Accessorising in Early Modern England

A Middling Culture of Portable Antiquities

We are grateful to Michael Lewis, Head of Portable Antiquities & Treasure at the British Museum, for this guest post.

The ‘Middling Culture’ project seeks to understand the cultural lives of the middling sort (1560-1660), but what might survive of their ‘material culture’, specifically in the small finds record? Known by archaeologists as ‘portable antiquities’, many of these items are found by members of the public, most by metal-detectorists, and recorded (generally on a voluntary basis) with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). 

To date, the PAS has recorded over 43,874 items dating to 1560-1660 or thereabouts: many finds can only be dated to a century or more, so 1500-1600, 1550-1700 etc. The vast majority are coins (31,354), jettons (4,427) and tokens (1,174) and other sorts of numismatica which (arguably) must have crossed the palms of many in society, though invariably the rich are more likely to use the highest denominations. Putting the coins to one side, we are left with almost 6,000 items of ‘other stuff’ dating to 1560-1660, including bells (41), cloth seals (231), thimbles (16), toys (108), vessel fragments (96) etc, reflecting the diversity of items used in the Elizabethan and Stuart periods until the Restoration (1660). Identifying the ‘middling sort’ amongst this relative wealth of material culture is fraught with challenges, including presumptions about what they might have owned, especially in terms of object use and their material composition. However, it might be reasonable for us to examine objects that represent the ‘disposable wealth’ of the country’s inhabitants – items that are perfunctory or decorative, maybe even ephemeral!  

With this in mind, one ‘object category’ that might be deemed useful to consider are ‘dress accessories’, of which dress hooks have already been considered in another Middling Culture blog, and I will reflect upon them again here. Although dress accessories – such as buckles, buttons, dress hooks and finger-rings etc – are clearly functional, sometimes (often in some cases) they can be made of more costly materials or highly embellished to a level beyond what is truly necessary. Obviously, the use of precious metals and a higher level of craftsmanship or work time, including the addition of applied or complex decoration, can add to production costs. As such (in very general terms) they must have been owned by people who had more wealth than most, but not necessarily as much as the highest echelons.    

Gold ring, c.1600-1650, KENT-2CA863

Almost all the Elizabethan and early Stuart finger-rings recorded with the PAS are precious metal, most being gold. Relatively common are so-called ‘posy rings’. These include an example from Brookland, Kent (KENT-2CA863), which is formed of nine domed roundels framed with corded wire. Inside the hoop the romantic inscription, in italic letters, reads ‘love is the bonde of peace’. Another gold ringer-ring from Kent, this time from Wootton (KENT-6EAD48) and without an inscription, has its bezel in the form of a six-petalled flower, with its central cell and each petal filled with red stones – perhaps garnet, or more likely sapphire. This has been likened to rings in the Cheapside Hoard. Such well-made, though not necessarily top-end, items must have been made for those below the aristocracy, probably in the merchant classes, but perhaps also including those in the middling ranks.

Buckle frame, copper alley, c.1600-1650, SUR-2E3924

Conversely, all the buckles of this date recorded by the PAS are made of base-metals, with the vast majority being copper-alloy. By the start of the 15th century belts and girdles become larger, leading to the popularity of double-looped buckle frames – though they appear in London and elsewhere from about 1350. An early 17th century buckle frame from the Thames foreshore, found near the Tower of London (LON-4C1830), stands out because it has the bright shine of the original metal. This ‘found as lost’ look contrasts with items discovered on arable farmland, more typical of those recorded with the PAS, that usually have a green or brown patina. Perhaps indicative of items owned by the middling sort is a double-loop rectangular buckle frame found at Theale, Berkshire (SUR-2E3924). Whilst it is possible that these decorative items could have been owned by folk with more wealth than most, it is hard to be sure as casting allows for stylised pieces to be made with relative ease.

Silver dress fastener, c.1600-1700, SF-A9E705

Amongst dress fasteners on the PAS database is an interesting silver example in the shape of a fleur-de-lis. It was found in Risby, Suffolk (SF-A9E705), and dates to the 17th century. Although it is a stand-out piece amongst its companions on the PAS database, it is of relatively simple construction and (perhaps) therefore not out of reach of the middling sort. It is worth considering this one alongside a type bearing the arms of the Commonwealth, and (as such) can be tightly dated: see for instance an example from Staple Fitzpaine, Somerset (SOM-7174B4). These are all made of copper-alloy and thus more affordable (one assumes) to a wider populous, reflected by the fact they are fairly common finds. People must have owned these to make a political statement of affinity to the Parliamentarian cause, and it is of note they are seemingly more common in the south-west.

Dress hook, lead, c.1500-1600, NMS-A47F71

Dress hooks might be considered in a similar vein to these other dress fasteners and fittings, especially as they are made of both silver (some also being gilded) and base-metals. The upper end of the market might be represented by a silver-gilt example, though incomplete, which was found at Great Witcombe, Gloucestershire (GLO-D42D08). It has a trefoil plate that supports three hemispherical domes, each decorated with applied filigree and granulated ornament. Of similar form, but made of lead, is one from Barton Bendish, Norfolk (NMS-A47F71). This clearly replicates the precious metal examples, but in lesser materials and would have been easier to make, surely appealing to those with less dispensable income. Most common are base-metal dress hooks, again probably inspired by their more impressive cousins. Somewhat typical of these, in very general terms, is a piece from Shalfleet, Isle of Wight (IOW-AF7846). This has a lozenge plate with a quatrefoil at its centre. In this case, as is fairly common, the hook is broken.

Dress hook, lead, c.1550-1650, IOW-AF7846

Previously I argued that copper-alloy dress hooks were owned by those in the middle of society, but metallic composition is not a neat guide to the status of the owner. As can be seen from the other dress accessories discussed above, it is possible that a wider range of society might have invested their wealth in certain portable objects. In this sense finger-rings are not typical, since (as we know from how they are used to this very day) precious metal items are more ordinarily owned by a wider range of modern society than certain other items of jewellery, such as bracelets, earrings and necklaces, for example. Therefore, it is quite likely that some of those at the upper end of middling society in 1560-1660 could have owned precious metal dress accessories also, perhaps allowing is to dwell on the challenges of identifying the middling sort through their material culture.   

Prof Michael Lewis (British Museum)

Mudlarking on the Thames, Part 2: What can we do with Fragments and Waste?

Image One: The group standing on shards under the Shard.

In Rubbish Theory, Michael Thompson argues that there are three kinds of value categories: ‘transient’ or ‘here today, gone tomorrow’; ‘durable’ or ‘a joy forever’; and rubbish. Things can move between categories, with a bottle thrown away at its time of use becoming a collectable or a ring that slipped from the finger five hundred years ago ending up on the Portable Antiquities Scheme and revalued.[1] Mudlarking, when the term was first in use, was used to describe those who scavenged for valuable goods in rivers and sewers, sifting through rubbish for a lump of coal or dropped coin.[2] Since our trip with the Thames Discovery Programme, I’ve been thinking a lot about fragments and waste – what do we do with them? What do they tell us about middling culture?

Image Two: Items lost and found.

Mudlarking finds that make the news are those, we realised, that are both hard to find for the untrained eye and rare compared to the vast quantities of glass, pottery shards, single-use plastic and bones that litter the foreshore.[3] What we found was an abundance of fragments. Little pieces of clay pipe, bottle necks, terracotta pipe pieces and cow teeth. The waste of London: building debris and stuff that had washed down to the river from layers of construction work. These pieces were very had to judge: how old were they? What object did they form part of? Where are they from? All of these questions we largely saved until the end, going by our individual eye for colour and shape, with most of us ending up with a homogeneous selection of fragments we judged to be old or pretty.

These fragments are, in many ways, a useful way of thinking about evidence in archives as well as in archaeology, museums and collections, and the way in which it is coming together in this project to narrate hidden histories. Often, we might only have a small quantity of information about a person or object: a record of a parish clerk and his activities in the churchwardens’ accounts, but no will, inventory, baptism or marriage record; houses destroyed in war, renovation or fire; objects without a clear idea of where they come from. It’s the threading of a multitude of material and textual fragments together, which build a sense of cultural lives. So this trip taught us to look more closely at the broken things, those pieces of objects that might have formed part of a middling person’s tableware, like the olive-green glazed borderware pieces we found in abundance.

These small pottery fragments, when found in such plenty, also point to a hidden archive of things that were not necessarily treasured for long, and which had a lifetime dictated by their fragility or style. These ceramic and glass fragments reveal an archive of broken things that are not often recorded and are part of the everyday, non-expensive but also indispensable, objects that appear in-use in recipes or literature. The items we uncovered are those we most frequently overlook. Some things, as Michael Thompson argues, are ‘transient’; they are bought for a particular purpose, then disposed of, break or decay. Yet, when we pick up these pieces of pottery, we start to revalue them as important to understanding past activities.

 Another aspect of material culture the Thames foreshore confronted us with was dispossessed objects. What do you do with something that cannot be traced to a specific place, person or even an object? There were so many layers of broken things that had been washed up, and a great swathe were still being washed down river. Where did they come from? Did they come from a dump, from a commercial context like a potter or butcher, or from someone’s home? Does this change how we might read them as deposits? One of the beautiful things about mudlarking is that the river dictates the travel of fragments downstream, depositing by the weight of the materials, so doing its own sorting. As such, it was difficult to read the journeys of the things we picked up, with fragments of pipes seeming as alien as bits of delftware. In many ways, a lot of research is an exercise in re-homing the displaced: thinking about the original composition of a rebound manuscript in an archive, placing a letter alongside a portrait, or imagining a silver spoon in someone’s hand. The foreshore presents a challenge in judgment when thinking about provenance because there is just so much, and every piece could be read as a valuable fragment of evidence for craft practices, industry, tools and use, aesthetic taste, or leisure activities.

The river’s waste is fascinatingly revalued through mudlarking, and some items are lifted out of obscurity and carefully recorded. But another thing about these fragments is their geographical particularity. All of the rivers’ deposits have arrived into, been consumed or dumped within the Thames. Although this is a very large area, it struck me how mudlarking often seems to be a London-focused activity. It would be fascinating to know of people doing similar activities elsewhere in the UK, and to know how deposits in the Thames compare to other rivers. This experience has been an invaluable exercise in thinking about fragments and their implications, methodologically and practically, and also how they relate to middling lives, where individuals and objects might appear dispersed across documents, spaces and things.

Hannah Lilley


[1] Search the Portable Antiquities Scheme Database here for all sorts of things lost and found: <https://finds.org.uk/>, Bottle dumps: < https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-22336710>.

[2] ‘Mudlark’, OED. See also: Evans, F. (2017, 09). The river’s debris is my pleasure and my obsession. Apollo, 186, 29. Retrieved from: <https://search.proquest.com/docview/1935786815?accountid=8630&gt; and Sanderling, T. (2016, Oct 12). Just mudlarking about. Country Life,94-95. Retrieved from <https://search.proquest.com/docview/1828172610?accountid=8630&gt;.

[3] <https://www.theguardian.com/global/2019/jun/09/tales-of-the-thames-joining-the-new-mudlarkers> and <https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/mar/21/-sp-thames-mudlarking-foreshore-3d-pictures-audio-nick-stevens>

Mudlarking in the Thames, Part 1: An Immediate Reflection

In the second chapter of Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book, the novel’s elusive journalist imagines what would be discovered when Istanbul’s Bosphorus dries up: “Amid the doomsday chaos, among toppled wrecks of old City Line ferries, will stretch vast fields of bottle caps and seaweed. Adorning the mossy masts of American transatlantic liners that ran aground when the last of the water receded overnight, we shall find skeletons of Celts and Ligurians, their mouths gaping open in deference to the unknown gods of prehistory. As [a] new civilization grows up amid mussel-encrusted Byzantine treasures, tin and silver knives and forks, thousand-year-old wine corks and soda bottles, and the sharp-nosed wrecks of galleons, I can also imagine its denizens drawing fuel for their lamps and stoves from a dilapidated Romanian oil tanker whose propeller has become lodged in the mud. […]” (17).

Today, London’s Thames affords the mudlarkers on its banks a similar, less apocalyptic, vision.  Down on the foreshore countless shards and specks of ceramic and clay pipes roll back and forth in the wash, bearing witness to last meals and first smokes.  

Thanks to the Thames Discovery Programme, we went on a guided mudlarking expedition today in the area that Elizabethans would have known as Broken Wharf.

The north bank between Broken Wharfe and Queenhythe, from MoEML, showing the stretch of foreshore we combed.

A licence is required in order to “mudlark” (in short, to search for items), and we were covered by the TDP’s licence; they do guided Thames walks like these, if anybody is interested in joining in.  We combed the foreshore between here and the eerie, prehistoric place of Queenhithe: home to Tudor ships lading and unlading, Anglo Saxon burial mounds, and the crumbling ruins of the Roman city.  It’s a registered ancient monument (and so searching is not permitted in this stretch of shore), and it’s intriguing to think of this stretch of inclining shore as one of the most enduring structural features of London, visible and valuable across millennia. 

Queenhithe

Most astonishing about this experience was the immediacy and quantity of finds, in particular clay pipes.  We’d found four of these within minutes of descending the stairs underneath the Millennium Bridge: the expanse is littered chiefly with the stems of the pipes, ranging from bone thin to more solid, rudimentary constructions.  Among the rocks and detritus are also a number of the bowls that form the end of the pipes.  

Our finds…
Our finds…
Comparing discoveries: a makeshift foreshore museum…

Also widely scattered about are fragments of pottery from various centuries—small shards in the shadow of the Shard.  Most of what we discovered dated from between the medieval and twentieth century (with the layers of packed riverbed no doubt containing older treasures).  It included delftware from the seventeenth century, glazed border ware—that distinctive English pottery from medieval and early modern London—and varieties of transfer ceramics and mass-produced items from the nineteenth century.

A borderware example from the Portable Antiquities Scheme

As exciting as the tangible objects themselves was seeing the river swell in and out and bring with each wave of a passing Thames Clipper an eddy of floating clay pipes and flecks of ceramic.  It was a surprising vision of a river teeming with layers of history, and it prompted a reminder of the serendipity of historical investigation and the accidental gifts of an archive like the Thames.  Like an archive, the river and its holdings are curated and preserved and contain centuries of labour.  We were directed to the narrative of the river wall, for instance, which marks the different layers of flood defence built one on top of the other, concrete on brick on stone on sand; some 150 metres further back—up towards St Paul’s Cathedral—begins the Roman foreshore. All the ground beneath the tube station and the river’s edge is an expanse of ancient and ongoing embankment work, encroaching on and trying to contain the city’s principal feature. 

To the untrained eye, the experience also tests value judgements and aesthetic principles.  What assumptions underlay my guesswork about whether this shard was “old enough” or that decoration handmade or mass-produced?  Some of the more striking ceramic artefacts were the common borderware from the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, whose vivid green sheen caught the eye more than equally functional Victorian pottery or twentieth century China (or plastic margerine lids). We were rightly warned to be careful of modern sewage items—things flushed down the toilet; but the early modern privy and, for instance, the sewer infrastructure of sixteenth-century Southwark are areas of historical fascination (hopefully not just for me!).  How might we think about the layers of “ordinary” objects swilling around right now in the Thames, the dress hooks or trade tokens or drinking vessels used and exchanged by the individuals who are the focus of this project?  

When the Thames dries up, amid the doomsday chaos, alongside bottle caps and seaweed what diverse debris from the early modern everyday will we recover—and what should we be looking for in the meantime?

Callan Davies