Death and Memory

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.

Image of a gold ring in a display case. The bezel of the ring is facing the viewer. The bezel is decorated with the image of a grinning skull.
A memento mori ring found in Suffolk and currently on display in Room 2 at The British Museum. Copyright: Ian Richardson, License: CC-BY.

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.

Image of a lightly-corroded rapier blade. The blade has been folded into three so that it resembles a squashed letter Z.
A bent rapier blade of the Middle Bronze Age period. Copyright: Trustees of The British Museum, License: CC-BY.

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. 

An image showing 8 different views of a gold ring so that you can see the relief decoration on the outside and inscribed lettering on the inside.
A gold memento mori ring with the inscription + LEARNE To DIE on the inside of the band. Copyright: Suffolk County Council, License: CC-BY.

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.

An image showing 4 views of a gold ring. The topmost view shows the front of the bezel, which is decorated with a grinning skull. Beneath it are 3 views showing the top of the ring and either side.
A gold memento mori ring depicting a grinning skull (SF-9977A7). Copyright: Suffolk County Council, License: CC-BY.

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.

An image showing 5 views of a gold ring. The topmost view shows the front of the bezel, which is set with a rock crystal. Beneath it are 4 views showing the top and bottom of the ring and either side.
A gold and rock crystal mourning ring found in Oxfordshire (OXON-9A2E11). Copyright: Oxfordshire County Council, License: CC-BY.

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.

An image showing 5 views of a gold ring so that you can see the relief decoration on the outside of the band and the inscription on the inside of the band.
A gold mourning ring from the 17th century (BERK-7B2937). Copyright: Oxfordshire County Council, License: CC-BY.

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:,_memory,_meaning.aspx

The Fenwick Treasure

This week marks five years since the discovery of a hoard of fine gold and silver Roman jewellery that lay hidden under the floors of a department store on Colchester’s High Street for nearly 2000 years.

The hoard included amongst the jewellery, coins of the Republic era, most of which were silver and had been kept in a small bag, as well as the remains of a wooden jewellery box and a silver jewellery box.

The jewellery found as part of the Fenwick Hoard
Rights Holder: Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service 
CC License: All Rights Reserved

The treasure was found on the 20th August 2014 during the last week of excavations at Williams and Griffin department store undertaken by Colchester Archaeological Trust. Adam Wightman, who was supervisor of the site, discovered the treasure which is believed to have been buried in a pit beneath the floor of a house that once stood in the place of the department store. As it was discovered beneath the Boudican destruction debris, the layer of burnt material from the time of the revolt against the Romans, it is believed that the hoard was concealed on receipt of the news of the imminent arrival of the British tribal warriors before the house was destroyed by fire.

The jewellery contents of the hoard include gold armlets, silver bracelets, a silver chain, a copper-alloy amulet necklace, gold finger rings, gold and pearl earrings, and a glass intaglio. A recurring motif among the jewellery is that of a panther which offers a possible connection to the name of the owners who are believed to have been both male and female. Along with the coins and containers, the jewellery objects have been identified as being manufactured in Italy, the date of which predates their burial by more than a generation.

As the hoard contained more than ten pieces, some of which were precious metals and all of which were over 300 years old, the objects within qualified as treasure and the hoard subsequently went on display at Colchester Museum. 

The record for the hoard can be viewed here:

PAS 15 – Treasure Finds

This year marks 15 years of the Portable Antiquities Scheme as a national scheme. Throughout the year we’ll be celebrating finds from each county – a find a day for the whole year! Here are the finds we’ve chosen on the theme of Treasure:


Image of seven Treasure finds from the PAS Database.
A selection of Treasure finds from the Database. Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, Licence: CC-BY.


Post-medieval coin hoard (SOM-6511E2): a hoard of gold and silver coins issued by James I and Charles I

Post-medieval book fitting (YORYM-C84DCC): a silver book clasp with incised decoration.

Palaeolithic handaxe (NMS-ECAA52): a flint handaxe dating to 500,000BC – not all treasures fall under the Treasure Act definition!

Early Medieval brooch (IOW-3B6754): a silver circular brooch formed of two entwined serpents.

Anglo-Saxon tweezers (WMID-C2969E): decorated gold cap from the end of a pair of tweezers.

Post-medieval dress hook (NMGW-C595D8): a silver gilt dress hook shaped like a heart.

Modern coin hoard (PAS-867115): a hoard of gold 20-dollar pieces found buried in a garden in Hackney.


Festive Finds: PAS Christmas Countdown #7

Twelve Days of Christmas

Five Gold Rings, by Anonymous.
Five Gold Rings, by Anonymous. License: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

A popular song at this time of year is “The twelve days of Christmas”. The song was first recorded in English in AD1780 in a book entitled “mirth without mischief”, which was aimed at children as a sort of memory game.  The twelve days relate to the days after Christmas day, leading up to Epiphany on the 6th January. This is the day on which it is believed the three Magi arrived to greet the new-born baby Jesus. It would often be sung as a game of forfeits, with a new item being added with each child that sings. If a child forgot one of the objects in the series, they would have to do a forfeit..

The meaning of the gifts within the song has caused some debate. The five gold rings were often assumed to be rings worn on the finger as seen in illustrations from that era (see right). However, an alternative was suggested by William Stuart Baring-Gould (1962, 197) who believed it referred to five “ringed pheasants”, as all other gifts up until that point had been birds. Several of the other items appear to have changed throughout history, yet golden finger-rings seem to have persisted. probably because the desire for gold jewellery far outweighed the desire for game birds.

The five gold rings below (PAS-833958) are dated to the Late Bronze Age (1150-750BC). They are all of a similar shape, though they vary in size and style. The larger two are believed to be neck rings, whilst the smaller examples are likely to be bracelets. They were found within a ceramic vessel, suggesting the objects had been deposited intentionally. Much like the rings in the song, these five gold rings were possibly given as a gift to the Gods (though not necessarily on the 5th day of Christmas). There is a lot of debate about why objects were intentionally buried in the past, with each explanation being as likely as the next. As more and more hoards are being uncovered and making their way into museum collections, we are learning a great deal about these fascinating practices in the past.

These objects fell under the Treasure Act 1996 and have subsequently been acquired by the British Museum. The British Museum currently has an exhibition on Prehistoric and Roman hoards in room 69a.

Reference: Baring-Gould, W. S. and Baring-Gould, C. 1962. The Annotated Mother Goose. New York: Bramhall House.

Five Bronze Age gold rings and pot.
Five Bronze Age gold rings and pot (PAS-833958). Copyright British Museum. License: CC-BY

Five Bronze Age gold rings (PAS-833958).
Five Bronze Age gold rings (PAS-833958). Copyright: The British Museum. License: CC-BY