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Durham University

Department of Archaeology

Durham River Wear Collection: Case Studies

Here are some student case studies of objects from the Durham River Wear Collection, most of them small, made of metal, and recovered from a submerged riverbed between 2008 and 2012.

Medieval Lead Mount - researched by Gabrielle Flexer

Medieval mount

The head of the mount has five decorative leaves radiating from a central flattened dome. Each leaf consists of three lobes, each lobe having a central longitudinal ridge. The rivet on the back of the mount ends in a tapered point and is bent near the base at approximately a right-angle to the head of the rivet and curves parallel with the head towards the point.

Illustration of the medieval mount

Line drawing illustration - Rotring isograph pen - Stipple effect


Mounts are small metal objects and are often decorative, rather than functional. They can be made from one of many metals: lead, tin and pewter, copper alloys and iron or silver and gold. Lead was originally a by-product of silver mining and so, was cheap to buy. Due to its low melting point (around 325°C) was easily manipulated and cast. However, the softness and weight of lead meant it was impractical for use in large or functional objects and so, was most often used for small decorative objects.


A lead mount could have been cast in one of two ways: either with a one piece open mould or with a multiple piece closed mould. A one piece open mould would have necessitated the use of a two stage process: the casting of the head and then the attachment of the rivet with solder. There is no evidence of the rivet being attached with solder on this mount so I suggest it was most likely cast in a two or three piece closed mould. The design of the mount is simple and does not have any under-cut elements and no sign of a flash mark across the face of the mount, so I would suggest that the mount was cast in a two piece mould.


The clothing styles and fashions of the medieval period changed very little but the evidence suggests that mounts had fallen out of fashion by the sixteenth century in Britain. Although there are still some examples coming from the continent and it is very likely that they were still worn on dress clothes, mounts were probably no longer used in day-to-day wear.

The design of this mount is a leaved cinquefoil with a central dome. The cinquefoil is most often used depicting the petals associated with the rose or, sometimes, the flower of the wild strawberry plant. With this mount, the distinctive three lobes of each leaf or petal suggesting a rose of strawberry blossom is unlikely. Instead, the flowers of soapwort, Campion or forget-me-nots seem the closest to this design.

Evidence of Use

The bending of the rivet on the rear of the mount suggests that the mount was used for its intended purpose and was not thrown away or discarded during the manufacturing process. For use, the rivet of the mount is passed through a pre-made hole in the leather and then hammered down to crimp the leather between the head and the rivet. The bend about 2mm from the base of the rivet at a right-angle from the head is evidence of this process. As the mount is made of lead, the head was probably rested on top of another piece of leather while the rivet was hammered, to ensure that the decoration was not damaged. There are two areas of damage on the object: the tips of three of the decorative leaves have been bent and deformed, and the bases of two leaves have cracks running across them.

Date of object: 12th-15th Century

Nuremberg Jetton - researched by Holly Marston

Nuremberg Jetton

Galley of France type (SHIP-PENNY TYPE) circa.1520-1600


Brass copper to zinc (low background iron, strontium and calcium).


Struck or hammered (reverse is orientated upside down to the obverse). Blank disc of metal in between two dies, the upper die being struck by a hammer, the two dies then leave their impression on the disc. The obverse and reverse are in relief, this means the dies were cut in intaglio to form a mirror image on the surface of the jetton.

0.7mm thick, 26.86mm wide, weight 1.5g (measurements typical of jettons from this period).

Minted in Nuremburg in the sixteenth century. Does not feature the name of issuer (for example, Hans Krauwinckel or Hans Shults) making it difficult to date accurately.


Obv. - A ship on water with flag on right hand side and pennant on left.

Rev. - A fleur-de-lys in each corner of a double lozenge, with three annulets along each side.

Rev NO---:-DO-D-: ABOBI: ABOIB Obv VOBADT: OBABLOI: VOBAIBO (Garbled/nonsense)

The stylised ship is important. Parisian jettons featured a ship design from the early fifteenth century. We know that the Nuremberg series of Galley of France jettons often had a reverse with four fleurs-de-lys in a lozenge - a popular design that lasted from 1520-late sixteenth century. Later sixteenth century versions of the ship show simplified rigging in four yards from the top of the mast to the deck with no sail, as in this example.

Evidence of Use

Bent and cracked - fragile appearance. However, low copper brass is more fragile than higher zinc brasses and it may have occurred when struck. Worn - evidence of a long period of use.


The jetton is dated to the Tudor period, however, this was a time of economic downturn in the north of England, especially in Durham - he King's commissioner entered the cathedral in 1538 and defaced the Shrine of St. Cuthbert, which was central to pilgrimage, the Rising of the North in 1569, crop failures in 1587 and the plague in 1597 and 1599.

A jetton is a counter (usually of brass) formerly used to facilitate arithmetical operations. These calculations were known as reckoning and involved the use of chequered cloth (where the title 'Chancellor of the Exchequer' comes from). The calculations were only simple, allowing for addition and subtraction, but could allow calculations in the thousands. The process of reckoning was used by Royal courts, large estates, cathedrals, abbeys and lesser houses, and was used generally in banking and by moneychangers, merchants and shopkeepers. Even the public were provided with jettons in bags of 50 or 100 and large numbers were needed for all but the simplest of calculations.

Medieval Wrought Iron Key - researched by Susannah Bartindale

Medieval wrought iron key


Iron (wrought) copper, calcium, sulphur and manganese (probably absorbed during burial conditions). Carbon is the major variable that distinguishes between wrought iron, steel and cast iron. Too little, and one gets wrought iron; too much and the iron begins to flow as cast iron. Just the right amount of carbon (around 1%) or a bit more) and one has steel.


Solid, sub-circular section shank, with a slight widening at shoulder. Shank does not extend beyond bit and tapers slightly at end. Slight bulge in the middle of the shank. Two pairs of shallow incised collars in shank, starting on one side and extending over the top. One pair continues a little way down the other side, but other pair does not.

All clefts rectangular. One cleft parallel to shaft from bit end, extending just over halfway into the bit. Three cleft perpendiculr to it, extending to around halfway into the bit. The two middle wards extend slightly beyond the outer wards. The ward at the bow end of the bit is bent towards the bow slightly. Possible wear at end of shaft. All wards worn and rounded, with sloping edges. Ward at bow end has a chip or groove worn into it.

The key fits well within Ward-Perkins' classification of 1975, as a Group IV key. This group is characterised by a solid shank and relatively simple bit, often with a cleft parallel to the shank, and comb-like clefts perpendicular to it. Although oval bows are less common, as are bows that are flattened slightly, both features are in use within the group.

Ward-Perkins places Group IV keys as being in use between the eleventh and the fifteenth centuries, with some variation of form through time. This is most obvious within the extent of the shank from the bit, which extends beyond it before and after the thirteenth century.

Ward-Perkins, J.B. 1975. Keys. In London Museum: Medieval Catalogue. (4th ed.) London: London Museum.

Evidence of Use

There are several signs of the use of this object. All of the wards are rounded, and slope either to the front or the back of the key. The ward closest to the bow has a slight chip in it. These patterns of wear are consistent with the use of a rotary key.


We know that the materials for iron production, iron ore, charcoal (later coal), are all found locally to Durham. Iron ore seems to have been smelted from around 1153 when King Stephen confirmed the mineral rights of Co. Durham to Bishop Hugh de Puiset. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, vertically developed bowl furnaces were in common use. Durham's main economic role was to provide the bishopric and priory with supplies, as well as being the local market for the surrounding rural areas. Later the emphasis moved away from buying from local merchants to buying from merchants of York and Newcastle. The goods traded in Durham were valuable enough to have been locked away.

Square Double Face Coin Weight - researched by Martha Infray

Square double face coin weight

Made in Antwerp. Late sixteenth century, probably between 1576 and 1579 (Withers: 1995: 61). Length: 14.5mm. Width: 15mm. Thickness: 2.1mm. Weight: 3.45g.


Brass. Elemental analysis through an EDXRF machine reveals that it is made of brass, an alloy of copper and zinc. Traces of iron, manganese, lead and strontium are also present.


St. Ladislas holding a halberd in his left hand and an orb in his right. The orb, also known as a globus cruciger, is a globe surmounted by a cross, symbolising Christ's (the cross) dominion over the world (the orb). Orbs have been used as symbols of monarchical power and justice on coins, coin weights, iconography and royal regalia from the Middle Ages to the present day. Ladislas is in armour and wears a crown. Two billhooks frame his head. The letters H (very faint) and D on either side of St. Ladislas stand for 'Hungarian ducat' (Withers: 1995: 24). A ring of beads encircles the whole design.

Reverse: Incorporated within a circle of stars is the hand of Antwerp. Underneath the hands stands a single six pointed star. This indicates that the maker was appointed by the sovereign (Withers: 1995: 10). The letters K and I on either side of the hand are the initials of the unknown user of the coin weight.


The metals, in this case copper and zinc, were melted presumably in an Antwerp foundry, before being poured into a pre-made mould. Once the metals had solidified through cooling, the mould material was removed.


Ladislas was king of Hungary between 1077 and 1095. He personified the knight-king ideal. Along with St Stephen, he is generally regarded as one of the two great rulers to consolidate the institution of Christian kingship in Hungary. It took Ladislas fifteen years of warfare to acquire the crown. Ladislas ascended to the throne by popular demand upon his brother Géza’s death. He was canonised in June 1192, approximately a century after his death, on orders from king Béla III. St Ladislas continued to be a national hero in Hungary after his death. This portrait painted c.1600 depicts him crowned, in full armour, and holding a halberd and an orb, the same attributes he wears on the design of this Durham coin weight. By looking at the history surrounding St Ladislas, the reasons why he was chosen to appear on Hungarian ducat coin weights become obvious. He was a much loved, respected, powerful, Christian knight-king who united Hungary. He was the absolute symbol of Hungarian patriotism.

As well as being the centre of the entire international economy in the sixteenth century, Antwerp was the hub of coin weight manufacture in the southern Netherlands. More than 70 makers are known to have mass produced coin weights (Withers: 1995: 10). These were widely used in the sixteenth century. International trade meant that many currencies were circulating and hence the need for coin weights boomed. The existence of coin weights reveals a lot about monetary practices and the nature of society in that period. The coin weight was originally part of a commercially sold set covering a wide variety of coins which a merchant might come up against from time to time. These beautiful wooden boxes also contained a pair of folding scales. Sets of Dutch coin weights were widely sold and many ended up in the hands of English merchants, which could explain how the Durham coin weight came to Durham.

It was cast in brass, in the late sixteenth century, by an unknown coin weight manufacturer in Antwerp (KI) and was used to weigh Hungarian ducats.

Medieval Pin - researched by Katherine Corneli

Medieval pin

Copper alloy. Length 77 mm, diameter 2 mm (shank), 4 mm (head). Weight 1.5 grams.

Possible late thirteenth or early fourteenth century.

Line Drawing

The shank is elliptical in cross section and slightly “hipped,” being widest in the centre. A seam runs along its length. The end is slightly crooked but has a sharp point. The head appears to be formed of a separate piece of metal wrapped around the pin shank and shaped to resemble a crown. It is cylindrical with four v-shaped notches removed to create points or prongs on the sides. An equatorial groove beneath these prongs creates a ring or collar between the crown and the pin shank. Another groove perpendicularly bisects the entire pinhead through one of the prongs. The pin is a lustrous yellow-gold in colour with a greenish black corrosion on some areas of the shank, underneath the head, and within the crevices of the decoration.


The pin is primarily copper with some zinc (approximately between 5-15%) and a very small amount of lead. Magnesium and iron levels represent background levels from the river.


The outer part of the pinhead, thought to be two separate pieces of metal, is actually one with a groove around the middle. The perpendicular groove is reminiscent of one formed where the ends of a single turn of hemispherical section wire meet, as on Caple’s (1986) “K-type” pins. Removal of the blackish material from the pinhead revealed a shiny blackish-silver layer between the head and shank, in the perpendicular groove, and around the prongs, though not in the groove between the head and the crown. Analysis of the material by SEM revealed quantities of lead and tin that may indicate attachment by a soft solder.


In the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, following the decay of the feudal system (ibid.) and the increasing availability of fine textiles (Piponnier and Mane, 1997), costume became so complicated and ornate among people from all classes that sumptuary laws were eventually established to prevent “a blurring of social distinctions (Lachaud, 2002 p. 106).” Style now dictated excessive folding of fabric and complicated headdresses that would require pinning in place (Caple, 1986). The change in fashion likely directly increased the demand for pins. By 1347, French women of high status could order pins “de la façon d’Angleterre” (in the English fashion) by the thousands.

The increase in demand for pins invariably resulted in an increase in production requiring more standardisation than before so in the fourteenth century accounts of pinner’s guilds emerge in London and York. Medieval wire was made from narrow strips of sheet metal that was pulled through progressively smaller draw plates. This resulted in a seam being formed, such as the one on pin 1301, where the sides of the strip came together in a ‘c’ shape. The wire was sharpened using pinners’ bones then the pinhead was attached.

This method of wire drawing may have begun around 2000 B.C. (Newbury and Noti 2004) but no evidence for wire-drawn pins is found before the 12th century (Capl 1986). The seam on the shank of the pin thus supplies an early date of 1100 A.D.

It may be suggested, based on the evidence presented above, that this pin represents a time in Britain, from within the thirteenth century to the beginning of the fourteenth, when life and fashion underwent a transformation.

Amorial Seal Matrix - researched by Catherine Simpson

Amorial seal matrix

A copper alloy seal matrix with a circular shaped die and a conical shaped handle with the trefoil shaped hoop at the apex. There is a hole in the loop that has been blocked by corrosion. The die is decorated with an armorial device that consists of a shielf with a chevron between three ivy leaves. Foliage decoration sits to the left and to the right of the shield. Running around the outside of the shield is the legend in Lombardic caps, which is bordered by two rows of incised holes. The legend reads: *S IOHIS DE INSVLA.

The seal forms part of a group of matrics known as armorial seals. An armorial seal matrix is distinguished by its motive, which consists of a shield of arms and its accessories. It should be noted that without the shield present they cannot be classed as armorial seals. The lettering and pattern of the die of the object appear to be incised into the design rather than cut out of it. This would have been done by the technique of engraving, which involved the surface of the metal being cut away with gravers of scrapers (Hodges, 1989, 78). The only way to date the seal is through its style and decoration and by a comparison to seals found in official excavations. Research has shown that conical shaped seals such as this one are increasingly found from the thirteenth century onwards, which may suggest a date from this period onwards for the artefact.

The style of the artefact means that this is a medieval seal matrix of the conical type, used to authenicate or seal documents and letters. It is composed of a tertiary copper alloy and was probably produced by means of a two piece mould. The design on the die of the matrix and its overal dimensions reveal that it is a type known as the armorial class, and that it probably belonged to a member of the minor nobility or merchant class. The motif of the die reveals that it was probably owned by a member of the de Lisle family and that they were possibly minor members of the nobility. The style and decoration found on the artefact probably means that it dates to the fourteenth century, possibly early to mid-fourteenth century. Although its burial conditions have led to some corrosion, it is generally in very good condition. As a seal was usually broken after the death of the owner, it is a rare find and of importance in the typology of seal matrices.