Archaeology Fabulous Finds

When people think about archaeology they often recall amazing finds of treasure. Gold and jewels like the Staffordshire Hoard spring to mind.

However, any archaeologist will tell you that while gold finds are hugely exciting, their real interest is in 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 and when did they end up where they were found?

The archaeology collections at Plymouth contain some truly amazing objects. Some are beautiful gold items of treasure. Others may not look so lovely but the information they reveal is fabulous.

Bronze age button (PLYMG: 1898.853)

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.

© Plymouth City Council (Museums and Heritage) / English Heritage

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

Bronze age gold rings

Archaeologists remain undecided as to precisely what this type of gold ring was used for. The current weight of expert opinion is that they were not used as currency. This is mainly because they are not of any fixed weight or gold content. However, not everyone has completely ruled out the idea that they might have played a role in high status social exchanges. Gold was an extremely valuable commodity during the Bronze Age.

Bronze age gold rings AR.1999.634_635

An idea which has grown in popularity is that they were used as a form of adornment. The suggestion that they are ‘tress-rings’, used to decorate the hair, has been around for many years.

Other theories are based on parallels to similar shaped objects used by various cultures around the world. These range from their being used as earrings, nose rings, lip rings, eyebrow rings and nipple rings. In fact, the collections at Plymouth include earrings made of shell from Papua New Guinea of a very similar shape to Bronze Age examples.

However, while it is tempting to draw parallels, there is no direct evidence to back up any of the various theories. It is also possible that the way they were used changed over time or that they were used differently by different groups of people. As such, for the time being, the intrigue as to what exactly these objects were used for, remains.

The rings are cast of solid gold. They date to around 1000-800 BC, the later part of the Bronze Age.

Found in the South Hams by Mr. Graham Fisher.

Gold and sapphire ring (PLYMG: AR.2006.162)

This fabulous finger ring was found near Dunterton, Devon. It would have belonged to someone who wielded significant wealth and power. The ring is similar to two Exeter rings which are believed to have belonged to clergymen in the upper levels of the church hierarchy. At least a dozen sapphire rings have been found in the graves of medieval bishops and they are thought to be the rings with which the bishops were consecrated.

Medieval gold and sapphire ring

In the Medieval period sapphires were thought to help maintain chastity and as clergymen were supposed to be celibate wearing a sapphire ring would have been particularly appropriate. The ring is of very fine quality may possibly originate from a school of gem cutting based in the West of England. Dunterton lies on the route between the medieval priory at Launceston and the abbey at Tavistock. The ring dates to around AD 1200-1300.

Found by a Plymouth metal detectorist.

Purchased with the Assistance of the ACE/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Headley Trust