Face to face with the new-look Yorkshire Museum

By Ben Miller Published: 30 July 2010

A photo of a gold gilt pot

(Above) Silver gilt vessel. Image © the Trustees of the British Museum

In November 2009, the Yorkshire Museum – one of the oldest purpose-built museums in the country, sited on the grounds of St Mary’s Abbey – closed for a £2 million refurbishment.

Nine months later, it reopened for Yorkshire Day on Sunday (August 1 2010) as the home of some of Britain’s greatest treasures, holding a particular focus on York’s Roman, Medieval and natural history heritage.

A towering sculpture of Mars, the Roman God of War, welcomes visitors to the main hall, which leads the way to key artefacts including the most complete Anglo-Saxon helmet ever found in Britain, the vast Middleham Jewel Viking Hoard and Britain's biggest fish lizard, the Ichthyosaur.

Star objects from the British Museum's classical world collection were also on display for the opening.

A photo of a brown statue of a Roman god

Statue of Mars Image © York Museums Trust
This lifesize, 4th century homage to the Roman God of War is the best example of a Roman statue ever found in Britain, clad in full armour and carrying a sword and shield.

The god of war was very popular with the Roman army, and it's no surprise that it was found in York, with its legionary fortress and garrison of some 5,000 soldiers.

The whole statue, like all Roman stonework, would have been painted and could well have appeared quite life-like. His feet are missing, and museum staff believe it is likely they were left behind when he was pulled from his base.

"This was done quite carefully as there is no other damage," head curator Andrew Morrison reassures us. "Perhaps his power still worried those who pulled down the temple."

A photo of a gold case

The Middleham Jewel and Ring
Image: Joel Chester Fildes, © Yorkshire Museum
A member of the powerful Neville family, whose home was at based at Middleham Castle, may have had this outstanding piece of jewellery made by one of London's famous goldsmiths. It is now regarded as the finest pieces of Gothic jewellery found in Britain.

The jewel is engraved with a great deal of meaning, which suggests it was made for a pious woman with worries about pregnancy or epilepsy to contain a very precious relic. The sapphire jewel itself is actually a bead and has been incorporated in the final pendant.

The superb Middleham ring is from the same period as the Jewel. The inscription of twelve letters 'S', the insignia used by the Lancastrian Kings of England, is left engraved on the outside.

The interior of the ring is engraved with the word "Sovereynly", which can be interpreted as "in a lordly manner" and suggests the ring was owned by a member of the court or a leading noble of the period.

A photo of a tall white dinosaur skeleton

Moa Image © York Museums Trust
This is a very rare example of a near complete Moa skeleton.

These huge flightless birds, relatives of the Ostrich and Emu, once roamed the forests of New Zealand. Some species would have reached three metres high, with the museum's specimen standing more than two metres tall.

As well as their habitat being destroyed, the moa was also hunted for food and for their eggs.

A photo of an intricate helmet

The York Helmet Image: Joel Chester Fildes, © Yorkshire Museum
Dated to approximately 750 to 775, this iron and brass helmet is the most outstanding object of the Anglo-Saxon period to survive in Europe.

The famous York Helmet was discovered when struck by the claw of a mechanical digger – luckily the operator stopped to check what had been hit. It is sometimes called the Coppergate helmet after the exact place it was found.

The decoration of the nose-piece is a beautiful example of Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship, complete with animals entwined in the intricate pattern.

A photo of a statue head

Head of Constantine Image © York Museums Trust
This magnificent marble sculpture of Constantine’s head was found in York and may be the earliest portrait of him, perhaps carved shortly after he was proclaimed Emperor.

Roughly twice lifesize, it is from a statue of Constantine which probably stood in a prominent position in the Roman fortress in York.

A photo of a meteorite

The Middlesbrough Meteorite Image © York Museums Trust
"This amazing object is probably the oldest thing you will ever see – it's around four and a half billion years old," says Morrison.

"It was formed at the same time as the earth as well as the solar system. It is the only example of such a meteorite in the country outside of the Natural History Museum."

The meteorite came to earth on March 14 1881. Workmen at a railway siding in Middlesbrough heard a "rushing or roaring" sound overhead, followed by a thud, as something buried itself in the embankment nearby, just yards away from where they were working.

They went to investigate and found a vertical hole in the ground with the meteorite at the bottom. Victorian scientists, including the famous astronomer Alexander Herschel, recognised the importance of the meteorite, and it was carefully excavated and preserved in a box.

A photo of a ghoul like figure on a shrine

St Williams Shrine
The beautiful remains of two shrines dedicated to one of the north's most well known saints, St William.

The oldest shrine dates from 1330 and has not been seen by the public since it was destroyed by Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries. It would have been positioned above the tomb of St William in York Minster.

It is made of incredibly intricate carvings, created by some of the most skilled craftsmen in the country at the time.

The second shrine, dating from the 15th Century, will also be on show in a much more complete state than previously seen since it was destroyed.

It would have been positioned near the high altar of the Minster, and contained many precious relics within it.

Opening event from 11.30am on Sunday (August 1 2010).

Visit the museum's visiting page for opening hours, admission prices and more information.

Head to the event listings and exhibition details for everything going on following the opening.

Follow Culture24 next week for more star objects from the collection, and watch videos below about the new-look museum and the "organised chaos" during the rebuild:

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned: