Category Archives: Museum Studies

The Miners’ Safety Lamp



Miners’ lamps in the Pitt Rivers Museum

In case 141.A in the Court are displayed three examples of miners’ safety lamps. One lamp (1932.88.1152) was collected by Henry Balfour and donated by him in 1932. This lamp is of the type invented by Sir Humphrey Davy in 1816 and is an example employing wire gauze to make a naked flame safe in a gaseous atmosphere. Another lamp is made of brass and has a glass safety surround with above it a metal gauze tube. Another example is a later safety lamp (post 1839) with linear wick possibly burning naphthalene (lighter fuel). The gauze does not go all the way to the top but ends in a gauze cap. The lamp is topped by a brass arch and hook for suspension. Situated in between these two is a later model (1930.22.2) that was once owned by Alfred Walter Francis. Fuller and donated in 1930, and is the French Marsaut type made after 1882. The lower part has a glass surround with an upper gauze chimney completely enclosed in a metal bonnet. Most miners’ safety lamps made after 1882 had gauzes protected by such bonnets. The miners’ safety lamp was first and foremost a methane detector. Moreover “…you can still buy one, because even today every pit deputy must carry one, despite the universal use of electricity for lighting collieries.” (Adams, 2005).

Mine explosions due to fire-damp

Towards the end of the 18th century explosions in coal mines increased because seams were being dug at deeper levels. The use of steam engines for hoisting and water pumping enabled colliery deepening in England. At deeper levels fire-damp (methane) was more prevalent. At this time all explosions were attributed to fire-damp because the explosive nature of coal dust clouds was not recognised. Most explosions occurred at the point of a                      SDDDDDXtallow candle flame. Developing ventilation technology, which meant the presence of large pumps and winding gear both below and above ground, pushed the danger of fire-damp explosion into the background. Consequently, in the early 1800’s many pitmen died in northern England due to large colliery explosions. Indeed “…major incidents alone accounted for 558 deaths in Northumberland and Durham between 1786 and 1815…” (Adams, 2005).

Fire-damp or methane (CH4) is carburetted hydrogen. The gas is lighter than air and usually colourless and odourless. Fire-damp derives from bacteriological decay of the vegetable matter cellulose. Fire-damp in mines is really trapped marsh gas produced by chemical processes completed many millions of years previously. Fire-damp is able to combine with twice its volume of oxygen and after explosion leaves one volume of carbon dioxide (CO2) and two of hydrogen. In order to become explosive fire-damp has to achieve critical mixtures. A mixture of 90.5% air and 9.5% fire-damp can cause a devastating explosion but a mixture of about 7 or 8% of fire-damp is easier to ignite. The range of explosive capability is approximately mixtures of 5 to 15%.

A devastating mine explosion will create havoc amongst the equipment situated below. Not only will the violence kill by blast and fire but wreck brattices (shaft partitions), destroy accumulated corves (baskets), tubs, rolleys (vehicles), ponies and horses. Moreover, the destruction of ventilation systems will lead to the asphyxiation of colliers by lethal after-damp resulting from combustion. This after-damp is a toxic gas mixture consisting of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide. Another lethal gas, black damp or choke damp (also known as stythe) is formed in mines when oxygen is removed from an enclosed atmosphere. This asphyxiant consists of argon, water vapour, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. The term damp is believed derived from the German dampf or vapours and similar mining terms are white-damp (carbon monoxide) and stink- damp (hydrogen sulphide).

Initially an explosion is a violent out-rush of gas from the ignition source, but an inevitable and following in-rush (termed an after-blast by miners) fills the vacuum left by cooling gases and steam condensation. There are many causes of ignition of fire-damp in mine explosions. In the early days explosions resulted mainly from naked flame lamps and the accumulations of gas called blowers. Other reasons included the use of the early flint steel mill, defective safety lamps, flame from shot firing tunnel explosives, and sparks from faulty machinery, metal implements, and electrical equipment.

Historical background

The Felling mine explosion, on the 25th of May 1812, was one of the first major pit disasters in England, and claimed 92 lives. This was the first great explosion that provided reasonably accurate records. Felling colliery, situated between Gateshead and Jarrow in County Durham (now South Tyneside), was extended in 1810 with a new deeper seam — Low Main. The pit had two shafts in use — William Pit and John Pit.

The colliery was owned by John and William Brandling and their partners Grace and Henderson.

It was in the new seam that the engulfing explosion took place. An ignition of fire­damp triggered a coal dust explosion with devastating effect. The blast was heard up to 4 miles away and around the pit small coal, timber and wrecked corves (wagons or large baskets) rained down. Both headgears of the shafts were destroyed and a huge blanket of coal dust caused a dusk-like twilight in neighbouring Heworth where it descended like black snow. It took nearly seven weeks to remove the dead after putting out fires and waiting for the after-damp to disperse. Ninety-two men and boys lost their lives and the eventual funeral procession comprised ninety coffins when it finally reached the church. The aftermath of the tragedy was first effort to establish a properly co-ordinated movement of public opinion in favour of mine safety. This movement not only aroused scientific interest and endeavour in the cause of accident prevention. It also drew attention to the need for a flame lamp that would not ignite fire-damp, and to devise a means of lighting safe in a gaseous atmosphere.

A major protagonist in the campaign was one Reverend John Hodgeson (1779­1845), ministrant to the bereaved and he who buried their dead as incumbent of the parish of Jarrow and Heworth. Hodgeson was instrumental in establishing the accident prevention society which came to fruition in Sunderland on 1.10.1813. Sir Humphry Davy was enlisted by the Society in Sunderland to investigate the phenomenon of fire-damp. It was correspondence between Hodgeson and others that caused Davy to journey to Durham in 1815. Davy began work in August of that year on fire-damp dispatched from Hebburn Colliery in sealed wine bottles. Meanwhile, inspired by the Felling disaster “…an almost untutored genius at Killingworth Colliery on the north bank of the Tyne was trying independently to discover the means to produce a reliable lamp.” (Duckham, 1973). This was George Stephenson, a then unknown engineer, who was backed by a Nicholas wood, a Richard Lambert, and the Bramblings as owners of Felling Colliery.

Spedding devised the flint and steel mill in 1740 as the first serious attempt to provide pit lighting, but it proved to be of dubious safety as well as cumbersome and clumsy, requiring constant working by a boy. A famous medical member of the Society was a certain Dr William Reid Clanny (1776-1850) who himself since late 1811 had been attempting to devise a safety lamp. His efforts eventually had him awarded gold and silver medals by the Society of Arts. William Martin (1772-1851) also invented a safety lamp, accepted by pitmen but not by the mine-owners and it was suppressed. Martin, who lectured on Davy’s “murder” lamp tested his lamp at Willington Colliery, near Wallsend 1n 1818 (Adams, 2005).

William Reid Clanny was an Irish inventor born in Bangor, County Down, in 1770, and who died in Sunderland (after practising as a physician for 45 years) in 1850. Clanny invented the Clanny Safety Lamp in 1813 and published his observations in 1816. This lamp was first used Herringham Mill pit where Clanny had experimented in person. Northern coal owners and other contemporaries noted the value of his lamp which was emphasised in his obituary in the Sunderland Herald. After his first “blast lamp” of 1813 he maintained his interest in lighting in gaseous environments and created six other lamps.

The last two are regarded as true Clanny lamps, between 1839 and 1842. The 1813 lamp, which was an oil lamp, was operated by a bellows with the flame isolated behind glass by water reservoirs. It was seen as clumsy and, as it went out in the presence of gas, of little practicality in a coal mine. On Clanny’s lamp Stephenson considered “…it as constructed upon a principle entirely different from mine, that of separating the external and internal hydrogen by means of water.” (Stephenson, 1817 a).

George Stephenson’s Geordie lamp

George Stephenson was born in Wylam (as was William Hedley the inventor of the locomotive “Puffing Billy”) nine miles west of Newcastle on 9.6.1781 and died 12.8.1848. He was the second son of Robert Stephenson, foreman of the Wylam Colliery pumping engine. Aged 14 he was an assistant fireman to his father at Dewley Colliery, then at Duke’s Winning Pit at Newburn. Aged 17 he was engineman at Water Row Pit west of Newburn and in 1801 began working at Dolly pit at Black Callerton Colliery as a “brakeman” (controlling pit winding gear). Married in 1802 he moved to Wilkington Quay east of Newcastle working as a brakeman. He moved again, as a brakeman, in 1804 to West Moor working at Killingworth Pit and the adjacent Mid Hill Winning Pit. The pumping engine at High Pit, Killingworth, had to be repaired by him in 1811. As a result he was elevated to an engine-wright for the surrounding collieries of Killingworth. Yet it was not until 1799 that he began, in his spare time, to learn to read and write.

After the Felling disaster Stephenson began, in 1813, experimenting with a safety lamp that could employ a naked flame without igniting an explosion. It was his conclusion that “… if a lamp could be made to contain the burnt air above the flame, and permit the firedamp to come in below in small quantity to be burnt as it came in, the burnt air would prevent the passing of the explosion upwards and the velocity of the current from below would also prevent its passing downwards.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1962). It was after 1811, to Stephenson’s credit, that he started to apply his inventive capacities to design a miners’ safety lamp. His design was one which used small tubes to allow the entry of air to support combustion and passage of gases.

This lamp design was arrived at by trial and error and the prototype was tested at Killingworth on 21.10.1815. An improved version was tested again on the 4.11.1815 and 30.11.1815, and shown to R. W. Brambling and a Mr Murray on the 24th of November, when he “…had just built his first locomotive at Killingworth Colliery.” (Adams, 2005). The test was at a fire-damp issuing fissure underground in Killingworth pit a month before Sir Humphry Davy presented his design to the Royal Society in London. Stephenson showed his successful safety lamp design to the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society on 5.12.1815.

Stephenson’s lamp became known as the Geordie lamp. Unlike the Davy lamp it had no gauze but glass around the flame, gave a brighter light and was popular with miners. Glass breakage was a problem with the Geordie lamp but, with the invention of safety glass, this was later resolved. The Geordie lamp, unlike the Davy lamp, was employed exclusively in the north east pits. Stephenson was unaware that Sir Humphry Davy was working on the same problem. Sir Humphry applied scientific methods and analysis whereas Stephenson relied on practical empiricism and, lacking Davy’s laboratory facilities, worked in his own home and was obviously “…blessed with a fertile mind and considerable mechanical ingenuity.” (Barnard, 1936).


Sir Humphry Davy’s lamp

The Davy lamp of 1815 contained a candle, even though he is recognised as the inventor of the safer oil burning lamp, and some of the ideas of Canny and Stephenson. The Sunderland Society for the Prevention of Accidents in Mines charged Sir Humphry Davy with investigation of the problem of mine explosions. It was Davy who surmised that a flame cannot ignite fire-damp or mine-damp if contained with a wire mesh. He showed this using a 28 openings to the inch metal gauze. This mesh screen, using two concentric mesh tubes to increase safety, cooled combustion products so that flame heat was too low to ignite the gases outside the gauze. This gauze contraption functioned therefore as a flame arrestor. The fine mesh permitted methane to pass through but stopped the passage of the flame itself. The first trial was carried out at Hebburn Colliery on 9.1.1816.

Flammable gases were noted to burn with a blue tinge flame and when placed on the ground the flame went out due to accumulations of the asphyxiant gas (CO2) known as black-damp or choke-damp. Davy was performing experiments with fire-damp at the same time as others. In 1815 he realised that the holes of fine metal gauze acted the same as narrow tubes (viz Stephenson’s lamp), thus mine air passed through small orifices fed a flame that would not ignite the outside gas. Davy’s original experiments with fire-damp “…discovered its ‘lag’ on ignition.” (Barnard, 1936). Davy’s lamp [see 1932.88.1152] was eventually surrounded by metal mesh and thus differed from Stephenson’s lamp with its glass surround. Thus Davy wrote, in a communication of 1816 that his “… invention consists in covering or surrounding the flame of a lamp or candle by a wire sieve…”, and further that his object “…at present is only to point out their application to the use of the collier.” (Davy, 1816 b.)


The controversy over priority

Davy was in France and Italy 1813 to 1815 but on his return started experiments with lamps for colliery use. H. R. Clanny and the then unknown George Stephenson had already shown the idea of a safety lamp. In 1813 the Society for Preventing Accidents in Coal Mines was formed in Sunderland (TWAS 1589 cited Smith, J. 2001) and which was directed by Reverend John Hodgeson who invited Davy in 1815 to research fire-damp (Northumberland Record Office, cited in Smith. 2001).

George Stephenson was directly involved as a mining engineer and already experimenting with fire-damp and a safety lamp (Stephenson, 1817 a). In his own time Stephenson’s research led to “…the consequent formation of a Safety Lamp, which has been, and is still, used in that concern…” which his friends considered “…as precisely the same in principle with that subsequently presented to their notice by Sir Humphry Davy.” (Stephenson, 1817 b).

It was to Stephenson that we were “… indebted for the discovery of the Principle of Safety…” that hydrogen will not explode down narrow tubes and “…will hereafter recognise as the Stephenson Principle.” (Charnley, 1817). The Principle was pointed out to several persons long before Davy came into the County, and Stephenson’s lamp was in the hands of the manufacturer during Davy’s visit. (Stephenson, 1817 b.). Stephenson made “…three lamps, all perfectly safe: and by following precisely the same steps,  Sir Humphry Davy was enabled subsequently to construct one…” (Charnley, 1817). The Northumberland Record Office possesses 37 unpublished letters signed by Davy dated September 1815 to March 10th, 1818, and known as the Hodgeson Bequest. Within this context Davy made “…complete acknowledgement of the priority of Mr Stephenson’s claims”, and moreover “…acknowledges the same principle of safety which Mr Stephenson had previously established and proceeded with his experiments in the same way.” (Charnley, 1817).

Admitting that “…my habits, as a practical mechanic, make me afraid of publishing theories…” Stephenson avowed that the principle “…has been successfully applied in the construction of a lamp that may be carried with perfect safety into the most explosive atmosphere” (Stephenson, 1817 a). Davy’s response described the dispute as a “…indirect attack on my scientific fame, my honour, and veracity.” (Davy, cited in Smith, J. 2001). It seemed to many that “…the invention of a miners’ lamp, similar in design to Davy’s, with a measure of evidence to suggest priority, by a largely uneducated colliery engineer, stuck in Davy’s craw.” (Smith, J. 2001). Especially as Stephenson had previously announced to many associates the principles of his lamp and begun its manufacture (Newcastle Chronicle, 1815, November 2nd). Davy only announced the results of his fire-damp experiments on 19th October.

In 1816 Davy was awarded £2000 as a public testimonial for his lamp whereas Stephenson received a miserly 100 guineas. The following furore at such a snub resulted in a local subscription that raised £1000 from local dignitaries, colliery owners and managers. A Resolution of the Coal Trade, August 319% 1816, considered the award to Davy for his safety lamp, but an adjourned coal owners meeting, 11.10.1816, credited Davy with inventing the safety lamp. At this point Stephenson joined the fray with letters, with supporting correspondents, in the Newcastle Chronicle.

A supporter opined “Mr Geo Stephenson, of Killingworth Colliery, was the person who first discovered and applied the principle upon which lamps may be constructed.” (Brandling, 1816, Newcastle Chronicle, August 29th).

Davy among many derided Stephenson and poured scorn on his invention and the priority dispute became “…characterised by local patriotism on the one hand and academic sneers on the other…” (Duckham. 1973). The experience with Davy made Stephenson distrust theoretical and scientific experts based in London for the remainder of his life. Davy has been described as “…less than fair to the man who was to father Britain’s railways” (Duckham, 1973), especially for others as the evidence awards conclusively “…the priority to Stephenson in the invention of the miners lamp.” (Smith, 2001). In token of gratitude Davy was awarded £2000 at the same time as Stephenson was accused of stealing Davy’s idea, and it is regrettable that “…Davy regarded Stephenson as no more than a pirate…” (Knight, 1996). It is noteworthy that Davy received his award “…at a banquet presided over by his old friend John Lambton, afterwards Earl of Durham, who had been with him at Bristol under the care of Dr Beddoes.” (Hartley, 1971).

Stephenson was exonerated by a local enquiry committee, termed Stephensonians, who awarded him £1000 but this proved unacceptable to Davy’s supporters. They refused to recognise how an uneducated man had arrived at the solution he had. It was only in 1833 that Stephenson was given equal claim to priority by a House of Commons Committee.


The miners’ safety lamp was an “… icon of the industrial revolution every bit as powerful as Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ or the Iron Bridge at Coalbrookdale.” (Adams, 2005). The miners’ lamp, to whomever its invention may be credited “…should be regarded as a landmark in the history of civilisation.” (Barnard, 1936). With regard to his lamp Stephenson said it “…might be considered a want of candour were I not to take notice of the lamp constructed my Dr Clanny…” (Stephenson, 1817 b). Whereas it seems “…less than justice to Stephenson, that history seems to accept Davy’s right to priority, when the evidence suggests otherwise.” (Smith, 2001).

After the introduction of the Davy lamp there was an increase in mine explosions for a number of reasons. Firstly mine-owners delayed in installing gas extractors: secondly it encouraged re-opening dangerous pits, and working in methane rich seams was not curtailed. Also lamps were purchased by the miners, as well as the expensive candles from the company store, and not provided by the owners. Stephenson’s lamp became popular in the north east coalfields but Davy’s lamp was introduced elsewhere.

The priority controversy continues to reverberate to the present day as it has come to be recognised that “… Davy was not the inventor of the safety lamp…” and that “…his lamp was not really safe.” (Adams, 2005). Davy’s lamp was cheaper and thus preferred by the mine-owners. The attitude may mean the “…liberty of laissez-faire might imply the coal-owner was master in his own house; for the collier it merely secured his freedom to die violently by earth, fire or water.” (Duckham, 1973). Also Davy’s lamp, in wet conditions, deteriorated rapidly and rusting metal gauze made it even more unsafe.

Both the Davy Lamp and Stephenson’s lamp became “… unsafe in rapidly moving air-currents.” (Barnard, 1936). In effect — fire-damp explosions increased. Nonetheless the wire gauze of Davy’s lamp was eventually used in every subsequent safety lamp, with modifications, for nearly 200 years. It is noteworthy that Stephenson later adopted the principle of Davy’s gauze instead of tubes — it is this revised design that became known in the 19th century as the “Geordie Lamp”.

Regardless of who first invented the ‘first’ safety flame lamp for mines there is an important point to note. Its success was the culmination of principles discovered by three men — William R. Clanny, George Stephenson, and Sir Humphry Davy. Neither Davy or Stephenson patented their lamp designs. All three inventors worked independently, all around the same time, and each had some knowledge at least of each others work. It was Clanny who separated the flame from the firedamp atmosphere of the mine. It was Davy who first enclosed the flame in wire gauze. It was Stephenson who first left a space above the flame for burnt air. And indeed the lamps of the three were all eventually fitted with wire gauze. The lamps were thus the fruits of work representing an “…untypical conjuncture of requirements of growing industrialism and the resources of scientific enquiry.” (Duckham, 1973). The modified lamps have remained an integral part of the mining industry up to and beyond the demise of most of the coal industry after the colliery closures following the miners strike of 1984.

References and sources consulted

Adams, Max. Humphry Davy and the Murder Lamp: Max Adams Investigates the truth behind the Introduction of a Key Invention of the Early Industrial Revolution. History Today, Vol 55, August 2005. Bod Camera, S.Hist. Per 12.

Barnard, T. R.. Miners’ Safety Lamps. Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons Ltd, London, 1936. RSL: 186415.e.34

Brandling, 1816. Newcastle Chronicle, August 29th.

Charnley, E.. A Collection of all the Letters which have appeared in the Newcastle Papers, with other documents, relating to the Safety lamps. By S. Hodgeson, Newcastle, 1817. Bod 247828.e.4.

Clanny, William Reid. Practical observations on safety lamps for coal mines. Garbutt, G. Sunderland, 1816.

Davies, H. George Stephenson. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1975.

Davy, Humphry. (a) On the Fire-Damp of Coal Mines and on Methods of Lighting the Mines So as to Prevent Its Explosion. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Vol 106, 1816, 1-22

Davy, Humphry. (b) An Account of an Invention for Giving light in Explosive Mixtures of Fire-Damp in Coal Mines, by Consuming the Fire-Damp. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Vol 106, 1816, 23-24.

Davy, Humphry. (c) Philosophical Magazine. 47 (212). 1816

Davy, Humphry. On the safety lamp for preventing explosions in mines… Hunter, R. London, 1825.

Dictionary of National Biography.

Duckham, H. & B. Great Pit Disasters: Great Britain 1700 to the Present day. David & Charles, 1973. Bod Stack 1795.e.569.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, London, 1962. Vol 19 (809d). Hartley, Sir H. Humphry Davy. S.R. Publishers Ltd, 1971.

Hendrick, D.J. & Sizer, K. E. “Breathing” coal mines and surface asphyxiation from stythe (blackdamp). BMJ. 305, August 29, 1992.

Knight, D. Humphry Davy. Cambridge U P, 1996.

Lawrence, C. The Power and the Glory: Humphry Davy and Romanticism. In Cunningham, A & Jardine, N. Romanticism and the Sciences. CUP, 1990.

Newcastle. Report upon the claims of Mr. George Stephenson, relative to the invention of his safety lamp. Constable and Co. Edinburgh, 1817.

Newcastle Chronicle, 2.11.1815. Newcastle Courant, 26.10.1815

North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers. See:  Northumberland Record Office. ZAN/M.14/A.1.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004. Smith, Alan. Newcomen Bulletin. September 1998 (cited in Smith, J. 2001).

Smith, Jeffrey. George Stephenson and the Miner’s Lamp Controversy. North East History, 34, 2001. Bod Stack P.F.04009

Stephenson, G. (a) A Description of the Safety Lamp, invented by George Stephenson, and now in use in Killingworth Colliery. 2nd Edition. Constable and Co, Edinburgh, 1817. Bod 247828.e.4

Stephenson, G. (b) Philosophical Magazine. March, 1817.

Tyne and Wear Archives, TWAS 1589.

Eric W Edwards. Balfour Library Assistant. July 2009.

3620 words excluding reference

Chronology of the Stephenson and Davy Lamps

Sept 1815.                         Stephenson publishes principle of lamp.

15.10.1815                        Davy receives fire-damp

19.10.1815                        Davy realises explosion will not pass through small tubes

21.10.1815                        Stephenson tests his tube lamp in Killingworth Colliery

25.10.1815                        Davy announces discovery to Chemical Society, London

30.10.1815                        Davy describes his principle on tubes in lamps

4.11.1815                          Stephenson tests improved lamp in Killingworth Colliery

9.11.1815                          Davy announces Tube Lamp to Royal Society, London.

Report in Newcastle Chronicle, 23.12.1815.

24.11.1815                        Stephenson orders double perforated plate lamp.

Lamp shown to Mr Brambling and Mr Murray.

30.11.1815                        Stephenson tries modified lamp in Killingworth Colliery

5.12.1815                            Stephenson shows his successful lamp to the Newcastle

Literary and Philosophical Society

23.12.1815                        Davy announces principle of gauze lamp.

Date of Newcastle Chronicle report of Davy’s gauze lamp.

9.1.1816                               First trial of Davy’s gauze lamp at Hebburn Colliery.

9.11.1816                         Davy writes in Newcastle that double gauze in preferable.

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Mayan Haustec stone figure

Image (326)

In the Court of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford there is a part of a Huastec Mayan figure (1886.1.1122), carved from stone and originally from the Panuco River from the east coast of Panuco. The statue comprises the upper half of a female Mexican idol, crudely sculpted and of grotesque appearance. It has been dated to before the conquest of Mexico by Spain. It was found by Captain G. F. Lyon of HMS Griper in 1825 (Lyon, 1826). A further Huastec stone idol (1889.1 is in case 147a. It is a  figure in rough oval form of a woman’s face and hands from Orizaba.

In appearance it is a crude representation of the head, upper arms and breasts of a woman. It is 20 inches high and 81 inches wide. The head is surmounted by a sort of mask that is claimed to represent the head of a crocodile. Close inspection suggests it may indicate that the mask is represents a human skull. In this respect the statue may be that of an ancient Mayan goddess. There were a number of classical mesoamerican goddesses which were chthonic or earth deities. Tlazolteotl was an Aztec and Huastec goddess who was also known as Ixwiname. As a maternal goddess Huasteca was known locally from the Gulf Coast. She was connected to sexual sin and was also the personification of filth. She was also a component part of a group of fertility goddesses classified as the Teiteoinnan Complex. The Teiteoinnan were the goddess midwives  and carers, known as the Toci,  for the classical Mesoamerican Aztec of Mexico.

Picture taken by author (2011).

References and sources consulted.

Bunson, M. R. & Bunson, S. M.  (1996).  Encyclopaedia of Ancient Mesoamerica. Facts on File, Inc. New York.

Evans, S. T. & Webster, D. L. (2001).  Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America.  Garland Publishing, New York.

Fewkes, J. W.  (1903-1904). Certain Antiquities of eastern Mexico.  Bur.Am.Ethnol.  [Balfour Library. Per 10].

Hammond, N.  (1977).  The Earliest Maya.  Scientific American, March.

Lyon, G. F.  (1826).   Journal of a residence and tour in the Republic of Mexico in the years 1826. [Bod 20890.e.150 (vol 1), 20890.e.150 (vol 2).]

Spinden, H. J.  (1975).  A Study of Mayan Art.  Dover, New York.

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An Irish bronze brooch in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

On the Middle Gallery, in case 98a, there is an early medieval clothes fastener described as a penannular bronze ring brooch with a long pin (1884.79.13). Of northern Irish provenance it is part of the Pitt Rivers founding collection (it has an early number associated with Pitt Rivers items acquired before 1884 of 142-1649), and was originally displayed at the Bethnal Green Museum. It is another example of the wide-ranging nature of the collection of General Pitt Rivers. This zoomorphic brooch is described having a continuous coarse ribbing along its 4.6cm diameter hoop and is complete with its 10.5cm pin. Its splayed terminals are plain enamel decorated, have no ears, and with rounded eyes. The pinched-in snouts are also enamelled with prominent up-turned tips. There is side hatching on the more or less formless pin-head. Such brooches are thus made with a “…pin which swivels round a hoop with a break to enable the pin to be inserted in the cloth.” (Laing, 1996). Alongside this brooch is a much larger one collected and donated by the General. This comes from Lough Neagh in Ireland (the largest lake in the British Isles) and is labelled ‘P.R. coll. [1728] (403 Blue)’. It is important to remember it is with Ireland that Pitt Rivers “…had long-term links…through travel and archaeological fieldwork…” (Gosden & Larsen. 2007).

Penannular open ring brooches start in pre-Roman Britain and probably originate from provincial Roman prototypes. In 4th to 6th century Ireland the zoomorphic penannular brooch was the main form found, though the type has been found from the 2nd century onwards. The term derives from the fact that the brooch terminals simulate animal heads because “…the terminals bore a faint resemblance to a backward turned animal head…” (Laing, 1996). In fully developed brooch types the snout, eyes and ears are all present. These brooches show both regional and chronological variations in style and comprise a circular hoop of metal flattened at the ends – the terminals. Attached to the hoop is a movable pin, the loop of which runs along the hoop. The ring is incomplete in order to allow the passage of the pin between the terminals. These brooches exhibit great variation from crudely alloyed simple rings to creatively elaborate examples decorated with enamelling, glass, and gold filigree.

It is believed that the zoomorphic brooch originated through the combined efforts of the Brigantes and their allies the Votadini, being derived from a Brigantian bangle. From this the Votadini created a new motif unlike other representations of animals. It was an abstraction. This new stylised form had, unlike previous examples, the animal facing inwards. The Brigantian bangle was penannular, square ended and lightweight. The Votadini occupied the region from the Forth to the Tyne. The Brigantes, the only tribe to exist in Ireland as well, occupied much of northern Britain.

Most Irish penannular pins are unprovenanced but they were producing proto-zoomorphic Votadini type pins in the second century. Refugee craftsmen may have sought sanctuary in Ireland after the abandonment of the Antonine Wall in 196 AD. Many examples of zoomorphic brooches date from before the Roman occupation. However, only the early forms have been found in Britain whilst later development was peculiar to Ireland. The terminal types are characteristic of these islands. Some are found in Wales, Scotland and England but they are most numerous in Ireland. One of the early metal working centres in Ireland was at Fort Clogher, County Tyrone. Examples of penannular brooches similar to those collected by Pitt Rivers were found at crannog 2 at Ballindery County Offaly, and the River Shannon near Athlone, Co Westmeath.The Shannon example is characterised by being decorated with triskels (Celtic symbol of three legs radiating from a centre) and double spirals, whereas the Ballindery brooch is animal headed with a fine ribbed ring.

These brooches were more than mundane clothes fasteners. They had secular and religious significance in Celtic society. Their greater purpose was to serve as, often personalised, symbols of wealth, rank and status. Not only were the most expensive and elegant examples the preserve of the rich. They also functioned as portable wealth for payment and gift-giving amongst the upper echelons. They indicated sexual equality because women possessed as elaborate brooches as men. These brooches show forms fixed and adopted by the ancient Britons before the Roman invasion, and furthermore their development involved both the British and the Irish. Indeed, open-ring brooches were being made at Clogher by the 6th century. At this time “…distinctively Irish forms of penannular were in vogue across the country and were occasionally taken over to Britain.” (Laing, 1996). The long and increasingly elaborate development of penannular brooches ensured their survival into the dark ages where their continued use illuminates conditions in England, though most brooches found in Anglo-Saxon graves were re-used Roman examples.

October 23rd, 2009.

Originally printed online as a contribution to the Rethinking Pitt-Rivers Project of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, in 2009. It is a thank you to the museum for allowing me to put this article on my blog site.

Sources consulted

Campbell, Ewan. (2001). ‘Were the Scots Irish?’ Antiquity, 75. 285-92.

Gosden, C. Larsen, F. & Petch, A. Knowing Things: Exploring the Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum 1884-1945. OUP. Oxford (2007).

Kilbride-Jones, H. E. (1935-36).’Scots zoomorphic penannular brooches’. Proc. Soc. Antiq. Scotland. LXX, 123-138.

Kilbride-Jones, H. E. (1980). ‘Zoomorphic penannular brooches’. Report XXXIX, Society of Antiquaries. Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Laing, L. & J.Art of the Celts. Thames and Hudson, London (1996).

Lewis, J. M. (1982). ‘Recent finds of penannular brooches from Wales’. Medieval Archaeology. 26, 151-154.

Megaw, R. & V.Celtic Art. Thames and Hudson, London (2001).

Smith, R. A. (1914). ‘Irish brooches of five centuries’. Archaeologia, Vol 65, 223-250.

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Human heart in a heart shaped cist of lead

Heart in cist

In the Court, in Case 122a (Treatment of the Dead) is a heart-shaped lead cist containing a deceased person’s heart (1884.57.18). It was found in a wooden box secreted in the crypt of Christ Church, the oldest church in Cork, in 1863. General Pitt Rivers collected this artefact when he was stationed in Ireland between 1862 and 1866. Donated as part of his founding collection in 1884, it was originally sent to Bethnal Green Museum as the centre-piece of the ‘Human Superstition’ display. This relic, as gruesome as it may appear on first acquaintance, nonetheless holds great historical and cultural interest, and can be the subject of a wealth of stories and associations. It is most likely that Pitt Rivers was quite aware of the import of the object with regard to human beliefs and the emotions that this artefact could engender.

It is evidence of a common and ancient burial rite as well as a traditional sentiment of mourning (Aries, 1974). In medieval times post-mortem removal of the heart (ablation) was in accordance with much older customs as well as separate burial (Puckle, B. S. 1926). For the medieval mind-set the heart represented the entire body and functioned as the receptacle for the record of a man’s life. Funerary practice in northern Europe often involved ablation of the heart and burial elsewhere, and this separation “…is the essence of the practice of heart burial.” (Dawson, 1933). Separate sepulture of the heart is therefore a “…funerary practice based on mystical belief in the power of the heart.” (Mafart et al, 2004). The practice of heart burial derives thus from the soul and human consciousness being associated with the heart. It follows that “…the part most sought after, the noblest part, was the heart, the secret of life and emotion.” (Puckle, 1926) The custom was known to be common in medieval times but “…the existence of procedures for which little Irish evidence exists” with that collected by Pitt Rivers being only one of a few recorded examples (Tait, C. 2001). Strangely, the heart of Daniel O’Connell, the Irish political liberator (1755-1847), was buried in Rome while his remains are interred in Dublin (Bullen, 1913). Indeed one antiquarian opinion thought his heart “…would have made its way to Erin.” (Baddeley, 1895).

The funerary practice of heart ablation and separate burial was a widespread custom among the elite classes of northern medieval Europe (Mafart, B. et al. 2004). From an ancient ritual the custom of heart burial and placement in a sanctified place was revived in the 12th to 18th centuries amongst royalty, nobility, warriors and ecclesiastics (Bradford, 1930). Nobles who died away from home, for practical and hygienic reasons, were dismembered prior to boiling in wine or water. The viscera were often burned at the place of death but the heart was then transported home. An example may be found with a heart-shrine in Leybourne Church thus we “…may lay it down for certain that the body from which the heart was taken was buried elsewhere that at Leybourne otherwise there would have been no separation of its parts…The hearts of some of the most distinguished Crusaders were frequently sent home to be enshrined in their own manorial church, or is some monastery which they founded or endowed.” (Fynemore, 1913). The body of Roland was treated in this manner (Chanson de Roland, CCXIII). It is thought that hearts were removed by those deemed apt for such a chore and these included butchers and cooks (Mafart, et al, 2004). Crusaders and other warriors (Hartshorne, 1861) often merited separate burial of heart and intestines as “…a custom which was promoted by the Catholic reformers and appears not only among ecclesiastical princes, bishops and royalty but also among important war leaders.” (Weiss-Krejci et al, 2010). There is a heart-shaped niche in Fordwich Church, Kent, reputed to be a depository of the heart of a crusader.

In Medieval England the church showed no qualms about burying a person in two (or even more) places at once (Marsden, 1996). The heart of Richard the First was put in a casket and interred in Rouen Cathedral as was that of Henry the First (the remainder of whom is buried in Reading Abbey). Again, Eleanor of Castile (wife of Edward I) has her heart and organs in Lincoln Cathedral whilst the rest of her is entombed in Westminster. The heart of Robert the Bruce was ablated and buried in Dunfermline. It was his wish to be interred in Jerusalem. Circumstances prevented this and the heart in a casket is now buried separately in Melrose Abbey. It has been suggested that separate burials of heart and corpse was used by the church as a financial expedient for enrichment (Hartshorne, 1861). Separated relics, e.g., hearts, intestines etc, became valuable commodities whereby bipartite or tripartite interments involving separate ceremonials engendered greater income. However, such redistribution of body parts provoked some opposition and led to a temporary ban by Pope Boniface VIII (Marshall, E. 1895). Executed traitors also had their hearts removed. One such state victim was reputed to be Hugh Dispenser the lover of Edward II, and who was hung drawn and quartered and whose skeletal evidence shows signs of an ablated heart (Lewis, M. E. 2008). The last king to have a separate burial for his heart was George II in 1760 at Westminster (Howse, C. 2008).

Over time separate sepulture of human hearts ceased to be a strictly religious rite and was replaced by a “…sentimental, aristocratic, or family tradition.” (Mafart et al, 2004). An example of one such notable burial was that of Lord Byron whose heart was removed and interred in Missolonghi, Greece, whilst his remains were despatched home to England (Time, 1933). Percy Bysshe Shelley, who drowned in the Gulf of Spezia in 1822, was cremated by his friends whereupon his heart was snatched from the funeral pyre by the explorer Edward Trelawney and given to the poet Leigh Hunt (Norman, 1955; Time, 1933). Shelley’s heart was given to Mary Shelley who treasured the organ between the pages of Adonais until she died herself. The heart, which by then had crumbled to dust, was finally buried with the remains of Shelley’s and Mary’s son, Sir Percy Florence Shelley, in 1889.

With regard to local Oxford history it is reputed that the ablated heart of John Baliol (founder of Baliol College, Oxford) resided in a shrine at Brabourne Church, Ashford, Kent, whilst his body is interred near the high altar of Newby Abbey, near Dumfries (Pilcher, G. T. 1913). In fact his wife, who kept the heart within an ivory casket as a keepsake, had his heart buried beside her in 1289 some six miles south of Dumfries. (Bayley, A. R. 1913). An Oxford ghost story is attached to the heart burial of William King the principal of St Mary Hall (prior to its merger with Oriel College in 1806). The heart was supposedly contained within a silver or marble vase near the north wall of the chapel. According to one Reverend Phelps, Provost of Oriel College, he was haunted by the tapping of the heart of William King. Apparently Phelps, when living in St Mary Hall, had a bed which abutted the wall behind which the vase containing the heart was recessed. On asking the next occupant of the room about the tapping Reverend Phelps was told it was the beating of King’s heart in the vase (Magrath, J. R. 1916).

The lead cist collected by General Pitt Rivers in 1863 has no information as to whose heart resides within. It is not known how long the heart remained entombed or within a niche in the crypt of the church in Cork. Neither is it known what station in life the owner of the heart occupied in life. It is not known if it was a religious rite or sentimental gesture. It can be concluded, however, that it is an example of a very common funerary practice from pre-medieval times up to the nineteenth century – a practice surrounded by many stories and anecdotes of which Pitt Rivers may have himself been aware.

24 January, 2010.

Sources consulted

Aries, P.Western Attitudes Towards Death.Johns Hopkins University Press (1974).

Baddeley, St Clair.Notes and Queries.8th.S. VIII.November 9, 1895.

Bayley, A. R.Notes and Queries.II.S. VIII.November 15, 1913.

Bradford, C. A.Heart Burial.Allen & Unwin, London (1933).

Brown, E.’Death and the human body in the later middle ages’.Viator,12. 211-217,(1981).

Bullen, R. F.Notes and Queries.II.S. VIII. November 15, 1913.

Corfield, W.Notes and Queries.II.S. VIII.November 15, 1913.

Dawson, W. R.Review of Bradford (1933).Folklore, 44 (2), June 1933.

Fynemore, R. J.Notes and Queries.II.S. VIII. p 336. (1913).

Hartshorne, E. S.Enshrined Hearts of Warriors and Illustrious People…Robert Hardwicke, London (1861).

Howse, C.’The Burial of the Heart’.The Telegraph.12.4.2008.

Lewis, M. E.’A traitor’s death? The identity of a drawn, hanged and quartered man from Hulton Abbey, Staffordshire’.Antiquity, 82, 113-124. (2008).

Mafart, B. et al. ‘Post-mortem ablation of the heart: a medieval funerary practice…’International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. 14, 67-73. (2004).

Magrath, J. R.Notes and Queries.12.S.I.March 4, 1916.

Marsden, Dr P.’A hearty burial’.The Independent, 27.4.1996.

Norman, A. M.Shelley’s Heart.Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences.X (1), 114-116. (1955).

Notes and Queries.II.S. VIII.25 October, 1913.

Puckle, B. S.Funeral Customs: their origin and development.T. Lerner Laurie, London (1926).

Sparke, A.Notes and Queries.12.S.I.March 4, 1916.

Tait, C.History Ireland, Spring 2001. Review of Frey, S. L.’ ‘Burial in Medieval Ireland 900-1500′.Four Courts Press (2001).’

Time Magazine. ‘Science: Heart Burial’.31.7.1933.

Wainwright, J. B. Notes and Queries. 11.S. VIII. November 15, 1913.

Weiss-Krejci, E & Williams, H.Dead bodies animate the study of politics. In: Mortality – Interdisciplinary Approaches in the Archaeology of Death, Burial Commemoration.University of Exeter (2010).

Zigarovich, J. ‘Preserved Remains: Embalming Practices in Eighteenth Century England’.In Eighteenth Century Life, 33 (3), Fall 2009.

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Model of HMS Leopard in Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

In Case 71 in the Court of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford is a model of a sailing warship (1884.54.44) from the founding collection of General Pitt Rivers. The model represents the Portland Fourth Rate HMS Leopard, of 50 guns, as she would have looked prior to her launching. The model was made by George Stockwell. The keel of the ship was laid at Portsmouth Dockyard in 1775 but she was eventually launched at Sheerness in 1790.Not only was this model owned and donated by General Pitt Rivers, it is most probable that he was well aware of the history of the vessel herself. HMS Leopard is known in Royal Naval annals for her involvement in what came to be known as the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair of 1807.

George Stockwell is listed in pay books as one of only five senior shipwrights (Quartermen) working in Sheerness Yard in the 1770s and 1780s. Stockwell was christened on Christmas Day, 1729, at Sheldwich. The son of a well digger he entered the dockyard in 1750-1751. As a Sheerness-based model maker and Royal Dockyard shipwright George Stockwell was known to have been active between 1770 and 1790. The model of HMS Leopard was originally thought to have been made between 1770 and 1790, but later investigations proved the model was made at the same time and place as the ship herself. Within the model was found a folded and glued piece of paper. The quill written message therein stated “This moddle was made by Geo Stockwell at Sheerness in the year of our Lord 1787 in the 56 year of his age.” (Navy News, 2002).

There arose, during the years 1650 to 1800 a skilled tradition of constructing models of Royal Naval vessels that were exquisitely executed. As these models were commissioned by the Navy Board (who had the administrative responsibility for Royal Dockyards) they became the generic Navy Board Models. It would have taken George Stockwell and his apprentice a year to build a model ship such as HMS Leopard. It is not doubted that Stockwell’s skills entitle him to be dubbed the “…Michelangelo of the Navy Board Model Makers.” (Navy News, 2002).

Navy Board models always had well defined features. Each one had a scale of 1:48 and comprised the hull only. No rigging or masts were constructed. The model showed therefore gun ports, configuration of the decks, cabins, and carvings. They were always built from the finest boxwood from Turkey with its mature appearance and mellow yellow. Finer details were boxwood, brass, ivory and bone, with painting done in the naval colours of Prussian blue and Venetian red.

The Rating System of the Royal navy

HMS Leopard of 1790 was designated as a Fourth Rate of 50 guns with a crew of 343 men and boys. She was launched in 1790 and disposed of on June the 28th, 1814. She carried 22 long 24 pounder and 22 long 12 pounder carriage guns. In addition she had on the quarter and forecastle decks six 24 pounder carronades, 2 long 9 pounders, and an 18 pounder launch carronade. Between the beginning of the 17th century and middle of the 19th the Royal Navy employed a rating system to categorise its sailing warships. The original classification of 1686 was according to the assigned complement of the vessel, but a later categorisation (circa 1660) opted for rating according to the number of carriage guns mounted.

The structure was revised by Samuel Pepys as Secretary to the Admiralty in 1677. From now the number and weight of the guns carried determined the size of the assigned complement, total rations, and pay. The trend now was for each Rate to have a greater number of guns. Pepys ratio allowed for a First Rate to have 90 to 100 guns. However the scheme of 1801 gave a First Rate ship 100 to 120 guns. This increased the ratio for a Sixth Rate from 4-18 to 20-28 guns. After 1714 any ship with less than 20 was unrated. The term first-rate has passed into common usage and has come to signify the highest quality, whereas second-rate and third-rate used adjectively implies something of inferior quality. A First to Third Rate ships were regarded in this system as “ships of the line”.

Smaller Fourth Rate ships, such as HMS Leopard, with 50 or 60 guns on their two gun-decks were regarded as “line ships” until 1756. After that they were regarded as too small for heavy battle engagements.However, some Fourth Rate ships found themselves acting as flag-ships on far away outposts, or on convoy duties, some converted to troop-ships (e.g., HMS Leopard). A Fourth-Rate with its two gun decks had a crew of between 320 and 420 men and boys, and was about 1000 tons burthen. This ‘burthen’ ton was defined as 35 cubic feet of water and not a unit of mass. Thirty five cubic feet of sea water does have a mass very approximate to one Imperial (long) ton or 2240 pounds. Not so for merchant vessels. For merchant ships a ton is a ‘register’ ton or 100 cubic feet of water.

The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair of 1807

In early 1807, whilst blockading French ships in Chesapeake Bay, a small number of American and British seamen deserted their ships and joined the crew of the United States frigate USS Chesapeake. The harsh, press-ganging method of recruitment to Royal navy ships led to high desertion rates. Many sailors deserted to the United States where their seamanship skills were welcomed. Indeed, desertion by British sailors was common around the area of Norfolk, Virginia, where a Royal Navy squadron lay at anchor. Their task was to watch a pair of armed French ships who had sought refuge in the neutral harbour. Many subsequently joined of the American navy. The Royal Navy found this unacceptable. On June 1st 1807 the British commander in chief of the North American Station issued orders to the captains under his command. These naval officers were ordered to meet the American frigate Chesapeake in international waters beyond the limits of the USA and search for said deserters. Specifically they were to seek out sailors missing from the vessels Belleisle, Bellona, Triumph, Chichester, Halifax, and the Zenobia.

The USS Chesapeake was a 36-gun frigate of some 1244 tons that had been built in the Gosport Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Virginia. She had been commissioned early in 1800 and operated in the West Indies and seas of the southern United States.In June 1807 the Chesapeake, flagship of Commodore James Barron, sailed from Hampton Roads, Virginia, bound for the Mediterranean. As such she was not prepared for any naval action. On the 22nd of June, 10 miles off the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, HMS Leopard intercepted the American frigate. Captain Salisbury Pryce Humphreys of HMS Leopard hailed his quarry but Barron was incensed and refused. The question has been raised as to whether Humphreys was seeking deserters or hoping to press-gang American sailors into the Royal navy.

The Leopard fired three broadsides at the American ship, sending 22 shots into the hull of the American ship. The Chesapeake managing one shot in reply. Three Americans were killed, one was mortally wounded and 17 others injured. Barron thereupon surrendered and was boarded. Only four deserters were found – 2 African Americans, one white American, and one British sailor. All four were taken to Halifax where the Americans were jailed for a while and the British sailor, Jenkins Ratford, was eventually hanged. Humphreys returned to Virginia waters leaving behind the crippled Chesapeake which eventually limped back to Norfolk. Eventually converted to a troopship HMS Leopard was captained in 1814 by Captained Edward Crofton. She was wrecked on the 28th of June en route from Britain to Quebec. Grounded on Anticosti Island in the Gulf of St Lawrence in heavy fog, shewas destroyed but none on board were lost.

General Pitt Rivers must have been very aware of the history of the ship of which he owned the model. He must have also treasured the model that had so expertly been constructed by Stockton as the Michelangelo of model ship makers. Not only must General Pitt Rivers have taken an interest in the ship but he was no doubt impressed by the derring-do exploits of the Royal Navy on the high seas.

Originally printed online as a contribution to the Rethinking Pitt-Rivers Project at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, in 2010. I am grateful to the museum for allowing me to place this article on my own blog site.

Dedicated to the memory of my son William Frederick Edwards (23.6.1975 to 31.11.2009).

Sources Used

Hagan, K. J. This Peoples Navy: The Making of American Sea Power. The Free Press, (1991).

Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy, Washington DC 20374-5060

Rodger, N. A. M. The Command of the Ocean: a naval history of Britain 1649-1815. London, (2004).

Winfield, R. British Warships in the Age of Sail 1714-1792. Barnsley, (2007).

Winfield, R. British Warships in the Age of Sail 1793-1817 (2nd ed). Barnsley, (2008).

You can see an image of HMS Leopard at

January 2010

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