News from the Scheme

The future of the Portable Antiquities Scheme in Wales

Published: 7 years ago Author:

There have been recent concerns expressed as to the future operation of the Portable Antiquities Scheme in Wales. Discussions between the Welsh Government, Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales, the British Museum, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) have now successfully addressed this issue in such a way that will ensure the continuation of the scheme, including the important post of Finds Liaison Officer, in Wales.

More information is available here: - http://wales.gov.uk/publications/accessinfo/decisionreports/culturesport/2011/hl6476/?lang=en

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Inquest into largest coin hoard from Shropshire

Published: 7 years ago Author:

Peter with the coin hoardA very large and important find of a hoard of more than 9000 Roman coins has been declared treasure today by Mr. John Ellery, HM Coroner for North Shropshire. The hoard was discovered in August 2009 by a novice metal detector user in the Shrewsbury area. This is one of the largest coin hoards ever discovered in Shropshire and recent work by the British Museum has revealed important new information about the find.

The finder, Mr. Nic. Davies, bought his first metal detector a month before making the find in August 2009. The hoard was discovered close to a public bridleway on land that Mr Davies did not have permission to detect on. The coins were placed in a very large storage jar which had been buried in the ground around 335 AD.

Mr Davies brought the hoard to Peter Reavill, Finds Liaison Officer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) based with Shropshire Museum Service. Hoards such as this are covered by the Treasure Act. By law all finds which represent Treasure must be reported to HM Coroner. With the information provided by Mr Davies, an excavation was undertaken to learn how the coins were placed in the ground. This excavation showed that the pot was buried probably part full and topped up before being sealed with a large stone that acted as both a lid and marker.

Dr. Ghey, specialist in later Roman Coins at the British Museum, stated that in total 9,315 coins were collected from the pot and associated excavation. Further study has revealed that there are two distinct layers or phases within the pot: the coins at the top date from between 333- 335 AD, whereas the coins at the bottom were made at least 10 years earlier.

The lower phases of the pot also contain several fragments of preserved cloth and an iron nail. This is hugely significant, as organic remains normally rot in the ground. The presence of these materials could suggest a nailed up bag, deposited within the hoard. This practice, although rare, is possible evidence of a ritual offering. In the Roman world gifts were given to the gods in anticipation of future results (such as recovery of stolen property, improved health or a good harvest).

The majority of the coins are known as Nummi (which just means coin). These are made of bronze (copper alloy) and have small variable traces of silver within them. Nummi are one of the most commonly found coins in Roman Britain. Estimates as to their buying power vary. It is thought that each Nummus probably had a value broadly equivalent to that of our modern £1 coin. Thus the coins are likely to represent less than one year's pay for a Roman legionary soldier. The sheer number of coins, however, still represents considerable material wealth. This could be either that of an individual or of a community.

Quotes about the Hoard:

Dr Eleanor Ghey (British Museum):

"This is an exceptional find of late Roman coins from Shropshire. It challenges the view that the wealth circulating in the south of Britain at this time had little impact on the areas further north and west. Some of the coins in the hoard were produced in the eastern Mediterranean and travelled a long distance in the short time before they were buried. The fact that the coins were still in their pot when it was excavated has given us a fascinating snapshot of Roman life. Whoever buried these coins kept their location secret for a number of years before adding more to the hoard".

Emma -Kate Lanyon, Curator for Shropshire Museums:

"This is a very exciting find and probably the largest coin hoard, at least in modern times, to be recovered from the County. The Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme is now over 14 years old and has vastly increased our understanding of Shropshire's past by bringing finds like this to the attention of archaeologists".

More information about the hoard, including photos can be found at:

http://finds.org.uk/blogs/themarches/

Notes to Editors:

For more information on the Treasure Act and the work of the Portable Antiquities Scheme visit the website www.finds.org.uk

The PAS is funded by DCMS as a British Museum partnership project. It is supported locally by Shropshire Council and Herefordshire Council

  1. The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) is a voluntary scheme (managed by the British Museum) to record archaeological objects (not necessarily Treasure) found by members of the public in England and Wales. Every year many thousands of objects are discovered, many of these by metal-detector users, but also by people whilst out walking, gardening or going about their daily work. Such discoveries offer an important source for understanding our past. More information can be found on www.finds.org.uk
  2. All finders of gold and silver objects, groups of coins from the same find, over 300 years old, have a legal obligation to report such items under the Treasure Act 1996. Prehistoric base-metal assemblages found after 1 January 2003 also qualify as Treasure. Potential Treasure finds must be reported by law to the local coroner, which is normally done through the finders' local PAS Finds Liaison Officer. If declared Treasure, they may be acquired by a museum at their full market value (normally split 50/50 between finder and landowner), valued by the Treasure Valuation Committee, which is an independent committee of experts. The Treasure Process is administered by the British Museum. More information is available on www.culture.gov.uk or www.finds.org.uk
  3. All images are copyright and used with permission of Portable Antiquities Scheme, or the Trustees of the British Museum unless otherwise stated.
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Major archaeological discovery in Worcestershire

Published: 7 years ago Author:

A pile of radiates from the hoardMetal detecting enthusiasts have uncovered Worcestershire's largest ever archaeological hoard and people are being offered the exciting chance to grab a glimpse. Thousands of Roman coins, unearthed near Evesham, represent the biggest hoard ever uncovered in the county. A selection will be showcased at Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum from tomorrow (Saturday, October 22).

The hoard was discovered in June this year by amateur enthusiasts Jethro Carpenter and Mark Gilmore with their metal detectors. Since the exciting discovery, experts from Worcestershire County Council Historic Environment and Archaeology Service (WHEAS) have undertaken an assessment of the site and uncovered evidence of a Roman settlement and found that the hoard was buried nearly a century after it was accumulated - the only known such British example - meaning the Worcestershire hoard is of national significance.

Jethro Carpenter said:

"As a child you watch pirate films and dream of finding buried treasure being uncovered in chests but the truth is that as a metal detector enthusiast you can hunt for months on end and find nothing so much as a dropped penny. On the day of the discovery, my detector was down for no more than five minutes when it started to make a high-pitched noise, indicating a lot of buried metal below foot. Even more excitingly, the screen flashed up 'overload'. Mark and I started digging and uncovered coin after coin. It was so exciting, my heart was racing as they just kept on appearing and I could see the head of an emperor visible indicating they were Roman. This find offers a window into a completely different world and it makes you wonder 'who buried these coins and why?' It's amazing that the Museums Service, archaeology experts and metal detectorists can work together to try and help us piece together this jigsaw.

Richard Henry (Finds Liaison Officer):

"This discovery of this coin hoard is really exciting news for Worcestershire and of major significance not only for the county but also the country. The 3784 coins span 38 years and are a fascinating little piece of history dating from a turbulent time during which the Roman Empire saw revolts, rebellions, plague and invasions. This project is a fantastic example of the ways different professional groups and the finders can work together to help preserve our nation's heritage. We really hope people will take the time to come and visit our exhibition where they will get a chance to see some of the coins and have the opportunity to find out more about the treasure process, from discovery to identification."

The majority of the hoard (3,700 coins) depict a total of 16 different Roman Emperors and it is currently with the British Museum for conservation and research. This information, when complete, will enable the local Coroner to decide whether the hoard should be declared as Treasure. If this is the case, a valuation will be set by the independent Treasure Valuation Committee and Worcestershire County Museum will have four months to raise the funding if they decide to acquire the find for long-term exhibition in the county.

The exhibition at Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum runs from Saturday, October 22 to Saturday, November 26, with a special introductory talk at 11am by Richard Henry.

For further information, contact: Roz in the Council's Marketing and Communications department on 01905 822 058; or email rgolds@worcestershire.gov.uk.

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Statistical release for treasure (2009 figures) and portable antiquities (figures for 2009 and 2010)

Published: 7 years ago Author:

The following publication contains annual statistics of the number of objects of treasure found in 2009 (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) and objects recorded through the portable antiquities scheme in 2009 and 2010 (England and Wales) produced by the British Museum on behalf of DCMS.

Annual statistics of the number of objects of treasure found in 2009 (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) and objects recorded through the portable antiquities scheme in 2009 and 2010 (England and Wales) produced by the British Museum on behalf of DCMS were released on 12 October 2011 according to the arrangements approved by the UK Statistics Authority.

Last release date: 23 July 2010: Treasure and Portable Antiquities statistical release 2008

Period covered: January 2009 to December 2009 for treasure and January 2009 to December 2010 for portable antiquities

Geographic coverage: England, Wales and Northern Ireland for treasure and England and Wales for portable antiquities

Next release date: Treasure statistics from 2010 and statistics on portable antiquities from 2011 will be published in the third quarter of 2011

Finds Liaison Officers (FLOs) record finds of treasure and portable antiquities on the Portable Antiquities database. The statistics gathered from the database together with further details of the objects found have previously been published annually in the Treasure and Portable Antiquities annual report.

Report structure/format

The report sets out the latest figures for reported treasure finds for the 12 months to December 2009. It sets out the latest figures for objects reported through the Portable Antiquities Scheme for the last 24 months to December 2010. It also presents objects recorded by geographical area and by period and category of find. The report is available in rtf and pdf format.

Key messages

  • In 2009, 778 finds of Treasure were reported.
  • In 2009 67,089 finds were recorded with the Portable Antiquities database. In 2010 90,099 finds were recorded with the Portable Antiquities database.
  • In 2009 113 parties waived their right to a reward in 71 Treasure cases, allowing those treasure finds to be acquired by museums at no (or reduced) public cost.

Pre-release access

The document below contains a list of Ministers and officials who have received privileged early access to this release of Treasure and Portable Antiquities data. In line with best practice, the list has been kept to a minimum and those given access for briefing purposes had a maximum of 24 hours.

Contact for enquiries:
Department for Culture, Media and Sport
2-4 Cockspur Street
London SW1Y 5DH
Email: evidence@culture.gsi.gov.uk

The responsible analyst for this release is Peter Antoniades
For enquiries on this release contact: 020 7211 6188
For general enquiries telephone: 020 7211 6000

These documents are available online in Adobe Acrobat (.pdf) format.

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Hallaton Treasure conference -Leicester University, 5th November

Published: 7 years ago Author:

The third annual Treasure conference, held at Leicester university on 5th November is a one day conference focusing on the amazing Hallaton Iron Age Treasure, over 5,000 coins and silver objects including a Roman cavalry helmet. Located by metal detecting, the subsequent excavations revealed an important Iron Age shrine. The conference highlights the latest information about the site and related themes. This year the focus will be on the late Iron Age-Roman transition. With the stunning cavalry helmet and its conservation as a key theme.

Contributors to the conference include:

  • Marilyn Hockey and Fleur Shearman (BritishMuseum): Conserving the Hallaton Helmet
  • Dr Simon James (University of Leicester): The Hallaton Helmet Fragments: What Do They Mean?
  • Frank Hargrave (PhD student, University of Leicester): The Hallaton Shrine in Iron Age Europe
  • Alex Brogden (Silversmith):Making the Hallaton Silver Bowl
  • Prof. Michael Fulford (University of Reading): Calleva: Silchester in the Iron Age
  • Dr Tom Moore (Durham University):The Birth of Kings? Bagendon 'oppidum' and the Iron Age-Roman transition in western England
  • Andy Taylor (Thames Valley Archaeology South) and Kelly Abbott (Wiltshire Conservation): Excavations at North Bersted, Bognor Regis, West Sussex and an Iron Age Warrior Burial

The conference costs £15 including lunch and refreshments. To book please contact Helen Sharp, 01858 821085 or helen.sharp@leics.gov.uk

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Roman civilisation travelled further than history books tell us

Published: 7 years ago Author:

Chance Metal-detecting coin finds led to the discovery of a large Roman Settlement in Devon

Denarius Serratus from Devon

Last year, two metal detectorists started to discover Roman coins in a series of fields about 40 miles west of Exeter, first one, then ten...until they had nearly a hundred.

This would not be unusual in other parts of Britain but it has always been thought that Roman influence never made it this far into Devon as there is little evidence of Romans in the South West Peninsula of Britain.

They then called Finds Liaison Officer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme, Danielle Wootton at the University of Exeter to investigate further. After carrying out geophysical survey last summer, she was astonished to find evidence of a huge landscape including roundhouses, quarry pits and track ways covering at least thirteen fields, the first of its kind for the county.

Danielle being filmed by Gemma HagenDanielle received funding from the British Museum, the Roman Research Trust and Devon County Council in June to carry out a trial excavation on the site, and has already uncovered evidence of extensive trade with Europe, a road possibly linking to the major settlement at Exeter, and some intriguing structures, as well as many more coins.

Danielle said:

This was a really exciting discovery, but we are just at the beginning really, there's so much to do and so much that we still don't know about this site. I'm hoping that we can turn this into a community excavation for everyone to be involved in, including the metal detectorists. I've been lucky enough to get funding from Earthwatch next year; it will be exciting research, but we still need more funding to run the excavation.

Most exciting of all, they have stumbled across two burials that seem to be located along the side of the settlement's main road. Its early days, but this could be the first signs of a Roman cemetery and the first glimpse of the people that lived in this community.

Sam Moorhead, National Finds Adviser for Iron Age and Roman coins for the PAS at the British Museum, believes that this is one of the most significant Roman discoveries in the country for many decades; it is the beginning of a process that promises to transform our understanding of the Roman invasion and occupation of Devon. He believes we may even find more settlements in this area in the next few years.

The excavation of this unique site will feature in the forthcoming BBC2 series Digging For Britain.

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Viking coin hoard found in Furness, Cumbria

Published: 7 years ago Author:

Barrow-in-Furness hoardA Viking treasure hoard of silver coins has been unearthed in the Furness countryside. The find is being billed as 'the missing link' by experts who say it is the long-awaited significant evidence of 9th and 10th Century AD material culture of the settlers upon the peninsula.

Furness bristles with place-names whose origins are Norse, for example Barrow, Yarlside, Roa and Ormsgill. prior to this discovery, coins and artefacts of varying antiquity have been discovered by metal detectorists and field-walkers in the recent past. In 2006 a solitary merchant's weight, thought to be Viking or a little earlier, was found in farmland between Barrow and Dalton, which sparked local interest.

But this new discovery surpasses all previous Viking discoveries (designated as potential Treasure) for the region. It is the first time that such a significant amount of Viking numismatic material has been recovered from the Furness soil. This discovery indisputably links the area with the Norse mariners, and local history stands to be amended as a result. Previous Viking discoveries reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme in Cumbria, include the Cumwhitton burials (excavated in 2004 with help from English Heritage).

It is further anticipated that Barrow and Furness could benefit enormously from the rare discovery in terms of attracting tourism while also sparking a major interest from archaeologists who will be keen to devour new information about a little-known period of British history. The 92 silver coins and artefacts (several ingots and one near-complete silver bracelet) were discovered and brought to the surface in May by a locally-based metal detectorist. Amongst the coins is a pair of Arabic dirhams - silver currency which circulated in 10th century Europe of which only 3 have been reported to the Scheme prior to this discovery.

The location of the findspot, identities of the finder and landowner will not be disclosed, although it is understood that they wish to co-operate in the best interests of historical research.

It is thought that the silver was put into the ground sometime around 955 AD when the Viking invaders had established footholds in the north of England. While the size of the Furness hoard is smaller than the 10th century Vale of York Hoard which was found undisturbed near Harrogate in 2007, it is by far the largest amount of Viking treasure ever found in this area. Since its discovery, the hoard has been kept at Barrow's Dock Museum where curator Sabine Skae described it as 'very exciting for Furness.'

Ms Skae accompanied the hoard to the British Museum late last week where it was closely examined by a team of experts. It will return to the British Museum after today's press event. The British Museum's curatorial verdict will later be made known to the coroner who is likely to confirm the hoard as Treasure. Once the status of the hoard has been determined, it will then be valued by the independent Treasure Valuation Committee, and the Dock Museum hopes to be able to acquire it permanently.

Ms Skae, who has been in charge of collections and exhibitions at the Dock Museum for almost eight years, said:

This is a very exciting find for Furness. It has national significance because hoards from this period are rare and also nothing has been found in such quantity in this area before. While it is difficult, at this stage, to place a precise value on the find, it is likely to be worth tens of thousands of pounds. I would also like to stress that it's really important for metal detectorists to speak to landowners before conducting any searches.

Dr Gareth Williams, Viking expert at the British Museum, said:

On the basis of the information and photographs that I have seen so far, this is a fascinating hoard. By the mid-950s, most of England had become integrated into a single kingdom, with a regulated coinage, but this part of the north-west was not integrated into the English kingdom until much later, and the hoard reflects that. It is a good reminder of how much finds like this can tell us about the history of different parts of the country. I hope that the Dock Museum is successful in acquiring such an important find for the region.

Barrow Borough Council leader Cllr Dave Pidduck said:

This is an interesting find from an historical point of view, in terms of our links with the past it is extremely important.The hoard is something you can actually touch that links us with the Vikings. The schoolboy's image of the Vikings storming ashore from their longboats may not be so accurate because they might have settled here as farmers and traders and this find can shed light on that.

Barrow and Furness MP John Woodcock hailed the discovery as an important development for the area both in terms of its historical significance and for the capacity it holds in boosting tourism:

The Furness peninsula is off the beaten track, but it is steeped in history. Furness Abbey and the castle on Piel stand as silent witnesses to some of the most important events in the history of these islands and people from all over the UK and across world come to visit. But this discovery has the potential to give Furness an extra dimension in tourism. It is a rare find and we very much hope the Dock Museum will eventually be able to acquire the hoard on a permanent basis where a new audience will be keen to view this link with the Vikings of long ago.

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British Museum reports large increase in archaeological finds found by the public

Published: 7 years ago Author:

Today Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey, will launch the Portable Antiquities & Treasure Annual Report 2008 (9.4 MB), to coincide with an announcement by the British Museum that there has been a massive increase in archaeological finds found by the public.

In 2010, 90,146 archaeological objects were recorded through the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), a 36% increase on 2009, and 859 Treasure cases, up 10%; the British Museum manages the PAS, and also administers the Treasure Act 1996.

This increase in finds is mostly due to a rebuild of the PAS finds database in early 2010, which has made it easier to use for recorders and the public, and interns employed to record finds, generously funded by the Headley Trust and Institute for Archaeologists. Finds recorded by the PAS, include prehistoric flints, Roman brooches, Anglo-Saxon strap-ends, medieval coins, and some post-medieval false teeth...

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, said:

The high number of finds recorded is testament to the tremendous success of the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Treasure Act, and I am delighted that we have been able to agree new contracts with all the partners in the Scheme, so the current posts will continue. The finds reported though the Portable Antiquities Scheme and Treasure are changing our understanding of the past, helping archaeologists learn where people lived and died, and how these finds were used. But what is truly exciting, is that these finds are being made by the public not (in most cases) by archaeologists, transforming the archaeological map of Britain.

Ed Vaizey said:

I am a great fan of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. It has a tremendous ability to engage all sorts of people with an interest in archaeology, including those who find objects and those who want to learn about them. I'd like to pay tribute to everyone involved with the scheme, especially its finds liaison officers and the many people who have promptly and properly reported their finds. Thanks to them we can all experience something of the thrill of discovery and learn more about the past.

The Minister is also pleased to announce that Professor Lord Colin Renfrew of Kaimsthorn has been appointed as successor to Professor Norman Palmer as Chairman of the Treasure Valuation Committee.

For further information or images please contact Hannah Boulton or Esme Wilson on 020 7323 8522 / 8394 or communications@britishmuseum.org

Finds on Display:

The hoard of Iron Age gold coinsA Late Iron Age coin hoard of 840 gold staters from Wickham Market area, Suffolk (Report: No. 471). Date: AD c. 15-c. 20. Found on and after March 2008 by the finder; more coins were found during an archaeological excavation of the findspot by Suffolk County Council's Archaeology Service in October 2008. The hoard is highly significant as it is the largest hoard of Iron Age gold coins discovered since the Whaddon Chase Hoard (Buckinghamshire) in 1849; unfortunately this find was partially dispersed at the time of discovery, making it difficult to estimate the number of coins found. Colchester & Ipswich Museums hope to acquire.

A roman knife handleA Roman knife handle from Syston, Lincolnshire (Report: No. 114/ LIN-536F87). Date: AD c.43-c.410. Found by David Barker. This object depicts an erotic scene involving two males and a female, and a decapitated head! Only a handful of erotic knife handles are known from Britain, and this is handle is of a new type. The significance of the decapitated head is unclear. Acquired by The Collection, Lincoln.

A group of ringsA group of Early Medieval gold objects from West Yorkshire (Report: No. 182). Date: c.600-c1100. Found on 14 and 15 September 2008. The group comprises five gold objects, including three finger-rings, a gold ingot and a fragment of a gold cloisonné brooch. The largest finger-ring, weighing 30 grams, is fitted with a central garnet and a twisted gold hoop. Another ring features four unique niello panels, some with zoomorphic decoration. This is a very special group, testifying to the high level of workmanship among Early Medieval goldsmiths. Leeds Museums & Galleries hope to acquire.

Medieval gold lockeyA Medieval gold locket from Rolleston, Nottinghamshire (Report: No. 354/ DENO-E69756). Date: c.1450-c.1500. Found by Darren Hoyle on 7 August 2008. This object has the inscription cauns [sauns] repentir (without regret), which may have been an amatory phrase. This padlock is closely comparable to one from the Fishpool Hoard (Nottinghamshire), found in 1966, and on display in the British Museum. The Fishpool Hoard is thought to have been deposited in May 1464, during the Wars of the Roses. It is possible the Rolleston and Fishpool lockets were made by the same workshop. The Rolleston locket has also been acquired by the British Museum.

Notes to Editors:

  1. The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) is a voluntary scheme (managed by the British Museum) to record archaeological objects (not necessarily Treasure) found by members of the public in England and Wales. Every year many thousands of objects are discovered, many of these by metal-detector users, but also by people whilst out walking, gardening or going about their daily work. Such discoveries offer an important source for understanding our past. More information can be found on www.finds.org.uk
  2. All finders of gold and silver objects, groups of coins from the same find, over 300 years old, have a legal obligation to report such items under the Treasure Act 1996. Prehistoric base-metal assemblages found after 1 January 2003 also qualify as Treasure. Potential Treasure finds must be reported by law to the local coroner, which is normally done through the finders' local PAS Finds Liaison Officer. If declared Treasure, they may be acquired by a museum at their full market value (normally split 50/50 between finder and landowner), valued by the Treasure Valuation Committee, which is an independent committee of expert. The Treasure Process is administered by the British Museum. More information is available on www.culture.gov.uk or www.finds.org.uk
  3. This is the last combined Portable Antiquities and Treasure Annual Report. The Treasure Act 1996 requires a report to published on the operation of the Treasure Act, and also it is hoped a short report will be published on the work of the PAS, however all PAS and Treasure finds are reported on the PAS database - www.finds.org.uk
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Day of Archaeology 2011

Published: 7 years ago Author:

QR code for day of archaeology websiteThe Portable Antiquities Scheme is proud to be supporting "The Day of Archaeology 2011", a social media based project that will allow archaeologists working all over the world to document what they do on one day, July 29th 2011. This date coincides with the "Festival of British Archaeology", which runs from 16th - 31st July 2011 and is one of the hundreds of events being held to celebrate archaeology in the UK and beyond.

Archaeologists taking part in the project will document their day through photography, video, facebook activity, twitter commentary and written blog posts. These will then be collated in realtime on the project's dedicated website - www.dayofarchaeology.com, which will then provide a glimpse into a day in the life of people working in archaeology, from archaeological excavations to laboratories, universities, community archaeology groups, education services, museums and offices. This project is open to everyone working or volunteering in any aspect of archaeology from anywhere in the world - and even those who have defected! Currently, over 150 people and organisations have signed up. You could be next, so give archaeology a voice!

This innovative idea, follows on from the very successful "Day of Digital Humanities" and was dreamt up by Matthew Law and Lorna Richardson, two PhD researchers at Cardiff and UCL respectively. The project will be fully archived by the Scheme and if deemed successful, will be repeated next year.

If you would like to get involved, email the project team at dayofarchaeology@gmail.com and you will receive further details and account details for the website nearer the date. If you have no experience of using blog software, there's information on how to use the systems provided on the site. If you have experience in graphic design, perhaps you could consider entering the design a logo competition, rules and more information can be found on the project's website. 

The project is supported by:

The hashtag for this project is #dayofarch and can be used on tweets, blog posts and flickr photos to aggregate externally. Please consider using this tag if you refer to this project.

CBA festival of archaeology banner

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God, for Harry, England and St George

Published: 7 years ago Author:

The St George and the Dragon pilgrim badgeThe immortal words attributed to Henry V (1413-22) at the Battle of Agincourt (1415), in Henry V (Act III) by William Shakespeare. St George became popular in England following the Crusades: a vision of him riding with horsemen in white appeared at the Battle of Antioch (1098). By the end of the C14th the feast of St George (23 April) - also the date of Shakespeare's death - was observed as a national holiday, and after Henry V's victory over the French at Agincourt, St George's Day became a major festival, alongside Easter and Christmas. By then George had largely displaced St Edward the Confessor and St Edmund as England's patron saint.

The cult of St George became associated with Windsor, where the Chapel of St George was the ceremonial centre for the Order of the Garter, established by Edward III (1327-77) in 1348. Relics of St George at Windsor included his heart - a gift from the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund in 1416, who was a Knight of the Garter - various bones, and later a head (encased in gold): one of at least six heads' of St George known!

The icon of St George in the British Museum collectionSt George's shrine attracted pilgrims, and hence a trade in pilgrims' badges, especially during the C14th and C15th. Several such badges have been found, some silver, copper-alloy or pewter, but few as spectacular as a recent find from Cumbria (LANCUM-4501B2) which was found this month, and recorded with Stuart Noon (Lancashire & Cumbria FLO).

This badge is silver gilt. St George, who is shown bare-headed, but otherwise in full armour, has become detached from the dragon. He stands with his legs apart, his left hand lowered (in a protective stance) and his right hand is raised, holding the remnants of a lance. The dragon lies in submission, with is head slightly raised. Its limbs are shown, as is its curled tail and a single wing. It seem likely George would have stood above the dragon (as on lead-alloy pilgrims' badges of the period) and was originally attached to the dragon either by the (broken) lance running through the tail of the dragon or more likely holding the tail in the open hand, indicated by wear pattern on the left leg.

A small loop at the back of St George suggests the object was attached to cloth (or leather). As a rule most pilgrims' badges are decorated on one face, as only one surface is visible when worn, so this badge is unusual in being decorated on both sides. When compared to badges of other cults, a high proportion of those of St George are made of silver, suggesting higher status use and function beyond that typical of most pilgrim souvenirs.

There is reason to suppose that George was a historical figure. He is believed to have been a Christian of noble birth, from Lod (modern day Israel), during the late C3rd, who rose through the ranks of the Roman army under Diocletian. Following Diocletian's 'Edict against the Christians' (302) George was arrested, and ordered to renounce his faith. He refused, and was tortured before being beheaded at Nicomedia.

St George's crossIn contrast, the legend of 'George and the dragon'- which is celebrated on St George pilgrims' souvenirs - has no credible historical basis. In this tale a dragon was repeatedly bribed from its lair, so that inhabitants of the city of Silene (perhaps modern day Cyrene) could collect water from a spring nearby. First livestock was offered, and then (when no animals could be found) the people themselves drew lots. One day it is the city's princess who draws the short straw, only to be saved by George, who slays the dragon. Thereafter the people of Silene convert to Christianity.

George is not only the patron saint of England, but also Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, India, Iraq, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, Serbia and Russia, as well as many cities...

The British Museum has several examples of St George within the collection:

  • Pilgrim badge depicting St George and the dragon (P&E MLA 1913 6-19 38)
  • Edward Burne-Jones, St George fighting the Dragon, a pencil drawing (PD 1954-5-8-13)
  • Icon of St George ( M&ME 1986,6-3,1 and shown above in the text, copyright British Museum Trustees)

Happy St George's Day

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