Detective Work at the Archive: Top 3 Mystifying Objects

By glynn davis on 3 Nov 2014

Roman Basalt Die

With Sherlock fever gripping the Museum, this month’s ‘top 3’ object exposé at the Archaeological Archive has been inspired by the mysteries that can sometimes surround artefacts and the detective work that goes into unravelling their meaning.

Bone skate back

Bone skate (back)

Our first artefact is a favourite at the Archive and regularly features in a game of ‘guess the object’. Made from the matapodial bones of large animals (commonly horses and cattle), these artefacts are usually completely flat on one side, smoothed down through their use. They sometimes have a bevel or point at the front and can feature holes drilled into the front and/or back (but not always). There has been some debate in the past about their use, with some having interpreted them as linen smothers (PDF, opens in new window) or used in textile preparation. However, ethnographic study, experimental archaeology and even literary evidence have supported the interpretation of these objects as…ice skates!

Bone skate front

Bone skate (front)

The earliest examples date back to the Bronze Age and can be found in central Europe – London’s examples primarily come from medieval contexts, with this particular example having been excavated from Queen Victoria Street in 1987. These skates have had an entire blog dedicated to them when the Museum ran its Frozen Thames: Frost Fair display earlier this year.

Glass calender from Newgate Street

Glass calender from Newgate Street

Our next perplexing object is not entirely uncommon amongst the Archive’s store of archaeology. It is made from a somewhat mushroom shaped lump of glass and this particular example is incomplete and would have had a handle. Its shiny colouration in parts is sometimes mistaken for decoration but is actually a result of the glass decaying, this object having been buried for some 200-300 years under Newgate Street. The object type has been in use for far longer with examples found from the medieval period in the London and even some from Saxo-Norman contexts.

Almost complete glass calender with handle

Almost complete glass calender with handle

Whereas our ice skate had been misinterpreted as a linen smother that’s exactly what this object is, also being known as a calender. There seems to be some debate as to whether the glass would have been heated or not. Perhaps later post-medieval examples were made with a handle for exactly this purpose. Ultimately with the introduction of metal irons, this once common object can now appear perplexing.

Roman Basalt Die

Roman Basalt Die

Whereas our first two objects might have appeared mystifying at first glance, our last cryptic object perhaps looks incredibly familiar. If you’re thinking it’s a die then you’re right but in this case it’s some 1800 years old having been excavated from the floor of a C2nd Roman workshop in Southwark. The Romans were incredibly fond of games and gaming – the emperor Claudius even wrote a book (now lost) about dice games, De arte aleae. This particular die, however, is incredibly enigmatic. Made of basalt, instead of dots (or modern numbers) denoting the values one to six we instead have Latin words on each side of the die carved and inlaid with a lead-based pigment which reads:

P / VA / EST / ORTI / VRBIS / ITALIA

P_VA_EST_ORTI_VRBIS_ITALIA

If read in sequence this may very (very) roughly translate as something like ‘P(ublius) is arisen from the city Italy’. Only some five other lettered dice of this nature are known from across the Roman Empire – four from France and one from Hungary. All have similar formulae of lettering but with slightly different words in each case. No one has elucidated the exact nature of this game and we don’t even know if they were used with counters, a board or in combination with other lettered dice. Perhaps only a Sherlockian mind could attempt to unravel this ancient version of scrabble…

Next month we’ll be getting into the festive spirit and sharing some unusual culinary ecofacts with you from the Archive.

Book onto our behind-the-scenes tour to see more artefacts at the world’s largest Archaeological Archive.

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