After viewing More Than Just a Mirror, a documentary on mirror dating back to the Iron Age, Poor Yorick reached out to the filmmaker to find out more. Sharon Woodward is a filmmaker and runs WoodwardMedia. She agreed to speak with us, and broadened the conversation by including David Moon, the Curator of Archaeology at Oxfordshire Museums Services.
PY: What drew you to the Didcot mirror?
SW: I’m actually a filmmaker, not an archaeologist, therefore my interest in the Iron Age mirror really developed after I was commissioned to make the film. I have worked previously with Oxfordshire Museum/Museum Resource Centre on a previous project, “History In The Making,” where I made three short documentaries covering three artifacts: a wooden rowing oar, Roman tombstone of a Roman Solder (Lucius Valerius Geminus), and an Anglo-Saxon Sword.
David Moon, the Curator of Archaeology, had worked with me on the Anglo-Saxon sword film. When he contacted me regarding a production about the Iron Age Mirror, I jumped at it. I am interested in history and love finding the stories behind objects and artifacts. I am also very keen to take this work out to a wider audience. I feel these amazing objects and artifacts should be displayed to a wider waiting world, shared with as many people as possible. Regardless of background or academic accomplishment, everybody should have access to these pieces; we can all share these stories and admire the beauty in these objects. In the digital world we now live in, we can reach out to many more people with these stories.
PY: Have you done documentaries on other objects?
SW: As indicated previously, I have worked on three documentaries for the museum as part of the “History In The Making” series, where artifacts that displayed traditional crafts and skills were explored.
The first I embarked upon was The Oxfordshire Oars Makers. Museum Services volunteers Caroline and Roger became curious when a Rowing Oar was donated to the museum along with an essay about the craft. The film follows their research as they discover how the craft developed from 1932 and still survives today.
The second was the Alchester Project. It documents the army Cadets of Woodstock and Elsfield who work with memorial sculptor Alec Peever to design a war memorial that celebrates the traditions of Stonemasonry, applying techniques originally used by Roman stonemasons. A war memorial was unveiled on Remembrance Sunday 2013 with the design that was influenced by ideas from the young cadets. The cadets were inspired by the Roman tombstone of Soldier Lucius Valerius Geminus, found near Oxford.
The third film was Unearthing the Anglo Saxons. Blacksmiths were commissioned to make a replica of a Saxon Sword, which was buried with its owner and laid underground for 1,500 years until it was discovered by archaeologists excavating to make way for the Shrivenham by-pass, near Watchfield, in the 1980s.
I loved doing all three of these films, and we had such excellent feedback from people, so it was wonderful to work on More Than Just A Mirror.
PY: Can you briefly explain your work with archaeologist Miranda Aldhouse-Green?
SW: My involvement was to interview Miranda for the film. I had spoken to David regarding the film content, which was mostly to show the sampling. However, the mythical themes appealed to the both of us and David mentioned that Miranda would be speaking at the conference on the mirror. I made sure that she scheduled me in. I could probably have made a film just about the mythical, magical aspects of mirrors. David will have more to say.
DM: Miranda is someone whom I have known of ever since I was an undergraduate student. As she was (and still is) a professor in Cardiff, which was then part of the Federal University of Wales, she occasionally travelled north to Bangor, where I was pursuing my a degree in lecture. I remember her being so wonderfully literate and enthusiastic when talking, and her point of view was so thought provoking and interesting. I had already invited her to speak at the conference we held about the mirror, and suggested her as an interviewee to Sharon. I think I sent her a link to a radio interview Miranda had done so Sharon could hear her talk. I think at that point Sharon was as sold on the idea as I was, and she filmed the interview on the day of the conference, during her lunch break!
PY: The mirror is dated to around the time of the Roman conquest. Are you aware of any influences the Romans had on Celtic art, or the other way round?
DM: The Mirror was dated to the first century BC, so at least 50 years before the Roman conquest, although of course Julius Caesar did invade Britain and leave again at that time. There certainly was a link between Britain and Rome at that time—we know people traded because we find Roman amphoras in Britain which would have contained exotic goods like olive oil. Also, the classical writers mention that Britain produced really high quality hunting dogs and winter cloaks, which were also traded. (I wonder how many amphoras of olives would pay for a winter cloak?)
There is more of a Greek influence on Celtic art than Roman one. In the early development of the Celtic style (circa 400 BCE) the lotus leaf and palmette designs you see on Greek vases and silver was adopted by people north of the Alps, who developed these simple motifs into something extraordinary, and so the earliest form of LaTene art emerged, which is really abstract. Rome was also influenced by Grecian art, but in an entirely different way, and produced the very representative, classical forms we see in sculpture and architecture. There is very little crossover between Roman and Celtic art, apart from that common Greek root.
PY: Besides Professor Aldhouse-Green, the film credits WoodwardMedia, Oxford University, and many others who collaborated on the project. Can you talk a little about this collaboration?
SW: Oxfordshire Museum Services and Museum Resource Centre asked me to make the film. I, Sharon Woodward, am WoodwardMedia. I believe in the power of filmmaking whether it is:
• Developing projects that have strong educational and community involvement,
• Documenting people’s lives and histories for future generations,
• Engaging audiences through storytelling with media participation,
• Working with businesses that have ethical and social responsibilities, and
• Promoting Oxfordshire and the surrounding counties to a wider society.
I believe we can reach out to these communities through the power of filmmaking. That is where I come into it.
With regards to the other information I am aware of the following, which has come from exchanges via email with David Moon.
The Oxfordshire Museum had such a public campaign to buy the mirror (it was paid for entirely by donations and grants—not a penny from Oxfordshire County Council went towards the purchase or the research of the mirror). The museum felt it was very important that they should document the research they wanted to do. The museum was very lucky to be offered the chance to compete for the HEIF funding, which paid for both the research and the film, and even luckier to be one of the five winning projects. HEIF funding also meant they would be working with specialists from the University of Oxford, which has one of the best laboratories for scientific research into archaeological questions, so they had access to the very best advice and specialists.
After a lot of thought and consultation, they decided that they wanted to take a sample from the mirror—to actually cut a piece off, albeit a very small one, for analysis. Initially, they had tried using x-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis, which is non-destructive, but it just wasn’t working because of the patina on the mirror’s surface. By taking a sample, they would get a massive amount of extra information which would not be available by any other means—information not just about the chemical composition of the mirror but about the manufacturing processes used to make the mirror as well. The archaeologist/museum felt it was essential, if they were to do that, to explain to the people of Oxfordshire, who had paid for the mirror through their donations, why they were doing it. After all, when someone looks at the mirror in the museum, there will be a tiny, but visible, piece missing. They had to record and explain how and why they took a sample. The film is really intended to be a record of that, of how and why they cut a piece out of the mirror for analysis.
The Oxfordshire Museum decided having a film about it was the right thing to do. It created a permanent and public record of the sampling process, and they can use it in a variety of ways, such as showing it to groups, using it in gallery exhibitions, or broadcasting it. This is why they commissioned me to develop the film into something, which would also explain a little about how mirrors fit into our understanding of Iron Age society. They had worked with me before and knew they could work with me, and liked the way I worked, so I was fortunate enough to be asked to make the film. I am delighted to have participated.
DM: The long list of collaborators denotes how the project (both the research and the film) was funded. The Museum Service applied successfully for a grant from the HEIF, which was administered by the University of Oxford, and because of the way the grant works we then had to work with the university to complete the project. In a practical sense, we commissioned Sharon to make the film, and she picked it up and ran with it to produce something better than we ever imagined at the beginning!
PY: Where will the film be shown/featured?
SW: Screenings of this film was shown on The Archaeology Channel, USA in August 2015 and at the Cornerstone in Didcot, Oxford, UK. In October 2015, the film was broadcasted on the Community Channel throughout the UK. The film has also been selected to take part in the documentary official selection at the Tangier International Film Festival, Morocco (October 20-24). I am also waiting to hear back from other film festivals.
Find out more about Sharon and David:
Community Projects: Films and Projects
Twitter: @Moonlitflit, @OxonMuseum
Find out more about the mirror’s history.
Poor Yorick Associate Editor