Love is in the air at PAS

Today is Valentine’s Day and our Finds Liaison Officers have been busy highlighting love-themed objects from the Portable Antiquities Scheme database. Be sure to check them out on Twitter! In the meantime, here are a few more objects that demonstrate the range of subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways people in the past have professed their love. Happy Valentine’s Day!




This simple silver finger ring dates to the late medieval period (AD1300-1400). It bears the inscription:


which translates to “Love conquers all”. This seems to have been a relatively popular inscription and appears on 16 items in the PAS database. The motto even appears on a gold brooch worn by the Prioress in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Gilchrist, R., Medieval Life: Archaeology and the Life Course, 2012: 111).

Medieval silver finger ring with Latin inscription




An elaborate silver-gilt seal-matrix depicting a man and woman facing each other with a flowering plant between them and a bird overhead. The lettering around the edge reads:  +AMI AMES LEAVMEnT. Although the meaning is uncertain, it relates to love or loyalty – seals with sentimental designs are typical of the 14th century.


Medieval silver-gilt love or loyalty seal-matrix of the 14th century.




This fourpence of Charles II has been pierced and is bent in two places. These ‘crooked’ coins are often thought to be love tokens, bent to prevent them being spent accidentally. The idea was that the enamored man would prove the strength of his love by bending the coin in front of  his chosen lady. Hopefully she would keep and treasure it; else it would be discarded along with the poor chap’s affections. Many of these coins have been found on open farmland in places where fairs were held, indicating a large number of disappointed beaus! Alternatively, they may simply have been good luck charms. What do you think?

Fourpence of Charles II, pierced and bent




A trio of medieval gold brooches. The first is a gold annular brooch with clasped hands at the top, that may once have held a pearl or stone. The crude inscription translates as “Love, I will you only”, with “will” taking its earlier meaning of “want”. The second brooch, with its asymmetric heart design, is almost modern in appearance but actually dates to around the 14th century, with parallels in the British Museum collection. The final brooch is gilded silver and is inscribed on both sides with messages of love. The front reads:  + AMVR VENT TVTEN, a variant of the common “Love conquers all” but in French rather than Latin (amour vainc tout). The reverse reads:  + IO SVI FLUR DE LEL IA, meaning I Am The Flower Of Loyal [Love].

Medieval gold annular brooch with romantic inscription.
Medieval gold heart-shaped brooch.
Medieval gilded silver annular brooch with romantic inscription.

Festive Finds: PAS Christmas Countdown #12

The Nativity

The story of the Nativity has been represented in many different formats throughout history.The Virgin Mary and child have been depicted in paintings, sculpture and even on more functional objects. It is a story that is known to all across the Christian world and many more beyond that. It’s no surprise that scenes from the Nativity have been used throughout history to not only recount the story but to also serve a much wider purpose.

The Nativity by Hugo van der Goes (c. AD 1440-1482).
The Nativity by Hugo van der Goes (c. AD 1440-1482). License: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The story in summary is as follows: Mary receives word from the Angel Gabriel that she is pregnant with the son of God. Not long after this, Mary and her husband Joseph traveled to Bethlehem to register in the census of Quirinius. At this time, the Roman occupation of Judea called for a record of everyone living in the province by ordering that they return to their town of birth. In the case of Mary, as the wife of Joseph, she had to return to her husband’s town. Being heavily pregnant at the time, Mary made the journey on a donkey or mule. They arrive at Bethlehem to find nowhere to stay. All that was available was a small stable, which would provide nothing more than shelter. It was here that Mary gave birth, placing her child in a manger. The child was named Yeshua (ישוע), which later became Jesus as the story was translated into other languages.

At this time, an angel appeared to shepherds on a nearby hill and announced the birth. Elsewhere, a star is noted as having guided the three Magi (or Wise men) to Bethlehem. These wise men arrive 12 days after Christmas, bringing gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh to the child. However when Herod, king of Judea, hears of the birth of a new messiah, he orders all new-born males to be killed. Thus Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt with their child.

These scenes have persisted in religious iconography throughout history and have been used within the Christian world as a sign of authority and piety. Although aspects of the story of the Nativity have been depicted in a variety of different ways, standards were developed to make the scenes easily recognisable. Medieval seal matrices often depicted scenes from the Nativity and would have most likely belonged to senior officials at monasteries or churches.   Many examples have been recorded on the PAS database showing how these standards of depicting specific scenes developed throughout the Medieval period. Most common are the Virgin Mary and Child designs (WILT-5F2594), with around 54 examples recorded with the PAS alone. Less common scenes include the Star in the sky that guided the three wise men to Bethlehem (SWYOR-457EF7) and the flight to Egypt ( IHS-5084E2).

14th century Virgin and child seal matrix (WILT-5F2594).
14th century Virgin and child seal matrix (WILT-5F2594). Copyright: Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum. License: CC-BY
Mary fleeing on a mule with Jesus (IHS-5084E2).
Mary fleeing on a mule with Jesus (IHS-5084E2). Copyright: I. Szymanski. License: CC-BY.
13th century "Star" seal matrix (SWYOR-457EF7).
13th century “Star” seal matrix (SWYOR-457EF7). Copyright: West Yorkshire Archaeology Service. License: CC-BY.

Festive Finds: PAS Christmas Countdown #11


Gold Reliquary
16th century gold reliquary depicting the names of the three wise men. (ESS-2C4836) Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme .License: CC-BY

During the Medieval period life was governed by the Church and Bible. Everything you did during your earthly life would impact your soul after death and decide if you went to heaven or hell and how long you would spend in purgatory. A part of this highly religious life was the idea of pilgrimage, a journey to a holy place or shrine to ask for the Saints help or as a form of penance for sins. Undertaking a pilgrimage could help your soul in the afterlife. When visiting these holy places, relics and reliquaries could be purchased as proof that you had completed the pilgrimage and it was believed that relics were still connected to the Saint and had supernatural powers. Relics usually came in the form of a piece of the Saint, such as a body part, or something that the Saint had touched. Many were kept in reliquaries, a container for the relics, often decorated with scenes from the life of the saint in question.

One such reliquary is recorded on the PAS database (ESS-2C4836). This gold reliquary is in the form of a lozenge shaped pendant with a removable back panel. The front and back panels are engraved with biblical images. One of the side panels is engraved with a foliate design, with the other three depicting the names most commonly given to the three wise men in the nativity: Gaspar, Melcior, Baltasar (Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar). The three wise men are mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew where he calls them ‘Magi’ and states that they bought with them the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. This has given rise to the idea that there were only three Magi, one for each gift, although the total number is never mentioned. It is thought that the three gifts have symbolic meanings, although never mentioned in the Bible. Gold is seen as a symbol of Christ’s divinity, frankincense is burnt in worship and therefore indicative of Christ’s willingness to become a sacrifice and myrrh was used in embalming and foretells the suffering he would go through as a man.

The reliquary is currently on display in room 2 at the British Museum.

The Three Magi
Three Wise Men. Made at Hohenburg Abbey, France, 1185 by Herrad of Landsberg. From a reproduction by Christian Maurice Engelhardt, 1818 (Hortus Deliciarum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Festive Finds: PAS Christmas Countdown #9

Origins of Saint Nicholas

St Nicholas Pilgrim Badge
15th century gilded silver pilgrim badge depicting Saint Nicholas and three children. (SF8047) Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme. License: CC-BY

The jolly man in the red and white who brings children presents every Christmas Eve in his sleigh pulled by reindeer is the result of hundreds of years of stories, legends, tradition and marketing campaigns. The ‘real’ Father Christmas hasn’t been completely forgotten, with popular culture even referring to him as ‘Saint Nic’.

Saint Nicholas was born in Patara (now in modern day Turkey) during the third century BC. He came from a wealthy family and was raised as a Christian. After the death of his parents, he used his inheritance to help those suffering and was made Bishop of Myra at a young age. Saint Nicholas became known for his generosity to the sick, his love for children and his concern for sailors, thus becoming the Patron Saint of children and sailor, as well as merchants, archers and students. During the rule of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, Nicholas was exiled for his faith and imprisoned. Nicholas died on 6th December AD343, giving rise to the celebration of this date as Saint Nicholas Day.

St Nicholas and three boys
Saint Nicholas resurrecting three children, at the beginning of the reading for 6 December. Author Unknown, ‘Stowe Breviary’, 1322–25 (image: Public Domain)

Saint Nicholas popularity grew due to the stories told of his great deeds and soon his cult rivalled that of Virgin Marys’. One of the most well-known stories is Saint Nicholas and the three daughters. Each of the daughters wanted to marry but hadn’t enough dowry. Saint Nicholas threw two purses through the window and the third down the chimney where it fell into a hanging stocking.

Another story of Saint Nicholas’ miracles is a later addition and based on a misunderstanding. In many images Saint Nicholas is pictured with gold discs or balls but many thought they were children’s heads. This gave rise to the story that three boys had been tricked and killed by an innkeeper (butcher in the French version) and placed in a barrel. Saint Nicholas visits the inn, dreams of the crime and resurrects the boys. This story is a retelling of a much earlier tale, recorded by Cicero in his “on divination” in 44BC. Cicero’s version also includes a murderous innkeeper, though the victim is a friend of the protagonist.

These stories are a few examples of his good deeds but gave rise to the idea that Saint Nicolas was mainly a protector of children and gift giver. His story grew and Saint Nicholas was incorporated into other local myths. A pilgrim badge recorded on the PAS database (SF8047) depicts Saint Nicholas with three children sitting in a crescent moon, possibly a representation of the barrel, although the badge could also relate to the three daughters story. Tomorrow will continue the story of Saint Nicholas and how the Saint turned into the myth we know today.

Festive Finds: PAS Christmas Countdown #3


Stag Harness Pendant
Medieval Copper alloy harness pendant. (SF5207) Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme. License: CC-BY

Reindeer and Christmas. The two words are so entwined and seem to fit together perfectly but reindeer haven’t always been associated with Christmas, so why are they today?

In early versions of the legend, Santa Claus rode a white horse to deliver presents, but as the Saint Nicolas myth merged with local folktale, other aspects were included in the myth. In Norse and Germanic mythology, Thor (God of Thunder) flies through the sky in a chariot pulled by two magical goats. It is possible the Saint Nicholas myth was combined with the well-known local myth of a chariot pulled by animals.

1804 a miniature representation of a reindeer and sleigh accompany Santa Claus, possibly taken from the Russian winter folk spirit, Father Frost, who drives a sled drawn by reindeer. In 1812 Washington Irving refers to St. Nicholas as:

“Riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon (sleigh)

wherein he brings his yearly presents to children.”

Ten years later in 1821, printer William Gilley published a booklet by an anonymous author where reindeer are introduced with Santa Claus for the first time,

“Old Sante Claus with much delight,

His reindeer drives this frosty night.

O’er chimney tops, and tracks of snow,

to bring his yearly gifts to you”.                

Names are given to the reindeer in 1822/23 in the poem ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ [or ‘’Twas the Night Before Christmas’] where it states that Santa drives a sleigh pulled by eight reindeers [Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder (Donner) and Blixem (Blitzen). Rudolph wasn’t introduced until 1939, the creation of Robert L. May.

This explains how reindeer came to guide Santa’s sleigh but not why reindeer were picked in the first place. During the 18th century in Scandinavian and Eastern European countries, reindeer were domesticated and often used (and still are today) for transportation like pulling sleds and sleighs. They were seen as mysterious creatures, suitable companions for the magical Santa Claus.

A harness pendant recorded on the database depicts a stag (SF5207), although with its protruding horns and slightly red nose, shares similarities to Santa’s reindeer. Stags were important during the medieval period and were described in bestiaries as an enemy of snakes. Because snakes were seen as a symbol of Satan, the stag became the symbol of Christ. The stag is associated with the soul wishing to become pure, with the white stag becoming the emblem of King Richard II.

Wilton Diptych Left Panel
Left panel from the Medieval Wilton Diptych, King Richard II wears a robe with his white stage emblem. Unknown Master, English or French [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Festive Finds: PAS Christmas Countdown #1


The Annunciation
Angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she is with child. Paolo de Matteis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ as told in the Nativity, with a key scene being when the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will give birth to the son of God. This is known as the Annunciation and is mentioned in the Bible, the Dead Sea scrolls and the Qur’an; In Islam Jesus is a prophet of God, not the son.

The story was popular during the medieval period, with pilgrim badges and rings making reference to it. A pilgrim badge on the database depicts the Annunciation (BH-199D37), with Mary on the left, represented by a cross and Gabriel on the right, depicted with wings; although the Bible states that Gabriel appeared to Mary as a man, not an angel. The central column most likely represents a lily, given to Mary as a symbol of her purity. A medieval stirrup finger ring that makes reference to the Annunciation is also recorded on the database (LON-121037). The ring shows a pair of clasped hands and inscribed around the outside is [A V E M(?) A R I A: G], this would have originally read AVE MARIA  GRACIA PLENA (Hail Mary, full of grace). These represent the words spoken by Gabriel to Mary during the Annunciation and were a popular inscription.

This scene signifies the start of the nativity story and makes the perfect start to our series of festive finds blogs.







Gabriel Ring
14th century Silver ring with Inscription. (LON-121037) Copyright: Museum of London. Licence: CC-BY.
14th century copper alloy pilgrim badge depicting the Angel Gabriel and Mary. (BH-199D37) License: CC-BY
14th century copper alloy pilgrim badge depicting the Angel Gabriel and Mary. (BH-199D37) Copyright: St Albans District Council. Licence: CC-BY.


‘Beyond the Vale of York’ conference – Saturday 11th July, York

On Saturday 11th July a fascinating day conference on coin hoarding will take place in York.  The joint meeting of the Royal Numismatic Society and the British Numismatic Society will discuss hoarding from the Iron Age all the way through to the Stuart kings of the 17th century.  Proceedings will start at 10.20am at the Yorkshire Museum: booking is essential; the event is free, though admission to the museum will apply.

Vale of York hoard
SWYOR-AECB53: Vale of York hoard
Copyright: British Museum.
Licence: CC-BY.

The list of speakers forms a veritable roll call of Portable Antiquities Scheme volunteers, supporters and staff.  Amongst others, Andrew Woods, former Suffolk Finds Liaison Officer, will be discussing recent research on the Vale of York hoard (SWYOR-AECB53), recently returned to York.  Meanwhile, Eleanor Ghey, former Buckinghamshire and London Finds Liaison Assistant, will be talking about her recent work on hoarding in Roman Britain.  There will also be contributions from current volunteers Carl Savage (Lancashire and Cumbria) and Rachel Cubitt (North and East Yorkshire).  For a full list of speakers see the programme.

The phenomenon of hoarding still prompts so many questions, including: Why were hoards deposited? Where were they deposited?  Why were so many left unrecovered? How did all of these aspects change through time?  This conference promises to be an insight into all of these questions, ones evidently close to the hearts of PAS alumnae and volunteers alike!

Magna Carta and Fulk FitzWarin

This week it’s the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta in 1215 by King John. Magna Carta is the most famous of a series of agreements between kings and barons which limited the power of the kings. It includes things that are still important today, such as taxation needing the consent of the people; accused criminals being judged by their equals; forced marriage being wrong; and beer and wine being sold in fixed measures.

Magna Carta was sealed by King John using his great seal, which had a picture of the king on his throne on the front, and armed and on his war-horse on the reverse.

Great seal of King John (reverse)
Great seal of King John (reverse) Source: Ancient Armour and Weapons in Europe by John Hewitt, 1855

The reverse of John’s seal (pictured) is very like a seal matrix recently found in Little Bedwyn, Wiltshire (BERK-FDCFD2).

The Little Bedwyn matrix also has a mounted warrior and, although only half of the object survives, he can be identified from the inscription and from his shields of arms as Fulk FitzWarin III. Fulk was one of King John’s barons, and a famous legal case involving him and John led to one of Magna Carta’s most famous clauses.

Medieval seal matrix
BERK-FDCFD2: Medieval seal matrix of Fulk Fitzwarin III. Copyright: Oxfordshire County Council. Licence: CC-BY.

Clause 40 is one of the shortest but most important: To no-one will we sell, to no-one will we deny or delay, right or justice. Before this, ‘justice’ was often simply what the king thought it was, and as King John had expensive tastes he could be persuaded one way of the other by who was willing to pay him the most money.

The case involving Fulk FitzWarin is complicated, and involves competing barons trying to pay John larger and larger amounts of money to hold Whittington Castle on the Welsh border in Shropshire. Although normally this kind of dispute would be settled by deciding who had the legal right to the castle, John’s decision was clearly coloured by who could pay the most, even though one of the barons involved was actually Welsh.

Fulk ended up in open rebellion against John, with a group of border knights. They had to take refuge in Stanley Abbey in Wiltshire, not far from the findspot of the seal matrix. Fulk is not recorded as being among the 25 barons who forced John to accept Magna Carta, but he did become very famous as the hero of the French romance Fouke le Fitz Waryn, a heroic tale of Fulk as a wronged outlaw in the reign of King John that bears a strong resemblance to the later tale of Robin Hood.

King John and Magna Carta

Penny of John
Penny of John, post reform (IOW-619358). Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme. Licence: CC-BY.

In the week marking the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta it is interesting to consider this landmark in archaeological terms. Notably, the current British Library exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy features very few archaeological artefacts, many of which are dated after the events of 1215.  This must be in part due to the difficulty of dating such artefacts precisely, an area of ongoing work by the present author.

papal bulla
Papal bulla of Innocent III (BH-4C32B5). Copyright: St. Albans District Council. Licence: CC-BY.
Seal matrix
Seal matrix of Fulk FitzWarin III (BERK-FDCFD2). Copyright: Oxfordshire County Council. Licence: CC-BY.

However, we stand on firm ground as we consider some of the objects which name various of the ‘cast’ of the Magna Carta story.  There are, for example, almost 3,000 coins attributed to King John on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database. Around half of these are fractions: coins deliberately cut in half, for use as halfpennies, or into quarters, for use as farthings.  Notably, a decade before Magna Carta John reformed the coinage leading to coins far neater than those that preceded them.  Once such coin has been converted into a brooch, possibly around the time of Magna Carta (NLM-BF3250).

We also have a dozen lead seals, known as bullae, of Innocent III, the papal incumbent who was to go on to annul Magna Carta in August 1215.  Though there is no seal matrix from any of the signatories of the charter, such as a the wonderful silver matrix of Robert Fitzwalter at the British Museum, the recently recorded matrix of Fulk Fitzwarin III is very similar in its design and of a contemporary: BERK-FDCFD2.  It too is wonderful – try spotting the cross-shaped harness pendants! The object will be discussed more fully in an upcoming post…

Although more work is required to gain a better understanding of the personal possessions of all those affected by the Magna Carta, many would have handled these pennies of John!