Three Triskele Brooches

Today I present for your delectation three lovely ‘celtic’ bronze brooches, all of which were unearthed at Brough in eastern Cumbria. They are officially ‘romano-British’1   which means that they date to the four hundred years after the roman invasion, but archaeology suggests that they are the products of a bronze workshop on this site in the 2nd century CE2.

Triskele brooch from Brough. Copyright British Museum

Triskele brooch from Brough. Copyright British Museum

Brough is a signficant historical and archaeological site. When we look at a modern map, we assume that the main route into Cumbria has always been the M6 but this isn’t the case. The north-south route, despite its roman road (the A6, more or less), was not as significant as you might think. When the railway line was cut parallel to the A6 in the 1870s, engineers had to make 14 tunnels and 22 viaducts just to get the gradient under 1 in 100 and thereby traversable by the latest in high-powered travel at the time, the steam train. The more practical route for centuries –millennia, perhaps – was the Stainmore Pass, or, was we know it, the A66. Continue reading

Happy Midsummer!

Castlerigg stone circle

Castlerigg stone circle

Okay, I know it looks like I’m a day early, but the midsummer solstice takes place in the UK at 05.04am tomorrow (21st). Castlerigg is, of course, the most famous of Cumbria’s stone circles and sometimes – often – it’s obvious why. Continue reading

Bega of St. Bees: the Irish princess, nun, or pagan relic?

Silver armlet from Cuerdale Hoard, copyright British Museum

Viking silver armlet from Cuerdale Hoard, copyright British Museum

The official line on St. Bega1 is that she was the Irish princess in whose name St Bees’ Priory was founded. Bega decided at an early age that she would devote her life to the church, whereupon an angel gifted her a holy arm-ring as a symbol of her dedication to Christ. Needless to say, Bega was also a very beautiful Irish princess and she was soon in demand for marriage and her father, an Irish king, accepted the proposal of the King of Norway. This was the last thing Bega wanted, so whilst the kings were feasting, Bega used her Continue reading

The Druid’s Sacrifice, or History According to a Victorian Antiquarian

My observation in recent posts that interpretation of history has changed somewhat led to a few exclamation marks elsewhere in the halls of social media. In evidence, I present for your delectation a chapter which passed for history in the 1891 edition of Wilson Armistead’s Tales and Legends of the English Lakes.

Castlerigg stone circle, Cumbria

Castlerigg stone circle, Cumbria

‘The old road between Keswick and Penrith passes over a rough hill, called Castle Rigg1, which the new road now avoids. In a field adjoining this road, on the right hand side going on to Penrith, and at the distance of a mile-and-a half east by north from Keswick, are the remains of a Druidical2 Temple, popularly named Continue reading

The genius cucullatus, or the Original Hoodie

Genius Cucullatus from Tullie House

Genius Cucullatus from Tullie House

Picture time! See this fella? He’s a genius cucullatus, to give him his Latin name, but whether he was a Roman import or a native, his original owner wouldn’t have called him that. Genius cucullatus just means, ‘spirit in a hood’. This one, which was found at Birdoswald on Hadrian’s Wall, is the only one in Britain which is a single standing statue. They’re usually carved in relief on a flat stone, and in Britain, they are often depicted in groups of three.I wish it was simple matter to tell you what he represents, but that’s not possible. He’s often linked with Continue reading

Dobbies, boggles, ghosts and the 19th century journalist…

I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but it’s very rare for me to include ghost stories on Esmeralda’s. It’s not that I haven’t looked at a few – always ones supposedly rooted in an historical event – but with one exception1, they don’t pass the simplest test of veracity. Some simply don’t marry up with historical events, like the Claife Crier2, and others, such as the Beckside Boggle3 and Hutton-in-the-Forest’s headless horsewoman4, are demonstrably fiction, with authors, publishing dates and so on. Brownie I’ve also chosen not to spend a lot of time with our assorted otherworldly creatures – dobbies, boggles, barguests, elves, fairies, cappels, hobs and bogarts – partly because there are others tackling these5 but mostly because they’re almost impossible to define. Let’s look at a few attempts at definition by other historians: Henderson6, writing in 1866, suggests that ghosts and ‘bogles’ are interchangeable, although a ‘dobie’ is a ‘mortal heavy sprite’, which appears to be 19th –century Borders code for a ghost that’s none-too-clever. Sullivan7, in 1891, on the other hand, is confident that a ‘dobbie’ is ‘a kind of household fairy’ somewhat like a hobgoblin (and indeed similar to the one in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series). On the other hand, the more recent (2009) Geoff Holder8 has collected evidence to suggest that both boggles and dobbies are associated with murders and suicides. I, in my turn, have come across a dobby which Continue reading

Twelfth Night, Candlemas, and ‘the greener box for show’

I know what you’ll be doing on Sunday morning! Half of you will struggle down to the garden centre with the Christmas tree to have it chipped and the other half will be wondering how the box has shrunk by three inches since you got the tree out a month ago. All of you will find that one glass ornament has been broken, and all pet owners will find a stretch of tinsel that has had all the dangly bits chewed off it.

Bukszpan wiecznie zielony (Buxus sempervirens). Zdjęcie wykonane 26.06.2006 w Miejskim Ogrodzie Botanicznym w Zabrzu Autor: Tomasz Górny

Buxus Sempiverens (copyright Tomasz Górny)

Popular lore has it that Christmas decorations have to be taken down on the evening of Twelfth Night ( ie. the evening of 5th January, before Twelfth Day, 6th January) or you will have bad luck in the following year. I assumed this was several-hundred-year-old folklore, but it seems not. I started on a trail to the truth when I was listening to a Christmassy CD1 by the folk singer, Kate Rusby, and was surprised to see a song called ‘Candlemas Eve’. ‘Ho!’ thought I. ‘Someone doesn’t know their history, or was one song short of an album’. But I was wrong. It seems that for a large stretch of history you didn’t take decorations down until Candlemas Eve, that is, the evening of 1st February.I also found the words quite strange, to the extent it took me quite a while to work out what they were. It turns out they are a 17th-century poem written by Robert Herrick. Continue reading

Fortune-telling, Iron-age style: The Crosby Ravensworth spoons

I never cease to be amazed by the wonderful, rare and beautiful objects from the distant past that have been unearthed in Cumbria. Here we sit, at the end of one of England’s cul-de-sacs but our ancient ancestors were up to all sort of interesting things.

Crosby Ravensworth spoons, copyright British Museum

Crosby Ravensworth spoons, copyright British Museum

They look like spoons, don’t they? And indeed archaeologists call them spoons. They’re between 2,200 and 2000 years old, and they were found at Crosby Ravensworth in the Eden Valley in 1868.

According to the 1869 edition of The Archaeological Journal1,

‘”They were found by a farmer in this parish near a spring of water, Continue reading