Portable Antiquities Devon: The Metal Mushroom Mystery

By Richard Moss | 17 November 2004
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shows an ornate silver pin with a round head with flower designs on it.

A Tudor silver-gilt dress pin currently being dealt with under the Treasure Act and classed as treasure. Picture © Exeter City Council

This is the second of seven introductory features about the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) Roadshows, happening nationally on November 27, 2004.

What kinds of objects land on the desk of a Finds Liaison Officer? If Nicky Powell, the FLO for Devon is anything to go by, the answer is everything from Roman brooches, coins and musket balls to…mushrooms and slugs.

“Looking at my desk now gives you an idea of the breadth of finds that are coming in,” she tells me. “There’s a selection of Roman pottery, medieval items and post-medieval clay pipes. There's a Tudor silver gilt dress pin, which is only the fourth such item found in Devon and we also have a weird thing that looks like an armoured slug.”

The slug is apparently causing 'a few problems’ for Nicky and colleagues at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter and it remains, as yet, unidentified. But over a typical year she successfully identifies and records hundreds of objects from a range of ages, a majority of them dating from the medieval period.

“I think this is due to the ageing process and the soil conditions, which means there are more items surviving from this period,” she explains, “but as you would expect with places such as Exeter, with its Roman heritage, we get quite a few Roman coins and brooches too.”

shows a round copper alloy weight. It has an indented surface and has some symbols on it.

An 8oz trade weight made of copper alloy and post-medieval in date. © Exeter City Council

A large part of Nicky’s work is undertaken with metal detecting clubs - where many of the finds are recorded. “One thing you might not realise is that metal detectorists also have lots of pottery shards and thanks to the PAS they are getting better at recording them.” This has also resulted in a rise in the number of pre-historic items such as axe heads and worked flints being recorded through the scheme.

“They now understand the importance of recording, using maps and plotting grid references,” adds Nicky. “But then I find that with most detectorists, even if they found something years ago, they tend to remember the find location if I show them a map.”

And there’s the trick; the PAS is all about location, location, location – finding, plotting and recording and with the soil conditions in the county not being the best for the preservation of metal artefacts, Nicky firmly believes that improving the relationship with members of the public is key to a better archaeological understanding of the area.

“We have what can be best described as very unfriendly soil,” she explains, “conditions are very acidic so it’s unfriendly to metal preservation. It makes it all the more important that we reach out to all members of the public who find things so we can offer conservation advice.”

shows a metal object indinsticntly shaped - rather like a slug or part of a squid tentacle.

'A little bit like a slug': just one of the PAS Devon mystery objects. © Exeter City Council

Nicky also believes the scheme can help with the previously complex process of declaring finds as treasure. “We can help with the smooth running of the treasure act,” she says, “we can write reports and hopefully speed up the process, it still takes about a year - but it used to be years. I think people are keener to help if we can offer a service like that.”

One of the items recently rescued from the soil of Devon is a set of 8oz trade weights dating from the late medieval period. They turned up in a field, miles from anywhere. “Things get lost,” she says, “so you get items that you would normally associate with a town or city turning up in rural areas.”

It’s a medieval mystery easily explained by a process of what was euphemistically termed ‘night soil’ (human effluent), being brought from the city to the fields and used as manure.

It’s a handy theory, which may explain a number of unlikely finds in improbable places, but some objects – regardless of location - remain a mystery.

shows a metal chape from a scabbard with medieval pattern designs on it

A chape from the scabbard of a sword or dagger - made of thin sheet copper alloy and dated to the 14th or 15th century. It was discovered by a metal detectorist near Dartmouth. © Exeter City Council.

“Visualise, if you can, a metal mushroom,” says Nicky. “It’s about 3cm high and is made of copper alloy with remains of red enamel on the top. It’s currently in conservation at Exeter Museum but it’s been to the British Museum and it’s still something of mystery.”

Believed to date from the late Iron Age to Roman period, Nicky describes it as a “kind of decorated stud - for what I don’t know, possibly from a leather garment or a casket.” At the British Museum the find is now affectionately referred to as the ‘Exeter metal mushroom.’

With a finds roadshow approaching Nicky and fellow finds liaison officers from the south west will be readying themselves to identify a range of objects. Help will be on hand in the form of Brian Read, author of several books on metal detecting and there will be a display of local metal detecting finds as well as children’s activities.

shows a clothing fastener of rusted and browned metal with with a cross pattern in the middle. The object has three eyelets one each attached to the sides and top

A 16th to 17th century clothing fastener found by a metal detectorist near Dartmouth. © Exeter City Council.

“I hope we will be very busy and even if people haven’t got anything to show us I hope they pop in,” says Nicky, “because I’d like more people to find out about the scheme.”

The roadshows take place in Colchester, Coalville, Exeter, Reading, Shrewsbury, Wrexham and York. For full details of times and locations visit the Portable Antiquities Scheme website at www.finds.org.uk

This is the second of seven features in the run up to the forthcoming PAS roadshows where Richard Moss talks to Finds Liaison Officers in the regions.

The series started in Essex where we talked to Finds Liaison Officer Caroline McDonald.

The article you are now reading followed, and then in Shropshire and Herefordshire FLO Peter Reavill explained the historical topography of the Welsh Marches.

Simon Holmes in North and East Yorkshire expounded the virtues of 'community archaeology'.

In Wales Mark Lodwick explained how field walkers are returning a vast amount of archaeological evidence about pre-historic Wales.

In Berkshire and Oxfordshire Kate Sutton reveals a complete panorama that takes in tools from the Palaeolithic period right through to cannon balls from the English Civil War.

To read about the Portable Antiquities Scheme and get more information about the Roadshows read our Roadshows feature where we talked to Michael Lewis, Deputy Head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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