Gold Working in the Roman and Medieval Periods

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 Juliane Bracelet from the Hoxne Hoard. Pierced work was used in the Late Roman period. The inscription tells us something of the owner – it reads “VTERE FELIX DOMINA IVLIANNE”, meaning “Use [this] happily, Lady Juliane”. Copyright: Trustees of The British Museum.

The arrival of the Romans brought many changes to Britain – towns, villas, plumbing and a sudden abundance of small metal objects. While Roman gold is relatively uncommon, we have some amazing hoards: the Thetford Treasure, found in 1979, contained 22 gold finger rings, four bracelets and five necklaces. Even more startling was the Hoxne hoard from Suffolk, found in 1992, with six gold necklaces, three rings and 19 bracelets, along with 565 gold coins, 14,191 silver coins and 24 bronze coins, the latest of which dated to AD408. The workmanship of the gold was typically late Roman – filigree rings with settings for glass or semi-precious gems (removed before burial) and sheet gold bracelets (actually closed bangles), some bearing repoussé decoration resembling basket weave, others are “opus interrasile” where the gold is perforated giving a lace-like effect.

Was any of this stuff made in Britain? There is evidence for a goldsmith working at Malton in North Yorkshire where an inscription was found reading “FELICITER SIT GENIO LOCI SERVVLE VTERE FELIX TABERNAM AVREFICINAM” (Good luck the Genius (spirit) of this place. Young slave, use to your good fortune this goldsmith’s shop).

The Malton (North Yorkshire) goldsmith’s inscription. Most craftspeople are anonymous but, although not mentioned by name, we know something of this young goldsmith from the inscription. Copyright: Kevin Leahy.

The PAS recorded 204 pieces of Roman gold plus 148 gold coins, finger rings being themost common item of Roman gold jewellery with 121 finds. By the Roman period metallurgical techniques had developed allowing improved control over the alloys used and gold objects were often made from good, pure metal. Cupellation was used to rid gold of base metal impurities by oxidation, and liquidation and amalgamation using mercury came into use.

1. Roman lunate earring showing the use of applied filigree, AD50-150 (BH-16AE53). 2. A ring typical of many of the Roman gold rings recorded by the PAS, AD200-400 (DENO-BC9E66). 3. Roman finger ring set with an intaglio – it appears to represent quite a lump of gold but the crack shows it to be hollow, AD1-200 (BH-58E8E6). Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY.

The PAS has recorded a total of 473 items of Anglo-Saxon gold, including 119 gold coins. The amazing Staffordshire Hoard has not been included here as it is a one-off that distorts the overall picture. If we look more closely at Anglo-Saxon gold use, an interesting story emerges. There doesn’t appear to have been much gold around in the 5th century (or they weren’t putting it where we can find it). From the 5th to the  6th century we have 37 records of gold objects (plus 11 coins). The most common type of object are thin bracteates with 19 finds. Silver-gilt was used in the 6th century – perhaps they aspired to gold but couldn’t get it.

4. Bracteates are the earliest gold object we have from Anglo-Saxon England. They are single-sided – the back simply shows the underside of the face. They were based on Roman coins and, if inverted, it is possible (with a bit of imagination) to see a disjoined horse and rider, AD500-600 (NMS-A13EDD). 5. The gold used in Anglo-Saxon England was imported in the form of ‘Tremissis’ – small gold coins which were melted down. This tremissis was struck on behalf of an anonymous ruler by the moneyer Aigoaldus at Beauvais, now in France (KENT-7A24B0). 6. A die stamp used for making raised designs in gold work, AD870-970 (NLM-690F57). 7. Front plate of a viking gold brooch, possibly made on a die stamp like Fig. 6 (NMS-73CD11). 8. Made from wound filigree wire on a plain base, neads like this form part of the necklace of an aristocratic woman, AD625-670 (KENT-7009B3). 9. Group image showing part of the Staffordshire Hoard. This amazing collection of gold and silver objects revolutionised our knowledge of Early Anglo-Saxon gold working. Many of the object were damaged giving insights into how they were made (image copyright Birmingham Museums Trust). Other copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY.

Finds of early 7th century gold are more common and the PAS has recorded 136 finds (plus 61 coins), pendants being the common type of object with 62 finds. Unfortunately, (for both the Anglo-Saxons and us) things went wrong around the middle of the 7th century. The gold they used was probably coming into the country in the form of Merovingian coins which they melted down. Around AD640 the gold content of these coins plummeted, the gold being replaced by silver. By 675 the gold coinage was replaced by silver; they couldn’t get any more gold. Not only gold disappeared – garnets were no longer used and elephant ivory was no longer available. For the 366 years of the Middle and Later Anglo-Saxon period we have only 81 records (plus four coins). Finger rings are the most common object with 28 finds and there are 16 ingot fragments.

The PAS has 781 records of Medieval gold (1066-1485) including 435 coins. Rings are the most common object with 271 finds. We have 1104 records of Post-medieval gold (1486-1800) which includes 277 coins and 720 finger rings. The increasing availability of gold may reflect the massive influx from the New World mines.

Medieval ring brooch with collets containing gemstones, AD11280-1320 (LVPL-039CF2). 11. Medieval gold ring brooch with incised decoration. The brooch is hollow and the decoration was probably picked out in enamel, AD1400-1500 (IOW-506491). 12. The ‘stirrup’ ring is a common but elegant Medieval finger ring, AD1150-1400 (ESS-oEAD95). 13. Medieval ‘iconographic’ finger rings bear the images of saints and were worn for personal devotion. This example shows the figure of a man holding a scallop shell, showing him to be St. James the Great (of Compostella), AD1400-1500 (SOM-5D3915).

Gold was always scarce and valuable, and great economy was exercised in the way that it was used. It was rarely cast; most gold objects have a hollow, box-like construction. I remember many years ago seeing a massive Roman gold ring set with an intaglio which had fallen out to reveal that the ring was hollow and quite thin – most disappointing. The economical use of gold is aided by its remarkable workability. It can be beaten to any shape, joints are easily made and, uniquely, it is possible to cold-weld it. 

Gold is perfect for plating other materials. Gilding using mercury is one method but gold can also be beaten to form gold leaf, four to five millionths of an inch thick. Leaf can be used to cover other metals and materials, leaving them looking like solid gold. Gold leaf can be applied to wood and plaster and it was used to great effect on illuminated manuscripts like the 8th century “Codex Aureus” (golden book) now in Stockholm.

Filigree and granulation were much used in the decoration of gold objects. Filigree consists of gold wire, sometimes as thin as in diameter fused to the surface of the gold. Granulation involves the attachment of small pellets of gold. We are not sure how the Anglo-Saxons made gold wire. There isn’t any evidence for the use of draw-plates of the sort used now. This leaves two possible methods: strip-twisting and block-twisting. In strip-twisting a narrow strip is cut from the edge of a thin sheet of metal. This is then twisted to form a helical tube with an open centre (like a paper straw) which is then rolled between two smooth blocks of stone to compress the tube, cold-welding it to form a round-sectioned wire. In block-twisting, a square or rectangular sectioned strip of metal is cut from the edge of a thicker sheet and then twisted so that its four edges tightly encircle it. This can then be rolled between two blocks smooth the surface and produce round wire.

14. One of the cloisonné garnet pommel caps from the Staffordshire Hoard. The garnets were set in a network of cells, each lined with gold foil patterned to scatter the light so that they sparkled. 15. While the garnet work from the Staffordshire Hoard is rightly celebrated, the filigree is also amazing. Fine, twisted gold wire and granulation pellets laid onto the surface of the gold. 16. Enlarged detail of the pommel cap. Only close-up shows what the Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths were achieving. The cabled effect was made by laying two counter-twisted wires next to each other. 17. The fish and birds mount from the Staffordshire Hoard. The back of this superb piece is interesting as it appears to show the cold-welding of the pieces together. 18. The great cross from the Staffordshire Hoard. While the metal appears to be quite thick it is actually made from two thin sheets of gold, one bearing the decoration with a blank sheet hiding the negative of the design. All Staffordshire Hoard images copyright Birmingham Museums Trust. 19. It is odd that the Staffordshire Hoard doesn’t contain any feminine dress fittings like this filigree and garnet pendant. Outside the Hoard, these are much more common than sword fittings (DOR-1B7E81). 20. A gold and garnet pendant of 7th century date (DOR-1B7E81).

While we can see how plain wire was made, we’ve not been able to discover how beaded wire was produced. Every attempt results in beads with a groove around their middle – they didn’t have this problem in the past, what did they know that we don’t? The tiny gold beads used for granulation were less of a problem. Small pieces of cut gold wire were heated on a flat surface and naturally formed balls. Strips of gold leaf were wrapped around silk to form gold thread, traces of which have been found in graves.

Once they had got their wire (beaded or unbeaded) it had to be attached to the surface of the gold. This was done by a process known as eutectic soldering. The gold wire or granules were stuck to the surface using an adhesive made up of resin mixed with a copper salt and possibly a flux. When everything is stuck in place the object is heated in a furnace. With rising temperature the organic component of the adhesive carbonises to form carbon monoxide which reduces the copper salt to copper.  This is absorbed by the gold or silver to form an alloy with a lower melting point than the components (a eutectic) and this new molten alloy is carried into the joint by capillary action, pulling the components together to form a strong, tight joint. While the process is apparently simple, it was not easy to carry out as the melting point of the eutectic was not much less than that of the work piece!

Analysis of Anglo-Saxon gold shows that they were using surface enrichment to make alloys look like pure gold. This was done by leaching out the silver from the surface of the gold. We don’t know how they managed to do this but they may have surrounded the object with salt and heated it. The ingenuity of people in the past never fails to impress me. The question “how did they do that?” constantly springs to mind. The trick that really amazes me is the separation of gold from silver. Imagine you have an alloy of gold and silver and want to separate them – how would you even start? The process is actually simple: the alloy was beaten into thin sheets which were laid in a pottery container interleaved with common salt and finely crushed tile. This was then sealed and heated in a furnace to a temperature below the melting point of the alloy and held at that temperature “a day and a night”. The salt reacts with the silver in the alloy to form silver chloride which is absorbed by the tile fragments and the clay vessel. The gold remains unchanged. Once the process is complete, the silver was extracted from the silver chloride. Easy – but how did anyone ever discover this trick?

Mending and making do?

Some of the objects recorded by the PAS might be considered to have something of a more direct or immediate link to the people of the past. This might be considered the case for personalised objects which are engraved with people’s names, or decorated with heraldry, for example. There are other objects whose biography is apparent through the evidence of any alterations they have received.

Medieval buckle (BUC-550336)
Medieval buckle (BUC-550336). Copyright: Buckinghamshire County Council. License: CC-BY.

An object whose extended life use caught the eye recently is a medieval buckle found in Central Bedfordshire (BUC-550336). The type of buckle is interesting in its own right and of approximately 12th-century date. However, its prime interest here is as an example of a repaired object, presumably because it was considered to be both useful and important to its wearer.

Medieval buckle (LVPL-7BD375)
Medieval buckle (LVPL-7BD375). Copyright: National Museums Liverpool. License: CC-BY.

Before turning to the evidence for repair of the object itself, we can consider an almost complete example of this type of buckle found in Scopwick, Lincolnshire (LVPL-7BD375). It would have had three bars extending from its attachment end, each once terminating in a circular expansion to take a rivet. The rivets that survive are made from iron. Coming back to our buckle, looking very closely we can see the vestiges of the three ‘bars’ at the attachment end where they survive on the Lincolnshire example. We can therefore speculate that these relatively weak extensions at one point broke off, perhaps all of them, perhaps not. To ensure that the buckle could again be attached to the strap, the user made two new holes, one at each corner of the attachment end. We can also tell that these were new at the time because they travelled through the decoration at these points. One hole was furnished with a new copper-alloy rivet with a square rove; we cannot tell whether the other rivet had a rove because it was made of something different – iron, which has survived far less well. Presumably, once fixed, the attachment end was neatened, with any surviving bars removed and tidied up.

Through close examination of an object we can delve into its life history, and get closer to its owner. In the case of this buckle there seems to have been a need to prolong its life, be it for practical or more personal reasons. Although the loss of the buckle’s pin could represent post-depositional damage, it may have been that when the pin broke that this previously cared for buckle was finally discarded. With this, though, we move further from observation and more into the realms of speculation.

A rare complete medieval stirrup

Medieval stirrup
Medieval stirrup from Buckinghamshire (BUC-1A3216) © Buckinghamshire County Museum

A complete medieval stirrup has been recorded from Quainton in Buckinghamshire.  Contributing to the record was Helen, a local volunteer, Ros, the then FLO for Buckinghamshire, and Rob from the PASt Explorers team.  The record can be found on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database here: BUC-1A3216. This type of stirrup is relatively rare, though it is even rarer for examples to survive intact.

This stirrup has been deformed, but retains all of its elements.  At the top a cover plate protects the bar around which the stirrup strap would have been looped.  Below this plate, the sides are engraved with diagonal lines to give a ropework effect.  At the bottom of the stirrup is an expanded foot rest with a decorated lip at the front whose ridges rather nicely echo the decorative ridges on the cover plate above.

As noted, it is rare for complete stirrups of this sort to come down to us through history.  We now have between 40 and 50 fragments of stirrups like this recorded on the Portable Antquities Scheme database.  Mostly cover plates have been recovered, but also some foot rests.  It is hoped that this post might help in the identification of further fragments of such stirrups, which can be quite difficult to identify by themselves.

As might be expected, almost all stirrups of this type recorded through the Portable Antiquities Scheme are made of copper alloys.  The type is known in wrought iron, however: a single example has been recorded from Wiltshire, WILT-B72FF6, while another is known archaeologically from Salisbury (Schuster et al. 2012 ‘Objects of iron’, in P. Saunders (ed.), p. 199; fig. 59, no. 289). Such archaeological examples give a date for stirrups of this type in the 14th or 15th century.

Thought reasonably rare, the spread of stirrups like this is wide and covers the entire country.  It is therefore to be expected that examples carrying the same trefoil shaped cut outs in the cover plate come from as counties as spread out as Hampshire (HAMP-46A675), Leicestershire (LEIC-892CC1), and Cheshire (LVPL-316327).

We look forward to hearing of further examples, fragmentary or complete!

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.

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!