. "It wasn't aimed at school or college learners, although it was of great value to them, so there are significant gaps as far as the requirements for national curriculum and college syllabuses are concerned," Ms Boyns explains.
Her solution? "Very shortly, we plan to theme and digitise a further 3,000 to 4,000 items, chosen with the needs of educational users, particularly schools, in mind." Some of the material is already themed: more than 120 topics have been developed and these are rotated daily on the home page.
The site has already been redesigned earlier this year with teachers' needs in mind - see panel, left. The effort seems to have been worthwhile, since the number of "hits" received on the site has risen from 7,000 to 20,000 per month.
Gathering the JewelsCasglu'r Tlysau: www.gtj.org.uk
AT THE EXHIBITION
Rosemary Boyns will be presenting a seminar on Gathering the Jewels on Friday, May 28 at 2pm.
ON THE TEACHING TRAIL
The Gathering the Jewels website features a learning zone. This leads to five discovery trails, offering structured and well-illustrated routes for learning about particular topics. The trails are:n Discovering history for ourselves; n Houses and households in the Iron Age; n Houses and households in Tudor and Stuart times; n Houses and households in Victorian times; andn Wales and the First World War.
A sixth trail is due to appear, featuring the Senghenydd coal mine disaster of 1913.
The selectable themes on the home page, which group together linked resources, may also be useful. Alternatively, teachers can use the site's search engine to find an object; however, there are so many artefacts it may take a while to track down what you're looking for. If, for instance, you try to find the Bronze Age cape by tapping in "cape", you get 131 pages of seemingly unrelated images (with the one you want on page 26).
Pupils can use the Gathering the Jewels website as the starting point for exploring KS23 history. Here are some suggestions:
* The history of Wales is closely linked to its geography and landscape.
Use a detailed map and the website to explore and explain these links.
* Create an illustrated time line to show landmarks in Welsh history, from Bronze and Iron Age settlements through the First and Second World Wars to the present day.
* Wales in film. The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, the 1958 film starring Ingrid Bergman as a woman who saves a group of Chinese children from Japanese invaders, was set in China but filmed in the mountains of North Wales. Find a suitable Welsh location for a film set in a fishing port, a castle, windswept hills, an industrial town or a rocky coastal area. Back up your choice with descriptions and, if possible, photographs.
* Life in early Wales and Britain. Explore the location and purpose of the major ancient Roman sites of Caerleon and Caerwent. How and why were they were different, and what did they have in common?
* Life in Wales and Britain in Tudor or Stuart times. Research houses and households in these periods, choosing a particular focus - for example, the part played by many of Wales's great castles in the Civil War.
* Wales in industrial Britain. Use the website as a starting point to explore the Rebecca Riots and the Chartists.
* Wales in industrial Britain. Why was Wales said to have powered the British Empire?
* Migration and emigration. Explore the travels of Welsh communities to Patagonia, Australia, America and, later this summer when the material becomes available, the iron town of Hughesovka in imperial Russia.
* Life in 19th century Wales. Speaking Welsh in school was once punishable.
Find out about the Welsh Not, then write a diary from the point of view of a child who has to wear one of them in class. Write a campaign speech against the rule banning the Welsh language in school.
* First World War. Imagine you are a soldier coming home to the valleys after fighting in the trenches in France. Describe your feelings and impressions, bearing in mind your experiences in the war and the economic situation onyour return to Wales.
* Second World War. Research and write a newspaper article about the three-night bombing of Swansea in1941, using the diary of ARP warden Basil Radford as your starting point.