Photograph of a gold ring with a dark jewel

© Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage)

When people think about archaeology their opinions often fall into one of two camps. Some people think of items such as broken pieces of pottery, building fragments or bones that have been dug up from the ground – the sort of things you might see in an episode of ‘Time Team’. Others think of amazing finds of treasure – gold and jewels such as the Staffordshire Hoard.

Any archaeologist will tell you that while finds like these are hugely exciting, the most fascinating thing is what they can tell us about the past. What sort of lives did the people who owned them or came into contact with them live? How, when and why did they end up where they were found?

The archaeology collections here in Plymouth contain some truly amazing objects including some beautiful gold treasure items – one example of which is this fabulous gold and sapphire ring.

This piece of Medieval jewellery was discovered near Dunterton, Devon by a Plymouth-based metal detectorist in the mid-2000s. It was acquired for the Museum and Art Gallery’s permanent collections thanks to funding support from the ACE/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Headley Trust which supports, amongst other things, museums being able to acquire items which have been officially declared as Treasure.

This ring would have belonged to someone with significant wealth and power. It’s similar to two rings discovered in Exeter that are believed to have belonged to clergymen from the upper levels of the Church. Over the years, at least a dozen sapphire rings have been found in the graves of Medieval bishops. They were probably worn by bishops as a symbol of their vow to live a life of religious service.

In European history, the Medieval period runs from around AD 400 to 1500. This ring dates from AD 1200-1300 so was made during the era known as the ‘High Middle Ages’. This was a time of rapid population growth throughout Europe as well as much political and social change. Sapphires were thought to help maintain chastity. Men of the clergy were supposed to be celibate so wearing a sapphire ring would have definitely been appropriate.

This ring is of very fine quality. In fact, it may originate from a school of gem cutting that was based in the West of England during Medieval times. The location where it was discovered might also be significant and add weight to the idea that it belonged to a member of the clergy. The West Devon parish of Dunterton lies on the route between the Medieval priory at Launceston and the Abbey at Tavistock. Could it have been lost by a bishop travelling between the two?

Find out what else is in our collection by visiting our archaeology pages.

Jo Clarke, Marketing and Programme Development Officer. This article was first published on 18 February 2014.