Following on from Lacquering the lid, Jill Saunders lifts the lid on identifying the iron coffin’s late owner. Read on to find out more…
One of the exciting things about working with historic objects are the mysteries and gaps in our knowledge about an object’s life before it comes to us. For example; original appearance, its movements and different locations through time and/or any human relationships, such as craftsmanship and ownership. Such details may be discovered through historic research and material investigations and can often be very important to how we come to think about an object and approach its conservation treatment. In the case of the iron coffin we had some key questions:
• How would it have looked when newly made?
Though we could discern the original location of different elements, had researched early nineteenth century coffin decoration and, thanks to SEM analysis (see Name that fibre!) had confirmed the use of certain materials, there was still a lot of guess-work relating to original appearance.
• Was it definitely used for a burial?
Though the corrosion pattern led us to believe the coffin had been used (see Initial Investigations), we could not be positive without material evidence of human remains and/or documentation attesting use. Human remains would have been removed at the time of excavation and kept in the crypt alongside the many other skeletons homed at St. Bride’s. Further, as such an unusual object, it was plausible that it was made for display purposes only.
• If used, was it interred in the ground or placed inside a crypt chamber?
We knew from historical research that iron coffins were very unpopular from the perspective of the church as they did not degrade like the standard wooden caskets and prevented the deterioration of the body. Many churchyards simply refused to take them. Additionally, if the coffin was used, it would have belonged to a reasonably wealthy, perhaps important individual. The iron was in excellent condition for an archaeological object. Could these three things point toward a crypt as opposed to earth burial?
• If used, whose coffin was it?!
Jelena Bekvalac, Osteologist and Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men exhibition curator, had come across a reference to a lady laid to rest at St. Bride’s who had requested a burial which deterred grave robbers – could this be a reference to our coffin and its previous occupier?
A Breakthrough at St. Bride’s
The name of the individual who had requested protection from grave robbers was Mrs. Campbell and, chasing up a hunch about this reference, Jelena went to the St Bride’s crypt to try to find Mrs. Campbell’s coffin plate. Items such as metal coffin plates were commonly removed from coffins (usually wood and often badly degraded) and kept during graveyard excavations (Fig. 7). It was our hope that the corrosion/degradation patterns left on the coffin lid might match up to any plate pieces if they could be found. We had a major breakthrough when, in addition to Mrs. Campbell’s coffin plate, Jelena returned with a bag of decorative metallic strips which were immediately recognisable as our border motifs (Figs. 9-12).
The silver colour, light weight and historical context suggested that these decorations were tin but we performed a chemical spot test to support our conjecture. Though materials science analysis such as XRF or SEM would be needed to be 100% certain of elemental diagnosis, the positive chemical test result coupled with the contextual likelihood was a satisfactory conclusion. We also performed the tests for lead and silver which were both negative. As you can see from Fig. 10 some areas were very bright and in these places the remains of black substance could be seen. It was common practice for funerary motifs to be painted black and we think that in arrears where more paint has survived the metal has been protected from degradation, making it shinier than the dulled areas where paint was lost and the metal surface has been exposed.
When painted the borders would have looked like the example shown earlier (See Fig. 2 for reference).
Mrs. Campbell’s’ coffin plate remains were precisely the right size as the impressions left on the coffin lid:
Though such dimensions were likely to be standardised, the border and design motifs matched exactly the degradation patterns left behind, as shown here:
Though the plate at first glance looked to be the same material composition as the border pieces, the weight and areas of rust coloured corrosion products indicated that it was made from iron (though this would have been tinned and painted black, matching the border details in appearance).
Watch this space for the next entry covering the lacquering and consolidation of the main coffin: The main event