British Museum blog

Lost Change: mapping coins from the Portable Antiquities Scheme

coin visualisation
Daniel Pett, ICT Advisor, British Museum
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Today sees the launch of Lost Change, an innovative and experimental application that allows coins found within England and Wales and recorded through the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), to be visualised on an interactive, dual-mapping interface. This tool enables people to interrogate a huge dataset (over 300,000 coin records can be manipulated) and discover links between coins’ place of origin (the issuing mint or a more vague attribution if this location is uncertain) and where they were discovered and then subsequently reported to the PAS Finds Liaison Officers.

While much of the the data is made available for re-use on the PAS website under a Creative Commons licence, some details are closely guarded to prevent illicit activity (for example night-hawking or detecting without landowner permission) and so this application has been developed with these restrictions in mind. An object’s coordinates are only mapped to an Ordnance Survey four-figure National Grid Reference (which equates to a point within a 1km square), and only if the landowner or finder has not requested these to be hidden from the public.

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The distribution of coins is biased by a number of factors (a project funded by the Leverhulme Trust is looking at this in greater depth) which could include:

  • Whether metal detecting is permitted by the landowner, or the topography makes detecting difficult
  • Soil type and land use
  • Whether there is an active community of metal detectorists within the vicinity

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The tool is straightforward to use. The left hand pane holds details for the place of discovery; the right hand side holds details for the place of issue, the mint. These panes work in tandem, with data dynamically updating in each, depending on the user’s choice. A simple example to get going is this:

  • Click on “Iron Age” within the list of periods
  • Within the right hand pane, click on one of the three circular representations and this will highlight where the coins from this mint were found in the left hand pane. The larger the circular representation, the more coins from that mint have been recorded.
  • If one clicks on any of the dots within the left hand pane, these are selected and an overlay in the right hand pane allows dynamic searching of the PAS database.

The PAS intends to build on this project at a later stage and will be seeking further funding to enable this to happen, with many more facets of discovery available to query the dataset.

Lost Change was funded through a £5,000 grant from the CreativeWorks London ‘Entrepreneur-in-Residence’ programme.

The PAS is grateful to Gavin Baily and Sarah Bagshaw from Tracemedia who developed the application, and everyone who has contributed to the PAS database.

If you have any feedback on the project, please contact the PAS via info@finds.org.uk.

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The earliest human footprints outside Africa

Nicholas Ashton, curator, British Museum

Happisburgh has hit the news again. Last time the coverage even reached the People’s Daily in China, but I’ve yet to find out which parts of the globe the latest story has reached. Whereas three years ago the news was the oldest human site in northern Europe at over 800,000 years ago, now we have the oldest footprints outside Africa. Happisburgh just keeps giving up surprises.

Caption text?

We found them by pure chance in May last year. We were about to start a geophysics survey on the foreshore, when an old-time friend and colleague, Martin Bates from Trinity St David’s University, pointed out the unusual surface. The site lies beneath the beach sand in sediments that actually underlie the cliffs. The cliffs are made up of soft sands and clays, which have been eroding at an alarming rate over the last ten years, and even more so during the latest winter storms. As the cliffs erode they reveal these even earlier sediments at their base, which are there for a short time before the sea washes them away.

Caption text?

Back in May, high seas had removed most of the beach sand to reveal ancient estuary mud. We’d seen these many times before and had been digging them for years. Normally they consist of flat laminated silts, but in a small area of about 12 square metres there was a jumble of elongated hollows. Martin pointed them out and said that they looked like footprints. He’d been studying similar prints on the Welsh coast near Aberystwyth, but they were just a few thousand years old; we knew the sediments at Happisburgh were over 800,000 years old.

I imagine that there will be plenty of sceptics out there, as were we initially, but the more we eliminated the other possibilities, the more convinced we became. The sediments are hard and compacted – you can jump on them today and leave little impression. And there are no erosional processes that leave those sort of hollows.

The moment of truth came after we’d recorded them. We returned a few days later with Sarah Duffy from York University to photograph them using photogrammetry, a technique that uses multiple digital photographs and stitches them together with some clever software. The method is great, but the weather wasn’t – lashing rain, an incoming tide and fast-fading light. By the end we were cold, soaked, demoralised and still not necessarily convinced.

The results though were amazing. For the first time we had proper overhead images and could identify heels, arches and in one case toes. Isabelle de Groote from Liverpool John Moores University did much of the analysis. It seems that there were perhaps five individuals, both adults and children. The tallest was probably about 5 foot 9 inches tall. So who were they? Although we have no human bones, the most likely species was Homo antecessor or ‘Pioneer Man’, who lived in southern Europe at this time. They were smaller-brained than ourselves, but walked upright and fully bipedal.

We actually know very little else about the people who left these prints, but from the plant and animal remains at Happisburgh we know that they were able to survive winters colder than today. We’re still asking questions of whether they had clothing and shelter or controlled the use of fire. Some of this evidence will be on display in a major exhibition, Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story opening at the Natural History Museum on Thursday 13 February 2014.

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Easter Island (Rapa Nui): a new narrative

Moai staues on Rapa Nui
Jago Cooper, curator, British Museum

Small island communities represent some of the most vulnerable people on the planet to the impacts of climate variability and environmental change. This is why their voices are so powerful when heard above the clamour at international meetings designed to tackle these issues at the global scale.

Government of the Maldives hold a cabinet meeting underwater to raise awareness of global sea level rise. © Mohamed Seeneen

Government of the Maldives hold a cabinet meeting underwater to raise awareness of global sea level rise. © Mohamed Seeneen

From an archaeological perspective these island communities are particularly interesting as they have commonly been populated relatively late in the great human colonisation of our planet, often only arriving in these archipelagos in the late Holocene (past 5,000 years). Therefore archaeological studies in the North Atlantic, Caribbean, Pacific and elsewhere have revealed some fascinating narratives of how human communities have lived with the impacts of climatic variability and environmental change in these archipelagos. In particular these comparative island studies demonstrate how different decisions that people have taken have directly affected their relative vulnerability through time.

Within this context Rapa Nui (Easter Island) has often been heralded as a warning to the world, an example of a remote island community’s inability to live within their means, chopping down all the trees on the island, over-exploiting the island’s resources and self-inflicting their own demise. However, recent evidence offers a very different picture of what actually happened on Rapa Nui.

Recent archaeological excavations have revealed that the current treeless landscape of Rapa Nui has often been misinterpreted. © IWC Media

Recent archaeological excavations have revealed that the current treeless landscape of Rapa Nui has often been misinterpreted. © IWC Media

This new perspective to Rapa Nui’s past is the focus of a documentary that I have worked on for BBC4, Easter Island: Mysteries of a Lost World. It uses the latest scientific and archaeological evidence to reveal a compelling new narrative, one that sees the famous Moai as only part of a complex culture that thrived in isolation. To this end, I argue that there are indeed important lessons to learn from Rapa Nui but they don’t begin by blaming its inhabitants for their own downfall.

Iconic Moai standing on the slopes of Rano Raraku. © IWC Media

Iconic Moai standing on the slopes of Rano Raraku. © IWC Media

Easter Island, Mysteries of a Lost World is on BBC4 on Thursday 30 January at 9.00 pm. Watch clips from the programme on the BBC website.
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Sir William Hamilton and the wreck of the HMS Colossus

Red-figured wine bowl (volute-krater), attributed to the Baltimore Painter, Greek, around 325 BCIan Jenkins, curator, British Museum

Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), if remembered at all, is primarily known as the person who shared his second wife Emma with Admiral Lord Nelson in the late eighteenth century. Their ménage a trois was a notorious target for British satirists of the time. It ended with the death of Sir William in 1803, and two years later in 1805 the tragic death of Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Jasper ware portrait plaque of Sir William Hamilton, by Josiah Wedgwood I and Thomas Bentley, Etruria factory, Staffordshire, England, AD 1779

Jasper ware portrait plaque of Sir William Hamilton, by Josiah Wedgwood I and Thomas Bentley, Etruria factory, Staffordshire, England, AD 1779

Hamilton is celebrated in the British Museum for his collection of Greek and Roman artefacts, which acquired by the Museum in 1772, changed its course from its origins as a rather old-fashioned cabinet of curiosities to starting it on the way to becoming the great collection of world cultures it is today. The founding collection of Sir Hans Sloane had very few ancient objects of merit, but Sir William’s vision for the Museum would change that and for this reason he has his own showcase in the Enlightenment Gallery.

The story of the wreck of the HMS Colossus and the loss of its cargo occurred in the dramatic last years of Sir William’s life. He had been British Ambassador to the court of the king of Naples and Sicily for 34 years. However, when Napoleon’s army occupied Rome in 1796, Sir William was forced to evacuate Naples and return home with Emma to Britain.

One of his last acts was to oversee the packing of his vase collection. But back in England, Sir William not only had to suffer the wrench of his sudden departure from his beloved Italy, but also had the appalling news that his vase collection was lost at sea. It had been packed in an unfit vessel, which grounded off the Scilly Isles where it broke up, and the packing cases washed overboard.

Red-figured wine bowl (volute-krater), attributed to the Baltimore Painter, Greek, around 325 BC

Red-figured wine bowl (volute-krater), attributed to the Baltimore Painter, Greek, around 325 BC

But fortune smiled on the old knight as by accident his finest vases were not on the HMS Colossus. When another vessel arrived laden with Sir William’s property, he discovered the collection he thought he’d lost, and he delighted in preparing them for sale.

Sir William died in 1803 with Emma and Nelson at his bedside.

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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

‘When a find is recorded, it is truly discovered’: metal-detecting and its contribution to archaeology

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.Michael Lewis, Deputy Head of Portable Antiquities and Treasure, British Museum

As the second series of Britain’s Secret Treasures broadcasts on ITV in the United Kingdom, it’s been amazing to see the reaction and level of interest. The first series averaged 3.5 million viewers per episode, so we know just how captivating the stories being told are. The fact that all the discoveries featured were, and are, found by ordinary members of the British public – not professional archaeologists – makes this all the more remarkable.

Indeed, many people watching the series have probably found archaeology, albeit not necessarily recognising it as such, be it a bit of pottery from the garden, a coin on the beach, or a piece of worked flint while out walking in the countryside. Individually these objects might not seem important (though clearly some are), but together they help paint a picture of the past, helping archaeologists understand where people lived, and how they worked and played. It is this public contribution to archaeology, through recording their finds with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) [LINK] that is transforming the archaeological map of Britain.

A pilgrim’s badge of Richard Caister, Vicar of St Stephen’s, Norwich.

A pilgrim’s badge of Richard Caister, Vicar of St Stephen’s, Norwich.

To date over 900,000 archaeological objects have been found by the British public and recorded. Many of these have been discovered completely by chance, but most have been found by people proactively looking for archaeology, such as through field-walking or metal-detecting.

It is probably fair to say that archaeologists and metal-detectorists have not always seen eye to eye. It wasn’t until the 1970s that metal-detecting started to become popular and the response of many European countries was to ban or restrict such archaeological work by non-professionals. Indeed, this remains the situation in most of Europe, including our closest neighbours, the Republic of Ireland and France, where metal-detecting is prohibited.

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.

However in England and Wales metal-detecting, with the permission of the landowner, was not legislated against; although metal-detecting on sensitive archaeological sites (scheduled monuments) has been prohibited (since 1979) and finds of Treasure – precious metals and groups of coins or base-metal assemblages over 300 years old – must be reported. Nonetheless, heritage legislation in England and Wales (and Scotland) remains quite liberal compared to elsewhere in Europe.

At one time, this was seen as a ‘failure to deal with the problem of metal-detecting’ by concerned archaeologists. By the 1980s the Council for British Archaeology launched the Stop Taking Our Past (STOP) campaign, based on the perception that metal-detectorists were systematically looting archaeological sites by removing objects from ‘stratified archaeological contexts’ (thus destroying important clues about how and why things were buried) to sell on the open market. Indeed, the private ownership of archaeological material, and also the buying and selling of antiquities, remains contentious, and defines relations between archaeologists and the metal-detecting fraternity today.

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.

Nonetheless, most agreed that the attempt to ban metal-detecting was a failure and probably counter-productive. The STOP campaign did little more than entrench views, and frustrate dialogue between the two sides.

Over time it has been understood that most metal-detectorists have a genuine interest in the past, though of course there are a relatively small minority of individuals who metal-detect just for financial gain or have little interest in archaeology. An important observation is that most metal-detectorists search on cultivated land, where objects and coins are generally already dislodged from any archaeological context by agricultural work, such as ploughing. Indeed, it may be argued that recovering these items ensures they are saved from being completely destroyed by agriculture and natural and artificial corrosion processes.

Author sieving at the site of a Bronze Age hoard found by a metal-detectorist

Author sieving at the site of a Bronze Age hoard found by a metal-detectorist

Once disregarded by many archaeologists as of little interest (the plough-zone was often machined off in archaeological excavations of the past) it is apparent this layer holds many objects that can offer clues about any underlying archaeology. Even in their own right, such stray finds are of interest to researchers studying particular object types and their distribution.

This appreciation of the potential contribution that metal-detected finds might have to archaeology led to the establishment of the PAS; set up first as a series of pilot schemes in 1997, and then extended across the whole of England and Wales in 2003. The aim of the project was to liaise with the metal-detecting community, build trust, and encourage finders (on a voluntary basis) to lend their objects for a period of time so they could be recorded. The aim was not to acquire objects for museums, but that said, many finders, realising the importance of their discoveries, have allowed museums to acquire them, or have even donated them.

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.

Before the PAS there was no mechanism to record such finds. Some people may have taken what they had found to their local museum (or even a national museum) for a curator to look at. But only a fraction of these were logged either by the museum or with the local Historic Environment Record. Even fewer were published, such as in a local archaeological journal. For many of these finds their discovery was only brief, as once they were returned to their finders they were probably put away in a box and forgotten, almost certainly without any record of their findspot (of most interest to archaeologists) being recorded. How then might they further archaeology?

Nowadays all the finds recorded with the PAS are logged onto its online database for anyone to look at, study and enjoy. On the public site precise findspot details are protected, to ensure archaeological sites are not damaged by looters, sometimes called nighthawks. However, the full data is made available for archaeological work and research, and is proving to be a major component in many research projects trying to understand the past.

A mount from a medieval coffett, probably enamelled in Limoges, France.

A mount from a medieval coffett, probably enamelled in Limoges, France.

Unless someone spends a reasonable amount of money on a metal-detector (several hundred pounds) they are not likely to find much archaeological material; cheap machines are nothing more than toys, with which you might find some lost change or ring-pulls at the most. Therefore it is a hobby people invest in and become quite serious about. Whatever the initial motivation to take up metal-detecting, most acquire an appreciation for history and want to learn as much as possible about the objects they find. They share the same buzz we archaeologists get about discovery. It is nonetheless important that metal-detectorists take care to avoid sensitive archaeological sites and follow the Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting at all times. This Code also outlines how important it is to get permission (from the landowner) before you search and the necessity of recording finds with the PAS.

Only once a find is recorded is it truly discovered, and through recording finds with the PAS metal-detecting can make a truly positive contribution to archaeology.

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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,

Limoges enamelled plaque: a dazzling object

Limoges enamelled plaqueNaomi Speakman, curator, British Museum

Decorated with jewel-like enamelled colours and covered in gilding, this Limoges enamelled plaque found on the Isle of Wight, would have been a dazzling religious item for its original owner.

Limoges enamelled plaque, shown from all angles.

Limoges enamelled plaque, shown from all angles.

The plaque bears the image of a winged man, standing on a wave-like cloud, who most likely represents Matthew, one of the four Evangelists who created the four gospel accounts of the New Testament, in the Christian Bible. The plaque is church shaped, formed of a steep roof topped with an orb and cross. On the other side the plaque is recessed, and pierced by a hole, indicating that this small piece may have been attached to something much larger – quite what, we don’t really know.

What we do know, however, is that enamelled plaques of this kind were very popular in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century across Europe. Two key ways to spot Limoges enamel work are its vibrant blue colour, and, in many cases, stylised rosettes, examples of which have been found in England.

Enamelled mount from Limoges

Enamelled mount from Limoges

Their namesakes come from the city of their making, Limoges in central France, which was one of the centres of enamelling in the Middle Ages. The industry of enamel making in Limoges boomed in the twelfth century, and particularly famous examples of these are reliquary caskets commemorating the murder of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. One of these is on display at the British Museum in Room 40: Medieval Europe and another in Room 1: Enlightenment.

Reliquary casket produced in the Limoges workshops after the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170

Reliquary casket produced in the Limoges workshops after the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170

Limoges enamelled plaques could be made for many types of religious objects, including book covers, portable altars and reliquary caskets. What this plaque was attached to we cannot be certain, but we do know that it was used for religious worship, perhaps forming part of an object used to decorate an altar or for other use in public worship.

Equally, we cannot be certain who it belonged to. An expensive item, the plaque was most likely owned by someone of a higher status with the necessary wealth to afford such an item. But, unfortunately, we will probably never know.

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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,

Expecting the unexpected: a royal hawking vervel in Norfolk

The flat outer face of the band is inscribed 'Henrye Prince'. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art GalleryTim Pestell, Curator of Archaeology, Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

As an archaeology curator in Norfolk you get used to the unexpected, perhaps even expecting it. With over 20,000 finds recorded every year in the county, we perhaps take it for granted that there are lots of unknown treasures waiting to be brought to us. To that extent, the discovery of another silver hawking vervel – the ring attached to a bird of prey giving its owner’s name – was fairly unexceptional.

Despite being quite rare finds, vervels are a well-recognised class of object, and Norfolk seems to have been prime turf for hawking, as a number of them have been found in the county over the years. Indeed, we have a large collection of them in the Castle Museum.

The Cley hawking vervel.

The Cley hawking vervel.

Recently, though, when I was told that another one had been found I was very interested. The news that the owner’s name on it was Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales and son of King James I (1566-1625), naturally made me sit up.

Hawking, or falconry, was a popular past time among the upper echelons of society in Europe during this period. Aristocratic men and women would pay large sums of money for birds of prey which would be trained and then used for hunting.

Now, my own sporting passion as far as birds are concerned is limited to following our beloved Canaries (Norwich City Football Club), but what on earth was this vervel doing in Norfolk? Those of us lucky enough to come from the county obviously know what a fine place it is, but what about Henry? With there being no evidence for him visiting Norfolk as Prince of Wales, it set all sorts of possibilities racing.

The flat outer face of the band is inscribed 'Henrye Prince'. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

The flat outer face of the band is inscribed ‘Henrye Prince’. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Was Henry simply here for a weekend hawking with the boys? Or was the hawk being trained for him up here? Had the hawk just legged it (or winged it) from somewhere much further away?

While we have no simple answers, and perhaps may never know how this one ended up in Norfolk, I was reminded of another of our hawking vervels, found by a detectorist in Emneth (in west Norfolk) in 2007. Inscribed, less than helpfully, ‘Come buck of Chichly in’ the bird seems to have singularly failed to have returned. That it may well have died in west Norfolk is hinted at by another find that came from the same hole that produced the vervel – a silver bell, presumably also once attached to the hawk.

Indeed, the number of these vervels that are now being found is fascinating. Not only is there an obvious human angle, enabling us to relate finds to actual people – some of whom we can even visualise through their portraits – but also, for me, they conjure up the colour of life as it would have been all those years ago. They bring to mind scenes in which numerous grumpy aristocrats wonder where on earth their expensive birds have flapped off to (answers to which we may at last be finding out several centuries later).

In the meantime the Cley vervel will be seen, alongside our other vervels, in our forthcoming exhibition at Norwich Castle on The Wonder of Birds from 24 May – 14 September 2014.

Hopefully Henry would have been pleased.

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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 vehicle of the soul?

The Pegsdon mirror. © Luton CultureJody Joy, curator, British Museum

Today we are so used to seeing images of ourselves in mirrors and photographs it is difficult to imagine a world without reflections. But just try.

Imagine a world in which you don’t really know what you look like, where the only way to see your own reflection is in a pool of still water. Using a mirror like the one found in Pegsdon, Bedfordshire, and featured in the ITV series Britain’s Secret Treasures, meant that for the first time Iron Age people, about 2,500 years ago, were no longer reliant on others to tell them how they looked.

The Pegsdon mirror. © Luton Culture

The Pegsdon mirror. © Luton Culture

Today the mirror is part of our everyday routine but cheap, mass-produced mirrors are a product of the past few centuries. Before that mirrors were rare and expensive social objects allowing people to monitor physical appearance and apply cosmetics. Their reflective surfaces were also perceived in different ways, taking on religious, medical and artistic functions. For example, a mirror allows you to see behind as well as in front, extending the realms of ‘normal’ human physical experience.

In the Greco-Roman world looking backwards was linked to looking into the future or the past and the reflection from a mirror was used in divination – attempts to predict events, or peoples fate. Mirrors were lowered into water and the reflections ‘read’. Alternatively mirrors were used to evoke light or the vehicle of the soul.

It is impossible to determine the true significance of the Pegsdon mirror. The fact that it is so beautifully made and decorated and that it was carefully placed in someone’s grave indicates it was a valued and treasured object. The association between mirrors and cosmetic sets in other Iron Age graves links them to the main function of mirrors today, as a means to monitor appearance.

However, there is no reason why mirrors did not also have other kinds of significance in Iron Age society. For example, even today we still see breaking a mirror as bad luck.

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

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The Corrard gold torc – Bronze Age jewellery with a twist to the tale

The Corrard gold torc. © National Museums Northern Ireland: Collection Ulster Museum Dr Greer Ramsey, Curator,
National Museums Northern Ireland

I am not sure if this happens to anyone else, but my work routine seems to revolve around how quickly I can get the computer turned on in the morning to view my inbox of emails. Then of course the ‘ping’ of incoming mail catches my eye at the bottom right hand corner of the screen. I know that I should not let it distract me from whatever I am doing but it inevitably does.

Such was the case when I received an attached image of an object to identify that was found at Corrard in County Fermanagh. With a click of the mouse the most intriguing artefact materialised on screen – a Bronze Age torc, quite simply the most fantastic single item of prehistoric gold jewellery ever found in Northern Ireland.

The Corrard gold torc. © National Museums Northern Ireland: Collection Ulster Museum

The Corrard gold torc. © National Museums Northern Ireland: Collection Ulster Museum

The first thing that struck me was its coiled shape, which resembles a spring. This deliberate coiling has caused a bit of confusion in that the word ‘torc’, which comes from the Latin to twist, does not refer to this spring-like shape. The torc started its life as a square bar of gold and it is the action of twisting the bar along its entire length to create a corkscrew pattern that gives this object its name.

Why was it coiled? Some people think that in this coiled state it could have been worn as an armlet. I need come convincing about this as the majority of torcs are not coiled like a spring, but form a circular hoop where the cone-like terminals at either end act as a clasp. These must have functioned to allow the torc to be opened and closed, rather like a belt or necklace. Surprisingly, most Bronze Age metalwork, including torcs, have not been found in burials with skeletal remains which would allow us to know how they were worn. If the Corrard torc was straightened you would be astounded by its length – care to guess?

The deliberate coiling prior to burial may have made the act of concealment easier. Perhaps it was buried as a kind of decommissioning, sending out a signal that it was not intended to be used again. Under these circumstances it could almost be seen as a type of grave good (a burial without a body), or even an offering to the gods.

And, here’s another puzzle – weighing an impressive 720 grams (with a measured gold content of about 86%, equivalent to approximately 20 carat gold – the upper limit used for jewellery as any higher would make it too soft and easily scratched), where did the gold come from? Is it conceivable that the image Ireland has as an ancient El Dorado of prehistoric Europe depended on importing gold as opposed to having a local supply? This is part of a wider archaeological debate as to the origin of torcs. Was the Corrard torc ‘made in Ireland’ or somewhere else?

The torc is on display in the Ulster Museum in Belfast.

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

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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

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