Monthly Archives: October 2014

Happy Halloween! / ‘Memento mori’ rings

Image: Flickr user Pascal, via Bones Don't Lie

Image: Flickr user Pascal, via Bones Don’t Lie

Happy Halloween! I’ve always thought that that is rather odd, wishing people a happy Halloween, considering that the day is all about death and fear. Not really very happy, is it?

However, I did think it as good a time as any to quickly say that I recently learnt about the past fashion of memento mori rings such as this one, dated 1740:

1868

Such rings, with a skeleton around the band, as well as the hourglass motif and hearts first came in in the mid-17th century (the earliest dated piece is from 1659), and were designed as a constant reminder of the wearer’s mortality. It was more common for such items to contain a crystal or piece of glass, under which may have been a piece of hair or a small skull design, and such examples as the one above or this nice piece from 1714 (below) that depict such a bold design are relatively rare.

Image: britishmuseum.org

Image: britishmuseum.org

I suppose that the modern skull ring is the closest that we have now, and a quick Google image search can throw up hundreds of varying designs and styles of these. However, all of these look as though they could be used to inflict a large amount of pain on someone else, whereas these historical examples are simple yet elegant and rather pretty in their design and execution. I’d quite like one, to be honest, even if they are a constant reminder that the end for all of us is nigh at some point or other, and looking on Etsy, it seems that modern examples in the style of those shown above are available. All very Halloween-like!

An example from 1740 showing a small skull design below a crystal or piece of glass.

An example from 1740 showing a small skull design below a crystal or piece of glass.

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Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths’ tricks: The Staffordshire Hoard

Anglo-Saxon-gold-hoard-fo-001

As I’ve said several times before, I’m from Stoke-on-Trent, and one of the most interesting things to happen to our City (and indeed our county) for quite a long time was the discovery in 2009 of the Staffordshire Hoard. I was one of the many people who queued to see it when it first went on display five years ago, and it was this that inspired both my dissertation and my enduring love of the Anglo-Saxons, which I hope to potentially pursue academically in future years. I came across a story in the news last week regarding this, and thought it worthy of sharing.

It turns out that some of the pieces within the collection are not quite as pure as you would expect, and that Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths occasionally tricked their royal clients using rather clever methods. Two years of research funded largely by English Heritage has shown that the makers of some of the material in the Hoard used a weak solution of ferric chloride (thought to have been made by heating up a mixture of water, salt and iron-rich clay [or maybe dust from crushed up old Roman tiles]) to remove silver and other impurities from the top few microns of gold at the surface in order to enhance the visual purity of the material. The Anglo-Saxons are known to have used this method for creating contrasts between shades of gold, this is the first time such a method has been observed as being used to enhance the purity of the metal. This would have altered greenish pale-yellow, gold/silver alloy of around 12-18 karat into deep gold, 21-23 karat material.

By comparing the Hoard material with that from Sutton Hoo, it is now thought that items made for royalty were being produced of pure gold, whereas that for the lower nobility was made from this chemically-altered alloy. There is also the possibility that this sort of surface purification may also have taken place in order to make the best of the quality of the gold used to make the item- perhaps the objects which have been treated in this way were of a slightly later date than those with the purer body, and were made from substandard gold. It is known that the quality of gold coming into England from the Continent declined over the 6th and 7th centuries, and so we could be seeing evidence of this here.

As with all of the work surrounding the Hoard, it seems that for every discovery made, there are twice as many questions raised!

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To keep abreast of the latest news about the Hoard and for some rather interesting scientific articles regarding analysis of various pieces, check out the Staffordshire Hoard website: http://www.staffordshirehoard.org.uk/

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A Viking Hoard from Scotland

I don’t know if you saw this in the news a few days ago, but a metal detectorist has discovered a hoard containing over 100 gold and silver Viking items in Dumfries and Galloway, which is thought to be the largest Viking hoard discovered in recent times, and contains many unique items. One of the most impressive items is a silver enamelled cross on a chain from the 9th-10th century, with depictions of what could be the four Evangelists (this will become clearer after the artefact has been cleaned), but there were also dozens of silver ingots and arm rings, as well as an interesting bird-shaped pin, gold rings and other items. Below the initial assemblage was then found a further collection of objects, and it was here that there was found a complete Carolingian silver vessel with the lid still in place, from about 100 years before the rest of the hoard. This item poses interesting questions about the trade links and connections that the Vikings in this region had, and allows us to speculate what may have been kept inside or may still be inside, before it is opened and analysed. It is though that this may be the largest Carolingian silver vessel ever discovered. As with many other hoards, It is unknown why this collection of rich material was buried and why it was never reclaimed, but I look forward to hearing more about this as the conservation gets underway.

The silver cross, chain and several of the arm band sin situ. Image: Derek McLennan

The silver cross, chain and several of the arm band sin situ. Image: Derek McLennan

The silver cross, with visible enamel decoration. Image: Derek McLennan

The silver cross, with visible enamel decoration. Image: Derek McLennan

Gold bird pin. Image: Derek McLennan

Gold bird pin. Image: Derek McLennan

Intact Carolingian vessel, thought to be about 100 years older than the other items in the hoard. Image: Derek McLennan

Intact Carolingian vessel, thought to be about 100 years older than the other items in the hoard. Image: Derek McLennan

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I do like the movies – honest!

Following on from the last cartoon that I posted here, I thought I’d add this before getting onto serious archaeology:

Image: conormchale.blogspot.com

Image: conormchale.blogspot.com

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Hello! A touch of class for the classroom: Life Update #10

Imagine this entire post being read in Stephen Fry’s voice for maximum enjoyment.

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It’s been a while. My first post for October, and we’re already plodding nicely through the month. Sorry about this. Life just seems to have been happening lately, and blogging has taken an unplanned backseat for a bit. I’m back now, though, for the time being. There’s been too much happening of interest into the world of archaeology for me to leave this any longer. That means there should be a nice handful of archaeology-related posts coming over the next few days, which I’ll try and fit in as best as I can around my work, and my body’s current craving for sleep. I think it’s this cold my family has got at present.

Anyhoo. Good job I haven’t decided to embark on that daily blog idea I had a while ago, isn’t it, as I’d have failed rather spectacularly by now.

Work’s going quite well, in case you were wondering (what am I saying. Of course you weren’t.), and I’m attempting to bring a touch of fanciness into the school through my rather snazzy navy waistcoat/black jacket/floral tie combo of late. It’s purely for utilitarian reasons though, you must understand- it’s very chilly at present where I have my desk. Well that explains the waistcoat. I’ll keep thinking of an excuse to account for the tie…

I’ll end here and get on with the archaeology!

 

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