Bronze age button

1898.940 © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage) / English Heritage

This button was excavated from a burial mound at Fernworthy by the Dartmoor Exploration Committee. Their subsequent report was presented at Honiton in August 1898.

The same burial mound revealed fragments of a ceramic beaker, a flint blade and a bronze and wooden object, interpreted as probably being the remains of a small knife. There was speculation at the time that the button or ‘dress fastener’ may have been buried with clothing which had not survived. According to the report the button was located about two feet north west of a central pit within the mound.

The excavators believed the button was made of Kimmeridge ‘coal’ and described the upper surface as having a polished brown lustre. This colour was taken as being conclusive evidence that the button was not jet or ‘cannel coal’ from Yorkshire. However, conservators examining the button prior to its display in 2008 identified the material as jet.

Buttons identified as being made of Whitby jet have been found from elsewhere in Britain, including the Midlands and Scotland. Generally, they are dated to the late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age. The Fernworthy button is dated by association with the ceramic beaker found in the same burial mound, to around 2250-1950 BC.

There is no conclusive evidence as to exactly how jet buttons were used. However, it has been suggested that the buttons from a Scottish burial were worn around the waist. Jet buttons would have been high status objects. Experts have also suggested that because jet is electrostatic, meaning it attracts small particles when rubbed, it might have been regarded as magical.

Baring Gould, Robert Burnard, J. Brooking Rowe, John D. Pode, R. Hansford Worth. 1898. Fifth Report of the Dartmoor Exploration Committee. In Transactions of the Devonshire Association. Volume 30 pp 97-115