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The Salisbury Museum Portable Antiquities Volunteers are not resting. They are making good use of this second ‘lockdown’ period by joining excellent training wherever it is offered.

Most recently we worked for four hours over two days with Dr Rob Webley, who was, until recently, Finds Liaison Officer for Somerset, and currently post doctoral research fellow with the War Horse Project at Exeter University. He is working on equine material culture in the medieval period. The two ‘zoom’ meetings were hosted by the British Museum.

As Finds Volunteers we frequently process items which we happily recognise and process as “horse harness” without necessarily knowing quite what that means. Sometimes, of course, we don’t fully recognise them, or somewhat vaguely label them as “mount” or “belt fitting”. So this was important training for some of us.

And it was very interesting if any of us had any interest in horses at all, which seemed to be everybody!

Much of our information comes from contemporary illustrative material such as paintings, statues, illuminated manuscripts, even wall paintings and tapestries. There is very little written evidence. No-one asked the monks to sit down and painstakingly describe the latest thing in bits and stirrups with quill on parchment!

There are some other interesting problems with identifying, and particularly dating, horse harness from five hundred or more years ago. To some extent things have changed little – a stirrup is a stirrup. However, if the medieval one was made of iron, the iron may have completely disappeared, leaving only the copper alloy fittings associated with the stirrup strap. The leather strap certainly won’t be there in most cases.

This stirrup strap mount is about one thousand years old. Stirrups had only just been introduced. Processed at the museum, it is decorated with a lion facing left, head and front paw raised. This seems to have been a common device. The (presumably) iron stirrup itself has gone. This mount helped hold the frame of the stirrup to the strap. The holes are for riveting it to that strap.

Horse harness is rarely complete, however.

The upper photo shows a ‘strap distributor’, probably part of a bridle. The number of loops (three – one broken away) shows that three leather straps would have emanated from the item. A fourth extension (broken away at the bottom) was almost certainly a pendant hanger – a pair of drilled lugs to hold something like a small decorative shield.

The lower photo certainly is part of a bit, with the wear of the attached bit (in the horse’s mouth) showing quite clearly in the right hand loop. The reins would be attached to the other end. They are of a similar period to the stirrup strap mount (see earlier).

Heraldic or pseudo-heraldic shield-shaped mounts and pendants are common finds. They would be hung from bridles, breast bands, even saddles (no doubt if you needed to be wealthy). Rob Webley showed us one very elaborate mount, like a flower arrangement (my description, not his!), which, the evidence suggests, was worn attached to the bridle’s brow band, projecting forwards perhaps 15cm or more. Not unlike a unicorn.

We also process horse-shoes, which differ subtly through the ages, having become common in the early medieval period. The fact that they differ allows us to date them. Other items are difficult to date because an archaeologist depends on finding items in context, along with other items of the same period. Horse harness tends to be ‘lost’ – just dropped by the way-side and so it can be difficult to know its age.

Bits of saddles turn up – the pommels for example, and buckles were used everywhere on harness – on the stirrup strap, on the bridle, on the various other leather straps, and of course on the girth. It isn’t always possible to say whether a buckle is from a horse, or from a human. Or even from a dog collar!

We also see spurs, or parts of them. They also had buckles. The size of these (small) and the fact that the buckles often had integral metal plates usually makes them easier to identify.

This fragment of a post medieval spur was processed by one of our Volunteers. This is the end of one arm of the spur which fitted around the heal of the wearer and it is the point at which the leather strap (with buckle) would be attached and wrapped round the front of his/her boot to hold the spur on. The two pointed extensions are the attachments (strap ends) to those straps. You can see the rivets still in place. But no leather left.

Spur buckle

It was enormously helpful to have an expert (Rob) talk about the background to horse trappings through the ages and to see the material (paintings, etc), he and others use as the evidence to inform us. It allows us to process the finds more accurately.