Researching Roman Dividers

This blog was written by Elizabeth Foulds and originally appeared on on 2 October 2020. It has been re-posted with the author’s permission. 

For the last twelve months I was lucky enough to work as an Assistant Finds Liaison Officer in the Durham Portable Antiquities Scheme office. This was a part-time role supported by the Headley Trust for the first six months and I am grateful that the it was extended for another 6 months for one day a week. Working on the Portable Antiquities Scheme has been a wonderful experience. I have enjoyed talking to finders (mostly metal-detectorists) about their finds and the chance to research artefacts I was less familiar with. I used  to be really intimidated at the prospect of identifying coins, but having access to training and the right resources allowed me to grow my confidence. Let’s just say, I may actually like coins!

Pictures of the Roman dividers DUR-83CC6C discussed in blog
DUR-83CC6C Roman dividers (© Durham County Council CC BY) 

One of the objects that I came across while working through a finder’s collection was a pair of dividers (DUR-83CC6C). Dividers are a measuring device that allow the user to measure one thing and compare it to something else. They could be used by carpenters, blacksmiths and stone masons, but also on written documents or drawings (Manning 2011, 83). One of our volunteers had already written a good description of the dividers and I was checking over their work before making the record ‘live’ and publicly accessible. I was really happy with the descriptive work our volunteer had done and they had suggested that they dated to the Roman period. I was only planning to add an extra line or two about other comparable examples, but the more I read, the more I was intrigued. Apparently, Roman dividers are a rare object (Worrell 2005).

I am going to show in this post the process I went through to confirm the identification and write up the database entry. I hope that this will be useful to readers.

Confirm the material

Visual examination showed that the object was made from a copper alloy. The metal is in really good condition, but there were a couple of patches of powdery green corrosion. There was a spot on one of the arms where the dividers were recently scratched, which showed a lovely metallic orange-yellow. A little area of iron staining could be seen on the pivot area, but because it wasn’t substantial there was no reason to think that the surviving portion was made up of more than one material. I was happy that this object was indeed made from a copper alloy.

Confirm the object type and period

It may seem obvious, but it is worth confirming you’re happy with the object identification. When I work with artefacts that come off excavation sites they sometimes have initial identifications. Sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re wrong (this is totally expected and okay!). In this case, I started by looking at records for all other dividers on the Portable Antiquities Scheme website by period. I then checked online museum collection databases (the British Museum and Museum of London online collections are excellent research tools). I also checked the finds sections of excavation reports that cover the Roman period to the post-medieval. I searched for both ‘dividers’, ‘calipers’ and ‘callipers’ in case sources used different terminology.

I made a list of all dividers I found on the PAS database, museum collections databases and excavation reports I could find. I also compiled all the images I could find of the dividers. In this particular instance, I experimented with using OneNote for organising the information about each example and created a separate page for the images so that I could see them all together and move them around. After reading through the description of each example, I made  list of any citations mentioned in the descriptions or discussions and followed up on those until I couldn’t find any more information. If I had more time I would have followed up with a library visit to check published excavation reports for additional examples, but in this instance I had already compiled enough information for the purposes of a PAS database entry.

Some examples of other Roman dividers from the Portable Antiquities Scheme website. Left: NMS-DEB0C2 (Norfolk County Council CC BY-SA), Centre: BERK-8A377C (Oxfordshire County Council CC BY), Right: NARC-B85204 (Northamptonshire County Council CC BY-SA)

I mostly found images of Roman and post-medieval dividers, which were very distinctive. Most examples were made from copper-alloy, but there were a couple made from iron (British Museum: 1870,0402.459 from Colchester; Cunliffe 1971, no.186, fig. 53, Bushe-Fox 1913, LON-960EA3, and possibly Casey and Davies 1993, 189, no. 282, fig. 10.13). The copper-alloy examples seem to be made from several parts: the two arms, the spindle with decorated heads at either end, and an iron wedge that was inserted into the spindle hole that kept the arms locked.

DUR-83CC6C has faint decoration along the surviving arm. Other Roman examples were similarly decorated, but it seems that the actual style and motifs might be individually unique. Many other examples also had animal heads on one or both ends of the spindle, which DUR-83CC6C did not have. Instead, the head was dome shaped with a radial design. As the other head was missing, it is possible that it had one animal head or none at all.


Once I was confident that the object was in fact a set of dividers and dated to the Roman period, I then wrote some discussion text to supplement the database record. This is placed after the general description of the dividers. I decided to focus the discussion on comparing DUR-83CC6C to the other examples. I would have liked to have used part of the discussion section to address the dividers’ date, as ‘Roman’ is quite vague. However, even with the excavated examples taken into account, there just wasn’t the evidence to be able to narrow this down more.


Illustration of DUR-83CC6C (© Durham County Council CC BY-NC-SA)

I decided to do an illustration of the dividers because the decoration on the arms is quite faint and difficult to see on the photographs. I have found learning to illustrate artefacts to be a useful process, as I notice details that I didn’t see during my initial examination. Taking a methodical approach to illustrated artefacts really forces you to look at every millimetre and break it down into simple lines. I also noticed that, curiously, the design on one edge didn’t match the design on the opposing edge, which I though was rather odd! I had assumed that the decoration on one edge would be mirrored on the other edge. I’m not sure why this would be the case and it is certainly something I’ll look out for in the future.

Final thoughts

I hope that this provides a useful overview of the process I went through to research an artefact that I was unfamiliar with. Going through the process reminded me that there is so much we don’t know about Roman artefacts and highlights that there is so much more that we can learn. It would be interesting to compare the examples found in Britain with those found elsewhere in Europe and especially with the depictions of tools on tombstones and paintings. I’m curious to know whether many examples were decorated and whether the decoration may indicate use.


Bushe-Fox, J.P. (1913) Excavation on the Site of the Roman Town at Wroxeter, Shropshire. Society of Antiquaries of London Research Committee Report.

Casey, P.J., Davies, J.L. (1993) Excavations at Segontium (CAERNARFON) Roman Fort, 1975-1979. CBA Research Report 90.

Cunliffe, B. (1971) Excavations at Fishbourne 1961-1969, vol. 2: the finds. Rep. Res. Comm. Soc. Antiqs London 27.

Manning, W.H. (2011) ‘Industry’ in Allason-Jones, L. Artefacts in Roman Britain. Their purpose and use.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 68–88.

Worrell, S. (2005) ‘Finds reported under the Portable Antiquities Scheme’, Britannia 36, 447–472.

Image notes

In the composite photo above, the only alternation made to the original images was that they were cropped and set to a similar scale for comparability. Copyright attributions for the individual images are given above.

Posy Ring to Pew: social mobility and parish traditions in 18th Century Durham.

A Posy finger ring dating to the post-medieval period (c.AD1751-85) – DUR-E8D2A1

The biographies of all the objects we record, the way they moved through landscapes in the past via trade, transactions, personal journeys, is fascinating and usually enigmatic. In most cases we know little of the people that owned the objects, how they came to be in the location they are found, and who made them. Some coins or course have the moneyers name stamped on the reverse, but even then the name is usually all we have; occasionally objects may have initials engraved, or a perhaps there is a makers mark…

It is very satisfying then when we can pin-down an artefact, and perhaps its maker, and trace a little more of the story of these archaeological objects. Posy (or ‘posie’, or even ‘reson’) finger rings are a very special class of object. Usually made of precious metal, the rings were exchanged by lovers and are characterised by the inclusion of a short poetic line or phrase on the inner band of the ring, in essence a personal expression of the erstwhile passions of the bestower (Evans 1931, xi-xv). When these rings are reported to us our first task is to establish if they are more than 300 years old, and thus need to be declared as ‘Treasure’ to the coroner. To do this we examine the decoration (if any, many are plain), inscription, and style of the script. Occasionally the interior inscription is preceded by a stamp or ‘makers mark’ that may indicate where and by whom the ring was made. Such was the case with a Posy ring found in fields near Trimdon, Co. Durham, and reported to us in early 2019 (DUR-E8D2A1).

When we examined the simple gold hoop ring we found an inscription on the interior in italic script that read “Love is the bond of peace” with a makers mark at the start of the inscription comprising the letters S and T set within a rectangular frame

Detail of the makers mark – DUR-E8D2A1

Initial research, by one of our very dedicated volunteers Ann, found that the makers mark was used by Durham silversmith and goldsmith Samuel Thompson, listed as working on Elvet Bridge in Durham City between 1751-1785. This immediately made it clear that the ring did not meet the criteria of being a ‘Treasure’ object (being less than 300 years old), and so would be recorded in the same way as all other non-Treasure objects. However, having the makers name with an object is quite unusual so, adhering to part of the Strategic Goals of the PAS “to tell the stories of past peoples and the places where they lived”, we were interested to see if we could find out more about this Durham silversmith. To do so we looked at various sources available (often online) via both the Durham County Record Office (DCRO), the Durham University Special Collections, and various other online genealogical resources and Parish Records. We were able to discover several members of the Thompson family, their Wills and other documentation, and even papers relating to a Consistory Court case in the 1770s which revealed a story that would not be out of place in an Elizabeth Gaskell novel!

John Thompson is likely to have been born in the late 17th century, possibly 1698 as there is a ‘John’ listed in the St. Oswald’s Parish Records (Headlam, 1891) as son of Nicholas Thompson with his trade recorded as ‘whitesmith’. It may be here that we can trace the metal-working tradition in the family, perhaps with a move from ‘whitesmith’ (finishing work on iron and steel such as burnishing or polishing, often synonymous with ‘tinsmith’) to ‘silversmith’ over the next few decades. The records of burials for the Parish in 1737 show a Mary, wife of ‘John Thompson silversmith’, being interred in July of that year; a little further on “John Thompson, silver-smith” is shown as being buried in the churchyard at St Oswald’s in July 1751 (ibid). With this information we were able to trace John Thompson’s will which revealed they had a son, Samuel, who the Parish records show predeceased his father in 1747 (ibid; Durham University DPR/I/1/1751/T3/1-2). The will also revealed that in this event all John Thompson’s “messuages lands tenaments and hereditament” would pass in trust to his grandsons, including another Samuel, and it is this latter Thompson that became the goldsmith who made the posy ring found in Trimdon.

Papers from the Consistory Court (Durham University)

It is the papers relating to the Consistory Court case that really give us insight into the lives of the inhabitants of the “Parish of Saint Oswald’s in the Barony of Elvet” in the later 18th century (Durham University DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1770/21). However, readers hoping for stories of skulduggery and misdeeds may be a little disappointed: the case related to disagreement over who had the right to sit in a particular “stall or pew situate or being in the Parish Church of Saint Oswald…and Diocese of Durham and there thus bounded and described as follows to wit…upon the North Wall of the said Church on the North, and opening into the North Isle of the said Church on the South…”. The documents show that in 1770 Samuel Thompson (goldsmith) cited Robert Hall (Master of Elvet workhouse or poorhouse, trade recorded as both weaver and taylor) for not “having or pretending to have any Right Title or Interest of in or to” the pew. Through the many pages of legal allegations and answers we learn that the Thompson family owned a good deal of land and property in the Parish, including at least “five messuages or Mansion Houses with Shops and Offices” with some “sixty three persons or thereabouts” as tenants and renters. In addition, it appears they already had the right to sit in at least two other large and accommodating private pews within the church. A story develops concerning James and Isable (or Isabel) Watson who, sometime in the early 18th century, built a house or dwelling that seems to be situated on the western side of lower New Elvet

Looking north along lower New Elvet, Durham City, c.1890 (image courtesy of Michael Richardson, Gilesgate Archive)

Later becoming insolvent, James is “confined a prisoner in the goal of this county” (and indeed later dies still incarcerated), whilst Isable moves from room to room around the Parish before eventually residing in a “single room”, presumably of the poorhouse, where she too dies in penury in 1769. Her funeral was paid for by her “cousin-german once removed”, our Mr Robert Hall who also, he states, had cared for Isable in her later years. That the Watsons had the right to “the stall or pew situate…upon the North Wall” was not disputed; she had apparently inherited that right from her mother, Mary Dodds. However, Samuel Thompson’s claim related to property his grandfather John had purchased in 1750 for £111 and 16 shillings (approximately £13,000 today, or 3 years wages for a skilled tradesman) that had belonged to Mary Dodds, named in the court documents as a “Mansion House Burgage or Tenement” in Elvet. Thompson’s lawyers argued that the pew, or rather the right to sit therein, had been purchased along with the property. After two years of proceedings and hearings held in the Galilee Chapel of Durham Cathedral, the Consistory Court eventually found in favour of the defendant: “the said Stall or Pew to be Asigned and Confirmed to the said Robert Hall for the use of himself his wife and family to sit kneel pray and hear divine services read and performed”.

Woods plan of Durham City 1820, showing the ‘Poors House’ on Hallgarth Street (DCRO)

As we can see, in the 18th century, as elsewhere in the country, the seating of the congregation and the arrangement of the pews in St. Oswald’s Parish Church was highly contentious, having bearing not only on the spiritual position but also, and perhaps more importantly, in terms of the social position of families in the parish. The organisation of parishioners into pews according to complex hierarchical principles was an unenviable task that often fell to churchwardens, but a task that nonetheless would also have offered a degree of local power and influence. With the socioeconomic flux of the early Post-medieval period, as the industrial revolution gathered pace and Durham began to be transformed from medieval stronghold to economic centre, the church remained at the centre of communal life. Christopher Marsh (2005) has written extensively on this ‘pew’ microcosm of social ordering, viewing it as “an attempt to fix the confusing fluidity of social existence” if only temporarily (ibid, 3). Thinking again of our gold and silversmithing dynasty in Elvet, it is clear from the available records that the Thompsons were a notable local family, and would thus have expected their position in the church to reflect their social position in the community. The will of Samuel Thompson, dated 1773, again reflects the wealth and property held by the family and passed on to his surviving son and daughter (Durham University DPR/I/1/1785/T6/1-2 and DPR/I/2/27 p295), and a ‘Mr Thomson’, possibly Samuel’s son John or grandson (another) Samuel, is recorded next to (and thus owner of) a property on New Elvet on Woods plan of Durham City.

Detail from Woods plan of Durham City 1820, lower New Elvet and Elvet Bridge (DCRO)

While we cannot know for certain the motivation behind Samuel Thompson’s desire to increase the number of pews held for his family, Marsh’s (ibid, 5) assertion that ”Pews, it seems, were primarily a weapon used by parish elites in their drive to discipline and control the lower orders” is particularly convincing. The lower social status in the community of Robert Hall was highlighted and used by Thompson when he was accused of, and indeed admitted that he “hath no Houses or other Estate in the said Parish of Saint Oswald in his own right as owner and proprietor thereof nor doth he Rent Farm or Occupy any House or Estate…in respect of which he pays or is charged toward the Church or other Parochial assessments of the said Parish”. Yet Hall argued that the work he did in and on behalf of the Parish, caring for and assisting the poor, freed him from any need of payment to the Church; regardless of this fact he had in any case, as he stated, the right to occupy the contentious pew by virtue of inheritance and kinship. It seems the Consistory Court, perhaps embodying the older traditions of the cathedral city, sided with more established forms of social order in the face of the growing challenge from the increasingly wealthy mercantile meritocratic class. Certainly, the cost of the case passed on to the Thompsons, at £10, 10s, 2d (approximately £1000 today, or over 100 days wages), was more affordable for a property-owning goldsmiths family than it would have been for the Hall family.

The signatures of Robert Hall and Samuel Thompson on the Consistory Court papers (Durham University)

It would be interesting to know the purchase cost of that simple posy ring, made by Samuel or one of his apprentices in their workshop on Elvet Bridge, to set against the sums recorded in the court case!

Whilst perhaps moving away a little from the pure recording of archaeological artefacts, the above story demonstrates the strengths of the PAS in connecting local people with their heritage and history. In perhaps my proudest publishing moment to date, I was asked to retell this story for the St Oswald’s Parish Magazine, the church where Samuel and robert once sat, and it was very well received by current parishioners (although, I have yet to hear whether it has reignited any long-standing pew disagreements). Key to all we do in the PAS is facilitating the spread of information to local communities, providing data for researchers that would not otherwise have been available, and underpinning research such as that shown above, all instrumental in advancing archaeological knowledge.


Durham University Library, Archives and Special Collections: Consistory Court, Durham Diocesan Records: episcopal jurisdiction and of courts, 1770-1771 promoter: Samuel Thompson of Durham St Oswald, County Durham, silversmith defendant: Robert Hall of Durham St Oswald, County Durham, (DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1770/21)  

Durham University Library, Archives and Special Collections: John THOMPSON will, 15 March 1744, Date of probate: 1751. (DPR/I/1/1751/T3/1-2)

Durham University Library, Archives and Special Collections: Samuel THOMPSON will, 4 February 1785 (DPR/I/1/1785/T6/1-2) and registered copy of will, 4 February 1785 (DPR/I/2/27 p295)

Evans, J., 1931. English posies and posy rings: a catalogue. Oxford University Press, H. Milford, London.

Headlam, Rev. A.W., 1891. The parish registers of St. Oswald’s, Durham, containing the baptisms, marriages and burials, from 1538 to 1751. Caldcleugh (printer) Durham

Marsh, C., 2005. Order and Place in England, 1580–1640: The View from the Pew. Journal of British Studies 44, 3–26.

Thanks to Durham County Record Office (DCRO), Michael Richardson, Gilesgate [image] Archive, Durham University Library Archives and Special Collections, and the finder who reported the posy ring.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme Co. Durham 2017

Durham Archaeology Magazine 2018

The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) is a national scheme, run by The British Museum in partnership with local host organisations, and comprising a network of Finds Liaison Officers (FLO’s) spread across England and Wales. The PAS in Durham is hosted in the Archaeology Section of Durham County Council, and provides coverage for Durham, Darlington and Teesside. The objective of the PAS is to advance archaeological knowledge through engagement with local people, and the recording of artefacts they find on an open access online database ( We also assist with the facilitation of the Treasure Act (1996), by researching and reporting artefacts that meet the criteria to the Coroner.

The finds we record vary from the very rare (see the Roman Diploma, elsewhere in this volume [see:]), to the more vernacular, but each is important in its own right as part of our shared local heritage. Over the past year finders living in the Co. Durham, Darlington and Teesside areas reported over 400 individual finds to the PAS office in Durham, of which 14 were Treasure cases. Many of these objects were recovered from Co. Durham, and a selection of noteworthy finds are presented below.

Figure 1

Avid readers may recall the Bronze Age hoard (comprising spearheads, axes and swords) recovered from the Upper Pennines and reported in this publication two years ago [see:]. Just over a year later the finders came across a second hoard just a little way from the original findspot (Figure 2) Again dating to the late ‘Ewart Park’ phase of the Bronze Age (c.900-800 cal BC), the hoard comprised nearly 40 individual objects, including several spearheads and socketed axeheads. The preservation conditions on the moor are such that fragments of hafted wood were recovered from one of the axeheads; these fragments are currently being analysed by the British Museum.

Figure 2

The material recovered from the 2016 hoard is entirely consistent, in terms of both typology and condition, with both that of 2015 and an even earlier hoard, also recovered from the same general location in 1980. This latter huge hoard (no in Co. Durham Archaeological Archives) comprised over 100 similar objects, and included fragments of a copper ingot. Whilst research regarding the significance and context of all the hoards recorded from this area is ongoing, it is clear that this part of the Greta Valley appears to have had a very special significance in the Late Bronze Age (Brendan O’Connor, pers. comm.). Archaeological remains dating from the Mesolithic into the Modern period dot the route of the A66, showing that the course of the Stainmore Pass across the Pennines has been an important trading route for centuries (Robinson 1993). The presence of these Bronze Age hoards in a relatively confined area would appear to indicate complicated trading practices involving the burial and intended retrieval of scrap metal and raw materials, perhaps by individuals or even by organised groups of smiths and traders.

Figure 3

Metalwork artefacts from later prehistory, whilst not unusual from other parts of the country, are relatively rare finds in Co. Durham. Thus even small items, such as this late Iron Age copper alloy looped toggle (Figure 3) recovered from near Bishop Auckland, have local significance in terms of adding to the archaeological archive of our region. Looped toggles (dating from c. c350BC -100AD) appear to have been an antecedent of button and loop fasteners, probably used both to fasten clothing and on harnesses, and are found all over the England and Wales.

Figure 4

By contrast, Dragonesque Brooches (dating from c.AD 50 – 200) have a particular distribution through eastern England, with a distinct concentration around northern Lincolnshire, North and East Yorkshire and spreading into the North-East. The Dragonesque brooch illustrated here (Figures 1 and 4) conforms to this distribution, and was found not far from Dere Street in the same general area as the looped toggle in what may be regarded as the wider hinterland of Binchester Roman Fort. This is a particularly fine example of this brooch type, comprising an incomplete concave curvilinear plate with an S-shape abstract zoomorphic form, with turned in heads at each end. Rather unusually, the brooch is coated in what appears to be a polished black lacquer (‘black coated’) and is variously inlaid with scrolls and pointed ellipses containing red, white and blue enamel decoration.

Dragonesque brooches are a hybrid form of material culture and art: the ‘plate’ brooch type and, to an extent, the mapped distribution reflects newer Roman influences of the 1st and 2nd centuries; however, the stylistic the form and inlaid enamel decoration are firmly rooted in the artistic traditions of the Iron Age. As an example of how valuable data generated by the PAS can be, a study of Dragonesques was undertaken, integrating the many recent discoveries recorded on the PAS database with a view to revising the typology and spatial distribution of the brooches, and also examining their cultural significance. As Fraser (2010, 95) stated: “One great asset of the PAS data is in providing a much bigger sample for studying the distribution”. There had previously been some discussion as to whether the brooches predominately occurred in military or native contexts, or perhaps both (Allason-Jones & Miket 1984, 114; Bayley and Butcher 2004, 171). As noted above, the majority have been found in the area of what Feacham (1951, 34) rather imperially termed “the northern part of civilized Britain”, often in and around vici. The results of Fraser’s (2010, 102) detailed study found that whilst the brooches were indeed found in both contexts, the overly simplistic binary distribution model of military/rural findspots was unsurprisingly more nuanced. In breaking down the types of Dragonesques found (using both PAS and non-PAS data), it was identified that enamelled types are markedly more common on military sites than their non-enamelled counterparts, indicating “subtle patterns of preference” in the ongoing “processes and negotiations involved in becoming Romano-British” (ibid., 101). As Fraser (ibid., 102) states “The humble dragonesque clearly has much still to tell”: ensuring that the PAS continues to work with finders to record such fantastic examples as that described above, can only aid in this continuing social exploration of the early Roman period in Northern Britain. Indeed, it is noteworthy that more than 125 further such brooches have been identified and recorded with the PAS since the completion of Fraser’s (2010) study.

Figure 5

Assisting in the recording and reporting of finds which meet the Treasure criteria is an important part of an FLO’s role. This includes any objects made of either gold or silver (but not single coins; see below). The incomplete gold finger ring featured in Figure 5 was found within sight of the Roman fort of Vinovia at Binchester (but importantly outside the Scheduled Area!) early last year. After reporting the find to the coroner, we began the task of identifying and recording the ring. Whilst much of the hoop of the ring is missing, fragments of the foliate openwork (opus interrasile) shoulders were remaining, as was the white glass-paste intaglio within an ovate box setting. Although the intaglio was in a fragile state, an impression was taken revealing a depiction of the goddess Victory, with right leg raised and crossed behind the left, and holding a sceptre in the right hand (Figure 6). Whilst Victory was commonly featured on differing objects throughout the Roman period, as a technique openwork or opus interrasile only became common from around the 3rd century. The identification of a number of similar parallels aided in the dating of this ring to between AD 200-300. Previous volumes of this publication have detailed the extensive physical and material archaeological remains that have been excavated and found to date to this period when the fort was rebuilt to house the Ala Vettonum (the five-hundred strong cavalry regiment), as the civilian settlement continued to prosper. Any indications that this ring may have fallen from the hand of a Decurion (Roman cavalry officer) during exercises across the river are, of course, entirely speculative! Nevertheless, as the ring met the required criteria and was declared ‘Treasure’ at a Coroner’s inquest, local museums were given the opportunity to acquire it for their collections. The ring was purchased by Durham University Archaeology Museum, and will hopefully go on display later this year.

Figure 6

Whilst single coins of precious metal do not qualify as Treasure, two or more gold or silver coins (or 10 if they are made from other metal) are designated as a ‘Hoard’, and are thus Treasure finds. Similarly, assemblages of prehistoric metalwork (such as those cited above) also designated under Treasure legislation as ‘Hoards’. The Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting in England and Wales (2017) makes it clear that metal-detector users should ‘stop digging’ and seek ‘expert [archaeological] help’ if they ‘discover something below the ploughsoil, or a concentration of finds or unusual material…’. Usually this will be a hoard (commonly prehistoric or Roman) or a burial (often early medieval). There have been several cases elsewhere in the country where finders have not stopped and caused damage to archaeology (Lewis 2018). We were very pleased then, when a finder contacted the PAS office in Durham in early 2017 to report that he had identified a hoard of medieval silver coins (Figure 7). The detectorists had partially excavated the coins from the topsoil, but had become wary of disturbing underlying archaeological remains. Together with Lauren Pratt, Senior Archaeologist at Durham County Council, I visited the site and we archaeologically excavated the remaining coins and dug a small trench to understand the nature of the deposits within which the hoard had been buried.

Figure 7

The coins were recovered from an arable field that sloped gently to the west, at a depth of between 0.05m and 0.4m. The small trench, measuring c.1.5m north/south by 0.5m east/west was excavated over the area the where the main concentration of coins were identified. The coins were found solely within the topsoil deposits, which overlay a thin layer of clayey rubble (c.0.1m thick), which in turn overlay the natural clay subsoil. Whilst most coins were recovered from the concentrated area described above, a number were identified up to 10m to the west, indicating that hoard was dispersed, mostly likely by modern ploughing. It is likely that the hoard was deposited during a single episode in an organic container, possibly a bag or purse that has since disintegrated. No pottery sherds or other related finds were identified.

In total 48 silver pennies were recovered, including two Scottish coins of Alexander III’s Second Coinage (c.1280-86) and a single continental Guy of Dampierre sterling imitation or ‘pollard’. The majority of the hoard was made up of 45 silver pennies of the type introduced by Edward I (r. 1272-1307) in 1279 and continued through the reigns of Edward II (1307-27) into the 1330s, in the early years of Edward III (1327-1377). The silver coinage of England was struck to what would become known as the sterling standard, over 90% fine metal; this standard was followed in Scotland at this time and the great majority of sterlings of Gui de Dampierre were 80-90% fine. The coins from the hoard were good silver and were likely in circulation together. As a group they represent a selected body of material, particularly as the lesser denominations of halfpenny and farthing were not present.

Figure 8

Whilst the majority of the English coins within this hoard were minted in London and Canterbury, several from mints in Bury St Edmonds, York, and a single example from Newcastle, were also identified. Of particular local interest however, were the two rare Edward III coins with the reverse legend ‘CIVITAS DUNELMI’ (‘City of Durham’) and a small crown at the centre of the long cross patteé (Figures 8 and 9). These latter details indicate that the coins were produced in the ecclesiastical mint here in Durham City between 1327-35, probably during the later reign of Bishop Lewis de Beaumont (1318-33). The Bishop of Durham operated a mint at various times in Durham City, from the late eleventh century under Bishop William of St Calais (1080-96) to final closure in 1541 (Allen 1999, 1). Toward the end of the Bishop Beaumont’s tenure of the see the mint was briefly closed, only reopening some 20 years later following reform of the coinage in 1351 (ibid., 2). The mint where the coins discovered at Lanchester were probably struck was probably located in the area now known as ‘Moneyer’s Garth’. Located in the north-east corner of Palace Green, and a particular favourite of tourists due to the red telephone and letter boxes, the current building and yard dates from the 19th century; however, it is here that Italian mint-masters, and later London merchants and local moneyers, were striking coins between the late 13th and early 15th centuries (ibid., 53). It is very fitting then that these Durham minted coins (and the remainder of the hoard) have been acquired by Durham University Archaeology Museum, and will soon be housed on the other side of Palace Green, just yards from where they were struck nearly 700 years ago. 

Figure 9

The official guidance given by the PAS states that while we will record ALL objects dating from the 17th century and earlier, we are more selective with artefacts dating from c.1700 to the present day. This is simply due to the sheer number of objects that survive following the introduction of mass production of material culture, and thus the limited value they have in terms of adding to archaeological knowledge. However, it is important that finders show us all they find, as exceptions are frequently made for artefacts that have compelling social or cultural value, particularly those objects that are regionally or locally significant. The medallion featured in Figure 10 fulfils all the latter criteria.

Figure 10

In early 2016 a local metal detectorist, who detects in and around Durham City and works closely with the PAS, found a small silver star from a 19th Century medal. Feeling sure that more of the medal must be nearby, the detectorist returned to the fields near Shincliffe village a year later, and remarkably managed to locate the larger copper-alloy ‘backing’ star. Examination of the medallion identified it as part of an 1843 Gwailor Campaign medal.

The Gwailor Star was awarded by the Honourable East India Company to British Army soldiers who took part in the Gwailor Campaign. The latter was undertaken due to rising tensions following the death of the British-approved Maharaja of Gwalior. However, fervent attempts at regaining independence from the British Empire were unsuccessful: the inscription on this medal indicates it to have been awarded to a soldier who took part in the Battle of Punniar, India, December 29th 1843, one of the two battles fought that day (the other being Maharajpoor) that ended the short-lived colonial rebellion.

The reverse of the copper-alloy part of the medallion was usually inscribed with the soldier’s personal details and with whom they served. The condition of this component of the medallion is such that the word ‘Royal’ is the only part of the inscription decipherable. However, the only regiment known to have taken part in the campaign with royal in their title was the 9th (or Queen’s Royal) Lancers:

Figure 10a

“In 1842 the 9th were sent to India and in 1843 they took part in the campaign against the Mahratta State of Gwalior. They were awarded the honour ‘Punniar’ and the men present at the battle received bronze stars made from the metal of the captured Mahratta guns.“ (

This is the first and only such campaign medal to be recorded on the PAS database, and it is currently on display in the Archaeology Gallery in Durham University Archaeology Museum (Palace Green, Durham City) as part of the exhibition ‘Everyone’s History’ (see below). It is hoped that specialist photography of the reverse of the medal may reveal more of the inscription, perhaps even the details of the individual to whom the medal was originally presented.

This year, 2018, marks an important anniversary for PAS. The scheme has now been running nationally, including here in the North-East, for 15 years. During that time over 1.3 million artefacts found in England and Wales have been recorded on our database, providing data for researchers that would not otherwise have been available, and underpinning research (such as that shown above) that is instrumental in advancing archaeological knowledge. Key to this, the core aim of the PAS, is the outreach work that we do, strengthening links between local communities, museums, and amateur and professional archaeologists. Here in Durham we have built strong relationships with a number of local individuals and metal detecting groups, working closely with them to record the artefacts they find and to provide assistance and information to facilitate best practice. Over the next year we hope to continue to build on this, and we welcome any new finders to get involved and get in touch with us using the contact details on the reverse of this publication. In particular this year we have worked closely with a number of metal detectorists and Durham University Archaeology Museum to jointly organise an exhibition to celebrate both the 15th anniversary of the PAS and last year’s 20th anniversary of the implementation of the 1996 Treasure Act. The exhibition features some very special finds discovered by local detectorists (and generously loaned to the museum) not normally seen by members of the public, and also highlights some of the objects that have been acquired through the Treasure Act including, for the first time, one of the Bronze Age hoards discussed above. The exhibition will run until the end of May 2018, and entry is free!

We have several events planned for later this year, including a day of talks and presentations based around the ‘Everyone’s History’ exhibition (12th May). We will also be hosting finds handling and identification sessions at the re-enactment events at Piercebridge Roman Fort (23rd June) and Binchester Roman Fort (14th-15th July, and 27th August). Please feel free to come and meet us there, and find out more about what we do!

Events such as these, and the day-to-day researching and recording of artefacts, would not be possible without the dedicated work of our team of Durham PAS volunteers, who each give freely of their time, and to whom I am very grateful!

Details of the PAS and of all the finds mentioned above, together with the many others found in this region, can be found by searching the database at


Allason-Jones, L., Miket, R., 1984. The catalogue of small finds from South Shields Roman Fort. Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Allen, M., 1999. The Durham mint: the control, organization, profits and out-put of an ecclesiastical mint. Durham theses, Durham University.

Bayley, J., Butcher, S., 2004. Roman brooches in Britain: a technological and typological study based on the Richborough collection. The Society of antiquaries of London, London.

Feachem, R.W. de F., 1951. Dragonesque Fibulae. The Antiquaries Journal 31, 32–44.

Hunter, F., 2010. Changing objects in changing worlds: dragonesque brooches and beaded torcs, in: A Decade of Discovery: Proceedings of the Portable Antiquities Scheme Conference 2007, British Archaeological Reports.

Lewis, M. (2018), ‘Metal Detecting and In Situ Archaeology’, British Archaeology 158, January-February 2018, 26-29.

Robinson, P., 1993. Archaeology on the Stainmore Pass: The A66 Project. English Heritage & Durham County Council, Durham.

9th Lancers

The Portable Antiquities Scheme Co. Durham 2016

Co. Durham Archaeology Magazine 2017

The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) is a national scheme, run by The British Museum in conjunction with host organisations across England and Wales. The objective of the PAS is to advance archaeological knowledge through the facilitation the Treasure Act (1996), and by engagement with local people and the recording of their finds on an online database ( The PAS has assisted the acquisition of objects of Treasure by local museums (including the Museum of Archaeology here in Durham), recorded over 1.2 million objects to date and had numerous forms of research carried out on the data created by recording finds, including 110 PhD’s.

Figure 1

One of the finds reported in County Durham over the past year is the particularly fine Iron Age strap fitting shown in Figure 1. Strap fittings, essentially a means of joining two leather straps, may have been used as either horse-harness fittings or as part of a person’s accoutrements (Taylor and Brailsford 1985).

These relatively mundane items were often highly decorated, featuring complex and beautiful curvilinear Iron Age artistic forms. This example comprises three linked ‘petal bosses’ each containing an annular setting at the centre of which appears to white champlevé enamel surrounding a circular setting containing pale green glass. Between the petal bosses is an expanding ‘muzzle’ motif, below which is a rectangular plate bearing three circular marks which may have contained dark green enamel inlay. On the rear of the mount is a single rectangular loop for the leather strap. No direct parallel has been found for this fine object; however, its form and decorative elements combine to suggest a late Iron Age or Early Roman date (c. 200BC to AD200).

Figure 2

Perhaps unsurprising, given the rich medieval history of our region, a great many of the artefacts recorded by the PAS in Durham date from this period. Harness Pendants are amongst some of the more common medieval finds, and examples from the county recorded during 2016 can be seen in Figures 2-4.

Figure 3

The majority of the pendants, including those illustrated here, date from the later 13th and 14th centuries and were used to decorate and hang from leather horse harnesses. Often called ‘heraldic’ pendants, despite many of the pendants not featuring any heraldry, they are nevertheless evocative of the so-called ‘age of chivalry’. Many of the pendants were rather poorly manufactured, suggesting they were not made for display by the nobility but were trappings for the horses of retainers, bailiffs and stewards, perhaps to signify a sense of belonging to a lordship or estate (Griffiths 1986). The pendants in Figures 2 and 3 both depict the French fleurs de lys which, together with the lion from the arms of England (centre of the pendant in Figure 2), commonly featured on badges during the Hundred Years’ War, implicitly asserting sovereignty over both kingdoms.

Figure 4

The heraldry of the third pendant (Figure 4), Or (gold) and three chevrons Gules (red), features the arms borne by the de Clares, the Earls of Hertford and Gloucester. Gilbert de Clare died at Bannockburn in 1314 and it is tempting, if a little romantic, to imagine that this pendant may have been lost during the long journey to the campaign in Scotland.

Figure 5

The mace featured in Figure 5 continues in this vein of medieval symbology. Contrary to appearance, it is likely that the mace did not have an overt military function but may have had an alternative (or additional) function as an ecclesiastical staff fitting carried by clergy for ceremonial purposes (Daubney 2010). These maces are relatively rare finds in the British Isles, with a focus in central England; however, a number have been discovered in coastal counties and around major inlets. As such, the discovery of a mace from County Durham is a neat representation of the composite spiritual and temporal power structures in our region during the medieval period.

Here in the North East of England there have been significant changes to the Portable Antiquities Scheme over the past 12 months. Our previous Finds Liaison Officer (FLO) Ellie Cox left Durham to take up the FLO post in Northamptonshire. Meanwhile the North East post has been split: I am hosted by Durham County Council, and provide coverage for Durham, Darlington and Teesside; New FLO Andy Agate is based at the Great North Museum in Newcastle, and provides coverage for Tyne and Wear and Northumberland. Andy and I hope that this new arrangement will deliver a better and more locally based service for communities across the North East.

With the FLO post in Durham being vacant for several months during 2016 the volume of finds recorded has not been as great as previous years. However, since taking position in late November a steady flow of finds have been reported, including several exciting discoveries that are currently making their way through the Treasure process.

This year, 2017, marks the 20th anniversary of the implementation of the 1996 Treasure Act and the creation of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. As part of the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the PAS I will be hosting a number of ‘Treasure20’ events, details of which will be published shortly. Over this 20 year period the scheme has been instrumental in recording archaeological finds and providing data for researchers that would otherwise not have been available. In addition, the PAS has strengthened the links between amateur and professional archaeologists, and facilitated greater community involvement in local heritage. Volunteering through the scheme’s PASt Explorers programme ( is greatly encouraged and potential volunteers are welcome to get in touch with me at the email address listed on the back cover of this publication.

Details of the PAS and of all the finds mentioned above, together with the many others found in this region, can be found by searching the database at


Daubney, A., 2010. Medieval Copper-alloy Mace-heads from England, Scotland and Wales, in: A Decade of Discovery: Proceedings of the Portable Antiquities Scheme Conference. BAR British Series 520, 201-207

Griffiths, N., 1986. Horse harness pendants. Finds Research Group Datasheet 5.

Taylor, R.J., Brailsford, J.W., 1985. British Iron Age Strap-Unions. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 51, 247–272.

We’ve some catching up to do!

I see from our list of posts that we haven’t posted anything here since 2018, which is really a shame!
So, in the spirit of a ‘catch-up’: every year we here in Durham, hosted as we are by the Co. Durham Archaeology Section, write a little article for the ‘County Durham Archaeology Magazine’. The latter comprises a round-up of archaeological excavations, projects and of course what the PAS has been up to in the county over the last 12 months. I thought it might be quite nice to republish our articles here, to give a little flavour of some of our favourite finds from 2016 up to and including (eventually)  2019.

For those interested, back issues of the Archaeology Magazine, and many other lovingly produced volumes from the Durham Archaeology Section, can be found and purchased here:

So, those articles, here goes (and bear in mind these go back a few years, so facts and figures may not be quite up to date)…..


sailor's diploma
Sailor’s diploma; Durham County Council CC license

We’re very pleased to report that our unique Roman sailor’s discharge diploma (DUR-C3E4FE) has been bought by Palace Green Museum in Durham City and is now on permanent display.
The diploma was discovered in 2016 near Longovicium Roman Fort (Lanchester, Co. Durham) by Mark Houston, an experienced detectorist. He and the then FLO, Ellie Cox, recognised that the find was almost certainly a veteran’s discharge diploma, of which around 20 examples have been found in Britain, conferring Roman citizenship on him, his wife and children. It consisted of two bronze sheets, about A5 size, held together with wire loops, which had been folded over and deliberately buried. Consequently, it had corroded along the folds into 8 pieces.
After cleaning and conservation at Durham University, the text was deciphered by Roger Tomlins of Oxford University and John Pearce of King’s College, London, and it became obvious how special the discovery was. It had been issued to a man named Velvotigernus, most probably in AD150. What makes the diploma unique and so important is that Velvotigernus had served 26 years with the Classis Germanica and so this is the first example of a sailor’s discharge diploma to be found in Britain.
This amazing artefact is now on permanent display at Palace Green Museum. You can read more about it – and other archaeological projects in the County – in the current issue of the Archaeology magazine published by Durham County Council.


In her 9th April 2018 blog, Lauren Speed chose to highlight finds from Durham as part of the 15th year of PAS celebrations. One of the finds she chose was an unusual Roman Dragonesque-type brooch (DUR-6AD3ED).

Roman Dragonesque brooch
Roman Dragonesque brooch. Copyright Durham County Council CC license

The beautiful, enamelled plate brooch is an abstract zoomorphic form with turned-in heads at each end. Unfortunately, one of the very appealing heads is almost completely gone and the other has an old break on the nose. The brooch is coated in a polished black lacquer, variously inlaid with enamel decoration.
Dragonesque brooches are generally regarded as a hybrid art form, reflecting newer Roman influences of the 1st and 2nd centuries, but firmly rooted in the artistic traditions of the Iron Age. This is a particularly fine example, of uncommon decoration and design. The brooch was found in Co. Durham, by a regular detectorist, along the wider route of Dere Street, and in what may be regarded as the wider hinterland of Binchester Roman Fort.

Find out all about it at


Don’t miss the exhibition ‘Living on the Hills:10,000 years of Durham’ at Palace Green Library, Durham.

The permanent exhibition explores the lives of people who have lived and visited Durham through the tools and everyday objects they used, and the art and architecture they left behind to be rediscovered. Currently on display are a number of significant PAS finds from our region, including the fabulous Lanchester Diploma.

Living on the Hills exhibition
Pilgrim brooch: Durham County Council CClicense