British Museum blog

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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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

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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.

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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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Peering into the Iron Age through the Portable Antiquities Scheme

An extremely rare late Iron Age helmet from near Canterbury, Kent. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme

David Prudames, British Museum

This helmet is Iron Age (over 2,000 years old), and was found in Kent, in southern England, by a metal-detectorist in October 2012. It had been upturned and used to hold a human cremation – the first accompanied by a helmet to have been found in Britain. In fact only a handful of Iron Age helmets are known from Britain at all.

An extremely rare late Iron Age helmet from near Canterbury, Kent. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

An extremely rare late Iron Age helmet from near Canterbury, Kent. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

On the north-western edge of Europe, the mid-first century BC was a time of war, travel, communication, connections and change. Caesar was at war in Gaul (modern France) and mercenaries from Britain had travelled to join the fighting, so it’s possible that the person who owned this helmet might have fought in Gaul – perhaps against the Romans, or even alongside them.

Before Gaul fell, Caesar would make his first expedition to Britain, landing on the shores of Kent not far from where this helmet was found. I find it quite appealing to imagine that the owner, or the people who placed it in the grave, may have lived through the beginning of the story of Roman Britain.

The 2011 Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) and Treasure annual reports, launched on 3 December at the British Museum, make for a slightly mind-blowing round-up of finds made by members of the public last year. There were 97,509 unearthed in England and Wales last year, not to mention 970 cases of Treasure – that’s gold and silver objects, and groups of coins from the same finds over 300 years old, as well as prehistoric base metal objects.

Such numbers give a very real sense that the ground beneath our feet is teeming with chapters in the story of its human occupation. Many of these chapters are being found and told thanks to the PAS, whose website – www.finds.org.uk – now includes 820,000 finds with nearly 400,000 images.

Invariably the finds are made – often while metal-detecting – and reported by members of the public, and this growing project is an incredible contribution to the archaeological record, with the potential to transform what we know about the past in England and Wales.

Here are some more of the amazing things discovered recently:

An important hoard of Viking Age gold and silver metalwork found in the Bedale area, North Yorkshire. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

An important hoard of Viking Age gold and silver metalwork found in the Bedale area, North Yorkshire. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

The Bedale Hoard

An iron sword pommel inlaid with gold foil plaques, four gold hoops (from the hilt of the sword), six small gold rivets (probably from the pommel or hilt), four silver collars and neck-rings, a silver arm-ring, a silver ring fragment, a silver penannular brooch, and 29 silver ingots.

Found in May 2012 on farmland in the Bedale area, North Yorkshire, some of the objects, which date to the late ninth to early tenth centuries, are decorated in late Anglo-Saxon style, or reflect Hiberno-Scandinavian forms and ornament.

Boar mount associated with  Richard III. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Boar mount associated with Richard III. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

A boar mount associated with Richard III

A copper-alloy mount in the form of a boar, found on the foreshore of the River Thames in London. Badges in the form of a boar were ordered for use at Richard III’s coronation (in July 1485) and also for the investiture of his son, Edward, as Prince of Wales (in September). It is not certain what the mount from London came from, maybe a piece of furniture or used to decorate an item of leather once owned by a supporter of Richard III, or possibly even the king himself.

The second largest hoard of Roman solidi (gold coins) ever found in Britain. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

The second largest hoard of Roman solidi (gold coins) ever found in Britain. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

The St Albans Hoard

Altogether, 159 gold, Roman solidi coins dating to the late fourth to early fifth century AD, the second largest such hoard found in the UK.

The dating of the coins suggests their burial could have been associated with the turbulent separation of Britain from the Roman Empire in about AD 410. Gold solidi were extremely valuable coins and under Roman law couldn’t be spent in everyday marketplace situations. They would have been used for large transactions such as buying land, or goods by the shipload, and were an especially handy source of portable wealth for travellers (in much the same way as gold sovereigns were to Britons abroad prior to traveller’s cheques or internationally accessible bank accounts). Therefore it is likely that the ancient owners of these coins were very rich, typically Roman elite, merchants or soldiers receiving bulk pay.

The Bedale Hoard (Room 2) and the St Albans Hoard (Room 68) are on display at the British Museum from 4 December 2012.

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Two hoards and one unknown Viking ruler


Ian Richardson, Portable Antiquities and Treasure,
British Museum

The saying goes that one waits an eternity for a London bus to arrive, only for two to eventually show up at the same time. Dot Boughton, Finds Liaison Officer (FLO) for Lancashire and Cumbria, is probably beginning to feel that the same rule applies to Viking silver hoards. It was only in April of this year that a hoard of over 90 coins and hacksilver from Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria was reported to Dot. For any FLO, and indeed for the British Museum, which provides expert advice to enable the coroner to hold an inquest into the case (as required under the Treasure Act 1996), this represented a lot of material to work on. Not since the discovery of the Vale of York hoard almost five years ago had so many Viking-age artefacts and coins from one find been reported as Treasure.

But no sooner had the coroner concluded his inquest into the Barrow case than Dot was on the phone to our office again with news of an even larger hoard.

A piece of jewellery from the Silverdale Viking hoard

A piece of jewellery from the Silverdale Viking hoard

When the finder’s photographs were sent through to us, we knew this new hoard from Silverdale in Lancashire, was going to be one of the major enterprises of the year for us and our colleagues. Silver arm-rings, brooch fragments, ingots and coins had all (bar one coin) been found in, or underneath, a lead container. Barry Ager (Department of Prehistory and Europe) and Dr Gareth Williams (Department of Coins and Medals), were duly warned of the arrival of this material and they cleared their schedules.

After a furious few months spent weighing, analyzing, cataloguing and photographing the finds, the report for the coroner was ready.

Among the many stand-out objects is a coin type none of us had seen before. One side of it reads DNS (Dominus) REX, the letters arranged in the form of a cross (many Vikings had converted to Christianity within a generation of settling in Britain). On the other side, the inscription reads AIRDECONUT which appears to be an attempt to represent the Scandinavian name Harthacnut, a ruler not previously known.

A previously unrecorded coin type, probably carrying the name of an otherwise unknown Viking ruler in northern England

A previously unrecorded coin type, probably carrying the name of an otherwise unknown Viking ruler in northern England

The local museum, Lancaster City Museum, had earlier been informed of the find and as they expressed an interest in acquiring the hoard through the Treasure process, Mr Simon Jones, HM Deputy Coroner for Preston and West Lancashire has been asked to hold an inquest into the case. The inquest will be held on Friday the 16 December 2011, and we will find out whether it is ‘Treasure’ according to the criteria set out in the Treasure Act 1996.

The finder and his wife obligingly accepted our invitation to attend the launch of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) and Treasure Act Annual Reports, held at the British Museum today where they have been able to join us in showing the hoard to Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries.

The Silverdale Hoard

The Silverdale Hoard

Going forward, it is of course our sincere hope that Lancaster City Museum will be able to acquire the Silverdale hoard for its collection. If the coroner declares it ‘Treasure’, the next step is to have it valued by the independent Treasure Valuation Committee (TVC) who would recommend a market value for the hoard. The museum may very well engage in a fundraising campaign to acquire the hoard, and if they do so we’ll offer our full support.

A selection of objects and coins from the Silverdale Hoard will be on display at the British Museum in Room 2, from Thursday 15 December through the New Year.

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A day in the life of a lot of archaeologists


Daniel Pett, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, British Museum

The 29 July marks the first Day of Archaeology, an online social media experiment that coincides with the Council for British Archaeology’s Festival of Archaeology (an annual event, this year running from the 16-31 July).

The idea for this project came from a conversation between two PhD students, Matthew Law (Cardiff University) and Lorna Richardson (University College London), and builds upon a successful project called Day of Humanities, which documented the daily work of people working in a field now known as ‘Digital Humanities’.

So what is happening?

The idea is very simple, over 350 archaeologists from around the world have signed up to document their working day via the use of social media. They will be submitting blog posts, photographs, video footage or a combination of these to demonstrate to anyone interested how varied the archaeological profession is. All these submissions will be moderated and released through the project’s website and disseminated through different social media networks – for example, on Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter (the hashtag for the project is #dayofarch). Some project members will also be making use of the latest entrant to the social media fray, Google+, and will be using a ‘hangout’, to promote archaeology digitally (details for this will be published later).

Unearthing a hoard of coins. Image: Portable Antiquities Scheme

Unearthing a hoard of coins. Image: Portable Antiquities Scheme

The project now has expressions of interest from people working on excavation in Belize, scientists working in laboratories, archaeologists talking about how cuts have affected their work, community archaeologists leading workshops and museum educators teaching the next generation about the magic of archaeology. The very first post to be published, at 00:01 on the 29 July, will be from Maev Kennedy, who writes about archaeology – among other things – for the Guardian newspaper, about why she is in awe of archaeology.

Once complete, the experiment will form part of Lorna’s PhD research and will also be written up for academic publication and be used as a model for public engagement at this year’s Theoretical Archaeological Group conference in Birmingham.

So if you are an archaeologist, or have been, or you are even becoming one, there’s still time to sign up. Send the project team an email at dayofarchaeology@gmail.com or find out more by visiting the website.

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From ancient coins, to Medieval gold: public archaeological finds revealed

Michael Lewis, Portable Antiquities Scheme, British Museum
Today, we launched the latest Portable Antiquities and Treasure Annual Report at the British Museum, with the help of Ed Vaizey, Minister for culture, communications and creative industries.

The report outlines the thousands of archaeological objects discovered and reported by members of the public through the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) in 2008 and to mark the occasion we had some of the more important or interesting finds on show.

Late Iron Age coin hoard of 840 gold staters, about AD 15-20.

Late Iron Age coin hoard of 840 gold staters, about AD 15-20. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

Among them was a Late Iron Age coin hoard of 840 gold staters from the Wickham Market area in Suffolk, dating to about AD 15-20. The coins were discovered in March 2008; and more were later found during an excavation of the findspot by Suffolk County Council’s Archaeology Service. It’s the largest hoard of Iron Age gold coins discovered since a similar hoard – the Whaddon Chase Hoard (Buckinghamshire) – was unearthed in 1849.

Unfortunately the Whaddon Chase Hoard was partially dispersed following its discovery, making it difficult to estimate the number of coins found. It is hoped that Colchester and Ipswich Museums will be able to raise the funds to acquire it, which is currently on display in Room 41 at the British Museum.

Roman knife handle from Syston, Lincolnshire.

Roman knife handle from Syston, Lincolnshire. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

Another intriguing find is a Roman knife handle from Syston, Lincolnshire. Its precise date in unknown. It was found by a man named David Barker and depicts an erotic scene involving two males and a female, and a decapitated head.
Only a handful of erotic knife handles are known from Britain, and this is of a new type. The significance of the decapitated head is unclear. The find has been acquired by The Collection, Lincoln.

On 7 August 2008 Darren Hoyle found a Medieval gold locket in Rolleston, Nottinghamshire, which dates to about AD 1450-1500. It has an inscription, which reads cauns [sauns] repentir (without regret), which may have been an amatory phrase. It is closely comparable to a similar object found as part of the Fishpool Hoard (also from Nottinghamshire), in 1966, which is on display in the British Museum.

The Fishpool Hoard is thought to have been deposited in May 1464, during the Wars of the Roses, and it is possible the Rolleston and Fishpool lockets were made by the same workshop. The Rolleston locket has been acquired by the British Museum.

Medieval gold locket found in Rolleston, Nottinghamshire, about  AD 1450-1500

Medieval gold locket found in Rolleston, Nottinghamshire, about AD 1450-1500. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

The PAS was established in 1997 to record archaeological objects found by the public, to coincide with the passing of the Treasure Act 1996, under which finders have a legal obligation to report precious Treasure finds. The British Museum now manages the PAS and administers the Treasure Act.

Since 1997 there has been a significant increase in the reporting of both Treasure and non-Treasure finds. In 2010, 90,146 archaeological objects were recorded through the PAS – a 36% increase on 2009 – and 859 Treasure cases, up 10%. These finds, are important clues for understanding the past, telling us where and how people lived, and what they did. They also offer a tangible link with everyday people, often ignored in written sources.

The finds recorded are of many different types, including flints worked into tools, coins and tokens, pottery, copper-alloy dress accessories (brooches, pins, buckles etc), as well as high-status gold and silver objects. Some are complete, but many are incomplete, broken and/or worn. Even so all have archaeological value.

Group of Early Medieval gold objects from West Yorkshire, about AD 600-1100.

Group of Early Medieval gold objects from West Yorkshire, about AD 600-1100. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

Most importantly, all finds recorded with the PAS have good findspot information. Archaeologists need to know exactly where a find was found to fully unleash its archaeological potential.

Without a findspot, the most spectacular discovery has almost no archaeological value. Conversely, if the findspot is known then it is possible to compare an object with others of that type, to see if there are distribution patterns, or learn more about the area where the find was discovered. Indeed, some common finds can be rare for a particular place, and therefore the findspot is of crucial importance.

A majority of the finds recorded by the PAS or reported Treasure have been found by members of the public; in fact the PAS only records object found by the public, though archaeologists too have a legal obligation to report Treasure.

Most archaeological finds nowadays are found by metal-detectorists, but now and again someone out walking or digging in their garden will make a chance discovery, and should take it to their local museum so it can be recorded with the PAS.

Now the funding of the PAS has been secured for the next four years there is great potential for the Scheme to further advance our knowledge of the past. Over the past few years there have been some amazing finds – such as the Staffordshire Hoard and Frome Hoard – and it is almost certain others will be found before long. But only if the finds are properly recovered and recorded will they have the potential to change the archaeological map of the country…

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Unearthing the story of the Hackney Hoard

Ian Richardson, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, British Museum

Ian Richardson holds up one of the gold coins. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

Ian Richardson holds up one of the gold coins. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

On 18 April 2011, the Coroner for Inner St Pancras (London) concluded an inquest into the ‘Hackney Hoard‘ of 80 gold American double eagle coins.

The coins had been found buried in a residential back garden and it was for the coroner to decide if they qualified as ‘Treasure‘ and were the property of the Crown.

As a group of precious metal objects deliberately hidden with the intention of being recovered at a later date, the coins met most of the criteria for Treasure, but in a surprise twist, the family of the original owner of the coins came forward to claim them successfully.

The coins were minted between 1854 and 1913. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

The coins were minted between 1854 and 1913. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

The court heard how Mr Martin Sulzbacher, a German Jew, had fled Nazi Germany with his wealth and settled in London in 1938.

When Mr Sulzbacher was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ in 1940 and sent to Australia, his family, fearing an imminent German invasion of Britain, buried his coins in the back garden of their Hackney property. Tragically, they perished in the Blitz and the property was destroyed.

When Mr Sulzbacher was allowed to return home, he was unable to locate the coins amid the rubble and destruction. 70 years later, they were found by accident as the residents dug a frog pond for their garden.

The coins were found wrapped in greaseproof paper, in a jar. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

The coins were found wrapped in greaseproof paper, in a jar. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

Mr Sulzbacher passed away in 1981 but his surviving relations were made aware of this recent discovery, and came forward to claim the coins. The coroner determined that the coins were not Treasure because the Sulzbacher family had sufficiently supported their claim. The Sulzbachers graciously gave permission for the coins to be displayed at the British Museum for a week following the inquest.

But how did the British Museum become involved in this historical mystery in the first place?

The answer lies with one of the newest and smallest departments in the Museum, Portable Antiquities and Treasure. The coins of the Hackney Hoard had been discovered by residents who reported them to an archaeologist working for the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS).

The entire hoard. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

The entire hoard. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

The PAS is a network of specialists called Finds Liaison Officers (FLOs) based at museums and universities throughout England and Wales who record finds of archaeological objects made by individuals in those countries.

The Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure coordinates the PAS and runs the online database where this information is stored and made accessible to researchers, students, and the general public. The department also performs much of the administration of the Treasure Act 1996 by keeping a registry of all the finds of potential Treasure made every year, and helping to ensure that the most important of those finds are acquired by public museums.

Each coin is a $20, known as a 'Double-Eagle'. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

Each coin is a $20, known as a 'Double-Eagle'. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

In the case of the Hackney Hoard, the Finds Liaison Officer to whom the discovery was reported worked with the Department of Coins and Medals to write a report on the coins for the coroner, and produced the information for the database record.

The hoard is a totally fascinating find. Most of the finds recorded by the PAS (over 90,000 last year) and reported as potential Treasure (850 last year) are older than 300 years old, and represent a vast array of object types and coins from prehistoric times through the period of Romano-British settlement and into the middle ages.

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