Dr Alice Forward, Research Associate
I am the archaeology research assistant on the Leverhulme funded project Living standards and material culture in English rural households 1300 – 1600 which is led by Ben Jervis (Cardiff University) and Chris Briggs (Cambridge University). Over the past three and a half years we have been collecting archaeological and historical data on medieval objects from excavations from 15 counties in England. This has been a large task, and we have relied very heavily on the knowledge and help of curators both within Historic Environment Record (HER) offices and local museums.
For much of the archaeological data collection we have used grey literature reports which are mainly held in HERs. These reports contain the details of archaeological fieldwork including any objects that are found in this process. In many cases, reports give some information on the material evidence but in some you are directed to the physical archive (stored ideally within a regional museum but frequently are still held by the archaeological unit/company who did the work). Depending on a number of things (see here for further information on museums and archaeological collections) it can be difficult to see this material.
We have focused on Wiltshire as a county case study and this enabled a more detailed data collection. Collections at Salisbury, Wiltshire and Swindon museums were included so that any additional excavated sites that were not fully represented through reporting or not accessible through publication were not missed. This was particularly important for a cluster of sites around Swindon which had not been brought to report or publication and therefore no information was publicly available on the finds from these excavations. Working closely with Stef Vincent (former curator of archaeology at Swindon museum), I was able to access archives that would have otherwise been missed. External researchers rely so heavily on curatorial knowledge of museum collections and this project is no different. Thanks to guidance from Stef Vincent a group of unpublished sites were made available for recording and this has led to some important inclusions within the archaeological dataset.
Many of the objects recorded by the project are iron, but due to corrosion they are not always recognisable forms. Iron objects can be overlooked a lot of the time and some on-site collection policies appear to include the throwing away of unidentifiable iron. The ironwork is though starting to produce some interesting results (all will be revealed in the book), and one object from a site called The Paddock provides us with a tangible link to the rural activities of those living here in the medieval period.
This is a medieval stirrup, dated between AD1200 – 1400. As you can see from the photograph the iron is heavily corroded and the object has not faired particularly well since excavation. Whilst a stirrup may not seem exceptional, in the whole of our dataset there are only four stirrups recorded therefore this is an important object. It was found on a small medieval farm site, it wasn’t from a wealthy household and it indicates that horses were being ridden. Horses were owned across the social strata particularly within the later medieval period. Horses are often associated with ploughing and farm labouring, but the stirrup demonstrates that horses were being used to travel on and not just for farm work here. The presence of a horseshoe from the same area of the site is further evidence that horses were being used on roads where shoes were required to protect their hooves.
Without access to the collections at all three of the Wiltshire museums we would not have been able to pull together the volume of material that has been possible. The additional details and information mean that we can make more substantiated interpretations of the material culture for Wiltshire. We have been incredibly fortunate to have had museums that were open to researchers in this area, as some counties do not have the same resources. More needs to be done to recognise the significance of the collections and support the curatorial knowledge held within regional museums.
Huge thanks to Valerie Goodrich (Salisbury museum), Stefanie Vincent (Swindon museum, now of Aerospace, Bristol), and Lisa Brown (Wiltshire museum). Also, thanks to Rob Webley for confirming the medieval date for the stirrup.