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 (finds.org.uk). 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 (finds.org.uk/getinvolved) 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 finds.org.uk/database
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.