Thin up North? (Guest post by Rob Webley)

Introduction

Working with Portable Antiquities Scheme data always throws up little puzzles.  By grappling with them together we can hopefully advance knowledge, however gradually.  I am a medievalist working in the south of the country, and was therefore struck by a particular strap-end type whose findspots seemed to cluster in the North (though I was by no means the first…).  Its decoration and construction are distinctive, and they seem to have been attached to a notably narrow strap.  This post will set out to describe the type, and pass comment on its date and distribution.

Medieval strap-ends within zoomorphic terminals
Medieval strap-ends within zoomorphic terminals. Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme. License CC-BY.

Description

The strap-ends discussed here lack both a research history and a name!  They are characterised by a prominent animal head terminal, and many retain a narrow cross-shaped ‘tongue’ which emerges from the squared off jaws.  From the back of the head a narrowed and thinned plate emerges, flaring gradually over its length towards the attachment end, but still only attaining a width of about seven or eight millimetres at that end.  As noted, the construction of such strap-ends is relatively unusual: they consist mostly of a cast plate, with a small sheet back plate which was riveted on to the reverse at the attachment end.  Generally two rivets held the back plate in place, and some examples appear to have broken through the lower rivet hole: for example SWYOR-89F268 and SWYOR-2202E4

Dating

How old are they?  There has been an amount of confusion regarding the date of this strap-end type, presumably due to the zoomorphic head at the terminal.  This led the first FLOs to record such strap-ends classifying them as Thomas’s Class B and dating to the long 9th century (the records have since been amended).   Indeed, Hammond (2010, 50) published strap-ends of this form as dating to the 8th or 9th century, presumably for the same reason.  We have now changed our minds as, as FLOs have pointed out in records of these strap-ends, there are many medieval examples of zoomorphic terminals modelled in three dimensions, not just on strap-ends, but on objects such as vessel spouts and handles.  Here, then, is a cautionary tale of dating an object on the basis on a single trait, in this case the zoomorphic head…

Only one published example has been traced for a strap-end of this form: from Church Close, Hartlepool, there found in a late 14th- to late 15th-century context (Jackson in Daniels 1991, 371-371; fig. 23, no. 22).  Evidence in support of such a later medieval date comes from the terminal cross, which recorders have pointed out is a feature of composite strap-ends, such as one found in London in a late 13th- to mid 14th-century context (Egan and Pritchard 2002, 143-144; fig. 94, no. 671).  A final avenue to explore relates to the type’s distinctive cast front plate.  This is a construction known in the medieval period, on examples from London (Egan and Pritchard 2002, 132-133; fig. 86, no. 614), and Meols (Egan in Griffiths et al. 2007, 134-135; pl. 23, nos 1544, 1545).  The London example has terminal in the form of a human head, a crowned king, from a context dated to the second half of the 14th century.  The Meols example can be classified as being of Thomas Class I, and is closer to our type, also having a moulded zoomorphic terminal.  Although Thomas (2000, 218) suggested a late 11th-century date for his Class I, such dating cannot be upheld given the related London piece mentioned plus an example found at Bordesley Abbey, in a context dated to the late 14th to early 15th century (Astill 1993, 193-194; fig. 88, no. 145).  The current evidence seems to confirm that this type of strap-end should be dated broadly to the 14th century, as most examples on the PAS database now are.

Distribution

With only a single published example traced, from Hartlepool, very little could be said about these strap-ends based on such evidence, other than they occurred in the North.  However, FLOs recording examples on the PAS database had noted a northerly distribution for the type.  The map presented here shows fourteen PAS examples (in green) plus a fifteenth, the Hartlepool piece (in pink).  As we can see, the distribution is focused to the east of the Pennines: on Yorkshire, and, to a lesser extent, Lincolnshire.  The Hartlepool strap-end is, in fact, a northerly outlier, while the most southerly example has been found in Leicestershire (LEIC-A23F6E).

Distribution of zoomorphic strap-ends
Distribution of zoomorphic strap-ends

It is tempting to speculate as to where these strap-ends were being produced.  York is perhaps the best candidate, with some of the finest examples found nearby.  These have the most delicate of the terminal crosses, moulded brow ridges and nested chevrons engraved below the ears on the zoomorphic head.  A few have engraved detailing on the front at the attachment end (see below).  We know of medieval production sites for dress accessories in York (Cassels 2013, 126-127); however, as this particular form has not been documented from any of these, any suggestions remain speculative.

Medieval strap-end with zoomorphic terminals (YORYM-2F3636). Copyright: York Museums Trust. License CC-BY.
Medieval strap-end with zoomorphic terminals (YORYM-2F3636). Copyright: York Museums Trust. License CC-BY.

Conclusion

It has only been through PAS recording that we have a rounded sense of the date and distribution of this type of strap-end – which awaits a name!  They seem to bear witness to a fashion, in and around Yorkshire, for a notably thin girdle in the 14th century, on current dating evidence.  There is also an apparent religious connotation to these objects, given the presence of the cross.  This is an instance of local production and consumption in the later Middle Ages, comparable to the contemporary Norfolk production of a particular type of rotary key, published by Rogerson and Ashley (in Naylor ed. 2012, 317-319), and to be contrasted with apparently national styles and distribution of medieval small finds.