Forest Gate's little gem

Monday, 15 February 2016

Over 95% of the contents of this site - indeed what is known about Forest Gate - relates to developments over the last 150 years. This article features a much older piece of local history.

While sewers were being constructed behind the Princess Alice pub, at the junction of Romford and Sprowston Roads, in 1875, workmen came across a small gold shiny object. It was soon identified by archaeologists as a Saxon jewelled pin, dating from the 6th or early 7th century A.D. The craftwork on it indicated that it, in all probability, belonged to a woman of high status.

Location of the find: junction of
 Romford and Sprowston Roads

Essex - of which Forest Gate has been part - was then an independent kingdom, stretching over the current area of the county and incorporating Middlesex and parts of modern Hertfordshire.

The pin was a one-off find, suggesting that it hadn't come from a local house, or settlement of distinction, or was a burial object. Rather, it was likely to have, in some way, been lost by a traveller on what was the old Roman London to Colchester Road (today's Romford Road).

Forest Gate's Anglo-Saxon pin,
 now on display at Oxford's
 Ashmolean Museum

It was soon acquired by Sir John Evans (1823 - 1908), an archaeologist who had married into the wealthy Dickinson family of paper and stationery manufacturers. Sir John was very much a "society" man, when such characteristics were fashionable and given high status in the late Victorian era.

Sir John Evans (1823 - 1908)
 acquired the gem, soon
 after its local discovery

He was, in turn, a prominent member of British "societies" concerned with: antiquities, geology, anthropology, chemistry and science. He was treasurer of the British Society for 21 years and a trustee of the British Museum.

The pin was transferred on his death in 1908 to his son, Sir Arthur Evans (1851 - 1941), who presented it to Oxford's prominent Ashmolean Museum the following year.
Oxford's Ashmolean Museum,
 home to the Forest Gate gem

Sir Arthur, himself, was an archaeologist who was appointed keeper on the Ashmolean in 1884. He steered the institution in the direction of his principal interest - archaeology. He is, perhaps, best known for his excavation of, and considerable research into, the relics of the Minoan civilisation of Crete.

Back to the pin. Work by the Evanses and the curatorial staff at the Ashmolean suggests that the pin is stylistically similar to jewellery produced in Kent in the late 6th century. This is acknowledged to have influenced designs in Essex, following the marriage of King Sledd of Essex, to Ricula, the sister of King Aethelberht of Kent, in 580 A.D.
Sir Arthur Evans, keeper of the
 Asmolean, who donated
 the pin to it in 1909

The pin (see photograph) is 3.5 cm long. Unfortunately, it has suffered structural damage and has been distorted in several places.

It has been described as a "bead", or the head of a pin, but it may have been a pendant. Its craftwork is less sophisticated, apparently, than that found on other garnet-inlaid Anglo-Saxon ornaments.

The pendant (Ashmolean accession number AN1909.517) is on display in the museum's England gallery. The Museum's  records describe it as a "4-sided lentoid bead; gold with cloisons of garnet and blue stone; two opposite sides alike. Length 35 mm."

Below we reproduce the reference to the stone in one of the chief reference books on Anglo-Saxon archaeological objects (see footnote for details):

Archaeological Society report and description of the gem


1. We would like to express deepest gratitude to the Ashmolean Museum and its curatorial staff for assisting with the contents of this article. We are particularly indebted to the Museum for the photograph of the pin, and we acknowledge that the copyright of the photograph of the pin is theirs.

2. The extracted. detailed quote, above, describing the pin, can be found on pp 165-6 of Macgregor, Arthur and Bolick's A Summary Catalogue of the Anglo-Saxon collection (non-ferrous metals), published by Ellen in 1993, from British Archaeological Report 230.

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