Silver and Silver Working

This is the next in our series of posts on metal-working written by Dr. Kevin Leahy, PAS National Finds Adviser. The articles were first published in The Searcher magazine and are reproduced here with kind permission of Harry Bain, editor for The Searcher.

The Mildenhall Treasure is one of the high points of British archaeology. Apart from the artistry and the classical decoration, it is worth reflecting on the skill of the 4th century metalworkers who raised the repousse from flat sheets of silver. Copyright: The Trustees of the British Museum.

Of the 1.4 million objects recorded by the PAS to date, almost 180,000 (around 12%) are made from silver, representing a respectably high percentage. However, 78% of these are silver coins, either as single finds or as part of coin hoards which, while greatly adding to the total, are dealt with as groups to keep things in proportion.

Along with gold, silver is one of the “noble” metals; the other noble metals such as platinum were not known in antiquity and don’t concern us. These metals are known as noble because, unlike base metals, they don’t corrode – although silver does have its problems. I once excavated an Anglo-Saxon silver toilet set which, on first appearance was silver but, as we watched, it turned violet, then purple, then black. This was a photo-chemical reaction as the silver chloride covering the tweezers reacted with sunlight. Most disappointing. Silver is a lovely metal; bright, lustrous and highly workable, it is both easily cast and wrought giving craftsmen a superb medium on which to apply their skills.

Finds from around the Aegean Sea show that silver was being used as early as the 4th millennium BC but we have no evidence for its use in Britain before the later Iron Age, around 100BC, when we then see a substantial use of silver coins (there are over 17,000 Iron Age coins on the PAS database).

The Romans loved silver and some of their work, both in coins and tableware, has never been surpassed. Claims (perhaps exaggerated) of its mineral wealth may have played a part in the Roman’s decision to conquer Britain.

1. Only a few of the thousands of Roman brooches recorded by the PAS are silver. This gilded example (LVPL-80B2F2) is of “Polden Hill” type and is identical in form to many of the copper alloy brooches we see. 2. A Roman dress pine from Leicestershire in the form of a woman’s hand holding a scent bottle, AD50-200 (NARC-2D8651). 3. There has been some debate over the dating of this cheerful silver-gilt bird from Lincolnshire, but an Early Medieval date seems most likely, AD700-800 (NLM-78C696). 4. A Middle Anglo-Saxon  silver pin with the typical gilding below the head, from Lincolnshire and dated AD700-900 (LIN-4C7679). 5. A Middle Anglo-Saxon silver-gilt pin head from Lincolnshire, AD750-800. Up to the 8th century gilding was commonly applied to silver objects. This pin head formed part of a set of linked pins (NLM-028751). Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY.

Most silver is found in combination with lead. Lead is easily extracted from its ore but separating the silver from the lead was laborious and time-consuming.  It was done by a process known as cupellation where the lead was placed in a shallow hearth at a temperature of around 1000-1100ºC and a blast of air played over it. This oxidised the lead converting it to litharge (lead oxide) which was skimmed off or absorbed by the bone ash that lined the hearth. The silver, unaffected by the air blast, remained untouched as a pellet in the middle of the hearth. 

This sounds simple but imagine treating tons of lead in this way. The litharge was then re-smelted to turn it back to lead, which was a by-product. Over-production meant that the market was saturated with more lead than anyone needed.

The trouble here is the silver content of most British ores is disappointingly low and it’s not really worth the trouble extracting it. The Derbyshire ores contained around 2 to 6 ounces per ton which stands in stark contrast to the great silver mines at Laurion, which paid for the ships that defended Athens, and contained about 600 ounces of silver per ton.

The Romans seem to have limited themsleves to ores containing more than 20 ounces of silver to the ton of lead. Despite claims made on Roman lead ingots that they are “EX ARG” or “EX ARGENT” (from the silver mines), analysis of ingots showed that they still contain a low level of silver – no attempt had been made to extract the silver as it was simply not worth the trouble. But why are British ingots marked “EX ARG BRIT” when argentium (silver) wasn’t there? Was something dodgy going on? It all seems rather odd.

6.  A Middle Anglo-Saxon strap end decorated with Trewhiddle style inlaid with niello, AD800-900 from Staffordshire (WMID-4462B7). 7. Silver ingots like this are difficult to date but they are found in Viking hoards. This one was found in Essex and is dated to AD800-1000 (BH-7253E7). 8. This brooch was found in Norfolk as part of a hoard of 23 coins, four brooches and two strap ends. This fragment of a disc brooch shows the use of niello inlay (NMS-972E58). 9. Heavy stamp marks like these are a feature of many pieces of Viking silver (ESS-9CB5B8). 10. This silver ingot fragment from Lincolnshire shows the single chisel cut often seen on Viking ingots (NLM-1B15F9). Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY.

Pure silver melts at 962ºC but was rarely used as such: adding other metals to silver to form an alloy reduces its melting point. Sterling silver, the most commonly used silver alloy, contains 7.5% copper and melts at 893ºC. Not only is the melting point reduced but Sterling silver is harder and stronger than the pure metal. This lowering of the melting point is also the principle behind solder where an alloy of two parts silver to one part copper will have a much lower melting point than pure silver making it possible to join pieces together without risk of melting them. The surfaces to be joined were cleaned carefully and the solder applied along with borax which acted like a flux preventing the surfaces from oxidising. When heated, the solder flowed into the joint making a strong and almost invisible bond. Soft solder, an alloy of lead and tin has a melting point of around 300ºC and was much easier to use, but after burial objects can fall apart.

The watlington Hoard found in Oxfordshire contained 186 coins, 7 items of jewellery and 15 silver ingots (SUR-4A4231). Copyright: The Trustees of the British Museum.

Silver  is easily cast. The method used to produce many small objects was the “cire purdue” (lost wax) process, a method so clever and ingenious that it still invites wonder. The first step was to make a model of the required object using beeswax, a material that is soft and easily worked. Once this was done the necessary channels for the metal to flow into the mould were added, also made of wax. The whole thing was then covered in clay. To ensure that the full detail was captured this would be done by repeatedly dipping the wax model into a clay slurry to build up the mould thickness. When this was dry, it was turned upside down and heated in a kiln. This fired the clay and melted the wax which ran out to leave a hollow mould which was filled with molten silver. Intricate objects with fine detail could thus be easily made.

Silver is also highly malleable and the ease with which it could be shaped by hammering led to the production of the plate and table vessels that adorned Roman and Medieval aristocratic tables. Breath-taking hoards of Roman silverware have been found such as the Mildenhall TreasureSilver vessels can be made by “sinking” in which a disc of silver is hammered into a hollow cut into a block of wood. Soft and malleable, silver can be cold worked but, as work progresses it becomes increasingly work-hardened so it is necessary to “anneal” it – heating it up to soften it and prevent it from cracking. This may need to be done repeatedly. After “sinking” the silver vessel was placed over a round-ended iron stake from planishing – using concentric light taps from a smoothly polished hammer to further shape the object.

11. A silver brooch or badge made from a penny of Edward the Confessor, found in Hampshire. These brooches are an odd phenomenon as only one face was gilded (usually reverse) and fixings look too weak for use as a brooch (WILT-C94353). 12. A Medieval silver seal matrix bearing the figure of St. Peter and the inscription + SIGILLVM PETRI DE BARASTRE. An American professor contacted us to identify the man as Peter de Barastre, a canon of Wherwell Abbey (HAMP-4E0317). 13. A silver gilt Medieval finger ring found on the Isle of Wight (IOW-9F11B3). 14. A gilded Medieval brooch found in Worcesterhire, AD1270-1350 (WMID-EF7056). 15. A Medieval silver-gilt finger ring bearing the inscription “AVE MARIA” – a popular inscription as the Virgin Mary was greatly venerated (NMGW-115DBC). Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY.

Repoussé decoration was much used to decorate silver plate. This involves the design being raised by hammering. One can imagine the difficulties of hammering out fine decoration on a thin sheet silver plate. The answer was ingenious: the top of the surface to be raised was covered in a thick layer of pitch and, working from beneath, the design was hammered down into the resilient pitch. When complete the pitch could be sharpened up by “chasing” using fine, flat-ended tools to hammer down from the upper surface.

Silver could be further embellished by gilding or by the application of niello or enamel. Gilding was carried out by dissolving gold into mercury to form an amalgam which was painted onto the surface to be treated. The object was then heated so that the mercury boiled off, leaving a thin, fine layer of gold on the treated surface. Niello was a black silver sulphide which was applied to the surface of silver to give a bold contrast.

16. A small silver-gilt Post-medieval dress hook found in Buckinghamshire (BUC-C09A34). 17. Silver gilt dress hook decorated with filigree wire and granulation both fused onto the surface of the silver. Once rare, metal-detecting has shown that these fittings must have been relatively common during the Tudor period (IOW-6CD1A5). 18. At one time, pins like this one were considered to be Viking but they are now known to be Post-medieval, AD1500-1600 (KENT-CE8D6B). 19. Post-medieval pin found in Surrey (SUR-C52692). 20. A silver spur, probably for attaching to a fighting cock. Not a nice object but still interesting (SWYOR-B06054). Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY.

While gold is the premier metal, I often think that we see a higher level of craftsmanship on silver objects where, using a workable material and not having the WOW factor of gold, the artisan had to try that bit harder.

Prehistoric Gold

This is the first in a series of posts on metal-working written by Dr. Kevin Leahy, PAS National Finds Adviser. The articles were first published in The Searcher magazine and are reproduced here with kind permission from Harry Bain, editor for The Searcher.

Gold is, perhaps, the strangest of the metals not through its inherent properties (interesting as they are) but through gold’s social role. Here we have a metal grubbed from the earth at great cost and labour, and because of which countless people have died, but which is effectively useless. Tools and weapons were made from stone, bronze and iron but, until recently, when high-tech applications appeared, gold’s only use was decorative and as a high level means of exchange.

Britain is lucky in having its own sources of gold. These are all in the north and west – Ireland, Wales and Scotland. The gold is present in the ancient hard rocks of these areas to which it was brought, from deep with the Earth, by volcanic and hydrothermal activity. However, these rocks have been eroded and so redeposited gold can be extracted from streams by “panning”, swirling sand around in a shallow, water-filled dish so that the sand is washed away, hopefully leaving a smudge of gold dust in the centre.

What is it about gold that gives it its allure? Soft and weak its mechanical properties are hopeless but it does offer the advantage of being very easily worked. It is highly malleable and can be beaten so thin that it becomes transparent. It can also be cold-welded by hammering and offers a craftsman almost unlimited possibilities. 

Then there is its colour. Most metals are either grey or white; only gold and copper are coloured. But unlike copper, gold does not tarnish – even after long burial it remains lustrous and bright yellow, the colour of the sun. Gold is also dense and has “heft” – if you toss it in your hand you can feel it landing on your palm. Finally, gold is scarce and scarcity makes it desirable to those with the power to obtain it.

Image of three gold archaeological objects.
(1) Beaker period “Basket ornament” found in Oxfordshire (BERK-0D1A05) and dating to 2400-2200BC. These ornaments were made from thin sheet gold decorated with raised dot. They may have been worn as earrings but it has been suggested they were actually worn in the hair. (2) Drawing of DUR-02828D from Northumberland showing how a “basket ornament” was fitted, if not how it was used. (3) Gold lunula made from thin sheet gold and found in Dorset, dating to 2400-2000BC (DOR-2198F8).

By about 5000BC gold was being used to make trinkets in Eastern Europe. Its early use was due to it occurring in a “native” state, not as an ore that needed to be smelted but as metallic gold which just needed to be beaten to shape and cold-welded to form small objects.

Gold working appears in Britain around the middle of the third millennium BC when “basket ornaments” were placed in Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age “Beaker” graves; that of the celebrated Amesbury archer was dated to 2470BC. In this period we find small gold discs (about 30mm in diameter) with raised decoration and also gold “lunulae”. Lunulae bear incised, zig-zag linear decoration similar to that seen on beaker pottery suggesting that they are of similar date, although there are no examples from graves or anything else that might date them. We also don’t know who wore them or how they were worn – were they around the neck or inverted on the head? Most lunulae have been found in Ireland where they must have originated but a few stray into Britain and onto the European mainland.

Similar in shape, if not in decoration, to Bronze Age beakers is the wonderful cup found at Ringlemere, Kent, in 2001. Beaten from a sheet of gold, its corrugated sides more than compensate for the lack of an incised pattern.

(4) The Ringlemere Cup from Kent (PAS-BE40C2), dated 1700-1500BC. The strip of metal forming the handle was attached using distinctive diamond-shaped washers, a feature which also appears on continental gold cups. (5) Composite finds like this twisted bracelet threaded through gold rings from Berkshire (BERK-A5FFE5) date from the Middle Bronze Age, 1300-1100BC. (6) This massive twisted gold torc (CAM-E5D871) from Cambridgeshire dated 1300-1100BC would have encircled the wearer’s neck multiple times or may even have been worn around the body.

From later in the Early Bronze Age (up to c.1700BC), we get a series of small amber pendants covered, at least in part, by thin gold sheet; also dagger pommels decorated with hundreds of tiny gold nails. These are found in graves of the so-called Wessex Culture but so far none have been recorded on the Database.

Although important technical advances continued to be made in bronze working, gold seems to disappear with the end of the Wessex graves, or perhaps they were putting it somewhere where we can’t find it. Gold reappears big-time around 1400BC as part of the Middle Bronze Age “Ornament Horizon” which included gold bracelets, neck rings and ornaments often made from twisted bars. These objects aren’t based on earlier British Bronze Age types but are new forms introduced from the Continent. Some hoards of this period were enormous – the Mountfield, Sussex, hoard contained 13lb of gold.

(7) Fragment of a Middle Bronze Age torc from Hampshire (HAMP-C8DC02) dated 1300-1100BC. This fragment shows how they were made – the square rod was grooved to form a cross-shaped section which was then twisted. (8) An example of a “ribbon torc” found in Buckinghamshire, dated 1400-1150BC (BUC-C07E88). (9) A Late Bronze Age ribbon bracelet with buffer terminals from the Isle of Wight, dated 1150-750BC (IOW-7477D4). (10) A gold buffer-ended bracelet of Late Bronze Age type found in Hampshire and dated 1150-750BC). (11) Bronze Age bracelet with C-shaped section from the Isle of Wight, dated 1000-750BC (IOW-FA17F8). (12) A hoard of five Bronze Age gold bracelets found in a pottery vessel found in Milton Keynes and dated 1150-800BC (PAS-833958).

After 1100BC we have another gap in our knowledge of British gold working. Things start to pick up again with the production of gold bracelets. Most of these are found in hoards, usually of around three bracelets, sometimes with bronze objects. These come in a range of simple shapes with round, flat, D-shaped and hollow C-shaped sections. Most had expanded buffer terminals although the flat type had scrolled ends.

Of similar date is the so-called “ring money” consisting of small penannular rings sometimes decorated with bands of different coloured alloys. The function of these rings is unknown but it is unlikely that they were any sort of money. Lock rings represent another enigmatic object. The two faces and inner edge were fixed together with binding strips to form a hollow triangular section. Lock rings are in Britain, Ireland and north-west France but we have no idea of how they were used.

One of the emblems of the Iron Age is the gold torc. These splendid objects are, like so much else in archaeology, mystifying. They don’t stand at the apex of any deep tradition of gold working but represent, with the exception of coins and a few late brooches, the totality of Iron Age gold working. Made using techniques drawn from copper-alloy working these objects stand alone.

(13) This piece of “ring money” found in Kent (KENT-FF00A6) appears to be gold but many of them consist of a gold plated bronze core. (14) A feature of gold is that its alloys can come in a range of colours including pink, white and even green. This penannular ring from Buckinghamshire dated 1150-800BC, was analysed and found to have a content of approximately 78% gold and 18% silver. (15) A Late Bronze Age lock ring decorated with incised lines, found in Sussex and dated 1000-750BC (SUSS-5EA230). (16) This buffer ended torc from Lincolnshire (NLM-605352) dated 400-300BC is of continental type and must have been imported to Britain. (17) A torc from Nottingham dated 110-50BC, made with gold wire with terminals decorated in Iron Age style. (18) An Iron Age bracelet made up of two gold ropes plaited together. Each rope is made up of two twisted wires. It is made from an alloy containing 55% gold, 38% silver and 7% copper. Dated 100-50BC, it was found in North Yorkshire (SWYOR-681CE4).

Some of the discoveries have been amazing: excavations at Snettisham, Norfolk, revealed at least 12 hoards packed together into pits. Some of these torcs showed signs of wear and others look like continental imports. The alloys from which they were made became increasingly debased with the later torcs contained less than 25% gold. Mercury gilding, in which gold is dissolved in mercury for application to a silver or copper-alloy object appeared for the first time.

The Iron Age saw the large-scale use of coins, many of which were made from gold or “electrum” (a gold/silver alloy). This is not the place to discuss the massive and complex topic of Iron Age coins but one aspect of them is interesting from a technical point of view: we find tray-like slabs of pottery which bear rows of hollows. These may have been used to ensure the alloy composition of the coins was correct. Into each hollow was weighed the correct amount of gold, silver and copper, and the tray was then placed into a furnace so that the scraps of metal fused together to form a pellet of the right weight and composition ready for striking coins.

Meet The Team: Dr. Kevin Leahy, National Finds Adviser

This is the first in a series of blogs to help you get to know the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) team! These articles were first published in Treasure Hunting Magazine and are reproduced here with their kind permission.

First up we have Dr. Kevin Leahy who is part of our team of National Finds Advisers. Kevin is based in Lincolnshire where he was the archaeologist for the North Lincolnshire Museum, before joining the PAS in 2007. Here, Kevin tell us a bit about his background and what his archaeological interests are.

Dr. Kevin Leahy, PAS National Finds Adviser

How and why did I get started in archaeology?

I spent my early childhood in a medieval/Tudor manor house surrounded by a moat and became aware of history as a presence that surrounded me. Inspired by archaeological TV programmes featuring such luminaries as Mortimer Wheeler I decided that this is what I wanted to do and, at the age of about eight, I carried out my first excavation digging out an old stone trough in the moat. The excavation, I regret to say, remains unpublished. Having failed the eleven-plus exam, I left school at 15 with no qualifications, but eventually got a job at a local foundry which sent me to Technical College where, slowly, I gained an education. Having completed my eight-year training as a foundry engineer, I used my qualifications to get me into university and, at last, become and archaeologist.

My first job was at Scunthorpe Museum where they allowed me to excavate, so there I stayed for 29 years during which I dug some large holes which mainly contained Anglo-Saxons. Concerned at the destruction of the Lincolnshire countryside by ploughing I started to record detector finds as a way of salvaging what I could from the wreckage. This eventually led to an involvement with the PAS for whom I now work.

What is my greatest achievement in archaeology?

I could be facetious and say ” getting a job” but it’s got to be the excavation and publication of the Cleatham Anglo-Saxon cemetery. This was England’s third largest cremation cemetery and over five seasons was fully excavated by volunteers under my guidance. It was their achievement as much as mine.

What period of the past most interests me?

It’s got to be the Early Medieval period, particularly the Anglo-Saxons. This period has everything – it starts out in the fifth century with the arrival of tribal groups but by the eleventh century we have a sophisticated society with amazing art. It is also true to say that, of all the periods of the past, detecting has had its greatest impact on the Early Medieval period.

Which objects most interest me?

Having trained as a metallurgist I’m interested in metals and how things were made; fortunately the PAS gives me plenty of things to look at. Every object has its story – its biography starting with the mining of the ore from which it was made, progressing through manufacture, to use and to final loss – all of which can be revealed in clues carried by the finds themselves. It’s a Sherlock Holmes approach which fascinates me.

Which of the finds I have recorded is my favourite?

This has got to be the Staffordshire Hoard for which my wife Diane and I prepared the first catalogue. It was amazing, opening bag after  bag of finds each full of unimagined things. To look at objects which no-one had seen for 1400 years was a great privilege which we both appreciated. I felt that, after a career looking at puddles, I’d finally seen the sea.

What is my favourite archaeological object?

Each time I go to the British Museum I go, Room 1. The Enlightenment Gallery. There, in one of the wall cabinets, is a pot bearing a massive label which reads:

Funeral urn
Supposed Anglo-Saxon
Containing burnt bones - found 1856
Near Kirton in Lindsey
Presented by Mr G Dalton,June 1858

This is a surviving urn from the first discovery of the Cleatham cemetery which I went on to excavate and where I met my wife (the Anglo-Saxons do try to take care of me). This pot means a lot to me.

What is my favourite historical monument or site?

It has to be Sinai Park Farm , the moated house where I became aware of time. It wasn’t as grand as it sounds – the house had fallen on hard times and had been divided into four cottages, but even then I knew it was a special place.

What are my other interests outside archaeology?

I walk and enjoy the countryside, kicking over molehills to see if they’ve turned up any archaeology. I’m interested in music of all sorts, from Renaissance to Heavy Metal. For relaxation I read military history but, sad to say, I spend rather a lot of time reading archaeology. I’m lucky enough to do for a living something that other people do as a hobby and feel that I need to stay on top of the subject. It still fascinates me.

How do I see the future?

Things are changing in archaeology – I am old enough to remember the second radiocarbon revolution when we found that everything was older than we thought. Now we are seeing the DNA revolution which is turning things on their head. For example, for the whole of my career the arrival of the Beakers in the mid-third millennium BC was seen not as a migration but as ‘cultural influence’. Now DNA work is showing that there was a massive change in population. The PAS gives a context for all of these changes, it’s never too late to revolutionise! 

Five finds from the PAS database and why I like them

NLM-C88CE1 – a copper alloy medallion found in Grimsby, North East Lincolnshire

Copyright: North Lincolnshire Museum, License: CC BY-SA.

The PAS is only supposed to record things that are more than 300 years old which should rule out this medallion which is dated 1954. The German inscription reads: ‘GERHARD / BERSU / ZUM 65 GERBURSTAG / VON SEINEN / FREUDEN’. It was presented to Gerhard Bersu, the eminent German archaeologist, on his 65th brithday. Bersu (1889-1964) came to England in 1935, having been sacked by the Nazis. He carried out important excavations here but the war came he and his wife were interned on the Isle of Man. They didn’t waste their time there and spent the war excavating the island. While of recent date, it is clearly of archaeological interest – however did it get to Grimsby?

NLM-468D41 – a Pressblech die found in Fen Drayton, Cambridgeshire

(L) Copyright: North Lincolnshire Museum, (R) Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme. License for both: CC BY-SA

The man who found this object came up from Cambridgeshire just to show it to me; it was a worthwhile trip as it is a die for making Pressblech foils of the sort that were used on the Sutton Hoo helmet. This provided evidence that the helmet could have been made in England and need not have been an import from Sweden. I had an awful job drawing it – somehow I had to show that it was the original object that was crude, not my drawing!

Treasure 2002 T285 – a gold sword hilt found in the Market Rasen area, Lincolnshire

Copyright: Trustees of The British Museum.

I’ll never forget the detectorist bringing this Anglo-Saxon sword hilt into the Museum in Scunthorpe. Opening a plastic box he proceeded to extract, from what looked like a whole roll of toilet paper, piece after piece of Early Medieval gold – it was a star performance.

FAKL-FB5DF6 – a copper alloy axehead  found in Cadney, North Lincolnshire

Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC BY.

I was judging the NCMD’s (National Council for Metal Detecting) Yorkshire Region competition at their AGM when someone showed me this mind-blowing axehead – I had eyes for nothing else, it was truly the finest example of an Early Iron Age Sompting type bronze axehead I had ever seen. The finder was not at the meeting but I was able to contact him and found it came from Lincolnshire, only a few miles from where I live. It ended up in the collection of the North Lincolnshire Museum where everyone (particularly me) can enjoy it.

SWYOR-E54DB2 – a copper alloy handle found in Appleby, Lincolnshire

As we put this copper-alloy handle handle from a Roman vessel on the front cover of Finds Identified, I can’t ignore it. This object shows the haunting strangeness of the past. Photographing it was quite a job; after repeated attempts I took the whole of my photographic rig, camera, copying stand lights into the North Lincolnshire Museum where it is displayed and, after a lot of struggling, came up with something that captured its essence. 

Copyright: West Yorkshire Archaeology Advisory Service, License: CC BY-SA.


New Year’s Resolutions

It’s January. Christmas is over and thoughts begin to turn to the coming year. For many people this is a time for reflection and with it an opportunity to make changes. New Year, new you and all that! With this in mind, we’ve taken inspiration from the most common New Year’s resolutions for our first blog post of 2020. So whether or not you’ve made any resolutions, we hope you enjoy this selection of finds from the database!

1. Exercise More

Copyright: South West Heritage Trust, License: CC BY-SA.

Exercise is a popular New Year’s resolution, whether to get healthy or to set yourself a challenge. Who knows, perhaps you could become the next cross country champion, like the original owner of this medal (SOM-5CB66C). It dates to 1930 and was awarded to E. Barnes of the Stockport Harriers Club. The medal was made by Lloyd, Paine and Amiel and the hallmarks indicate that it is made of 9 carat gold. Stockport Harriers Club was formed when the Reddish, Marple and Davenport Harriers decided to amalgamate in 1911. The medal was found a long way from home, all the way down in Somerset!

2. Get Organised

Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC BY-SA.

If your goal for 2020 is to get your life more organised, then you’ll need a good calendar. This Roman example is sadly incomplete but nonetheless an important find (SUSS-BA3CBE). It bears the inscription “AVGVST” (August) and would once have formed part of a larger bronze disc. At the time of recording it was only the fourth example of a calendar/time piece of this type to be documented from the Roman world.

3. Learn a New Skill or Hobby

Copyright: Museum of London, License: CC BY-SA.

There are so many to choose from! Knitting, cycling, baking, golf – the list is endless. Maybe a musical instrument beckons? Beginners could try a simple flute, like this one found on the Thames Foreshore in London (LON-58D1C9). It is carved from the tibia of a sheep or goat so, on second thoughts, perhaps not! The style and material are typical of the Medieval period so this flute has been dated to AD1100-1300. It also gives us the opportunity to use the delightful word “fipple” – a plug stopping the end of a pipe that has a thin slit through which the player blows. This example is unusual in having a cork fipple, more so because the fipple is still in place.

4. Save Money

Copyright: The British Museum, License: CC-BY.

A good resolution at any time of year! We don’t suggest burying it for safe-keeping like the owner of this coin hoard (HAMP-8B9913) did though. The coins – all 345 of them – were found inside a 17th century stoneware vessel of the “Bartmann” type, a brown stoneware fabric with mottled orange-brown glaze. The name Bartmann is German for “bearded man” and comes from the fact that many of these vessels were decorated with the face of a bearded man. The coins were all silver issues of the English monarchs Edward VI, Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I. The hoard was most likely hidden for safekeeping during the English Civil War and represents several months wages for a soldier or a whole year’s pay for a labourer.

5. Quit Smoking

Copyright: Lincolnshire County Council, License: CC BY-SA.

These days we’re most likely talking about cigarettes but a century or so ago you’d be hanging up your clay pipe. Tobacco was first brought to Europe in the early 16th century, along with the means of smoking it and so a new industry of clay pipe making was born. By 1650, smoking was so popular that there were over a thousand pipe makers in London alone. Early pipes were quite plain and functional but later improvements in technology allowed for more decorative pieces to be created, transforming the clay pip into a fashion piece. By the Victorian period there were some very elaborate pipe bowls such as this one (LIN-E78777) which is a portrait bust of the artist Peter Paul Rubens. It is of French manufacture and dates to AD1840-1920.

6. Travel More

Copyright: Somerset County Council, License: CC BY-SA.

Travel and change of place impart new vigour to the mind. So said Roman philosopher Seneca and what better excuse to get out there an explore the world? You can start with the local heritage on your own doorstep or you could try further afield like the previous owner of our next find (SOM-18AD04). It is an ancient Egyptian statuette of the god Osiris and dates to around 700-100BC. These votive figurines were produced in their thousands during the Ptolomeic period and became a popular collectors’ item during the 18th and 19th centuries when wealthy Europeans travelled the world on their “Grand Tours”. This object is most likely one that was collected as a souvenir and subsequently lost which explains how it ended up in a field in Somerset. We are, of course, not advocating bringing artefacts back from your travels – please stick to the souvenir shops and leave the archaeology where it belongs!

7. Read More

Copyright: West Yorkshire Archaeology Advisory Service, License: CC BY-SA.

Sometimes there is nothing better than settling down with a good book. These days it is easy to take the written word for granted but in the past books and manuscripts were highly valued items. This is perhaps not surprising when a single manuscript could take several years to complete. During the Medieval period the manuscript pages were kept between two covers which were held tightly together by a book clasp, like the one featured here (SWYOR-D9A074). This kept the pages flat and secure, and provided a measure of protection. The covers and indeed the clasps themselves were often highly decorated which is indicative of the value placed on the pages contained within. The clasp pictured here is brightly enamelled and was once gilded so would have looked quite splendid when first made. It dates to AD1150-1300.

Festive Finds Activity

Christmas is just around the corner and it’s time to get those festive decorations up! If you’ve ever wanted your decorations to have an archaeological flavour then we might have just the thing for you. Use the instructions below to create your very own Anglo-Saxon Christmas bauble inspired by the beautiful gold and garnet disc brooches crafted during the early medieval period.

You can use our templates below or design something yourself. There is plenty of inspiration to be found on the database here. Fun for children and early medievalists alike! You can also share your creations with us by tagging @findsorguk on Twitter or Instagram. We’d love to see them!


For this activity you will need:

  • Scissors and glue
  • A hole punch
  • Gold card
  • Ribbon or string
  • Colouring pens or pencils

Step 1: Cut out a circle of gold card to your desired size. A 9cm diameter makes a good sized ornament, but you can go as big or small as you like.

Step 2: Complete your brooch-inspired design! You can colour in one of our templates or, if you are feeling very artistic, you can have a go at drawing your own design.

Step 3: Once you have finished your design, use the glue to stick it onto the front of your gold card circle.

Step 4: You can add some jewels and other finishing touches to really make it sparkle!

Step 5: Once you are happy with your design, use the hole punch to make a hole at the top of your decoration. Thread some brightly coloured ribbon through the hole and tie at the top. Your Anglo-Saxon inspired Christmas decoration is now ready to hang on your tree. Beautiful!

Don’t forget to share your creations with us! Tag @findsorguk on Twitter or Instagram.

Remember, remember the Fifth of November!

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,

Gunpowder, treason and plot.

We see no reason why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot!


Tonight is, of course, Bonfire Night. It celebrates the foiling of a plot by a group of English Catholics to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament on the 5th of November 1605. Following an anonymous tip-off, Guy Fawkes was discovered in the undercroft of the House of Lords guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder that were hidden beneath a pile of wood. Had the plot succeeded, the House of Lords would have been reduced to a pile of rubble.

The tradition of marking the day with the ringing of church bells and bonfires started soon after the Plot’s discovery and was, for a considerable amount of time, enforced as an annual act of public thanksgiving. Known as the Thanksgiving Act, it required people to attend a special church service where the Act would be read out in full and thanks would be given to God. The Act was repealed in 1859 but the tradition of bonfires and fireworks continues today.

To mark Bonfire Night, we’ve once again pulled out some relevant finds from the Database!

Sixpence of James I

Silver sixpence of James I, dated 1605.
Silver sixpence of James I, dated 1605. Copyright: Licence: CC-BY

Dated 1605, the year of the Gunpowder Plot, this is a particularly fine example of a James I sixpence (LEIC-0ED383). It has the Royal Coat of Arms on one side and the crowned bust of the almost-unfortunate King on the other. As well as the Gunpowder Plot, James I had to contend with two earlier plots against him, despite having a more moderate attitude towards Catholics than his predecessor.

Decade Ring

Post-medieval gold decade ring.
Post-medieval gold decade ring. Copyright: Museum of London Licence: CC-BY

Although James I was reasonably tolerant towards Catholics in his early reign, recusancy – or the refusal to take part in Anglican worship – was still a punishable crime. In some cases, adherence to Catholicism resulted in the death penalty. Decade rings like this one (LON-F30014) were a discreet way for Catholics to practice their faith. The ten ‘bumps’ on the ring represent the ten prayers that make up the Rosary and were used to keep count of the number of Hail Marys said.

Powder Measure

Post-medieval lead-alloy powder measure
Post-medieval lead-alloy powder measure. Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme Licence: CC-BY

Lead-alloy powder chargers like this one (HAMP2710) were used to measure the appropriate amount of gunpowder for loading into a musket. Guy Fawkes was an experienced soldier who fought for Spain in a number of conflicts. It is thought that he gained his knowledge of gunpowder and explosives from his time as a solider and he may well have used a powder measure like this one during his service.

Pilgrim Badge

Late medieval pilgrim badge in the shape of a Catherine Wheel.
Late medieval pilgrim badge in the shape of a Catherine Wheel. Copyright: Museum of London Licence: CC-BY

This medieval pilgrim badge is in the shape of a Catherine Wheel (LON-6FABC6). According to Christian tradition, Catherine of Alexandria (later St. Catherine) was condemned to torture upon a spiked ‘breaking wheel’. However, when she touched the wheel it flew into pieces. Subsequently, such devices became known as Catherine Wheels and it is from this that the popular firework gets its name.

Hedgehog Belt Mount

Medieval belt mount in the shape of a hedgehog.
Medieval belt mount in the shape of a hedgehog. Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme Licence: CC-BY

This medieval belt mount (LEIC-E45175) is in the shape of a hedgehog. Such mounts were used to decorate leather belts and came in a wide range of shapes and styles. The humble hedgehog might seem an odd decorative choice but they do appear in many medieval manuscripts and even on some coats of arms. And remember, if you’re having a bonfire tonight, don’t forget to check inside for hedgehogs before you light it!

Palaeolithic Handaxe

Image five views of a flint handaxe, arranged left to right.
A bifacially flaked flint handaxe of cleaver form dating to the Lower Palaeolithic c.500,000-250,000 BC. Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY

This find (BH-14C4FB) is not directly connected to Bonfire Night in any way. But it was recorded onto the database today so we thought we’d include it! Any excuse to share a lovely piece of flint!

Enjoy the fireworks and stay safe!

Thank You PASt Explorers!

Today marks the final day of our PASt Explorers project and, whilst we are sad to say goodbye to the project, we are immensely proud of what has been achieved. 

Over the past 5 years, thanks to funding from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, the PASt Explorers project has helped to expand and support our network of dedicated volunteers by providing them with a comprehensive programme of training and support. 

Image of a group of adults seated around a long table.
PASt Explorers volunteers hard at work at one of our final training sessions. Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY

Since the project began, we have run 159 training sessions covering topics from database entry to digital finds photography and more specialist sessions such as medieval coins and Roman brooches. We currently have over 370 volunteers either working in-house alongside their Finds Liaison Officers or working remotely to record their own finds onto the database. We have also created the County Pages portal – an online hub for finds and archaeology in the local area so that people can more easily engage with their local heritage. The County Pages are also home to our Finds Recording Guides, of which we’ve published 61 (and counting!).

None of this would have been possible without the help and support of a wide range of people and organisations. We’d like to thank in particular The National Lottery Heritage Fund for making the project possible; the PASt Explorers project team for all their hard work in delivering the project; the Finds Liaison Officers for providing first class support to their volunteer teams; and of course to the volunteers themselves for giving so much time and effort to the Scheme and for doing such outstanding work.

We’d also like to thank all of those people who have lent their time and expertise to train our volunteers, and to all the museums and institutions that have hosted our sessions. 

We have thoroughly enjoyed working with you all on this project and it has been a joy to see so many people get enthused by the wonder of archaeological small finds. Keep up the good work and we look forward to seeing the foundations laid by PASt Explorers blossom and grow.

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The Battle of Bosworth Field

Today marks the anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth, the last significant battle of the Wars of the Roses. The battle was the culmination of 30 years of civil war between the Houses of York and Lancaster, although at the time it was likely viewed as just another battle in a lengthy period of unrest.

In 1483, the Yorkist king Richard III had claimed the English throne after, somewhat controversially, deposing his twelve-year-old nephew Edward V. Richard’s reign was further tainted by the disappearance of Edward and his brother, and the death of his own wife, Anne Neville. Amidst the discontent, support began to gather around the exiled Henry Tudor, whose claim to the throne came through the Lancastrian line, albeit tenuously.

Image of two silver coins side by side. The left coin depicts Richard III and the right coin depicts Henry VII.
The two main protagonists of the Battle of Bosworth, as represented on coinage of the period. On the left is Richard III (SF-172464) and on the right is Henry VII (IOW-EDA5B6). Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, Licence: CC-BY).

After a failed invasion attempt in 1484, Henry and his forces landed in southwest Wales on the 1st August 1485. He marched inland, headed for London, gathering support and reinforcements along the way. Richard’s forces intercepted them in Leicestershire, just south of the town of Market Bosworth. As morning broke on the 22nd August 1485, three groups faced each other on Bosworth Field: Richard III and his Yorkist army, the challenger Henry Tudor, and the forces of the Stanley family whose support for either side was somewhat non-committal.

Image of three metal badges in the shape of a wild board, arranged in a single row.
Boar badges worn by supporters of Richard III. The white boar was the personal emblem of Richard and such badges were given out in large numbers to his supporters. Several examples are recorded on the PAS Database including those pictured here (from left to right: LON-A33FF5, BERK-39FF21, YORYM-1716A4). Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, Licence CC-BY.

Little is known of the battle itself. There are just four main contemporary accounts, and these are mostly written from second or third-hand information. Even the location of the battlefield itself is disputed. Historians place Richard’s forces, estimated at between 7,500 to 12,000 men, along the ridge-line of Ambion Hill, whilst Henry’s smaller army of 5,000 to 8,000 men lay to the southwest. The Stanley forces, numbering between 4,000 to 6,000, waited in positions around nearby Dadlington Hill.

Henry Tudor retreated to the rear of his forces, handing command of the battle to the more experienced Earl of Oxford. At some point during the engagement, Richard III noticed Henry and his retinue at some distance behind his main forces. Seeking a quick end to the battle, he led a mounted charge at Henry’s group. Richard killed Henry’s standard bearer, Sir William Brandon, and unhorsed another in the melee, whilst Henry retreated behind his bodyguards. At this point, William Stanley and his army declared a side and rode to the aid of Henry.

Image of the the front and reverse of a silver hawking ring showing the coat of arms of Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk. of
A silver gilt vervel (NMS-F2EEC6) bearing the Coat of Arms of Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk. Charles’s father, William Brandon, was Henry Tudor’s standard bearer at the Battle of Bosworth and was slain by Richard III himself. The Brandons clearly profited from their service to Henry as Charles Brandon married Henry’s daughter Mary Tudor. Copyright: Norfolk County Council, Licence CC-BY.

Richard went down fighting. It is not known who struck the final blow but analysis of Richard’s skeleton revealed 11 wounds, 9 of which were to the head. He became the last English king to die in battle and with him ended the Plantagenet line. Henry VII was crowned on the battlefield and became the first Tudor monarch. The Battle of Bosworth Field was championed as a new beginning for England, although subsequent rebellions and uprisings suggest otherwise. Richard III came to be viewed as the villain of the story – a crooked hunchback who murdered his own nephews. However, the discovery of his skeleton in a car park in Leicestershire (in 2012) has provided an unprecedented opportunity to reassess the mythology surrounding this much-maligned king.

Image of a silver badge in the shape of a wild boar.
A silver boar badge in the shape of a male boar (LEIC-A6C834). This badge helped to locate the probable site of the battle. Copyright: Leicestershire County Council, Licence: CC-BY.

But what about the battlefield itself? Here too, recent research has shed new light on the subject. Between 2005 and 2009 an extensive survey of the area by The Battlefields Trust led to the discovery of the site of the core battlefield. A systematic metal-detecting survey uncovered, among other items, large quantities of lead shot and a small silver badge in the shape of a male boar. As mentioned above, a large number of these badges were given out to Richard’s supporters. However, most are not precious metal. This one, being silver, belonged to a high-status individual. Experts believe that this badge could indicate the exact location of Richard’s death since it was probably worn by a member of his close retinue – the group that would have ridden with him as he attacked Henry’s personal bodyguard.

You can read more about the Bosworth Battlefield survey here

For a look at the other discoveries during the survey, check out ‘The Other Bosworth’ blog series by former Leicestershire Finds Liaison Officer Wendy: Parts One, Two, Three, Four and Five.

Finally, to learn about the discovery and excavation of Richard III’s remains, see here.

Agents of Shield – The Return Of Half-term Heraldry

We were recently invited to repeat our heraldry-themed PAS activity at the University of Nottingham Museum of Archaeology. So, during the May half-term we packed up our craft supplies and headed to beautiful surroundings of the Lakeside Arts Centre for some heraldic half-term fun.

Image of a volunteer named Jasmine standing to the left of a long table. A variety of coloured shield shapes are laid out on the table top ready for use in a craft activity.
PASt Explorers volunteer Jasmine ready to go at the University of Nottingham Museum of Archaeology at the Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham. Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY.

Armed with brightly coloured paper (in the seven heraldic colours), glue and a whole menagerie of heraldic beasties, our participants set about creating their very own Coat of Arms. Here are the results!

Eight brightly coloured paper shields arranged in two rows of four, one above the other. Each shield has the image of a plant or animal on it.

As well as the opportunity to get creative, this activity also introduces participants to the language of heraldry and concepts around identity and how people represented themselves in the past. 

For more information about this activity, please contact Why not have a go at creating your own shield? Share it with us on Twitter or Instagram (@findsorguk on both platforms).

PASt Explorers Conference 2019

A selection of finds recorded by PASt Explorers volunteers.

This year is the final year of the PASt Explorers project. Generously supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, the PASt Explorers project has, for the last 5 years, championed finds recording in the local community. By providing opportunity, training and support, we have involved hundreds of volunteers in communities across England and Wales in the archaeology of their local area, recording finds and sharing the knowledge to help shape our understanding of the past.

Join us to celebrate the work of the PASt Explorers project, supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, with a series of talks looking at what the project has achieved, how this work is being used to inform our knowledge of the past, and the vast potential for future projects.

The conference will be followed by a drinks reception with stand-up comedy from Paul Duncan McGarrity, the man behind the brilliant Ask An Archaeologist podcast series.

The conference is taking place at The British Museum on Friday 21st June 2019. It is free to attend but booking is essential. To book a place please visit: or call 0207 323 8293. The conference is fully catered and PAS volunteers may claim their travel expenses back, subject to our expenses policy (please contact us for details).

We look forward to seeing you in June!

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