Author Archives: Rob Webley

Equine objects – the horse in artefacts (Part 2)

This is the second part of a post in which we have been considering the horse and rider in artefacts in order to develop our sense of the horse’s contemporary significance. In Part 1 Laura Jones examined a particular object type – a padlock in the form of a horse – for which our knowledge mostly derives from metal-detected finds recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). In this part Rob Webley continues the analysis of PAS records, considering a copper-alloy sheath chape which features a highly intriguing design.


Chapes are metal components which protected the terminal of a scabbard or a sheath, and, ultimately, the owner from accidental damage from their blade. Chapes made of folded sheet metal, and possessing one attachment arm (such as the one shown below), are usually considered to have come from leather sheaths for knives. Beyond their function, a chape could help decorate a sheath, with openwork details interplaying with the colour of the leather beneath for aesthetic effect. Here the focus is on one of the most highly decorated of a group of folded knife sheath chapes, as on one face a horse and rider are depicted (see image below, to right).

Medieval sheath chape (PAS: SUSS-03FD90) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Medieval sheath chape (PAS: SUSS-03FD90) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Although these chapes from knife sheaths, being folded, featured two faces which could be decorated, only this single type seems to have borne two different designs. Recently classified by museum officer and researcher Ben Bishop (2020) within his Class D, we will concern ourselves only with the face that shows a knight on a horse, the other face having been subject to various interpretations. In the following description of the knightly scene my own interpretation is offered: even on the clearest example of such a chape, found at Angel Court in the City of London, the features may be construed in different ways. This interpretation is shown in the coloured image below: the knight has a pointed helmet, carries a kite-shaped shield on their left arm and wears protective clothing – possibly a gambeson (a padded jacket) – which is visible below the shield. In their right hand they hold a battle axe, the shaft of which rests on their shoulder. The horse’s forelegs rest on the ground such that the rider’s feet virtually touch the ground. I have emphasised the horse’s harness, with the reins held by the rider in their left hand and with both a breast- and rear-band attached to the saddle to give it stability. This is a different interpretation to those who have suggested that marks on the horse’s flanks might represent a caparison (protective cloth covering) – a point to which we will return.

Interpretation of the design of a medieval sheath chape (PAS: SUSS-03FD90) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Interpretation of the design of a medieval sheath chape (PAS: SUSS-03FD90) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Regardless of the precise details shown on these chapes, the fundamentals present a puzzle regarding its dating and the intriguing knightly depiction. Dating this type of chape is made more difficult by the fact that none of the over 40 examples known has been found in a stratified context. A small clue is offered by the terminal of the Angel Court chape, the only surviving arm terminal for this group. It is sub-oval with a bifid end (i.e. split in two parts) and can be paralleled by terminals present on examples of Bishop Class A chapes which can be tentatively dated to the first half of the 12th century. Such dating may be compared with the internal evidence of the chape itself which depicts attire typical of an 11th- to 12th-century knight, as seen, for example, on the Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1070s) or the Winchester Bible (c. 1160/1170s). Of the elements depicted, it is arguably the kite-shaped shield that is the most diagnostic of date, with its rounded top suggesting a date before the mid-12th century. Taking the strands of evidence together, I would favour a date in the early 12th century for these chapes, though various of the elements depicted admittedly do not provide such precise dating, being plausibly slightly earlier or later.

At first glance, an early 12th-century date does not sit perfectly with two particular elements described: the possible caparison and the battle axe. Iconographic evidence places the advent of the caparison (or cloth trapper) in the 1140s, based on its depiction on the seal of Simon de Senlis, Count of Huntingdon and Northampton. However, their conspicuous absence from seals until the end of the 12th century, if not later, suggests two options: that caparisons were more common earlier than we thought, or that something else is shown by these engraved lines – patterns on the horse’s hair (elsewhere, punched dots might show dappling). The battle axe might seem a typically 11th-century weapon were it not for mention of one in Henry of Huntingdon’s description of the Battle of Lincoln (1141), right at the end of the first half of the 12th century. The axe is arguably the most striking part of the ensemble, and makes this an atypical knightly depiction. The medieval military historian David Nicolle (2011, 39) has speculated that these chapes might have belonged to returning English Varangian guards, but their quantity might mitigate against this suggestion (see also map, below). Overall, the arguments constructed regarding the dating and depictions on these chapes represent but one interpretation, naturally open to challenge – if everything was straightforward it would not be so fun!

Map of Bishop Class D sheath chapes (by Rob Webley)

Map of Bishop Class D sheath chapes (by Rob Webley)

The distribution of these chapes may be contrasted with the padlocks discussed in Part 1 as the chapes are a strongly southern phenomenon, and notably absent in the north of the country. In part, this may be put down to the use of knives with sheaths furnished with chapes which, based on current recording of surviving examples, seems to be a more southerly feature overall. On the other hand, in the 12th century this depiction of elite equestrianism may have been more culturally legible in the south of the country. Taken together, the objects discussed in this post offer new insights into perceptions of medieval horses and riders, though how ‘popular’ (as opposed to elite) they were would benefit from further work, as well as more examples found in context!

Bibliography (Part 2)

Bishop, B. 2020. Early-medieval and medieval bifacial sheath fittings, Sleaford: Finds Research Group Datasheet 53.

Nicolle, D. 2011. The Fourth Crusade 1202-04: the betrayal of Byzantium, Oxford: Osprey Publishing.

Equine objects – the horse in artefacts (Part 1)

One means of examining the ways in which the horse pervaded the medieval mind is to consider how often and in what ways it was represented in material culture. It is well known that the horse featured widely in medieval manuscript art, on wall hangings and in architectural sculpture. Its presence as/on/in artefacts (in two or three dimensions) has perhaps been less fully discussed, with the exception of the equestrian seal and the aquamanile (hand-washing vessel) in metal; both objects show knights on horseback and both hold elite associations. As a potential way into examining more popular reception of the medieval horse, in this blog post we will consider a relatively untapped source for exploring horse art – the corpus of metal-detected finds recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS).

In a previous post on the PAS dataset we introduced the range of actual horse equipment – horseshoes, harness pendants, stirrup-strap mounts, and so on. But within the PAS database, now numbering over 1.5 million artefacts, there are also a number of objects which either show, or take the form of, a horse, but which are probably not items of equestrian equipment. Across the two parts of this post, Laura Jones and Rob Webley examine two groups of medieval object that loom large within the set of ‘equine’ (rather than ‘equestrian’) objects – the subject of Part 1 is a horse-shaped padlock moulded in the round. In Part 2 the focus turns to a chape (i.e. the metal point of a scabbard or sheath) with relief decoration that includes a horse and rider.


Zoomorphic padlocks reported to the PAS database commonly represent horses, with just under 40 examples of such padlocks recorded to date. They are elongated, in a moulded case, with holes for the padlock bolt in the rear end of the horse and the keyhole situated at the horse’s chest; the padlock bolt fits into a hole located in the horse’s head. Very rarely, examples are preserved with the bolt in situ (see SUR-D02FD3 below).

Medieval zoomorphic padlock (PAS: SUR-D02FD3) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Medieval zoomorphic padlock (PAS: SUR-D02FD3) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Regarding decorative details, these padlocks have lines that depict the horse’s saddle; others depict bridles, bands and even the mane of the horse – some decorative examples can be seen below.

Highly decorated medieval zoomorphic padlock (PAS: SOM-ABF421) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Highly decorated medieval zoomorphic padlock (PAS: SOM-ABF421) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Medieval zoomorphic padlock depicting a harness pendant (PAS: WAW-565B1A) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Medieval zoomorphic padlock depicting a harness pendant (PAS: WAW-565B1A) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Within these horse-shaped padlocks, there are certain distinct patterns – enough to suggest potential groupings of types, though no typology has been created as of yet. Many padlocks are rectilinear in profile such as SUR-D02FD3 (above). A particular challenge is how to group types of decorative zoomorphic padlocks such as SOM-ABF421WAW-565B1A and LEIC-CE40BE because of the differences in the stature of the horse and equestrian equipment depicted on these padlocks in comparison to the rectilinear padlocks. Lastly, an ever-present question is how do we classify a given padlock when we have to take into consideration damage to the objects or unique features?

Medieval zoomorphic padlock depicting girth straps (PAS: LEIC-CE40BE) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Medieval zoomorphic padlock depicting girth straps (PAS: LEIC-CE40BE) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

A good place to start is to focus on the equestrian equipment depicted on the padlocks such as the bridle on SOM-ABF421 (above) that is demarcated by two crossed grooves on the horse’s head. If we contrast this to the horse’s head on LEIC-CE40BE (above), which shows compression of the object (possibly, as the record suggests, by the padlock’s bolt), can we be certain that there were no other decorative or unique details? Also up for discussion is the shape of the horse. Some padlocks are described on the PAS as stocky, which could allude to a pack horse, and others look almost taller in stature and tend to be what I like to term ‘dynamic’ (legs in pose or active stances). However, it is important to note that it is common for either/both front and hind legs to be broken. This changes our perception of the horse’s stance and stature and makes it hard to decide on a specific classification. In addition, there are unique details depicted on these padlocks such as the harness pendant on WAW-565B1A (shown on the band on the upper sides above the front legs) and the girth straps below the saddle on LEIC-CE40BE – commonly seen in iconography of the ‘warhorse’. For now, we shall leave the grouping of types to future discussion and refer to the general classification given to them in a wider discussion of padlocks by Lewis (2016, 168-9) – Type V ‘zoomorphic’ padlocks.

Regarding the date of these Type V padlocks, we can use excavated examples to ascertain a rough date range. A padlock was found within Winchester’s medieval city within a context that included a Clark type 2B horseshoe (Goodall 1990, 1011), the horseshoe’s typological dating of c. 1150-1225 supporting the dating attributed to the site phase (12th to early 13th century). On the PAS, the relevant Finds Recording Guide provides a broad date range for these padlocks of between c. 1100-1400 because of similar models from the Middle East that date between the 13th and 14th centuries. The evidence from Winchester, plus the way in which these padlocks are decorated, makes a 12th- to 13th-century date for them plausible.

Lewis (2016) refers to the ambiguous nature of these zoomorphic padlocks – we do not know their specific function nor do we know their connection to medieval society. One possibility is that they are connected to high-status sites within the English landscape – locations such as manor houses, castles and palaces. Jervis (2011) was influenced by zoomorphic pottery found at high-status sites in Southampton and applied the idea of zoomorphic symbolism connected to wealth to these padlocks. This assumption is linked to elite symbolism of animals related to the hunt – by displaying them through objects, it may reinforce a message of wealth, hence reinforcing their connection to elite sites. Of note is the distribution of these padlocks across England; as you can see from the distribution map, most of the padlocks are situated in rural remote locations (apart from a few clusters around urban sites such as Winchester, York and Norwich).

Map of Lewis Type V padlocks (by Laura Jones)

Map of Lewis Type V padlocks (by Laura Jones)

When researching the context of the find location spots for these padlocks, all have medieval manorial links (medieval manor houses proximal/directly on or to the location of the padlocks). Interestingly, some find spots such as the above records from Warwickshire and Surrey have close connections to horses; the Warwickshire record was found in a medieval settlement tied closely to the area known as the Vale of the Red Horse (an area between Edgehill and the Northern Cotswolds); the Surrey record has surrounding horse-related place names such as The Paddock and elite place names like Kingwood Common and Earl’s Wood (all of the above forming the 12th to 13th-century parish where the de Grey family manor is situated). The exact function of these padlocks (beyond fastening a casket) is hard to ascertain, regardless of what the distribution map or the context of location spots may reveal to us. The links could support the theory of these objects being associated with the elite however the contextual information of a few records are not definitive evidence that they are solely linked with elite sites (and the location of the Winchester example is certainly not in a high status one). More research would have to be conducted into these sites by looking at further Type V padlock records, alongside additional historical records, to reveal more about the connection between medieval society and these padlocks, which may even reveal more about their precise function.

To be continued

Bibliography (Part 1)

Goodall, I. H., 1990. ‘Locks and Keys’, in M. Biddle (ed.), Object and Economy in Medieval Winchester: Artefacts from Medieval Winchester, Oxford: Winchester Studies 7, 1001-1036.

Jervis, B., 2011. ‘Placing Pottery: An Actor-led Approach to the Use and Perception of Medieval Pottery in Southampton and its Region c. AD 700-1400’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Southampton.

Lewis, M., 2016. ‘Mounts for Furnishings, Padlocks, and Candleholders: Understanding the Urbanization of Medieval England through Metal Small Finds Recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme’, in B. Jervis, L. G. Broderick and I. G. Sologestoa (eds), Objects, Environment, and Everyday Life in Medieval Europe, Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 159-185.

Courses on horses: Warhorse material culture training

Earlier this month the ‘Warhorse’ team ran a training event for our project partner the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) about the medieval equestrian metal objects that could be brought to them for recording. It was a session of its Covid-19 time, delivered successfully by Zoom to over thirty participants, PAS staff and volunteers alike.

Every year, staff at the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) are brought hundreds of small metal artefacts found by members of the public that formed parts of medieval horse equipment and decoration. The Warhorse team had lined up a training session for our project partner to consider this equipment, put it into context and discuss how best to record it, but it soon became apparent that we could not deliver it in person. With the welcome assistance of PAS staff, however, Rob Webley (Warhorse) and Laura Jones (University of Exeter) were able to offer this material culture training virtually in early November. It ended up being very popular, with over thirty attendees — more than if it had been run in person!

Screenshot of participants attending the material culture training session run by the Warhorse project in November 2020

The session was in fact run across two days — 10th and 11th November — to make it as accessible and digestible as possible. Content was split, with the first morning more introductory and contextual and the second tailored to the identification of material and its recording on the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s database. In part one different sources were examined to gain a sense of the types of medieval material that might be encountered and to also think through what might not have survived. There was also a special section on heraldry, which is particularly pertinent as many non-ferrous items of equestrian equipment have ‘heraldic’ decoration and also because it can be an obscure subject for the novice due to the technical language involved. It seems that such contextualisation was appreciated, with one participant commenting how good it was to see:

“PAS material put into the wider context of excavated material and documentary sources”

Detail from the Trinity College Apocalypse, Cambridge MS R.16.2, f. 23 © Masters and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-commercial 4.0 license

On the second morning, our training session turned to the tailored PAS work of recognising, classifying and recording horse-related artefacts. Extended sections covered horseshoes, stirrups, bridle bits and spurs. If you are interested, further information about how the PAS records these items is provided in their online Finds Recording Guides, some of which were written by the Warhorse team. It was encouraging to see from the feedback that attendees could see that enriching the PAS data helped facilitate novel research into the material.

Screenshot of training slide detailing horseshoe terminology

With so much of 2020 about having to make the most of tricky and ever-changing circumstances, we were grateful that our training reached so many PAS staff members and volunteers, and we would like to thank the PAS for organising it. The format actually allowed for a different sort of engagement, including through the chat function and other, verbal question-and-answer sessions. Whether a re-run will be in person or online remains to be seen but we look forward to engaging more attendees with both the artefacts and the Warhorse project. As one of the participants commented:

“I had a look at the [Warhorse] website and found it extremely interesting. I’m looking forward to keeping up with some of the blogs. It sounds like a great collaboration for PAS.”

Screenshot of tweet by FLO Cornwall following the training

Equipping the warhorse: Horseshoes, harness pendants and stirrup fittings

This month Rob Webley joins the ‘Warhorse’ team – here he introduces himself and the project’s examination of equine material culture

It is a pleasure to have started working on the ‘Warhorse’ project, where my focus will be on the objects used to ride horses and to decorate them – their material culture. One of our aims, by studying images and artefacts, is to see which objects were associated with the warhorse, or essential to using horses in combat, and which were used in other contexts. My background in archaeological artefacts comes from over a decade’s work for the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) for whom I made nearly 10,000 records of objects found by members of the public. Many of these objects related to the early-medieval, medieval and post-medieval horse, and much of this equestrian equipment has, in turn, featured heavily in my PhD thesis undertaken at the University of York. My thesis considers developments in portable material culture focused on the 11th and 12th centuries, part of which has been to assess and contextualise the impact of the Norman Conquest.

Medieval horseshoe with possible orthopaedic plate (PAS: SUSS-973667) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Medieval horseshoe with possible orthopaedic plate (PAS: SUSS-973667) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

The database of the Portable Antiquities Scheme will feature heavily in my ‘Warhorse’ work, as it holds over 16,000 records of equestrian equipment from our period of study. Most objects recorded by the PAS are non-ferrous (not made of iron), because the majority of those reporting to it are metal-detector users. This is both a challenge and a blessing. Taking horseshoes as an example, being iron, PAS records number only in the hundreds (a particularly interesting example is featured above), while we know that during the Hundred Years War horseshoes were being forged in their thousands every year in Nottinghamshire alone. To assess changes in shape and size in horseshoes, information will have to be extracted primarily from excavation reports and museum examples: this can then be compared to zooarchaeological data to establish whether such changes are useful approximations of changes in horse size and stature.

Examples of medieval horse harness pendants (Image credit: Steven Ashley, reproduced here with thanks)

The most exciting challenges posed by PAS data come when it throws up large numbers of objects that are otherwise neglected in the documentary record. A case in point is the harness pendant: a copper-alloy item which came to real prominence in the 12th century as a means primarily of decorating a horse’s breast strap (examples to right). Nearly 6,000 of these pendants have been recorded on the PAS database. This quantity inevitably raises questions about what type of horse was decorated with these objects: Who used such horses? Did this change through time? Hopefully the evidence of representations of harness pendants in art, along with the objects themselves, will – if approached with due caution – yield some answers.

A final example may be provided by stirrup fittings. A fashion in the 11th century (running on into the 12th century) saw stirrups – generally iron objects – embellished with highly decorative copper-alloy terminals at the ends of their tread-plates (see the example below). Also made of copper alloy are contemporary mounts which protected and decorated the stirrup leather where it passed through the apex loop of a stirrup. Both are often decorated with zoomorphic (animal) designs. Many hundreds of such ‘stirrup-strap mounts’ are now known, and, alongside the stirrup terminals, provide evidence for large numbers of horse riders in late Anglo-Saxon England. They therefore serve as a counterpoint to perceptions of the innate ‘horse-mindedness’ of the Normans. As with harness pendants, their sheer numbers challenge our sense of where to situate them socially, suggesting more people were riding or engaging with horses than previously thought.

Late early-medieval stirrup terminal with a beast's head (c. 11th century) (PAS: SOM-C2BC82) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Late early-medieval stirrup terminal with a beast’s head (c. 11th century) (PAS: SOM-C2BC82) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Because so much equestrian equipment was lost in transit, and so little has, proportionally, been recovered archaeologically, it has not always been studied in depth and there is plenty of work to be done on bringing new data together and starting to associate it with different horse roles. For unequivocal equipment of the warhorse – its armour – you may want to explore some of our other posts.