Festive Finds: PAS Christmas Countdown #8


It has to be remembered that Christmas is not only about the children who are rewarded for being nice. Many countries have stories to encourage all children to be well behaved in the build up to Christmas. In some countries they are told that they will receive something instead of presents, such as coal, or even worse they won’t receive any presents at all. In many parts of the world, the figure of father Christmas has an opposite who deals out punishment to those who misbehave.  In France there is La Pere Fouettard and in Iceland is the Yuletide cat, but a story originating in the Alpine regions of Central Europe has become increasingly popular worldwide in recent years through TV and film. In the German speaking regions of the Alps, on the night before the feast of St Nicholas (6th December), it is said that Krampus pays a visit to all the naughty children of the world.

Front of devil mount (NARC-2E4314).
Front view of devil mount (NARC-2E4314). Copyright: Northamptonshire County Council. License: CC-BY
Horned devil in the style of Krampus (NARC-2E4314).
Horned devil in the style of Krampus (NARC-2E4314). Copyright: Northamptonshire County Council. License: CC-BY

Krampus’ appearance draws heavily on early Christian representations of the devil; covered in fur, two large horns and hooves instead of feet. This mount recorded on the PAS datbase (NARC-2E4314) shows the sort of image that comes to mind when thinking of Krampus. It comes from a toy or vessel, though it is unlikely that it was associated with the folklore of Krampus. In many religions, winter is seen as a time when evil spirits are most active. Many festivals that are celebrated at this time of year involve light, which often originated in a desire to keep away evil spirits. These traditions have since developed into the practices observed today. This can include lighting candles (Hanukkah and Advent) or letting off fireworks (Diwali).

According to the legend of Krampus, children who have been naughty are kidnapped and beaten with ruten (bundles of birch branches). In some towns festivals are held where young adults dress up as Krampus and race through the streets, no doubt fueled by Glühwein, scaring children and adults alike. In recent years this aspect of the festive season has become more and more popular in the United States, with a recent boom in its home country of Austria as well (Basu and Little, 2014). Whether as a means to relieve the stress associated with this time of year or simply as an excuse to scare children, more and more people are choosing to dress up as this Christmas devil.

Reference: Basu, T and Little, B. 2014. Krampus the Christmas Devil Is Coming to More Towns. So Where’s He From? National Geographic online: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/12/141222-krampus-christmas-devil-demon-krampusnacht/[Last viewed: 08/12/2015].

Nikolaus and Krampus, by unknown.
Nikolaus and Krampus, by unknown (not stated in the source). License: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.



Festive Finds: PAS Christmas Countdown #6

Christmas Trees

Christmas Tree, by Viggo Johansen.
Christmas Tree, by Viggo Johansen. License: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

A popular image associated with Christmas today is the Christmas tree. Believed to have derived from a pre-Christian practice of bringing evergreen boughs indoors during the winter season as a symbol of everlasting life, the tree has become a staple of most Western households at Christmas. Prince Albert has been credited with introducing Christmas tree’s to Britain during the mid-19th century, but this is a common misconception. Prince Albert popularized the Christmas tree but it was already a common feature of the royal household at Christmas time before the Victorian era.

Guinea of George III (WILT-E6FA34).
Guinea of George III (WILT-E6FA34). Copyright: Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum. License: CC-BY.

The custom originated in Germany and was introduced into England under the reign of George III. His wife, German born Queen Caroline, decorated a tree for her family in the 1790s, and there is record of a tree at a children’s party given by a member of Queen Caroline’s court in AD1821. This tradition stayed largely within the Royal family until the later 19th century. It became common to see decorated Christmas trees in public spaces, until Post war anti-German feeling reduced their popularity for a short while. It wasn’t until the 1920s that family trees in each household became a common sight.

The German practice originally had wax candles burning on the tree (definitely a fire hazard by today’s standards) which was soon replaced by lightbulbs after electricity became more widespread. Nowadays trees are decorated with a wide array of objects to make them even more festive. The trees themselves rapidly became a symbol used to identify the Christmas period and can be seen on many visual representations of the season. The object pictured (SF7562) was not originally intended to represent a Christmas tree, though the green colouration brought on by oxidation makes it seem much more festive. It would have originally been a bright golden colour and would have decorated a leather strap in the 16th century.

Christmas tree shaped mount (SF7562).
Christmas tree shaped mount (SF7562). Copyright: Suffolk County Council Archaeology Service. License: CC-BY

Festive Finds: PAS Christmas Countdown #5

Boy Bishop Tokens

19th century depiction of a Boy Bishop attended by his canons. Unknown Author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
19th century depiction of a Boy Bishop attended by his canons. Unknown Author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
The idea of boy bishops was a tradition that was popular in Western Europe during the medieval period but reached its height during the 16th century, continuing in some places until the 19th century. The custom of the Boy Bishop originated from Saint Nicholas due to his appointed as the Bishop of Myra at a young age.

The act of choosing a Boy Bishop would commence on Saint Nicholas’ Day, 6th December. A choir boy would be chosen to take over the role of bishop until the Holy Innocents Day, 28th December. The boy chosen as acting Bishop would be dressed in full episcopal regalia. He would lead processions, could declare holidays and give out sweets, gifts and tokens.

It is these lead tokens that have survived and with a numerous amount recorded on the database, suggests that it was a popular tradition. The lead tokens would have been handed out by the Boy Bishop and could be spent or exchanged, most likely for sweetmeats or alms.

Boy Bishop Token
16th century lead alloy Boy Bishop token. (BH-8C4A60) Copyright: St. Albans District Council. License: CC-BY

The main place of manufacture for these tokens was in Bury St Edmunds, with the majority being found in Suffolk, although tokens have been found much further afield and there were other places of manufacture including Ipswich and possibly Ely.

The obverse usually depicts the head of Saint Nicholas or a Bishop’s mitre and often reads ‘SANCTE NICOLAE’ (Saint Nicholas) with the legend provoking prayers ORA PRO NOBIS (pray for us). The reverse is divided into quadrants by a long cross, with three pellets contained in each quadrant. The legend often reads ‘AVE REX GENTIS’ (Ave Rex Gentis [Anglorum] – behold King of the English people), a reference to an anthem sung to St. Edmund in Bury Abbey.

Festive Finds: PAS Christmas Countdown #4

Sleigh Bells

"Figure, horse and sleigh in snow" by Cornelius Krieghoff.
“Figure, horse and sleigh in snow” by Cornelius Krieghoff. License: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Sledges and sleighs of various types have been used through history in the colder parts of the world. Whether to transport goods or people, their association with snow and winter has made them a frequent feature on festive scenes for Christmas cards and paintings. Attaching bells to sleighs has occurred throughout history for a variety of reasons. As these were the fastest vehicles around, the sound of the bells would alert pedestrians to the presence of the fast approaching sleigh. It has also been argued that the presence of bells on sleighs might have been used to herald the arrival of someone important. In either case, the purpose is to draw attention to the vehicle as it approaches.

Sleigh bells (LANCUM-B13680)
Sleigh bells (LANCUM-B13680). Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme. License: CC-BY

The distinctive sound of the bells would have varied depending on the type of metal used and the thickness of the bell itself. A bell recorded on the PAS database (LANCUM-B13680) here is made of a lead-tin alloy. However, the sound this bell made would not be like the faint tinkling often associated with sleighs. Although it is impossible to say whether this bell was used on a sleigh, it would have likely been used on some form of animal harness at some point in the 17th-19th century.

The bell is also decorated with a series of leaf designs which appear to resemble holly. Decorating a bell with this seasonal foliage would suggest that the object was intended to be used around the festive season. The association of Holly with the word “holy” is a common misconception. In fact the word more likely originates from an Indo-European word meaning “prickly”.  However, for a long time holly has been a common feature of Christmas decoration. The use of holly during winter festivals is believed to go back to pre-Roman times in Britain, though its adoption within the Christian holiday is still uncertain. Parallels have been made with the crucifixion, as some believe the crown of thorns mentioned in the bible was actually made of holly. Hence in many North European languages the name for holly is Christ thorn. Today we decorate our houses with the leaves in much the same way as we do with Christmas trees.

Holly (Ilex-aquifolium).
Holly (Ilex-aquifolium), by Jürgen Howaldt. (Own work). CC BY-SA 2.0 de , via Wikimedia Commons.

Festive Finds: PAS Christmas countdown #2

חנוכה – Hanukkah

Many religions celebrate festivals during the winter period. It is a time when the days are shortest and people tend to stay indoors to avoid the cold. Of course winter occurs at different points in the calendar in different parts of the world, so many festivals that are celebrated worldwide will not necessarily take place during winter. Nonetheless, religions originating in the Northern Hemisphere tend to have festivals at some point between October and February, as it is at this point that the northern hemisphere is pointed away from the sun and the shortest days are experienced.

Hanukkah menorah
Hanukkah menorah by Ilya Krivoruk Pikiwiki Israel. License: CC-BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5), via Wikimedia Commons

Many winter festivals use light as a focus for the practices that are observed, often to combat the darkness throughout the winter months. One such holiday is Hanukkah. The Jewish festival of Hanukkah begins at the 25th day of Kislev, and concludes on the 2nd or 3rd day of Tevet of the Jewish calendar. Due to differences with the Gregorian calendar, this date varies from one year to the next in the Western world. This year (2015) Hanukkah began at sunset on the 6th December and ends today, on the 14th. The festival is in memory of the miracle that occurred during the rededication of the “Second Temple” in Jerusalem, c. 165 BC. There was only enough oil for one day found within the temple, but the oil managed to last for eight days. This gave enough time for more kosher oil to be produced for use in the temple. Thus it was decreed that an eight day festival would take place to celebrate this event. Today people light one candle on the menorah (nine branched candleholder) each day, with a single candle burning throughout the entire festival to commemorate the eight day miracle.

One common practice throughout the holiday is to spin a dreidel, like the example pictured below (IOW-918A57). The game involves placing markers, often chocolate coins, in a “pot” with each letter on the dreidel corresponding to a particular action. The actions have changed throughout time, but the basic idea is that this is a game of chance, where you could lose all your tokens or gain a lot more. Several of these small lead dreidels have been found across the UK and recorded with the PAS.

Lead dreidel (IOW-918A57)
Lead dreidel (IOW-918A57). Copyright: Isle of Wight Council. License: 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!

William – Volunteers’ Week 2015

William, PAS self-recorder
William, PAS self-recorder. Copyright: William Aldington.

To mark national Volunteers’ Week 2015, PAS volunteers were invited to contribute a blog post to the new County Pages about their experiences of volunteering for the Scheme.

This post was written by William Aldington, an independent detectorist and self-recorder from Cheshire who records his own finds onto the PAS database with the assistance of Vanessa Oakden, the Finds Liaison Officer for Cheshire, Greater Manchester & Merseyside.


You can’t teach an old dog new tricks… There must be some truth in this old and well used adage because it is one of the oldest proverbial sayings in the English language and there are many citations of it; the earliest example in print is in John Fitzherbert’s ‘The Boke of Husbandry, 1534’, when even then it was regarded an old saying.

There’s no doubt either, that now in my seventieth year and a retired granddad, I’m nowhere near as sharp as I once was. Though I do try hard to keep up with the very latest in technology; software ‘apps’, ‘Twitter’, ‘Instagram’, ‘Face-Tube’, and the rest of cutting-edge gadgetry.

So I do sometimes wonder what possessed our FLO, Vanessa Oakden, to take on the unenviable challenge of educating me, ‘an old dog’, in the many new facets of self-recording – with a view to becoming a PAS Volunteer. Well, she bravely did and following our initial training session at her new HQ within the Pilotage Building, in the historical setting of Pier Head and Albert Docks in Liverpool; I have gradually come to terms with the nuances of Photoshop, the specifics of academic terminology and discipline of absolute evidential accuracy.

LVPL-1EC484: A post-Medieval silver composite button found by William
LVPL-1EC484: A post-medieval silver composite button found by William. Copyright: National Museums Liverpool. Licence: CC-BY.

I came late to the addictive hobby of metal detecting and first met with Vanessa at one of her monthly surgeries at the Chester Grosvenor Museum, when I disclosed to her an item under terms of the Treasure Act, 1996. On this occasion is was a simple but exquisite post-medieval silver button, subsequently declared by HM Coroner’s Inquest as ‘treasure’ and now donated to the Chester museum. As a result we are the proud possessors of a certificate signed by Ed Vaizey, the then Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy.

My detecting buddy and I have worked hard to develop a fine portfolio of landowner partners and in a relatively short period of time we have unearthed some interesting stuff. Dubbed “Finders-Sharers” we are, as our business cards proudly state,“a trusted team dedicated to the search, discovery and preservation of buried local history in partnership with caring, sharing landowners”.

Finding and preserving bits of local history always provides the metal-detectorist with a tremendous buzz of excitement and now, armed with PAS self-recording skills and authorization; the sense of achievement in making a positive contribution to documenting the Nation’s Heritage is pretty-much complete. Thanks Vanessa for your confidence and trust in an old dog; but particularly for your limitless patience and continued support!

So, is John Fitzherbert’s ‘Boke’ of 1534 correct?…

“ …and he [a shepherd] must teche his dogge to barke whan he wolde haue hym, and to leue ronning whan he wolde haue hym; or els he is not a cunning shepherd. The dogge must lerne it, whan he is a whelpe, or els it will not be: for it is harde to make an olde dogge to stoupe”.

[stoupe = put his nose to the ground to find a scent]

… Nope. You most definitely can teach the old bloke new tricks but it does take a fair-bit longer and the challenge is not for the faint-hearted.

Paradoxically, in this fast-moving world, it’s us old dogs that have the time to ponder, learn and contribute…