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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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)