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Updated: 14 April 2015
Gilded silver finger-ring; hoop of circular section rods twisted together with beaded wire; narrowing to back; lozenge-shaped thickening at back of hoop.
- Found/Acquired: Gotland
- Diameter: 2.6 centimetres
Comment from Kidd, Haith & Ager 'Summary Catalogue' (draft MS)
The collection of James Curle, FSA, was purchased with the aid of a grant from the National Art-Collections Fund.
Curle was born in 1860, the eldest son of a lawyer, at Melrose in Scotland. He did not go to university formally, although he did attend some lectures in law when training, but entered the family firm of which he later became head. Both he and his brother Alexander became active archaeologists in the Scottish Lowlands. His most famous excavation was the Roman fort at Newsteads which, when modelly published in 1911, established his reputation. In 1908 he became curator of the National Galleries of Scotland, and in 1925 a Royal Commissioner for Historical Monuments. While deeply engaged in legal business he still enjoyed an active social life amongst scholars. He died in 1944 at Melrose. An obituary (Richmond 1944) summarises the highly distinguished role he played in the development of archaeology in Scotland.
His Swedish interests are now something of a mystery due to almost complete lack of documentation. Papers do survive with the family, and a key letter from Curle in Visby (Kidd 1990, and 1994). A partial inventory survives, but was never completed. His collection appears to have come largely from the island of Gotland which he first visited in 1888 with his brother Alexander, on their first holiday abroad. In Visby he met a retired militia officer, Captain Lindstrom, who acted as a tourist guide and appears to have assisted Curle in acquiring antiquities. These were readily available in local jewellers' and watchmakers' shops as a result of increased economic and agricultural activity. A brooch still bears a label with its price of three kronor (no. 2992). Not only did chance finds come on the market, but enterprising farmers went actively digging and Gotlandic dealers such as Florin and Lysholm may have played a role as middlemen for Curle.
It was during the last quarter of the nineteenth century that the foundation collection of the Fornsal at Visby was made, and much significant material entered the Statens Historiska Museum. But relations between the authorities and dealers were not always good and much was sent abroad. Apart from bare parish provenances, which may or may not be correct for about twenty five per cent of Curle's material, there is no further documentation of find circumstances. Curle visited and corresponded with scientists as Hildebrand, Söderberg, Salin and Montelius, and, from rare surviving correspondence, it may be inferred that not only did they know of his collection, but assisted its accumulation.
Rare glimpses of his new acquisitions are provided in correspondence with Hercules Read of the British Museum, but display great reticence about his sources. Curle visited Lund and Stockholm in the summer of 1891, when he acquired his glass beaker (no. 3252), "some good brooches and one or two bracteates" (5.11.1891). In 1891 he received "an importation of things from Gotland"; but contents of "a middle Iron Age grave with a specimen of the very early boarshead fibula" cannot now be identified. The letters make it clear that other packets of objects were sent over. He was himself purchasing objects in Visby in 1892, and in Stockholm and Visby in 1893. Clearly he had an agent in Gotland: in 1893 he had acquired some bone gaming pieces. Others thought they were Norwegian in character (nos. 3181-4), but he dismissed the suggestion: "I myself got them in the island and... throughout my dealings with the man from whom they were purchased I have seen nothing to make me suspect that he gathered antiquities for my benefit from other parts of the country" (5.2.1895). In 1896 he purchased material on a visit to Stockholm, and in the same year he was writing to Montelius thanking him for sending a brooch and a replica, and for various kindnesses during the visit (7.10.1896). At least one of two brooches known to come from the famous Hammer collection (nos. 3039 and 3119) was acquired in this year. The collection appears to have been relatively quickly accumulated, but judiciously chosen to illustrate the typological development of costume jewellery and accessories from the later Roman Iron Age to the end of the Viking period. That this was the aim of his collecting is clear. The brooch "almost makes my series complete", writes Curle (13.11.1891), "I also have a pretty complete series of the round box fibulae from the small flat brooch to the heavy ornament of the late iron age".
A small number of objects do not come from Gotland, but from other parts of Scandinavia. The types they represent are found on the island, but so rarely that they were more realistically acquired elsewhere. There was no intention to expand the collection to a more general one, but to complete the Gotlandic series (Kidd 1994).
Relations with Swedish antiquaries seem to have been good, even if Curle did not tell them everything: "I have also got but this is a secret two gold bracteats not very fine ones but as you know anything of the kind is rather scarce. You needn't mention this as I don't want Hon Hildebrand to drop on the finders" (18.5. 1897). In 1901 (see below) he was trying to arrange exchanges with the Swedish Academy and presumably had been in a position to acquire pieces desired by the national collection. Apart from this letter and the purchase of an armlet (no. 3185) at Visby in 1901, no correspondence or register details mention additions to the collection after 1898. By September 1902 it must have been in some disorder, for a Mr Oldland from the British Museum was engaged in "sticking pins in tablets", after which the collection "really looks as well again" (6.4.1902). A clue to this loss of interest may be found in the same letter: "I am gathering my belongings together and working hard to get my affairs in some sort of order before leaving home on the 16th. I shan't be sorry to get the wedding over and find myself in Italy". We hear no more of his Gotlandic antiquities until their sale in 1921.
A few pieces in the collection are outstanding, rivalling even those in the Statens Historiska Museum in Stockholm. In England only the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has a small representative series of Gotlandic jewellery in the Evans collection; the Curle collection is outstanding as comparative and teaching material. A large group of stone implements and bronzes from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages was retained by Curle and not sold. Other departments in the Museum hold small parts of the collection: in the Department of Coins and Medals are small groups of Roman silver denarii, gold solidi and Cufic dirhams; German and Anglo Saxon pennies from the Mannegårda hoard of 1900 were acquired as duplicates (p. 000 below); the Department of Prehistoric and Romano British Antiquities has almost twenty Bronze Age and pre Roman Iron-Age bronzes, including a sword from Denmark; there are also half a dozen high medieval and post medieval pieces. A group of post-medieval christening spoons and rune-staves was not sold.
For earlier gifts by James Curle to the Museum of Gotlandic pieces, in which the collections were then deficient, and of Merovingian material, see the Index of Donors.
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