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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Loss and Recovery. Three Objects

Iron mace head from Vadum Iacob fortress, Upper Jordan Valley

A little piece of badly corroded metal, fragile, greyish-brown and hardly distinguishable in colour or texture from the encasing soil, it crumbles when we expose it and with a soft brush and fine tools clean it of encrustations and gently lift it from where it has lain for centuries. It is an object that in no way evokes thoughts of fear or pain. It might be anything else than what it was. The spikes are not sharp and have mostly come away. There is nothing about it that threatens or suggests what brutal acts it may have performed. It must have once caught the sun's glare on its shiny, clean surface, have been held aloft in the packed, cartwheeling, dense, frantic mayhem of battle, come, perhaps whooshing down on an iron helmet, glanced aside in a flash of light, struck perhaps, a shoulder, piercing with its spikes, tearing flesh and breaking bones, causing fierce pain.

This is the thing. Just as the emotions, hatreds and fears of past conflicts have become faded and forgotten, so the objects of warfare lose their potency and become merely objects of mild interest. In its time this mace head could have cracked open a human skull like a nut, may well have done so, but now, viewed in the dust of an excavation or in a sterile museum display case it is divorced from its past. Now it is just an object, just a piece of rusted metal.

Bronze object discovered at Montfort Castle in 1926

I have often wondered what a future archaeologist would make if he were to come across part of a modern piece of machinery out of context. Would it be possible to work out where it belonged and what role it filled? Sometimes, it seems, we can't even imagine what an object might have been used for.

In the 1926 American expedition to Montfort Castle, the excavators came across a small bronze object of elongated triangular form, with folded sides, a loop at one end and open along one side. It contains two thin strips of bronze on opposite sides of the interior, held in place by a rectangular piece of iron or lead. The whole thing is about seven centimetres in length. It is clearly a piece of some mechanism, but its purpose remains a mystery. The discoverer was no better than us at guessing its function, referring to it simply as "a bronze object". It may have been part of a lock, but it seems too fragile for that purpose. Its use remains a mystery. Perhaps it is a forgotten technological breakthrough, perhaps something mundane and entirely unimportant.

Slate mould for cross pendants, Al-Kurum village near Jerusalem

My grandfather had a number of small brass bowls of various sizes that came presumably from a trip to India. My mother had a tiny ivory telescope through which, when you looked you could see a very realistic Eiffel Tower that had been neatly rendered on its lens, a souvenir of my parents' honeymoon in Paris. We all have those small things, usually hidden away and forgotten in drawers or in a box in the attic: little plastic Empire State buildings, Big Bens, Japanese beckoning cats, waving Queen Elizabeths, carved wooden safari animals; silly little things intended to remind us or of a pleasant holiday abroad, but inevitably forgotten or discarded once we are home.

On this little horseshoe-shaped piece of slate are carved three small crosses with cross-hatched decoration at their centres and channels via which the molten bronze was poured in. A mould for the manufacture of pendant crosses, it was found during the excavation of a house in an unnamed village north-west of Jerusalem. The village was on the old Roman road leading to the site of a Premonstratensian monastery named Saint Samuel, an important pilgrimage site, being the traditional burial place of the Prophet Samuel. In the crusader period it had the additional claim to fame as Mons Gaudii (Mount Joy), the place from where the crusaders first saw Jerusalem in 1099. It was, consequently, a popular pilgrimage destination and was also a way-station for pilgrims traveling from Jaffa to Jerusalem. The village nearby where the mould was found was known in more recent times as al-Kurum (the Vineyard). It was, in all probability, a possession of the canons of the Holy Sepulchre. In the late medieval period and again more recently it has been identified with Joseph of Arimathea, either as the village in which he lived, or perhaps where he was buried. Hence, in all likelihood it too was a popular stop for pilgrims travelling that way. Perhaps that is why someone here, possibly the local smithy, had taken on the task of manufacturing keepsakes for pilgrims. Pendant crosses made in moulds such as this are common finds in twelfth century sites in the Latin East and in the West, small and cheap objects, but perhaps ones that were not stowed away when the pilgrim got home, but that were worn close to the heart; a means of holding on to what must have been a rather more powerful experience than what we hope to preserve when we purchase our little plastic mementos.

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