Just in time for Hallowe’en, a new selection of Treasure cases relating to death and memory has gone on display at the British Museum. Ranging from spooky skulls to more personal mementos, these objects have been selected to explore the ways people have thought about death and the relationships between the living and the dead.
The Treasure Team have a case in Gallery 2 (Collecting the World), which we use to showcase the variety of objects which go through the Treasure process.
The current display was inspired by the Death, Memory, Meaning Trail which has just been launched at the British Museum. The museum trail reinterprets 11 prehistoric grave goods to examine humble objects which gained new significance through their inclusion in inhumations or cremations and explores issues of identity and relationships between the living and the dead.
For the Treasure display case we worked with Jennifer Wexler of the British Museum to select a number of objects relating to death and memory.
A small middle Bronze Age hoard from Somerset
The hoard (DOR-813231) consists of a palstave axehead, a rivet and a rapier blade, which has been carefully bent to form a figure of 8 shape. Bending the metal in this way would have required skilled control of force and temperature.
At this time worked metal was often deposited in natural places. Was this rapier symbolically “killed” as an act of mourning?
Memento Mori rings from Suffolk
Memento mori rings were used to remind the wearer of the inevitability of death and often included imagery of skeletons and hourglasses. This example (SF-FFB26D) has a scroll motif and the inscription + LEARNE To DIE. It still has some traces of the original black enamel.
This evocative example (SF-9977A7) shows a grinning skull, with the inscription RES/PIC/E FI/NEM (RESPICE FINEM) which can be translated as “think to the end”. Much of the enamel remains on the bezel and the shoulders.
The ring has just been acquired by Felixstowe Museum, but they have generously allowed us to display it until it is collected.
Mourning rings from Oxfordshire
Mourning rings used some of the same imagery as memento mori rings, but were used to commemorate individuals. They often include the initials, date of death or age of the deceased and were commissioned to be distributed to friends and family. Some examples also include short verses and they can be a touching and personal reminder of individual mourning.
This elaborate example (OXON-9A2E11) has gold wire sewn beneath the glass or rock crystal setting. The bezel is cracked and the text is difficult to read, but may be initials or a year of death.
This example (BERK-7B2937) is a little bent, but the skull motif on the outside of the band can still be seen. Inside, the inscription reads “JP Arm ob June 29 1688” and commemorates an individual with the initials JP, who died 29th June 1688. The abbreviation Arm indicates that they had the right to bear arms. Inscriptions such as these provide us with the briefest of biographies of individuals and show that they were not forgotten.
These objects will be on display until December (subject to temporary removal for Treasure processes).
For more details on the Death, memory, meaning: Grave Goods: Stories for the Afterlife trail, see: https://www.britishmuseum.org/visiting/planning_your_visit/object_trails/death,_memory,_meaning.aspx