A Case of Mistaken Identity


Sometimes even the ‘experts’ in the archeological world can be wrong in their assessment of metal objects. Such mis-identifications makes one realise that often the person with the real edge on determining the past use of a find is the detectorist with years of experience. The moral of this tale is that we mustn’t take for granted that everyone in the archaeological world (or indeed the hobby) knows everything about everything. If in doubt, seek a second opinion.

I was reminded of this fact in a book read recently, A Personal Memoir of Aylesbury in the 1920’s by WR Mead, who had spent an idle day with friends during the summer holidays excavating in the garden for ‘likely treasure trove.’ The childhood incident had stuck in his mind but, in fairness, I think the details are of doubtful authenticity and may have been embellished in the retelling.

Mead says: “Nothing materialised during the morning dig save for some inconsequential oyster shells (there were many others in our own New Street garden). However, during the lunchtime, absence of the principal digger enabled a broken spearhead from some nearby railings to be concealed at the bottom of the excavation.

The railings around St. Mary’s churchyard, Aylesbury.

Our companion quickly discovered it when he returned to the dig. We immediately pronounced it to be a Roman relic and he was persuaded to take it to the museum. Appropriately wrapped, it was deposited on the museum steps, the bell was rung and the discoverer retracted.

The following week, a short paragraph appeared in the Bucks Herald inviting the anonymous discoverer to report to the curator. He was congratulated on his find and the spearhead was dispatched to the British Museum for identification.

In due course, it was returned, and described as ‘the head of a Napoleonic cavalry lance’. Subsequently it was placed in a glass case complete with a descriptive card and the donor’s name.”

The reference to the bit about ‘inconsequential’ oyster shells is an illuminating fact – could the garden have been a Roman site anyway? I understand that the Romans were very fond of oysters and the discarded shells could indicate a site worth detecting.

Professor WR (Bill) Mead 1915-2014

Professor William R (Bill) Mead died on 20 July, nine days before his 99th birthday. Bill was a prominent figure in British Geography more generally and in Finnish and wider Scandinavian studies. He nevertheless lived, and remained active, in his native Buckinghamshire for all his life.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Epilogue – The Lance

It was perhaps naughty of me to retell this story but I found the Professor’s account rather amusing. Sounds as though it has been embellished in the retelling. You can see how the lance vaguely resembles a set of railings. You can’t! Think like an archaeologist then.

A mounted knight using a lance in The Ashmole Bestiary, which dates to 1200-1225. Peterborough, England. Image courtesy of Bodleian Library

The lance as a cavalry weapon divided opinion for the whole of the 19th century.  A 9 ft lance took considerble skill to master, and therefore the weapon’s usefulness over sword-armed cavalry was in question. The extended reach was useful at first contact and when skirmishing but in the swirling melee that could ensue they could be an encumbrance and were hard to parry with.

 Of course, every lancer carried a sword too, but in the heat of combat there was seldom time to change weapon. This potential drawback was well realised by the French who by Waterloo armed only half the front rank of each squadron with lances, whilst the remainder had the sword as their primary weapon. medieval chronicles.com

Rating: 5 out of 5.

6 thoughts on “A Case of Mistaken Identity

  1. Most interesting and solves a question raised by a friend living near Stone, when digging in his very large garden periodically comes across heaps of oysters shells! let’s hope Roman relics will surface the next time we’re digging up spuds.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In the Roman empire and for several centuries after, oysters were a food staple and a vital resource, whereas now they are a luxury item. The Romans also used ground oyster shells in skin ointments; they were used to make roads and, when mixed with figs and pitch, to mend their baths. As young detectorists we were always told that oyster shells in a field could indicate a Roman site.


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