What’s on : Lectures

Two Jewels in the Yorkshire Museum

29 Nov 2022
Start time
6:30 PM
The Yorkshire Museum
Dr Mel Giles, University of Manchester and Dr Kate Giles, University of York
Two Jewels in the Yorkshire Museum

Event Information

This talk – by archaeologists and twins, Dr Mel Giles (University of Manchester) and Dr Kate Giles (University of York) – will focus attention on two jewels in the Yorkshire Museum’s collections.

The Danes’ Graves wheel-headed pin is on display in the museum’s prehistory galleries. Discovered in 1897 by the Antiquarians Mortimer, Greenwell and Boynton, this coral-incrusted bronze pin was found behind the head of a woman buried in one of the classic ‘Arras-style’ square barrows. Its story allows us to explore the life of an East Yorkshire Iron Age woman and her Continental connections, and the role of women in these chariot-loving, farming communities.

The Middleham Jewel is an exquisite gold locket which forms a centrepiece of the museum’s medieval galleries. Discovered by metal detectorist Ted Seaton in a cow field in North Yorkshire in 1984*, this intricately-engraved reliquary pendant reveals the religious beliefs and ritual practices which surrounded elite women in the later middle ages, as they navigated their role in the great households of the north.

Whilst these two jewels are separated in time by two millennia, Kate and Mel will reflect on the ways in which modern approaches to their analysis and interpretation offer new insights into the making and meaning of decorative objects in the Yorkshire Museum’s collections.

This event will be followed by the launch of the book to celebrate the YPS bicentenary “History of YPS” by Sarah Sheils.

To be held in the Tempest Anderson Hall in the Yorkshire Museum YO1 7DR at 6.30pm.

Images courtesy of York Museums Trust (Yorkshire Museum) -YORYM : 1948.930.1. and YORYM_1991_43-143

Member’s report:

Kate and Mel Giles, twins and archaeologists, gave a joint lecture on two jewels in the Yorkshire Museum’s collection.  Mel spoke about the Iron Age Danes’ Graves Pin, Kate about the Middleham Jewel, in each case examining their significance to the women to whom they had belonged.

The Danes’ Graves are a group of square Iron Age barrows on the Wolds, originally numbering over 500.  During an excavation in 1897 the archaeologist John Mortimer found a swan necked, wheel headed pin behind the skull of a woman buried in one of the barrows.  It is made of copper alloy set with coral, shells and, as yet, unidentified material, made between 250 and 150 BCE.  It may have been in the woman’s hair when she was buried or may have been pinning her shroud.  John’s daughter Agnes made a very accurate drawing of this, as well as other finds, and John gave the pin to Agnes, who wore it.  Mel spoke of the significance of the wheel to the chariot-using tribes of East Yorkshire. The shape may have had an apotropaic function, which, together with the value of the components of the pin, suggest that the woman with whom it was buried was of high status.

The Middleham Jewel was made some 1,700 years later, probably in London, though it was found in Middleham in 1985.  It is made of gold set with a sapphire and is of a very high standard of workmanship.  Originally it would have been surrounded by pearls, but these are now missing: their absence suggesting part of its history.  Engraved on one side is the Throne of Mercy – God supporting the cross on which Christ hangs, and with a Nativity above the Agnus Dei on the obverse.  Its inscription contains the tetragramaton and the word “ananizapata”, invoking the protection of God. Around the Nativity is a border of saints, prominent among whom is one thought to be St. Elizabeth.  It opens, and when found contained three small pieces of cloth.  This suggests it is an Agnus Dei, a container for the discs made from Pascal candles given as Papal gifts in the Middle Ages.  It seems to have been used as a reliquary with an apotropaic function for women in childbirth, by someone of wealth and status.  The missing pearls suggest that it may subsequently have become an object of veneration in a recusant household, the pearls becoming a discreet substitute for the whole.

Though made centuries apart in different belief systems each jewel can be interpreted as conferring protection and affirming the status of the women who owned them.  Mel and Kate Giles added greatly to our understanding and appreciation of two enigmatic objects which we are fortunate enough to have in York.

Felicity Hurst