Monday, November 20, 2023

100 Years of Collecting: Amazing Archaeology (Anglo-Saxons to Civil Wars)

We’re picking back up our time-travelling archaeological adventure with the Anglo-Saxons!

It follows on from our previous blog exploring prehistory to the Romans.

Anglo-Saxons and Vikings

In the 5th century AD central Roman rule collapsed and Britain dropped out of the Roman empire. Small kingdoms began to emerge in Britain.

In the Wakefield area the British kingdom of Elmet formed. In turn this was taken over by the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. 

Very few objects survive locally from the Anglo-Saxon and then Viking periods. This makes what we do have even more special! 

We have these two spearheads in Pontefract Museum:

A pair of long thin iron spearheads in a display case, they are partly corroded but generally well preserved

We also have part of an elaborately carved stone cross shaft on display at Wakefield Museum

It dates to the 9th century AD, and was found being used as a doorstep in a shop on Westgate 1000 years later!

A tall thin stone cross shaft with carved looping patterns. The cross and base have been recreated and are painted in blue, red and yellow.
The Anglo-Saxon cross shaft at Wakefield Museum, completed with reconstructions of the base and cross. These would have been painted in bold colours.

The most spectacular Viking find from our area is the Stanley Ferry Viking log boat. This is on display in Wakefield Library, kindly lent by York Museums Trust.

Remarkably well-preserved fragments of a Viking-era log boat, displayed on a frame that demonstrates what the full boat might have looked like.
The Stanley Ferry Log Boat at Wakefield Library 

The Norman Conquest

The Anglo-Saxon and Viking periods in Yorkshire ended with the Norman invasion of 1066 by William the Conqueror.

Although we don’t have many objects from the Norman period, we do have two awesome places where their legacy can be seen: Pontefract Castle and Sandal Castle.

Part of the stone keep at Pontefract Castle
Pontefract Castle, built in 1070 by Ilbert de Lacy

The standing stone remains at both these sites today are the reinforced replacements for the original Norman wooden buildings. 

These castles were key to turning William’s battlefield victory at Hastings into long-lasting conquest. They maintained dominance over the strategic landscape and the everyday life of local residents.

The main remains of Sandal Castle, an inner stone wall with two archways and the remains of a further part of the Castle to the right
Sandal Castle, probably built in the 12th century by the de Warenne family.

The Normans didn’t just build castles, however. They also built religious houses such as St John’s Priory in Pontefract. 

When this site was excavated in the 1950s and 1960s, some of the most interesting finds came from graves in and around the church.

This small cross was found around the neck of its owner. It is made of jet (the fossilised wood of the monkey puzzle tree), which was likely washed up on the beaches near Whitby.

A small stylised black jet cross with a series of circles engraved into its surface
The jet cross found at St John's Priory, Pontefract

You can see it for yourself at Pontefract Museum! It also features in the 100 Years of Collecting Online Exhibition.

Lost and Found

Most archaeological finds weren't originally as carefully placed in the ground. 

Many were lost, like this spear head, which was found in the Portobello estate near Sandal Castle. It was probably left behind during the bloody Battle of Wakefield in 1460.

A long pointed iron spearhead, which looks bumpy now due to corrosion before it was excavated
An iron spearhead, probably from the Battle of Wakefield in 1460

Other items were broken and thrown away, like these pottery fragments.

An array of pottery fragments, mostly curved, one part with a boar's face
Pottery fragments found at Sandal Castle

Although these fragments may not look impressive at first, when reassembled they from a portable urinal decorated with a boar’s head! 

Given that they were found at the Yorkist stronghold of Sandal Castle, and the boar was a symbol of Yorkist king Richard III - could it be that this was actually used for the ‘royal wee’?

A ceramic portable urinal, with a grey ceramic boar decoration. There's a handle to hold it in place and a hole to, well you know.
We carefully put the boar’s head decoration back together from its pieces. It is displayed alongside a replica of the urinal at Wakefield Museum.

We don’t know where the urinal was made but only a few miles away a major pottery industry was just beginning. 

Pottery making in Wrenthorpe became so important that the village became known as ‘Potovens’ after the kilns the pots were fired in.

Wrenthorpe pottery was distinctive, with dark colours and shiny glazes. This jug is a prime example! It was also found during excavations at Sandal Castle.

A tall brown ceramic jug with handle and off white leaf pattern on the front.
A Wrenthorpe jug, on display at Wakefield Museum and in the 100 Years of Collecting Online Exhibition

The English Civil Wars

A second Wrenthorpe pot also makes our 100 Years of Collecting list - but this time because of its contents!

The Ackworth Hoard consists of nearly 600 gold and silver coins, all buried in a Wrenthorpe pot, along with a gold ring.

A partially broken small brown pot with various gold and silver coins spilling out of it. There is also a gold ring.
The Ackworth Hoard

It was buried in the chaos of the Civil Wars during the siege of Pontefract Castle in the 17th century. It had probably belonged to a Royalist supporter, who wanted to prevent it from being taken by the Parliamentary troops billeted in Ackworth. For whatever reason, the person who buried it was unable to come back and retrieve it. 

The coins in the Ackworth Hoard were worth £85 and 12 shillings. This was a lot of money - around 7 years’ pay for a foot soldier during the Civil Wars.

The hoard remained untouched in the pot for over 350 years – until it was discovered in someone’s garden in the 20th century! 

You can see it for yourself on display at Pontefract Museum.

Even in the middle of a siege, the soldiers in Pontefract Castle needed paying. Being cut off from the outside world made this difficult. 
Their answer was to create their own home-made coins from reused silver.

The silver would come from luxury tableware and candle-holders owned by the richest members of the garrison. The silver objects were cut up or melted down and reshaped. The 'siege coins' were then cut from the resulting silver sheet. 

You’ll notice that siege coins aren't circular in shape like ordinary coins. This is because it was much easier to cut a straight edge than a curved one!

Diamond-shaped silver siege coin, with image of Pontefract Castle and the year 1648 engraved on the front
One of the siege coins produced at Pontefract Castle

This example of a Pontefract Castle siege coin is in the Online Exhibition and on display in the Visitor Centre at Pontefract Castle. 

It has a standard design for these siege coins featuring an image representing the castle itself. It includes the year it was created and the Castle was under siege - 1648.

It also has a morale boosting inscription, which translates as "while I breathe I hope".

Reverse of the diamond-shaped siege coin with Charles I's royal cipher roughly stamped on the back. Part of it is cut off when the coin was cut,
Reverse side of the siege coin, featuring Charles I's royal cipher.

That brings us to the end of our amazing archaeology 100 Years of Collecting highlights!

There’s lots more objects exploring the many and varied stories of the Wakefield district in our Online Exhibition.

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