Half Term Heraldry

This half term, we took some inspiration from the many heraldic harness pendants recorded on the database and invited the children of Dorset to make their own coat of arms.

A selection of harness pendants recorded on the PAS Database.
From left to right: GLO-D4734B, WREX-6511C4, WILT-C890F3, WMID-28A0B3, KENT-B2C417 and YORYM-2DD34E. (Image: Portable Antiquities Scheme, Licence CC-BY 2.0)

People have always found various ways of identifying and distinguishing themselves from others. They often use symbols and other devices to represent themselves. In the medieval period, these developed into a formal system which became known as heraldry. Only one person could use each combination of colours and symbols, so it was easy to identify them at a tournament or on the battlefield.

Heraldry is a great subject to build a craft activity around because it is colourful, it is creative and it has a rich vocabulary to explore. It is also surprisingly complicated! So the first challenge was to work out what was feasible to include in a drop-in activity session.

Image showing a table with coloured paper shields for a craft activity.
Heraldry activity set up and ready to go at Priest’s House Museum in Wimborne Minster, Dorset. (Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, Licence: CC-BY 2.0).

We decided to focus on tinctures (colours), divisions, and basic charges (symbols), leaving the likes of ordinaries, furs, attitudes, supports and crests for another day!

We provided ready-made shields in six heraldic colours: Gules (red), Vert (green), Azure (blue), Purpure (purple), Sable (black), and Or (gold/yellow). These could then be supplemented with a pre-cut division and then finished off with one or more charges. We provided a selection of ready-made charges for colouring-in but there was also the option to design your own charge. An information sheet with instructions, further information and handy hints was also provided and Dorset Finds Liaison Officer Ciorstaidh also brought along her excellent Ladybird Book of Heraldry!

Three steps to making your own coat of arms: pick a background and a division (if desired); pick a charge; create your design! (Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, Licence: CC-BY 2.0)

Armed with glue and colouring pencils, the kids (and some of the adults too) let their imaginations go wild. We had shields with everything from unicorns and dragons, to dinosaurs and even a chicken nugget!

A selection of the wonderful creations from the sessions in Priest’s House Museum (Wimborne Minster) and Sherborne Museum. (Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, Licence: CC-BY 2.0)

As mentioned above, this activity was simplified for use in a drop-in session. For a longer session or even an extended project, more detail and discussion could be added. For example, as well as divisions, you could introduce the concept of ordinaries to vary the background field. You could also add more examples of charges and talk about the different attitudes (poses) of the creatures. For older children and adult groups, there are also discussions to be had around the concepts of identity and how we choose to represent ourselves.

With thanks to our Dorset Finds Liaison Officer Ciorstaidh and her PASt Explorers volunteers for facilitating the activities, and to our hosts at Priest’s House Museum and Sherborne Museum.