British Museum blog

Mourning rings: portable and poignant souvenirs

Littleton mourning ring found in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. © Birmingham City CouncilCaroline Barton, British Museum

Mourning rings are an emotive form of jewellery; very few objects that we have the privilege of working with in the Treasure process have such potentially traceable histories, and academically they are of great interest. Examples such as the Littleton ring, which features in the ITV series Britain’s Secret Treasures can not only be accurately dated but also name the person whose death they commemorate.

Littleton mourning ring found in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. © Birmingham City Council

Littleton mourning ring found in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. © Birmingham City Council

But not all mourning rings specifically name the deceased, as this one does. They might feature or incorporate mottos or death-related prose. It was in the seventeenth century that Momento Mori rings developed more fully into what we know now as mourning rings. Momento Mori rings (with their rather stern inscriptions, such as ‘learn to dye’) acted as a reminder that youth and beauty come to an end, reflecting the Biblical reference in Ecclesiastes: ‘beauty ends in decay and putrification’. Memorial/ mourning rings marked the death of individuals rather than portraying urgings to godly living, and messages upon these rings became more personal.

Examples in the British Museum and on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database with messages/prose incorporated include inscriptions such as ‘Hope helpeth greife’, ‘Not dead but sleepeth‘, ‘not lost but gone before’, ‘In death shees blest Since heauens her rest’, ‘my friend is Dead my Joys, are fled’ and one that impacts when reading it, the really rather poignant inscription, ‘REMEMBER YOU ONCE HAD A SON GERALD‘.

Rings such as the Littleton example give a glimpse into what we today consider a very personal matter – family mourning. These rings, to the modern eye, bring imagery of a mourning family, keeping the details of their deceased loved one close by: their name, date of death, age at death forever close, worn around the finger. Mourning ritual at this time, though, was not so much a personal matter but a public one and mourning rings showed societal obligation as well as fashion trends of the time.

Mourning ring, 17th century

Mourning ring, 17th century

The colour black seen on rings such as these signifies memorial and in later production (around the eighteenth century) the ‘rules’ of mourning rings were quite strictly adhered to (black enamel for married, white for unmarried). Indeed the ritual of mourning in general was scrupulously respected. It was more than a demonstration of regret; it was a mark of respect. Widows would wear black for a year, seal impressions were black wax rather than red, mirrors were covered in the household, and indeed mourning garb itself had to avoid having a shine or reflection (with the soul being vulnerable to reflective images, especially when weakened by grief). Black apparel was not the only acceptable colour for mourning; white was appropriate for when the deceased was a young virgin of either sex; a mixture of black and white was also acceptable; red was associated with redemption and the blood of Christ, and purple/mauve was for royal mourning.

At the time of the Littleton ring, the ritual of mourning was very public. The use of mourning rings was widespread from the mid-sixteenth century and peaked in popularity in the eighteenth. Earlier examples tended to be produced by the upper classes, and by the time of the Littleton ring they were mass-produced and supplied by specialist jewellers whose trade cards advertised mourning rings at the shortest notice.

It was common practice to have rings itemised in wills, listing the number to be produced in that person’s name. For example, US president George Washington declared in his will: ‘to my sister-in-law Hannah Washington of Fairford and Mildred Washington Hayford I give each a mourning ring of the value of $1000. These bequests are not made for the intrinsic value but as mementos of my esteem and regard”.

Mourning ring, about 1696-1731

Mourning ring, about 1696-1731

The list of recipients for rings could actually be quite extensive and there are examples of itemised wills showing long (and expensive) lists of recipients. The rings tended to be distributed either at the funeral or within the mourning period, as shown in the contemporary source of Samuel Pepys’ diaries. Pepys describes a business visit to Captain Cooke of Greenwich which happened to coincide with a recent burial of a gentleman unknown to him, James Temple: “Here I had a very good ring which I did give to my wife as soon as I came home”. In fact, Pepys himself arranged for 128 rings costing over £100, to be produced upon his death.

From the 1860s the fashion of mourning jewellery started to change. The style of rings shifted to contain portraiture, and memento lockets, worn from the neck or from a bracelet, began to replace the ring. It’s thought by some that once the tradition became widespread, and not just a ritual of the elite, the upper classes stopped commissioning mourning rings. And with this, the fashion for them eventually declined, with the exception of course of bequests of general rings worn in memory of someone, which continues, but such rings are not easily identified.

Littleton mourning ring found in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. © Birmingham City Council

Littleton mourning ring found in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. © Birmingham City Council

By the early twentieth century, as mortality rates dropped, death seemed more remote and one may even say less feared, and so with this change in sentiment the individualised mourning ring declined and even the death toll of World War I did not revive the practice.

Though the sometimes cavalier distribution of these rings demonstrates a potential lack of connection or even mourning from some of the recipients this does not detract from the emotive nature of the rings. Mourning rings are fascinating as a datable object type but also as poignant objects in and of themselves.

I will leave you with an example which I feel fully epitomises that. Originally a betrothal/wedding ring, one example in the British Museum collection bears the inscription ‘God hath sent my hearts content’. It was later altered to become a mourning ring, with the addition of the black enamelled skeletal design on the exterior and the addition of R.C 1727 to the inscription, presumably now commemorating the death of one of the originally betrothed.

A ring that was once a romantic expression, refashioned to commemorate the loss of that same loved one. It clearly serves the intended purpose of a mourning ring; an affecting example that had much personal meaning to its owner, a sentiment that still resonates today.

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Britain’s Secret Treasures is broadcast on ITV 1 Thursdays at 20.30, 17 October – 5 December 2013

Filed under: Archaeology, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, ,

A significant discovery…

Excavation of the helmet impression. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust LtdAndrew Richardson, Canterbury Archaeological Trust

One evening in October last year I’d just got home from work when I received a call from Trevor Rogers, a metal detectorist I knew from my time as Portable Antiquities Scheme Finds Liaison Officer (FLO) for Kent. Trevor said he had made a ‘significant discovery’.

In my line of work getting such a call is not that unusual. But Trevor went on to say that he had found what he believed to be a ‘Celtic bronze helmet’. That got my attention.

I knew of no such helmets from Kent; the ‘Deal warrior’ had a bronze head-dress, but that was not a helmet as such. Even for Britain as a whole, I knew such a find would be incredibly rare. But Trevor was very specific; he said it appeared to be a ‘Mannheim’ type helmet. I knew that Trevor was an experienced detectorist and he sounded like he knew what he was talking about, so I arranged to visit him first thing next morning to have a look for myself.

As I drove to Trevor’s place the next day, I really didn’t know what to expect. There was either going to be disappointment for both of us, with me having to break it to Trevor that he was mistaken and had found something actually rather pedestrian; or, it was going to be one of those rare days that you know you’ll always remember. And then I was standing in Trevor’s kitchen as he produced a cardboard box and opened it up to reveal his finds.

The helmet. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd

The helmet. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd

I was astonished to see that he had indeed found a Late Iron Age helmet, made of copper alloy, along with a brooch in very good condition and a small spike made out of rolled copper alloy sheet. There was also a fragment of burnt bone which had been found together with the helmet and brooch; more bone had been observed but had not been removed. So it seemed probable the finds were derived from a cremation burial.

The helmet and brooch. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd

The helmet and brooch. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd

We agreed that it would be best to carry out a small excavation of the find spot as soon as possible to learn as much as we could about the context of this find.

A year later, what more do we know about it? It’s reasonable to set it in the context of the turbulent middle decades of the first century BC when the Romans, under Julius Caesar, were at war in what is now France. But it is very tempting to want to go further than this and see it as much sought after evidence of Caesar’s expeditions to Britain, and the county of Kent, in around 54 BC. The helmet seems of the correct design and the find spot lies along the probable route taken by Caesar’s army of about 20,000 men.

Excavation of the helmet impression. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd

Excavation of the helmet impression. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd

But even if this was the helmet of one of Caesar’s soldiers, there are many ways by which it could have arrived at its final resting place. The person (or persons?) whose remains are buried in it need not be its original owner. Perhaps it was brought by a warrior of the Cantiaci (Iron Age tribe), returned from fighting in Gaul with a trophy? Maybe it was a Gallic refugee? Or was the helmet handed down and buried years later (although the brooch suggests burial is unlikely to date much later than 50 BC)?

The finds are now undergoing specialist study at the British Museum, as part of the Treasure process, and this analysis will yield further information, as will investigation of the wider landscape around the find spot. We will certainly learn more about this find, but we may also have to face up to never knowing one way or the other exactly how and why it ended up where it did.

But what is certain, is that Trevor was right when he described this as a ‘significant discovery’.

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Britain’s Secret Treasures is broadcast on ITV 1 Thursdays at 20.30, 17 October – 5 December 2013

Filed under: Portable Antiquities and Treasure, , ,

Finding, studying and sharing the ‘treasure’ beneath our feet

Finding, studying and sharing the ‘treasure’ beneath our feetIan Richardson, Portable Antiquities and Treasure,
British Museum

Last year, the ITV television series Britain’s Secret Treasures was a welcome hit, averaging 3.5 million viewers every evening for six programmes over the course of a week. It featured stories about 50 archaeological finds made by members of the public throughout Britain.

The majority of the finds had either been recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) or reported as ‘Treasure’ under the Treasure Act 1996 (or both!). The series culminated with the story of the Happisburgh Handaxe, a discovery which eventually led to the understanding that humans have inhabited Britain for hundreds of thousands of years longer than previously thought.

Filming at the British Museum

Filming at the British Museum

The popularity of Britain’s Secret Treasures meant that it was re-commissioned for a second series, with Michael Buerk and Bettany Hughes returning to present the show. It begins on Thursday 17 October 2013 at 20.30 on ITV1. Once again, the British Museum and the PAS were delighted to take part, and were the ideal partners to do so.

Since 1997, Finds Liaison Officers (FLOs) of the PAS, based throughout England and Wales, have recorded over 900,000 finds on a freely accessible database. Most of these have been returned to the people who found them. Additionally, over 8,000 finds from England have been reported as Treasure, and these have all been seen by specialist curators at the British Museum.

Finds of Treasure – generally speaking, gold and silver objects, groups of coins more than 300 years old, and prehistoric base-metal assemblages – must be reported to the coroner in the area where they are found, and are legally the property of the Crown. Accredited museums are able to acquire these items for the benefit of all. Most Treasure finds, if acquired, end up in local museums, and Britain’s Secret Treasures visits many of these places.

The Ringlemere Gold Cup

The Ringlemere Gold Cup

The British Museum itself has also acquired finds of Treasure, including the Ringlemere Gold Cup and the Hockley Pendant, which featured in the first series of Britain’s Secret Treasures. For the second series, the British Museum’s Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure, which coordinates the PAS and administers the Treasure Act, assisted ITV in the selection of more ‘Secret Treasures’ to feature on the show. Some of the items will be here in London, some with local museums, and others with the people who found them.

Through the stories it tells, Britain’s Secret Treasures highlights the benefits of responsibly searching for and reporting archaeological finds. Objects can be nice to look at in isolation, and we can guess at how they might have been made or used, but it is their context (where the objects were found) which provides the most exciting information. The accumulation of this contextual information for hundreds of thousands of finds allows us to build an improved picture of the lives of people in the past. That’s why it is so important that finders of archaeological material report them to a museum or their local FLO – for the record, Britain’s Secret Treasures uses the terms ‘treasure’ to refer to all archaeological finds, both those which are legally ‘Treasure’ in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and those that are not.

Fragments from a Roman statue found in Lincolnshire

Fragments from a Roman statue found in Lincolnshire

It’s always an interesting experience to work with media and this time was no exception. An institution like the British Museum tends to prefer that most of its activities are planned well in advance and that nothing is left to ‘spur of the moment’ or chance – a style which contrasts to the creative spontaneity of a film crew working to a tight deadline, trying to capture just the right shot. Thankfully everyone involved, from the presenters and camera crews to the experts here at the Museum who were interviewed, were all so skilled that they produced some fine footage in a minimal amount of time.

Britain’s Secret Treasures was filmed in locations all over the British Museum, from public galleries to private offices and study areas, and although it involved some complicated logistics, the chance to convey this aspect of the Museum’s function was worthwhile. ITV provides a fantastic platform on which to broadcast, reaching a wide and diverse audience from all over the country and we hope viewers will agree that the finished product is an informative and entertaining programme, and that it ignites an interest in archaeology among them. The PAS is a great starting point for more information about getting involved in archaeology – visit finds.org.uk for more information.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Britain’s Secret Treasures is broadcast on ITV 1 Thursdays at 20.30, 17 October – 5 December 2013

Filed under: At the Museum, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, , , ,

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