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Beautiful and quirky medieval items discovered

A ‘snail man’ mount and a matrix depicting an elephant are among the medieval finds reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme in 2020. It is likely that both of these items will find homes in British museums.

Described as “quirky and unique,” the snail man mount was discovered in Pontefract, West Yorkshire. Dating from AD 1200–1350, the mount depicts a human figure emerging from a snail shell on the back of a goat, of which no close parallel has been identified. The male knight wears a Norman-style helmet with a long-sleeved tunic and one leg lunging forwards, suggesting the man is stepping out from the shell. The figure’s hands are pressed together as if in prayer, implying it has religious connotations.

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“This unusual silver-gilt mount may once have been attached to a leather belt or strap, or perhaps worn as a badge,” explains Beverley Nenk, Later Medieval Collections at Curator at the British Museum. “The image of the praying knight emerging from a snail shell atop a goat implies an element of parody or satire. Snails are often depicted in the margins of medieval illuminated decorated manuscripts and are thought to symbolise cowardice, and this may be the intended meaning. The mount may be a satirical reference to cowardly or non-chivalric behaviour of opponents in battle, or as a parody of the upper or knightly classes. As such, it demonstrates the humour often found in medieval material culture.”

Plans are underway for the Wakefield Museum to acquire the artefact.

Photo courtesy PAS / Norfolk County Council

Also discovered in 2020 was a gold medieval seal matrix, found near King’s Lynn in Norfolk. Dating between AD 1250 and 1350, it is engraved with an elephant carrying a castle or howdah on its back. Elephants appear in examples of early medieval art as a symbol of fidelity, gentleness, great strength and longevity, including Romanesque sculpture and Byzantine silks. The castle reflects the animal’s close association with the east, where Indians and Persians were said to use such structures to fight from in battle.

“This gold counter-seal, or private seal, would have been used to seal letters or documents, and demonstrated the wealth, status and education of its owner, adds Beverley Nenk. “The motif engraved on the gemstone is a rare portrayal of an elephant from the medieval period, which is found mainly on objects signifying wealth and status, such as carved ivory gaming pieces and heraldic badges. It is represented with a war-tower, or howdah, on its back, which subsequently became known as the ‘elephant and castle’ of heraldic iconography. Few people in medieval England would have seen a live elephant. The image may have been based on reports of these fabulous and exotic creatures from travellers or pilgrims returning from the East or from the Crusades, or from descriptions and images in bestiaries and other manuscripts.”

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The seal matrix also has an inscription, which reads x PARMAT EST ‧ WEVEI ‧ DRA OBEST. This likely meaning ‘armed with a shield, the outlaw dragon is harmful’, which suggests a mythic link between elephants and dragons – it was said that a dragon is an elephant’s only foe. Norwich Castle Museum hopes to acquire the item.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme also released its latest report, which covers the year 2018. This report showcases that 1,094 cases were reported Treasure in 2018, consisting of over 20,906 individual artefacts. Some of the other highlights include:

  • 347 of these cases were acquired by 108 different museums.
  • 22% of these acquiring cases have seen one or more interested party generously waive their reward.
  • More than 96% of Treasure finds in 2018 were found by metal-detectorists.

“It is fantastic news that Treasure finds have been acquired by over 100 museums across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with many ending up close to where they were found enabling local people to learn about the archaeology and history of their local area,” says Michael Lewis, Head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme and Treasure at the British Museum. “Key to the success of the Treasure Act is the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme, with our local archaeologists in England working closely with local detectorists and other finders.”

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“Treasure has captured our imagination for centuries and it is fascinating to see what has been uncovered each year,” notes Caroline Dinenage, the British government’s Culture Minister. “These discoveries contribute invaluably to the knowledge and understanding of our shared history and I am particularly pleased that so many will go on display in local museums around the country.”

Click here to read the Treasure Act Annual Report for 2018

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