Andrew Green, a former librarian at the National Library of Wales, last week renewed a public debate about the future of one of the most spectacular historical artefacts ever discovered in Wales - the Mold Cape.

Since being discovered in a burial mound in 1833, the various fragments from what was once a single sheet of gold were bought and consolidated by the British Museum who restored the cape where it remains on display to this day.

The cape features prominently in the British Museum’s current exhibition, ‘The World of Stonehenge’, which documents the history of Britain and Europe from 4000 to 1000BC - and the huge changes that occurred on these islands during that timeframe.

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I went to the exhibition to see how one of Wales’ greatest archeological treasures was presented, and what it means for an item so huge to history on this side of Offa’s Dyke to be housed on the other side of it.

With time to spare before my slot at the exhibition, I decided to enjoy the museum’s permanent collection. The first famous object that many visitors are likely to see on a visit is the Rosetta Stone. It is, apparently, the most viewed object in the museum’s history. A huge, imposing, black slab of granodiorite inscribed with the same text repeated in ancient Greek, Demotic (the everyday written script of ancient Egypt), and Egyptian hieroglyphics, it is the reason historians are able to translate hieroglyphics and was vital to our contemporary understanding of life in ancient Egypt.

The Mold Gold Cape was discovered on October 11, 1833 in a Flintshire field. It is now housed at the British Museum in London. Leigh Jones went to view it. Photos: Leigh JonesThe Rosetta Stone, housed at the British Museum in London. Photo: Leigh Jones

The Rosetta Stone has an otherworldly presence - it sits silently, but you can almost see it vibrating with energy - like the monolith entrancing the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It evokes viscerally.

It was originally discovered by the French - Napoleon having sent an expedition to Egypt in 1798 who found it the following year.

The stone caused a sensation among European academics over the next few years. Meanwhile in Africa, British forces defeated the French in Alexandria in 1801 and the stone, along with dozens of other historical artefacts in French possession in the besieged city, became “British” by virtue of being spoils of war. The museum has publicly displayed the stone continuously since 1802.

Ah, the Empire.

Walking beyond the Rosetta Stone, you soon come to the Duveen gallery - an extension built in the 1930s to house the Parthenon sculptures, though they’re more frequently known as the Elgin Marbles.

The Mold Gold Cape was discovered on October 11, 1833 in a Flintshire field. It is now housed at the British Museum in London. Leigh Jones went to view it. Photos: Leigh JonesThe Elgin Marbles at the British Museum. Photo: Andrew Dunn CC BY-SA 2.0

When the British defeated the French at Alexandria, it was with the help of Ottoman forces, whose own empire encompassed Greece. It was at this time that the Earl of Elgin commissioned the removal of the sculptures, reliefs and friezes from the Parthenon in Athens, and took them back to London - claiming to have had written permission from the Ottomans to do so, without ever presenting this paperwork.

Since Greece claimed its independence and status as a modern nation state in the decades that followed, it’s obvious to see how the loss of these artefacts can be harmful to a new country’s sense of identity and national pride.

In a tokenistic attempt to address the controversy, there are pamphlets in the gallery explaining the Greek government’s decades-long battle and what the museum’s position is.

The Mold Gold Cape was discovered on October 11, 1833 in a Flintshire field. It is now housed at the British Museum in London. Leigh Jones went to view it. Photos: Leigh JonesColumns within the British Museum. Photo: Leigh Jones

The room’s Art Moderne architecture is so boldly of its time. A long, grey, stone hall with high ceilings and big, straight lines and fine, concentric detailing. Judging the room by the form, it’s beautiful. But on considering its function, the twentieth century Doric columns at either end of the room look down on the hall’s exhibits - a kitsch mockery of the genuine article beneath them - devoid of their original context, 1500 miles from the Athenian sunshine.

One of the museum’s more compelling arguments over keeping the marbles is that they can be enjoyed by more people by remaining in London. They argue that six million visitors a year see the Elgin Marbles in London compared to the one and a half million who go through the doors of the Acropolis Museum in Athens.

As I made my way to the Stonhenge exhibition, I walked through galleries filled with families visiting London from abroad, with parents and children speaking seemingly every language but English, excitedly looking at objects with wonderment. When it came to presenting the treasures of Welsh history to the rest of the world, I had to admit that it felt like there was no bigger stage than right here. 

Perhaps the best place for one of our brightest treasures was here, in England.

This deflated sense of inevitability, that perhaps the museum was right all along in looking after artefacts from other countries, dissolved instantly as soon as I saw the first object in the exhibition.

The Gleninsheen Gorget is a beautiful, decorative solid gold collar. In terms of making an impact and grabbing a visitor’s attention, it really is a great way to start an exhibition. But then came my anger, as I read the information beneath this bronze age marvel.

“On loan from the National Museum of Ireland”.

The Mold Gold Cape was discovered on October 11, 1833 in a Flintshire field. It is now housed at the British Museum in London. Leigh Jones went to view it. Photos: Leigh JonesThe Glenisheen Gorget at the British Museum. Photo: Leigh Jones

Of course. It’s so obvious, isn’t it? The Mold Cape can belong to Wales and still benefit from the British Museum’s enormous footfall by loaning it to them.

The cape itself is almost quite literally the exhibition’s centrepiece, explaining how culture for people on the island of Britain transformed with the discovery of metal. Having gawped for a few minutes, I loitered near the cape to see how others reacted to it. Some seemed to enjoy it, but many others were just, well… not arsed.

Not even the annoying couple who seemed to follow me around, loudly commenting on every single object in the exhibition had a solitary word to share about it.

This wasn’t the first time that I’d seen the cape either - when I’d previously seen it on display as part of the museum’s permanent collection a few years previously I was stood next to it internally screaming at indifferent passers by. 

“This is the Mold Cape. The Mold… HELL-OOOO! THE MOOOOLD CAAAAAAPE!”

Sitting in a glass case in the British Museum, alongside thousands of other objects behind glass while people busily walk past looking for the Rosetta Stone, it had the same allure as a high street jeweller’s window. Quite frankly, not that many people visiting the British Museum seem interested in the Bronze Age, let alone the history of Wales.

The Mold Gold Cape was discovered on October 11, 1833 in a Flintshire field. It is now housed at the British Museum in London. Leigh Jones went to view it. Photos: Leigh JonesA close up of the Mold Gold Cape at the British Museum. Photo: Leigh Jones

If for some reason the cape had been discovered a hundred years later than it was - after Amgueddfa Cymru had been founded in 1905 - there would be no reason for the cape to have ever left Wales in the first place.

For eight years, I had rugby training each week on an astroturf pitch that is literally twenty yards from where the cape was discovered - but I only learned about the cape’s existence when Wetherspoons opened a pub in Mold in 2003 and named it The Gold Cape. In what twisted universe do the Welsh receive cultural lessons about our own history from Tim Martin?

The Mold Gold Cape was discovered on October 11, 1833 in a Flintshire field. It is now housed at the British Museum in London. Leigh Jones went to view it. Photos: Leigh JonesWetherspoons - arbiter of Welsh history?

Welsh history being added to the curriculum is a clear positive step to address the deficit that exists in our knowledge about ourselves, and returning the Mold Cape to Wales would be a further step in helping to fill those collective gaps.

So much of Welsh prehistoric history is understood because of discoveries made in the north east, from the Mold Cape to the Gop Hill, and the stories of Boudicca losing her life to the Romans here. Go further back and the only British fossils of Neanderthals were discovered in Bontnewydd near St Asaph.

Instead of a fraction of 1% of the 6 million who visit the British Museum even bothering to give this remarkable object a second glance, if a new museum were to be built in the north east of Wales with this incredible artefact at its centre, more people would have the opportunity to enjoy its brilliance, and truly engage with our own history.

The Mold Gold Cape was discovered on October 11, 1833 in a Flintshire field. It is now housed at the British Museum in London. Leigh Jones went to view it. Photos: Leigh JonesThe Benin Bronzes on display in the British Museum. Photo: Joyofmuseums CC BY-SA 4.0

As I left the exhibition I made my way to try and find the Benin Bronzes - probably the most shameful objects in the British Museum’s collection of 8 million objects - stolen from what is now Nigeria in 1897 by a British expedition after they sacked and looted Benin City in retaliation for the deaths of an earlier British expedition who had mounted a failed coup against the king of Benin. 

Unfortunately, the African gallery was closed during my visit. However, at its entrance stands another of the museum’s most famous artefacts - Hoa Hakananai’a - a Moai from Rapa Nui, or, an Easter Island head, dug up and stolen by a Royal Navy crew in 1868 and ending up in the museum’s collection the following year.

The Mold Gold Cape was discovered on October 11, 1833 in a Flintshire field. It is now housed at the British Museum in London. Leigh Jones went to view it. Photos: Leigh JonesA Hoa Hakananai’a, a Moai from Rapa Nui, which is housed at the British Museum in London. Photo: Leigh Jones

In 2018 the people of Rapa Nui sent a formal request to the British Museum for the return of Hoa Hakananai’a to Easter Island. They visited London, and the museum sent a delegation back the following year to continue discussions.

The Benin Bronzes are slowly making their way back to Nigeria from all over the world as people question whether they want these bloody objects in their own collections.

While the case for restitution of artefacts to their countries of origin will clearly make museum curators nervous of losing their entire collections, the case of Hoa Hakananai’a shows that the museum is listening. It’s time that we in Wales made our voices heard.

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